A short story by Karen Leslie from The Thin Places collection. Published at Menda City Review, Winter 2017 edition.
“Why don’t you want me to touch you?” Sam asked his wife, Mauri, as she curved her body in a subtle concave arch, dodging his hand. He grazed her constantly over the years. A cupped hand in the space between her legs when she reached for a wine glass. Three fingertips brushing across her lower stomach as she washed dishes. An elbow bumping the rounded edge of her left breast as she changed the radio station in his car. As time passed, she began watching the speedometer when this happened. It seemed to increase in direct relation to the amount of skin he contacted. In summer when he touched her damp skin, the car would jolt forward. When she turned to look at him, he would be adjusting the rearview mirror or flipping off a random driver. If she bent over to wipe their son Henry’s hands before dinner, he’d push against her slightly from behind so she would lose her balance. A quick apology and laugh would follow. For years, she laughed too, even sometimes finding herself affected when skin touched skin.
During a serious conversation, she kept her legs crossed so that his hand wouldn’t nudge between her inner thighs, brushing away some minute particle. She tilted her head to the side when he faced her, because sometimes, if he ruffled her hair, he’d hint at a downward push before untangling his hand. If it seemed too obvious, he might laugh a little too loud and she might mention that he should get a little more sleep in the mornings since he was becoming clumsy. She no longer stopped the car in the driveway to compare schedules or exchange greetings because he never bent down to her open window. He stood and she spoke — if she spoke — to his torso. Her heart dropped degree by degree over the years as he knocked into her.
Sex mostly occurred in risky places, risky to her because Henry and his baby sister Becky might be running through their tiny house calling out, “Mama, where are you hiding?” every time she disappeared for more than five minutes. She and Sam might be in the small bathroom. Or on the garage floor after she took out the garbage or on the upstairs bathroom counter in the middle of her drying her hair before church. Or outside on the back porch under the neighbor’s glaring lamppost. Perhaps on the couch in the glow of the television screen a scant half hour after the children were tucked into bed. Henry had problems getting to sleep. Becky developed problems staying asleep. Mauri, the wife, had problems.
The mornings started the usual way, though this time the touch was not accidental. 6:25 a.m.: Henry’s little turtle alarm would be ringing in ten minutes. Sam was on track to be finished in two. By 6:30, he tripped into the bathroom, rattling through the day’s list as he sat on the toilet. He never demanded a full response from her, just a few “um hmms” and “yeahs” as he brushed his teeth, wiped the counter, and flushed the toilet.
By this time, Mauri would be wrapped in her blue terrycloth robe cinched tight around her small waist, shutting her bedroom door behind her and skifting down the wooden floors in her bare feet to knock on Henry’s door.
His room smelled like an old oiled mitt, worn out sneakers creased with dried creek mud, red licorice, and the dusty cling that accompanied stuffed animals. Henry never woke on the first rattle of his alarm, so Mauri would sit on the edge of his bed rubbing his back and feet through the washed out comforter. He’d eventually stretch and run his fingers along the headboard. “Henrykins. Time to get up for school.” Henry would flip over and squint into the light that surrounded his mother from the crack in the doorway. He’d reach out and she’d lean in to pull his thin arms up around her neck. It was a little trick to sit him upright for another minute or so before she pulled back the covers and swung his feet onto the cold pine floor.
“Hey, someone left the light on all night in the kitchen!” Sam yelled up the stairs. “And, don’t forget to call the insurance company today about that bogus claim, OK? OK? I’m not paying for it; so don’t let them push you around. I’m leaving for work. Hey, up there, OK?”
“OK,” she called back, still rubbing Henry’s back.
The sun streamed in through the kitchen windows. Mauri spread a thin layer of peanut butter over a slice of wheat bread, and then applied a thicker layer of homemade grape jam on the other. She cut the sandwich in a diagonal on the wooden board and wrapped it in a piece of wax paper, folding and creasing the edges as though wrapping a gift. She listened to Henry brush his teeth and trudge from bathroom to bedroom. He was probably standing in front of his dresser now chewing a fingernail. The getting ready and getting out was slower these days since he insisted on choosing his own clothes. “I’m practically in second grade, Mama,” he’d said a few weeks earlier as he pushed her hand out of his underwear drawer.
Mauri laid her head back to stare at the ceiling, envisioning the muscles around her ribcage loosening. She puffed in and out until she started to sway, then she dropped ten animal crackers into a plastic pouch. She set a bowl and spoon on the island with Henry’s latest favorite cereal and poured a large glass of milk. For a moment, she hung on the knob of one of the upper cabinets, the side of her face pushed deep into the robe folds of her arm, her eyes closed before opening to focus beyond the kitchen window.
Henry’s woolen feet pounded down the stairs as she pulled the chocolate powder from a high shelf and mixed a heaping tablespoon into the glass of milk. He climbed up the side of the stool, folded his knees under, and gulped twice from the glass before pouring his cereal. Mauri hugged her reheated coffee against her breast, pushing aside the collar of the robe to rest the warm mug against her skin.
“So, Mama, what are you going to do today?”
“Hmm, well, mending your Superman outfit for starters, and playing with your sister like I did when you were little. I’ll make a yummy supper — what would you like, by the way? And then, making a phone call. (Sigh. She hated making phone calls.) Living the life ’til you get home, son.”
Henry scowled and dug his spoon into the bottom of his bowl, capturing the last floating pieces. He laced his boots twice around the top like his father and tugged his collar until it stood up just right, swinging his head in a familiar way as if he wanted to say something.
“Come on, pup. Time to get to the bus stop.” Henry struggled to crawl inside his backpack straps while she waited, then he grinned and puffed out his chest.
“OK, Mama. You don’t have to come with me to the stop. I’m fine,” he said, staring up at her with wide, somber eyes. He looked like her — like she did in pictures hanging in her mother’s hallway catching tadpoles in the creek with her brother and holding Henry in her arms for the first time. When hope was her friend.
“Mind if I sit on the porch while I finish my coffee?” she asked.
“Nope. I don’t mind.”
Mauri walked out onto the porch and leaned over to brush away a few dead leaves, remnants from the Pin Oak hovering over the front yard. Henry bumped into her hip, then laughed. She tensed and moved to the side. “Excuse me.”
Henry laughed again until Mauri grabbed his arm and joggled it roughly, “What do you say when you bump into someone, Henry Forrest Grayson?”
His eyes grew round in his small white face, and he looked at his feet before he mumbled, “Excuse me. I’m sorry.”
Mauri loosened her grip, then sighed as she reached out to rub the place where her hand had been. “It’s OK, pal. You’re excused.” She bit her lower lip, holding it tight.
Henry leaned his head against her stomach for a moment, and then, ran to the bus stop at the end of their driveway. He faced the road, readjusted his pack, and looked back at the porch. Mauri reclined in a peeling, green Adirondack chair. She lifted her coffee mug to her son and smiled. He tilted his head and took a half step toward her, then pulled back and waved before he swung around again.
“Hey, I want spaghetti and meatballs tonight!” he yelled, throwing his voice over his shoulder.
Mauri waited until he found his seat on the bus, seventh row back on the right, then she stood, stretched, and waved. He blew a kiss from behind the lower sash bus window and ducked his head as it pulled away. When he disappeared around the bend, she pulled a wrinkled tissue from her robe pocket and brushed it lightly across her upper lip.
Becky, rose, ate, and played. Mauri washed, cooked, and tidied. Around noon, Becky slept after emptying a small plate of noodles and sliced apples. An hour later, clouds began gathering in a knot on the horizon behind the house, burling higher and higher like crocheted flower doilies trying to protect the Spring-tender hills. Their ashy gray became threaded with purplish, black streaks, and by mid-afternoon, turned the color of quarried shale. Mauri leaned over the sink to peer out the kitchen window. The rain came down in sheets, and the thunder clapped for more lightning strikes to unzip the sky.
She moved to the covered back porch and stood just inside the pelting water line, studying the hanging flowerpot she’d gotten from Henry and Becky — well, really from her mother through Henry and Becky. She smiled, remembering her children struggling to hang onto the awkward plastic handle as they tramped across the lawn from their grandmother’s trunk. They’d mounted the steps triumphantly and exclaimed, “Happy Mama’s Day!”
The driving rain sliced at the flower until the pink, fleshy begonia petals splayed in submission. Ordinarily, a delicate flower could survive an early June storm like this only once. Mending might come in the sunlight that followed.
Mauri could have protected the plant if she had taken it in before the storm, and she reached for it two or three times, but the storm was too unpredictable. She’d have to wait and prune away the stems too injured to survive. The plant might be saved by paring it down to the stalk.
When the bus pulled up, Henry jumped off the bottom step and ran around the house to the back porch. Tiny ice balls formed and skidded across the gray concrete, weaving into the grass until it looked like a swath of green, dotted-Swiss fabric. The sky split wider, white against black, and the hail stones grew and grew until they were the size of shimmering baseballs.
Henry’s mouth whooshed in deep breaths of surprise and pushed out sighs in E minor as he hugged her thigh. This Spring she had insisted Sam not mow the field. It was one of the rare things she’d asked for in their seven-year marriage. Her husband never solicited outside opinions. He’d tilted his head to the side and jutted out his jaw, but turned off the mower at the edge of the grass.
The field was taking as bad a beating as the begonia. This morning, it had stood a foot high, but now, the ice balls dropped like missiles, flattening large patches. Henry laughed. Mauri rubbed his back.
“Is it snow? Is it winter?” Henry asked, his teeth clattering.
“No, it’s hail,” Mauri said.
“I said hail, Henry, not h-e-l-l.”
“Oh,” Henry giggled.
Now the sun attacked the black clouds like a cat shredding a ball of yarn.
“Mama, what are we going to do? Should we rake it or something?”
Mauri stood silent beside him for a few minutes focusing on the broken begonia as the ice balls melted around it. A tender stem and half of a pink flower emerged from the ice corset.
She leaned over the porch to retrieve the largest ice ball she could find, and squinted against the light it refracted as she held it in her hands. Mauri spread her fingers wide to dissipate the heat from her body and bounded through the back door into the house. She cradled the ball of ice in a paper plate and shoved it into the freezer next to a pack of ground chuck. Henry tripped in behind her, his mouth still hanging slack. She pulled his backpack from his shoulders and swatted him on his behind, “Go grab your glove and bat, son.” He chewed on his lower lip considering her, then clamped his lips tight and took the steps by twos. When he returned with the bat and glove, the ice balls had begun to melt.
“We don’t have much time!” Mauri called, her voice high and arms waving at him to hurry beside her onto the lawn. She took the yellow bat from his hand, picked up an ice ball and tossed it in the air. Henry watched as she leaned back, left hand out for balance, right hand wrapped around the bat. She swung hard when the ball dropped to waist level. The ice soared high in the air over the lawn and out above the field of surviving wild flowers before dropping out of sight.
“Holy cow, Mama!” Henry yelled, and scrambled down the steps. She tossed him the bat.
They took turns, no sound coming from their valley but a regular thudding whomp of ice being launched over the lawn and field. The balls were jawbreaker size by the time they’d hit about three hundred honest-to-God home runs. They laughed and pointed out where their balls landed, arguing for the furthest matted area of the field.
“You look different, Mama,” Henry said.
“Last one! Make it count!” she said, biting her lip.
Henry split the yellow plastic bat down its length, and then collapsed onto the ground making a summer ice angel out of what remained of the sky. His mother perched on the top porch step staring out across the tangled field. Henry squinted at the enlivened sky, a round lump visible behind the pink skin of his cheek. He turned his head to the side from time to time to spit. Mauri rubbed her right forearm, alternately flexing and clenching her fingers to loosen the cramped muscles, and stood to unhook the flower pot. She picked the ice pellets out of the soil and peeled away the frozen droplets fused to the remaining stem’s leaves. Then she pinched off the damaged stems at the root, tossing them into the shrubbery along the porch. When she finished pruning the plant, she carried the pot around to the driveway.
Opening the wagon hatch of her car, Mauri set the flowerpot on a discarded paper bag behind the backseat. Henry still sprawled on the grass as she climbed the stairs inside the back door, packed an old suitcase, and pulled Becky from her bed.
“Where are we going, Mama?” Henry called to his mother as she came through the back door and headed toward the driveway with Becky spilling over her arm.
“Oh, I thought maybe we’d take a long ride. What do you think of that?”
Henry scrambled up, wiped his hands on his damp shirt, and ran to stand in front of her. Mauri watched his small face search her own, trying to grasp what he sensed, but could not understand. After a few moments, he hooked his fingers through hers.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Karen Leslie. All rights reserved.