Short Story: Sean Padraic McCarthy’s “Topping”

////Short Story: Sean Padraic McCarthy’s “Topping”

Sean Padraic McCarthy

Topping

“Frühling” by Adolf Kaufman

The children were gone.  Lila, the youngest, had just moved out three months before.  Marilyn reached up for the branch of the cherry tree, and the stepladder beneath her fell backwards as she did. Flattening out as it hit the lawn. Marilyn cursed and pulled herself up with one hand. In the other she held a small saw; she needed to prune, top off the branches of the tree, and the tree was too high now to do it from the lawn.

She sneezed twice, and cursed again. She had never had allergies until the year she turned forty, and now they hit her every single spring and every fall.  It was late April, everything turning bright green, and the tree was covered in blossoms. There once had been several cherry trees in the yard. Jay had practically planted an orchard lining their side road when their daughter Allie was a toddler. He had told Allie it was the Cherry Lane from the song Puff the Magic Dragon,  and he used to sing the song to her nightly while rocking her, over and over, and it used to drive Marilyn nuts. But now most of the trees were dead– just three left—and Jay was long gone.  Marilyn stepped higher up on the fork in the trunk, and the blossoms showered down upon the surface of the pond below.

Marilyn worked as a phlebotomist in Boston, but she had the day off.  She had five children—all girls—but the house was now empty. Allie was her second oldest, and she hadn’t seen her now in three years; she had spoken to her once on the phone, and it had resulted in another argument and Allie started to cry.  The waterworks. Marilyn couldn’t stand when any of them pulled out the waterworks, but the falling out with Allie had probably been the worst. The most heated. Allie had left after the summer after she graduated college and that had pretty much been that; Marilyn had a policy: you had six weeks after graduating and then the first rent was due, and if you couldn’t pay it, you could get out.  Allie claimed she couldn’t pay right away, having just started working, and citing her student loans and a car payment, and so she and Marilyn had fought, shouted, and Allie was gone a month later. Marilyn had been fuming that day, and she still got angry every time she thought about it. But then after that, she had to give the same ultimatum to the others. She had to be fair. That’s what people didn’t understand about her; she was fair.

The pond beneath the cherry tree was small and shallow and circled with round stones.  It was fed by an underground stream, and Marilyn’s brother Phillip had widened it and landscaped around it with impatiens and daffodils and pink narcissus as a wedding gift for her many years before. Marilyn and Jay had bought the house just before they were married, and she remembered sitting by the kitchen window, sipping her tea, and watching the yard as Phillip, his face deep red, sweated heavily and shoveled the soil. She and Phillip, a year apart, had been close since they were toddlers.  She had offered to help him that day, but he insisted he do it himself. It was her present, and a labor of love, and he was going to make it beautiful. And when he finished, it had been beautiful. The stones each painted white, the grass on the lawn bright, bright green, the water clear, and the flowers in bloom, and Marilyn had almost cried. Almost. Marilyn herself didn’t cry much. Not when any of the girls had left, and certainly not while divorcing Jay. But she had cried when her father had died–she had gone down the cellar and cried, sitting on the stairs, just wanting to be alone. And she had cried when Scott came back into her life, just before she had given Jay the boot, and then she had cried when Scott was gone again.

Now Marilyn glanced down at her reflection in the pond.

She recognized the face as her own, but not the eyes. She never really recognized her eyes as her own even when she looked into mirror; they always seemed distant, belonging to someone else, and she almost didn’t trust them. But she still was very pretty, and she knew that. Her hair was blonde, longer than it had been since she was a small girl, and her Baltic eyes hooded, and a deep gray blue. Her teeth fixed—braces ten years back. And she was skinny. She had lost considerable weight after she had thrown Jay out six years before so she could go back to Scott, and she had managed to keep it off ever since, looking fantastic in jeans and bikini bottoms. And even prettier now than she did when she was young, Scott had said. Cute then, he said, but elegant now. A smoking ass, he said. Beautiful.

But then after a year, after he had left his wife, got his own apartment, it was over.

“He’s going back to Sheila,” Phillip had told her.  “My friend Rachel told me they called off the divorce.”

Sheila. Marilyn knew the name, and knew the connotations, but it still wasn’t quite real. Sheila wasn’t quite real. Just a body, not really a person, a soul. There was Scott and there was Marilyn—first meeting when she was in high school, and pregnant shortly thereafter—and that was all.  And everything else, everyone else, who had come in the years between then and when they met again—Jay, Sheila, even now the word, the sound distasteful on her tongue—weren’t quite real.  Nothing was real unless she wished it to be. And Scott had loved her for thirty years.  Loved her and that was all. They had planned to get married, after all those years. She was his number one.  He had told her that. His number one–his true love.

So when Phillip brought her the news, it made no sense. And despite the fact that she loved Phillip, as soon as those words seeped from his lips, she wanted him out.  Immediately. “They’ve been spending weekends together,” he said. “He is trying to get her to let him move back in.”   Phillip’s skin was blotchy from alcohol, but he had a little boy’s face, and his eyes looked truly sad.  Empathetic.   “I just thought you should know. I’m sorry.” But Marilyn didn’t want sorry, she wanted Scott. And after that day she couldn’t see Phillip again, ever; he was connected to it now.   He was dead to her—as were so many others–and she was done with him.

She had texted Scott, called.  Had even driven over to his apartment several times, banged on his door—no answer.  And then when he did finally answer, it was just in a text. He said he was sorry, he had been mixed up.  He still loved Sheila.

Marilyn had yelled, and then she had hung up.  But he was lying. She knew he was lying. He would be back.  And she would wait. She was his number one.

Now Marilyn pulled herself higher up the tree, and she began to saw. The thing with cherry trees was that if you wanted them to last, you had to cut them, had to top them.  Jay never understood that. Jay knew nothing about topping. You have to wait until after they flower, he said, or you won’t get fruit. But Marilyn didn’t want fruit, fruit was a mess, all over the yard.  Jay was a moron.

Marilyn sawed a minute more and then broke the rest of the branch with a flick of her wrist.  She tossed it into the yard. The whole neighborhood was silent, everyone working, and the young children at school. If it were the weekend, the Fins would be out working in their yard.  The Fins had once been her friends, the whole neighborhood had been friends, but she didn’t talk to them anymore. Nor any of the others. Not for years. Not since she had first got back Scott, and told Jay to get out, and they had all turned against her.  

Marilyn had thought about filling in the pond on several occasions, planting grass.  She liked, needed, change in life—she had repainted every room in the house six or seven times, and was always throwing out furniture, buying new, changing the function of each space—and she knew that by July the pond would turn dark, covered in algae, attracting  mosquitoes, bugs, and then come August it would be dry. But it did look pretty this time of year, pretty with all the other flowers breaking free throughout the yard, and others soon to follow.   Rows of high lilacs, azalea bushes, tulips, and crocuses and roses.

Her mother loved flowers—it was the one thing she and Marilyn had in common–and she had taught Marilyn all about them when she was small. When to harvest, when to prune, how to train a spreading perennial to grow a certain way, and which combination of which looked best.  Marilyn could picture herself, small—pig tails and a yellow shorts, a white top with yellow flowers–sitting in her mother’s garden, dirt on her cheeks and dirt on her knees, pinching the heads off flowering basil. Her mother wore her hair–blonde like Marilyn’s– pulled up in a blue kerchief wrapped around her head.  She sat on her knees herself as she weeded. Pink lipstick. Talking and talking, the church, the neighborhood, her father.

And lies.

So many lies were born of her mother’s lips that it was impossible to know where the truth began and where it ended, and at what point the once false then became true. If you uttered a lie enough times it eventually became true, at least for the utterer. Didn’t it? Marilyn had heard that, or read, that somewhere. Her mother, somewhere deep inside, believed that, and her mother almost made lying beautiful. An art form.

In her mother’s garden, the window was open, and one of the babies cried from inside. “Irish Twins” her mother told her they were, the second, a baby boy, born within a year of the first, a girl whom Marilyn wished had never existed—she wanted to the be the only girl in the family, so even when she heard them crying she pretended she did not, and often her mother would ignore the crying, too—they need to learn to be alone, she said. Life was all about learning, and some of the “lessons” were harder than the others, she said with a sigh.  And many of her mother’s lessons had come from “The board of education.” A long, narrow kitchen cutting board across the side of the head, or whacked against your arms and legs until you were black and blue.

But that day she was talking about the girl down the street, Amy Felonitus. Amy Felonitus had babysat Marilyn and her brothers once in a while before her sister was born. Amy had long dark hair, and pretty green eyes, and Marilyn wanted to look like her.  Wanted to be like her when she was older. Coming over with flour and sugar and chocolate chips to bake cookies, and sneaking cigarettes on the back porch, the phone cord pulled tight from the wall in the kitchen as she moved about the room. Then pushing Marilyn on her bicycle with training wheels down the hill, down the street, and sometimes whispering to boys as they climbed the fence and snuck into the yard. And now Marilyn had just asked if she was going to ever babysit them again. Marilyn liked Amy Felonitus.

“Well, I don’t’ think so dear.”  Her mother stood, her left leg buckling slightly as she did, and brushed the soil from her knees. “I don’t think that will ever be happening again.”

“But why?” Marilyn had asked.

Her mother pursed her lips, and made her thinking face, and then she put her hand on her hips.  “Well, I was talking to Barbara Hitchcock yesterday, and she was telling me that Amy is going to have a baby.”

Marilyn jumped to her feet. A baby, someone she knew, someone young. It was both impossible and exciting. Fantastic.  “Really?” she asked

And her mother looked at her and nodded, and then she had sighed.  “Yes,” she said. “I’m afraid that Amy Felonitus is a whore.”

Now Marilyn hadn’t spoken to her mother in six years.   Not since she had learned that her mother had been responsible for her and Scott’s first break up, thirty years before, after Marilyn herself had gotten pregnant.

She looked up and could see her mother standing on the side of the house, obscured in the glare of the sun, her mouth open, as if slightly shocked. Amused.  Or caught on a word. Her mother took a step forward, as if wanting to approach her, but hesitant. Round bottom and middle, and wide empty blue eyes. An emptiness that had frightened Marilyn ever since she was small. But ever pretty even in old age. Her mother waved excitedly.  But Marilyn knew it couldn’t really be her mother. Her mother wouldn’t really be there.

She just wanted her to think she was.

But her mother was probably watching her.   Her mother was always watching her.

She just wished her mother would go away.

She wished everyone would go away.

Marilyn herself looked away, and when she looked up again, her mother was gone.   The yard again empty, the street empty. Not even a car passing by.

She reached for another branch, crooked and dead, and again began to saw.

A shed stood at the back of the yard at the edge of woods. Dark gray with black shutters to match the house. There was path beside the shed that ran into the woods.  Marilyn never walked down it—she didn’t like the woods, didn’t like bugs–but sometimes, from her window, sipping her tea, she would watch the animals moving in and out of the foliage. Squirrel and rabbit and deer.  And a family of foxes sometimes at night. Jay used to disappear down the path, into the woods, into the foliage, disappearing nearly immediately once the green of mid spring settled in, and she never knew where he went.  She never asked.

Jay.  When they first met, she had believed he was her soul-mate.  A wonderful man, she had told everyone. Marilyn’s friend Claudia, had set her up with Jay.  “But it doesn’t have to be serious,” Claudia had said, “you can just hang out with him, go to the movies, have sex, that kind of stuff.  Just someone to have sex with. It’s not like you have to marry him or anything.”

But then, that first night alone in her apartment, as soon as Jay showed her the hole in his sock—showed her he had one, too because Marilyn, taking her shoes off, had suddenly realized she had a hole, and she was embarrassed–she knew, or thought she knew,  she was in love.   And he was smart, and he was sweet and good in bed. And she supposed he had mostly stayed that way even though he was also oblivious to everything–zero common sense–and made her fucking nuts. She had loved him. But she had never been his Number One .

Only Scott’s.

Now Jay stepped out of the woods now, stopping at the foot of the path, and silently staring at her.  Marilyn was almost tempted to shout out at him, ask him what the fuck he was looking at, tell him to go, leave, but she bit her tongue.  He opened the black doors to the shed, and stepped inside, pulling the doors shut behind him. Marilyn wondered what he was doing in there. In the dark and in the shadows.  In the absence.

And she wondered if he were looking for evidence.  From days, years, gone past. Still looking for evidence, all these years later. To prove that she had cheated on him with Scott.

Asshole.

When Marilyn had first started seeing Scott again—when Jay was still in the house—she would meet Scott in the shed. Late at night, the girl’s lights all down upstairs, and the moon high above the woods.   Scott had a signal just like when they were kids, and that made it all that much more fun. And Marilyn had already moved downstairs by then, out of she and Jay’s bedroom, so it wasn’t difficult to move her dresser against the door as soon as she heard the signal, open the window, and drop to the ground.  Just as she used to, thirty years before.

The shed was dusty inside, the floor beginning to sag, and it was full of clay pots, and bags of potted soil.  Clippers and grass seed, and Jay’s old garden tools, rusted iron and wood. Scott used to bring a small lantern and set it on the floor, saying he needed to see her body even if just in a little bit of light.  He was already fairly bald by then—just a small peninsula of hair climbing out towards his forehead—and he had a beer belly, but his brown eyes still looked the same, and his mouth still curled up a little on the left side after he said something he thought was funny.  And he could be funny once in a while, but what was more important was that he was sweet. She knew he was sweet. Had always known it, in the back of her heart.

He would take off all her clothes, even out there, with the risk of getting caught by the kids or by Jay — although by then Jay hardly mattered; Marilyn almost wished he would come out and find Scott fucking her, make him watch–and he would stare at her standing there, naked in the light of the lantern.  Just stare. Sometimes for ten minutes or more before he would touch her.   And the longer he stared, the more aroused she became, the more she wanted to give herself over to him, completely. It felt so right to stand naked in front of him like that. No pretensions, no covers, no nothing. Just her. Exactly how she was.  She wanted him to understand that she was completely his, she always had been, even throughout the years of silence, when she honestly didn’t know if he were alive or dead, she was still his. Then and now and forever, and surrendering herself like this would make him understand that. Anything to make up the lost time, the lost love. The passion and the years.  The youth that was stolen from them.

When it had started, and they had got back in touch,  it had been innocent. She wanted it to be innocent, she kept telling herself that.  She had never cheated, not really, and she had always hated cheaters, and wasn’t shy about letting people know that.   But Scott had been trying to get in touch with their daughter, Stephanie, on Facebook, and he needed Marilyn’s help. Stephanie had never met him, and Marilyn hadn’t seen or spoken to him since high school, since Stephanie was an infant.  He had told her, back then, that he wanted a relationship with her, but not with the baby, Stephanie, and Marilyn, a mother at eighteen, had told him to go fuck himself. At least that is what she thought had happened, what she thought she remembered, but now thirty years later, he told her that her memories were wrong, that he had always wanted to be involved in Stephanie’s life, and that she had forced him out.  So maybe what she thought she remembered wasn’t really what she remembered. Memory could be strange that way, the way things shifted, and sometimes people gave you a few new pieces to the past, pieces to the puzzle, and everything changed all together. Maybe he really had wanted a relationship with Stephanie, maybe her mother had made everything else all up, convinced Marilyn that is what he said, convinced her it was true.  Her mother had sabotaged their lives together. It was all her fault.

Her mother’s and Jay’s.

If she hadn’t spent all those years with Jay, then, she knew, she could’ve been with Scott, they would have got back together sooner.  And maybe he wouldn’t even have met that other one. Sheila.  So, when she really thought about it, a lot of it was Jay’s fault.

But strangely enough, it had been Jay that suggested that she reach out to Scott after Scott’s failed attempts on his part to contact Stephanie; at first Scott had sent a friend of his with a note and his phone number into the bakery where Stephanie worked while he waited in the car, saying he was her father, and asking her to call him. But Stephanie did not want to call him.  Stephanie said she wasn’t interested, wanted nothing to do with him, and she told Marilyn this. But then Scott kept it up, apparently, texts and messages on Facebook, and Marilyn, initially dismissing his attempts at a mid-life crisis of some sort, wasn’t aware he was being so persistent. She hadn’t known he was still trying to contact her at all. She hadn’t seen him since 1982.

“He is,” Jay had said.  She and Jay were sitting in the shed.   A small iron table with a candle burning between them.  It was dark, it was cold, and it was winter, and Jay wanted a cigar.  He smoked cigars out there all the time, and he had a little propane heater he used  to chip away at the cold, but every now and then he conned Marilyn into coming out there with him, the radio playing low, and keep him company.  The usual boring routine, their whole life was boring. She wanted, needed, change. Excitement. And in the shed, mostly just she would talk, and he would smoke, nod, probably not listening.  He never listened.   “Stephanie just told me the other day,” he said. “He keeps sending her messages.”

And with that something had gone off inside Marilyn. She remembered it clearly, but could never describe just what it was.  A bell or a chord, or perhaps even a song. Whispers from the past. A flood of questions, and a flood of emotion. Excitement.

“Well, maybe he’s sincere then,” she said to Jay . “Maybe it’s not  just a mid-life crisis.”

“Maybe,” Jay said,  puffing on his cigar, then re-lighting it again, and still not looking all that interested. “Maybe you should try and contact him.”

“And do what?”

“I don’t know. Talk to him. See if you can arrange a meeting between him and Stephanie.  You said he’s not a bad guy, right?”

“No.  He wasn’t a bad guy. Just irresponsible and not all that bright. He was nice though.  A nice guy. I never thought I’d see him again. You wouldn’t mind?”

And with that, Jay had balanced the cigar on the edge of the ashtray. “No,” he said,  “I’m secure in my relationship with Stephanie, and I trust you. Why would I mind?”

And he hadn’t.  At least for a few weeks.

But then everything escalated, lightning speed.  The flood of emotions she had felt at the thought of speaking to Scott was nothing like what she felt when she actually heard his voice. Everything came back.  “Unresolved feelings” she would later tell Jay and the children—she couldn’t wait to tell the children. She was excited, and she wanted to share, wanted them to be excited with her. She needed to explore her relationship with Scott, she told them. There was so much she didn’t know, didn’t remember, and what she remembered hadn’t been the truth. But Scott could help her. He remembered.  And that first night on the phone, he had shared with her the truth. The hospital, the flowers, the delivery room. Her mother. It was her mother’s fault.

“She wouldn’t let me in to see you,” he whispered on the phone; he was out in his garage, keeping his voice low, so his wife—if that is what they could really call her; Sheila wasn’t his wife, Marilyn was–and children, other children, new children, inside wouldn’t hear. “I tried to get in, and your mother told me to get the fuck out, that because you were just out of high school, I  was too old for you. She told me you didn’t want to see me. And then when I finally did go to see you at work, you yelled at me really bad, and I had never heard you yell at me like that before, and you really scared me, and I didn’t know what was going on and so I took off.   I ran. I left. For you.”

“For me?”

“Yes.  For you. I left you because I loved you so much. And I gave up my daughter.”

“For me?”

“Yes,” he said.

And with that Marilyn had started to cry.

He had loved her that much.  That much.

He told her that he had never wanted to marry Sheila.  That Sheila, too, had got herself pregnant, and trapped him. Told him lies over and over until he convinced himself that he loved her.   But even then, he said, he knew deep down inside that he didn’t love her. That he loved, and would always only love, Marilyn. And if her mother hadn’t intervened, she and Scott would have stayed together, would’ve been married—he never would have married the other one. He would have married his number one. And then she would have been happy.  And she had a right to be happy. She had a right to hope.

Hope is the thing with feathers.

She had heard that before. Shakespeare?  She didn’t think so. But it was some poet. Maybe she had heard it in high school.  Or maybe from Jay. There had always been some sort of nonsense spouting from Jay’s lips—even when he was silent. The worst had been when he was silent, sometimes two rooms away, and she could still…fucking…hear him.   No one else could, but she could, and even now, if she listened, she knew she still would be able to. She hated Jay. Jay who ended up trying to tell her she couldn’t talk to Scott anymore. Tried to tell her what to do.  Tried to tell her she couldn’t explore her relationship and unresolved feelings with Scott. Fuck Jay. She didn’t want any reminders of her life with him.  No memories. She had even given him all their pictures from the past twenty-five years, all the home movies.  No memories then no past—it didn’t have to be real, didn’t have to exist. No people judging her. Her entire life people had been judging her.  Just like her mother.

“That’s part of life, little girl, people judge,” her father suddenly said.  “ I used to refer to my father as the judge, jury and executioner.”

Marilyn looked down, and there he was, standing at the base of the tree.  Feet in the pond, his chin back as he stared up at her smiling. She hadn’t seen him in ten years, not since her mother had him incinerated and placed in the small metal box she kept on top of the pot belly  stove. But now he was back, there, below. Hair gray again, bristly, not the white it had been at the end of his life. Long, curling dark eyebrows, and the color in his cheeks.

“So I know how you feel.  That old man, your grandfather, made my life hell,” he said.  “And then I met your mother, and guess where I found myself then?”

Marilyn brushed aside the branches to see him better, clearer, and the flowers fluttered down and landed in his hair. Her father didn’t flinch.

“Where?”

He looked away a moment, for dramatic effect, and then looked back up at her and smiled wide. “Purgatory!”

Marilyn started to laugh, stifled it before it could slip from her lips.  Life with her mother was like purgatory. He was right. You constantly wanted to leave, to stop all the pain, and she always made you feel, made you know, that you never could.  She would always be there to inflict more. Her father never voiced it, but she knew he must have been miserable with her, and ever since she was small Marilyn had told herself that if she ever became rich she would just give him a blank check—to fill in what he needed, and just get away. Just run. Run like hell.  Run like she had always wanted to, but never could.

“You’re in a tree again,” her father said now. His eyes went empty again for a minute.  Completely black. Sockets.

“Again?”

“Remember that elm tree we had in the front yard in Connecticut?” He took a deep breath, and his eyes came back. “It was enormous. Your mother was kicking me out, and you climbed to the top, saying you wouldn’t come down unless she let me stay. You couldn’t have been more than seven years old. We knew you were up there, somewhere—but we couldn’t see you. And your mother was yelling so loud, I couldn’t even hear you.”

The tree. Marilyn could remember it clearly now. Her mother had accused, caught, her father cheating with her best friend.

Fucking her on Tuesday afternoons!  Marilyn remembered her mother screaming. And after, she assaulted him with a cast iron frying pan in the kitchen and threw everything that she could get her hands on—plates and knives and rolling pins, the Swiss cuckoo clock, and the ceramic Blessed mother–she had demanded he leave. And caught, he was going to go.

At least until Marilyn climbed the tree.

Marilyn hadn’t fully understood what had happened between them then, but even later, even after she did, she hadn’t blamed him.  She knew her mother, understood what she was, and besides, she knew now it wasn’t always cheating, not for everybody, not really—it wasn’t like cheating that cheaters did, going out and fucking somebody else, when they, when they…  And even if married, fucking somebody else wasn’t always cheating. Not if you loved the other person you were with, felt something in your heart, something that had been deprived you so many years. It was different for different people, and she hadn’t understood this until Scott came back into her life. She was different. Scott was different.  And she bet her father had been different, too. He wasn’t a cheater.

“I wish I never climbed that tree,” she said now. “I wish you had left, and wish you had never come back.”

His eyes looked warm now. “You wish I had left?”

“For you. I wish you had got away from her. She was awful.  She treated you like shit. You would have had a good life. You would have been happy.”

He breathed deep now. Breathed like he did pre-emphysema. His lungs still there. “I was happy, Marilyn. I was joking about purgatory. We had our problems, but I was happy.”

She shook her head. “No, you weren’t. No one was happy. She made sure of it.”

“I loved her,” he said.

“No.”

He nodded.

“But why?  How? How could you possibly have loved her?  Why?”

He paused.  Breathed deep again. She could hear the air rushing into his lungs, whistling, and rustling. In and out of dried brown autumn leaves. Her father staggered a little, reached out a hand and grabbed hold of the trunk of the tree to catch his balance.

“Because love is love,” he said.

“I don’t believe that.”

“And why is that, little girl?”

“Because it’s never what you think it is. She ruined you.”

“Ruined me?  How?’

“She held you back. You never became what you could have become.  Because of her.   If you hadn’t married her, you could’ve been somebody.”

He smiled again now. “And if I hadn’t married her, where would you be?”

Marilyn stifled her thoughts, her words.  Her words that usually rushed straight from brain to lips, words that bit people the wrong way.  No filter. I would be with you, she wanted to say, but this time she stopped them, said nothing.

Her father looked at her a moment longer, and then he took a seat on the stones, his feet still in the pond.  He looked down at his reflection, as did she. His eyes were there, and then gone, the empty sockets again. The breeze came, and his hair was standing on end, dry and brittle.  There for a moment, then gone. Pulling loose from what remained of his scalp, and tumbling across the yard. His clothes blew away in the breeze, as did his flesh. His shoulders slumped, his head collapsing into his empty white rib cage. She shut her eyes, but she could hear the dry, white crumbling, and when she opened them again, where her father had sat was nothing more than a pile of white dust.  And then the breeze came again, and that, too, was gone, too. Just the stones, and Marilyn’s reflection in the pond.

She heard laughing.  She looked off towards the driveway, the row of tall lilac bushes,  light purple flowers, now in full bloom, and her mother was there again, scurrying about the bushes, dancing, holding up the hem of her dress as she did.

Marilyn wished her away.

Her mother had acted sad when her father had died, but that’s all it was—an act.  Marilyn knew she wasn’t sad. She was relieved—no more two hundred pound oxygen tanks, no more all-nighters in E.R., no more helping him ambulate, feeding him breakfast, lunch, supper, clearing away his plate. Her mother cried at the wake, at the funeral, but the tears were for herself. Crocodile tears.  To gather attention, pity. The helpless, grieving widow.

Looking for gifts, Marilyn thought.  Looking for money.

Her mother had told her years before that it was her father who had forbid her from seeing Scott when they were young, that it was her father who drove Scott away, but Marilyn never remembered hearing her father say anything about Scott, good nor bad.  Although he had come to her in a dream once, sat on the edge of her bed, and told her that breaking up with him, leaving him behind, was for the best.  And for years, she, too, believed that he was right.

“But we never really broke up,” Scott whispered to her on the phone, shortly after the first time they had got back in touch.  Marilyn remembered grinding her teeth, knowing why he was whispering—Sheila was in the room next door.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you said you sent me a letter breaking up with me, right?  After Stephanie was born.”

“I did.”

“Well, I never received it.  So if I never received it, we never broke up.”

Never, she remembered thinking. Never. He was right.  They had—in reality–been together all this time. Thirty years. Together forever. And at the end of her marriage to Jay, she had tried to be kind, tried to explain this to him.

“Scott says we never broke up,” she told him. “I know it sounds crazy, but he has a point.”

“Marilyn,” Jay said. “He deserted you and your child, didn’t try to contact her for thirty years, paid nothing. I adopted her. You are married. You’ve had four more children. Without him.”

“I know.  But if he never received the letter, then how could we have broken up? It’s not his fault.  I’m technically still his.”

And Jay had just stared at her, his mouth hanging open. And she hated that. He didn’t understand. How could he?  He didn’t know what love was. Real love.  She was in a prison, she remembered thinking, and Jay was the warden, and there was no way out.

It wasn’t much after that she had begun to come clean with Jay as far as she felt about him.  It felt liberating to let him know. She hated the sight of him, she said, hated the sound, the smell. He was pathetic excuse for a man, the opposite of Scott.  Scott was a good father, responsible, Jay was not. She used to think Jay oozed sex, but now she didn’t know what the hell he oozed—all she knew was that she didn’t like it.  He sickened her, when she slept with him these past few months she pretended he was someone else just to get through it, just so she could cum.

“Who did you pretend I was?” Jay had asked.  “Scott?”

“No,” she had lied.

“Then who?” Jay had asked, himself suddenly looking thin, transparent, as if in a moment he would be no more, suddenly disappear. Oh God how she wished he would disappear.

“No one,” she had said.  “Nameless, faceless people.’

Which was a lie, but also wasn’t–she always pictured Scott–but lies weren’t lies when you didn’t feel you owed someone the truth. When it was none of their business.

Marilyn wiped her brow, and looked at the house. A shadow came to the back window, and she wondered who it could be.  The house had always been loud. Laughter, cries, singing. Arguments and television. But now it was quiet. Silent.

She remembered first buying this house.  The hot water heater bursting just as she and Jay were leaving for a Patriot’s game. The Patriots were awful that year, but it was rare she and Jay had an escape from the children. She remembered, overwhelmed, she had started to cry, and she remembered Jay  holding her in the cellar, whispering in her ear, kissing her, and then kissing her more as they sat alone in the parking lot, smoking a joint and drinking a beer, late for the game, but loving the quiet, loving the alone, loving each other. And then Sadie had been conceived on a second honey moon trip to San Francisco, and then the twins, Lila and Nina, in the garage beneath the Boston Common after dinner at the Four Seasons. Steamed windows in the back of the Honda Odyssey.

Things were good then, but they can always be better.  In the back of her mind, she always knew that, they can always be better.

Everything was always.

And always was everywhere.

And you needed change.

You couldn’t settle.

A shadow passed by the window again, and for a moment, she believed she could hear voices inside.

Allie and Sadie and Lila and Nina.  Small again, and playing a game with their American Girl dolls.  Allie was the foreman—Allie was always the foreman. She could hear all their high voices, and television going.  The Wiggles. Singing about fruit salad and the Wags the Dog—he liked to Tango.

She hadn’t heard from them in some time.

Nor Stephanie.

Lila in California, and Nina in Maine.  Allie down the Cape. Stephanie in Arizona.  Sadie lived the closest, down in Plymouth, already had two children, and didn’t stop by as often as she used to. Marilyn called her now and then, telling her she would like to see her grandchildren, but Sadie said that between work and the babies, it was hard to find time.  Marilyn remembered when it was hard to find time. She had wanted for years to have the house to herself, but it seemed to come quicker than she ever could have imagined. Fell like a curtain. And even now she wondered if she had expected them all to take her so literally with her threats of pay rent or out, and if she had meant it as such.  But of course she hadn’t meant it so literally. There was stress, tempers, the need for quiet, the need to be alone, the need for Scott, and sometimes things were said during these times, things that she didn’t really mean.

Now the girls’ voices suddenly sounded older, teens.  Singing and dancing—no one else home, and then a shout.  One had taken the other one’s flip flops. She saw someone come to the window—the face of a young girl.  Marilyn heard Allie call out for her—and she almost called back. She let out a quiet, “What do you need, sweetie?” and waited, but there was nothing, no answer.  And when she looked again at the window, there was no one there.

Why hadn’t she ever seen eye to eye with Allie?  She wondered if it were because Allie reminded her too much of Jay. The face, they eyes, the sense of humor—or at least what they thought was a sense of humor, what they thought was funny. Jay wasn’t really even half as funny as he thought he was, and nothing pissed her off more when they would be out with their friends, and he would get them laughing.  Marilyn worked hard, she did everything, and he got the attention. She wanted the attention, wanted people to know how hard she worked, and she would let them know, “he was worthless, and he did nothing.” She did everything.

And Jay had doted on Allie since the moment she was born—“his little princess”–and maybe that was why Allie put her over the edge.  Even as an infant, a toddler. Attention that Jay should’ve been giving to Marilyn, he was giving to Allie.

She remembered conceiving Allie, a few weeks before their wedding, and then Jay had become angry, thrown the pregnancy test, acting like a baby, complaining that their honeymoon, and first year married would be ruined.  And so then, two day before their wedding, crying, she told him she had miscarried after he came home from work. She lied but she did it for him. So he could enjoy the honeymoon. She did everything for him. And then just before they flew home from Europe, she told him she had been mistaken, she was still pregnant, and hadn’t miscarried after all.

She loved Allie, too, of course she did.  She always had.   She loved all of them, but she hit a point where she had to do things for herself. What about her?  Some “me” time. She wanted to do things for herself for a change.

Allie called out again.  She called out telling Marilyn she loved her.  And then there were the other voices, the other girls.  Lila’s piano. Stephanie, crying. The way she had sounded just before Marilyn had told her not to come back and visit—she wouldn’t support her relationship with Scott, her father–so how could Marilyn tell her she could in fact come back?  She could hear herself and Jay in the bedroom upstairs, quietly crying out, and then whispering after dark.  The house was full of voices, full of memories. Music. Holidays and parties, and the girls spinning in leotards and tutus, practicing for their dance recitals.  And spinning through time.

The house was full of time.

The noise began to grow, voice after voice, louder and louder, until it was nearly deafening.   And then just as it began, it suddenly stopped. Silence. The house was empty.

Marilyn felt a jolt.  She dropped the saw, and it hit a stone on the edge of the pond and bounced into the grass.  She could feel herself starting to cry, and she reached for another branch and broke it with her hand.  Then a second. Then a third. She stretched for a fourth, and her foot slipped beneath her.

She felt her flesh scraping on the branches—she reached out to grab hold of one, but it broke, too–and then her head hit the stone, and sudden cold, there and then gone.  As she rolled over in the water, she gazed up and could see herself in the tree, the saw gone, and staring down at her. And from the tree she could see herself in the small pond, eyes open, and lips barely parted, her face just below the surface.  She was staring back up at herself. She had her palms up as if awaiting communion.

 

About the writer:
Sean Padraic McCarthy has stories either recently published or forthcoming in New Reader Magazine, The Hopkins Review, Propertius Press, Glimmer Train, 2 Bridges Review, Water~Stone Review, and South Dakota Review among others. McCarthy’s first novel In the Midst of the Sea was just published through Pace Press.

Image: Frühling” by Adolf Kaufman (1848-1916). Oil on canvas. 80 x 100 cm. By 1916. Public domain.

 

 

 

By | 2019-09-10T16:08:24+00:00 September 10th, 2019|Fiction, LITERARY ARTS, Short Story|