Featured Fiction by Mary Milstead: from Portland Review, Volume 54, No. 2
Louise Melroy was sitting in her green easy chair, leaning back, her slippered feet resting on the ottoman. She had a glass of iced tea on the table next to her, and the remote control within easy reach. The Price is Right was on. Just as they were about to reveal the first Showcase Showdown, her husband George stumbled in through the front door, followed by a bright flood of early winter sun. He kicked the door shut behind him and a slow smile spread across his face. He had sleepy eyes. He was drunk.
He was harmless, a good-time drunk. Louise didn’t bother getting up.
“Hello there,” she said.
George was the kind of man who took any excuse to celebrate. What could it be today? Did his team win a game last night? Did he have a good dream?
Her knitting needles were in her hands and she hadn’t decided what to make for lunch yet. George just stood there grinning, his cheeks balled up under his eyes, his mouth spread wide. It was a smile she remembered from early in their marriage, when he would bring things home from work to surprise her – pens, paperweights, sweatshirts with company logos on the chest – everything she ever wanted he had given her.
“What is it?” she said, “What’s the smile for?” The treats had long since dried up; she no longer wanted anything.
“How long we been married, Lou?” George put his empty hands on his hips. It was some kind of riddle with him, it always was.
“Fifty-six years” she said, “give or take.”
This she said to refer to his affair, the seven months he spent in Indianapolis with his secretary all those years ago. Time she was allowed to subtract. The whole time he was gone she continued to go about the business of taking care of the house and the kids. She washed dishes and scrubbed floors and checked for dirt behind ears and didn’t allow herself to think of anything beyond the next thing that needed done. One night, as she lay in bed in their room alone, there was a knock on the door. It was the middle of the night. It could only be him. His key was in his pocket, but at least he’d had the decency to knock. She always remembered that, and was glad for it. He had given her a stricken look, like a man asking to be put back in prison, but at least he had stood on the porch and waited for her to let him in.
“Yes,” he said. “Fifty-six years.”
“And do you remember where we always said we’d go?”
Louise didn’t know what he was talking about. This is where they were from, where they’d always been. She couldn’t remember ever saying anything different.
“No,” she said. “Hawaii?” Her honeymoon bathing suit had gone to waste at the Hollingsworth Holiday Inn down on Route 5, with its small pool off the highway. George said they needed to use the money to pay off some bills and exchanged the Hawaii tickets for cash. The sound of cars rushing past was deafening even when she slipped underwater and floated on her back. The sky was a vague light blue, clouds and smog and air blended together like paste. She pretended it was the deep blue and stark white sky over Oahu, that if she lowered her gaze she’d see volcanoes on the horizon, red lava and white flowers.
“No,” he said. His turned his head to the side and tightened his mouth.
“Well, where?” she said. “I don’t have all day to guess.” Though she did.
She sighed, glanced down at the row she was still knitting, and then looked back at the television to see what the blond from Tennessee was screaming and jumping up and down about, what she’d won.
“Arizona!” he said. He held his arms up and out like he was making the sign for victory and he smiled with all his teeth. He stumbled backwards just a bit and leaned forward to catch himself, as if he was contemplating flight, raring up to get a running start.
The buzzer for the washing machine went off in the other room.
“No,” she said. “Never in my life have I wanted to go to Arizona. George, you’re drunk.” She blinked and looked down at her lap, at the pile of soft green yarn, the first third of a scarf she was making for George. He was just standing there next to her now, swaying slightly, his arms slowly sinking. Louise wondered if she’d gone too far, saying he was drunk. That was something they’d agreed not to talk about anymore.
“George, you know I’ve never liked the desert. It’s too hot.” Her voice was soft. She was sorry to have called him a drunk. That’s not what this was about. She just didn’t handle heat well.
“That’s not true,” he said. “We said we would retire there. I remember.”
Louise took a sip of iced tea. “George, we’ve been retired for years. And I like it here. I never wanted to go to Arizona.”
“That’s not true,” he said. He held onto the back of her chair for balance. “And I don’t care if you like it here, Louise. We’ve been here a long time. You can claim not to remember the conversation, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
He snorted and went into the kitchen, leaving her sitting there in her chair.
She got up and followed him, pushing through the still-swinging door he’d left in his wake. They’d been chasing each other into the other room for fifty-six years, give or take.
He was sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. The sun was bright through the window above the sink and it made his silver hair seem white.
“Can you get me a glass of water?” His voice muffled from behind his fingers.
“Aspirin?” Whiskey gave him terrible headaches, especially this early in the day.
She got the glass of water and the aspirin bottle. She set them both down in front of him on the plastic tablecloth. She cleared her throat.
“What was all that about, in there?” she said. “Arizona?”
He held one of his hands out for a pill. His fingers were thick and stubby, still tan from all the years of working outside.
“We bought a condo in Arizona,” he said. “We close in a month.”
He hiccuped, and Louise felt all of the blood drain from her face. She opened the aspirin bottle for him, and poured two chalk-white tablets into his hand. He put the pills in his mouth, took a drink and swallowed.
“I just signed all the papers this morning. As soon as we sell this place, we can go.”
She clutched the edge of the counter behind her. He wasn’t looking at her now, was just staring at the refrigerator, which was covered in pictures of their grandchildren. Louise walked back to the living room.
She didn’t get any more knitting done that afternoon, and she barely paid attention to her shows. The television flickered blue and white and she stared at it, thinking about all the time she had spent in this house. How familiar it was. How comfortable. She knew where everything was here. She was going to have to wait him out, catch him in a sober moment and get him to listen to reason.
The next morning, early, she leaned over him in the dark of their bed and put her hand on his cheek and said “George.” Without opening his eyes he said, “There’s nothing to talk about, Louise.”
She handed him a ham sandwich at lunch and said, “We got a great deal on this. Locally farmed,” and he said, “They have ham in Arizona.”
When he stretched out on the couch to take an afternoon nap, she asked him if he’d like for her to bring him a blanket or if he’d rather she just turn the heater up to 110 degrees. He said, “Stop it.” He put his hand on her arm and looked right at her when he said it.
Apparently, he had been planning this for quite some time, had been harboring fantasies of spending his final years in the dry gritty heat of Arizona. He just hadn’t said anything to her about it.
It was the first time in their long marriage that he’d demanded something so huge of her, something she was really opposed to. Louise was at a loss. Usually, they just let each other be, or she tried to ignore him. They disagreed, sure, but not over major things like location. They went their own way, passed each other in the hallways of the house and nodded at each other and had dinner together on Sundays when she made roast beef. She didn’t complain about his drinking and gambling, he didn’t force her to leave the only house she’d ever known.
Over the next few weeks, Louise tried everything, but George would not budge, would not listen to reason. After her attempts at reasonable conversation were rebuffed, she began to cry, and yell, and finally beg. One late afternoon as he was waking up from a long undisturbed nap, she kneeled down near him and hid her face in her hands and told him that she would do anything if only they could stay. He sighed and put his hand on top of her head. He said, “You’ll like it once we’re there, Louise.”
He began to make plans. One day while she was trying to watch All My Children, he called the ladies at the church and told them they’d have some items to donate soon. She stopped speaking to him altogether. She had given up on real happiness a long time ago, but she wasn’t sure she could give this up. She was willing to live with a husband who was only half-drunk, half-kind, half-there. She was willing to fill her days with hobbies and television, looking forward to the rare visits from the kids. But she was not willing to be evicted. At least not quietly.
She called her children, one by one. Margaret, their oldest, had been distracted and vague. Her kids, two boys in high school, were bickering in the background, and she said “Well, Mom, I’m sure Arizona will be nice. We’d love to come visit you out there,” as if that was the point. John, the middle child, wasn’t home, and she called him for two days before he called back and said “What, Mom? What? I went out of town for two days and came back to find an answering machine full of messages from you. Half of them were hang-ups, but I know they were all you. What is it?” He didn’t seem fazed by Arizona either. “Well, you’re always complaining about the cold,” he said. As if that settled it. As if that was a crime. “I have a game tonight, but I’ll try to call you tomorrow, OK?”
Her youngest, Ruth, picked up on the first ring. “Oh, Mom,” she said. “I’m so sorry. We will all miss that house.”
“I know,” Louise said. She sat down in the white chair next to the phone in the kitchen, pressed the receiver hard against her ear. “You kids grew up in this house. I can’t remember ever living anywhere else.”
“How old were you when you moved in, Mom?” Ruth asked.
“Nineteen.” Back then, her hair had been long and brown, thick with golden streaks in the sunlight. She thought George was going to be the answer to all her prayers.
“You don’t have to leave, Mom” Ruth said. “Tell him you won’t go. I’ll come down to help you if you want.”
“No,” Louise said. Ruth and her father had never been close. Her coming down would do no good. George thought she was a lesbian, although of course Louise would never tell her that. If Ruth came down she’d make a big scene on the front lawn and George would tell her to leave, and then that’s what the neighbors would remember about them. They’d be the family who had a big fight on the front lawn before they moved.
“I’ll figure it out,” Louise said. “But thank you.”
On the Saturday of the Open House, Louise woke up early and listened to the birds singing their morning songs in the trees. The whole thing was making her physically sick, and she thought with some satisfaction that if she died before they moved, she’d never have to set foot in Arizona. She had moved into this house on Pettygrove Street fifty-six years ago, and for fifty-six years she had been able to control who came in and out the door. She invited people in or let them knock until their arms fell off, depending on who they were and what they wanted. From her seat on the sofa, she had been in charge.
Now her house was open to the public and the door was being held open with a pretty potted jade plant that wasn’t hers. There was a bright laminated sign digging a hole in the front lawn, with garish red and black block letters that screamed “Open House. Come on in!” as if she were running a cheap discount clothing store out of the basement. The windows were all open, and the wind pushed in softly through the screens, swirling the curtains around. She’d made those curtains herself.
The realtor showed up early and Louise had to let her in. They’d met for the first time yesterday, and the meeting hadn’t gone well. She was a tall and lonely-looking blonde. With her heavy eye makeup and chewed up fingernails Louise thought she was probably the kind of woman who sat around a lot, waiting in front of a mirror. Yesterday she had said “You know you can’t be there, Louise, you know you’ll have to leave before two, before people start coming over.” Louise had told her of course she knew, of course she would. She scoffed at the idea that she’d want to be there for the Open House, the parade of gawkers and interlopers. The realtor had just rolled her eyes and continued on with her instructions, effortlessly moving to the process for taking bids, should it come to that. Today she just ignored Louise and sat at the dining room table rearranging a stack of color-copied flyers, waiting for people to show up.
Louise sat on the couch and stared at the empty door, the square of sunlight on the hardwood floor, and hoped that no one would come. She hoped that the flyer would blow away in the wind, that the ugly sign would fall over in the grass. She straightened the pillows again. Strangers would be walking around her house, peeking in her cabinets, checking for dust on her windowsills.
The realtor had insisted they remove all family photographs from the house. She said that leaving them up discouraged buyers, who didn’t like to see an old family in the house, but liked to imagine it with their family instead. Louise had done what she’d asked, but not completely. She’d taken all the family photos off the walls of the living room, but she’d tucked them loosely under the couch cushions, where they might fall out if someone sat down. Maybe break with a loud crunch.
She’d left one picture up on the wall, in her bedroom, an old picture of her and the three kids in a cheap black frame. She’d rescued it from the bottom of the picture box just a few years ago. In it, she was standing on the sidewalk in front of the house, the kids at her feet. They were all so young in the picture. The kids, of course, they were babies, but even Louise, she looked to herself like a kid. Ruth was so small she barely came up to Louise’s knee, reaching out and holding on to the bottom of her skirt with a grubby hand for balance. It had been hot that day, and Ruth had been overtired and cranky, and Louise kept having to pick her up to quiet her and the other two kids were restless and they kept sitting down in the grass and picking on each other and George took forever. He fiddled with the settings on the camera and said “Just a minute, just a minute, just a minute,” like he was an artist waiting for the exact right light. He must have found it though, because the picture was beautiful. After aging in the picture box for all those years, it had ripened into something amazing. Louise could see the beginning of something at the corners of her lips, the end of patience in her half-dipped eyelids, but mostly it was a lovely, happy picture. The kids were healthy and laughing. Their mom tall and smiling. The house was big in the background, and the tulip tree in the yard was still small, a sapling. It was only a little taller than Margaret, then, at least from this angle. Louise hoped the picture of the small tree, the tiny leaves, would ruin it for someone, make them realize that this was not their house – they didn’t plant that tree or raise their children here, Louise did.
She and George were supposed to be leaving soon, they were supposed to spend the afternoon at the lodge, out of the way. Instead, George was still in the kitchen, talking to the realtor, who was no longer rearranging papers at the dining room table. She’d probably gone to find him, to ask when they would be leaving. Instead, he was telling her about the condo in Arizona. It was all George really wanted to talk about.
“It’s fully modern,” he said. “There’s an apartment-style washer and dryer right in the kitchen.”
“Not only that, there’s an Olympic-sized pool. It’s just a few blocks away, and it’s only open to seniors, except on Family Night. That’s Wednesday.”
“And there’s a guest room, very nice. You can have up to three visitors, and they can stay a week.”
Louise closed her eyes. Imagine living in a place that told you how many visitors you could have and how long they could stay. If Margaret and her family came to visit, as she promised they would, would one of the boys be required to stay across the street in a neighbor’s guest room? Or would Margaret’s husband, who’d been part of the family for years, have to stay in a hotel? It was one step down from a nursing home, with its rock-filled lawns and cacti in terra cotta pots. George thought it was a vacation home, but he was an old fool. Louise couldn’t believe that this day had come, that she was being told when and how to leave her house. That she was actually planning to pack up for this awful place in Arizona.
The front windows were open, the ones that the realtor had described as “gothic” and “timeless” and “stunning.” A young couple was approaching the house, strolling down the sidewalk holding hands. They must be early. It couldn’t be two yet. The woman wore a blue and white plaid coat, long and tailored with a wide belt around the waist. Her cinnamon-colored hair hung just below her shoulders. He was wearing a nice shirt and slacks. About halfway down the sidewalk, they stopped and leaned in toward each other, and the man pointed up at the tulip tree. Maybe they were making plans to hang a rope swing there. They laughed and the sound of them slid down the sidewalk and seeped into the house. They were excited, of course they were. The man put his hands on either side of the woman’s face and pulled her close for a strong quick kiss on the lips. George was still talking in the kitchen, and the sound of him made Louise bite the inside of her cheek.
George had never kissed her in public like that, had never put his hands and lips together on her face. She and George had never looked at each other like that, not even the first time they’d walked up to the house together, right after they bought it, right after it was built. Things weren’t like that back then.
From the kitchen, George said, “There’s a community restaurant, just down the street. We’ll be able to eat there for every meal, never have to worry about doing dishes again!”
Louise stood up. She wasn’t supposed to be here when this young couple walked across the threshold. More than anything, though, she didn’t want them to see her sitting there alone.
She quietly padded across the living room floor and toward the stairs, which curved down from a landing that the realtor had called “grand” and “welcoming.” She pulled herself upstairs, taking small steps and holding on to the bannister. No one saw her.
She went into her bedroom and grabbed her brown sweater from the back of her desk chair. She pulled it on, and in the flash before it covered her face she saw the photo on the wall, the one of her and the kids in front of the house. She went to it, and with her face next to the glass, she could almost smell the piles of fresh-cut grass against the curb. She yanked it off the wall and tucked it under her arm, where the sharp corner poked at her armpit. With one last look at the room, she turned off the light and clicked the door shut.
In the hallway, she stopped to listen. From below her, in the dining room, George and the realtor were both describing the features of the room, pointing out the storage space in the built-ins. The realtor must have been going crazy, unable to keep George from following them around. The young couple murmured their approval. She had time.
Louise slipped past them in the hallway while they were admiring the view out the bay window (“spectacular view”), and went into the kitchen (“full-size island, comes with appliances”).
They’d go upstairs next. She’d have a few minutes to herself. She pulled a glass from the top of the cabinet, and filled it with water from the tap. She found the aspirin bottle on the windowsill above the sink and emptied it into her hand. She put two in her mouth and filled her pocket with the rest. She set the empty bottle on the counter next to a banana and a plate of cookies. Who ate cookies baked by strangers?
“This is the original staircase.” The realtor sounded very far away and Louise ducked into the pantry. She closed the door.
It was a big pantry, with plenty of room to move around (“full walk-in food-storage area”). She leaned over and set her glass and her picture down on the ground, then got down on her hands and knees and pulled open the bottom cabinet door. This was the deep storage area. It had been empty for years. She hadn’t wanted to reach down this far and hadn’t needed that much food in the house for just her and George. She reached a hand into the empty space to make sure it was clear and to reassure herself that she’d fit. She was getting smaller in her old age. That was one good thing.
She leaned her head into the cupboard. Then she pulled the rest of herself inside of it. Her head, her neck, her shoulders, then her back and her legs, every last limb. Her muscles tightened and clawed at her joints, but she was able to stretch them, to bend. She crumpled herself up like her bones were paper.
She wasn’t going to leave this house. Not with him. Not for Arizona.
It was dark and very cramped inside the cabinet but she was comforted by the solid wood at her back and against her knee. She was curled like a snail, like a piece of candy, like a drawing of the Earth’s orbit, like tree rings.
She gathered her things before she shut the door, setting the cold face of the picture in her lap, and the glass on the floor between her feet. Her eyes were wide open but she couldn’t see a single thing and she thought she could hear footsteps coming down the stairs, maybe the creak of the kitchen door, but it could have just been her heart beating in her ears, the clench of her stomach.
She closed her eyes, reached into her pocket and placed one of the pills on her tongue. With a small sip of water, she swallowed it. The water was cold as it filled her throat. One by one, she finished them, holding each one on her tongue longer than she needed to, tasting the chalky metallic flavor. She swallowed and thought of melting into the woodwork, floating like a beam across the basement ceiling. She would turn to dust here, closed up in the pantry of her house. She would become part of the foundation. Let the young couple move in and start a new life. Let George go off in search of heat stroke and cafeteria food. This was where she lived, and she was staying. She took another sip, and swallowed.