Tag Archives: Fiction

Short Story: In The House of Mary and Martha

Here’s a short story I wrote in college that I’ve reworked over the past month or so.  Feedback and critique is welcome.  Please contact me at liam.carnahan@gmail.com before reproducing.


In The House of Mary and Martha

Still I wonder how much our names prescribed what we have become.   If we had other names equally as simple, like Laura and Lisa or Jamie and Jenny, would I be here elbow deep in these suds with my sister’s bloated body under my hands?  Ma could have even chosen other biblical names without casting us in these roles.  We could have been Rachel and Sara, both admirable women without the reputations.  Or she could have chosen any infinite number of Marys in the bible, without choosing that Mary and making me the namesake of her assiduously dense sister Martha.
Why I let these pointless thoughts occupy my mind is an even better question.  I suppose it’s because I have so much time to think.  There’s no way to go back and change our names, and even in doing so there’s no guarantee that it would alter the roles we have played out.   We would still be born into this fatherless family, our lives still pressed under the wide religious thumb of Ma.  We still would have gone to the tent meeting, and Mary would still have chosen to walk up to that sacred pool and surrender herself to the large hands of that young preacher from Savannah.  Undoubtedly I’d still be here, and she’d still be lost behind the scar on her scalp.  But can it just be a coincidence that our lives now resemble so closely those two sisters, friends of Christ, parables for the working woman?

I’d like to say I’d give anything to go back to that day, but what could I give?  I have almost nothing but her.  Yet that day still haunts me relentlessly in both sleep and waking.  When I close my eyes I’m transported back there to that looming white canopy on the edge of the Coopers’ cornfield, July 15th, 1963.  We were only eight, and I was blindsided by Mary’s hot breath whispering in my ear:  “I wanna go up.”

It was our fourth revival meeting that year, but this was the first where free-for-all baptisms were being performed.  We’d been to baptisms before down on Honeybee Lake, but none as lively or as modern as that one.  The preacher, a young pup burning up with the life of Christ, was hollering in front of that strange collapsible, portable baptism pool.  It was deep and long, but Ma told us it could fold up just as small as a suitcase.  Now typically they made you wait until the age of acknowledgement to get dunked, when you can say Yessir I know what I’m accepting into my heart, and I want it.  But just listening to Reverend Beecher hollering I could tell he’d baptize whatever and whoever came his way.

It was hot that day–well over 100 degrees.  The air so humid I felt like I could swim if I just lifted my feet.  And all of us pressed up against each other under that tent like cattle wasn’t helping the circumstances.  Maybe it was the heat that got to her, or maybe she really felt like she was hearing the Lord call her name—I’ll never know.  But I just stared at her after she whispered to me, my jaw slack while everyone else sang about waiting on the banks of the River Jordan.
We had both agreed, just that morning, that getting pushed under water by a strange pastor was downright terrifying, even if it meant we could finally be real Christians.  But what shocked me more than Mary’s willingness to be baptized was the fact that she and I had disagreed.  Twelve years, and not a single point of contention had come between us.  You hear about all those identical twins who develop their own language to talk to each other.  Up until that day, we didn’t need a language to communicate, because there was no need for dialogue between the two of us.  From malt flavor to bible verse we had the same taste for everything.  So when my sister told me of her desire to approach the pool at the front of the tent, I panicked.  Why now, of all times, was she diverging from the path I thought we had chosen in the womb?  It didn’t reach my consciousness at the time, but I must have thought on some level that she was reaching a point of spirituality beyond where I was.  My twin sister was growing in the light of God faster than me, and it scared me.

So without hesitation, I whispered back, “Me too.”  And then it was me who tugged on Ma’s yellow sun dress and asked her if we could go up and be baptized.  It was me.

Ma wasn’t a big woman, but she seemed gargantuan then as she frowned down at us while still huffing out the hymn.  Thick beads of sweat were coursing down her face and into her open mouth, but she didn’t seem to notice.  I hoped that the scowl on her face would be enough to discourage my sister, me still being terrified of the pool and the pastor up front.  But Ma always had a scowl on, and it intensified on Sunday mornings.  She barely thought it over before she nodded, and stepped back, her thighs pressing against the edge of her white chair to let us pass.

The whole congregation was swaying with the slow rhythm and smiling at us as we made our way down the center aisle.  We must have been quite a sight in our matching yellow dresses and white shoes, our identical blonde pony-tails pulled taut with blue ribbon.  Mrs. Bexley from school even shrieked out and clasped her hands against her chest like she was making to faint.
The line of those waiting to be saved backed up past the first few rows, and Mary and I had some time to stand there hand in hand as the pool devoured those in front of us.  One by one we watched the Reverend Beecher, himself submerged up to the waist of his white suit, help those in front of us up over the ledge of the tub.  With each one he wrapped one hand across their forehead, his other resting gently across their lower back.  “In the name of the Father!  The Son!  And the Holy Ghost!” And then woosh!  The water flowed up and over the edge as the person disappeared beneath the lip of the pool.  They came back up only seconds later, drenched and gasping for air, some of them with monstrous, hacking coughs and snot pouring out their noses.  That’s what it looked like to be saved.

I squeezed Mary’s hand and said, “Are you sure you wanna go?”

She nodded, smiling and said, “Yeah.  Do you?”

I looked straight ahead and forced a smile across my mouth.  “Lord, yes!”

Finally the last person in front of us, a teenaged girl named Ellie who lived down the road from the schoolyard rose up from the water.  She stepped out wiping the water from her eyes, her curly red hair pulled straight almost down to her waist.  She raised her hands and gave a shrill “HOOOOOOO!” to the heavens above, then stepped out of our way.

As soon as the pastor saw the two of us standing there, so young and wide-eyed, a devilish grin spread across his face.  “Well would you look at that?  You two young women came up here to get saved?  All by your lonesomes?”

Mary and I looked at each other, then nodded back at the pastor in unison.

“Well praise be!  Such young souls a-hungering for a taste of the lord!  And twins at that!  Praise be!  Come up forth, ain’t no reason you two can’t swim in the love of Christ Jesus a little ahead of schedule!  Come up and swim!”
That really set the congregation shouting.  You could barely make out the melody of the hymn as the two of us lifted our right legs into the pool.

Pastor Beecher leaned in at us real close and lowered his voice so only we could hear.  “Now now, ladies.  Only one at a time.  You gotta pick who’s gonna be first.”  Then to the crowd, “PRAISE JESUS!”

He was shouting so loudly his face was bright red.  My sister and I paused, and Mary turned to look at me.  As our eyes met she let go of my hand, and quickly leaned forward to give me a peck on the cheek.  As she pulled back again she locked eyes with me, and that was the last time I saw something of myself there.  It feels so selfish to admit it, but it felt like a betrayal then.  I felt left behind, and some part of me knew I was about to lose her.  The moment was over in the twinkling of an eye, and then Mary bunched her dress up into her fist and stepped into the pool.  The preacher raised his hands straight up.

“Hallelujah! Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah!”  I watched my sister, her face so calm and in intelligent as Reverend Beecher took her between his two hands.  It was so strange, to watch this mirror image of myself take on a task I found so terrifying with such tranquility.  Then he called out to those three men in the sky, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost!”
A loud crack rang out, and the sister I once knew disappeared forever.  The real Mary never came out from that pool.  The Pastor’s hands came up empty, and all the red color of his face flushed out into a ghastly white.  The crowd was still whooping and singing, but the Pastor had lost all his vigor.  I crept timidly up to the edge of the pool, and peering over the edge I saw Mary floating there, eyes wide open.  The pool was filling with her dark blood like smoke from beneath her head, and her body was limp.  Her heels sunk against the bottom of the pool, and her face bobbed up above the surface.  We locked eyes again, but hers were empty, or replaced with someone else.  And that’s how her eyes remain to this very day, dull and vacuous.

***

I never did get baptized.  Of course after Mary’s accident the service ended, the pool emptied along with her blood, the tub and tent folded up and Pastor Beecher gone, never to return to Georgia.  Mary was released out of the hospital in a few days, but never really came back.  I waited at home with our neighbor Mrs. Maloney until they pulled up in the old black pickup.  Ma stepped out first, her face scrunched to a tight point around her nose and staring down at the dusty driveway.  Then she went around to let Mary out.  Slowly they made their way up the steps of the porch where I was waiting on the swing.  I looked hesitantly down at my sister who peered back at me with a drooling smile.
I thought at first that she was smiling at me, so I ran to give her a hug.  She wailed like a demon when I touched her, though, and pulled away as if my arms were hot pokers.   Ma gave me a quick slap across the face and yanked Mary away from me.  “You can’t just rush at her like that now, Martha!  You’ll scare the daylights out of her!”
The daylights were sure gone from my sister, but it wasn’t me who scared them away.  Nowadays I’m the only one that Mary will let touch her.  She even scorned Ma, back before she left us to spend her days in front of the TV in the community room at the Greenleaf Retirement Center over in Macon.  We hardly ever make trips over there anymore, since Mary hardly acknowledges Ma, and Ma hardly acknowledges me.

*

Now I’ve come to see that the smile Mary had on her face when she first saw me after her accident is a permanent fixture.  It’s there even when she’s angry with me, digging into my arms with her long fingernails that she won’t let me cut, or threateningly poking her fingers down the back of her pants to dig for fecal ammunition.

To be fair, the smile does shift some when she is genuinely happy, like now at bath time.  Mary never developed a fear of water like I expected.  Maybe it’s because she doesn’t remember how the accident came about.  There’s no way of knowing how far back she remembers, since her speech is so stilted.  I’ve asked her over and over if she remembers what it was like before, when we were young and equal.  When we were each others’ secret keepers.  But she either doesn’t understand me, or doesn’t have the words to respond.  What little Mary does say is only a repetition of the events she knows are coming.  She spits out these reiterations relentlessly, phrasing each as a question.

“You gawn wash hair?  You gawn wash hair?  Then dry me?  Gawn wash hair then dry me?”

Her hair is short now, and went suddenly gray when we were 24.  It’s perplexing to me, as my hair has stayed the same golden color from our youth.  I’ve never been one to understand much of genetics, but it seems to me that twin sisters, even when one is afflicted by haywire baptism, should go gray about the same time.

Though I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.  So much has changed about Mary since that day, while I have simply grown into a taller version of my childhood self.  Mary has gained weight around her belly, which now protrudes among the soap bubbles like an island.  Her eyesight has worsened so much that she has to wear glasses with lenses as thick as the bottoms of mason jars.  Her feet have become pigeon toed, and her toes mangled enough to lie on top of one another.  She constantly bites her teeth over her bottom lip, creating consistent pools of white spittle at the corners of her chronic smile.  She is, in short, difficult to look at.  Whether or not she knows it, she has become agoraphobic, and just the mention of stepping outside to walk about the complex of our condominium is enough to stir her into a tantrum.   And because of this, I hardly ever leave myself.  We have our groceries delivered.  We found a doctor who makes house calls.

It would be romantic to think that I still see some semblance of myself in my sister, despite her bizarre metamorphosis.  But I have searched every inch of her body for my reflection.  Even now as I rub shampoo deep into the routes of her wiry hair, I don’t even recognize the shades of her scalp as the shade I see in the part of my own hair.  Mary yelps suddenly.

“You pull my hair?  You pull my hair too hard?  When you wash it?  You gawn pull my hair when you wash it?”

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to pull—I was just…” What was I doing?  Why was I searching for myself in the hair follicles of my long lost sister?  I allow my voice to trail off, and Mary lets her line of questioning fall unanswered.  I pull back to let her sink under the water line and watch the dirty lather leap from her hair to the surface.  Once again I find myself leaning over the edge of the tub to stare down at my sister submerged, but before I could meet her wide eyes the doorbell rings from downstairs.  Mary shoots up with a splash.  Though her eyesight has deteriorated, she has developed, or perhaps always has had incredible hearing.  Or maybe she is somehow adept at hearing things underwater, since that is where her new life began.

“Someone at the door?  Someone here to see me?  Someone at door?  Make them go away?   Someone at the door?  Go away?”

“I’ll see who it is.  But maybe we don’t want them to go away.  It might be someone we know, right Mary?  Might be Mr. Hogan or Ma?”

“Make Mr. Hogan-Ma go away?  Make go away?”

Mary is on to me.  Mr. Hogan from next door had never rang our doorbell before, and Ma never left the home.  The groceries came yesterday.  No doctors called for.

“Wait here and I’ll go see who it is.  Sit up straight now and don’t go under the water.   Ok?”

“Ok?” she echoes back, and I head out of the bathroom drying my hands with the turquoise towel.  I’m not a neglectful sister.  Mary may have lost her ability to speak clearly or compose complex thoughts, but her short term memory is still very much intact. So when I tell her not to touch the faucet, or to keep her head above water she listens, and she remembers.  She can keep herself safely entertained in the bathroom long enough while I go to the door.

I pad across the living room carpet and look through the peephole.  Its bended curve makes the man outside look as though he is standing in a fish bowl.  He is young and thin, long arms and legs and a nose that stretches out so far that it casts a thick shadow across his pencil thin mustache.  He is dressed in a white button down shirt and black slacks, both clean but wrinkled.   He has a large suitcase that he fumbles with while he waits.  I open the door just as he presses the bell again, and he waits with a frown on his face until the ring is over.

“Hello.  I’m Bob Bailey.  How do you do?”

Bob Bailey’s voice is deep and loud, which comes off goofy in contrast to his scrawny appearance.

“Hello, Bob.”

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything.  I came down here today for a chance to make you an offer.  You see, I—“

“What are you selling?”  I sound brusque, but he is a salesman, so I consider it my right to be slightly rude.

“Books Ma’am.  But not just any book.  The book.  If you can just spare a few minutes I’ll show you what I mean.”

“You’re a bible salesman?”

“I suppose so, Ma’am, if you want to put it that way.”

“I didn’t even know they made those anymore.”

“Made bibles, Ma’am?”

“No, made door to door salesman.”

He laughs too hard at my quip, and then stops the laugh abruptly.  “But seriously, Ma’m.  If you give me some of your time I promise you won’t regret it.  Do you or your husband have a bible here in your home?”

“Husband?”

“Oh, I’m sorry Ma’m!” Bob smacks his hand against his narrow forehead.  “I do apologize.  I suppose I shouldn’t assume these things anymore.  Then you live alone?”

I look behind me back into my apartment.  The gray walls and carpet, our black coffee table were all so still and dull it looked as though there really could be no other life in that apartment.  Turning back to Bob I see the bright afternoon sun hanging high and hot in a cloudless sky.  There is a murder of crows cackling about some offense in the pitiful lining of magnolia trees Mr. Hogan planted last spring.  I step back from the door and gesture for Bob Bailey to come into my house.  He looks at once overjoyed and terrified.  “Thank you!” he bellows as he struggles to get his rolling suitcase over the threshold.  I move over to the couch and sit at one end.  Once Bob gets his suitcase under control he wheels it over, bumping it gently into the coffee table, and then assuming the seat on the other end of the couch.

“Now, you said you don’t have a bible, is that right Ma’am?”

I glance over at the bookshelf that stands beside the doorway to the kitchen.  From here I can make out two black leather King James and one New Century Christian.  “That’s right,” I say with a tight smile on my face.  I don’t know why I’m lying to him, but it feels right.  Or at least, it feels easy.

“I suppose you are familiar with it.  Are you a Christian?” He says Christian real slow, pronouncing it with three distinct syllables.

“Well I go to Church on the holidays.  Like Christmas and Easter.”  Another lie.  I haven’t been to church since the eighties.

“Have you ever thought about owning your own copy of the Good Book?  You know,” he says as he flips his suitcase on its back and pulls the two zippers on its side away from each other, “as a way to get to know the Lord better?”

I don’t answer, just watch as Bob pulls open the lid of his suitcase and gazes down at the books inside like they were cold coins.  He pulls one out of the center and lays it gently in the middle of the coffee table.  “HOLY BIBLE” it declares proudly in gold lettering on a red cover.  “New International Version”.

“This right here,” he says patting the book gently with his hand “is the best bible you could have.  It is by far the most popular after the King James Version, and if you ask me, I find it to be much more accessible.”

Accessible.  Now there is a word I hate.  What in this wide world could possibly be accessible?  I don’t know of anything I would say that I find in my day-to-day life easy to access.  Everything from the walls of this condo to my sisters cracked skull (these two things that encompass my entire world) seem impenetrable to me.  I cannot get out or in.  So I was curious what this little man with a big voice could tell me was easy to access in those gold rimmed pages of a book written so long ago that everyone in it was already reduced to geological dust.

“Is that so?” I said.

“That is so!” he said with another long laugh.  “I’ll tell you, this pretty little book can change your life if you let it.  Every word in here has got a well of meaning in it.”

I smiled at his mistake.  Now he was speaking my language.  Since Mary’s accident, I’ve been more inclined to see the information in the bible as a deep, dark and musty well rather than a rich wealth of information.

“You don’t say.”

“I do say!”

He paused, and a heavy silence hung between us for a moment.  He looked down at the book longingly, then returned his gazeback to me.  “Say, why don’t you let me prove it to you?”“How do you mean?”

“Well, tell me Ma’m, how familiar are you with the bible?  Do you know the names of any of the books?”

I knew the names of all of the books, backwards and forwards.  “Well, sure.  Matthew and Genesis and…Eccle—Eclays—”

“Ecclesiastes!” he says slapping his hands jovially on his beanstalk thighs.  “Wonderful!  Well I’ll tell you what, you tell me any book you like, any chapter and any verse and we’ll read it together.  If I can’t prove to you that whatever piece of poetry you pick out has serious weight and meaning for you specifically, then I’ll go home and leave you alone.  How does that sound?”

“Sounds good to me!” I say, slapping my own thighs in response.  “Can I get you anything before we start?”

“Well…sure I wouldn’t mind a glass of water.  Since I’m going to be reading and all.  If it’s not too much trouble Ma’m.”

“Not at all,” I say and head for the kitchen.  I fill a glass with ice and marvel at my own malicious playfulness.  The opportunity to hear another person’s perspective on my own life story, though, is one I cannot pass up.  So I will serve this stranger a tall glass of ice water and listen to his bass voice describe exactly what it is about my situation that held so much life changing meaning.

“Thank you so much,” he says, gulping down half the glass.  “That hits the spot.  Now, go ahead and pick a book.”  He picks up the bible and places in his lap, looking at me expectantly.  I hesitate theatrically, rolling my eyes upward to give the pretense that I am brain searching for a difficult book.

“How about…Luke.”

I’m impressed at the speed at which he is able to locate Luke’s side of the story.  In my experience with bible salesmen, which I’ll admit is narrowed to mostly hearsay from my mother and her church friends, is that they are interested in selling the bible not because it is the bible, but because it sells.  But Bob Bailey seems to truly endear the word of God, or at least has done enough studying to appear as though he does.

“Now, pick a chapter.  One through twenty-four.”

“I’ll go with ten,” I say coolly.

“Alright,” he takes another big gulp from his water.  It is nearly gone.  “Now, pick a verse between one and forty-two.”

“Thirty-eight,” I say firmly this time.  He smiles at me, and I think I may detect just a hint of suspicion in his eyes.  He cradles the book in his raised left hand and clears his throat.  “At The Home of Martha and Mary,” he begins, tracing the tiny print with his pointer finger.  He begins in such a sing-song way, I half expect him to read the byline ‘By Jesus Christ.’  He continues, “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.  She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!’  ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”  Bob closes the book with a thud and looks at me, his eyes glistening and his smile so wide it looked like it might snap in two.  “There, now what do you think?”

I haven’t heard the story in so long, at least not directly from the bible.  I peer over at the book in his hands, seeing the fiery red letters that belong to Jesus juxtaposed against the solid black of Luke’s narration.  It always has struck me as odd that some bibles feel it was necessary to emphasize the direct quotes of Jesus with that vibrant color; it was as if to say ‘This is certain, the rest of this is just fluff.’  And yet, it is those red words that are filling me with such trembling rage and resentment.

There are many things I want to tell Bob I am thinking about the story.  First, the title of it is so distant.  Many bibles refer to Mary and Martha as friends of Jesus, but this one just makes Martha out to be a stranger with an open door policy.  Some people have suggested that the Mary in this story is the same Mary that pops up in other passages, first as a prostitute and then as one of the only witnesses to the resurrection.  Others see her as a scholar, a feminist persona who defies men in sitting at Jesus’ feet.  If this is true, then where does that leave Martha?  Is she that irritating sister, the nag and wet blanket who is only around because of familial obligations?  That idea gives her a somewhat Cinderellian air, and perhaps justifies her anger with her more popular sister.

I hold my tongue from observations like these, if only out of fear that if I quiz him too much he’ll catch on to my lies.  I’m suddenly feeling excruciatingly aware of those bibles on the bookshelf, and I worry that any moment he’ll see them and denounce me as a liar and a sinner right here in my own living room.  So instead I offer a simple, “What one thing?”  This is a trick question.  I knew the story ended where Bob had stopped reading.  The one thing is never spelled out.

Bob Bailey’s smile falters for a moment.  He retorts with a sheepish, “Hmmmm?”

“Jesus said only one thing is needed.  What one thing?”

“Well…erm…to listen to the word of Jesus, of course!”

Ah, well here my biblical ancestor and I find our point of departure.  Whereas she couldn’t find time to sit at Jesus’ feet, I poured over his every word scrupulously for years, searching for its meaning.  Meanwhile my sister became illiterate before she even got all the way through the New Testament.

“Well why wouldn’t Jesus wait for her to begin his speech?  I mean she was making preparations for him, wasn’t she?  Or tell her to hold off before making the preparations?”

“Well back then they had to walk everywhere, you know.  Jesus was a busy man.  I think it was expected that when he was in your home, speaking, you sort of…dropped everything else and listened.  Plus all of that’s not really here in the book.  You have to just trust what’s written.”

“Does it say what the preparations were?”

“Well ah…no it doesn’t.  I assume it was some sort of cooking or cleaning?”  Bob Bailey was a better bible salesman than a preacher.  He stumbles through his explanations posing his thoughts as questions, just like my sister.
“Well then it’s not very fair.  What if it couldn’t wait?”

“What could possibly be so important that it couldn’t wait for the Lord?  I think you’re missing the point—you see this story should come as a relief to you.  Especially living here in this hustle and bustle country we call The US of A.  People can get so busy that they forget to take time to really sit and think, and reflect on the word.  Which is why if you buy one of these here books you’ll have yourself a little reminder each day to stop and—”

“There are some tasks that don’t allow for that!” The sound of my own voice surprises me.  I suddenly feel tears welling up in my eyes.  I can’t tell if I am angry or sad or just exhausted.  “Sometimes there are things you have to do that take up all your time.  And you don’t ask for them but you get them anyway.  And then, tell me, Bob Baily,” I spit out his name like a rotten fruit, “what are those people supposed to do?  Just drop all of the immense amounts of time consuming, tedious shit that the Good Lord dropped in our laps so that we can listen to his word?”

“Ma’m I didn’t mean to offend you.  There’s no reason to get so mad—”

“Did you ever think that maybe whatever Jesus had to say wasn’t as important as making sure Martha’s kids got fed?  Or her stove didn’t burst into flames?  Or her sister…her Goddamn sister didn’t—  I have plenty of time to think and reflect.  I have so much time.  And still nothing comes to me.  Nothing comes!”

Suddenly Bob’s face goes slack.  He stares just over my shoulder, jaw hanging wide, already fumbling for his suitcase.  I hear the voice from behind me, “Martha stop yelling?  You gawn wash my hair?  You gawn help me dry?  You gawn come back?  Make go away?”
I turn to see my sister at the foot of the stairs.  There has always been something about the way Mary is when nude, as if she is able to be more naked than other people.  She looks this way now, standing at the bottom of the stairs, dripping wet from the neck down, forming a black circle in the gray carpet.  Her breasts hang low and heavy and her large stomach covers her privates like a fleshy fig leaf.  Her gray hair is sopping at the ends, while the top of her head is perfectly dry.  She’s drooling.  This is the way my twin appears to me, and it makes me weep.

I don’t blame Bob Baily for quickly leaving our condo. Caught between a belligerent and hysterical liar and her blithering naked echo he slams the door behind him, leaving the red bible on the table.  Mary, grinning at having driven this stranger from her home, climbs back up the stairs without a word, expecting me to follow.  And I do, after wiping my face and taking a few calculated, long breaths.

When I get back upstairs she is already in the tub, smacking her bulbous stomach with her hand.  I can tell she likes the sound it makes, the wet slap making such a large sound even though she is hitting herself gently.

“Lay your head back, Mary.  I’ll wash your hair again.”

Mary is riled up by the visitor, and is being difficult.  After asking me so incessantly to wash her hair, now she gives me her signature defiant laugh: she pushes her tongue through her teeth and wheezes, sending a spray of spit into my face.  Then she splashes me with water.  It’s cold now, and it makes me angry.

“Mary!  Don’t do that.  Lay back now.  I’ll wash your hair.  It will feel good.”

She laughs again, splashes again.  It makes me want to slap her, but I don’t.  How can I?  She doesn’t know what she’s doing.  Or perhaps she does, and I’m the one who doesn’t understand.  And that is the core of the sad story of Mary and Martha.  We Marthas get left out.  The Lord and my sister had some conversation there, under water in that white tent so many years ago.  I never climbed into that pool, and now neither Jesus nor Mary will talk to me.  I will never know them.

Slowly I rise to my feet, and walk to the bathroom door.  I turn the lock, and turn back to my sister in the bath.  She looks up at me, void.  She has calmed now, and when I kneel back down beside her she slowly sinks back until just her face and her stomach are above the water line.  I reach for the shampoo, and as I do my hand skims across the water.  I let my hand sink in, and then my arm.

Mary watches me silently, and as I look down at her I think, just for a moment, that I see a flicker of my old sister, six years old, smart as a tack.  She is in her yellow dress again, calling me down, and I follow.  I climb over the edge of the tub, feeling the water seep into my clothes, making them cling to my body.  I’m on top of Mary, and together we sink down.  We curl up against each other, blanketed together by the water.  I hold her in my arms, keeping her underneath me, pressing my ear up against her lips.  It’s so quiet here, submerged.  I will wait here with her, and listen until she tells me what I’ve missed.


Short Story: Buzz

I wrote this story in 2 sittings by hand while I was in the sleep study.  I was in the middle of reading Short Cuts by Raymond Carver.  I tried to mimic him some.  The only editor on this one has been me, so…

Buzz

My car radio didn’t work. I was thinking about how my parents would both be dead one day. First one then the other. It was getting late. I was tired. Not tired, exhausted. I still had a ways to go.

The heater didn’t work either. I had on my ugly green coat, my gloves and hat. My hands were hot, but the steering wheel was freezing. Without the radio and the heater it was almost silent, except when I went over 10 mph. After that a little buzz kicked up. It would have been easy to ignore with a radio or heater. It came from the back of the car, and stayed the same pitch. Sometimes I harmonize with it, but I was too tired. I was almost there.

I was wondering who would handle it better, me or my sister. I didn’t know if it would make us closer or push us apart. I didn’t know what it would do to her or to me. If we would grow up or down. It was so quiet and dark. My lights were the only things around. Even the high snow banks along the road were dark. As if there was no snow it would be easier to see. The snow was everywhere, except on the road in front of me. I could see my breath hitting the windshield. I was thinking about my sister and what kind of stuff she might keep locked up in her house in Michigan, and blowing my breath onto the glass. I was just thinking and slam.

I saw it coming just before it happened. His headlights were off and his car was black but I saw it. Before his left headlight hit mine, when they were just millimeters away, everything stopped for a second. The two cars dried in time like glue, and then released. My seatbelt caught, I barely moved. Steam was rising up and dissolving from under his hood. I stepped out first. He had to crawl through to the passenger’s side, and he came out saying “Oh jeeze, Oh jeeze. Oh man.”

I pulled my hat down so it covered my earlobes. It crept back up. I walked around to assess the damage. I was better off. My heater and radio and headlight were all busted. My fender was scratched down to the raw white underneath. That’s all. It was ok.

“Oh jeeze, I’m so sorry. Are you alright? Oh crud.”

“I’m fine. You?” We looked at his car, crumpled like a paper cup. It seemed impossible. I had been going so slowly.

“Me? I’m fine. Oh jeeze, but look at this.” He pulled on the fender and part of it came off. “Jeeze. Dang it.”

I thought about calling the police, but decided against it. The man seemed to feel the same way. We exchanged information. He wrote his down on the back of a business card from some Chinese restaurant in a town I’ve never heard of. His name was Hank.

Hank took off his hat and smoothed his thinning hair. “Well jeeze. What do we do?”

“Can you drive it?”

Hank got back in his car, crawling across the seats again. In the light from my remaining headlight he looked like a child. When he turned the key the engine didn’t make a sound. All I could hear was the hissing of the steam, which was waning. We pushed his car to the side of the road. He was clearly in my lane, but we didn’t mention it. We didn’t need to. Hank steered while I pushed.

“You have a cell phone?”

“No.” I don’t know why I lied. Hank laid his head back and looked up at the blank sky. He clapped his bare hands together.

“I can give you a ride somewhere.” My engine was still running.

“Aw jeeze, I would hate to trouble you. I already hit ya.”

“No, no.” I said.

“I don’t live far. 15 miles. On Addison. Do you know it?”

“You can show me.

 

***

We didn’t talk much on the way there. I told him I was from Hollis. He said he knew a pastor there. Then he was quiet for a long time. I was driving so slowly. I didn’t want to hear the buzz. He tapped the window twice with his fingers. Then he looked through the glass hard like he saw something in the field.

We were getting close. My phone started to vibrate in my pocket. You could hear it. Its buzz was dissonant with the one coming from the back of the car. Hank said, “You just turn here.” That was all he said.

His house was small. We went in the back door. He made a path through the snow. I stepped in his foot prints, but my feet were just a little bigger. Our prints on top of each other looked like sedimentary rock. He opened the door, and suddenly I didn’t want to go inside. I wanted to stay out in the yard, in the wind and snow. It had gotten colder. I followed him in, shut the door behind me.

We went through a musty mudroom. It was close quarters, me and Hank in there taking off our boots. For a second it felt like I might fall on him. The cold air was sneaking in under the crack and biting our Achilles tendons. Hank let me in the house, then shut the door to the mud room quickly. He kicked a purple towel back against the crack to keep out the cold.

The interior of the house was 1952. It was all wood paneling and brown carpet. It was all bulk furniture and yellow lights. We were standing in the living room. The enormous wood framed TV with a small screen, just like the one my parents had in their bedroom, was on softly. I couldn’t make out the picture but it was playing some old tinny song that I recognized. An ancient woman was sitting on the couch looking towards the television. She didn’t turn to look at us. I wondered if she was deaf.

“She’s in here,” Hank said. He wanted his wife to meet me. Meet the nice young man who gave him a lift. Hank led me towards the kitchen. We walked between the woman and the television, but she didn’t move an inch. She looked like a wax figure, melting slightly in the glow of the screen. As we walked by we screwed up the reception, the TV screen buzzed and distorted, first for Hank, then for me.

She was in the kitchen wearing a pink nightgown and holding a red mixing bowl in her arms like a baby. She was short and almost perfectly round. The nightgown came up above her knees, and loops of fat hung down from her thighs like a hound dog’s face. I didn’t want to notice that, but I did.

“Hank? Oh, you brought company. Hello! Who’s this, Hank?” She pointed her face at her husband and looked at me out of the corner of her eye. She began mixing whatever was in the bowl again with the fork she was holding. It went click-click-click-click-click.

“This is Ray…mond.”

“Hello, Ray!” she said. She was so cheerful. It seemed to me to be too late to be cooking something, but maybe I was wrong. It occurred to me that I had no idea what time it was. It felt very late, but maybe I was just tired.

“Hello.”

“I have some bad news, honey. We got into an accident. Me and Raymond here. Completely my fault.”

She turned her head to the side like a sparrow. “Oh, no. Is everyone all right?”

“Yes, we’re fine. It was my fault. I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Well at least you’re all right! That’s the most important thing. And you’re all right, Ray?”

“Yeah I’m fine.”

Someone was moving around upstairs. Hank and his wife looked at each other.

“Would you like some coffee, Ray?” She gestured with her elbow at the coffee machine on the counter while still beating furiously at whatever was in the bowl.

“No, thanks. I need to get going. I still have a ways to go.”

She looked disappointed.

“You know,” Hank said, “I think might finally get me a cell phone. If I’d’ve had a cell phone tonight, Raymond wouldn’t have to had come so far out of his way.”

“We weren’t far,” I said to his wife. “Just down the road. Fifteen minutes.”

“Jeeze, Marla. You should see the car. I busted it up good.”

“Well, I’m just glad everyone’s all right!”

The person moved around upstairs. It sounded like they were right on top of us. Marla set down the bowl on the drain board and wiped her thumbs across her forehead. She left behind a streak of something black. The person moved upstairs again, the floor creaking under their weight. We all looked at the ceiling. I wondered if they had kids.

“I had better get going.”

“Alright. Let me know if anything happens to your car, Raymond. You know, problems can show up later after these sorts of things.”

“Will do,” I said. I turned to Marla, who was making her way to sit at the table. “Nice to meet you.”

“Be careful,” was all she said as she dragged a chair out from the table and fell into it.

I crossed back through the living room. The old woman was still sitting and staring. She hadn’t moved an inch. I walked behind her this time. I stopped. I leaned forward to look at her, to get into her line of vision. I looked at her hands. They were folded on her lap, small and wrinkled. I left her sitting there. I looked up the stairs just before I stepped into the mudroom. It was completely dark up there.

***

I passed Hank’s car again and drove for about a mile. Then I turned around and pulled over by the place where we had made contact. I crossed the road. My breath was rushing out of me in a huge cloud. I watched it go up above my head and then dissolve. There was no sound except for the drag of my shoes on the pavement, then crunching through the snow as I approached Hanks car. I opened up the passenger’s side of the car and crawled through. It seemed somehow colder in his car than outside. Everything was so damn still, nothing was moving. I watched my breath smash against the windshield over and over. “Let’s go, let’s go.” I said. “Step on it.”

I pulled my phone out of my pocket. I was hoping whoever had called at left a message, but there was no message, no number.

Forecast (Short-Short Story)

Forecast
Jackson has put an axe halfway through his father’s skull.
He doesn’t know that there are four identical cracks in the four identical propane tanks under the sink downstairs. He is going to light a match in four minutes, once he goes downstairs.  But for now he’s going to sit at the foot of his father’s bed and stare into the mirror.  Jackson’s father’s dead body watches the TV that has been muted. The weatherman silently forecasts a blizzard.
There is nothing very unreal about those four cracks in the propane tanks.  The cracks were not put there intentionally, and it is merely a coincidence that Jackson’s father purchased the four tanks the day before his death.  It is also coincidental that those four tanks all slipped by inspection with those cracks in them.  It is not coincidence, however, that they will explode when they explode.  That is meant to happen, because it is Jackson’s time to die.  Do not ask why he is meant to die tonight of all nights, there is no way to know.  But no one dies before they are meant to.

The propane tank inspector’s name was Ellen Hillford.  She has been an inspector of propane tanks in Oley Valley, Pennsylvania since she graduated from high school.  She has never missed a tank until six weeks ago, when her best friend Lita announced that she was going to get married.  Lita was also an inspector of propane tanks.  She shared her workspace with Ellen Hillford, but she was not as good at the job.  Lita had missed seventeen separate instances of unsafe propane tanks, allowing them to glide by on the belt into the station adjacent to their office.  None of those seventeen propane tanks ended in death, though one did cause a flare that singed off the eyebrows of a retired veteran in Blue Springs, Florida.
Lita flickered her fingers in front of Ellen, causing the small golden ring to glimmer in the florescent light of the propane tank inspection office.  Both women were shrieking while keeping their eyes on the propane tanks that rolled in. They tipped the tanks, shrieked about the ring, rolled the tanks, turned them on their ends, saw every inch.  Lita was able to keep her eyes on her work while she chatted about the proposal in the employee parking lot.   “I’m really in love with him,” she said.  And that comment made Ellen’s eyes blur, and she lost herself in the words.  Ellen was secretly in love with Lita.  She was so afraid of being in love with Lita that she wasn’t even aware that what she felt for Lita was love.
It was this love for Lita, this one faltering, that made Ellen miss the four identical cracks in the four identical propane tanks that were then loaded onto a truck and driven to White Plains, NY, where Jackson’s father picked them up at The Home Depot.  He also visited the woodworking section of the hardware store and bought an axe that was later buried in his head by Jackson, his only son.  It was Jackson’s father’s time to die.

Jackson walks down the brown carpeted-stairway toward the kitchen.  Hanging on the wall that runs alongside the stairs are portraits of Jackson in front of dark blue backgrounds.  They date back to when he was in elementary school.  The portraits watch as Jackson descends the stairs covered in splatters of blood.  Jackson is hungry so he strikes a blue-tipped match on the edge of the stove to light the gas.  He has a stuffed up nose, always has, so he can’t smell the bitter scent of propane gas.
Everything that was Jackson’s house was pushed out from the kitchen in an orange and black orb.  Jackson flew up into a million pieces, as did his father, who was already dead anyway.  The axe, surprisingly, was dislodged from Jackson’s father’s head in one piece, and it went sailing out into the air, end over end, just as the first snowflakes began to fall.