Talk by matusf
In a town as small as Fernald, rumors blew like milkweed blasted from a broken pod. Customers whispered while waiting in Carson’s checkout line. Employees snaking through the entrance and exit stiles of the atomic plant tossed gossip about Patrice. Churchgoers huddled on the steps of Calvary Baptist after services no doubt had something to say about Patrice moving to Evan’s to care for him and Maisie as they awaited his divorce.
Patrice could feel Maisie watching her, and the girl’s presence undercut Patrice’s enthusiasm. She wanted to do what was right, and so when they turned in for the night, she and Evan kissed and then parted to their separate beds. Was this anyone’s business?
She imagined the whole town buzzing, and she wanted to sweep the rumors clear. If there were a story, she’d be the one to tell it. Anyway, she was eager to share the details, romantic and otherwise, to watch a listener’s face as she got caught up in Patrice’s good fortune. In these moments, as in so many others, she missed her mother.
Patrice looked forward to spilling her story to Agnes Ballard at the choir’s first autumn practice. As a group, the singers mounted the steps to Calvary’s choir loft. Patrice ran her hand along the whitewashed walls of the church, half listening to others recount their trips to family camps down on the Ohio River or some lake resort up north. They’d all returned with new haircuts and suntans.
“How was your summer?” Agnes said it as if she was throwing Patrice a bone. She turned to Patrice as they took their last steps, the others finding their places, shedding sweaters, and donning their reading glasses. Their summers were piddly in comparison.
Patrice said, “I’ve quit Fernald.”
Agnes put her hand on Patrice’s arm. “But how will you pay the bills?”
Patrice delighted in her shocking news. “I’ve sold them the farm.”
“To Fernald?” Agnes let her voice screech.
You could hear a pin drop, Patrice’s mother piped up.
Agnes was stretching Patrice’s sweater at the elbow, excited over the outrageous news. Miffed because she wasn’t the first to find out, or maybe Agnes wished to quit work, too, leave her family and start an exciting new life. A brief measuring took place in her eyes.
“But where will you go?”
“I’m sharing a house with Evan Wunder.”
Judgment hissed through the chamber where choir members stood stock still in their ranks. Patrice had always felt safe high among the church rafters, held practically in the bosom of God. The choir buzzed to life. Agnes strode away, and when she returned her face was stripped of emotion as she handed Patrice a hymnal. The choirmaster tested the organ pedals, sending atonal thunder through the church.
Patrice wouldn’t waste her breath setting them straight. Could no one be happy for her?
On this first of September, sundown rushed a draft through the practice area. Patrice pulled her papa’s old grey sweater closer. The rest of the singers had been little more than acquaintances; she immediately forgave them their small-mindedness. And she and Agnes had shared nothing beyond Thanksgiving dinner, walks home in the dark, giggles, and naïve, girlish dreams. Patrice had been caring for her mother while other girls learned the tricks to making and keeping friends. Another way in which her mother had robbed her.
Even Agnes wouldn’t part from the rest of the choir and wish her good luck. Her throat ached and she couldn’t sing “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”. In mouthing the words she felt she was lying.
After practice she waited on the church steps for Evan. With Evan would be Maisie, for where had the girl to go but with her daddy?
For days she couldn’t speak of the snubbing to him. At Champion, Evan churned dye into the paper pulp while she thrashed around the house, alone and blue and fierce with the furniture. Her arms ached from beating the rugs. Her palm took on splinters. She stood at the kitchen sink, her head tilted to the window as she poked her hands with the needle, gouging out what slivers she could. The rugs draped over the backyard clothesline sagged in the middle.
That night, Evan knocked on her bedroom door. He bore Mercurochrome and cotton balls, a needle, tweezers and a book of matches.
“For your splinters.” He nodded at the frill edge of her nightgown sleeves. With his hands full he walked in, nudged her thighs with his, backing her into the room, and then onto the patchwork quilt she’d pulled to her mother’s chin a thousand times. Patrice rubbed a square cut from one of her own childhood dresses while Evan shut the door with his body. He never turned his face from hers. This man making these unexpected overtures was the Evan she loved. He sat beside her and the mattress bent; she thought about the two of them sliding right down to the floor.
Evan sterilized the needle, Patrice watched the flame reflected in his eyes. The whole room smelled of burning as he wiped the needle, then took her hand. By the light of the nightstand’s globe, he edged her skin until the splinters she’d been unable to manage were pushed to the surface.
Her eyes filled; her throat filled.
Evan stopped his work. “Hurt?”
She shook her head.
Evan set the medicine bottle, the needle and the cotton ball on the nightstand, removed the tweezers from his lap. With these implements gone, her hand in his lap appeared too intimate. Then he took her hand and brought it to his mouth, put his tongue in her palm.
She said, “No,” but then touched his jaw.
He leaned to kiss her; the bedsprings creaked.
Smells of cigar and fried food and dishwater had caught in Evan’s hair from his supper shift at Flick’s. His second job was just one more thing that came between them.
“What’s bothering you?” He sounded like he wanted to know.
“Oh, you know.” She waved her hand. “The talk.”
Evan nodded. “About us?”
“We can hardly not expect it.”
“But we don’t have to accept it,” he said.
“You can’t take the words out of people’s mouths.”
“We shouldn’t have given them cause for words in the first place.”
The bearing up she’d done since choir practice collapsed. “Meaning?” She’d like him to clarify. “Evan, was my moving in a mistake? Maybe it’d be better if I was out of the picture, or at least out of your house?”
His eyes registered panic, or pain. “Don’t give yourself over to that kind of thinking.”
Patrice pushed further. “Were you wrong to ask me … was I wrong to go along with the idea?”
“No, that’s not me talking.”
“But everybody else?”
“Who cares what they say?” He recaptured her hand.
She couldn’t help herself. “Maisie?”
Evan looked as if he’d never considered rumors might dirty his little girl. “No, not Maisie.” He spoke, scowling. “Do you think someone’s been tattling to her?”
Patrice backtracked. “I’m sure not. We’d know by how she acts, and she’s been fine, hasn’t she? But then who were you talking about?”
Evan petted the back of her hand. “Someone at the church, right? They gave you trouble?”
Her mother would be satisfied to know here was a man who could read her daughter’s face and mind as well as she ever had. “They didn’t say much.”
“They didn’t have to.”
Evan worked the splinters from her hands again, pulled them free and wiped the tweezers on the legs of his jeans. She brushed them, an excuse to touch him.
“I won’t be going back,” she said.
He looked up.
“I’ll sing elsewhere, somewhere.” Silly dreams of a bandstand appeared in her head, superseded by the image of Beth belting out that song at Fernald’s first Spring Frolic. She had never likened herself to Beth, and now she wondered if Evan expected, or hoped, she’d mirror his first wife.
He applied the Mercurochrome, and she was all at once back in her old house, with her mother waiting outside the bathroom door, muttering about fools traipsing in the rain, impatient for Patrice to start supper.
Transported by the memory, she rushed to grab the doorknob, sure as stone that her mother would be lurking on the other side if she could only open the door quick enough.
Maisie stood there, her nightgown large and dripping around her.
She had a bad dream, or maybe she’d never been sleeping. She jumped onto Patrice’s bed and into Evan’s arms. Patrice sat gingerly on the edge. The three of them on her bed. Patrice, who’d steeped herself in solitude, had a crowd in her most private space. She imagined her mother’s ghost there, pursing her mouth, evaluating Patrice’s worth among this family.
Damn it, Mother. If you think this is easy, it isn’t.
Maisie wrinkled her nose. “Were you smoking in here?” She said it to Patrice as she curled into Evan’s armpit.
The girl said, “Were you playing with matches?”
Evan lifted the matchbook. “Not playing.” He shook it at Maisie’s upturned face. He was prince of her world. “You never play with matches. Sometimes they’re necessary, but fire is no toy.”
“Daddy, I wouldn’t.”
He nodded. “See that you don’t.”
The girl wriggled so her knees dug at Evan’s side. There would come a time, Patrice believed, when they could shift Maisie, not away but over some, to make room for her. For now, she lay at the foot of the bed, with her face to the underside of the quilt where she’d turned back the covers. She could lie at their feet and not be jealous. She in fact loved the stink of Evan’s feet in his socks. It was common and normal and within the sphere of family.
“Do the kids at school tease you?” Evan said to Maisie.
“They don’t tease me.” She started routing her thumb to her mouth but quit and instead twirled her hair and sucked on the tip.
Evan nodded to Patrice, as if to say, “See?”
Maisie’s voice continued, smaller. “They don’t talk to me.”
Evan snaked his arm from behind his daughter right when Patrice thought the girl needed a hug the most. “What do you mean, sweetheart?”
“They don’t play with me.”
Patrice tried a cheerful voice. “Have you tried asking to join in their games, honey?”
Maisie frowned and Evan flashed Patrice a disappointed look.
What a pair, her mother whispered.
Evan took Maisie by the shoulders. “Do they call you names, or talk about us?”
But Maisie had earned their attention only to find it boring. “I said they don’t talk to me.” Then she sat regally, and evaluated Evan. “Why? What would they say, Daddy? What might they call me?”
Waiting for the divorce was beating them all down.
Patrice jumped up. “They’d call you Sleepy Head.” She took Maisie’s hand, dragging her away from Evan. Touching the girl was something she’d avoided. “You’ve got school tomorrow,” she said, “whether they talk to you or not.” Her mother’s tough words were coming out of her mouth.
“Daddy,” Maisie said. She stumbled with Patrice off the bed, reaching back to him for rescue.
Evan extended his arm so it hung limp alongside the bed. He seemed amused and interested as to how Patrice might pull off this bedtime shuffle.
She pulled Maisie so she slid barefoot across the wooden floor. With both their arms taut, and with Maisie bowing her slight weight opposite Patrice, their nightgowns seemed to fill with air.
Maisie extended her empty arm even as Patrice yanked her around the doorway. “Look. Our nightgowns are making sails, Daddy.”
Evan saluted as she exited. “Aye, aye,” he said. “I see the First Mate escorting you to your quarters, sailor.”
Patrice lightened her grip on Maisie, feeling suddenly tender toward her. She tugged at her arm to keep her moving along the hallway. “Come on, you, or I’ll be dragging you bleary-eyed to the breakfast table come morning.”
Once under her covers, Maisie sat up. “Water,” she said. “I’m thirsty.”
Patrice handed over the bathroom cup; Maisie peered across the rim, all set to drink and spoke into it. “You married my daddy.”
Patrice shook her head. “Not yet.”
“But we live together,” Maisie said.
She sat on the edge of Maisie’s bed and fingered the store-bought quilt. “Your daddy and I love each other. We’re working on being a family.”
“I have a mommy.”
Patrice nodded. “And I won’t pretend to be her. I can only be me.” She spread her left hand on the quilt, all her fingers still naked. She looked at the girl.
Maisie stared at her with those deep brown eyes, like Evan’s, long-lashed and docile, a look of animal-like trust, or mild disinterest. The girl let the cup tilt. Patrice reached to catch it.
“No one talks to me,” Maisie said. She scrunched her body under her covers so her feet burrowed under Patrice’s backside.
Patrice stood. “Your daddy and I sleep each in our own beds.” She held the cup tightly. Why had she been moved to explain that? This girl didn’t care what the whole town might be murmuring. The schoolyard, and her spot on that square of blacktop, were her looming concern.
“Sometimes you have to be curious about others before they’ll show interest in you. I know it seems hard, but once you pass their test, you’ll forget there ever was this bumpy time.” Patrice edged to the door. “Now you need to hush and have sweet dreams.”
She expected Evan to be gone, she expected to meet him in the hall. She didn’t think she’d find him under her covers.
“You were gone long enough.”
She stood at the foot board. “You’re still here.”
He smiled and patted beside him. “So I am.”
The bathroom cup in her hands gave her an excuse not to reach and touch him. “Already she thinks we sleep together and we’re not about to do that.”
Evan extended his arm. “Who’s sleeping?” And when Patrice continued standing, he sighed and let his arm drop. “Oh, Patrice, just come sit with me for a while. I’ve double-shifted and I’m tired. Won’t you let me put my arm around your shoulders and help me wind down?”
Her mother said, Your tests are too hard and silly, girl.
Evan’s arms held her snug, in case she might want to think about escape, but there was nowhere else on earth she wanted to go.
She quizzed him. “First Mate?”
She felt him nod into her neck. “First and only.”
“That can hardly ever be.” Beth had been first.
“It’s all we care to remember.” He kissed her.
“Truly?” She loosened her hair from its rubber band and then she swept it all over her other shoulder so Evan could rest his head.
But Evan, his lips at her collarbone, suddenly needed no rest. “Batten down the hatches, Matey. We’re sailing into the eye of it.”
She twisted in his embrace to read his face. “Meaning?”
He smiled, his nose to her nose, Eskimo kissing like he’d done with Maisie. “I’m just watching the weather, and predicting sun after a storm.”
She wanted more than that from him.
“Why don’t we quit all the neighbors’ talk?” he said. “Why don’t we just tell the truth?”
“It’s not their right to know.”
“What if you’ve a sign we’re doing things proper? Rumors would shrivel up, right?”
He looked at her with an odd tenderness, then nodded.
Side by side, and half under the covers, they kissed. Evan was fumbling with something. Patrice kissed with her eyes closed and would not open them for fear he was undoing his belt buckle. Then what would she say, how could she stop things?
His hand found hers, isolated a particular finger and slid a thin band over her knuckle. She opened her eyes. They were breathing each other’s breath; they were so close Evan looked cross-eyed. He hadn’t stayed in her bed, expecting some fine finish to romancing. He had surprise in him.
She admired the ring. “Maisie will be jealous,” she said.
From under the covers he produced a dime store fake, little-girl size. “I got one for her, too.”
That let some of the air out of the balloon. But if there were comprises to be made, she would make them. She leaned forward to kiss him. “We’ll all be engaged to each other.”
To the ghost in the room she said, Do you see, Mother? My stiff upper lip – it’s softening.
Evan’s eyes lit up. “Exactly.”
She could feel the gold ringing her finger as she touched his neck, every sensation new, even the grease and dried sweat from Flick’s that separated Evan’s dark hair into strands. Falling back, back, then their hands were entwined on either side of her head. Evan nearly lay on top of her. He began working his feet, in his socks, up her legs, inching higher the skirt of her nightgown. The blue jeans of his legs rubbed their fabric along her thighs. She couldn’t help encouraging the scratchiness. She opened to his kisses and they ran along, until Patrice had to pull herself back, untangling her hand from his and pushing Evan on his chest.
“Remember? We’re going to wait.”
For one second he looked confused. Then he nodded, smiled, and slid from the bed to the floor. He still held her hand that wore the engagement ring. “I just wanted to give you an inkling of what it is you’re waiting for.”
Photo by matusfi