by Marie Manilla
Prism Window, Provincetown, MA by Roger Camp
Nita sits in the recliner in her dim bedroom, though it’s nearly noon. She parts the drapes to look for Peg’s car, but it doesn’t come, and it doesn’t come, and there’s that thump in Nita’s chest whenever her daughter is far from her.
Across the street, JJ hoists up his garage door, kerchief tied around his head, bald on purpose. His jeans and sweatshirt are grease-smudged, as usual, and Nita wonders if the man ever does laundry. He rolls his motorcycle out into his driveway. He’ll fuss over it late into the night, drowning out Nita’s shows. She wishes his bike had washed away in the flash flood, but his house is on higher ground, like hers. Truly, she wishes he’d never moved in with his tattoos and beer bottles lining his porch rail beside the begonia she had Peg carry over as a welcome gift. This was before Nita knew about the tattoos, or that there was no woman in the house, or she never would have put her daughter in danger.
In Nita’s kitchen, her baby sister settles the teapot beside a cup and saucer on the tray. At sixty-two, Sissy is no longer a baby. She adds the vase of daffodils cut from the yard at Nita’s request. Sissy takes that urge for beauty as progress. She swings her face toward the hall. “You want to sit on the porch? It’s sunny outside.”
In her room, Nita calls: “Still too swampy!” and it’s true. The creek is back in its banks, but the dankness remains along with the wrack line of debris the water left behind: branches and plastic bags and Styrofoam cups. Nita clears a spot on her TV tray. Moves the Vicks and pill caddy to her bedside table. The congealed oatmeal.
Sissy edges in the room sideways and sets down her offerings.
The cup and saucer are a surprise, and Nita says, “Why’d you use the good china?”
“I thought it might perk you up.” Nita is grieving, after all, even if she barely knew her future son-in-law.
Nita notes the lone teacup. The one sandwich. “You’re not having any?”
“Doug’s getting antsy over there by himself.” Sissy nods toward the house next door where her husband mopes without his bride.
Nita swallows what she wants to say: He can’t handle two nights alone? Nita’s handled being a widow for nine years.
Sissy tugs the cord to fully open the drapes. Sunlight pierces the crystal angel on Nita’s windowsill and splatters rainbows across the wall.
“God’s promise,” says Sissy.
“Amen,” Nita says out of habit, though she regrets it immediately.
Sissy presses her fists into her hips. “What’s different?” Her eyes sweep the room. “You rearrange things?”
“How am I supposed to do that?” Nita wills herself not to look toward the half-open closet door, the hint of Clint’s robe hanging in the back. It’s the only piece of his clothing she’d refused to donate. Until three days ago it was draped over the valet stand beside the chest-of-drawers. That way Nita could pretend he was coming or going. Off to brush his teeth. Fetch the morning paper. Get a glass of warm milk before bed. He’s just been puttering around the house all these years. Not gone at all.
Growling from up the street and Nita knows who it is: JJ’s biker buddies who veer into his driveway. One burly, one beanpole. They pull off their helmets and sit on overturned buckets to watch JJ fiddle with his bike. Soon the beer will come out. The coarse laughter that will drift across the road and intrude upon her peace.
Sissy eyes her watch and Nita knows what that means. Nita’s face unfolds like a morning glory. “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” words coated more with obligation than gratitude.
“What’s family for?” Sissy backs away from that duty, plus the other thought she’s been dodging since it happened. The relief that Peg won’t be moving away after all leaving Sissy to pick up the caregiving slack.
A car pulls into the driveway.
“There she is,” Sissy says, words more buoyant than she intended.
Peg pops the trunk and wrestles out a beige suitcase that matches her dress. Matches her shape too, square-edged and boxy. Sissy marvels that, at forty-two, Peg found a man. Wonders what picture she put on that dating site. But Franklin was no prize either. More lumpy than boxy. Barely fit in the tiny red car he drove in all the way from St. Louis.
Sissy darts toward the hall, words trailing. “I’ll be off now that Peg’s home.”
Muffled chatter at the front door at this changing of the guard, and Nita strains to hear if they’re talking about her. Or if Peg is offering a rundown of the drive and funeral and cemetery. The screen door slaps shut, and Nita waits for Peg’s footfall to thump down the hall. But the footsteps head to the kitchen. Water fills the kettle. A chair scrapes against the floor.
Nita pours tea and lifts the good china cup, fans her thumb over the little Japanese bridge printed on it, the whitecapped water beneath it. She’d like to cross the bridge and hide in that hilltop pagoda. It’s hard to drink from such beauty. “Why’d Sissy go and do that?” Nita prefers the chipped mug with indelible coffee-stains. Deserves it, even. She takes a sip and cringes at pain from the cankers inside her lip that refuse to heal. She deserves that too and wishes she’d fully shut that closet door.
She can’t look at the freshly cut daffodils. Couldn’t stand looking at them through her window either, so jubilant. All that rain brought them to life, but also wreaked havoc. Nita gauges tire tracks left by rescue vehicles that tore up her yard. After the water receded, it took workers a day to winch the submerged car from the creek that had washed over the road, body still strapped in. Peg had collapsed in the patch of stooped daffodils as the morgue wagon drove Franklin away. Now, Nita plucks the flowers from the vase and dumps them in the wastebasket beside her.
Noise outside as Vernon Samples drags a mud-caked end table to the growing pile creek-side neighbors are still adding to: ruined carpets. Waterlogged recliners. Cat-scratching posts. A nativity set with baby Jesus still in his crib. “They should know better by now,” Nita says, though she would never say that to their faces. Not after all the casseroles and pies they delivered even though most had never met the dead man.
Julie Squires walks up the road with a vacuum cleaner to add to the pile, the cord dragging behind. JJ and his pals eye her. Beanpole elbows the burly one. Julie is pretty, after all. “Hurry on home,” Nita mutters to keep her safe.
Charlie Dawson hauls over a twenty-gallon fish tank, the glass cracked. Nita wonders what happened to the goldfish and blue guppies. If they gulped joyously as floodwaters freed them from that confined space. If they were carried out as the water receded, first into Four Pole Creek, then into the Ohio where they are mere flits of color townsfolk marvel at as they watch for the river to crest.
Nita’s eyes float up the hillside across the road where white-budded trees interrupt all that brown. Sarvisberries, the first trees of spring that once signaled to itinerate preachers that the ground was thawed enough for burials. Another insult of beauty she cannot abide.
At the kitchen table, Peg rests her chin in her palm. Eight days ago, she’d sat in this chair doling out meatloaf and corn pudding, soft choices her mother could chew. Nita had moved the store-bought flowers Franklin had gifted her so she could watch him eat. She’d always said one could learn a lot about people by how they hold their fork, shovel in bites. And Franklin was a shoveler, no doubt. They ate mostly in silence until he patted Peg’s wrist. “Best meal I’ve had in decades.” Nita’s eyebrows had knitted together, and she’d gripped her daughter’s other wrist. “I’d wither to nothing if it weren’t for my Peg.”
Now, Peg thrums her fingers on the table just like her father used to. They shared a lot more than just their boxy shapes. A mind for math. Affinity for crossword puzzles. The heavy footfall. More than once since he died, when Peg would pound down the hall, Nita would call: “That you, Clint?”
So many times, Peg had wished that it were.
“You would have liked him,” Peg says to her father now. Franklin was also skilled at math and crosswords.
Peg aligns napkins in the holder and for the thousandth time pictures Franklin in his car facing the water rushing over the only road into town. Wonders what was so important that he drove into the raging swirl. “I don’t know what he was up to,” Nita had said again and again when Peg pressed her. If Peg had been home, she’d have stopped him. But she was trapped at church, the water came up that fast, where she’d been hanging crepe paper wedding bells and fairy lights. She hopes someone had the decency to rip them down.
Peg forgets about the tea kettle and hauls her suitcase to her room. In the corner are three boxes packed with everything to begin her new Missouri life. Childhood photos and diaries. The tablecloth she spent ten years embroidering. The flatware she collected fork by fork. The quilt Grandma Lollie made her when she was in high school. “For your hope chest,” Grandma had said. Twenty-five years of longing all gone in a flash flood.
A familiar tap-tap on the wall that separates her bedroom from her mother’s, Nita’s signal that she wants attention. Peg ignores her. There will be plenty of time for that now, though Peg had imagined whole days of not fetching this, fixing that. She’ll be a wound dabber until the end now.
Peg’s sigh pierces through drywall and studs. Nita could rock up enough momentum to heft out of her chair. Grab the bedpost. Steady herself on the dresser, the valet stand. She is a proficient furniture walker. She could grip Peg’s doorframe and hold out one arm. But today she doesn’t trust her bad knees, her edema-swollen feet. Nor does she trust her eyes, a dead giveaway. In the wastebasket, beneath the offending daffodils, is the empty tube of lidocaine that soothed the cankers. She should have had Sissy empty the trash.
Nita taps on the wall again. “Peg?” She reaches down to shove the trashcan behind her chair in case her daughter comes. “Peg?”
The tea kettle keens but Peg doesn’t go to quiet it. It matches the scream in her head that drowns out her mother’s voice. She wants to run away from that voice. From too-quiet dinners and Wheel of Fortune. The doctor’s appointments and strained back from hefting Mother in and out of the tub. The: I don’t know what I’d do without you. The: You’re the only thing that gives my life meaning. Sadness washes over Peg at everything she’s lost. Not Franklin, exactly, though he was nice enough. It was shrugging off the weight of being needed that she most yearned for.
The stack of boxes mocks her. All that effort. It hurts to look at them, so she heaves the top one to her chest and heads down the hall. Mother’s words chase after: “Peg? You going to get that kettle?”
The screen door slams and there’s Peg edging down the front steps with a box in her arms. Nita taps the window. “What are you doing?” Peg crosses the muddy yard—the grass still bent—and dumps the box atop the neighbors’ flotsam.
JJ and his pals stop yakking to watch her. Nita again taps the glass. Her daughter doesn’t look at her, just lumbers up the front steps, feet leaden. Floorboards creak beneath the weight of the invisible load she carries. Soon she’s hefting a second box to the curb. Then the third. “Peg?” Wire hangers rattle in Nita’s closet. Her daughter stares down at the pile of debris, shoulders heaving, until she falls to her knees in the dirt.
JJ stands, head swiveling from Peg to his pals, who also stand at the sight of the sobbing woman.
Hangers clang and clang as an anchor lands on Nita’s chest. She tries to heft it off, placate her husband, by spinning a fantasy. Their daughter can start again and Nita will help her. She’ll buy paint for Peg’s room. A new bedspread and curtains with a delicate print, a notion so lovely Nita pummels the glass with both fists. “Peg?” If she only knew what Nita has in store Peg would come in, giddy, weight lifted from them both, from Clint’s judgement, too.
But Peg bends completely over, hands in the muck, a supplicant bowing to the pile of debris.
JJ rushes to the collapsed woman and drops to his knees. He drapes a greasy arm across Peg’s quaking back. She lifts her face, mouth open, and out pour bleats of anguish even Nita can hear. Peg presses her head against JJ’s chest. His lips move as he tenderly smooths her hair, a stranger offering something Nita cannot.
“She really loved him,” Nita says, as the horrid truth sinks in, made even worse by the tea kettle’s cry, by Clint’s banging ire in the closet. Peg always was a daddy’s girl. Nita covers her ears to block it all out, but she forces her hands into her lap and accepts the shrillness, the clanking, plus the weight on her chest. The churning bile.
It comes back again, that day. Franklin standing right there by the dresser beside Clint in his robe.
“It’s the only thing that stops the pain.” Nita had held up the spent lidocaine tube.
Franklin’s eyes darted to the window as rain buffeted the roof and lightning split the sky. He didn’t want to go, but he wanted that badly to win her.
She’d watched him back out of the driveway, water grazing the fender of the little red car. As his taillights receded, she’d let the curtain fall. Overhead, her final words to him are still tangled in ceiling fan blades.
“It’s safe enough to cross,” she’d said, voice steady as a tightwire, even with her dead husband standing right there, though she knew damn full well.
Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly, received the Weatherford Award. Shrapnel won the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums, first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, Calyx, and elsewhere.
Roger Camp is the author of three photography books including the award winning Butterflies in Flight, Thames & Hudson, 2002 and Heat, Charta, Milano, 2008. His work has appeared in numerous journals including The New England Review, Witness and the New York Quarterly. His documentary photography has been awarded Europe’s prestigious Leica Medal of Excellence. Represented by the Robin Rice Gallery, NYC, more of his work may be seen on Luminous-Lint.com.