I will never forget that stretch of road outside of Starke, Florida, as we headed up to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I was singing my favorite Alison Krauss song playing on the CD player and our child was in the back. Apropos of nothing, you banged your hand on the wheel, “The sound of your voice, that strained, breathy quality just makes me want to go out of my brain.” And then the silence, the burning shame, the hours of the drive spent thinking how hideous my voice had been all this time when all along I hadn’t really considered it.
Terramae makes peanut butter chocolate frogs for trick or treaters, but her boyfriend, a chef, uses them for a mole. She yells at him and he says “I wish you would just smoke one big doobie.” She makes a huge batch of frog edibles for his staff. Everyone gets fired.
I think of the Florida Gulf coast in this hurricane season. I wrote this story several years ago and published with an Australian journal. Growing up, it meant everything to me to learn how to fish in the Panhandle during the summer and sell crabs on the roadside. “Ladybug’s” passion for the sea and its creatures are modeled loosely on experiences I had with my aunt. Be well. — Meg
Her chair is a basket weave of rainbow, her floppy hat a mushroom cap. Every day she sits under the Australian pine, her thin legs stretched out toward the bay, heels dug into the soft sands of Anna Maria Island.
She speaks to birds. She tells them where to find mollusks, greenies, pinfish, tube worms, anemones, mullet, stonecrab, blue crab, fiddlers, spot, black drum, croakers, ballyhoo. The longer-legged wading birds walk along the shallow areas, knobby knees clear of the water for more than a hundred feet out. They are her friends: the common egret, the snowy egret, the white ibis, the roseate spoonbill, the great blue heron. When one of the larger birds is near, she speaks in soft tones. She embraces their world through her sympathy.
Sometimes she helps a grounded boat. She walks out on the bar and dislodges sand from the propeller. She gives the careless boaters a map, shallow areas at low tide drawn with her red pencil, the channel markers with an x. Had they had her aboard, she could have helped. But the birds need her more.
Once a week her daughter visits. She says Mother I really don’t think you should… and Mother I don’t think it’s wise that you… and Mother why don’t you try to see if you can… and Ladybug, for that’s her name among the locals, says “Umm hmm” until her daughter leaves for the city. The birds listen to her complaints. They nod their silent ascent.
When her son comes, he casts his rod, the only sound the fine unspooling of the line from the reel. She has taught him all she knows about fish and where they feed and when, the patterns of the tides, what he can find just by looking and what he has to know, too, in a deeper sense.
Her husband died pursuing shrimp. He allowed her to navigate while he went below to haul in the catch: At that time, the highest compliment any man could give a woman of a fishing persuasion. Superstition had it that this killed him. She did not remind them he died saving one of their own, a crew member entangled in a net.
During the long days she grieved him, she dreamed of pregnant nets, the breeze in her hair, her husband’s strong neck, the feel of his unshaven face against her cheek in a private moment. His expectation that she could endure anything, could do what she must, helped her survive. She sensed him with her, protecting her still and she began to understand something like faith.
Once her children were raised and gone, once the town forgave and forgot, she became Ladybug, a woman who talks to birds, a woman who graced the town – the grocery, the bar, the peel ‘n eat, the library, everywhere – with a red bug tattoo on the bone of her wrist.
First appeared in Pure Slush
At sunrise she met her girlfriends for breakfast – she recently apartment-dwelling-divorced, they china-pattern-married. Women can spot a French bath and dry shampoo. They knew she had been out all night. Soon her girlfriends would be weekend-family-full while she would be shared-custody-echoes.
That summer was ablaze. Moira had left me and I was alone in the unairconditioned house we had so carefully chosen a couple of years before. I had never noticed how, at night on the plains, the wind whips through all those blades of grass so that for the person alone, the sound it makes can deafen ears that are not otherwise distracted by a loving presence.
Moira and I had both spent our nights reading and playing board games and drawing pictures. When I would sit down to my work, there was never a moment I did not sense my wife doing her work in the kitchen, or simply, breathing, turning pages, shifting in her chair. I am an indexer, responsible for filing away in categories the hundreds of pieces of minutia someone reading a source might find relevant. When I was at work at home, I always felt myself giving way calmly and steadily to my tasks in the glow of what I experienced to be our love for each other.
I wish I had recorded the sounds of Moira. Had I known she were leaving, I would have scattered tiny recording devices in various places so that I could replay them on continuous loops once she dropped out of my existence, as quietly as the sun dipped beneath the curve of the earth.
One night after she had gone I needed groceries. I hadn’t exactly kept up with anything. The house was a wreck, I needed a bath, the yard was overgrown. I showered and showed up at the grocery as a slightly more improved man than the man of a few hours hence. I picked up things we would have both picked up. I had decided to make dishes we had made together or that Moira made me. I couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything new. I managed to pay for my groceries, but funds were getting low. I had to work again or I would have to sell the house. It was all that I had of Moira. I could still smell her. In fact, sometimes, when I returned home, I thought she was there.
On my way home, I was headed over a bridge when a boy appeared in my headlights. He was waving me down. I stopped the car. He seemed harmless enough and anyone who was trying that hard could easily sway me to do their bidding. I felt barely alive and could just as easily die at a stranger’s hands than live.
“I need help,” said the boy, who appeared to be almost a man, but there was something quite young about him still. “My mother has fallen into the ravine. Our car broke down a mile or so away.”
It was a damp night, easy to imagine someone falling if they took a wrong step off the narrow shoulder of the road.
I followed the boy down through the trees and undergrowth. I spotted a woman there beside the river, her left leg splayed slightly. She wore a dress and the t-strap shoes my mother used to wear when my brother and I were boys, in the days my parents ran a farm. She looked like my mother, in fact. As I approached, she fixed on me with her intense gaze. She pointed at me. “Boy!” she addressed her son. “I told you to bring help. Who is this man?”
“This is help, Mama.”
“I need someone who can lift me, a stretcher.”
I managed to get the woman back up to my car with the help of her son who supported her on the opposite side. I lowered her into the back seat. I was convinced now this was my mother and the boy my brother who had died in a farming accident. I got into the driver’s seat. What else was one to do but behave as one always does? I started the engine and when I turned to speak to my passengers, realized I was alone.
At home, I found a note I had somehow missed, something Moira had written, a good bye:
“No one ever leaves anyone. We live on in memories and dreams. I’m sorry I have to leave you, James, but I will see you at night when I close my eyes. Please forgive me.”
I forgave her. I said it out loud, but I was also saying it to my mother. She had always loved my older brother more than she loved me – my older brother, the boy on the bridge. And it had always hurt. But now I experienced love for them both. And love for Moira.
I wasn’t quite sure what I had experienced on the bridge and in the ravine. It was the loneliness and grief perhaps that had caused me to have such a strange hallucination. I hadn’t slept well for weeks. I needed to get back to work, to some sort of normalcy.
I turned on the television for its friendly sound, a kind of atavistic pleasure and took my comfort that there would be less silence in the house from now on even without this bright distraction. I felt the presence of those I loved even though they were absent. I began making dinner.
We always went to Sanford, but it was never quite right. At the last brewery, the waitress actually said their stout was better than Guinness. That is actually what she said. It was water. She had a sizable figure though, something I watched you take in while you spoke to her, about on the edge of a conversation, though remembering my expressed hurt of this kind of thing, you pulled back. Almost a full conversation. The outside metal umbrella table rocked slightly on the brick. A bit like me, off center. Promise to myself, a plan, that if I sit alone while you talk I will call a car service and leave you. Delicious fantasy.
Last year was better at Christmastime in Sanford. We hit a downtown restaurant and brewery on a Saturday. It was just past the time I had been strongly suspecting Saturdays were your nights for other dates. That night, I drank a holiday spiced milk stout. You marveled I like such deep brews when you only liked lighter ales. You were probably laughing. When we went back to the car, you made fun of a bike bedecked with Christmas lights. I had made note of how great it was. It was so Florida I said. You said nothing. You held my hand.
That Christmas, last year, I could not get you to meet me out for rides by Full Sail. Or watch the choirs who sang beside Tiffany windows in Winter Park. I could not get you to go with me to see the opera Hansel and Gretel. You could make me laugh but you are staid. Maybe I laugh because you are staid and not like me. You are Greek and your face reminds me of an icon, eyes lined, down turned slightly at the edges, a calm, disinterested expression. And yet you laugh and smile too. That had been the chemistry: The light breaking through the godlike impassivity.
The watered down stout was hard to take this year, a year worn down by what you say you cannot give to me. I only thought an icon was a passage to something, not the finality of an object without transformative potential.
I feel only the coldness of being in Sanford on a Sunday this Christmas season night when almost all of the pubs and restaurants are closed at an ungenerous hour. The ones that are open mock the good times of Fridays and Saturdays, their doors hanging open like open maws, rock spewing forth, Third Eye Blind from one, Ozzy from another, songs I like except when something like death lingers. Down the street is a dark lake we don’t visit. And a bar I half suspect you’ve taken another woman for beers you prefer, Belgian.
And there is no garishly bedecked bicycle. I am no longer foolishly believing we will be holding hands at an opera or tipping over the apex of a ferris wheel, University of Central Florida below as well as waitresses and future diners and bars.
That last Christmastime night in Sanford, I feel my body aching from the drug I take to prevent cancer recurrence. You don’t hold my hand like you did before though I could break apart now more than ever. I had done something to annoy you. Gods and their punishments. Even to death. That night I did not have you inside my home but made up some excuse, I became a backslider. I kissed you only like a nominal orthodox kisses an icon. I said in my heart my beliefs are not giving back to me and I thanked you for my evening. I stepped into my home alone, a nominal Presbyterian.
I started to smoke when I was thirty eight and away at graduate school. It was the exact opposite of my world. I accepted hand rolled cigarettes from a man not my then husband. When I see someone else making these seemingly innocuous decisions, I want to tell them: Don’t.
He liked the feel of her in his hands, like risen dough he mashes down and forms again when he is on the job as a pastry chef. She is large, so much larger than most women he has seen, and so fair.
Secretly, to his family and friends she was his big cinnamon, that is what he called her, using a synechdoche in which a part represents a whole, in this case, the sweet smell of her and kindness representing her oversized sweet yeast bun type body. He was no small creature himself and when he met her and slept with her, he felt a kind of echoing satisfaction in his bones, through his blood and flesh.
He brought to her sweet confectionary: chocolate covered strawberries, cheese cake, chocolate ganache, banana bread, baklava, cream cheese iced red velvet. He loved to watch her consume his offerings with abandon, to observe her big red glossed lips, her cheeks smooth and creamy, her plump, baby like fingers shoveling in bites of his creations.
And yet. There were times when he felt it might be more appropriate for her to wait. Why did she always have to eat a piece of what he brought her on the selfsame day? What was wrong with her that she didn’t have the restraint to put something in the freezer, to wait for an occasion to bring out and share it later at an event?
He wasn’t sure what event he had in mind exactly. She was clearly on her own, divorced, hanging out in coffee shops while he worked all night, jabbering with musicians and reading her poetry and sending him pictures on her phone. She had her little white dog and her adult son at times. She was no longer a socialite but a burnt out star.
Still, she could have used some restraint.
But she clearly loved him: “Dear Charles, you are the best, the most brilliant! The night we spent was beyond compare. Remember that waiter? hahaha! You made short work of him, my beautiful god!” This is the kind of thing she would text to him by phone and he would erase it with one click of his generous strong finger, preferring instead to talk to her the next day on his way home from work.
For the holidays, he made her a huge Christmas cheesecake, topped with a strawberry swirl glaze, red and green candies, a yellow chiffon cake side dyed with a green checkerboard pattern of tiny green trees. He had to work on Christmas Eve but stopped by to give her the cake and wish her well.
Her face was tear stained when she opened the door, he could see that. Her son had preferred to stay with his father for the night. And she was alone.
She took the cake from him and set it on the counter. She embraced him in thanks. She insisted he sit down for a moment. She had made coffee.
She took the cake from the box and placed it on a silver stand and exclaimed over it and kissed him again.
He sipped her coffee, she knew how to make it just the way he liked, straight, smooth, and dark.
And yet, she took a silver cake cutter, a holdover from a different life, and sliced right through the heart of his cake, the artfully swirled puree, the tenderly created trees.
That plump, baby hand on the silver server, the lifting of a piece right from the Christmas heart of it all and the ungracious plopping of it onto a plate, the insertion of a large bite right into her fat face.
He couldn’t take it anymore.
He told her he had to leave.
In the crisp and biting air, alone on the front step, he knew: On the morrow, he would be free.
You may also enjoy my Christmas story “Santa Baby” published in the UK journal Use Your Words: here.
You may also enjoy reading my story “Cocoa Beach Christmas,” here.
“Santa Baby” is racier, while “Cocoa Beach Christmas” is most definitely rated G.
Thank you for reading and Merry Christmas!
She had long since forgotten what it felt like to have a man’s eyes on her. She was forty-two, still passable for her late thirties, but had grown used to the fact that men weren’t going to look at her when she walked into a room, that she would be ignored no matter her capabilities, her joie de vivre, her “soul.” How she laughed to herself to remember her past reassurances of older female friends when they mourned their changing looks. These reassurances, she knew now, would have seemed as specious to them as her beliefs about the “soul” itself. How could she have known that so much of happiness was tied to what she had once thought was superficial?
One morning a year after her baby was born, she took the metro to the D.C. Mall. She wanted to spend a quiet day in the National Gallery looking at paintings, letting the silence and the beauty change her or refresh her in some way. She and her husband had lived in Gaithersburg for a few years but she had rarely followed through with her plan to get away from the house, to entertain herself with this rare private indulgence.
She closed her eyes as the train sped away from the station. She settled into the jostling car as it whirred along the rails. She was grateful that even the small decisions involved with driving a car were not hers to make, that at least for a while, there was little reason for vigilance. As the stops rolled by one after another she had to rouse herself to pay attention.
And that’s when she saw him standing by the door opposite. She hadn’t been sure what made her look at him, of all the men standing in the car, with their identical suits, grasping their briefcases and newspapers. He was watching her. She met his gaze. He did not look away.
Was he really looking at her? she wondered. Maybe she was mistaken. She turned, saw the car was filled with people reading, dozing, talking on phones. She resumed watching his blue, almost gray eyes. He smiled at her then, just a small turning up of his lips. He knew what she was thinking. It made her uncomfortable to think he knew something about her just from this one gesture and yet she felt something in his gaze that was innocent, that was merely curious, intensely curious.
She had to think about her breath and to make herself focus on her metro stop. When it arrived, she pushed herself up from her chair. She lurched forward. How very unattractive, she thought. She felt her face burning. She looked at his face once more before stepping out of the car. He was still watching her. He was still smiling. She stood on the platform while the doors closed and he did not let his eyes move from her face.
She wanted to cry. She liked him. Or she liked the idea of him, that’s what she realized later when she thought about wanting to cry as she stood there watching some stranger being pulled away from her. He was curious and he was handsome and there was something shy in his gaze too, something that made it safe for her to like him, and she wished she had stayed in the car and hadn’t been so true to her plans.
Years later, when she thought of the day the man had looked at her, she realized a part of her feelings of loss about becoming invisible had been about a lost identity but also a great deal had been about something else, that something that would never return to her in the shape of her yearning, in the empty space that is left when she finally became no one and everyone, both at once.
first published in Atticus Review
He stood at the foot of her son’s bunkbed. She had slept there the night before, her son being grown and in college. He had been dating her for about six months, but had not succeeded in getting her to sleep the entire night with him. She slept alone.
She reached out and touched the name stitched on his shirt. He kissed her lips. She wore only gloss. He liked that.
“I want to make you some coffee,” she said.
Her hair was mussed up. He wanted to forget his scruples, drop his pants, and climb right into her child’s bed, but he was running late.
“I don’t have time.” It was cold outside. He had to get the truck started. “OK, make me coffee, would ya? And chop, chop.” He patted her bottom.
She would pour him a steaming pint in his big thermos with cream and sugar and he would drink from it slowly to make it last. He would make sure everyone noticed its presence too, clinking it down here or there.
When he came back into the house, she was on the kitchen counter, kneeling, stretching for a bag of sugar.
“Watch it now, baby,” he said, trying to scold her, though he had caught a glimpse of her dimpled thigh under her nightshirt. He knew he would remember it all day. He pulled her down and retrieved the sugar. She took it from him with her icy, thin fingers.
“Let’s get married,” he said.
She didn’t look up to meet his gaze. She held the bag over the mouth of the thermos. As he watched a seemingly endless white stream fall into his coffee, he felt a pressure on his chest.
“Yes,” she said. When he looked up, he saw that she was watching his face, was not watching the sugar, was smiling in that way she saved for things that secretly pleased her.
When they marry, they have a double. It is her box-spring and mattress. She bought it with her mother who taught her how to shop scratch and dent, to decorate with little.
They take it with them to Vermont where he teaches college and she works in the library. A river runs by their window. Birds perch in the tree outside. She makes stir fries and soufflés and stews. She writes thank you letters. She smoothes the wedding ring quilt over the small expanse of their mattress and straightens the dust ruffle. There is no money for paint but she hangs sheers on the windows. At night she lies in bed and wonders how she will sleep while – she finds out years later when she knows more about men, knows about her man – he dreams of other women. While his dreaming goes on unabated, she thinks of their next meal, how she will shop for it, and when she finally can’t sleep, she gets up, empties trash cans, has a beer. They are young; their bodies are thin, almost pubescent, though they are in their twenties. Their love is small. It is more on the surface. It has little depth. But in the double they make do. They are lithe.
Things are different in the next town. This is where it gets rough. She is not interested in a baby and they are very, very busy. He is getting his PhD. She is chasing an ambition to know God. She is getting a Master’s at the seminary. When he protests, she reminds him of their first date and what he said he liked about her: She had goals. They live in the seedier parts of Denver, in the only available apartment they can afford. She cries for the simple beauty of their place in Vermont, and maybe something else, but it seems the narrow bed accommodates only so much, either visions of beautiful girls and delicious meals or visions of beautiful girls and delicious texts she devours whole. At this stage, she is not much of a housekeeper or cook. As if in rebellion, the plumbing under the sink breaks several times, the halls stink with boiled cabbage, the twisted vine on the balcony yields only one flower. Yet they see Leadville, fly fish in the South Platte, make it over icy passes in their tiny Japanese cars, camp in the desolate Rockies under the stars, ride through mountains on bikes.
They are more tired and yet she makes sure they celebrate holidays, makes sure they have parties. They are around more people with children who don’t always understand the delay in what is supposed to come next and why she would sit in classrooms of men training for something most women don’t do. When she is not full of energy and stress, he finds her on the double, stretched out in an inexplicable bout of near catatonia. When he finds her there after a day’s work he is filled with fear and talks her out of it, away from it, whatever brink she’s on. Eventually she gets on meds, he takes care of her, and she gets moving again and she doesn’t need him as much. But he has no one either, not really, he’s on his own, but she doesn’t see that. Thin love and depression causes her to see him in only one way — how he can help her or how he can hinder.
In a wooded college town in Florida, he’s up for tenure. The women there are more beautiful than ever, than any other town in which they’ve lived, yet he feels a sense of peace about it somehow, as if he’s not so tempted, as if his dreams are not so wayward. He’s going to have a baby, a son, and he lives in a beautiful house, an old wrap around clapboard house with a yard big as a lake, a “piece of land”,” he brags. “Every man’s got to have his piece of land.” By now, she’s convinced she’s not a theologian, but she knows she’s something. How could she not be something? She makes peanut butter cookies with honey and vegetarian noodle dishes. She watches deer outside her window and a new flock of sheep down the road. Before the pregnancy, she drinks scotch on the porch, sometimes in her nightgown. No one is watching, there is so much land and that gives her freedom. When she knows she’s having a baby, she switches to iced tea. She watches the birds on the telephone wire. She walks to the pecan orchard across the street and down winding roads of broken down shacks and grocery stores. When she returns, she sees a black snake crawl out from the bushes beside the house and slither down to the foundation. It is mesmerizing, beautiful.
An interior designer helps her find a scratch and dent queen size that will follow them for years. She admits it fills a space with a presence, though it is too ostentatious for her husband’s taste, but now they are making separate decisions. She sees him almost never and she must do what she must.
He gets used to it, though, as a necessary evil, but also simply as a necessity. The bed is big enough for their baby and eventually, she buys the baby a little bed adjoining theirs and she can nurse him in the middle of the night. She spends hours on the bed, looking at their child. Their big bed is big enough for a big dog that loves to lounge and although it is not big enough for the four of them at once — dog, baby, father, mother — it’s big enough for failed plans and forgotten dreams, for tears and bitter fights, for cold refusals and private physical love, for family times in front of the television, for random naps during the day, for a scared child seeking the comfort of his parents, for a sick child seeking to watch cartoons and fall asleep. When the big dog must be put down, a smaller dog takes its place. It crawls on their backs while they sleep and on their pillows and there is not much worry or fuss about this. When there’s been a bad night of too little sleep or restlessness, they chalk it up to the needs of their child, and, later, when the child is grown and doesn’t wake them in the night, to the pressures of the day or to the pressures of the times in which they are living.
They are planning for a king size. The pool of worries and unmet desires and fears and depths of their prayers has widened. The unspoken desires and unmet needs pass between them. Their child, coming in to say goodnight, makes them forget for a while. So does an early nodding off so that the other must pull off their glasses, make them roll over, turn off the television and lights. They want one of those beds that will accommodate the late night movements of the other without disturbance of the sleeper’s sleep, the dreamer’s dream. They no longer have to dream the same dream, or fill the same space as in the early thin love days. There is no worry about this. Is this good or is this bad? There is no consensus.
First published in The Dos Passos Review