A Pleasant Afternoon

Hey- so this is a quick short story i worked on about 6 months ago; i’ll be posting bigger, older stuff too, almost just as a record for myself, but i wanted to share this one sort of as a jumping off point.  Hope all you readers enjoy  it.

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Ethel Gaylord sat in her easy chair, which used to be a bright green, like lush forest leaves but has dimmed over time, normally with a weathered blanket draped over the back of it. She took in the sounds of the afternoon, half closing her eyes, as strained light broke through her sheer curtains hanging on the bay window. This was her spot, and had been, even before Arthur had gone. With her mind’s eye, she glanced at the mantle, darkly stained, with a few chips taken out of it from Arthur’s old picture frame he attached to it in the winter of ’76. There sat Arthur, perched high above the rest of the living room, in golden dress, ever a reminder that even if he is gone, he truly was not. And Arthur did leave his mark; he gave Ethel six beautiful children, now ranging in age from 67 to 39. Every one of them had been a treasure to them, in their different ways. Arthur was good at being a father. He delivered her a child every few years when her hands got restless again and he gave each one of them a stipend under their mattress after their birth. One hundred dollars, we’ll see who makes it grow, he would say.

She laughed to herself, a demure laugh, just thinking about those envelopes being pressed under those babies’ wet pads in their cribs. Only Arthur. He took care to find something for each one of them to do together as they got older; he and Jenny loved to eat, he’d take her to those all you can eat buffets where you line up with your plastic tray in hand and slop food onto your multi-compartment plate. She had never cared for that kind of food and would much rather just cook at home. She loved saturating the house in the smells of beef, or broth, or pie. With Tommy, it was fishing. They could be on the lake down the block for the whole night, both of them sitting, waiting, with breathless anticipation. Tommy was such a caring child too; he loved throwing the fish back in and watching them swim away with excitement. Roger loved cars; they worked on that old black Mustang for years until Arthur’s accident at the power plant. Lost his index and ring finger on his left hand, couldn’t hold a ratchet right or show off his wedding band, he liked to say, but he didn’t know which upset him more. Tammy and he loved horses together; more in she liked to look at them, and ride them occasionally when we’d get the time to take her to the stables and he loved to gamble on them. She was never sure Tammy enjoyed the races but took it as her only chance to see those graceful creatures most times. Josiah was different; he still is. He could just sit and be with his father in the room. Sometimes they’d go to a park or such but most times, out in the back yard where the vines grew long over the back fence, those two lawn chairs stayed for years and that’s where you’d find them in nice weather. Arthur with his Red Chief beer and Josiah with his root beer. Two lazybones peas in a pod. Arthur Jr was the strange one though. There didn’t seem to be much to do with him, like the others; they had none of the same interests, didn’t have the same demeanor, outlooks, political or religious beliefs; but that didn’t stop Arthur. He still found something to do with his son; they would argue. And argue they did. If only Arthur Jr hadn’t been the youngest; this house would have been a lot quieter, even with all those other kids here. Those two arguing carried more weight in this house when we were the three of us than all the other kids combined.

A knock on the door startled Ethel; she rarely heard that anymore. Tammy would come by once a week on Sunday nights for dinner and Josiah would come by occasionally, when he was on leave from the city but that was about it. Except for Camille next door. Camille was Ethel’s best friend, her confidant, her backbone. Camille had lived next door with her husband a year after they had moved in. Both couples, young and in love, but dumb as all get out. Arthur got Jerry, Camille’s husband, a job at the power plant since he was foreman and since then they had been friends. They’d been there for baseball games, picnics, cookouts; you name it, even funerals. Camille had helped Ethel through Arthur’s funeral more than she knew. Arthur was not an easy man to live with, if you were his wife. He worked, paid the bills, was home in time for dinner, and played in the yard with his kids. But if you were to ask if he treated his wife as his better half, or even equal, Ethel would just be silent. Camille had gotten lucky with Jerry; he was a shorter man, but worked twice as hard to make up for it. He was up for a promotion at the plant and Arthur thought for sure he was looking at his job in the future, which Jerry may very well of been. So Arthur put his foot down, under the rug so to speak, so as Jerry was never to known about it. But, Jerry was a positive man and let it roll off his back. He still retired from the plant; with a great pension but not as good as he could have had. Camille and Jerry only had one child, despite all their trying. He was a troubled boy, got along well with Tommy, but never could find his way. Ethel struggled to catch his name in her head as she opened the door for Camille and couldn’t find it.

“Warm day, you must have your central air going in here,” Camille noted pushing her way through the threshold of the house. She carried a foil-covered dish with her, more than likely her peach cobbler she was known for in the neighborhood.
“What you go there, Camille?” Ethel spoke, not wasting time with dragging out Camille’s surprise.
“Just some cobbler, but something smells mighty good in here already,” she noted.
“Crumb cake, made with some lemon in the batter. It’s not awfully good, but not too awfully bad either, I reckon,” Ethel murmured, heading to the kitchen to cut her a piece. Camille handed off the cobbler that she knew very well would be stashed in the fridge and eventually be thrown out, without so much as the foil being torn off the top.
“Crumb cake? In the middle of August? That’s a fall recipe, Ethel. Now I know you know that,” she said following Ethel slowly into the linoleum covered kitchen.
“You can eat crumb cake any time of the year. Now, I may be losing a bit of my mind, but you can’t tell me that is a rule somewhere. How’s…..how’s, um…” Ethel forced her mind to catch up to her mouth but didn’t need to.
“Bobby? Oh, he’s in Colorado somewhere. Works in a bar of all places, if you can believe that,” Camille pointed out.
“Oh yes, I can believe it. These kids get into all kinds of things we never would have.”
Camille tried to force a sliver of crumb cake in her mouth but her teeth were few and her gums soft these days. Soup was a better match for her eating abilities; besides she didn’t care for lemon too much.
“Mmm, not bad, think you could have added a pinch of nutmeg to this one, Ethel,” she responded.
“Eh?” Ethel had already moved into the next room, grabbing a furniture cover from a pile of linens in a side cupboard. Camille had a tendency to not wash her hair right; she always left white specks on the heads of her couch. Camille took notice but said nothing and dumped all but one tiny bite of the cake in the trash.

The two old friends sat down, as the light tilted toward the back end of the room now, the sun repositioning its rays as the afternoon started winding towards its twilight. Neither woman spoke for over ten minutes, as the sun seemed to be a spotlight for Arthur and his golden vase. Ethel twisted in her seat, which took considerable effort, and caused a slight hiccup in her knee.
“Knee still bothering me,” she said, almost under her breath, or in her own mind, she wasn’t sure. Camille made no response so she let it go. Ethel liked how they could sit there sometimes, chairs facing opposite directions of each other, Ethel and Camille, quiet and waiting for conversation to find itself, just like Arthur and Josiah in the yard by the fence. Again, she snickered to herself.
Camille took a deep breath and moved her hair over slightly; Ethel started turning back towards her but gave up the effort. Camille cleared her throat and started humming a church hymn she’d heard last week at mass. Ethel cleared her throat and silence once again enveloped the room.
“Tommy tells me he won another award down at that magazine. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about but they really have a shine for him down there,” Ethel said. Tommy wasn’t really on her mind but why sour the afternoon with ill talk of what’s his name and make Camille feel bad.
“Well, good for him. Never thought he’d make it out of here, although lord knows he tried. You remember?”
“Remember what?”
“Remember Tommy on Bobby’s bike? Trying to pedal out of town to follow that ice cream truck? He got near down by Waterton street, by the bridge. And Arthur and Jerry went down in the Pontiac and picked him up.”
“Hmmmm,” Ethel replied. That was Jerry’s Pontiac. Shiny and new, Ethel thought he was a bit of a showoff sometimes.
Silence slowly permeated the room again but the light wavered off the walls, like a light show. Camille followed it with her eyes but Ethel was feeling her eyelids get tired. Nadia, her cleaning woman only came by on Tuesdays and Thursdays and today was Wednesday so she would not be here to break this afternoon up.
“Yes, it is a hot one, you’re right about that,” Ethel said, trying to change back the subject. Camille’s eyes were pointing like daggers through the curtain, as if she wanted to peel them back without moving from her seat. She loved the look of Mrs. Isaac’s daffodils across the street.
“Arthur,” Camille started out, then paused, inflecting the last “r” in his name before speaking again, “I found myself in his arms a lot over the years, now.”
Ethel startled herself with the comment and flitted her eyebrows. What was she going on about now? She wondered.
“What’s that you say, Camille? I think a loud car went by the road there,” she said.
Camille grunted as she picked herself up out of the deep chair sat catty-cornered from the window and moved her limbs one at a time, gauntly and rapidly as she could be at the same time. She ambled to the mantle, and touched the golden cocoon of Arthur’s remains.
“I always wondered if he told you, dear Ethel. He was a hard man for you to love and easier for me,” she said.
Ethel felt a twinge in her chest and pulled her shawl over her tighter. She wanted to get up but her bones were burning.
“Arthur gave me six children Camille. Of course he loved me,” she said. It was abrupt and chiding. Camille turned to her with the urn in her hands. Ethel gasped.
“What are you doing with that, Camille?”
“I think I want to see him more. I loved that bastard,” and her sentence stopped midway and a tear formed down her cheek. Her skin was always mottled, specks of white shone through the darkened chocolate tone, some sort of birth effect. Ethel couldn’t get her mind to remember what it was she said, or Jerry had said.
“And what of Jerry? He sits there in your kitchen, in that old can. What would he think?” Ethel was grasping at straws, logistically but she had not much else to grab onto in this moment. Her children’s faces ran through her head, some of them were a bit muddled though, as if she couldn’t quite recollect some of their features; she saw Tammy’s freckles and Jenny’s heavy arms and Rogers sandy brown hair but other things were missing.
“Jerry isn’t here anymore Ethel. Now you know that as well as the next person.”
“What do you mean he found himself in your arms, now Camille? I should wonder what you’re getting on about?” Ethel felt fiery now, resolute and strong in her favorite green chair. It had supported her as long as Camille had. Maybe it would do right by her.
“We lay together, Ethel. In my bed. In my wedding bed where Jerry and me laid together. That’s what I was getting at and I think you knew it. Now, I want his ashes……” she trailed off again.
Ethel found herself with the strength to move again, bracing her veined arms against the fabric and wood of the handles of the chair and pushing with all she could muster. Her legs found the floor and steadied and she was next to Camille, with her hand on her shoulder. She wasn’t sure if she was squeezing it or just telling herself to do it.
“Camille, dear, you have been my friend for over thirty years. If you wanted most anything in this house, except my pictures of my children, you’d be welcome to it. There ain’t too much I wouldn’t hand over and be glad to rid myself of it. But, Arthur will stay right there where he has been. He will stay right here in our house that he paid for and slept under its roof every night until he didn’t wake up, right upstairs. And you won’t have anything to say about it.”
Camille put the urn back on the mantle and turned her back to Ethel, whispering something. Then, as quickly and deftly as she had moved in years, she turn back around and pulled it back down from the mantle.
“You’ve got his retirement. You’ve got your lovely children, most of them anyways. What you need with this old dirty thing for? This ain’t no person in here. Just dirt.”
Ethel considered this for a moment before she reacted. Her house was paid for, her kids grown and self-sufficient for the most part. She would like them to visit more, especially Arthur Jr as they had always had a connection. When he was born, she saw in his face, his curious eyes, his light hair, more of herself than in any of her other children. Arthur saw it too. He named him not less than a night later, as he had not left my arms. Arthur couldn’t get him to stop crying; he’s a newborn I told him, as stubborn as he was. But he didn’t want anything to do with a crying infant. Let me ‘ave him, I told Arthur and off he handed the little bundle to me. He stared up at and saw his mother and I saw my child and a spark went off somewhere inside me. Arthur knew me and he may have felt the spark too. So he got his hands on that nurse and that birthing certificate and branded his name on there. But it didn’t matter none too much at all. Arthur Jr was who he was from his first moment on. Ethel stared at Camille, surprised she herself had a grip on the urn, tugging on it, trying to cradle the thing as if it were a seventh child. Camille was smaller than Ethel but just as feisty and she also kept a strong tight hold on it. Ethel released it, saying “Alright, Camille, take the thing,” but as she did, it came loose from both women’s grips. It didn’t shoot into the air dramatically, it just slumped to the ground, and the lid knocked loose, spilling the contents into the blue-hued thick rug. Neither of them said a word.

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