Fall 2010, Volume 9

Fiction by Mary Bess Dunn


What with the all-night rain still falling, Rosie’s room looks peaked in the morning light. She’s been back there quite a while before I go and find her on her knees, peering under the dust ruffle. She has on her suit and stockings; her shoes—alligator like her bag—wait by the chair, and I’m thinking it’s the lockbox she’s after.

It is the day of our son’s funeral. At twenty-eight, Doug’s furies finally had their way. Rosie uses the edge of the bed to push up and brings an errant earring with her. She clips the wad of shiny gold to her ear and winds a tinted curl in place. Her face adjusts to placid, but her shoulders hunch. She slips her shoes on, and we’re standing eye to eye. From behind her glasses, violet pupils wage their private war, and the voyeur in me cannot turn away.

The moment passes; she steps back. “Walls were never his friend,” she announces. Her familiar matter-of-fact tone is reassuring. Outside, the rain dwindles as she picks a piece of lint off my suit, straightens the handkerchief in my breast pocket, and pronounces us ready.

The funeral parlor is across the river, in Doug’s part of town. His partner, Larry, has called with directions, his voice flat on our machine. This followed an earlier call. With Rosie on the kitchen phone and me on the one in the den, Larry claimed the detour was at fault. Claimed Doug was sober. Claimed the wall’s abutment—where Shelby Bridge begins its reach—was not well-lit. And then Larry promised to get back to us with plans for, what he called, the service.

Ever since Doug died I tend to dwell. As I fasten my seat belt, a high heat day when he was twelve comes to mind. Instead of trimming the weeds at the base of our retaining wall, he thought he’d burn the buggers—doused them with gasoline then went inside to find a match, but the temperature was such the wall exploded. What surprised his mother and me more than the rocks, stones, and clots of dirt colliding Armageddon-like against our house was Doug’s reaction: had himself a boldface cry—spurting tears and all. Not that we paid any mind—if a boy’s got to cry that’s his business, but no use our condoning it. Rosie did manage to hoist up a few stories of great great-granddad Harry—fearless grandpa Harry—confederate soldier when he was just fifteen. Harold Lee Jenkins, fourth name, second branch on our family tree. Roots to be proud of. Roots to emulate.

The rain has gone back to where it came from, but the road holds its slick. Rosie drives, following notes she scratched on the back of an envelope she warned me not to lose. Balanced on the seat between us is an old milk carton chock full of fresh-cut daffodils, Larry hasn’t asked us to bring.

I keep my left hand on the flowers and hold the scrap of envelope in my right. Once we get going, I stare out the window and wait for Rosie to start her pointless chatter: tacky foreclosed McMansions, the new chef at the club, the bike lane that’s more trouble than it’s worth. But Rosie doesn’t say a word until we pass Doug’s high school, and even then she reads the graduation dates off the marquee as if she is reading specials at the local Bi-Rite.

“Seems later this year,” I say.

“Seems so. Maybe a week.”

Doug would have been graduating about this time eight years ago. But he never did do school well, and instead of sticking with it for a few more weeks, he dropped out and got himself a gardening job at the Home Depot where he met Larry. Six months later they took the Greyhound to New Jersey, then called to tell us they were hitched.

Rosie turns the wipers on low and drives right past the high school. I shuffle my feet, positioning them upright against nonexistent pedals, which I proceed to push. The news broke her heart. She stormed at my chest with fists commanding me to act. She would not forgive. Not this time. Like a foot soldier dazed by his captain’s charge, I told Doug exactly that, only more.

“Your mother is a proud woman, son, severely proud. I’ve known that since our early married life, when she spent more than a month’s worth of cigarette money for that dang family tree hanging in our bedroom by the Sacred Heart. What’s she supposed to do with the branch reserved for your wife? Your children? Tell me son, what would you suggest she do?”

I half expected him to laugh, to throw his arm around my shoulder, and cuff my chin. This was a joke. A colossal prank. But all he did was nod, first his head, then his chest, then his entire body. Back and forth. Nod, nod, nod, like a punching bag balloon who’d called my bluff.

“No matter,” I heard myself say, “we’ve made up our minds. To us, son, you might as well be dead.”

And so it happened that for two years—it took that long for us to come around—we lived without our Doug. Without his belly laugh, without his spark. Even after we’d reconciled, when he and Larry came to dinner every month or so, talk was hard. We kept promising we’d come to visit—have dinner in their remodeled bungalow—but these things take time.

A few blocks down, near the interstate, I read off the directions and Rosie picks up speed. We’re headed north. I switch on the radio. She switches it off.

There was the time when he was sixteen. He borrowed a friend’s Corvette and, show-off that he was, drove it home. When he got to the top of the driveway, he somehow managed to confuse the gas pedal with the brake and drove right into the garage, through the freezer chest, then through the front wall which buckled good. Best I remember, there were no tears then—a jumble of curse words, but no tears.

Rosie reaches up, snatches off one earring then the other, and drops them in the lap of her navy blue suit.

I lean my head against the seat. Her lack of chatter invites my own. “Thought it might be the lockbox you were after. Earlier, when I found you on your knees.” She keeps the lockbox under her bed, talisman-like, to store the family tree no longer hanging.

“Nope, just the earring—Gram’s earring.” She glances sideways. “Gave me a fright—the thought of losing it.”

“I bet.”

She glances down. “Even if they do pinch like the dickens.”

My laugh is lame. Through half-closed eyes, I am watching a pickup truck in front of us struggle under the bulk of a rain-soaked blue mattress. The night I told Doug we were declaring him dead, Rosie patted my cheek and agreed. “That’s that,” she said. Three weeks later, saying one day I will understand, she starts what she calls a new chapter. She moves out of our bedroom and into the spare room with its single bed and tiny shuddered windows. Sleeps there still. Seeing the mattress up ahead somehow brings all that to mind.

Against the backdrop of a pewter sky, the thing seems to be breathing. Soggy tufts of pulsing breaths rise and fall, and I am breathing accordingly when Rosie asks for directions. I study the envelope, then slowly fold it in half and tuck it in my handkerchief pocket.

“Get in the right lane. We go east, over Shelby Bridge.” Her lips clamp tight. I let go the milk carton of daffodils and am reaching for her, when up ahead the mattress has started to shift. For a timeless minute or two, we watch as it gyrates, then loses its hold and pitches up like a sail. Unleashed from the truck, it travels through space slamming onto our hood with what feels like a vengeful thud.

The guttural sound I hear is mine as the mattress totters, there, on our hood, before somersaulting up and off. “Shut up, Douglas.” Rosie brakes, clutching the wheel and leaning forward. The truck without its cargo fishtails onto the median; the mattress settles on the pavement up ahead. Rosie tightens her grip and squints into the rearview mirror before flooring the gas pedal and driving the car right up over the mattress. Kerplunk. Kerplunk. Our tires mangle the wooden frame and the metal springs; a blue-tufted swatch sticks to our windshield.

“Jesus, Rosie.” But Rosie doesn’t flinch. She keeps on driving, swerving into the right lane, making her way east, past the abutment and over Shelby bridge, where Doug had crashed.

I sink against the seat. The milk carton is tight in my grasp, but the daffodils have spilled onto the floor. I stretch the seat belt enough to bend over, then take my time to retrieve each mangled bloom. I am wondering if, when we passed the truck, Rosie noticed the shoe-polished lettering on the back windshield or the passenger’s white veil.

“Look here!” I say, shifting upright in my seat, a gold earring resting in my palm. Rosie glances down. Her lap is empty.

She sighs like she does when she expects I’ll know why. “Keep looking, Douglas.” She has released one hand from the wheel and is gesturing in a circular motion toward the floor. She is barely crying. “Lord,” she manages to say, then flips the visor down against a sudden sun, “they do pinch, but don’t you know, I need the pair.”


BIO:  A semi-retired education professor, Mary Bess Dunn is currently focused on launching her second career as a writer. Her work is featured or is forthcoming in Sanskrit Literary Journal, Quiddity International Literary Journal and online in Stone’s Throw Magazine.