Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Another short story.
In this story, the characters are hiding a secret. Can you tell what it is? Say so in your comments!
An Honest Woman
Candy, my favorite cousin, lived in terror of rattlesnakes. She had only ever seen one her entire life, when she was a little girl. She spotted it right before it bit her dog’s paw. Grandma always said that Candy was such a little thing she never could have carried that dog all the way home by herself, that angels had watched over her to give her strength. I was never able to reconcile this theory of divine intervention with the fact that Woofer died in agony anyway, an hour later, in the middle of the kitchen floor. That was why Candy never let me run ahead on the dirt path. She always went first when we went on our long walks together. We lived on the edge of Saratoga, Wyoming, and only had to walk about ten minutes before we were over the ridge and in the middle of the desert.
“Candy, do bachelorettes tell a lot of lies?” I asked. Candy was my best resource for decoding the adult conversations in our family.
Candy wrinkled her nose. “Why would you ask a thing like that, Ellen?”
“Because Uncle Jasper asked Ned when he was going to make an honest woman of you.”
She laughed, moving her hand as if to sweep the hair out of her eyes, though it was all gathered in a golden bundle at the nape of her neck. “No, Honey. Jasper’s talking about something else.”
She looked at me sideways and asked, “How old are you?”
“Well, I suppose you’re old enough to know that that Jasper was really talking about sex.”
She said it like it wasn’t even a swear. “So when a man makes a woman honest, he’s really having -- with her?”
“Well... no.” She smiled at me sheepishly, squinting at the horizon, which was just drawing the sun into twilight. “It means that he finally marries her after doing it with her.”
“So you and Ned do it?”
“Yes, we do.” She said this solemnly, like she was in church confession.
“Isn’t that a sin?”
“According to some people. But I think it’s just something people do, Ellen. Like cooking and gossiping. We just do it.”
“But it’s in the Bible, isn’t it? That it’s a sin!”
“I don’t know. I’ve never read the whole thing. Besides, people have different feelings about what the Bible means. Some people think sex is shameful, I disagree. That’s all.”
I thought about my prudish Aunt Sidney. “Why would they think it was bad if it isn’t?”
She sighed, pulled me into her bony side with a hand on my shoulder. “I don’t know. Because people don’t want a bunch of babies being born without daddies.”
That meant bastards. I knew something about this. Eddie Pierce was a bastard. He was a boy in my school who beat up first graders until the principal expelled him and he had to be held back for a year. He was shorter than almost everyone else in our grade but we all avoided him just the same for fear of getting whooped. “Babies without daddies turn out bad, like Eddie Pierce.”
“Eddie Pierce turned out bad because the whole town treats him and his mother like a couple of lepers,” Candy said angrily.
“Mom’s nice to them.” This statement said volumes. My mother was so shy she only left the house late at night to go grocery shopping when no one else was there. She once shocked me by walking right up to Eddie’s mother at the produce section and saying, “How you doing, Lucy?” Ms. Pierce was so surprised someone had talked to her she just stared at my mother as we walked past. I was just as surprised, but for a different reason. My mother rarely spoke to anyone outside our immediate family, which was just me and my dad. That was why the thought of not having a father horrified me. With no daddy I would never get to leave the house, and I would have to watch Twilight Zone on the sly because Mom complained I would get nightmares. Dad always stood up for me, saying I was as likely to get nightmares from her cleaning fetish as from Ray Bradbury. I didn’t know what was supposed to be scary about a dust mop, which is what I thought a fetish was.
As I watched Candy poke at a big bunch of sagebrush to check for snakes, a frightening thought occurred to me. “Candy, will people treat you like a leopard if they find out about you and Ned?”
She winked at me. “I think I’ll be OK as long as I keep taking my pills that keep me from having a baby.” She watched me for a second, enjoying my astonishment, then added, “I probably don’t have to tell you not to share any of this with your grandmother.”
I shook my head emphatically. Once, when I was in my “say anything” phase, I’d walked right up to Grandma and screamed “Sex!” right in her face. She slapped my wrist five times and sent me into her bedroom while all the other cousins got to play in the sprinklers. “I won’t say anything,” I said.
“I know you won’t. To anyone, really. Certainly not to anyone who goes to our church, OK?”
“Because it’s a sin?”
“I said I don’t really think it is a sin, remember?”
“Because you and Ned are getting married some day?” I asked.
Candy laughed at me then. She kicked at a little rock in the middle of the path, and sent it right into the roots of some sagebrush to our side. She paused, watching the brush, waiting for the shake of a rattle. “I would never feel like Ned was rightfully mine.”
She studied me a moment, very seriously, as if about to say something important. She must have changed her mind, though, because suddenly she smiled, and conspiratorially, out of the corner of her mouth, said, “Because he’s too short.”
I clamped my hand over my mouth to hold in my laughter. Candy giggled in a high register as she took my hand, swinging it back and forth. At this point, I thought I could say anything to her. “Jasper said if you and Ned don’t marry soon, all your children will be buck-toothed and retarded because you’re so old.”
“Ellen, you should know by now not to listen to a word Jasper says.”
“Because, hon, he’s an imbecile.”
For a long time after this conversation, I thought “imbecile” meant the same thing as “heavy drinker.”
That winter, Candy’s mother, my Aunt Sidney, came down with a bad case of cancer. It was in her left breast, which the doctors removed. She had to go through chemotherapy and then radiation. I watched as Aunt Sidney’s freckles, which my Dad liked to tease her about, turned a grayish color. Her hair thinned until she and Candy had to drive to Denver to pick out a wig. They came back with a concoction of orange doll hair, the closest there was to Sidney’s true color, which spun in Shirley Temple curls away from her exhausted face.
At night when I lay in bed praying for her, I wondered if God had visited this sickness on Candy’s mother to punish her for doing it without being married.
Sidney had been sick a while before it was my mother’s turn to cook for them. She sent a lovely ham over with my father and me, and told us to give Candy her love.
Candy met us at the door. Because Candy’s father had reason to work at the refinery even longer hours now, she’d moved back in with her mother and was taking care of her like she was a little baby. Candy, with deep worry lines on her forehead, finally looked her age. “What are you all doing here?” She asked us as she opened the door for us.
“We brought you some dinner, Can-Can.” My father said this quietly so as not to wake up Aunt Sidney, if she was sleeping. It seemed like she was always sleeping.
“Well, that sure will taste delicious.” She led us into the dark of the house, through the living room where stray sunlight cast weird shadows on Aunt Sidney, asleep in her green easy chair. We walked into the kitchen, which seemed a sanctuary with yellow light pouring in through the south facing window, and white dishes drying in the rack by the sink.
I stood behind my father’s chair and watched Candy as they had their conversation, a session comprised of the same phrases repeated by cousins, aunts and uncles, evolved over months of heartache. “How is she...treatment is worse than the disease...she’s strong...damn doctors don’t seem to know anything...Ned has been a godsend.” Through it all Candy held both hands around the tin foil package of ham, patting it gently. I worried vaguely that Candy might have caught cancer from her mother, for her eyes floated over deep purple circles in her skin. Her hair was greasy, and held together in a lonely looking ponytail on top of her head.
She focused on me toward the end of the litany with Dad. “Mom is begging me to marry Ned.” She said this in a far off voice as she looked at me without really focusing. It was spooky.
Dad paused for a moment, wove his fingers in and out of each other as he measured his answer. “Well, I’m sure she just wants to know that you’re going to be OK.”
Candy nodded, her eyes still on me. I dropped mine to the floor, a choke growing in my throat. “We’ll have to hustle to have the wedding in time,” she said.
“Don’t talk like that, Candy.” I said.
“Ned has been so kind. He carries Mom down the stairs to the doctors. I didn’t know he could be so kind.” She hung her head.
“He’s a good man, Candy, and in this town, there aren’t too many.”
“Maybe I should have taken that job in Denver when I had the chance.”
“But you didn’t, and here you are in Encampment. He’s almost part of the family as it is.”
Candy looked away.
A couple weeks later, at Grandma’s 75th birthday party, Ned pulled Candy into the center of the room and announced their engagement. Candy stood next to him in her pink halter-top, her shoulders bent inward. I stood near the table where the cold cuts were laid out, eating olives. My father wheeled Aunt Sidney into the center of the room, and she clapped her hands together and kissed Ned and Candy on the cheeks. Her wig shifted as she leaned up, and Candy set it right again, then adjusted a pillow while Sidney beamed up at Ned. Before any of the other girl cousins could, I rushed up to Candy and asked if I could be the flower girl. She took my hand and explained, “Hon, you’re too old. But I’m making you one of my bridesmaids.”
I had never dreamed such an honor would be conferred upon me.
There was no time to be wasted. That evening, I had to stand still a long time while Grandma took measurements for my dress. The colors were pale green and pale yellow, and I was one of the fortunate ladies to be assigned green. The fabric was a light woven cotton, and the dress had an empire waist. Grandma slipped the measuring tape around my sprouting breasts, rolling her eyes as I blushed. “That ain’t nothing,” she said, and ran two fingers over the small bump. “See? That’s just you, Ellen.” She fixed her gray-brown eyes on mine and added sternly, “But don’t you let no one else touch that ‘till you’re married.”
“Or you’ll make God mad.”
Thank goodness Candy was finally marrying Ned.
Grandma and the aunts sewed for two weeks straight to get everything ready. Aunt Bea’s house was filled with frayed cotton remnants and buzzing sewing machines. Grandma was in charge of Candy’s dress, which she pieced together from carefully cut pieces of bone colored satin. Candy was noticeably absent from the preparations, for she had to watch over Aunt Sidney, who couldn’t take anymore miracles of modern medicine. Now when people asked Candy how she was, she responded quietly, “She’s resting.” No one reminded Candy how strong her mother was anymore.
Uncle Jasper declared loudly, at the rehearsal dinner, which wasn’t much different from the barbecues we always had at his house, that Candy and Ned must have set some kind of record for the longest courtship and the shortest engagement. Everyone laughed, especially Aunt Sidney, who wore bright pink blusher and fuschia lipstick. I stood next to her, proud to be the one who pushed her here and there in her wheelchair, and I didn’t even mind the sour smell that seemed to come from deep inside her. Everyone laughed loudly and told a lot of jokes, and I was almost fooled, but I knew something was wrong because Mom agreed to come with us to the gathering.
No one in the family understood Mom. Some of them, like Aunt Bea, took it personally that she never came to gatherings. Some of them, like Jasper, said things like, “Well, you know, she’s a good woman,” even though he never said things like that about anyone else. I had learned by their example to be concerned about my mother, and a little ashamed. But when I was home with her and Dad, I forgot to be worried. Mom was a woman who didn’t like to go out. That is how my father had explained it to me. It wasn’t that she didn’t like people, she just didn’t need them as much as most others did. Lots of folks in our family seemed to think she was like a prisoner, but if she was, Mom seemed to like her cage. Besides, my mother understood things no one else knew. If I watched Mom closely as she listened to the conversations around us, I would sometimes get a hint of the secrets that hung in the air around people.
Mom sat in the corner, away from everyone. The family went over one at a time to welcome her and say how nice it was to see her. She had her brown cardigan on, and her ample hair was gathered into a tight French knot. Candy watched from far off each time someone sat next to Mom, and every time they got up again, Mom would look over at Candy, raising her eyebrows. Finally, Candy moved her feet away from her mother’s wheelchair, and bent her long frame to kiss my mother’s cheek. I wandered over to them smoothly, careful to be invisible, and listened to snatches of their conversation.
“If your mother knew about him, she might feel different,” Mom muttered.
“How do you know?”
Candy studied my mother a moment in disbelief, then shook her head. “I can’t. She loves Ned.”
“Mom wants this so bad.”
Mom’s mouth never moved out of its thin, straight line. Finally Candy went back to her place by Ned, and Mom sat watching Aunt Sidney, her eyes barely leaving her, even when Ned stood on a fruit box to give his speech.
Ned was always standing on things. He owned a bar outside of town, and he had the floor behind the bar raised on a plywood platform so that he looked taller. No one in the family ever mentioned it to him, though, because it seemed to make him mad. He would say darkly, “I can’t afford to have no trouble. If I look giant, no one would dare break a glass.” It didn’t matter what he stood on. He had the short limbs and broad back made for the tight tunnels of bauxite mines where his ancestors had worked for generations. Ned opened up the bar for the miners so that the heaviest thing he would have to lift would be a case of beer. He made a good living, though, people often reminded Candy.
As he began his speech, Ned wrapped one beefy hand around Candy’s frail wrist. She stood next to him, her head bowed, ruddy patches streaking along her cheeks. Ned was jolly and a little drunk as he said, “They say good things come to those who wait, and I can tell you folks I sure as hell waited a long time. But it was worth it, because Candy is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Everyone made obliging sounds of approval, and some people clapped. Ned patted down the noise with both hands, and Candy shifted her weight so she stood behind him. “Now I know some of you are saying it’s too late for children, but I just want you to know we’re sure as hell going to try.” Now everyone laughed and clapped. My cousin Wayne, who was only fifteen but drunk anyway, screamed a cat call over the tops of everyone’s heads. This startled Mom, who shifted in her chair and pulled her cardigan closer around her. Now her eyes rested on Candy, who was hiding her face under the back of her hand, acting embarrassed, shaking her head. Then, Ned got all quiet, and his mossy eyes grew misty. He pulled Candy closer to him so that they were facing each other. Candy’s gaze wandered up his arm, across his shoulder, then rested on his face. She smiled tentatively at him as he took both her hands and said solemnly, “I am so proud to finally make Candy my wife. She’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” (murmurs of approval, humming of tender feelings,) “and I can’t imagine anyone else mothering my children.” With this, he kissed her tenderly on the cheek while she looked at my Mom, smiling tautly. Then he picked up a beer and held it high over his head. “Now be sure to eat and drink everything up! We don’t want to leave Jasper with all this beer!” Everyone laughed and clapped, except my mother, and we all went back to the festivities.
I woke up extra early on the day of the wedding. I was too excited to sleep, and wanted to take my bath and fix my hair in a French braid before my mother had a chance to pull at it with her horsehair brush. I put on my bridesmaid’s dress, which billowed out like a sheet on a clothesline if I spun around fast enough. I waited until the last minute, while Mom was yelling at Dad about how they needed to come back before the reception for the potato salad or they might kill off the wedding party. Mom pulled on her light blue dress, which still fit her after ten years (she was fond of saying) and kicked into her white patent leather pumps. She called, “Ellen, I don’t want to see you rough housing in that dress. No grass stains. Your grandmother would have my head.”
We clambered into Dad’s Mercury and headed for the church. I met up with the cousins at the back, and we all waited for Candy to come out of the rectory, where the Aunts were buzzing over her. Aunt Sidney had already been carried to the front of the church, and she was sitting next to my father, who wrapped her in one long arm while she leaned against him. Mother stationed herself in the back, and Uncle Jasper sat in the pew directly ahead of her. Mom was looking over at the groom’s side of the church, which was populated mostly by the men who attended Ned’s bar. I followed Mom’s steady gaze, and was surprised to see Eddie the schoolyard bully sitting next to his mother, Ms. Pierce. Eddie was miraculous in a navy, v-neck sweater and a red tie. His hair was slicked back and he looked nervous, hardly at all like the bully he was. His mother was wearing a wide brimmed hat that hid half her face. They were sitting a couple pews behind Ned’s parents, both small, stout people, who sat in the front pew, looking straight ahead at the crucifix and the white lilies on the altar.
Organ music permeated the air, and the priest came out of his dressing room. My gut wrenched, and I repeated to myself all the things I was supposed to do as a bridesmaid. Walk slowly up the aisle, stand in a straight line along the left side, sit in the third chair from the right. I got in my place behind my cousin Andrea, who was three years older than I, and beautiful, but snotty.
Candy finally came in. Her dress was long and elegant, practically seamless as it hugged her torso closely and then fluted out to a full skirt around her legs. Her hair was gathered into a bun, and her veil rested on a little pillbox of pearls and tiny flowers. Her hands were shaking, and she didn’t look at any of us, though everyone was smiling at her and trying to catch her eye.
Suddenly we were off, marching down the aisle. I followed my grandmother’s strict instructions, and paused in the middle of each step, humming under my breath to the music, “Duh da da daaaaaa. Duh da da daaaaaa.” Everyone watching seemed joyful, excited, relieved. I positioned myself in front of my chair and turned to watch Candy’s progress toward the front of the church. She was trembling, a smile fixed on her painted lips, small beads of perspiration glistening at her throat. Aunt Sidney had to sit down before everyone else. Though she looked exhausted, she was happy and at peace. In fact, half of the church was watching Aunt Sidney instead of Candy, all except for the groom. Ned, red-faced and smiling foolishly in his tuxedo, gazed at Candy as she approached. When Candy finally came even with him and the music stopped on its last soaring notes, I realized something was different. Ned and Candy were exactly the same height. As the priest started droning out the ceremony, I looked discreetly at their feet.
Candy wore white satin ballet slippers, with no sole at all. Ned wore patent leather loafers, which must have had a two-inch stacked heel on them. And I could see that the back of his heel emerged from his shoe, but I didn’t know what that meant until one of the bridesmaids, my cousin Mary, whispered, “Ned’s wearing lifts.” There was giggling and shushing, and a sidelong glance from the priest, so our faces assumed their regular church impenetrability as the ceremony commenced.
I kept my eye on Candy, hoping she would look my way. But she didn’t. She looked straight at the priest’s mouth as he spoke, leaning toward him a little as if trying to memorize every word he said. She mushed her lips together, over and over, like ladies do right after they put on lipstick. Ned stood straight up, his hands still clasped in front of him. I wondered how my mother and father had looked when they got married. I glanced toward the back of the church where my mother sat, one hand on the pew in front of her, half-standing so she could see over Jasper. Mom was fanning herself with her slender pocket book and had taken off her hat to show the sheen on her pretty hair. No one was looking at her, and I could tell that suited her just fine.
I wasn’t even paying attention to what the priest was saying until he came to, “Speak now or forever hold your peace.”
I turned to look toward the front of the church, and was surprised to see that Candy was staring right at me. The priest was looking at Candy, as if confused, and Ned’s eyes were closed. I drew in my breath. Candy raised her eyebrows, questioningly, and I wondered, “Does she want me to say something?”
The priest followed Candy’s gaze and looked at me, too. I glanced around the church, and noticed that lots of people were looking at me, some of them very sternly. Grandma’s eyebrows were knit together and she stuck out her lower lip. I was sure to get my hands slapped this time, though I didn’t know what I had done. My father was wide-eyed, shaking his head. Next to him, Aunt Sidney was merely curious, the skin between her eyes wrinkled quizzically. Since chemotherapy had robbed her of her eyebrows, there were few expressions left to her.
I looked back at the front of the church. Ned had turned to look at his parents, and caught the vicious eye of Eddy Pierce. Ned’s face turned fire-engine red, and sweat trickled from under his hairline. One thick hand was fingering the bottom button on his tuxedo jacket. Then Ned turned to look at me, his eyes so mad-dog wild I thought he might possess the power to put a curse on me and all my children and grandchildren. Then I noticed something that was powerful enough to interrupt even this frightening impression. Ned’s gaze seemed oddly level with mine.
That was when I realized I was standing up.
I don’t know when I stood, or why, but I was indeed standing in the middle of a wedding ceremony, and everyone was waiting for me to say something.
I cleared my throat.
The priest’s gray eyes widened in disbelief as I said in a half-whisper, “You can’t tell now, but Ned is shorter than Candy.”
A murmur cascaded away from me and down the aisles as I heard people whispering, “What did she say,” and “What kind of reason is that?” The murmur turned to chorus, which suddenly bloomed into cacophony. In the midst of the chaos, deep in the bridegroom’s section, there was an oasis of tranquility, and at the center of it were Ms. Pierce and her son, Eddie, the schoolyard toughie. I watched as Eddy’s mom looked back at my mother, whose hands were covering her mouth. When Ms. Pierce turned back toward the front, her face was bright pink and her eyes were watering. She hid her grin with a long white glove.
At first, the ruckus I had caused sent a delicious thrill of power through me, but the more I stood there watching the congregation combust, the more embarrassed I felt. I didn’t know what else to do, so I sat back down. My cousin Andrea looked at me, jaw dropped, shaking her head at me in complete stupefaction. I saw that Ned’s face was screwed tight shut, and he was staring at his feet. Candy was still looking at me, her eyes watering from the effort of not busting into laughter during the low point of her intended’s life. As her gaze passed from me to the crowd behind her, and finally to the calm spot in the middle of the groom’s section, the enormity of her situation seem to dawn on her. She turned ashen.
The priest looked from me, to Candy, to Ned. He threw up his hands and said, “Quite honestly, I don’t know what to say. No one has ever done that before.”
I heard the whispering suddenly die off, and saw that, incredibly, my Aunt Sidney was standing, pressing down on her husband’s shoulder for support. She yelled, “Candy,” more loudly than I would have thought possible.
Candy looked at her mother sheepishly.
“Candy, do you want to marry Ned?” Candy stared at her mother with her mouth open as if this question had never once occurred to her. Ned had composed himself, and looked at Candy, too. She turned to him, her mouth still open, but no words came from her lips. Aunt Sidney asked, “Well? Do you or don’t you?” But Candy continued to stare as if in a state of catatonia. The church had grown completely silent, and everyone was staring. So Aunt Sidney said, “Well then the mother of the bride is calling off this wedding until further notice!” Then she hit her husband in the shoulder with her ceremony program until he got the picture, scooped her up and carried her down the aisle, out of the church.
I had the great misfortune of glancing briefly at my grandmother, who frowned right at me and said, “Ellen Mae Healy, look at what you’ve done!”
I was so terribly ashamed of myself that I sat with my hands in my lap and my eyes on the floor trying not to cry. I heard a heavy-footed gate run out the side door, and didn’t have to look to know it was Ned leaving in his extra tall loafers with lifts. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of white rush down the aisle and out the front. I wondered if Candy would ever speak to me again, and I hoped that Ned would leave town forever, which is what I would do if I were him.
I sat listening to the congregation disperse. I turned to look at Mom, who stood solemnly, her expression grave. She glanced at Eddy and his mother, then she glanced at me, then she made the sign of the cross. I could see her mouthing the words, In the name of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. She looked at me one more time, then walked out the front door. I’d been watching her to try and discern how much trouble I was in, but I’d gotten not even a whisper of a hint.
Soon all the other bridesmaids got up and left, and I was alone in the church, running through the commandments in my mind to see if what I had done constituted a mortal sin. I wondered if I needed to confess to the priest about it, since he saw the whole thing happen and he already knew about it anyway. One thing was certain. I had single handedly condemned my favorite cousin to eternal damnation. She would never get married now. She would never make things right between her and Ned. She would never be an honest woman.
In front of my lowered gaze appeared a pair of filthy sneakers. My blood turned to watery tomato juice as I realized these were not the feet of any of my loafer-wearing boy cousins. I desperately looked around the church for help, but everyone had left.
I was alone with the bully Eddie Pierce.
The wrath of the heavens was upon me.
“That sure took balls,” he said.
“My mom laughed at the whole thing. So did I.”
‘I don’t think it’s one bit funny,” I managed to whimper.
“I do. It was hilarious.” He said this with such vehemence I found myself looking him full in the face without fear of consequences. His mossy green eyes fixed steadily on me. “Your Aunt Candy is a slut.”
I was about to stand to defend my cousin, but a voice came from behind me. “Eddie! Don’t you talk like that!” His mother’s tone was stern, warning. He kicked the foot of my pew a couple times before he slouched over to her.
They started walking away, but then Ms. Pierce turned and said to me, “You did the right thing little girl, even if it seems like the wrong thing. Like us coming to this wedding. Most people would think it was wrong and mean spirited, but there are some things a man shouldn’t be allowed to forget.” She fixed her brown eyes on me, holding her chin up as if that were a hard thing to do. We looked at each other like that a long time before she finally turned away from me and led Eddie out of the church.
For years after, I thought she’d meant it was important for people to remember how tall they are. But she was talking about something else altogether.