Parlor Games

Celeste shifts uncomfortably on the wicker loveseat. She wishes she had worn a sundress or at least a skirt. Her shorts are tight and pinch across the width of her thighs in this seated position. Fortunately, the loveseat has a cushion but equally unfortunate, the cushion is plastic or some sort of waxed fabric and Celeste is aware that the backs of her thighs are slick with perspiration. She peels one thigh from the cushion and spills some of her lemonade. Celeste jumps to her feet.

“Shit!”

“Celeste! What seems to be the problem, Honey?”

“Ms. Mason! I just…”

“Clarice, Honey. Call me Clarice.”

Clarice Mason breezes back onto the porch, having fetched two linen cocktail napkins from the butler’s pantry. She hands a napkin to Celeste, who towers over her. In her flat sandals, Celeste stands five foot nine. The unflattering short haircut she received at the beginning of the summer is further compromised by the withering humidity and her dark curls are a frizzed mass. She has a wet streak of lemonade down the front of her white tank top and she is suddenly, appallingly aware that she has not shaved her legs for at least a week.

Clarice Mason on the other hand is the very picture of cool composure. Her smooth chestnut bob falls straight and gracefully just beneath her chin. She wears a pink pleated sundress which despite the muggy atmosphere remains remarkably unwrinkled. Her dainty feet are shod in Ferragamo flats and a delicate strand of pearls encircles her small neck.

Clarice neatly tucks herself into a rocking chair facing the loveseat.

“Sit down, Honey. I believe we have much to discuss.”

Celeste begins to hiccup, a wretched nervous trait she acquired in early childhood. 

“Oh my, you are a hot mess, aren’t you?” Clarice flashes a treacly smile. “ Relax. I don’t bite. We’re just going to have a little conversation about you and my girl Tinsley. You two have had quite the time this summer, I believe.” Clarice smooths the pleats on the lap of her dress and looks up coyly through her fringe of dark lashes. “Sit down, Honey. It seems like you have been over here every day since coming home from your college.” She leans forward and pats Celeste’s hand. “Y’all are always playing something! Playing records, playing cards, all sorts of fun and games! Isn’t that right?” Clarice pauses, pursing her lips and cocking her head to the left.

Celeste feels sick. The screened porch tilts and she closes her eyes. Visions from last night before swim before her. She and Tinsley, slightly drunk on rum and Coke. Laughter, almost hysterical. Trey, Tinsley’s little brother, calling out the contorted positions for Twister. Reggae and dim lights, an overhead fan softly ruffling the steamy air. Tinsley, in impossibly short cutoffs, a faded Tipitina’s t-shirt, the neck gaping open. Celeste, struggling to steady her long legs in a triangle pose, also struggling to keep her eyes averted, trying so hard not to stare down the neck of Tinsley’s shirt. The other girl’s lithe body, golden, caressed by the summer sun. Tinsley is not wearing a bra. Trey calls the next move for Celeste and she is reaching her left hand, tremulously, through Tinsley’s thighs. The laughter. The heat from the girl’s body. Celeste shifting, her face so close to Tinsley’s breasts. The smell of baby powder and rum and some muskier, enticing scent, the girl’s own body, the essence of her skin, fully in Celeste’s nostrils as the two bodies strain to remain apart. And then the searing touch, the electric exchange as Tinsely, convulsing with laughter, leans into Celeste’s body, her mouth on Celeste’s bare neck. And as their bodies slide into each other’s, Trey laughing riotously, Celeste aware of her hands on Tinsley’s breasts, aware of her rosy nipples hardening beneath her palms, the shrill staccato of Clarice Mason’s voice piercing the fabric of the night, “Tinsley Mason! That is enough! This instant! Get up off that floor!” Celeste opens her eyes now.

“Sit down, Celeste.” Clarice commands, inclining her head toward the loveseat.

Celeste looks at Clarice. She has heard before what this woman will say. Ugly words. An eighth-grade moniker: Celester the Molester. Her friends suddenly suspicious and uneasy in the gym locker room, taking care not to change into their uniforms in front of her. Her precipitous fall from the pool party and sleepover guest lists. Her high school best friend’s mother tersely telling her to stop coming around. As if she had something catching. As she if would turn their gold to dust. Celeste hears the old taunts and rumors, feels the sting of all the other times a mother, a sister, a boyfriend threatened her, rebuked her, condemned her. Celeste looks down at pretty, polite Clarice Mason, poised like a viper. 

Celeste frowns. This summer had been different. She had not tipped her hand toward to Tinsley. She had been so careful when Tinsley had asked her if she had a college boyfriend; Celeste had demurred and Tinsley, stretched out upon the lawn, a lithe feline in repose, dappled by sunlight underneath the fragrant mimosa, had coquettishly inquired if she had a girlfriend. Even then, as tempted as she had been, Celeste felt the fluttering uncertainty deep within her. “No, don’t be silly” Celeste had said.

There is a giggle from the butler’s pantry and Celeste snaps from her revery as someone, most likely Tinsley, shushes the laughter. 

Clarice Mason smiles a small patient smile. She gathers her stature like pulling in a tether and thrusts her shoulder back.

“Sit.Down.Celeste.” Clarice practically whispers the words but manages to spit them in rapid fire.

Celeste, profusely sweating now, can smell the mimosa’s intoxicating scent from the lawn. She closes her eyes for a just a second.

“No Ma’am, I don’t think I will.”

A version of this story was first published in Sad Girls Club April 2021.

How To Leave Home

We need to talk. 

The most feared words in the English language or I guess I don’t know shit. Ruth is standing in the kitchen still wearing her Rusty Spoon Apron. She sighs and shakes her head, bends down to untie her shoes. When she stands up, she squares her shoulders, fixes me with her milky eyes. 

Ruth says, start pulling your weight around here or get the hell out. I told your mom I would take care of you but part of taking care is making sure you become more of a man than your deadbeat dad. I can’t take no more of you sitting on your ass, playing that Fortnite and googling on your phone. You need to get a job. 

In reply I manage a weak Yes Ma’am. I know better than to say much more than that right now.

Ruth takes off her Dollar Tree glasses and massages an angry red stripe on the bridge of her nose. Reaching into her apron pocket, she fishes out a packet of BC Headache Powder. She grunts and points at the tap so I get her a glass of water.

 Ruth is my mom’s favorite cousin and when Mom got busted in the meth lab, Ruth took me in. She doesn’t have much besides regrets. Nobody in Big Stone Gap has much. I’m not unlike most kids here; everybody has somebody they love doing bad. Floyd’s parents are dead. Cheryl’s mom is turning tricks at the Super 8 on Galaxy Highway. Daryl’s dad is doing 15 years for killing his mom. 

I tell Ruth that I been thinking of pawning my PS4, getting a job as a line cook, or maybe in a bakery. I hold back some other stuff, the part about me thinking about taking classes at the community college. I don’t rightly know yet how to talk to Ruth about The Plan. People always say they want the best for you but the truth is, if the best is about you leaving them, they don’t really want it. I don’t know how to tell Ruth about things I’ve been learning, the things about the hospitality industry and The Culinary Institute of America. Nobody in Big Stone Gap can see much past The Gap. So, I tell Ruth I’ll pull my weight just not about The Plan, the part about pulling up my roots.

Ruth didn’t expect none of this anyway. She opens her mouth and closes it. And then does it again, like a fish you just hauled out of the water and thrown in the boat. She makes that old fish mouth a few more times before she wipes her glasses on her filthy apron and manages to reply.

 Well. Cal, I’m glad to hear it, she says to me.

I ask her, You hungry? I know these words mean more to her than “I love you”. Ruth has been slinging hash and mopping up spills at the Rusty Spoon for 30 years. No one ever asks a waitress what she needs. Ruth sits heavily in the kitchen chair, places her red raw hands on the cracked vinyl tablecloth.

What you got, she asks me, smiling wearily.

I say, you just sit back and be prepared to be amazed. I been watching Gordon Ramsay on YouTube, I tell her. Ruthie, it turns out we been making scrambled eggs the wrong way; you got to cook them low and slow, I say.

Ruth’s tired smile grows a little wider. 

I ain’t got nowhere to be, she says.

A version of this story was first published in Flash Fiction Magazine in June 2021.

Last Damsel

Our men were gone; the last one, Uncle Chick, left six months after my birth. I was the firstborn of a third daughter, who bled out as I entered the world. Growing up, I ran wild in a female pack with my aunts and cousins.

“Tell me a story.” To hear my aunts, you’d think those were my first words. “Tell me about Pawpaw. Tell me about Red Boy. Tell me about the time Uncle Chick wanted to marry Little Lady.” I’d sit at the hearth with Aunt Ang and Aunt Diddy, the two closest to my age, stretching skins on the fleshing beam. There had to be more, I would think.

We all belonged to each other yet each to no one. I longed to be an Other, a somebody’s someone.

“Diddy, tell me about PawPaw. Did he love Mam? Did she love him? How did they love? Did they hug and tickle? Did they wrestle on the floor? Did he kiss her nose?”

“Where you get such notions, Maisie? You seen Mam. She ain’t any differn now than she was when the mens were here, asides the hair. Her hair was reddern then, I guess. You think anyone be fool enough to plant a kiss on Mam’s nose? Not while she’s breathin’, I reckon.”

I couldn’t see no one ever putting their arms around Mam. How had we all come to be though? We had to have been born out of something softer than red rocks and dusty wind. All these hard women around me, I came to think men had to make the world gentler.

“Ang, how was it between us and the menfolk?”

Ang wasn’t so hard as the othern. I’d seen her once with a fledgling that had fallen from an eaves nest. Any day in the season, there’d be five or so fledglings outside the large house. Mam made use of all things, fledglings no differn, so we’d offentimes have Baby Birdie Stew when the snows weren’t high. I saw Ang though and she built that fledgling its own nest from scraps of otter pelts. She didn’t know I watched but I seen her fetching worms and meal bugs for it. I seen her too on the third day, crying, when she found the bird dead and I watched her bury it, nest and all.

Ang fixed with me with a hard stare and I started to thinking I best not ask such questions of any of us. 

“Men do things for reasons we won’t ever have no answers for. I seen Chick and kill a cat just cause he could. It was Chick’s own cat. He’d had it since he was done suckling. I heard him crying for it later but he’d done it hisself. That’s when Mam said it’d be best if he was out off to fighting with the rest of ‘em and we ain’t heard nothing from any of ‘em since. There’s not much accounting for what’s in men’s hearts.”

So I am standing in the creek swollen with fresh snowmelt, scrubbing the rusty iron-smelling stains from my britches. I don’t reckon I have heard the sound of horses hooves in quite a stretch so at first I am looking at the sky, blue as kittens’ eyes, searching for thunderheads. Then I see ‘em. I know these aren’t womenfolk. Three people big as bears, with fur on their faces, ride their snorting beasts to the edge of the creek. I see foam on their animals’ necks, steam coming out their nostrils. I shield my eyes from the sunlight and peer up into the hairy faces of weathered skin and bloodshot eyes. Men, I think. These must be men.

Gone. My notions of softness coming from menfolk leave me the minute I see their twisted ugly smiles. I don’t even smile back. The red bearded one spits a stream of brown and rubs the back of his hand over his tobacco-stained lips.

“Well don’t this look like a picnic?” I know he is speaking of me and not to me. I feel hot piss running down my legs and I can taste something sharp and salty in my mouth. Fear. Before I can think of anything to say, anything that might be friendly, I have tilted back my head and howled. It is not a cry like the wolf, hungry and alone, would send out into the cold night, looking for companionship. It is the scream of the rabbit as my arrow pierces its’ hindquarters. It is Ang holding a dead baby bird in her hands. Run. Run, I think, and I am off.

“Hot DAMN! We got us a chase!”

“Get her, Chick!”

Panic. They are on me like vultures on a carcass, rending clothing from limb, flesh from flesh, pieces of me torn and scattered in the short dry grass of the riverbank, which is just beginning to green.

I am above them now, watching as they push and shove one another off of my tattered self. There is blood and spittle, tears which were mine, and a mess I cannot name over all of us. 

Gone. I am no one’s Other.

A version of this story was first published by Tatterhood Review in December 2020. Also, many thanks to @TatterhoodRev for nominating this work for @SundressPub 2021 Best of the Net.http://www.tatterhoodreview.com http://www.sundresspublications.com