Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Ordinarily, on any other day, Muriel would have found the banging of their front door knocker annoying, some delivery or salesman she really didn’t need interrupting her work. There was always so much to do. Their children had grown up in this place and moved out after college but, even without their kids around, they were somehow busier than ever. Her husband, a reasonably successful writer of pulp fantasy fiction, had always worked at home except for trips to his publisher, for the occasional book tour and sci-fi/fantasy convention..
“Yeah, he went to those,” Muriel took a breath, shaking her head slightly, side to side. “Said it sold books, but I think he just liked being there. Even took me to one when it was just the two of us. ..I remember this kid, dressed as God-knows-what, came up to Danny, put his hand on Danny’s chest and told him, tears in his eyes, ‘You’re the real deal, man.’”
..and to Los Angeles, the one time they made a TV movie based on one of his short stories.
Today, in the late morning, doing chores in a house that would never again make the familiar sounds she had taken for granted, today, any interruption was welcome. This one, in particular. Without bothering to peek through the side windows, Muriel turned the oblong brass knob and threw open the door. Standing there, she wiped her hands on her apron and smiled, her eyes watering at the site of Julie, her oldest and best friend, looking as disheveled as ever.
“Hey.” Julie was the first speak, a rain coat over the arm that was holding the huge bag she called her purse, the other on the handle of the rollaboard she’d dragged behind her up their sidewalk. She tried to smile, but did it poorly. “I got here as quickly as I could.”
Not bothering to invite Julie in, Muriel stepped onto the porch and put both her hands on her friend’s shoulders, patting the left one with the tips of her fingers. “I don’t think,” she whispered, “I could get through this without you.”
“I know, babe. I know. ..Now let’s go inside before it rains again or we both start crying.”
Julie dropped her bag in the small foyer, throwing her coat over the banister to the upstairs and followed her friend into her kitchen where she sat on one of the stools around the island where Muriel and her husband ate breakfast, reading to each other from their respective sections of the morning paper.
“Are the kids here yet?”
“They’re on their way.” Muriel poured two large mugs of coffee, and stood at the end of the counter, just a couple of feet away, pushing a plate of freshly made, unevenly stacked walnut brownies with hard fudge topping in Julie’s direction. No little plates or napkins. Muriel was ordinarily the consummate host. Not so much today, understandable under the circumstances. “Ann seems to be okay, but Jack, I don’t know. He stopped talking when I told him.”
“Marilyn.. He’s still living with Marilyn, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, they’re good.”
“She’ll get him through it. I like her.”
“Me, too. Maybe this’ll get him to commit. Sometimes…” Muriel stopped for a moment, waiting for that feeling in her throat to pass. “losing a parent makes you get on with your life.”
They were both quiet for a moment, until Julie reached over and touched the back of Muriel’s hand. “Look,” once again Julie took the initiative, “let’s get the hard part out of the way. Tell me what happened. Tell me, and I’ll help you ready for everyone stopping by tonight.”
“When did you learn how to cook?” Muriel looked up for the first time, her eyes blinking slowly, a smile taking over her face.
“Com’on. Tell me. I need to know and you need to talk about it.”
Muriel, letting her coffee get cold, pretended to be rubbing one of the gold flecks in her black granite countertop, anything to avoid eye contact. “Danny was in New York. He’d been out for an early run through Central Park. Came back, called me from his computer so we could see each other. ..He seemed great. New York always energized him. There were notes he wrote on those little legal pads he carried with him. He even stopped to jot down some stuff while we were talking. ..He seemed fine. Funny. Psyched about being there. He told me he loved me and then hung up, rushing to shower and get breakfast in time for his 9 o’clock meeting with his editor. And.. and that was that.”
“When did you find out?”
“The office called me around 10, wondering where Danny was. They’d been trying his cell phone.” Muriel made half a shrug, cocking her head to her left shoulder, then back again. “I called the hotel.. I called the hotel and told them Danny’s cell phone was still in his room. We both have this locator thing on our phones.”
“I know. One of those creepy apps parents use to track their kids.”
“Yeah. Danny wanted it to make sure he could find me if I was ever late for something. …They think it must have hit him in the shower and, uh, and that he ..tried to make it to his phone. What a jerk. Instead of 911, he had his cell phone and was trying to call me. I just didn’t hear it ring.”
“He loved you a lot. You know that. ..He probably didn’t understand what was happening and wanted to tell you about it.” And then Julie stopped talking, sensing it wasn’t helping, certain that Muriel wasn’t done.
“It doesn’t seem real yet.” Muriel pulled her hand away from Julie’s and started rubbing in a circle on her forehead. “I’m still expecting him to call the way he always does, on his way back from the airport, ask me if there’s anything I need him to pick up on the way home.”
“I pretty sure that’s something that wears off, eventually, maybe never.”
“Yeah. ..Okay,” Muriel stepped off her stool. “Let’s get this show on the road. We need to be ready by 6.” Having Julie was around was exactly what she needed. There’d be plenty of time to cry later, in the loneliness of the home that Danny and she had built. “..Just do what I tell you, and nobody’ll get hurt.”
11:10 PM that evening.
“You sure you don’t want to stay here, Jack?”
“No thanks, Mom – unless you need me?”
“I’ll always need you, but tonight? Tonight you’ll stay with Marilyn’s brother. I’ll be good for you,” she touched the side of his face. “Me, too. I’ll hang out with Julie.”
“Com’on.” Marilyn tugged at Jack’s arm. “Goodnight, Muriel.” Stepping forward, Marilyn kissed the mother of her future husband on the cheek. “I’ll miss him too. …Breakfast tomorrow?”
“Sure. French toast. Whenever you get here.”
“Goodnight, Mom.” And Jack and Marilyn left for her bother’s place, Jack’s sister, Ann, pushing their front door closed.
Looking around at the paper plates, balled up napkins, the dishes and glasses that were everywhere in the dinning and family room, and down the short hall at the mess in the kitchen, Ann, tired from having driven for almost 8 hours to get there, offered to do the right thing. “I’ll help you clean up.”
“Thanks, honey, but Julie’s already volunteered.”
“What?” Julie, her shoeless feet just getting comfortable on the ottoman she’d rolled in front of the sofa, had done no such thing.
“You go on to bed, honey. I’ll let you help with breakfast.”
“Deal.” They hugged, and Ann was off, up the stairs to the bedroom her parents had always kept for her, while her mother plopped down on the soft leather easy chair, now ottoman-less, that had been her husband’s favorite.
“Do you remember,” Muriel was finally beginning to get it, “years ago, the hard time I gave him when we were making up our wills and he insisted on no funeral?”
“He was right. This is easier.”
“Say what you want, Danny was…”
“I think,” Muriel interrupted, not really listening to what Julie had to say, “it was the writer in him. Here one minute, gone the next. I think he purposely didn’t want the kind of closure a funeral can give you.”
“That and he was too nice a guy to ruin a bunch of people’s weekend with ‘the obligatory crap of worthless ceremony,’ which is, if I remember, the way he put it to me once.” Julie had been his friend first, which is how Muriel and she met.
“I’ll live on,” Danny had reassured his wife the night they had argued about it, “in you and the kids and a couple of friends, for a time. …I love you. You’ll miss me. Beyond that, it doesn’t really matter.”
“So are we going to clean this place up, or what?”
“You know,” Muriel took a breath, “I don’t think so.”
Julie rolled her head along the top edge of cushion where it was resting to look at her friend.
“We’re both beat, but it would be Danny wanted me to do.”
“Not clean up?”
“…You know,” she reminisced, “he never did get much sleep. We’d go to bed.. Actually,” she smiled to herself, “pass out is more like it, 11:30 or so, the TV still on in the corner, but then he’d wake up in the middle of the night, around 3 or so. Rather than just lay there, hoping to fall back to sleep, he’d get up, come downstairs and do the dishes he’d been too tired or busy to do the night before. I cooked. He cleaned up. That was our deal. ..He told me he’d sit at the kitchen table, at the island, and write on his laptop. In the dark, doing all of it, the cleaning and the typing, I the dark, except for the only light coming from the family room from over the fireplace and the little TV he’d turn on for company. ..I think he bought that computer for the way the keys light up.”
“How long had he been…”
“An hour or so later, he’d go back to bed, and still get up before I did. I’d come down, he’d be typing, taking an occasional bite of that perfectly toasted bagel he’d buttered and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, the sink and counters empty and clean, the dishes washed and dried and put away.”
“He did the dishes? ..Wow, I should have married him.”
“And I’d thank him, you know, for cleaning up, but the funny was that he’d deny ever having done it. ‘Well, someone did it,’ I said once. ‘Wasn’t me,’ he told me, not even looking up from what he was writing. ‘It’s the Dishes Fairy.’”
“The…” Julie laughed and then started to lose it, the way really tired people do when something strikes them funnier than it really is, but stopped short, her hand to her face. “The Dishes Fairy. ..You know, I always suspected he believed in all that stuff he wrote.”
Muriel was laughing too now, a little. “Yeah, he’s been telling me that for years. ‘Believe what you want,’ Danny told me. ‘The Dishes Fairy. I just come down here in the middle of the night to write.’ She’s..’”
“So it was a girl fairy. What, like a cheerleader?” she giggled. “Maybe a hooker, with little wings?” Julie added, flapping her elbows, making a “bizzzz” sound.
“Yes,” Muriel smiled back, trying to be serious, “a girl fairy. He told me she was his muse. ‘I thought I was your muse,’ I told him, pretending to be disappointed. ‘No. She’s my muse.’ Then he stood up and put his arms around me, in the kitchen that morning. ‘You’re my a-muse,’ and then he kissed me. ‘You make me laugh. It’s my favorite thing,’” she remembered slowly. ‘You’re the one thing, being with you, I’d rather do more than write.’”
They were both quiet for a moment.
“Okay, let’s hit the sack,” Julie sat and then stood up. “Com’on.” She stood up, reaching out for her friend’s hand to help her up. “Let’s give it test. ..We’re both wiped and I really, really want to believe in the Dishes Fairy. Let’s get some sleep. ..Com’on.”
“Okay,” Muriel took her hand and pulled herself up. “We’ll clean up in the morning.” And they turned out the lights, all but the ones over the fireplace, and walked upstairs together.
It was quiet that night, unusually so. 3 o’clock came and went, and no one lying next to Muriel got up, fiddled with the TV that was still on in the corner of their bedroom or went downstairs to write on his laptop, sitting on a stool at the island in the kitchen where they – Muriel and Danny – wouldn’t have breakfast the following morning.
But in the darkness of their kitchen, that one last early morning, a odd glowing form moved about the kitchen and around the first floor until every pot, pan, glass and dish was washed and put away, until the kitchen was immaculate, the counters spotless, the trash bagged by the door to the garage, the cushions fluffed and pillows in just the right place.
Tonight, there was no one there, no Danny transfixed by the brightness of his computer’s screen, words coming from his fingers, as if he were only transcribing the dialogue of the characters he once imagined, but who now had lives of their own. And then it hovered for a time over Danny’s laptop, lid down, there, alone in the dark, quiet middle of the night until it faded away.
Muriel, not sleeping well, thought she heard the familiar, faint clatter of dishes and cabinet doors, but was sure she must be dreaming, smiled to herself, reached over to lay her hand on Danny’s side of the bed, and fell back to sleep.
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