SOMEBODY SHOULD HAVE SCOLDED THE GIRL

I am excited to announce that my second collection of short stories, Somebody Should Have Scolded the Girl, will be coming from Fawkes Press in 2019. In the meantime, a short excerpt from the title story:

SOMEBODY SHOULD HAVE SCOLDED THE GIRL

It’s a farmhouse, and it’s February, and it’s cold. Donnie is gone to work at the A & P in town and Philip and Ginny, named for Donnie’s mother’s sister Virginia, are off to school. The mom, the wife, Marlette, is home cleaning, cooking. The inside windows today, the kitchen and bathroom throw rugs. The pumpkins that have been sitting in the cold cellar since November frost are finally ladled into jars, still hot, waiting for the lids to seal. She fools with the radio dial, finds WQNW, the Evansville hippy station. She can’t help it. She likes this young generation, such a loud afterthought to her own, so colorful. They’re regularly on the news, dunking themselves into the Pacific Ocean out in California, hands raised to Jesus, smoking marijuana and taking window-jumping acid trips. Staging events called “Be-ins.” Women at the beauty parlor where she sweeps and mops afternoons gripe over the heated wind of hair dryers and the smell of permanent wave solution about how they’d like those spoiled-brat college kids to try Being-in over a hump of dirty baby diapers and mill-dusty husbands who demand dinner on time and the sheets hung in the sun and the checkbook balanced. She disapproves along with them, of course, but a tiny deepness way inside her admires the hippies’ bravery, their ability to insist on remaking the world according to their young vision. A religion itself, the way they drip hair and love beads and flowers on their blue jeans, write songs devoted more to words than music. She watched a young man on the Huntley-Brinkley Report waving an American flag and a placard with what David Brinkley called “a peace sign,” which the pastor that weekend pointed out was truly a broken, upside-down cross. The sign of the anti-Christ, he said, after which the drugstore and the Shop ‘n’ Save pulled their little souvenir versions off the front-counter display stands.

Her day starts at 4:30. Cows to milk, eggs to fry, sack lunches to make. Donnie hauls out of bed at 4:45 to help with the milking, after his coffee cup is full and his stack of toast buttered, which he stuffs in his mouth as the two of them pick their way to the barn. The job isn’t as hard to get up for in summer as it is in the frost, the dead grass matted and frozen at kooky angles and noisy as they walk through the before-daylight. The sky overhead feels hinged shut, the new day knocking to be let in.

After the milking, after her and Donnie’s boots are rinsed of manure and stuck hay with dippers of water from the rain barrel, she goes upstairs to the new shower next to their bedroom to wash off the cold, put on a fresh nightgown, and crawl back into bed with Donnie, who has done the same, for twenty minutes of cuddling or sex, whichever one or the other of them feels like. They oblige each other and always agree it makes the muck of the barn worth it. Once in a while in summer they pass those moments on the porch with coffee, talking about the field corn and the planting, new pups to be spayed, the hog lot fence they wish would just go ahead and rot so they can turn that land into a storage shed for the tractor, soon as the hogs make enough money to pay for it. The decision about how to spend this time is never mentioned. They simply move toward the activity and go through it, right for who they are and no question to it.

Then breakfast and Philip and Ginny’s chatter. They’re growing up strong and hopeful, rosy-cheeked, full of ideas. She and Donnie tolerate it. Watching the late news, however, Donnie prays aloud they don’t grow up to be hippies, but Marlette decided a long time ago she wouldn’t mind if they did.

She lets the breakfast dishes soak while she mixes vinegar water in a pail to wash the windows and runs the kitchen throw rugs through the Westinghouse with a shave of lye soap, a cup of borax, and a hand of baking soda, then pulls them through the wringer, hangs them across the dinette chairs to dry. She figures to save water and soap by waiting for the last of the pumpkin to cook, washing those pans and utensils in the leftover water from this earlier mess. She’ll add a little boiling water if she has to.

The house still smells of vinegar and wet newspaper from washing the windows by the time she turns up the radio and sinks her hands into the whitish dishwater. A woman has committed suicide, the announcer reports, a famous writer in England. Marlette stops at the words children and gas oven, dries her hands, stares first at the radio, then walks over to look at her cookstove. “Kenmore” it says in nickel letters across the front. The brand Donnie’s mother owns and so, good enough for them. She opens the oven door, speckled granite and clean as new, from last week’s scrubbing with steel wool and baking soda and its own dose of vinegar. Every night before he goes to bed, Donnie checks to make sure the pilot lights are lit, the little blue flames that prove his house is safe for sleeping. Used to be no fans allowed in the kitchen. In summertime he fussed if the kitchen windows were open, even knowing how much Marlette liked to see her dotted Swiss curtains blow. “Huff ‘em out and put us all in the ground,” he would say. Donnie tried to make a cover for the stove, first of plywood scraps, then of soldered sheet metal, but Marlette wouldn’t have either of the ugly things in her kitchen. She finally found a hinged, enamel stovetop cover in the Sears and Roebuck catalog that clipped to the back of the grill surface and spent part of her saved money to order it.

“Well, I’ll be. Good enough,” Donnie had said, and when it got hot, surprised them all with a box fan for the kitchen window. Marlette kept it set to low, liked nothing better than once in a while to sit at the kitchen table, feet propped on the chair opposite, hands around a tumbler of ice water and leaf of mint and teaspoon of honey, letting that spun air whisper across her forehead, dabbing her cheeks and chin with the chilled glass.

The news announcer goes on to comment about this Sylvia woman’s life, about the way she grew up in America and who her parents were and her schooling. Shocking to Marlette to hear the newscaster talk about such things as the woman writing about hiding in a basement and cutting herself for psychological reasons. Marlette wondered what had to have transpired to make a person do that. One of her books was called The Bell Jar and another The Colossus, which for some reason made Marlette think of Greyhound buses and long-distance travel. She’ll ask him later, but Marlette doesn’t think she or Donnie has ever heard of the woman, much less had to read books by that name for school, and they both graduated from the same high school in Terre Haute. She isn’t even sure what a “colossus” is or “a bell jar,” but she knows what sound a jar makes when a lid seals, and hers are doing just that. It’s a good sound, one that verifies a job done right. Lots can go wrong when you put a seed in the ground, and the sound of a jar sealing is the reassurance it hasn’t. There’ll be pumpkin soup through the rest of the cold months, plus pie and pudding for Valentine’s and Easter and more in between and after if she’s rationed the year’s sugar right, and the flour. Out of season for some, but Donnie and the kids don’t care. Of course, raising hogs allows for plenty of lard for crusts, but they have to depend on Donnie’s A & P town job and the cash discount he gets for sugar and flour.

Marlette guesses somebody should have scolded the girl early on for expecting too much of herself and of life. She looks around at the butter yellow of her kitchen walls and the white of the cupboards, the glass doorknobs, at the slow plans she and Donnie made when they bought the place at the beginning of their marriage finally evolved into existence—new sink and washboard, the lowered ceiling and modern lamp globe, the gas cookstove, purchased to replace the wood-burning one the previous owners left behind, which is now kept wrapped in newspaper and stored in the mud porch in case the gas one ever gives out or Donnie gets laid off and they can’t afford fuel. It’s a mystery to Marlette, how other people live. But then, what’s to know—as Donnie puts it, the rich sit around thinking about themselves; that’s the only way to get richer.

Three more jars of pumpkin make their metallic sound, an overlapping series of enk!s. The dishes are done, but the bedsheets still need washed and changed. It’s the fourth of the month. She has to get bills paid and the woodwork dusted before she sets the bacon to thaw for the corn muffins which will round out the chili for supper. “Most bone-warming meal there is,” Donnie always says. Then to the beauty parlor for the afternoon job that allows her to surprise him and the kids with birthday presents and store-bought candy from time to time. “Oh Lordy,” Marlette says when the announcer on the radio interrupts the music again with the story of Sylvia Plath being dead. She wonders if the library keeps books by people nobody’s heard of. The last of the pumpkin goes enk! enk! Softer this time, muffled by her distance from the kitchen and the tenor of her old Keds on waxed wood as she heads upstairs to the bedroom for the sheets.

*

(“Somebody Should Have Scolded the Girl,” originally appeared in Perceptions Magazine of the Arts, Spring 2014, Portland, Oregon, May 2014.)