Pieces

Fiction
S.E. White


More water fun…
Photo Credit: Carol Munro

In the farthest room of the old sanitarium Musgrove County converted into a museum some years back, Lenore Holcomb’s shriveled blue fingers are kept in a jar. She was murdered by her husband in 1880 during a scorching summer, hacked to death with a corn knife. Her fingers, so the plaques on the walls say, are among the larger pieces that remain of the woman once considered Musgrove County’s premiere seamstress.

I lean in closer to the display cases, to see past the reflection of the cushy red carpeting in the glass. The rooms smell dusty with a hint of mothballs and the building’s cooling system carries the only odor that can be both faint and pungent: as if a pigeon got caught in the vents and thrashed itself to bits.

It’s a Saturday. My husband Richmond and I are touring through the county’s makeshift museum alone. He took the day off, and I have yet to find a job in our new town. We recently moved from Detroit to the small, rural Ohio village of Townsville four hours to the south. I already miss the malls and outlets; this town has only a Sav-Mart—a grocery store, pharmacy, bank, and clothing store all in one. Richmond’s job transferred him to one of their branches offices here—a demotion masked as a “titled, managerial position”.

I drum my fingers against the glass. The beige newspapers with the screaming headlines sit next to the noose that eventually snapped Edward Holcomb’s neck. The rust-stained knife cowers ominously in the shadows of the jar. All of the typed cards near the exhibit say the reason for the interest in the case is that Edward Holcomb was the last man in the county to have been hanged (though I’m sure backwoods lynch mobs might’ve dispelled such “facts” had they been considered less trivial). I find no cards for such a footnote.

I nudge Richmond who seems more fascinated by a painting of some woman on the opposite wall. Her hair almost as pale as her face, ruby lips and blue eyes, a velvety blood red dress with a high lace collar.

Richmond hasn’t been himself since just before the move, more easily distracted, as if he has something to say, but can’t. I stare over at the painting myself, then back into the display case.

“Reminds me of an angel,” he muses, his voice low, overemphasizing the word “angel”.

“Probably dead,” I say. “Or else a wrinkled prune.”

His eyes linger on her porcelain white features. “The best parts are below the frame anyway.”

Something about his tone, or perhaps the violation of Lenore Holcomb, makes me flinch at his unexpected innuendo, and I sigh. “I thought you said the first thing you noticed about me was my smile.” The glass warms against my fingertips.

He strokes his chin and turns from the painting towards the display cases. “Were you born yesterday?”

I feel a bead of sweat tickle my upper lip.

He wraps his long arms around me, and I feel his hot breath on my neck. “You know I’m a leg man.”

I give him the smile he expects and endure his stifling caress despite the heat. He hasn’t touched me, not really, since before the move, and I feel myself lean against him. I point to the display.

“We live on Holcomb road,” I remind him. “The articles say this guy’s insanity might’ve been caused by lead in the water.”

The trapped humidity in the old building makes Richmond’s skin feel sticky against mine.

“Among other things,” I add.

Richmond releases me and stuffs his hands into the pockets of his khaki shorts. “So we’ll buy bottled water.” His fingers must be fidgeting with his car keys, his usual sign that he’s ready to leave. I hear the soft jangling.

With a nod, I tell him that I’m done looking. But, at the end of the display, easily missed, I find a picture of a woman who the card identifies as Lenore Holcomb. Beside her, a tall, burly man poses with a large smile and bright, almost sparkling, eyes.

Richmond expresses vague interest by telling a tasteless joke about how maybe the poor sap’s wife had cheated on him and he just wanted a piece. I glance over at him. I don’t laugh. The cooling vents rattle in the awkward pause.

Lenore Holcomb wasn’t pretty. In the black-and-white photographs, her stark black hair is pulled tight into a bun, her grey skin looks dented with pockmarks, and her figure is stocky at best. The contrast between the fingers, the noose, the newspapers, all of the hideous evidence still fail to make the jovial expression of Edward seem in any way demonic. His appearance is as a man who might whistle chopping wood or who could listen and appreciate a gentle rain. I pull at the collar of my blouse. The summer of 1880 must’ve been hotter than hell itself. Richmond stares over at me as though he’s got a secret he’s ready to share, but I’m ready to leave.

Together, we stroll out the front doors and climb into our old car. The air conditioning is broken, so we roll down the windows and shout relief to each other that the drive back to the house is a short one. Ours is the slate blue house at the end of the winding road. The shutters, painted black, have chipped and created flakes in the yard like ash. The dried shrubs and flowers in the dirt nearly encircling the house grope towards the shadows. I should water them, I think as the car rolls to a stop, but I know that once I look away I’ll forget.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Richmond says. “Or should I make that an arm and a leg?” I weave my fingers together and set them on my knee. “Hm?”

I shake my head absently and take a deep breath, then step out into the musty garage. Weed whackers and garden shears, hoes and rakes clutter the walls.

Richmond lingers behind in the car while I go and unlock the back door. The house feels stuffy. We closed the windows before we left, actually buying into the weather girl’s prediction of a thunderstorm. The sun has shone all morning.

I open the first window I find in the kitchen. The curtains sway in what little breeze there is.

The kids are at the swimming lessons Richmond insisted they take, if not to learn the skill, then to at least meet other kids their age before the school year starts. They had tried to plead their case to me, but lately, since the move, I felt I should defer to Richmond.

A year ago I would’ve informed Richmond that our children didn’t need swimming lessons to live in the middle of “Podunk,” Ohio, and the kids would find friends in their own time, but I couldn’t challenge him. Accepting his word was my own quiet penance. So, I told the kids that they’d enjoy the cool water since the summers here are supposed to be so dry and hot.

I close my eyes and submerge myself in the refreshing feeling of a blue pool. The thought of it makes me thirsty. I run myself a glass of water from the faucet and hold it to my lips. Richmond must be going to do a little yard work. I hear him rummaging through the shelves of rusty tools we inherited when we bought the house. I part my lips to take a drink, but then think better of it. I consider milk instead.

The last time I drank milk was six months before we moved. I’d strolled down to the gas station cattycorner to the Angel Motel and bought a carton of milk and a dozen powdered doughnuts while Hal took a shower in our room. The room smelled of Ivory soap when I returned to it, still muggy from the warm water that fogged the mirrors. I wonder who is taking a shower in the Angel Motel now? I had sat on the rumpled bed and sipped from the carton, watching Hal dress, his white T-shirt sticking to his back.

The memory of it makes the air seem so unbearably hot, and I ache for even the slightest breeze to blow across the back of my neck. There is no breeze, and before I think about it, I swallow the water in the glass, tasting it as milk.

The screen door screeches, and I shake my head, the daydream lingering in a simple smile I conceal from Richmond as he enters the kitchen. He washes his hands in the sink.

“I thought you were doing yard work,” I say.

He wipes his hands slowly with a paper towel, faces me. “Ripped my shirt.”

I nod.

“Got anything I can fix it with?” he asks.

A drop of sweat tickles the side of my face. “Maybe in the top drawer of my dresser.”

For some reason, he seems to pause before leaving the kitchen. I stare up into his face and try to blink away the glazed look I know my eyes are showing. To think of Hal was a mistake. I had promised myself I would put all of that behind me with the move.

“Funny thing,” Richmond muses.

I raise my eyebrows.

“About that crazy guy,” he sighs. “He was all smiles in that picture. You’d have thought he was happy.”

“Smiles can suggest a lot of things, Richmond.”

He tosses the paper towel into the trashcan. “You were smiling just now.”

I meet my eyes to his. “I thought you said you were more interested in my legs.”

He does his best to chuckle and wag his finger at me before disappearing into our bedroom.

I stroke my forehead. Hal had been the one to break it off after only a few times. Said a woman had cheated on him once, and he felt dirty doing it to someone else. My relationship with Richmond had become stale, perfunctory, not like when we’d first been married, and Hal had worked so close to me, shared the same office, so available. It wasn’t love, just convenience. A few weeks later, and news that Richmond’s company needed him to transfer, I suppose I agreed with Hal. I wasn’t a cheater, not really; I’d lost track of the lies and excuses I’d told Richmond, and, truth to be told, it’s hard work to lie. It was easier to move with Richmond and the kids than to go through the hellish turmoil of a divorce just to end up alone anyway.

I hear my dresser drawer squeak open. Richmond will never find my sewing kit, even if it’s right under his nose. I wipe the back of my hand across my forehead and shuffle into the shadowy bedroom. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, the needle almost invisible in his thick, muscular fingers, the thread hanging from his teeth. My lips begin to form an offer of help, but he looks up quickly and grunts.

“I’ll fix it myself,” he says.

From the appearance of a couple of the buttons, it seems as if he has done just that in the past.

“Damn,” he hisses, pricking his forefinger enough to make blood swell at the spot.

I grab a couple of tissues and kneel down to wrap his finger, catching the single blood drop.

He sighs.

“I only smile when I’m happy,” he says suddenly.

Taking the needle and thread slowly from his hands, I lick the end of the thread and push it through the eye.

“Stuffy in here,” I say.

A small welcomed gust of wind stirs the warm air. It makes me remember.

“I still have to water the flowers,” I say.

Richmond shakes his head. “I already did.”

“What?”

“I figured that’s what you were thinking. So I already did.” He twiddles his thumbs. “Ever since we moved in, you always look at them when we drive in and then forget.”

“How do you know?” I pull on the thread, drawing the torn ends of his shirt together.

He suddenly breathes harder and my heart skips; I peek up at him. The sun slips behind clouds; the room darkens.

Richmond seems intent on my sewing as he reaches out, stares me full in the face, touching his fingertips to the back of my neck, thumbs to my throat, and says, “How could I not know?”

pencil

Currently, S.E. White teaches English at Purdue University North Central. She maintains a blog at Red Room, as well as a personal blog. Most of her publication credits have been in regional and online magazines. A short story is forthcoming in The Smoking Poet‘s December edition. Email: sewhite2006@yahoo.com

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