Categories
Fiction

Fay L. Loomis – Fiction

The Purple Dress

            “Mrs. Miller, the Sunday school teachers are having a picnic at the lake after next week’s morning service. I hope your children will join us.”

            “Thank you, Mrs. Ames. I wouldn’t be able to do that. The two young ones will be needing a nap.”

            Mrs. Ames saw us walk to church in all kinds of weather, so she shoulda known Mr. Miller wasn’t likely to drive us to the lake. Mom knew better than to even think of asking such a question. 

            “I’m sorry you can’t make it. I was hoping all the children in Sunday school could be there. Fay is so well-behaved. Could she come with my family?”

            “Yes, that would be nice.”

            “I want to come, too,” chimed younger sister Phyllis, wiggling like she was about to pee her pants.

            Mrs. Ames hesitated.  “I’ll ask Mrs. Tucker, her Sunday school teacher, if she has a vacant seat in her Desoto.” The loud way she said “vacant” made it clear she wasn’t in favor of allowing Phyllis to go. We Millers could have put all seven kids in that boat.

            I was happy to be going on the picnic and gave a lot of thought about what to wear. I coveted a purple dress that belonged to my older sister Barbara, and she finally passed it down to me. I was saving it for a special occasion, and the picnic matched my idea of something special.

            I don’t know who in the town made the donation. A whole dress of solid purple! I had never felt anything that soft and bumpy. “Crepe,” mom said.

            We had a fine time, sitting at picnic benches, eating all kinds of stuff we didn’t have at home: a bun made just for a hot dog, potato chips, red pop.

             Mrs. Ames said, “Now run along children, play some games, have fun before we go back home. We adults will take our blankets down to the water. Mind you, we’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
            The word “run” must have stirred up something in Phyllis’s brain. She said, “Why don’t we run down the row of picnic tables? We can leap from one to the other.”

            And, so we did, laughing at our bold daring, until my leg went through a rotten board. I let out a scream. The church ladies looked over their shoulders, came running, and yanked me up and off the table so hard that I and Mrs. Ames’ hat fell to the ground.

            “Good Lord! Has the Devil gotten hold of you? I thought you were a well-behaved child. Should have known better.”  Under her breath, she whispered, “Unsuitable dress. Harlot’s color.”  

            “We didn’t mean to do it,” fumed Phyllis, fists balled at her side. “We were just having fun.” I kept my head down and my mouth shut.

            While Mrs. Ames gave Phyllis a lecture on talking back and deportment in general, I took the opportunity to slink into the woods and examine my arm and leg. Both were smarting to beat the band. I spied a long tear down the skirt of the dress—my purple dress—and slumped against a tree, trying hard not to cry.

            It was time to go home, and I had to cut that out. I pulled the hem of the dress up to my face, wiped my cheeks, and blew my nose. Mrs. Ames dropped us off at the church, and we footslogged  home in silence. For once Phyllis wasn’t jabbering away.

            My shaking body shrouded in farm clothes, I struck out for the barn to feed the animals. I made a detour to the rusted iron barrel where Mom burned trash and threw the crumpled wad on the low burning coals. Flames curled round the dress, like shame around my heart.

             I watched the purple turn to ash.

Fay L. Loomis lives a particularly quiet life in the woods in upstate New York. A member of the Stone Ridge Library Writers and Rat’s Ass Workshop, her recent poetry and prose pieces appear or are forthcoming in The Closed Eye Open, Love Me, Love My Belly, Rat’s Ass Review, Ruminate Magazine, HerStry, Sanctuary Magazine, Burrow, Amethyst Review, Covid and Poetry Project, Al-Khemica Poetica, Blue Pepper, Sledgehammer Lit, Undertow Literary Review, and Love in the Time of Covid: a Chronicle of a Pandemic.

Categories
Fiction

Amy Finlay – Fiction

Child of the earth

People who are well read are often called book smart. But there is a wisdom not acquired from conventional sources rarely deciphered in a person. Ethel Stewart was soon to encounter the latter. Hailing from the countryside in Newtownards she had excelled in her nursing studies. Two brief years at Belfast Jubilee Maternity Hospital followed where nurse Steward birthed precisely 1762 babies in total. Precision was one of Ethel’s key strengths and one greatly admired in a minister’s wife. Ethel Caithness became Ethel Stewart on a windy day in October 1959. Her husband, the mild-mannered cleric ten years her senior, the Rev Dr Kenneth Stewart was book smart and kept an imposing library that included his prized collection of ancient Greek texts, the hieroglyphics intimidating to the lesser educated members of the Caithness family. When a vacancy arose in the Anglican parish in Waterfoot, the Rev Dr envisioned the chance of expand his library away from the dusty and cramped conditions of East Belfast. There was only one hospital in Waterfoot run by the Sisters, so Ethel birthed her last baby at the Jubilee and turned to the task of creating her own.

The manse in Waterfoot was a large stony building attached to the church. Secluded and anchored by fields with the hint of the sea in the distance, no matter how many fires were lit there was always a hint of winter in the air that refused to submit to the warmth. Growing up on a farm meant Ethel was accustomed to space and initially revelled in the seclusion, cultivating a garden and tending to the vegetable patch. Shortly after arriving in Waterfoot, Kenneth Stewart senior suffered a stroke and as his only son, Kenneth was required to look after the running of the family business back in Antrim until a suitably qualified replacement could be found. This meant that the Rev Stewart was gone long hours every day. Not one to indulge in dull moods, Ethel spent the waking hours of the day perfecting household tasks and tending her garden.  If she had time she would sneak into her husband’s library and attempt to read something enlightening, before eventually giving up and going back knitting clothes for the child she so longed.

Winters in Waterfoot were cold and hard. The icy wind affronted Ethel every time she took her afternoon walk on the beach. The Sisters of Mercy scowled at Ethel when they passed her by. She wondered what they looked like under their vast layers of dark clothing. Were they jealous of her flesh and blood husband compared to their intangible mate? Then she chastised herself for thinking such coarse thoughts. Every month fresh blood on the bedsheets heralded Ethel’s disappointment. Without the anticipated baby the void in Ethel’s heart grew bigger as did her despair. Rev Steward assured her that the Lord would provide and he nearly did. Baby John was born dead at four months and the words spoken at his funeral ‘The Lord giveth and taketh away’ seemed more prophetic than comforting.

One day in the village Ethel was vacantly queuing in the Butcher’s shop when she noticed a strange old looking woman shuffling up the street. The woman was wearing a long dark purple coat and had peacock feathers in her hair. She looked theatrical, not like the normal residents of the village.

“That’s Nuala Cahill,” said the woman from behind the counter.

“She’s a strange one. I’d stay away from the likes of her. Lives near you mid, on the coast road, up the glen.”

Ethel thanked the woman, took her sausages and went home.

Sunday morning came and the Rev Steward preached on Saul and the witch of Endor. That night Ethel dreamed of the witch. She dreamt the witch was reaching out to touch her but woke up startled before she could. Startled, she burnt her husband’s sausages at breakfast.

A trip to Bangor at Easter would cheer her up, her husband suggested.

It was St Bridget’s day, the first day of Spring. St Bridget’s crosses were proudly displayed in windows in the village. Ethel busied herself in her abundant garden which yielded a vast array of flowers, an insult to her own womb. A shadow was cast over and Ethel saw the strange woman standing on her path looking at her.

“What a lovely garden,” the old woman said.

Ethel stood up and slowly took the old woman in. Small, fail, slightly stooped over but she had big, kind eyes.

“Thank you, I always enjoyed having a nice garden.”

“Gives the mind something to focus on.”

“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” Ethel retorted, too quickly, a habit.

“Wise words indeed, Mrs?”

“Mrs Ethel Stewart. Please call me Ethel.” Ethel extended her hand.

“Oh yes, the minister’s wife. The talk of the town. I’m not religious myself but I have such respect for belief. I’m Nuala Cahill. I live up on the glen. I‘ve been admiring your garden on my walk into town. Please call on me someday if you have the time.”

At dinner that evening Ethel relayed the meeting to her husband.

She invited me over for tea. I should bring her a fruit loaf. Ethel said.

That would be the Christian thing to do indeed, said the Rev Stewart, not looking up from his newspaper.

The following Friday Ethel prepared the fruit loaf and set off over the glen. It was a warm spring day and she enjoyed the walk. In truth Ethel was excited to break the routine and have someone to talk too, even if people in the town considered her strange. Hadn’t Jesus dined with tax collectors and other non-socially acceptable sorts? Ethel picked the nicest flowers from her garden and arrived at Nuala’s shabby little outhouse.

Categories
Fiction

Steve Legomsky – Fiction

The Case of the Missing Sock

Yes, I am fully aware there are bigger problems in the world, but this is exasperating.  I do the laundry, bring it up from the basement to my second-floor bedroom to sort it and put it away, and find an odd number of socks.

The first time it happened, OK.  No big deal.  I assumed the missing sock had been left behind when I last emptied either the washer or the dryer.  Surely it would show up in the next batch.

So before starting the next laundry, I carefully inspected the insides of both the washer and the dryer.  The missing sock wasn’t there.  I got down on my hands and knees and surveyed the cold, hard, concrete floor areas around both machines.  No luck.

This was annoying.  No more annoying, I realize, than the daily frustrations anyone else has to put up with, but aggravating nonetheless.  I buy expensive socks, and losing one means losing a pair.  I also don’t have that many pairs of socks without holes, and sock-shopping is the last thing I have either the time or the inclination to do.

I started my new batch of laundry.  When I eventually got around to hauling it upstairs to my bedroom and sorting it, I was surprised – and frustrated – to discover an odd number of socks yet again.  I was getting agitated.  What the fuck is going on?

Categories
Fiction

James Babbs – fiction

Sometimes Softly Singing

 

There’s a crack running across the ceiling between the kitchen and the living room.  The crack has been up there for as long as I can remember.  Sometimes, the crack in the ceiling looks like a mouth.  A mouth wanting to scream but the mouth can’t scream because it can’t open wide enough to let the scream out so the sound of the scream stays buried inside.

Sometimes, when I’m sleeping, in the dead of the night, I suddenly awaken thinking I’ve heard screaming but when I’m sitting up in bed there’s only an eerie silence mixing with the darkness of the room.  But I stay like that for a moment or two taking deep breaths just trying to calm myself down.  Sometimes, when I lay back against the pillows, I can hear the big knife all the way from the kitchen singing me back to sleep.  Those are the nights I like the best.

The big knife sings all of the time.  The big knife has many different songs.  Sometimes, I hear the big knife screaming the words.  Sometimes, I hear it softly singing.  The big knife spends days and, sometimes, even weeks waiting in the bottom drawer feeling lonely and afraid.  I know this is the way the big knife feels because we have always had this kind of a connection.

All of the electrical outlets in every room of the house have little faces with slits for eyes and tiny round mouths.  The outlets always look like they’re screaming but they don’t ever make a sound.  Sometimes, when I push a cord into an outlet I expect to see blood come gushing out.  But there isn’t ever any blood and I always feel strange inside.

Categories
Fiction

Bruce McDougall – Fiction

Wishful thinking

 

 

He’d pushed his cart along three different aisles of the grocery store, through personal hygiene, paper products and crackers, and she’d appeared every time in the same aisle to look at items on a shelf right next to him. He felt sure the woman was stalking him.

It was Tuesday. His wife had gone away for the week with her book club. He’d driven to the store just before noon, when no one but old-age pensioners went grocery shopping. He had a list with him. He’d scribbled it on the back of the note that his wife had left yesterday on the kitchen counter while he waited outside in the car to drive her to the airport. “I love you,” she’d written. On the other side of the page, his grocery list began with broccoli.

He saw the woman for the first time as he was deciding whether to buy broccoli with stems or broccoli without stems, wondering if the inconvenience of slicing and disposing of a stem was worth an additional twenty cents. He saw her from the corner of his eye, examining carrots.

She had a mane of black hair, olive skin, dark eyes, dressed in black. Black stockings drew his eye to her legs. She looked fit, competent, probably good at her job, whatever it was. Judging from her appearance, he thought she might have come from a nearby office: run in, run out, so she wouldn’t have to waste time at the end of the day.

Moving past the apples, he reminded himself, as he did often these days, that he was twenty years older than he’d been the last time he’d become casually involved with a woman, and now he was married. Though he flattered himself that he was still endowed with a remnant of sexual credibility, he also knew that no woman would feel transported by the sight of a geezer of his vintage unless she was his wife or thought he was rich. On impulse, he dropped a six-dollar basket of raspberries into his cart. They weren’t on his list.

He advanced with his cart past slabs of cod in a freezer and turned into the personal hygiene section in search of hair and body wash. It came in a container that resembled shampoo, but he remembered from the last time that he’d done the grocery shopping that he’d found it, after a long fruitless search, in another section altogether, with the soap. His wife mocked him for buying it. She said it was hard on his skin and left a film on his hair. He said it was cheap and convenient; she said it was lazy. There were only three choices, and today one of them was on sale. One of them was always on sale, always much cheaper than shampoo or soap alone, probably because the store couldn’t get rid of the stuff unless it reduced the price. His wife was right. His skin felt dry, and he was losing his hair.

He looked down the aisle toward the deodorants, and there was the woman again, studying the top shelf. He wondered if she’d misinterpreted the raspberries in his cart as a symbol of disposable wealth. Perhaps in her mind, such lavish extravagance distinguished him from the poor economizing grunts in cheap nylon jackets who calculated the cost of broccoli stems. He reminded himself that raspberries weren’t on his list. Women go for spontaneity, he thought.

In recent years, he’d had a hard time telling a person’s age with any accuracy. He was often astonished to learn that men and women who hardly looked old enough to drive in fact were high-school teachers or partners in law firms, with children in the third grade. When he walked through the university campus downtown he wondered if he’d wandered into a class of visiting high-school students. This woman certainly looked older than that. She also looked as if she might have listened more than once to Marianne Faithful’s album, Broken English, in which the singer directed a compelling torrent of bile at the unscrupulous men who’d contributed to her suffering. Albums, he thought. Kids at university wouldn’t know what he was talking about. But she would.

He imagined their conversation as he fixed his eyes on the three brands of hair and body wash. He considered deviating once again from his list so that she wouldn’t think he was penny-pinching on his personal hygiene. He looked at the vast display of soaps and reminded himself that the companies that peddled these products spent a fortune on advertising. How much were you paying for the product and how much were you paying for the woman up to her neck in bubbles telling you to buy it? Of the three brands of hair and body wash, he grabbed the cheapest, tossed it into his cart and moved on. Decisive, deliberate and without hesitation: women liked those qualities in a man, too. He drove onward into paper products. The woman hadn’t been pushing a cart or even carrying a basket, and she was already holding a bag of carrots. With a tube of deodorant, her hands would be full. He’d likely not see her again.

Through the store’s sound system, he heard a song called Happy Together by The Turtles. He’d first heard that song in high school, driving in his mother’s car with a girl named Joanne, whose salesman father traveled every week to Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was the first time he’d heard of Kalamazoo. His sixteenth year was a good year. Whatever happened to Joanne?

He could have gone directly to the next items on his list. He’d shopped here enough times to have memorized the layout of the store. But today he wanted to break free of old routines, explore new worlds, live on the edge, cast his fate to the wind. Buoyed by the happy melody, he sailed through paper products and headed into cookies and crackers, grabbing a package of Oreo cookies to compensate for all the wasted years when he’d allowed caution and convention to suffocate his spontaneity. He placed the cookies in his cart, looked up and saw the woman in black, studying the Saltine crackers.

From her features and the way she was dressed, she might have run her own business or managed the loans department of a bank. He sensed that she was single or at the very least, available. Her features seemed composed like a model’s, with no deeper purpose than attracting a man’s attention. He sensed no foundation of commitment that would lend gravity to her flirtatiousness. Was she flirting? Or was she seeking revenge, Marianne Faithful of the Saltines, waiting for a chance to drive a pair of nail clippers into his eye?

She looked perplexed, as if she couldn’t make up her mind whether to buy crackers with salted or unsalted tops. He noticed that her hands were free. Whatever she’d carried from other sections of the store, she’d abandoned. She must be one of those people, he thought, who fill a bag with cashews in the bulk section and then, when they see in the confectionery section cashews in a jar at a lower price, simply discard the bulk bag on some random shelf, relying on an underpaid, beleaguered shelf stocker to retrieve it and put the nuts back where they belonged. He felt disappointed in the woman. He had little respect for people who make life difficult for others.

In the yoghurt aisle near the far end of the store, he realized that, in his moment of liberation from the tyranny of his list, he’d forgotten to pick up paper napkins. The price you pay for freedom, he thought. He parked his cart in front of the six packs of single-serving yoghurt. He figured no one would mind if he left his cart there. He’d never seen anyone buy those things. They were too expensive for most people’s budgets. He hurried back to paper products. When he returned with the napkins, the woman was standing near his cart, examining kefir through the glass doors.

Even then he resisted jumping to conclusions. She could be following a path similar to his through the store. It happened all the time. Two people entered the store, started their expedition in fruit and vegetables just inside the door, passed each other at the canned tuna, reconnected by the spaghetti sauce, made eye contact near the soda water and, by the time they reached the yoghurt, they felt as if they knew each other. They might not be friends, but they’d shared intimate details about their preferences and tastes that remained unknown to all but a few other people. Maybe she had her own list. He glanced again at the woman’s empty hands. She could have kept it in her pocket. Her hands looked sensitive and experienced.

He told himself to get a grip. Women didn’t dress up in attractive clothes so they could wander around a grocery store picking up strange men. He’d heard of men and women having casual encounters, but they happened in bars, not in the dairy aisle. Years ago, on a trip to Chicago to attend a medical convention, his friend, a doctor, had encountered a woman and her mother on a hotel elevator and ended up minutes later having sex with the daughter in a linen closet. When his friend told him the story, he hadn’t known exactly what to think. It sounded adventurous, spontaneous, kinky, unpromising, pedestrian, desperate, thoughtless, cavalier, aberrant, indulgent, perfunctory, silly and rather dog-like, all at the same time. Complicated, he’d said. “Complication’s all in your head,” his friend said. Such occasions had never presented themselves to him, or perhaps they had, and he hadn’t recognized them. Maybe this was such an occasion.

He pushed his buggy all the way to the back of the store, past the meat counter and the fresh fish, to the far corner where fresh-baked bread was stacked on wooden racks in front of a swinging metal door. The door opened into a dimly lit storage area. He seldom went to this part of the store. He didn’t eat much bread. He lingered for a moment beside the pumpernickel, feeling mildly disappointed that the woman hadn’t followed him. He turned and chugged past the over-priced organic produce and the shiny green root vegetables that cost less than a dollar and would feed a family of six. His wife once brought a durian home, where it sat for days on the kitchen counter like an organic brown Sputnik, until she finally hacked it apart and baked it in the oven. It smelled like a smoldering gym bag. He dropped a durian into his cart. A woman would have to be truly interested in a man who bought one of those things.

He made his way to the check-out counter. He’d loaded far more items into his cart than he’d put on his list, but he’d forgotten sparkling water. The store wasn’t busy. The cashier told him she’d wait while he went to fetch it. He returned quickly. After the conveyor belt transported the last of his groceries past the cash register, the cashier helped him stuff them into the canvas bags that he’d brought with him. He hoisted the bags into his cart and went back to the cash register to pay the bill. And there again was the woman in black, waiting for him to insert his credit card into the terminal. He tried not to look at her, but he noticed on the rubber conveyor belt a solitary bright green package of sugarless gum. She looks after her teeth, he thought.

Years ago, in the third grade, he’d ridden his bicycle up and down the street outside the house of a girl in his class named Oksana, hoping to draw her outside with the sheer force of his animal magnetism, but even then, he’d known that his magnetic force extended no further than his own imagination.

He took his groceries to his car, imagining that the woman was nearby. Perhaps that was her SUV in the parking space two away from his? He pushed his empty cart to the buggy corral and returned to his car, resisting the urge to survey the parking lot. What in the hell did he want to happen? He was a married man.

He drove away feeling relieved, disappointed, unadventurous and foolish. He couldn’t count the number of times in his life he’d felt the same way. If Oksana had burst out of her house when he was nine years old and pursued him down the street like an intoxicated groupie chasing Mick Jagger, he wouldn’t have known what to do. Now, as always, he doubted that he would ever find out.

 

 

🍃

Bruce McDougall