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Pris

 

Pris



Pris drew her left baby finger over the raised arch of her brow and reached for the doorknob, but she did not turn it.

Peering in at her through the door window – bold as a hat -- was a woman with no coat on. Her breath made clouds in front of her face and she tilted her head a little, encouraging Pris to open up already. The two women’s eyes stayed linked until the outsider looked down to her right.

“Keep still, now. She ain’t gonna let us freeze out here.” Pris followed her glance to see the child. He was no more than three and was hopping from foot to foot, moving to keep himself warm. When he looked up and saw Pris peering at him, he smiled with the whitest teeth that she had ever seen. Yet, her hand did not twist on the knob.

The woman on her front porch, standing up for all the neighbors to see, was tall, at least 5’10.” Her eyes were aqua marine and ringed with dark black lashes. But there was no light to them. There was no supplication or shame, nor any warmth either. Her cheeks were ravaged and deep pocks marred the otherwise smooth cream of her complexion. Her clothes were whole but unmatched and the man’s plaid jacket that covered the cardigan was missing all of its buttons.

“Ma’am. Open up. Please, I gotta talk to ya.” Pris could hear her but her hand stayed frozen on the knob. She could hear the treasured tick of her grandmother’s clock. A curtain flipped in a window across the street jolted Pris back to what was happening.

“We don’t need any of whatever it is.” Her voice sounded thin and watery, even to her. “Thanks for coming by, though.” She moved back from the door, but the lady on her step didn’t respond in the socially-correct way. Move off, thought Pris. She could feel her chest tightening. Go! But the woman shifted her weight to one foot and held up the hand of her son. Across the street, the curtain moved slowly. Pris went back to the door and opened it.

The little boy scrambled into the warmth and looked around in wonder. The 12-foot walls were clad in crimson brocade and the ornate curls of the gilt mirror frame sparkled with the light from the chandelier above it. The cleaners had come the day before, so the house still smelled of lemon furniture polish. The mother came in after her son, but she kept her eyes on Pris, who was stretching her five-foot frame as long as it would go, pulling all her fibers into the beam that ran down the center of her body. She looked like she could be plucked like a banjo. “Yes?”

“Ma’am, I’m real sorry to bother you, but me and my boy, we need some help. Do you have some work we could do? Clean the windas, maybe polish…” the bravado cracked as the smell of competent clean reached her nose, or maybe the smoothness of the pristine finish on the hall table registered. She looked down at the swirls on the Oriental carpet. “Ma’am, anything at all, even outside.”

“I’m so sorry, I really don’t have anything at all…” Pris reached for any task that wasn’t already ably hired out. Really, it was quite impossible. And why did this person think she could walk right up to her door and ask for work? Like the Pattersons employed just anybody. Or that they didn’t do their part for those less fortunate. Why just last week, Pris had given many clothes to Blakely Methodist. Pris lifted her chin. She didn’t have to feel threatened. They did enough, God knows. The more she contemplated the reality of the situation, the more resolved she was to sweep these people out of her home and get back to her book. “So, if you’ll excuse me…” Pris made a move to corral the woman toward the door, then remembered the child. “Your son…” Was nowhere in sight. “Where is your child?

“Oh, crap. Nathan? Nathan, you get back here. C’mon now.” She paused, looked at Pris, “may I?” Pris gestured down the long entry hallway and into the large open family room at the end of it. The stranger peaked around the mahogany walls of the office on the right, the gracious dining room on the left, then stopped at the entryway to the great room, casting her gaze from the fireplace at one end to the kitchen at the other. No Nathan. “Nathan. That’s enough now. Come out here, now! Ma’am, I’m real sorry about this. He’s a good kid. I don’t know what –“

“Well, I can’t have this. You need to get your boy and leave. I was just going out..” The timbre in Pris’s voice climbed to sonic proportions. Her right index nail picked at the left thumb nail, even though Carlita had seen to its hygiene, shape and polish only yesterday. “Mabel. Come here. We need you.”

“Yes, ma’am, you need?” Mabel was wiping her hands dry on a tea towel. There was no emotion registered on her face as she took in the stranger. Pris explained the situation and sent her maid to the back part of the home to search.

But Pris stayed close to the woman, peering around her into the galleries and alcoves of her own home. No boy. The woman punctuated her calls to Nathan with apologies to Pris. A little child like him could get into anything, thought Pris. Even now he could be under a bed, his grubby fingers clutching her diamond dinner ring – thank God, she was wearing her best, most sentimental pieces. Or he’s out in the garage starting the engine of the Mercedes. Or he’s wrapped in a volume of drapery, hiding and stifling his giggles. Godammit! Where’s the little shit? Pris blanched at her language and breathed in, thankful that the words had remained in her head. The women had checked most of the main floor and were coming down the back stairs from a circumnavigation of the upper rooms when they saw him.

The child was tiny among the myriad overstuffed cushions on the couch of Jock’s office. His feet were dangling off the edge of the seat and his face was greasy. In his fingers was a cold chicken leg from last night’s dinner. His eyes contemplated his bouncing feet when they weren’t concentrated on the meat, planning the next attack. He didn’t look up at the sound of his mother.

“Nathan! Stop that. Stop eating that right now. Where did you get it? Nathan, c’mon now.” The child was unfazed by the barrage and continued to munch contentedly.

“Well, you might as well let him finish it. Mabel, we need a cloth in here,” Pris yelled. “Mabel? Where is she?” Pris moved toward the kitchen, mumbling about doing everything herself. She could put together a sandwich, she thought; these people must be hungry. She began to look forward to herself as a Samaritan, telling Angela. But when she rounded the corner into the kitchen, her plans changed. “Mabel! Now.” The refrigerator doors were wide open, revealing the sideways milk jug dripping the last of its contents onto the floor. Several pots of food lay open and scattered in the puddle of milk. A trail of smudgy footprints led around the island and toward the office. It looked like a family of raccoons had been holidaying for a week. Mabel rushed in, “Oh,” she breathed. She tiptoed over to the garbage pail, removed it from the pull-out cupboard and pulled it over to the fridge. She plucked the brick of last night’s lasagna out of the puddle.

It took a moment for Pris to realize as she watched Mabel that she was gripping the edge of the granite countertop like a cliff top. She peered down at her white fingers and consciously loosened them. But her resolved congealed and she went back into the office.

“Ma’am, I need you to take yourself and your boy out of my house. Right now. Or I’m going to call the police.” Her words only galvanized herself; the woman was already on the move. She had the greasy bone and some grapes in one hand, and the shoulder of her son’s jacket in the other and was yanking him off the couch and onto his feet. Pris watched as the boy’s head disappeared into the collar of his coat. When he was planted on the floor, his head popped back out and his lips widened around a smile that beamed directly into the grey eyes of his hostess.

“Nathan, we hafta go. What got into you? I’m so sorry Ma’am.” The woman held out the refuse toward Pris, then paused.

“Do you want me to put this in the trash?” Mabel came in to collect it. No more words were exchanged. Pris followed the woman and the boy down the hall toward the front door. They were almost out, just a yard or so to the doorknob, when the boy urgently grabbed his mother’s leg and made a grunting cough.

“Mama, I don’t…” But Pris was having none of it. “Okay,” she said like she was wrapping up a gala committee meeting, “All the best out there. Thanks for coming by.” She whipped around the pair and wrenched the door open. The mother half-dragged her son out into the weather. Pris closed the door, just shy of a slam and braced her back against it. Maybe I should shower, she thought. But she could still hear the pair outside: the mother’s words tender, the boy’s panicked. Then she heard the wracking of vomiting. She turned to peer out the etched glass saw the tiny frame bent into the Indian Hawthorn. She turned back around, surveyed the grace and order of her entry way. “Thanks for coming by?”


Pris exhaled and pulled on a cashmere cardigan against the cold she suddenly felt. She went back into Jock’s study to check its tidiness, and get out the glasses. She looked forward to her and Jock’s evening ritual of a drink and conversation. She did not go over to the mirror, but her fingers did reach up to fluff her hair and feel for an opening in the curls at the top of her scalp. The beating of the clock did not sooth today; she felt on edge, knowing she wouldn’t be able to choke back any of the beef tenderloin Mabel had made. She rested her hands on the back of the sofa, clenched her fingers. Maybe I should set this couch on fire, she thought. It would be easy; get something flammable, like propane, or not even just a few matches carefully set. She saw the flames, tentative at first, needing care, then keen and hungry, lapping up her chintz curtains…

“Hello, Priscilla.” Jock’s voice behind her made her lurch. How did he materialize like that? Her gripping fingers were stiff; she watched them as she controlled their release of the couch. Then she straightened and turned to her look up to her husband, “Hello, dear. Did you have a nice day?”

“It was alright. What are you drinking?”

“Scotch.”

He did not stop to look at her, just threw over his shoulder: “Tough day?” She did not answer and he did not ask again. She watched as he poured the drinks then brought them over. His eyes were underscored by dark patches in his skin; the pores on his pendulous nose were cavernous. One side of her mouth smiled as she remembered looking at great uncle Rudy when she was in her teens. Rudy had had a nose like Jock’s and great dripping ear lobes, too. At the time, she was appalled at great aunt Doris’s tenacity or stupor in staying with, even – God – touching him. But she had consoled herself with the assurance that they no longer had sex or even embraced. No older adults did, in her mind. Pris’s focus came back to the scotch Jock was holding, reached for it like a lifeline.

“Thanks.” Jock moved over to the couch and the same spot where Nathan had been picnicking. His descent was sudden; his stomach was like a fitness ball sticking out of his middle, but filled with wet sand, not air. Pris took a sip. The first sliver of fire down her throat stopped the enervation of her shoulders and closed her eyes, the better to caress the liquid internally.

She did not move over to sit with her husband, just stood rooted, her entire being alert, concentrating on the burning liquor. Sip after tiny sip and then she breathed out long and slow. “Ahhhh.” Jock did not register her voice, but flipped the sports section to flatten out the crease after he’d turned the page. “Reynolds is being sacked. About time.”

Finally, Pris felt ready to sit and she chose a deep chair opposite the couch. She perched on the edge and her shiny nail picked at the pattern in the upholstery. Her eyes registered nothing in particular, but her frame softened and the thudding of her heart calmed. Her lids lowered slightly and she began a tuneless hum. The pendulum of the grandfather’s clock continued its arc, back and forth, back and forth. She became aware of Jock’s eyes boring and judging. A cold tingle tickled her scalp.

“What are you singing? And why are you doing it? You’re just staring into space. What’s the matter with you?” Jock’s words did little to draw out the raw emotions roiling in Pris’s gut.

“Oh, it’s nothing, really, I’m just –“

“What? I can’t hear you. Speak up.”

“Well, I –it’s nothing to worry about…”

“Priscilla.” The word was a slap. “If you’re going to say anything, speak out loud.” He spoke quietly and slowly as if she were a foreigner. The grip on her glass threatened to break a nail. She rose, never once taking her eyes off of his. She moved to the back of the couch, the back of him. He did not turn to look. She raised the glass over his head and tipped it slowly. The first seven drips of scotch did not register, but by the time the glass was emptied over his head, Jock was in a new mood. His paw grabbed her first, gripping her wrist. Then he reached up with his other arm and plucked her from off the floor and into his lap. He was blinking from the alcohol.

“That’s a waste of good scotch.” The strength of his arms, the menace in his voice and the leer in his eyes put a hornet’s nest in Pris’s stomach. The sensation moved down past her belly button and between her legs. Jock pushed his face into hers and opened his mouth. The taste of the booze sprinkled spice into his embrace and she opened her mouth to him. At once, it could not be more critical and she straddled him, pressing herself into his gut. She tucked her pelvis under and shifted to search for his erection. Ahhh. There it was.

“Take me upstairs.” He shifted forward on the seat cushion and lurched to a standing position, the weight of his own girth more debilitating than the weight of his wife. But he made it to a vertical position and Pris hung on. She was still a baby chimpanzee clinging to its mother when they moved past the entry to the kitchen. She nuzzled his neck and moaned.

“Will that be all for today, ma’am?”

 

Joy Oden

 

Joy Oden teaches English at Houston Community College and another private school for paralegals. She also teaches Pilates at her local community center. But she prefers to write. She has been a contributing writer for Newcomer’s Magazines, has designed and written blogs for The Center for Advanced Legal Studies and has had one story published in FreeFall. She is a Canadian, with an Australian passport who swelters in Texas.

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1 Comments

  1. delightful and enjoyable. not every fiction needs a dark corner. thanks for that.

    ReplyDelete