By Alex Scarelli
Thunder sounded as Claire stood from her garden and wiped the dirt off her bare knees. She took off her gloves and wiped her dewy forehead with her forearm. Her shoulders, exposed in one of her ratty tank-tops she used for her daily chores, felt tight and burned under the mid-August sun as she tidied around her, arranging the vegetables she picked in large wicker basket.
A breeze came from the west and last year’s dead, crisp leaves sailed from the edge of the woods and settled among the base of her bean tents. Tomorrow, Claire thought as she watched the leaves accumulate beside the tent. She settled the handle of the basket in the crook of her arm. Tomorrow I’ll clean up after the storm.
Contrary to what the weatherman predicted, the morning had featured a nearly cloudless sky. Claire awoke to sun beaming in the window behind the lace curtains of her bedroom. As she stretched, she planned her day: She would straighten out the house and work in her garden for a while. After, she would shower and dress for her grandson Adam’s third birthday.
Claire told her daughter, Julie, that she would bring a salad to the party. Upon coming in from her garden, Claire turned on the faucet of the sink in the kitchen and began cleaning the vegetables. She washed the cucumber and lettuce, and placed the carrots against her index finger and scoured them with her thumb, the soil falling off in small clumps and swirling around the base of the sink until they floated down the drain.
Claire turned off the faucet, wiped her wet hands on the back of her shorts, and reached for the salad bowl in the cabinet above the stove. The Franciscan dinnerware piece was a gift from her husband the previous Christmas, the last she received from him. On a pale yellow background, dark, hand-painted burgundy apples and myrtle-green leaves attached to thin, dark branches set upon the inner sides of the bowl. Claire had gasped when she pulled away the red tissue paper in the box last Christmas. Just like my mother’s, she had said. How did you find this? This set is at least 30 years old!
Her husband smiled at her from the recliner across the room. She looked to him and noticed the cannula loose in his nostrils. She set the gift box on the coffee table, walked to him, pushed the ends of the cannula in his nose, and tightened the tube around his head. Thank you, he said, and slowly craned his neck to kiss her. He settled back, breathed deep and coughed.
Claire took her knife and cutting board from the drawer beside the stove and set them beside the pile of vegetables. She put on the pair of sunglasses she kept atop the microwave and grabbed an onion from the basket. Claire began to slice it and even from behind the lenses, her eyes began to water. Claire finished the task in a hurry and placed the sliced onion in the bowl. She took out a towel from a drawer to wipe her eyes. She removed her sunglasses and began to cut the carrots, celery and the heads of lettuce she grew in garden by the shed. As she cut, she thought, Was a salad enough? Shouldn’t I help out more?
The year before, she arrived to Adam’s second birthday at 11:00, three hours before the hour written on the invitation. She had settled her husband on the recliner in Julie’s living room, and then chased Adam around the house and appeased his requests to play with his trucks and blocks as Julie and her husband prepared for the party. When the neighbors, family members and coworkers arrived, Claire made herself busy replenishing empty glasses, setting out food, clearing away plates, and washing pans and dinnerware in the sink.
Claire watched from the corner of the living room as Adam opened his presents. Two neighborhood girls gathered the wrapping paper and filled the trash bags Julie placed beside the gift table. Claire tried not to roll her eyes or step in as Henry, the 4-year-old son of Julie’s husband’s friend, crowded Adam and took his newly unwrapped toys to examine for himself. After the party, when Julie expressed her frustration at Henry, Claire only sighed and told her daughter, It’s the age. Just wait, next time Adam goes to a party, he’ll do the same thing.
It all seemed so exhausting now – the kids running around the house, the placing and clearing of food and dishes, and the casual, forced conversation with relatives she spoke with so infrequently. She imagined the conversations: Someone would gently ask, How are you?, their head cocked at a slight angle and their hand on her arm. And what was she to say? My husband’s dead. I see my shadow and I think it’s him.
Claire called Julie and told her she was ill. She said she didn’t want to get any of the kids or guests sick and so she’d decided to stay home.
“Are you sure?” Julie asked.
“Yes,” Claire said. “I think it’s just a bug. I should be fine tomorrow. Maybe I’ll come for dinner.”
“We’re leaving for Florida on Tuesday. I’m going to be running errands all day tomorrow.”
“Maybe I’ll come when you get back. I can watch Adam and you can go shopping.”
“Maybe. I’ll call you,” Julie said. “No, no, stop it!” Julie said away from the receiver. “Mom, I have to go. Adam just put his fist in the cake.”
Julie hung up the phone as Claire said, “Goodbye.”
Claire held down the receiver, released it, and waited for the dial tone. She had asked her son Peter to pick her up on his way to Julie’s, and she needed to call him to say she had decided not to go to the party. He would ask if she was alright and if she wanted him to pick up something from the drugstore or if she needed him to visit. She would decline and continue with the story of her illness. He would stay on the line after he said his goodbye, waiting for her to say something more.
But, she wouldn’t reveal anything. Except, if she could hear his breathing, maybe she would tell him about the sky that morning, how the sun bronzed her shoulders as she weeded her garden, and about how the one solitary cloud in the sky rested above her before the storm rolled in and forced her inside.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student