by Mark Conkling
Jeremy leaned forward on his handicapped walker. “Mother, that’s insane. There’s absolutely no reason to burn the house down.”
Naomi crossed her arms. “Do what I say. Burn it down the day after my funeral.”
“I don’t ever want anyone else cooking in my kitchen, sleeping in my bedroom, or using my bathroom. You can build a new house with your inheritance.”
“Did something happen here we don’t know about?” Jeremy asked.
Naomi turned abruptly and stormed off.
Jeremy felt betrayed. His father had built the house, and Jeremy believed he could live there until he died.
The next morning he swung his leg out of the car and unfolded his walker. Kinsey, Kayser, and Snyman, PA provided good handicapped access. Doug Kinsey had been the family attorney for years.
“Good to see you, Jeremy. I have a draft of your mother’s last will and testament.”
Jeremy didn’t want to look at the will, but he knew he would because he should. He eased himself into a red leather, wingback chair, and his eyes darted around the room quickly. He was tall, balding, and had clear blue eyes set between high cheekbones. His mother said he looked like a chicken hawk.
The photos on the wall included one of Doug Kinsey with Jeremy’s father. Doug was congratulating Edward on his election to City Council. That was four years before a motorcycle accident killed Edward on the county road bridge south of Norwalk, Iowa. It happened forty years ago, when Jeremy was eleven. He still remembered his mother’s gangly frame bent over his father’s open casket. When she turned around, she revealed a blank stare and clenched teeth that made a quiet grinding sound.
One year later to the day, Jeremy fell down the basement stairs. Naomi hated the stairs, so Jeremy carried the laundry basket for her. He slipped. She grabbed at the air, trying to catch him as he pitched forward, tumbled, fell on his back, and broke his spine.
Jeremy worked hard in rehabilitation. After two years he got around with a walker, but his sexual urges were gone forever, along with control of his bladder. By age fourteen he used his walker with ease and emptied his urine bag twice a day. Naomi kept him at home with her—perhaps her penance. She took high doses of Prozac to cope.
Naomi wore reading glasses down on her nose, read Victorian romance novels, and grew roses by the front door. She talked to her parakeets and cleaned their cage every day. One summer, when Jeremy was nineteen and Naomi was gone, he let both parakeets out through an open window. “You’re free now. Go on, fly away.” Naomi blamed herself for leaving the door open and bought two more. She said that chirping birds made the household brighter.
Jeremy wore cardigan sweaters instead of the sport coats Naomi bought him for Christmas and his birthdays.
“Jeremy, you look so sloppy in that sweater. Sport coats draw attention to your shoulders instead of your legs, and you don’t look so crippled.”
“I hate sport coats.” Every year he took them to the Goodwill store.
Jeremy volunteered at church and managed the sharecroppers who rotated soybeans and corn on the 320-acre family farm. He never married, although he had a girlfriend whom he met at church. Sadly, she moved on when she discovered his hopeless impotence.
“I want your mother and Mary Ann to review this too,” Doug said.
“I’ll take care of it.” He wasn’t eager to spend the time with his sister.
A heavy woman, Mary Ann was two years older than Jeremy. She frequently told him that she didn’t trust his optimism. She had dusty brown hair, sad gray eyes, and a wide mouth with teeth set apart. She often folded her arms across her ample breasts as though she was ashamed of them. Breast reduction surgery had done little to relieve her backaches. The doctor said she needed to lose 160 pounds.
Mary Ann grew up slender. She started eating a lot in the fall just after her sixteenth birthday and a four-day trip to the Iowa State Fair with her father. That weekend and the pies and cakes and jams and jellies in the Varied Industries Building fueled her newfound craving to eat.
Occasionally Mary Ann would get her hand mirror, raise her dress, pull up the apron of fat that hung in front, and look at her tattoo. Below her naval she had a little brown fox with a bushy tail, black eyes, and a white face with an impish grin. That weekend Edward had called her “my little fox” at the State Fair when she got the tattoo. They had chosen the fox because he said it would make her feel free and playful, a woman ready for the future. Once she told Jeremy that she remembered Edward hugging her, his rough cheek scratching her skin, and his smell of Aqua Velva. He laughed and told her afterwards, “Okay, now you’re ready to head out into the wild blue yonder!” Even after thirty-nine years, she said the memory still made her quiver. Then he went and died on her, chasing his own dreams on a motorcycle. “I’ve hated him ever since.”
When Mary Ann was twenty-one, Naomi built her a house next door. She worked as a checker at the Hy-Vee grocery for thirty years and loved pastries. She could eat a chocolate cake and two large blueberry muffins while watching The Young and the Restless and still pack away a large dinner.
Mary Ann harbored a secret. Twice a month, usually on Friday at about two in the afternoon, she would position herself carefully in her La-Z-Boy recliner. By sitting just right, she could masturbate with her vibrator, nibble on chocolate chip cookies, and watch her program—all at the same time. Once she told a friend at her Overeaters Anonymous meeting what she did. After the reaction she got, she never told anyone again.
On Sundays Naomi cooked dinner for all three of them. She would dress, set the table with her best china and crystal, and they would sit together for two hours, reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Naomi frowned at Jeremy. “You’re both clear on what I want, right?”
“Yes, but it’s a damn shame to destroy what Father built.”
Mary Ann folded her arms. “I’m clear.”
They held hands, Jeremy said grace, and then he began talking about his hospital visit.
“I went to see Herman today. He lost his foot in a tractor accident, and his missing foot hurts all the time. Drugs don’t help.”
“What do you say to someone like that?” Naomi asked.
“Keep the faith. Stay strong. I told him that one day I just got tired of resenting my injury, and I surrendered to my fate. Then life changed.”
Mary Ann rolled her eyes, and Naomi passed her the spinach salad. “I seem to be losing a little weight.” She poured globs of ranch dressing on the salad, spooned out some mashed potatoes, and smothered them with gravy. “Tell me, Mother, did Father ever court you?”
“Your father was never romantic and he never laughed.”
“Why did you marry him?”
“Well, he was kind and decent, and he carried the burden of the family.”
“You’re an eligible widow—why don’t you ever date?”
“Because relationships cause suffering and I can’t imagine any men I could stand. Let’s change the subject.”
Mary Ann often reported on what people bought at the Hy-Vee store. “Earl Shipley bought three condoms, six packages of Little Miss Debbie Cakes, two pounds of soup bones, twelve cartons of low-fat fruit yogurt, and a Cosmopolitan magazine. He’s very strange and his pants are too short, but he always smiles at me. Last night he asked me if I was as lonely as he was. I want to invite him for dinner.”
Naomi raised her eyebrows. “Nonsense. It’s not our job to take care of Earl’s problems.” She glanced at Jeremy. “My heavens, I can barely deal with my own.”
Pancreatic cancer took Naomi three months after spring planting. The day after the funeral, the firefighters and scores of neighbors gathered to watch the fire. Jeremy and Mary Ann stood with Doug Kinsey as the house roared and crackled with flames, as if to shout out the departure of Naomi’s spirit. For years she had tried to remember where she stashed them, and even searched for them, but to no avail. She knew they were somewhere in the basement behind a wall panel or tucked up in the floor joists, safe from prying eyes.
The hot, billowing smoke dispersed the ashes and embers of everything that would burn, including those filthy pornographic love letters written to Edward from that tart Lois. Soon the house, Naomi’s spirit, and the letters disappeared forever, way up into the wild blue yonder.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing