Dec '03 [Home]
Hunter MFA Fiction
Can You Adjust?
The house is uncomfortably warm. Every heating implement, every appliance that could roast, fry, slow-cook, boil, percolate, bake, mix or mash has been called into service. Grandchildren, glassy-eyed and ruddy-cheeked, have been told to play in the snow. Daughters and husbands have been sent out to retrieve last-minute requests from the mother: cloves, cornstarch, cheesecloth.
The eldest daughter, Ann, sits down at the kitchen table: a garage-sale purchase her mother had refinished with finely grained sandpaper. A tree-shaped tray of Christmas cookies picked clean of everything desirable sits with two empty coffee cups. Her mother stands before a pot on the stove, stirring. She looks toward the window behind Ann's head, where just beyond the glass, frozen branches, eaves and snowdrifts comprise the severe geometry of Wisconsin winter.
Ann turns to look out, too. The four girl grandchildren are at the end of the driveway: the eight-year-old and the twelve-year-old belong to her; her sister's girls are six and ten. They have segregated themselves by age, as they always do: the two older ones, patient and industrious, have hollowed out the enormous mound left by the snowplow this morning. She sees their hooded heads poking out the top of the structure as they pack the remaining snow into walls. The younger ones appear to have the beginnings of a snowman, though Ann can see that her youngest, Joan, has abandoned the project and is lurking around the big girls' snow house, hoping to be invited inside.
"Why don't you put more cookies on the tray?" her mother says.
"Those kids really went to town on them, looks like," Ann says, standing up.
"I think you did your share, too."
Ann attempts a laugh. "Well if you can't splurge a little at Christmas, when can you?"
It comes out of her mouth sounding more defensive than she would have liked, as usual. She pulls at the hem of her top, knowing that her mother sees the extra layer of flesh she has tried to hide with long sweaters, with ankle-length skirts. She pries covers off tins filled with cookies separated by layers of wax paper, arranging fudge and rice krispie bars among those rejected on the basis of candied fruit or excessive food coloring.
On the dining room wall are photographs of the three children, all girls, each taken just before their senior year in high school. Ann's picture hangs just above the two of her sisters, in the same place it has since 1960, twenty years past. The angora sweater she wore that day was white, but the photographer told her in the final product he could make it any color she wanted. "Like magic," he said. She chose aqua. She had never owned anything that color. When she and her mother picked up the photograph, Ann noticed that the man had colorized her mouth as well, giving it an obscene rosiness with his brush. Her mother pursed her lips when she looked at it, said nothing.
There were two other daughters, neither of whom lived long enough to be photographed, to have their images manipulated. The one who would have been third lived two days before she was placed into a tiny casket and lowered into the ground in the consecrated part of the cemetery. The fifth little girl was a stillborn presented to the mother on a piece of brown paper before being whisked away. "You have other children at home," the doctor said. The mother nodded mutely, fearing that if she attempted to speak, tears would come pouring out of her mouth as well as her eyes.
The stillborn was relegated to the unconsecrated part of the cemetery, near the highway, with all of the other unbaptized babies and suicides forever stranded in limbo. She was separated from her sister and the rest of the heaven-bound by a rectangular expanse of grass measuring a few hundred square feet. The mother planted a hardy perennial called Hens and Chicks next to their two diminutive granite gravestones.
Sometimes, she visited them, alone, on the way back from a trip to the bakery or the supermarket. After the ground thawed in April, she would pluck the shriveled leaves off the plants, making room for new growth.
"He's been having an affair—someone from work. It's been going on for a while, now." These are practiced words; still, her heart pounds, rattling in her ribcage.
"Are you sure?" Her mother looks at her, stopping.
"Yeah." Ann waits. Her mother stands in front of the stove, spoon aloft.
"Can you adjust?" Her mother says, resuming the circular motion.
Ann takes a piece of candy off the tray. It is a wreath made out of cornflakes soldered together with corn syrup, bitter with green food coloring. Candy red-hots approximate holly berries. It is nobody's favorite. A cloying sweetness fills her mouth, followed by the burn of cinnamon. She swallows with effort, with the sense of something substantial and unyielding in her throat.
Ann leans closer to the window, her cheek nearly touching the cold glass. She watches Joan emerge from an opening in the side of the completed snow house. The small girl waves a mittened hand at her, wildly. She had been waiting for her mother to look.
(Maureen Leary is a graduate student in the MFA program for Creative Writing at Hunter College where she was the recipient of the 2003 Bernard Cohen Prize for Fiction. She has had work published in Bust magazine and The Beloit Fiction Journal. She lives in New York City.)