First of all, thanks to everyone who submitted to the contest! There were a lot of really great entries and we enjoyed reading all of them! Today we will post the fourth runner-up in the contest for prose. Another post will be put up later today for the poetry section. So here we go!
The fourth runner-up prose is Jen Mickalski of Baltimore, MD! Thanks, Jen! Now, here's her story. Enjoy!
When I pull up to my mother’s street in Essex they welcome me, the apple-cheeked elves and reindeer and carolers adorning Georgia Raines’ house next door. Georgia Raines has been dead for five months, since December 17th, and the inhabitants of the winter wonderland that is her enclosed porch pretend not to know, not to have heard the news. Every month I drive five hours to see my mother, from Virginia Beach to southeastern Baltimore County, dreading them, their dusty gaiety, the fallen tacks and tape and precariously hanging lights that cannot be fixed, adjusted, the way they make my mother’s neighborhood so trailer trash, as if it needed further help these days. I have taken the liberty, during my monthly visits, of removing the wooden and plastic yard signs and outdoor lights from the perimeter of Georgia Raines’ house, storing them in Mom’s shed, but everything in the enclosed porch remains, mocking me, daring me to perform special ops in the middle of the night.
“Cindy will be back in the summer, Kyle” my mother reminds me each visit. Georgia’s children, Cindy and Daryl and Leonard, live out of state and had come for Georgia’s funeral and burial. After a week, they left, leaving the house intact. It was paid for, they figured, and would render them only a modest profit when one accounted for the several weeks of work they needed to put into straightening it up and going through their mother’s things. Cindy was a teacher, and it was decided she would come back during summer vacation to do most of the work. However, some breakdown occurred during this conversation among brother, sister, and brother, and they all left last winter without any of them attending to this seasonal piece of clean-up.
“When I come back in June and they’re still up, I swear I’m going to break that lock.” I wash my hands as Mom puts some chicken salad, pickles, and potato chips on the table. The pickles are kosher dill, not the regular dill that I like, and it worries me that Mom has forgotten this. So many things worry me about Mom. “It invites thieves, the house looking like that. And if they’re going to break into Georgia’s, who’s to say they’re not going to break in here, too?”
“Honey, we never have any trouble here.” Mom sits across from me with her coffee. Her glasses are smudged, and I wish there was a way to draw her attention to them without telling her. “I’ll be fine. I’ve lived in this neighborhood all my life and nothing’s ever happened.”
“The neighborhood’s changing, Mom.” I take a generous sip of iced tea. “You know, there’s lots of…renters now.”
“What’s ‘renters’ that the Army word for, Kyle? Poor people?” She smoothes the plastic covering overtop the lace doily tablecloth. “There’s nothing wrong with the families moving in here. If they can afford to live here, well, that’s saying something, right?”
I don’t argue Mom’s skewed concept of gentrification. But I often wonder what would have happened if Dad were still alive. They lived in Essex, Maryland, all their lives to be close to Dad’s work at Martin State Airport, but he’d often talked about retiring to Florida—St. Petersburg or something. Now he’s gone, and suddenly I find myself worrying about things that, for years, were mostly his responsibly, like the cabin on the Susquehanna, his savings, but mostly Mom.
Not that I’m selfish. I mean, it’s not as if we don’t have our own things to worry about. Back when I didn’t visit so much, when Dad was still alive, I was going through my divorce from my wife Penny. Although it pains me to say it, she didn’t understand me like I thought she did. Or me her.
I can’t do it anymore, Kyle. She stuffed her shoddily folded underwear into the luggage with the ripped stitching on the side. I can’t be this perfect little neat-freak wife you want. It’s not realistic. I can’t do it.
What’s so hard about paying a little attention to yourself? I pulled the underwear away from her and folded it into thirds as an example. What’s so hard about paying a little attention to how we present ourselves?
Our house is not the barracks. She snatched the underwear back and threw it, unfolded, into the luggage case. I’m not some decoration. Why didn’t you marry a maid, Kyle? That seems like it would’ve been able to give you the big old hard on you’ve always wanted.
Well, your slovenly ways certainly aren’t arousing to me, I answered, then regretted saying it. But maybe I didn’t.
“I’m not selling the house and living with you, if that’s what you’re implying,” Mom continues, after I’ve fallen silent. “Your father and I worked hard on this house. We spent our entire lives here. Besides, I’m sure you’ve got plenty of bachelor things with the ladies down in Virginia Beach.”
“I haven’t been dating anyone, Mom,” I answer. “I’m forty-five years old. I’m not a bachelor. I’m middle-aged.”
“You’re not still hung up on Penny, are you, Kyle?” She takes my plate and heads toward the kitchen.
“I’m not hung up on anybody, Mom. I’m just worried about you, is all.”
I brush the crumbs off the plastic table cover into my hand and follow her. Everything is neat and orderly, aside from the smudge on her glasses, and I am relieved. After Dad’s Alzheimer’s, any item out of place gnaws at my stomach. I can still see his church shoes, his wing tips, sitting by the orange juice in the refrigerator. Stealthily, I crack the refrigerator door open while Mom washes my plate.
“Kyle, there’s some coconut crème pie in there,” she mentions, and I watch the thin stream of water from the faucet run into the rivulets of her gnarly, liver-spotted hands, a landscape of trees speckled with geese. I take the damp plate and buff it dry, shiny. Spotless.
“Maybe later, Mom. You said you were having trouble with the hot water heater?”
Later, I can’t sleep. The neighbors from two houses down have been having an argument for the better part of two hours. Mom pretended not to notice before she went to bed. I’m half tempted to go down there and throttle both of them myself, but instead I lie stiff in bed, flexing and relaxing all my muscles from my feet to my head. My counselor suggested it as a way to diffuse my anger, my anger at seemingly everything lately. It’s so hard to lead a simple, good life these days. So many cheaters, liars, slobs. I’ve tried to so hard, I tell him, my counselor, no saint himself, but at the end of the day what do I have? My cat Lobo and my Jeep. And Mom. But how much longer?
I creep down the stairs and stand on the porch, digging around in my backpack for the pack of Camels I keep around for emergencies such as these. I crouch down near the azalea bush by the front steps and exhale into a sock I’ve stuffed with drier sheets. I imagine I look like I’m huffing something much worse, but who would care in this neighborhood these days? The neighbors two doors down have quieted, and I walk around to the back of the house to survey my mother’s shed, garden, and the gazebo Dad and I built six or seven years ago for Mother’s Day. Everything looks in good shape, and the spring grass has begun to sprout, little tufts of hair through the damp, soft skull of earth. I follow the line of green until it meets Georgia’s lawn, which is riddled with weeds and trash.
Georgia’s yard looks so abandoned, such an eyesore, and I’m willing to bet Mom doesn’t sit out in the gazebo anymore, reading her mystery novels. I walk across the lawn Georgia’s house and open the screen door while grabbing a thin metal bookmark, a gift from the base for some milestone, from my backpack. The door opens easily, albeit noisily, but nothing compared to the racket down the street earlier. I walk through the dark staleness of Georgia’s house, its layout much like my Mom’s, until I get to the enclosed porch.
“Kyle? Kyle? Why are you in here?”
I about have a heart attack, thinking Georgia’s ghost has paid me a visit, but it’s Mom. She must have seen me outside, in the front yard, from her window, and followed my movements. I imagine her moving through her house to my old bedroom, watching me in the backyard while struggling with her robe, the hurried way she snapped into action to break up the neighborhood fights I always got tangled up in when I was smaller. And then maybe not so small.
“It’s all coming down, Mom.” I meet her in the living room. Her face in the shadows looks hollowed out, carnival-esque and skeletal, and I feel the enormity of the disarray surrounding us. “I can’t stand it anymore.”
“Kyle, what in earth is wrong with you?” She begins, and I see her mind working through years of my life, her life, wondering which of us took the exit ramp and which of us stayed on the highway. And whether we will ever meet up again in our travels. “You just can’t break into people’s houses,”
“I’m sorry, Mom.” I pull the bookmark over my palm over and over. It is dull on my calloused, thick skin. She sighs, taking in the carpet of dust covering everything, a light snowfall.
“Goodness, Georgia must be turning over in her grave,” she says finally. “People just aren’t…decent anymore.”
“I’m still decent, Mom. Aren’t I?”
“Of course you are, Kyle. I didn’t mean….” She touches my cheek before heading to the kitchen. “If Georgia was like me, I know where she keeps her cleaning supplies.”
We begin, in darkness, using the lights only as we need them, vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing. Apple-cheeked elves and reindeer and carolers go in a box I found in the attic labeled X-MAS. Old Reader’s Digests and newspapers go out for recycling. Winter curtains go in the wash. We find the summer curtains in an old cedar bureau in Georgia’s bedroom.
“I didn’t realize you were such a night owl, Mom.” We sit on the couch as she mends one of the kitchen curtains, its fringe separated from the cloth.
“It’s been hard to sleep,” she answers. “Every little noise scares me now that your father is gone. I was never such a big chicken before, but I worry. I make sure I have a clear path to the door in case there’s a fire, I have emergency numbers on speed dial by the bed…you don’t worry so much when someone else is around. I guess you just split the worry, then.”
“I worry at night, too, Mom,” I answer noncommittally, and then stand. “So, you think Cindy will even notice the house is spotless when she comes back?”
“She’ll think it was an act of God,” she laughs. It’s about five o’clock in the morning now, not light out yet. I turn on the radio for the news and weather, and we sit quietly on the sofa. We’ve left the curtains open, and its easy enough to see the patrol car that pulls up, no lights, in Georgia’s driveway.
“I guess we’re not the only ones who can’t sleep at night,” Mom murmurs, folding the used dustcloth in her lap. I stand up and glance at the young rookie getting out of the driver’s side before whipping the curtains closed. I join Mom back on the couch, and as we hear the officer knock on the door of the outer porch, neither of us moves.