UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 11/2012
THE WAY SHE WANTS IT
Nell sits beside Alexander at the piano and when he has played ďMondayís Blue, Lots to DoĒ five times without a mistake she pops a jelly bean into his mouth. She beats him when he cuts off the heads of the chrysanthemums in her yard with a stick. Bea Holmes asks if they can take Alexander with them to Santa Cruz, and Nell cries when they come back and Alexander wants to stay with Bea. When he can play the ďZampaĒ overture without a mistake, Nell lets him bake a cake.
Her house is the way she wants it. Frank and some men from the lease have added a new bedroom on the south side, and she has a new bed, a new chest of drawers, a new highboy, a new rug to go in it. Her mother has come to help her make quilts for the baby. They make so many quilts she doesnít have a place to put them, so Frank has one of his men make a bedding box for her.
Eight days after Christmas she wakes from a nap and tells her mother the baby is on its way. Her mother nods, and goes on stitching. Nell calls Frank at the office. Guess Iíd better come home, hadnít I? Frank says. Yes you had, Nell says. The hospital in Taft has burned down; she is taken to a makeshift hospital in an apartment building near the Masonic temple. The doctor is late, arrives in time to pull the baby the rest of the way out and hand it to the nurses, who put it in a clothes basket in the hall until Nell is ready to nurse. Frank drives to Taft from the lease every evening to see his wife and daughter. Nell cries when he goes home.
She hears crackling outside her bedroom while she is nursing Annie and wonders what the men are working on so close to the house. Her bedroom door flies open and the man from the next house is pulling her from the bed by her arm. Get up, he yells. Get out. She hears menís voices as she runs after him, holding the baby. All the men on the lease are there, some with shovels and wet gunny sacks, but the house next door is in flames, and smaller flames have begun to crawl up the canvas flaps on Nellís house. She watches the outside wall blacken and suddenly remembers her bedding box full of quilts. She hands the baby to someone and tries to run back, but the men stop her and pull her back to the edge of the yard. Someone has turned on the hose and is squirting the jamb of the kitchen door as two men roll the refrigerator out. Frank sends three of the bullshitters to drag the piano out onto the gravel. He appears at a bedroom window throwing a drawer from the highboy out onto the grass. He disappears and a moment later is back, throwing another. He comes out the side door carrying a clock. Smoke follows him.
The refinery supervisor, who hired Frank, has been fired for siphoning off company oil and selling it to independent dealers as far away as Stockton. Paul Hendrick, the president, drives up from Los Angeles with his new supervisor, whom he puts into the small house Nell and her family are staying in, and moves Frank and Nell and the children into the big house vacated by the old supervisor, because he likes Nell.
Paul Hendrick invites Frank and Nell to his gun club in Ensenada for a weekend. They leave the children with friends in Maricopa and drive to Santa Maria, then south along the coast highway. They stop at a beach south of Tijuana because Nell wants to take off her shoes and run in the sand in a foreign country. Frank wonít take off his shoes because he fears sunburn on his feet but he walks with her as far as the sand is dry. She runs after the retreating surf and runs back to Frank when the next wave comes in and slips up the sand. She has seen a dark pointed blade moving through the breaker.
I think thatís a shark, she says, pointing.
Itís a rock, Frank says.
Itís moving, she says.
Thatís the water moving past it, he says.
A dark man in a tuxedo meets them at the entrance to the gun club and takes their car. Another man, wearing a white jacket, brings their suitcases to the terrace which is filled with people sitting at tables shaded by umbrellas. Paul Hendrick is at one of the tables talking to a woman Nell has not seen before, who disappears into the bar when Paul sees Frank and Nell and stands up to greet them, holding his arms out.
Howís my favorite girl? He kisses Nell on the cheek.
We saw a shark on the way down, she says. Only Frank says we didnít.
Got to take them seriously when they see sharks, pal, Paul says, shaking Frankís hand but looking at Nell.
Their room looks out onto white sand and the transparent water of the lagoon. A yacht is anchored on the other side of the breakwater. Their bathroom has a sunken tub with bright blue tile which Frank wants them to get into together before dinner. At dinner Nell eats shellfish, which she doesnít like, and listens to the Mexican band play music she doesnít recognize. The waiters wear white dinner jackets. A waterfall breaks over rocks in the center of the dining room and drains into a basin filled with quarters and half dollars. Paul Hendrick and his wife dine with them, and everyone but Nell drinks cocktails and smokes cigarettes. Mrs. Hendrick leaves dark lipstick on hers. Frank leans back in his chair and grins and says, Yes, sir.
Like your crab louis, Nell? Paul asks.
I guess so, Nell says. Iím not used to it.
Listen, you ever decide to trade Frank in for a good-looking older man, Iíll see you get used to it, Paul says.
If I do, you can, Nell says.
Mrs. Hendrick looks away.
Nell swims in the lagoon, which is as mild and warm as a bathtub. She can see to the bottom, where sand rolls back and forth, and bright-colored fish hover in banks and then dart out of sight. A large fish swings into view from behind a stalk of seaweed and swims in a wide circle just above the sand. She swims as fast as she can to the beach and runs to the blanket where Frank is sitting under an umbrella.
I saw a shark, she says, breathing hard. This time I know it was a shark.
It was no such a damned thing, Frank says. If there were sharks out there they wouldnít be letting you and all those people swim.
Paul Hendrick joins them at breakfast the last morning. Mrs. Hendrick hasnít come down from her room.
Think Iíll join the Mormon Church, Nell, he says, so I can have you in the next world, since Frank wonít. He winks at Frank.
If you do, you just can, she says, her face burning.
In the summer Frank rents an apartment in Long Beach for Nell and the children, and drives down to visit them on weekends. Nell irons and cleans in the mornings, and in the afternoons puts Annie in the buggy with towels, blankets, food, a beach umbrella, and lets Alexander run with the buggy, down the steep hill to the beach. Nell reads under the umbrella with Annie all afternoon while Alexander plays with other kids on the edge of the surf inside the curve of Rainbow Pier. On days farmers and tradespeople set up their markets in the park around the library, Nell lets Alexander take Annie in the buggy and do her marketing for her. She sends him on the bus to a crafts class where he learns woodshop and clay modelling. She takes the children to see ďSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs,Ē and the next day Alexander brings home a clay Dopey he has made for her in his crafts class, and she cries and holds his head to her breast until he squirms away. She takes them to see ďThe Lady in RedĒ with Dolores Del Rio, and gives Annie pure candy from the health-food store to keep her quiet.
Frank arrives on Friday evening. They picnic on the beach and in bed Frank asks her if she thinks she can be quiet so the kids donít wonder whatís going on. On Saturday Carl and Beth Winn drive down from Maricopa. Nell and Beth take the children shopping; Frank and Carl go to a bar that Carl has found on an earlier trip. On Sunday Paul Hendrick drops by to say hello on his way to Los Angeles. He shakes hands with Carl, gives Nell a hug with one arm, makes a muscle in his arm and invites Alexander to hit it with his fist. He tells Frank that Ed Piggott and his son had trouble getting Ron Yates out of the house after the party because Ron said heíd pulled too soon. Paul does not intend for Nell to hear this.
The Piggotts are a dirty bunch, she tells Frank when theyíre alone. Letís not be so quick to pass judgment, Frank says.
Were you at the party? she asks Frank.
I didnít stay very long, he says, making a face. They were doing some things there that I didnít think too highly of, so I just put in an appearance.
What were they doing?
Well, some of them were drinking a little more than I thought was necessary and some of their behavior got to be a little wrong side of the tracks, if you know what I mean.
Were they enjoying themselves with the whore?
Well, I donít know if you should call her a whore. She was just a woman Ed knows. He brought her over to liven up the party, I guess.
Did they take her to bed and pay her?
I guess a few of them did, yes. In fact, I know they did. Thatís why I didnít think I needed to stay around. It wasnít exactly my cup of tea.
Did you take her to bed?
Hellís fire, of course I didnít. What do you think I am?
Well, let me think. I guess Ed did. And Edís son, of course. And I guess Charlie Dower.
How about Paul Hendrick?
Yeah. Paul too.
But not you, she says.
I told you, no. Of course I had to be diplomatic about it.
What do you mean diplomatic?
Well, you donít want to look like youíre being self-righteous or holier than thou or anything like that. These are the men you work with every day. You canít be sanctimonious with them.
What are you telling me?
Iím telling you that when everybody but you has gone into the room with her and come back out and theyíre waiting for you to take your turn you donít just say Sorry fellows, Iím too good for this, and stick your nose in the air.
Are you telling me you went into the bedroom with that whore?
Well, I was in there with her, yes, but I didnít touch her. She was lying on the bed and I took out my wallet and fished out a twenty-dollar bill and put it on the table. I said, Here, you take this, and no hard feelings, okay? She said, Okay, I figured you werenít like the others. I said, You donít need to tell them anything about this, letís just let this be our secret transaction. She said, You got a wife and kids, I could tell, I respect that. I stayed in the room long enough that it wouldnít look suspicious, and then I came out, and that was the end of it.
Nell feels horror brimming at her eyes.
I tell you I didnít do anything, Frank says.
Nell wins a puzzle contest in the Long Beach Press Telegram. The prize is three thousand dollars. Her picture is in the Long Beach and Maricopa newspapers. Nell wants to buy a boat. Frank says theyíll use the money to make a down payment on a house.
Itís my money, Nell says.
Use your head, Mother, Frank says. Thereís a Depression on.
Beth Winn says there are lots available now in Bakersfield, at good prices. Her sister lives in Bakersfield. Beth and Carl buy a lot adjacent to her sisterís familyís property and build a house on it. They want to leave Maricopa, and there are teaching jobs in Bakersfield. Nell and Frank buy one too, adjacent to the Winnsí property, and contract for a house to be built on it.
After dinner they get in the car and drive to Bakersfield to see how their house is coming. When the hardwood floors are finished, Alexander and Annie take off their shoes and skate in their stocking feet.
Frank is elected to the Maricopa school board and goes to meetings on Thursday nights. He tells Nell what happens at the meetings, but she doesnít try to follow. She understands the board is trying to oust the superintendent, Mr. Cookman, and that Mr. Noble, one of the high school teachers, is involved, but she doesnít know what Mr. Cookman has done, and whatever Frank decides is good for the school district is all right by her. A woman comes to the house while Frank is at work and asks Nell if she agrees with Frank about unifying the district with Taft, Ford City and Fellows.
I donít know anything about it, Nell says.
Donít you think itís time you did? the woman says.
Nell meets Mr. Paige at a school-board banquet. He and his wife are part of Maricopaís upper crust, and Nell is surprised when they invite her and Frank to their home, and when Mrs. Paige invites Nell to come and play badminton with her. The four of them drive to Los Angeles to see Porgy and Bess, and drive back to Maricopa the same night. Mrs. Paige suggests they all sleep in the living room together. Nell says she has to get home to her children and Frank has to take the baby tender home.
Mr. Paigeís sister, Mrs. Wells, is even more upper-crust than the Paiges and ignores Nell after they are introduced. Mrs. Wells doesnít associate with any Maricopa people very much, except with Virginia Cook a little because Virginiaís husband is a doctor.
Nell does not like Dr. Cook, who almost didnít get to the hospital in Taft in time to deliver Annie. For this reason, and because Beth Winn went to Bakersfield to have her last baby a few months ago, Nell decides she will have her baby in Bakersfield too. Frank and Alexander go with Beth and Carl Winn to San Francisco to the Worldís Fair, and Annie stays home with Nell, who knits sweaters for her children. When she finishes the sweater for the baby she is going to have, she knits one for Annie, and then one for Alexander. She teaches Annie to make a soft-boiled egg and bring it to her on the couch. A soft-boiled egg is the only thing she can keep down. When Frank and Alexander come back from San Francisco, she is lying on the couch watching Annie play with her storybook doll, a princess with red hair.
I can go to the hospital any time now, Nell says. I havenít got any more kids to knit sweaters for.
Her water breaks that night, and Frank loads her and the children in the car and starts for Bakersfield. They arrive before midnight and drive around the hospital counting the time between contractions and waiting for midnight so they will not have to pay for an extra day.
The day after the baby is born her nurse comes in to say goodbye. She is Canadian and has been called to duty in Canada because England has just declared war on Germany. Nell is impressed at how sanitary they are in this hospital. When they bring her the baby to nurse they also bring a sheet and cover her, with a hole just large enough for her breast to come through. She hardly gets to cuddle her baby at all. Frank brings the children and Nell sees them jumping up and down on the lawn, and waves to them from her window. Frank sits across the room from her and watches her nurse. Everyone is where she wants them. She cries because sheís so happy.Franklin Fisher is a writer and musician living in Salt Lake City. He has published fiction in a bunch of literary magazines including Prism International, the Missouri Review, Event, New Letters, Iowa Review, Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Quarterly West, Confrontation, and others. He has also published a novel, Bones.
© 2004-2012 Underground Voices