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Mary Cuffe, Galway


Writing Contest home

Mary Cuffe, Galway
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers 2004
Runners-up: Short Fiction, age 21+

Flora

Flora stood on the sidewalk and realized she was not in front of her house anymore. In fact, she wasn't in her neighborhood. She looked up and down the street, then turned in a full circle. If this was Schenectady, it was a part of town she had never been in before. A dog barked from behind a row of sandstone buildings. She turned toward it, as if it might be some clue. Was it possible, she wondered as she stared at the bank of gray buildings, to get lost just stepping out your front door?

For an instant, she thought Angelina and Bernie had something to do with it. They had managed, once and for all, to get her out of her house.

"Don't think crazy," she said to herself. "They wouldn’t do it that way." No, she thought, they planned to "put" her someplace. In some retirement home in Coeymans or in a corner of their own house in Rochester. They wouldn't just shake her lose like dirt from a rug. "Get a hold," she said to herself, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin. She couldn't possibly be very far from her neighborhood. Maybe if she walked a little further, something would come to her.

The sidewalk sunk out of sight before she reached the end of the block, forcing her to walk on the uneven shoulder of the road. Still, nothing looked familiar. She kept walking anyway, her chin up and her hands deep in the pockets of her housedress as if she had an errand to attend to. She didn't want to be taken for some rattle brained old woman shuffling along with no particular place to go.

No, she was certainly not in her own neighborhood, but how far could she be from it? She had just stepped out the front door to get the mail. The last thing she remembered was something her daughter had said, though the words startled away when she tried to recover them. Something about Halibut and unpaid bills. She stopped for a moment, closed her eyes and tried to call them back. The words teased but wouldn't gather. "Let it go," she said impatiently, as if reprimanding someone beside her. "It will come."

A car slowed beside her. A tinted window slid down. A woman's face behind sunglasses. "Are you lost?" The question stung like an accusation. Flora, shocked, stepped back and shook her head emphatically. The window slid up. The car drove off. "Lost," Flora said angrily. "How could I be lost? I've lived here since 1958!" This is what she should have told the woman, but the car had already banked into the stream of traffic and was out of sight.

She took a deep breath and began to walk briskly, then stumbled, leaving one of her house slippers on the side of the road. She looked around, snatched it up and slipped it back on her foot. Why shouldn't she be wearing house slippers? After all, she had only meant to go as far as the mailbox. She hadn't dressed for this. She wondered what people must think of her, out on the streets in slippers and a housedress -- the faded paisley she wouldn't answer the door in most days. The cars passed too quickly to tell. Faces opened briefly in her direction, then closed. On the other side, the row of gray buildings pressed down on her, saying she had no business there.

"I'm glad I don't live in this part of town," she said out loud, loud enough for anyone to hear. She swung around. No one had heard. In fact, there did not seem to be a single living person in the apartment buildings. Not a light or stirring. Flora couldn't imagine anyone coming or going, or sitting outside just passing the time of day. There weren't any porches anyway. No laughter or shrieks of children. Just the sorrowful baying and barking of dogs locked inside.

At the end of the block, she turned east, onto a very different street. There were the remnants of sidewalk here and regular houses, some with porches, set back from lawns. Most looked empty, though, or transiently lived in. A rusting Ford sat on cinder blocks in one front yard. In another, an imperial three-story with turrets and dormers stared down into a pit that had been dug in the front yard, a project abandoned. Windowpanes were broken, some boarded up, some blackened hollows with ragged curtains blowing into them. Porches sagged and saplings sprouted from gutters. Broken fences grinned their missing pickets. Gates hung off hinges.

Still, something about the neighborhood made her feel as if she had just found the right exit off a highway that she had been travelling too fast in the wrong direction. It was a regular neighborhood, familiar as her own. It didn't ask her what business she had there. The houses seemed, instead, turned into themselves as if nursing their vacancies. Flora walked slowly, tilting her head to gaze through the windows and into the yards. She was sure at any moment she would see someone she knew, would know in an instant, just where she was.

The house just beyond the one with a pit in the front yard sat back off the road. An overgrown walkway led to a wide, welcoming porch that appeared no less so for the missing steps. Beside the house, a wrought iron garden gate was twisted backward and half buried in the high grass. It led into what was once a garden. Flora knew this because situated in the midst of the bramble and Virginia Creeper was a moss covered birdbath that held, like a collection box, untold years of fallen leaves. It was the birdbath that called the words back. They bolted forth like kids out of hiding. It was just this morning, or maybe yesterday. The entire conversation came back.

“Flora, the neighborhood is gone.” Her son-in-law had been sitting at the kitchen table dribbling into his coffee cup, but now he rose to speak and pace around her. One of his legs was a good inch shorter than the other and when he paced, every other step made a little dip. Flora sat across from where Bernie had been sitting, leaned over the table and flicked away the crumbs he had left with her napkin.

It wasn't that she never listened to him, she just couldn't hold her attention on him very long. He had the habit of saying the same thing over and over. Last time he had bent down in her face to tell her for perhaps the third time that morning that the neighborhood was not the same, she noticed that he had gotten old himself. His breath had a heavy, dung quality and his clothes smelled like they never quite dried out. She wondered how he had gotten so old, while Angelina had remained the same girl she had always been. Except, of course, where he had worn her down. Flora looked over at her daughter. For the first time, she noticed the sharp line of disappointment drawn down the side of her mouth.

“Flora,” the dung breath came at her again, the eyes like over washed blue linens. It's not safe for you to live here anymore.”

“Not safe?” she snapped, rising up in his face. “This is a fine neighborhood. A fine, Italian neighborhood. Everyone here looks after one another. Do you live here? No! So what do you know?"

Bernie straightened up with a dung sigh and looked over at his wife, who looked away. She can’t stand the sight of him either, Flora thought. Her eyes kept returning to her daughter leaning against the doorsill in languid weariness. As Angelina tilted her head back and drew in a long, shuddering breath, Flora no longer saw the girl -- quick and sure, bright as rain -- but the old woman she would become. She had always thought it was Bernie who had worn Angelina down, but now, as her daughter slowly pushed herself away from the doorsill and walked to the table to sit beside her mother, Flora realized it must be she who was the greater burden.

“Mother, Bernie is only trying to help," her daughter said in the careful tone she used these days. It made Flora think of someone carrying a cup of hot tea any misstep might spill. "We're both worried about you living here alone."

“Alone? Lyla, how can I be alone in this neighborhood?" Her fingers softly traced the line down the side of her daughter's mouth. "Angie," she corrected. "Mrs. Annunziato is right next door," she rushed on, "and Junie Falco and ...”

“Mother!" Angie jerked away. "Mrs. Annunziato died in 1988 and Mrs. Falco hasn’t lived here since Fred died ten years ago. They’re all gone.”

"Nonsense! I just saw Junie at Sporelli's Market on Saturday. And Mrs. Annunziato ... it’s been some time … but." She squeezed her eyes shut, shuffling time, place, faces. "Oh my," she said, covering her eyelids with her fingertips and sliding them slowly down her face. "I sent flowers, didn’t I?”

“You went to the wake!” Angie dropped her head as if it had suddenly become too heavy to hold up. Flora stared at the top of her head. Too bad Lyla's name had slipped out. But she was tired of hiding Lyla from her sister. She had begun to see her as an intermittent light in Angelina, shortly after she had finally given up hope that Lyla would ever be found. Now, Lyla had taken up residence in Angelina's eyes, her smallest gestures. Flora could hardly tell them apart anymore.

“I know that!” Flora said, getting suddenly to her feet. “I’m going for a drive. Stuffy in here with all these dead people you keep parading in front of me.”

“Good God, Mother! Your cataracts. Do you want to kill a little kid or something?”

“Well if the neighborhood is as bad as you and Bernie say, I’d be doing them a favor!”

But she only went as far as the kitchen window. She hadn't driven since she backed the car into the Castanzos fence and had already accepted the terms that she would lose the car, too. Leaning on the sink, she stared out at the twisted and storm damaged old Northern Spy that dominated the back yard. For 46 years, when she needed a moment to gather her thoughts after an argument over a new refrigerator or a dent in the car, or to pray for a missing child, she had leaned her elbows upon the edge of this sink and gazed out at that crooked old tree like it might tell her why.

Angie and Bernie had slipped into the front room. She could hear their voices tangled in argument. Sometimes, she wished she were as hard of hearing as they thought. She stared hard at the Northern Spy, lit up with blossoms like a prom queen, and tried not to hear the conversation in the other room.

Ralph had threatened to cut down the tree when they first moved in, but somehow he never got around to it. It was one of the old varieties, 50 feet high or more. It put out a lot of blossoms but few apples. Those given were always clustered at the very top of the tree, red globes of promise, looking larger than they actually were. Angelina and Lyla would climb the tree, balance on the topmost branches and toss the apples down to her, one at a time. Some days she could still see them there, fluttering at the top of the tree.

She could tell by the thump and thud of Bernie's pacing in the front room that he had discovered the bills she collected and kept in the desk beside the phone. Each time they came, he would fret over the cache of bills. She never understood why anyone could get so excited about anything that came in a little white envelope. She never had to worry about money. That had been Ralph's job. When the bills came, she put them in a drawer as she always had. Now it was Bernie who found and fretted over them. He would fret and pace, fret and pace, every other step that little dip. She wondered why Angelina hadn’t taken that flaw of his into account before she married him. Lucky the kids came out OK. Her side had its work cut out making up for all the bad traits on his.

Now and then the conversation in the living room spit out of the whisper stage. It was getting harder to ignore. Flora never could stand whispering. If you have something to say, she had told her girls, have the courage to say it out loud. She was going to tell Bernie and Angie that right now.

"It's the house, Bernie …" Her daughter's words rose above the snarl of argument and hung in the air. Flora paused in the vestibule. "It keeps her …." The words stopped, hung there again. Flora braced herself against the wall. "…here."

They stopped talking when they saw her standing in the doorway. Bernie, hands full of bills and glasses halfway down his nose, leaned against the desk and Angie sat on the couch in front of the window. Sun blasted through the nylon curtains in back of them and flooded the room, stopping just short of Flora's feet. She stared at the darkened silhouettes of her daughter and son-in-law. They could have been looking back at her from across a canyon. She stepped abruptly into the light. “I hope you're staying for dinner," she said brightly, looking toward Angie. "It's Halibut. Your favorite."

"Lyla's favorite." Her daughter's voice slid away into an undercurrent of hostility. Flora could not see through the blast of light, but she knew the look in Angie's eyes. She had seen it many times in the last two years. It said her daughter had caught her in an awful lie. She and Bernie had already looked in the refrigerator, of course, and found nothing there resembling food.

"Mother." Her daughter's voice issued, after a moment, from the darkened silhouette miles and miles away. "What day is it?"

This question came to her now as she stood on the listing sidewalk gazing into the blackened window of a house she finally knew.

"The Valentes," she gasped in relief. It was a surprise to her that she should recognize it as the same house. It had been painted a rancid green, the porch steps were collapsed and Ellie Valente's flower garden was a tangle of wild grape. She looked for a long time at the house, wondering how the Valentes had let it go like that. She shook her head. Surely, this couldn't be the house, and yet she knew if she went inside, she would find everything in its place, right down to the smell of mustard greens simmering in the kitchen. Flora took a step toward the door, then retreated to the sidewalk. She was caught there, in some lawless territory between sorrow and relief. It made her very tired. She eased herself down on the edge of the Valente's lawn that sloped toward the sidewalk. Absently, she rubbed her thumb into one of the ameba shapes on her housedress. She hadn't approved of paisley when it first came out. Most things had to sit with her a long time before she came around to them. When she finally did, everyone else had moved on.

She looked up, aware suddenly of the cold and wondering what anyone might think if they saw her there. She was too tired to worry about that now. She needed a minute, just a minute, to collect her thoughts.

Across the street, half of the block of houses was gone. A huge vacancy grew where they had been. Through the bramble and recalcitrant grasses she could see what had been left. A car muffler, the hose of a vacuum cleaner, a three legged chair. The longer she sat there, the more items she saw given to the grasses. A bright blue nylon jacket, one sneaker, a bicycle frame and bottles of every variety. She became so absorbed in what could be found there, she forgot to worry about who might see her. What they might think. Then, at the far end of the lot she saw the apple tree. It must have been fall. Clustered at the very top were apples.


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