Settling
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Fall"
Originally featured on 11-14-2006
As part of our series "Fall Stories"

She lays belly down in the grass chin propped up against the ground, eyes in line with the cat, whose attempts to catch blades between her teeth are interrupted by diving blue jays. Arms long, she separates her fingers as far as possible, presses them into the ground, snaps them back together and pulls, the sound of the tearing fibers loud in her ears. The cat reacts to the noise with eyes wide and posture hunched, a blade of grass drooping from her mouth. The girl examines the breaking points of the strands, noting the way they tear along set lines, in strips.

From the corner of her eye she can see the bed of the pickup truck, the flash of the rake as her father loads the leaves in. She turns to her side, running her fingertips along the impression of her body in the grass. She holds her head to the ground to hear the sound of the blades slowly regaining their composure, like the smoothing of wrapping paper or the slight movements of down feathers within a pillow as your ear presses against it.

Now her father is standing next to the truck, emptying out the last bit of his High Life can. The bed is closed and the leaves held under a tarp, the wet, black-brown ones at the top, having decomposed slightly on the lawn. Her father had decided it was time to remove them when she had dove into the pile and emerged with a slug on her ankle and had cried herself to sleep. He also knew it was his responsibility to get rid of the leaves and mow the lawn and prune the roses for next year, to clean out the garden and to take in the lawn furniture when it began to rain, because he knew enough to know that appearances were important.

“Melissa!” he calls over the engine, pushing open the passenger side door.

Inside the truck it smells like fertilizer and damp coffee grounds, even with the windows open. He lets her choose the radio station in the truck and she sings along happily to Bob Dylan, her high voice cascading along his rough barks, palm opened out the window, pushing against the air.

As they pull into McFarlane’s, she puts her hand up to her mouth and makes fake gagging noises as they drive in over piles of bark mulch used to fill in the holes, sounding like the truck was rolling over craters of jelly.

Together they push the leaves and dead roses and grass onto the pile, Melissa pushing from behind, the warm pungent perfume of the debris engulfing her. She’s relieved to park the truck and go searching for what her father refers to as ‘useful trash’. In the past, this was one of his personal pastimes. He would leave the house on Saturdays as Melissa and her mother were finishing up breakfast and return with a truckload of sticks, bricks and PVC tube, which he would bring out to the garage with a grin. Melissa would bring him a scone wrapped in a paper towel, the little embroideries of teddy bears or garden tools soaked through will oils. He would clap his hands and eat the scone hurriedly, dunking it in his coffee before every bite, leaving the mug empty with bits of soggy scone stuck all over the sides.

As the week went on, the pile of useful items would get smaller and smaller and he would remain in the garage longer, past dinner. The smell of the kiln would waft in through the kitchen window, her mothers foot tapping restlessly against the floor while she ate, speaking in a low voice to give the impression that she was not angry.

But she was angry, and Melissa would realize this later in the night, soon after she heard her fathers footsteps on the stairs, the clanking in the refrigerator as he fixed himself a late dinner, drank a beer. Her mother would wait in the kitchen with arms crossed to tell him that she couldn’t take it anymore, that she couldn’t stand how his lack of attention was affecting his daughter, how she didn’t know how to tell her friends and co-workers that she was poor now because her husband had decided to start making new age art. She brought up the old days, when he would make sets of dishes for families, how beautiful they were, and how purposeful. This stuff, she called it, that he was making now, seemed so strange, so impractical, and so useless.

None of this was particularly surprising to Melissa. She knew her father had desperately wanted change his image, to become a ‘legitimate’ artist, that he’d had artistic visions throughout his life that he had “forced himself to forget” in lieu of being successful. There were stacks of unfinished plates and bowls, cups and saucers in the garage, ready to be glazed in a youngest daughters favorite color, painted with the daisies that a grandmother loved, or finished off with the writing of the name of a father in majestic looking green strokes.

She also knew that her mother wanted a good life. Not easy, by any means—she had become a teacher despite the meager pay—but with a certain amount of guarantee. It was hard to explain, her mother had told her on the way home from the grocery store where she stood stone-faced at the register as she instructed Melissa to remove items they couldn’t afford from the conveyer belt, but in some way she had been let down, misled to believe her husband was a certain sort of man.

“He loves you very much, Melissa,” she said on the way home from the store, her thin fingers gripped on the wheel as if holding down gravity.

“Just because he spends so much time alone doesn’t mean that he doesn’t, you know that,” she continued in a loud voice, though it was as if she were saying to her the things she wished she could believe herself. Melissa could feel the weight of her mothers eyes on her as they sat at a red light, could feel the tenseness of her throat in the words that came out.

“Even if I leave for a little while,” she began, now almost in a whisper, “it doesn’t mean I don’t love you…it just means…” and the light turned green. Someone beeped behind them and they drove the rest of the way in silence watching rain clouds pile up in the distance, their weight dragging up to the top of the sky. Upon getting home, Melissa had run to the garage, tufts of smoke spewing from the kiln in short breaths, and found her father perched in front of the wheel, his thumb nail dug into the rim of a pot, cigarette hanging from his mouth. A strip of barbed wire hung on the back of an old kitchen chair that was to later be attached to the rim of the pot he was throwing. She sat with him in the garage for hours, watching the setting sunrays pour over the ceramic dust caked onto the windows, casting gold and lavender shadows on the ground.

When she had woken up one morning in late summer to find a bulky letter on the kitchen counter, she didn’t bother to read it. She waited for her father to come into the kitchen, his eyes, both tired and anxious, telling the story of the hours he’d spent trying to reconcile. Her mother was taking a sabbatical, he told her. Since then, she had gone with him to all the places he used to go alone. She knew he stopped to get beef jerky and flirted with the girl at the counter, she knew that he listened to talk radio and spoke his own opinions in turn. She knew that he spent most of his time locating materials, drawing rough sketches in his steno pads of his creations and reading up on how to make new glazes, giving each one names like ketchup, t-rex, smashed dandelion. While their conversations were sometimes broken and usually awkward, they discussed their interests and tried to link them. Melissa wanted to be a chemist, so she began helping to mix glazes, testing them on spare bowls with her father instructing her from across the room, telling her how long to dip it, how thick it should be, whether ir not it appeared consistent. As the weeks went on, she began to look forward to their trips, often suggesting uses for stones or bits of rubber he wouldn’t have considered.

This particular Saturday, he was looking for broken bricks or concrete. The plow driver waited patiently as she spread apart a nest of branches and her father pulled out several sharp pieces of stained concrete, bits of moss stuck in its crevices. On the way home they stopped at Sheri’s for take out, her father talking excitedly about how he would use the concrete to create texture stopping only briefly to shove a handful of fries into his mouth.

That night she dreamt of a cerulean blue glaze trickling into flows down a finished vase like the veins of her leg with the skin pulled taut, sharp sticks protruding and digging into her thighs as she circled the piece. She wakes in darkness, violently itching her legs, straining her ears for the sounds of her father in the house.

In the morning she is awoken by her father on the edge of her bed, his face red and splotchy, eyes tired.

“Let me see your arms and legs,” he says, a crinkle of worry appearing between his eyes. Already she feels the burning on her limbs, the strange swollen feeling of her calves.

“Oh Jesus, Melissa,” he says, putting down the bottle of calamine lotion.

“Whatever you do, don’t itch it,” he says, seeing her hands moving to do so, “it will only make it spread.” As he gets up to leave the room, she can see the patches of poison oak on the backs of his legs and neck, as well as behind his ears.

“I didn’t even realize what was going on,” he said as he came back with cotton balls, “I was just scratching and scratching, so wrapped up in what I was doing…” he pulls her leg towards him and begins to carefully dab calamine lotion onto the blisters.

“We should go to the doctor anyway, because, you know, I’m not really sure what to do to make it better other than this. It was always your mother who took care of you, I guess I should’ve been paying attention.” He shakes his head as he looks her over. “You must have been itching this all night.”

 

She sits in the clinic waiting for her father to finish with the doctor, the receptionist’s eyes on her at all times, daring her to itch. A young boy across the room stares at her, tugging on his mothers shirt sleeve, asking what had happened. Melissa unfolds the flannel shirt her father had left on the chair and drapes it over her legs, closes her eyes and tries to ignore the raw burn pulsing along her skin. She imagines her mother in the seat beside her, reading aloud an article from Discover magazine, pausing to express her opinions and theories, whispering them in Melissa’s ear if she thinks them too controversial. She imagines the soft linen pants she would be wearing, the chipped polish on her toes, the way her dangling garnet earrings might catch the sunlight and cause a raspberry colored flicker on the wall, over above the boys head.

Her father comes out of the doctors office, nodding emphatically. In the car, he is silent for some time.

“He was amazed that I was bringing you with me to look for trash, and you know what? I was amazed too, when I started thinking about it.” He looked at her, scarlet patches scaling his cheekbones.

“It might have been the same, either way,” she says, watching the glare of the sun etch along the scratches of the windshield.

For dinner, her father heats up soup on the stove, stirring it incessantly. There is a pile of bread and cheese on the table, and two piles of pills. She eats as much bread as she can and swallows her pile, anxious to rid of the itching.

“I’m going to finish off those plates and things out in the garage and sell them next week at Saturday market,” he says, “to get a little money.” Melissa nods.

He spoons the soup into the big bowls he made for them years ago, their names painted around the edges. He had absentmindedly taken down her mothers as well, and now he stares at it, his already red face now seeing to glow like an ember. He puts down the pot, picks up the empty bowl, and walks out the door into the yard. Melissa watches as her father winds up and throws the bowl with all of his might, letting out a shock of a scream as it leaves his fingers. It flies through the air and cracks upon impact with the Maple tree, the pieces falling into the small piles of leaves that have already built up again. For a few minutes he just stands there, hands on his knees, head up, as if he is expecting a response.

After some time he regains his composure and walks to the garage. She waits for a moment for him to emerge, and gives up, starts to eat the soup even as she feels her throat tightening, her eyes burning.

Suddenly, her father appears at the door, looking sheepish.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “about the poison oak, and everything else.”

She nods, tipping the rest of the soup into her mouth.

“I need your help, though,” he continues, “cause I can’t figure out what record to play or what glaze I should use on this set I’m working on.”

She follows him out to the garage with a bag full of bread and cheese, stopping to pick up the pieces of her mothers plate from inside the leaves and put them in her pockets.

Read More By Liz Varley

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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