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Grace
Selected Stories by Robert Moulthrop

 

  Mrs. Mellors
  Grace
  Furniture
  Friends In Need

  Uncle Louis
  Elvis’s Dog, the One Named Moonbeam
  Olden Days

 
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Mrs. Mellors

They ate earlier now, then moved to the den to watch the seven o’clock news, two bodies in two chairs in the dark. The wood paneling still bounced around the light from the flickering pictures, but the words no longer collected in the room; now they seeped away through the membrane of books, drapes, and carpet. But the river of sound and the changing light were sometimes quite soothing to Helen.

She heard Allen now, muttering at the television. “Facts, where are your facts? You opinion boys. Opinion. . .” He trailed off. She tried to remember. “It is round,” she heard herself think. “Round and silver, something shining at least.” She watched the screen for a clue, but there were only men walking on a road. “Opinion,” she thought. “What a nice sound.”

After the news he changed the channel, then adjusted the afghan more securely across her lap. “I’ll just be downstairs,” he said. “Just there.”

Helen’s eyes focused on the flickering light. There was something dim beyond the deep, nibbling at the edge of remembrance. She looked down at her bad hand, picked it up with the good one, and moved it. She saw the vein and remembered the royal purple dress she had worn to the class concert. How rich the color had felt across her shoulders. She willed the memory, so complete, to stay, yearning for it as it slipped away, trying to hold it even as she wondered why she felt a yearning.

In mid-March she had bent over a cluster of yellow crocuses, strongly pointing out their snow bravery to her excited fifth graders. The star that burst so suddenly in her brain made her blue eyes go wide with surprise. She moved gracefully to her knees in the snow as the children watched. She was always full of unexpected drama, and they were a willing audience. She fell, quite slowly, sideways in the snow, and only after some seconds did one tiny dark-haired girl begin to cry. Finally, the two biggest boys ran in stride across the schoolyard to find someone, while the rest of the class stood guard. Now it was cold again. By an effort of will she forced her arm under the blanket laid across her lap and closed her eyes.

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Allen’s other equipment had been pushed off to the side and his work­ bench now held spools of copper wire, solder, diodes, computer chips, and several neatly folded diagrams and instructions. He soothed his evenings with reading, understanding, doing. He had no notion of where the radio would be, how it would fit into his life when it was finished. He had always pictured his futures, his days, wrapped in thick white paper resting neatly on cool, dry shelves. Unopened, still, quiet, none would reveal any uncomfortable surprise. Each would provide the small satis­factions of order and solutions.

Later, when he paused midway up the stairs, it was not so much to catch his breath as to assess once more the day’s progress: five circuits done and four laid out. He closed the cellar door and pulled the neatly folded letter from his pocket. From across the darkened room he was again amazed at the angles her body now chose for sleep; her previous self had always been so composed. Now she was all askew, aslant.

“Skew-gee,” his sister Bert had called it on her brief visit North. “It’s different is all I mean,” she had said, patting his arm.

He fingered her letter, then moved the straight-backed chair across from Helen and sat for a moment with his hands folded, watching her. He was about to reach out and touch her gently on her good arm, when she opened her eyes and looked at him in gradually fading terror. He wondered where she had been in sleep, then helped her adjust her body.

“We got a letter from Bert today,” he said, sitting back down. She frowned, then smiled, remembering Bert, remembering that endless laughing evening at the Oyster House when the waitress had delivered the great Corn and Bunion Saga with every order of steamers. Articu­lated joy, she thought, described that evening best. She wished she could share the remembrance with Allen, but knew her speech could not be found. And then the entire thought left, and she began to weep into the void.

“It’s a nice letter,” he said, looking down at it. “They had some snow last week, and...” he found the place, “... two deer came through the snow, right at lunchtime, and just ate up all my parsley. I got so mad I just ran outside in my slippers through the snow and shooed them both away. I must have been a sight.” He stopped. “Can’t you just picture it?” he said, smiling. Her face looked back expectantly. “Isn’t that Bert some­thing?” he asked. The question hung between them, an unmeant accusa­tion, impossible to retrieve. He folded up the letter and put the chair back against the wall. “Time for bed now,” he said. “Now it’s time for bed.”

The January thaw continued the next day. Mrs. Robbins once more parked the wheelchair in the sunny kitchen facing out the window toward the bird feeder. “I wonder if that cardinal will be back,” she said with a smile, bustling off to heat the soup. But today there were two jays. “They zoom so quick. See that?” she said. She sat down in front of Mrs. Mellors with the spoon and napkin. When the phone rang Mrs. Robbins was focused on the passage of spoon to mouth. It broke her concentra­tion and the vegetables and broth spilled on the table. She dabbed up the tiny mess on her way to the phone.

It was Mr. Mellors, calling to remind them of the afternoon’s visitor. “Mrs. Mellors had him last year in fifth grade,” he said. Mrs. Robbins watched the jay cracking sunflower seeds. “He’s walking over after school. I mentioned it to you yesterday, remember?” He paused and thought of coming home early. “It will be all right,” he said, to himself and to her. “He’ll just come and chat and go.”

By three o’clock Mrs. Mellors was comfortable in the living room, seated warmly in the gray chair. Mrs. Robbins finished fastening the pearls around her neck and helped her fold her hands in her lap. When the doorbell rang, she stopped once more to smile at the beautiful face. “You remember George McGrath,” she said again, slowly and delicately. She stood beside her, a hostess making introductions in a delicate situa­tion. “You always talked about him last year, so funny and bright. Now he’s here to see you. A big sixth grader.” And she gently moved an errant strand of hair off the pale ivory cheek.

George stood bravely on the porch at the end of a promise whispered in the snow. He stuffed his gloves deeper into his pockets, then came in and took off his orange knapsack and his coat. His glasses had steamed up and he pulled his shirttail out of his pants to clean the glasses. The beauti­ful face was blurry in the distance until he quickly slipped his glasses on.

“You just go in and talk,” said Mrs. Robbins. “She hears everything and she might even say a word or two. I know she’s glad you’ve come.” George quickly tucked his shirt back into his pants and tip-toed into the living room.

“Hi, Mrs. Mellors,” he said, sitting in a chair across from her. “It’s still a ‘beautiful day for learning new things,’” he quoted at her across the months and days. “Tracy gave me something for you. It’s a new word, like you used to surprise us with.” He looked in her eyes and thought he saw a smile deep inside. “Some of us still get new words. Tracy’s is ‘con-san­guin-u-ity.” He pronounced it carefully. “It’s about being related by blood, or like a secret pact where you swear a blood oath and you’re con­nected for life.” He stopped. “We like the way it sounds.” The house clicked and settled in the afternoon.

“Here,” he said, and placed a hand-made card in her lap. “We got every­one from last year to sign. Even Helga.” He watched her hand come slowly up and down, up and down on the card. He was sure it was a sign; he wished he knew what it meant. The heat came on, first as a rumble from the basement, then warm air pushing softly through the room. George shifted in his chair and swung his feet. “Maryellen and I thought it might cheer you up if I did the main bones for you,” he said at last. He couldn’t tell whether or not she moved, so he just stood up in front of her, a thin sturdy ten-year-old in pale blue dungarees and a flannel shirt.

He used both hands, the way she had taught them, pointing liquid fingers on flexible wrists at each bone on himself, using the words them­selves to make a chanting, lyrical song. The light from the window fell across his shoulders, striking her smooth pale skin and deep blue eyes. His hands started by pointing to his temples and moved softly down his body in time to the words. His clear treble filled the room:

Cra-nium, man-dible, cla-vicle, ster-num; hum-eros, ra-duis, ul-na. Car-pels, metacar-pels, pha-lan-ges.” Here the special finger wave to show the finger bones, like geese passing each other in flight. “Fe-mur, pa-tel-la,” he chanted, touching his thighs and knees. Bent over he looked up and caught the sunlight reflecting off her eyes before she slowly blinked. “Fib­ula, tib-ia,” he continued, touching shin and ankle. Then, hunkering down the way she had showed them, down, “down like an amphibious toad,” he put his hands flat on his feet and toes and concluded, “Tar-sals, metatar­sals, pha-lan-ges.”

He saw his shadow, long across the carpet, touch her feet, and her slippers made him sad. He straightened up and smiled as best he could. “I have to go now,” he said. “Thank you for the nice time.” On a sudden impulse he reached out and picked up her good hand and held it in his palm. “You have nice phalanges,” he said. She smiled deeply as he placed her hand back in her lap. “Well, so long,” he said, backing out of the room.

Mrs. Mellors watched the sunlight move across the carpet. With her good hand she smoothed the dress across her knees. Somehow, she couldn’t remember why, the afternoon had been wonderful. “Cra-nium,” she said aloud. It must be something smooth and golden, she thought.

 
   
  © Robert Moulthrop, 2011

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