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Authors: Marie Manilla

Still Life with Plums

BOOK: Still Life with Plums
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Copyright 2010 by Marie Manilla
First edition published 2010 by Vandalia Press

18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10     1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

ISBN-10: 1-933202-60-2 / ISBN-13: 978-1-933202-60-0
(alk. paper)

Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Information
Manilla, Marie.
Still life with plums: a collection of short stories / by Marie Manilla.
-- 1st ed.
p.      cm.

ISBN-13: 978-1-933202-60-0 (pbk.: alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 1-933202-60-2 (pbk.: alk. paper)
ISBN: 978-1-933202-61-7 (ebook)
I. Title.
PS3613.A5456S75 2010
Library of Congress Control Number: 2010004710

The following stories first appeared in these publications: “Amnesty.”
, 1997; “Childproof.”
Calyx, A Journal of Art and Literature by
, 2008; “Counting Backwards.”
Mississippi Review
, 1996; “Crystal City.”
The Chicago Tribune
, 2003; “Distillation.”
Carve Magazine
, 2003; “Get Ready.”
The Long Story
, 2005; “Grooming.”
Writers’ Dojo
, 2009; “Hand. Me. Down.”
, 2009; “The Wife You Wanted.”
Portland Review
, 2009.

Cover Image: “Still Life with Plum,” by Reyes Ortega Fernandez.
Courtesy of the artist’s estate.

For Elaine Manilla,
who believed in me even before I was born

For Don Primerano, my true north


I am deeply grateful to the journals that originally published these stories and to their respective editors who uttered the sweet word:
Thank you, too, to all the kind people at West Virginia University Press who saw something good in these pages. I am indebted to the Rogues, phenomenal writers all, who helped me shape my prose and always kept me honest: Laura Bentley, Zoë Ferraris, Paul Martin, John Van Kirk, Mary Sansom, Leslie Birdwell, Shannon Butler, and Charles Lloyd. A thousand blessings to my mother, Elaine Manilla, my biggest fan. There is a special prize in paradise for my husband, Don Primerano, who endures living with this often-unhinged writer with such unflappable grace.

Hand. Me. Down

HOLY THURSDAY, 1965, I squatted over the heater vent in the kitchen picking knee scabs when my father’s voice boomed from down the hall: “You kids get in the car!” His reverberating diktat roused a pummeling of footsteps up from the dank cement basement where the KKK tortured crickets or mice or my younger brother, Duff. The KKK was an apt acronym for my three older brothers, terrorists all, Kevin, Kieran, and Killian, ages twelve through fourteen. At the top of the stairs, the KKK banged out the back door and skittered and slipped up the muddy hill, their great escape unfoiled since my parents had lost control over them long before. The storm door squealed shut behind them in the April drizzle. Duff started to follow, testing his six-year-old mettle, but Killian roared: “Not you!”

Duff slumped there, eyes welling.

Mom wiped crumbs from the supper table and recentered the doily and bowl of emerald glass balls, the ones I tried to juggle when no one was looking.

Dad thumped down the hall sliding his scary belt through the loops on his waistband. “Where are the girls?” he muttered, though I was crouching right there, one of his girls. I looked too much like
him, a Black Irish reminder of his father’s mean joke:
Who’d yer mother bed to squeeze out the black-assed loiks-a-yew?
Mostly Grandpa lobbed this insult at my dusky father. The first time he flung it at me, however, when he was out of earshot I whined to my mother: “I’m not black.”

“Of course you’re not, Doreen.” She stopped darning a sock and patted her knee, a rare invitation. Once I was settled on her lap, she spun a fantasy about Spanish sailors in a sixteenth-century Armada who set off to invade England. The Armada shipwrecked off the Irish coast, however, leaving a few water-logged survivors struggling for shore. The Irish women took pity on the pathetic crew and soon they married and started a dark-skinned, dark-eyed bloodline.

“That’s rubbish,” Grandpa O’Leary snarled from the hall. “She’s kin to Irish colonizers who mixed with those West Indie, Montserrat niggers.”

Mom sat there, stunned, and it took her four months to convince me that I was as white as my older sisters, nearly, who were not only twins, but willowy, pale-skinned, blue-eyed fairies like Mom.

“Change your shirt,” Mom whispered to me as Dad buckled his belt.

I knew better than to grumble in front of Dad, so I scuffed to the room I shared with my ethereal older sisters, my narrow twin bed looking like a lone dinghy beside their luxury liner of a French Provincial queen. Still, it was better than the two sets of bunk beds crammed into the boys’ room, the wall beside Duff’s mattress slathered with dried boogers because that was the KKK’s designated booger wall.

My eleven-year-old sisters sat shoulder to shoulder on the upholstered bench in front of the vanity we inherited from Dad’s mother along with the luxury liner queen, combing their golden tresses, the blunt-cut ends skimming their backsides.

“It looks better parted on the left,” Mary said to Meg. They lifted identical combs to re-part their hair and secure the corn-silk locks with matching barrettes.

I slid open the closet to dig through the box of clothes I had recently inherited from a neighbor girl three years my senior. Her leftovers would smother my sisters, whose slight shirts and pencil-leg pants would never accommodate me. I found a striped turtleneck, faded from washing, but new to me, and punched my melon head through the taut opening. It only choked a little. Hunching forward, I tried to wedge between the twins and peer into the vanity to see just how unkempt my own wiry mane was, if I needed a brush or my fingers would suffice.

My sisters pressed their shoulders together more tightly, a bony gate slamming. “Use the mirror in the bathroom!” they jointly bleated.

Mom doled out coats and scarves from the hall closet and we crowded there tugging and grunting, buttoning and zipping. Duff and I stole peeks of Dad’s face trying to decode the pucker of his mouth, the squint of his eye. Dad wedged his Sunday wingtips into slide-on galoshes which sent Duff, another Black Irish disappointment, rummaging through the mishmash of snow boots and sneakers at the bottom of the closet for his outgrown rain boots. When he found them he backed out and plopped against the closed bathroom door trying to yank them on over his shoes. He groaned with effort, biting his lower lip, and finally succeeded, though he had the right boot on the left foot, the left on the right. He saw his mistake and his face collapsed, but he stood up anyway since Dad was already banging through the front door. “Hurry it up!”

Duff tried to walk, his mouth pulling tight against the pain that was still better than the sting of a whipping.

“Sit down,” I whispered, yanking off one boot, then the other, before ramming them correctly in place.

Duff held out his hand and I tugged him upright and outside where Mom and the twins huddled under an umbrella and scuttled down the front steps.

Dad opened the driver’s side door, his diagonally striped necktie fluttering up and over his shoulder. Dad never slicked up for the annual trek to collect Mom’s mother from the train station, so I knew his attire had to do with our impending car ride. Sliding behind the wheel was still a novelty to him—to all of us—since we had recently acquired our first automobile, a glorious elevation into solid middle class even if the car was used.

It was a black 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon with faux wood paneling on the doors and tailgate. It sported wide whitewalls and blunted tail fins cradling round taillights. The Squire was top-of-the-line when it rolled out of the factory and into Uncle Merritt’s driveway. By the time it rumbled down to us the slick black paint had faded, the decaled wood finish was dimpled with dents, the whitewalls scuffed and gray, and one of the taillights was cracked. Still, we were happy to get it and it could seat nine—our number exactly when our complement was complete—since it was also equipped with a rear-facing bench seat in the cargo area—the designated slot for Duff and me. We were the youngest of the O’Leary brood and thus had no vote, not that any of us had voting privileges besides Dad, not even Mom.

Mom and Dad sat up front, the twins behind them, and Duff and I settled into the rear, kneeling forward on the seat, bums on our heels, so we could avoid motion sickness. Dad started the engine which choked and coughed and finally held steady so that he could back out of the driveway, tailpipe farting blue smoke. Dad steered down our street and I craned to look at Easter decorations taped in our neighbors’ plate glass windows: giant cardboard eggs and bunnies and crucifixes. I caught sight of commotion between the Franks’ and Hollanders’
houses. Three shadowy figures lobbed eggs or rocks or dog turds at the second-floor window of Gary Hollander’s room, a hare-lipped, mildly-retarded teen who wore his pants too high and a girl’s pink watch. The three goons were my brothers and I was delighted to see them leveling their thuggery at someone other than Duff, or more precisely, me.

The KKK learned early on not to target the twins, Dad’s greenhouse beauties whose slightest pouts and pointed fingers would earn stripes to the KKK’s backsides when they were young enough to catch. Duff and I learned that our best defense was invisibility and Duff spent hours twisted inside the tight cabinet beneath the bathroom sink. In warm weather I played in the woods; in winter I climbed through the trapdoor in the hall ceiling to the attic and pretended I was a gymnast tiptoeing back and forth on the narrow boards, trying not to fall into the insulation that would leave me scratching for days. Or worse, smash my foot through the ceiling which would incur harsher penalties. We couldn’t hide forever, though, and the KKK’s preferred torture for Duff included Indian rub burns and holding him down while they related gruesome details of how they killed various birds, squirrels, turtles, and frogs. True or not, the cruel exploits left Duff’s face sticky from snot and tears, and I think if given the choice he would have chosen the rub burn every time. Our family never owned a pet.

Their favored torture for me was bending my fingers backward toward my wrist until I cried Stupid-Ugly, their nickname for me. I tried to endure it, keep my face placid as I recited multiplication tables in my head.
2 x 2 = 4; 4 x 4 = 16
. But I hadn’t yet mastered the art of disassociation and eventually I would concede: “Stupid-Ugly. Stupid-Ugly.

I don’t know if Dad spied the KKK between the houses, but he barreled out of our neighborhood, windshield wipers squeaking,
leaving behind his immune sons whose hides and dispositions had finally thickened under Dad’s repetitive belt- and tongue-lashings.

BOOK: Still Life with Plums
11.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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