Into tiny pieces, she chops cucumbers, finally doing something, making a salad, since her daughter has passed. She will make the casserole with ham and potatoes, something they all loved, something her daughter loved. The family. She drops grapes over leaves. But when she is making the dressing, grating the lemon zest, her hands stop working, that word sounds so wrong: zest. On the counter by the phone numbers people have left for her, by all the flowers, she leaves everything unfinished. Later she will come back. Her husband stands in the middle of the room by the fireplace. He doesn’t live here anymore but he did not knock. Now he thinks there must be forgiveness. He loves her so much. The buttoning sequence is off, the sequence of that white wrinkled shirt. She undoes him. She can feel, she knows how he wants to collapse right there with her. The bed is too far. She considers the floor, but she cannot yet. There is no going back. She wants to envy all the lovemaking going on in the world. She wants that feeling of envy. She desires the air, the feel of the glass over the paintings in the room. There is dog fur in the corner. She takes a broom and begins to sweep.
There had been so much lightning. The power stayed on, but they didn’t have a phone anyway. The girl wanted it to just be that the noise had scared the child, but the quiet brought no relief. The baby boy cried and cried, clawing at his flushed face in the dim night light while a ménage of toy animals twirled above in time to a lullaby. She paced in the hot kitchen, listening to the baby and the lullaby in the next room, the motorcycle revving in the yard. She didn’t want to ride a motorcycle to the hospital, to carry her baby that way. Why didn’t they have a car yet?
The motorcycle quieted, purring now. She could hear the frogs out in the swamp. The camera lay on the table with all those pictures they’d been taking earlier in the day, the dancing baby at her friend’s knee. Now everyone was gone, miles off in Baton Rouge. She touched the child’s cheek and it burned.
Her husband staggered in. Even feet away she could smell the whiskey.
They lived so far out and she didn’t know how to drive the motorcycle, didn’t trust him to hold the baby.
A light bulb snapped and turned the room black. She gathered toilet paper to cover her fingers while she twisted the bulb free. She rifled through drawers for a new one. She wished darkness would quiet the baby, but it did not.
She managed to find a new bulb and fumble until it was secure in the socket. The light came on and her husband stood there, in the same place. She didn’t know what he’d been doing all that time in the dark, but strong as he was with those arms and those eyes, she could see his utter uselessness.
“Ready?” he asked.
Outside the rain started up again, sheet after sheet of it. She shook her head and dissolved aspirin onto a teaspoon to feed the baby. In a towel she collected ice and gathered the child into the cold cloth, waiting it out until morning.
Darlin’ Neal is the author of the short story collection, Rattlesnakes and The Moon (March 2010). She holds an assistant professorship in the MFA program at The University of Central Florida, and is Fiction Editor of the Florida Review. She also serves as faculty advisor to UCF’s undergraduate literary arts magazine, The Cypress Dome, and for The Writers in The Sun Reading Series for which she brings in writers of national caliber each semester.
“Sheets” and “Zest” seem to delay confrontational action, at times. Have you turned us, your readers, away from the loudest noise? The biggest bang? I think actually both these main characters are immersed inside the conflict. In “Sheets” she needs to find the way to step out. Either way she takes care of her child now, she is endangering their lives. In “Zest” she’s stuck there for a while because of the violent loss of her daughter. So I guess my response is that we are smack inside a lingering big bang. And the question is how can they get out? Perhaps longer stories would take them searching through that maze? Right now we’ve seen decisions that close only this one moment for each of these women.
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