Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, has had over 280 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. Four collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, and The Tales of Talker Knock, have been published.His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
By Steve Carr
A thin line of white sunlight shows between the very narrowly parted, dusty, faded, gold and white velour drapes. It’s the only source of light in the room and only illuminates a portion of the threadbare, ornately but poorly designed gray rug, like a shining pathway cut through dreamlike images of peacocks, doves and willow trees. A large overstuffed floral patterned chair is in one corner with a pole lamp standing next to it that has a beige lampshade with fringe that was once white but has turned yellow with age. There’s a fireplace that has a piece of plyboard nailed across the front. The mantle is cluttered with an assortment of tchotckes, mostly figurines of horses. In a gold painted wood frame, an oil painting done in dark greens and mustard yellow of an Italian villa hangs above the fireplace. A circular glass coffee table covered with old National Geographic Magazines is in the middle of the room. The television sits on a small table against a wall and is turned off. One of the kitchen chairs is beside it.
A light green sofa is pushed against one wall. In a pair of blue flannel pajamas, Uncle Roy is stretched out on it, his head resting on one armrest, his feet propped up on the other one. He doesn’t move and in the dim light he could almost be mistaken for a pile of laundry. Intermittently there is a bright red glow that erupts and then quickly fades from the end of his burning cigarette each time he takes a drag. He breaks into a hacking cough after each puff. The smell of the smoke mixes with the odor of pine cleaner and hangs heavily in the air. The whirr from the air humidifier plugged into a baseboard outlet and sitting near the sofa is the only sound in the room.
Uncle Roy’s dark green oxygen tank is on the other side of the arm rest where his head is. The excess tubing that leads from the mask to the tank is bunched up on the armrest next to his left ear. The mask rests on his chest next to a crystal ashtray filled with ashes and cigarette butts.
Aunt Edna’s elbows are on the kitchen table and she’s holding her pudgy, wrinkle-lined face in her hands. Her canary, Lulu, is hopping about in its bamboo cage that hangs by the refrigerator, knocking birdseed onto the dingy white tile floor. Drops of water fall from the faucet onto a crumb-crusted tin pie plate in the sink filled with dishes, making a pinging noise that reverberates in the kitchen. On the stove’s burners there’s an iron skillet with gelled grease from fried pork chops, a sauce pan caked with dried tomato soup, and a Teflon frying pan splattered with pieces of dried scrambled eggs and bits of green peppers.
The window above the sink is up a few inches and a hot breeze blows in, making the ends of the separated purple, plastic curtains flutter. Through the grimy window glass the water tower that stands near the railroad tracks can be seen.
Aunt Edna tilts her head, placing her cheek in the palm of one hand. With her free hand she flips back and forth the two pages of a funeral home pamphlet. Several similar pamphlets are stuck in a clear plastic napkin holder sitting in the middle of the table.
Lying naked in a supine position on her bed, Cathy palpates first one breast, then does the same to the other, checking for lumps. The fan is in front of the raised window, blowing hot air over her body. Perspiration has glued her hair to her forehead and neck. The small blonde hairs on her arms are covered in dewdrops of sweat. Other than the movement of her fingers on her breasts she is immobile, as if weighed down by the dull gray ceiling above her. Stirred by the fan-driven breeze, the edges of the paper doilies on her vanity dresser tremble. Her sash from when she was crowned Miss Coal Mines 1998 is draped diagonally across the mirror.
The door to the clothes closet is open and a pile of clothes and shoes are in a mound in the doorway. Many of the black wire hangers have nothing on them. A large stuffed penguin won at the state fair stands in the back of the closet, peering out with its one remaining button eye. The shelf above the clothes rod is lined with paperback romance novels whose covers are tattered and pages are dog eared.
On the walls beside the door leading out to the hallway there are pinned hundreds of photographs of Russell. In most he is wearing the yellow metal hat and gray field jacket covered in coal soot that he wore in the mines.
Light from the dim bulb shines through the lampshade, casting a muddy glow on the room. Uncle Roy’s face is gaunt and his eyes are sunken. His face has a pale blue pallor. With every exhaled breath his chest shudders. He’s sitting up on the sofa with his legs between the legs of a metal TV tray that holds a plate of food and a bottle of beer and the ash tray. There’s a small overly done steak on the plate that he vigorously saws with a dull steak knife. His pale, arthritic, vein-covered hands shakes as he cuts into the meat and makes the tray wobble. He’s knocked most of the corn from his plate and the bright yellow kernels lie on the tray like beads from a broken necklace. There’s a burning cigarette in the ashtray. Its wisps of smoke curls in the air and disappears. His oxygen tank is on the floor next to a leg of the tray. The tubing and mask are in his lap.
The television is on, but the sound is down so low that its noise is almost imperceptible. After swallowing each piece of steak he takes a swig of beer and then takes a drag on the cigarette. He stares at the television, showing no sign that he cares about or even comprehends what he’s seeing.
Sitting in the kitchen chair next to the television, Aunt Edna has her tray pulled up to her lap with her plump legs stretched out between the legs of the tray. She’s wearing a pair of dirty, blue fuzzy slippers. She pushes the corn around on her plate with her fork until she impales a single kernel with a tine. Unable to see the television screen from where she’s seated, she gazes wistfully at the Italian villa while she eats. It’s the only piece of art she owns.
Wearing a pale green dress and white pumps, Cathy comes down the stairs and stands in the hallway for a moment and adjusts her bra strap before going into the living room.
“He’ll be here in a few minutes,” she says.
Aunt Edna puts a corn kernel in her mouth, chews and then swallows. “Are you sure he won’t want something to eat?” she says.
“We’re going out to eat,” Cathy says.
She steps back into the hallway and opens the closet door and takes a can of air freshener from the shelf. Beginning in the hallway and going into the living room she sprays the lemon scented freshener. Its scent is quickly lost in the haze of cigarette smoke. She returns the can to the closet, and then goes back into the living room and sits in the overstuffed chair.
“It’s been two years since I’ve been out with a man,” she says as she turns her watch with the gold band around on her wrist. Although the hands are moving, she taps impatiently on the watch crystal.
“It’s about time,”Aunt Edna says. She pushes the tray away from her and brushes biscuit crumbs from her dress. “Russell wouldn’t have wanted you spending the rest of your life mourning.”
Uncle Roy eats the last piece of steak, then drinks the last of the beer. He takes the cigarette from the ashtray and takes a long drag, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs. As he begins to cough, he turns on the oxygen and puts the mask over his mouth and nose and inhales. His cheeks have turned ashen. He puts the ashtray with the burning cigarette in his lap, pushes the tray aside and leans back against the sofa cushions.
“I’ll say it again, you’re killing yourself Uncle Roy,” Cathy says.
“Black lung is killing him already,” Aunt Edna says. “Tell me again, where did you meet this man you’re going out with?”
“He worked with Russell at the mine. I met him before the accident, when Russell was alive,” Cathy says.
There is the discordant chime of the doorbell.
“He’s here,” Cathy says and then quickly rises from the chair and rushes to the front door. Breathless with excitement, she opens the door.
A few minutes later she returns to the living room with Sam.
“Sam, this is Russell’s aunt, Edna, and his uncle, Roy,” Cathy says motioning toward them. “They kinda took me in after Russell’s death.”
Sam nods first to Aunt Edna and then to Uncle Roy. “Please to meet you,” he says.
Aunt Edna stands. “We adopted Russell when he was two after his parents died in a boating accident. They drowned,” she says nonchalantly. “Were you in the mine when that part of it collapsed and trapped our Russell and the other men?”
“No ma’am, I wasn’t,” he says.
“Imagine dying from having no air to breath.” She puts her hand to her mouth and feels her warm breath on her fingertips.
Uncle Roy removes his mask and puts the cigarette to his lips.
“It’s dangerous to have a lit cigarette around an oxygen tank,” Sam says. “You could start a fire.”
In the dark of the middle of the night, a train passes. There is the tinkle of cups and glasses in the cupboard.
On the cold stove burner sits a frying pan full of grease and bits of steak fat. In the sink, water from the dripping faucet falls on the metal tray used for baking the biscuits that lays atop dirty plates and utensils.
Sitting at the kitchen table in her pale pink cotton nightgown, Aunt Edna takes a pamphlet from the napkin holder and spreads it out in front of her. This is the funeral home they used to bury Russell. Even after two years she hasn’t forgiven them for forgetting to put out a book for mourners to sign as they entered the funeral home to see Russell’s body. She folds up the pamphlet and shoves it aside and takes out another one. In the birdcage, the canary hops onto the floor of the cage, and takes a kernel of corn into its beak that Aunt Edna had thrown in earlier. It hops back up onto a perch, and a moment later it flings it out of the cage.
In her bed and in the darkness, Cathy runs her fingers over the rash on her cheeks and neck caused by Sam’s beard rubbing against her skin as he kissed her. She didn’t like how he kissed her at all. His mouth was all over her, smothering her with kisses. It was nothing like the tender way Russell used to kiss her. When Sam put his hand up her dress she slapped him and got out of the car and walked home.
As the hot breeze from the blowing fan washes over her body she raises one arm above her head and checks the underarm for lumps, tenderness, or pain.
Sitting in complete darkness, Uncle Roy removes the oxygen mask and purposely places it beside the ashtray that has a burning cigarette among the ashes.