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November 04, 2005

Fiction -- Opportunity

She is up before the knock comes at the door. The screen door squeals in rusty despair at the outrage of never being oiled, but she enjoys the head start it gives her. She is not an old woman, but she moves like one. "Not the years, deary, the miles" she likes to tease her visitors.

Didn't I tell you if you didn't get outta my way I'd knock you down? Your own fault.

At two on a dusty September afternoon, when the Santa Ana's blow through Los Angeles angry and hot, flaming tempers and hillsides, she knows her visitors before they even introduce themselves.

"Hi, Miz Brown." Bright eyes, blinding white teeth.

"Girls! Come on in. Only two of you today?" She holds open the door as the pair of ten year olds slip into the dark, cool house. She gets a pair of identical shrugged shoulders in response and feels something twist inside. She shoves the feeling way down, puts on her hostess face and follows them to the kitchen. She watches as they slip onto the worn kitchen chairs with an ease borne of practice. "Lemonade, girls? Iced tea? Sugar is already in it, I could add a sprig of mint from the garden."

"Lemonade would be real good, Miz Brown. It's so hot out." They struggle with weary smiles, a few drops of sweat rolling down the sides of their faces and her heart goes out to them. She retrieves cups from the cupboard and opens the refrigerator. A refrigerator she has to defrost, the handle almost chromeless, the enamel so worn it looks smudgy no matter how she scrubs.

How could someone get so excited over a flipping appliance, I'll never know. Well, you got your new fridge. Better take care of it, I'll be damned if I spend money like that again.

The girls drain their lemonade in enthusiastic gulps and thank her between wipes across the mouth with the backs of hands, forgetting the napkins she placed before them.

"Miz Brown? Can we see what you're workin' on?"

"Of course, girls." She smiles and moves back to the tiny front room, taking her iced tea and carefully setting it on a coaster on the endtable next to her chair. The endtable with the yellowed paperback under one leg to keep it stable. She keeps her back to the girls as she picks up the doll from the chair, then turns quickly in a flourish of presentation.

"Miz Brown!" the girls squeal in delight.

She hands them the doll with a laugh and lowers herself gently in her chair as they collapse in heap at her feet to inspect it. They hold it gingerly, small fingers smoothing down the dress, fingering the fine yarn hair. They softly whisper "oo's" and "aah's" over the delicately sewn trim and the shaped face.

A wistful sigh, she thinks of the time she wanted to try making porcelain dolls. He wouldn't hear of the expense of it. So she did what she could with what she had. A little finger of pride stirs in her as the girls occasionally glance her way with a mixture of awe and wonderment. Humble materials she has taken to fashion dolls through the years. Muslin, cotton. She glances over their heads at the plastic boxes now neatly filling the top shelf of the small bookcase across the room. Almost on cue, the girls look to her and follow her glance.

I come home, hot and tired. I want my dinner. I want peace and quiet. You got the house all day to yourself. I'm first at night. Got it?

"Treasures," they breathe and, holding the doll close and protected, they scramble to the bookshelf. One holds the doll and the other reverently takes down one box, then another. Off comes the lids and little hands dip down and gingerly finger antique lace, crocheted edgings, seed pearls, antique buttons and glass beads luminescent in the late afternoon sun slanting in through the blinds. What she lacked in funds she made up with an investment in time. Endless hours trekking through thrift shops and second-hand stores, garage sales and estate sales, picking up with a practiced eye old prom dresses and wedding gowns, cocktail dresses and beaded sweaters. Fifty cents here, a couple of dollars there and she'd have a plastic bag to bring home and in the evenings when she wasn't allowed to use her sewing machine, she'd sit quietly in her chair, her special silver scissors in hand and delicately tease and snip the trimmings into the plastic boxes. Later these found there way onto her dolls; a southern belle in tulle trimmed with satin roses, a band leader with real brass buttons and gold braid, a nightclub singer in a red gown of sequins and beads.

And on the other shelves, now replacing the cheap detective novels and sporting and fishing magazines lives her dolls, and the cracked plastic case that houses her sewing machine when it isn't on the kitchen table, a small vase with silk roses and a framed picture of her daughter.

No, Mom, no wedding. David and I are eloping. You know why. I won't have him near me. Why haven't you left? Just walked out the door? I can't ever come back. I can't talk anymore, Mom.

The girls turn to her, eyes glistening, "Miz Brown, these so beautiful! You could be rich, you know?"

She dips her head in apparent embarrassment, "Go on, girls. This is my hobby."

She thinks, Hobby? This is my life. I have to create, create something or I would surely go mad.

And she suddenly shrinks from those thoughts, shudders with terror away from them. "Girls, may I have that one back, I'm not quite done with the hair," she reaches out her hand as they reluctantly approach her. She smiles at them and keeps her hand relaxed and steady, even as she fights an urge to rip the doll from them and scream at them to get out.

They spend the next hour together, the girls hovering, scrutinizing every move she makes as she sweeps the doll's hair up, stitches down delicate curls and adorns it with tiny satin roses and miniature pearls.

You know the first time my girl brought home one of these dolls I knew they were something special. Here, take the money, I got fifty dollars for it. FIfty! And I know I could sell any you give me. Please, take the money. Just promise you'll only spend it on yourself. Don't, don't tell him!

"Miz Brown, why don't you come out at all?"

"What do you mean, dear? I go to the store once in a while," her head is bent, she is taking tiny, even stitches.

"Not going to somewhere!" they elbow each other like she has been dropped in from another solar system, "Out, Miz Brown. Just out. Like on weekends when there's bar-b-ques on the block. Hang out, know your neighbors."

"I've lived here a long, long time. I know my neighbors," but she is suddenly a bit confused. She knows the kids, and a few of the adults. But things have changed. So many have moved on. She is constantly startled to see new faces in familiar homes. She looks earnestly at the girls. She only knows their mothers to wave at, a quick hello at the supermarket.

"Everybody would love you, Miz Brown. They already know `bout you. Bet they want to know you. This is a comin' out neighborhood, you know."

"Some time soon, girls. I'll get around to it."

I'm in love with you. There, I said it. All these months. You're a good woman, a loving woman. How can you stay with him? What he does? What he is? Come with me. Don't look back. Just walk through that door and not look back.

The conversation comes back to her later as sits in her chair with the simple dinner she has fixed herself. Nothing that would make her turn on the stove, just a sandwich, some fresh fruit and another glass of iced tea. She tried taking her dinner out on the front porch. Her home was built in the twenties before air conditioning, with a deep, covered front porch that shades the front windows and provides an escape from the heat. She settles into the wicker rocking chair and realizes she can count on one hand how many times she has sat is it over the years. It is there as decoration, to be hosed off before storage during the winter, and repainted before it's perched on the concrete slab in the spring. She hears laughter and shouting from down the street, the flinty smell of the Santa Ana's now carrying the pungent odor of charcoal lighter fluid. Yes, a coming out neighborhood. And suddenly she can't swallow the bite of sandwich in her mouth and she can't make the glass of iced tea reach her lips to help.

She flees inside.

So she sits now, mechanically eating, bite after bite. She's been eating less these past couple of years and her thinness takes her by surprise. She brings the last of her sandwich to her mouth and notices a lump on her arm under the thin skin. A broken wrist that didn't quite heal right. She lets her hands fall to her lap and leans back to listen to the quiet music coming from the small stereo boombox on the window shelf behind her. It was the first thing she bought herself after he died. Not an expensive one. Old habits die hard.

No, Mom, I won't come to the funeral. I don't even think many people will show up. The pretending is done, you know. Get out, Mom. Sell, trade. What the hell, torch the friggin' place. Just get out that door.

She comes awake with a start, disoriented and stiff from sitting upright in her chair. The house is fully dark, the only light from dial on the boombox and her small sewing light over the endtable.

A noise. It's the screen door and ice water replaces her blood as she grips the arms of her chair and tries to will herself to rise.

The door explodes inward, violence driving the doorknob into the plaster wall behind it. The doorframe is shattered, a three-foot section of it dangling from the security chain she faithfully locks each time she shuts the door. Light from the streetlamp floods the entrance, silhouetting a dark figure lurching over the threshold. A small, strangled sound escapes from her throat and he turns toward her.

"Shutup," he growls, "Don't even think it."

He reaches out a hand and swings the door closed. Advancing, he enters the small pool of light she's pinned in and stops, swaying before her. He is young, dressed as so many dress on her block; oversized pants cut just under the kneecaps, white socks pulled up high. Oversized white tee-shirt and a chain that dangles in a long loop out of a back pocket. She knows that sway, confirmed by the smells that roll off him in waves. Sweat, alcohol and the acrid scent of urine. His legs are slightly apart, hands dangle at his sides, slightly twitching as he tries to look around the room.

"Too fuckin' dark. I turn on a light, lady, you'd better not move. You'd better not fuckin' breathe."

He moves to the wall and fumbles with the switch. She squints against the flooding glare and watches as he takes in the room. The worn furniture, the walls long overdue for painting. His face drops, anticipation to disappointment; disappointment to anger.

"This is it? What's all this shit, huh? I heard talk around. I know old bitches like you have some stuff." He spies her purse and pounces on it, tearing it open and dumping it on the floor, pawing for the coin purse. Some change and a couple of crumpled dollar bills fall out. He shoves them into his pocket with a grunt and looks around the room again.

"This is no good. No good, I tell you. I see no DVD. And you call this a TV?" He picks up her old, dusty portable and flings it into a wall. She winces at the sound of the exploding tube.

Violence for it's own sake takes over. He upends the kitchen table, the sewing machine skittering across the floor. He tears pictures off the wall shattering the glass and sending them flying like frisbees into other rooms. And all through this is a running commentary, rambling and profane.

"You waste my time, bitch, you know that? My time is valuable. Gots places to go, see?" He comes back to her, grabbing her shoulders, hauling her up and shaking her like a dog does a rag. "Where's the stuff, huh? You old, you must got something. Treasures, I hear the word, huh?"

He throws her to the ground and she lands hard on her shoulder. Stunned, she finds herself staring at his feet. She looks at his shoes, thinking she could buy a couple of weeks of groceries for what they must have cost.

"How come you don't talk, huh? You mute or something? Senile, betcha."

She watches as his foot draws back and he kicks her square in the stomach. Her breath comes out in a whoosh, a strangled cry mixed in and fading out at the end. He smiles, almost laughs at her wriggling in pain on the floor. He wanders over to the bookcase and picks up one of the boxes and looks inside.

"What's this shit?" He upends the box, letting the sequins and beads run through his fingers, bouncing across the floor. He sees the dolls, and with an air of amusement pulls one up to inspect. "This what you do with your day? Kid shit?"

She finds herself not afraid. Something is strangely familiar about all this. Her minds whirls and dances trying to make sense, to make a plan.

Bored, he yanks the doll apart and she cries out. Not loud, not enough breath for that. But loud enough his head snaps towards her and he stomps over, flinging the doll parts over his shoulder.

"Who said you could talk, bitch? Huh? Who's in charge here?" He leans down and grabs a handful of hair and lifts her head up a few inches. "Your old man ever teach you right?" He pounds her head against the floor a couple of times. "I'm in charge here. I get what I want, see? I do what I want, see?" He straightens and grabs the boombox. "Gotta have me some souvenir."

I'll be by tonight, sweetheart. Please look at me. I'll just drive to the front. Just open the door and it will be all over. He can't stop you. Don't let him stop you. Just climb in my car and a new life can be ours.

Her ears are ringing. She's forgotten about him. The wind has blown the door open slightly. The only thought she has, repeating like a mantra; the door is open, the door is open. She reaches out a hand, creeping across the floor, inching on her side. Closer and she can go through it. Through it and not look back. There's a growling behind her, but she ignores it. If she can get to the door. Her fingers are brushing the door. The door is there, opening for her, waiting for her like it always has. She can see sunlight, smell fresh cut grass and roses. Her body feels light, drifting towards the opening.

The foot descends on her arm and she hears the cracking sound as if from a distance. Pain shoots up her arm. It's the old break, done in a familiar manner. She stares at the door and ignores the foot drawing back near her head. She can't see anything but the door. Open in front of her. Just like always.

Posted by Darleen at November 4, 2005 12:50 PM


- Darleen, you simply missed your calling.....But its never too late as they say... "Write" on sweets...

- Big Bang

Posted by: Big Bang Hunter at November 4, 2005 03:57 PM

I just happened on your site darleen, I just wrote a fiction piece on my blog (check it out if you'd like, it's short).

Anyway... I did a search for fiction, and up you pop. Great stuff... you write very cleanly.

I don't want to imply that I understand everything though.. I wasn't quite sure who where the thoughts were coming from. but... then again, I am kind of an idiot.

but like I said... you write VERY cleanly. that was a very nice piece.

My writing seems so... skippy.

Posted by: scody at November 4, 2005 04:21 PM

Nice story. You're good at characterization. You should join zoetrope.com and post it there.

Posted by: Kelly Parks at November 6, 2005 05:01 PM