Light Moves, a short story

For those of you who have been following the novel excerpts from “Flight: Book One of the Outer Flower Trilogy”, the title above may come as a shock, as well as the category. Light Moves is a short story I wrote several years ago and features two of my favorite, failing characters, Marsha and Larry, who circle round and round in a doomed marriage without ever breaking apart. I hope you like it. It’s humorous, however dark. As for the city dwellers of Casoria, both good and bad, they’re currently engaged in a flood of biblical proportions and will return on Tuesday, soaking wet.

Light Moves

Light moves!

Marsha was dreaming and in her dream she was a girl again and being cheated out of all the money in her piggybank. Cheated, not robbed, for in place of the multitude of nickels, the polished quarters, the flood of dimes, were pennies, dirty pennies, raining down upon her, falling through the belly of a spotted sky. They came at all angles and she could barely dodge them. She could only twist and pray, hoping for patches of light. When she woke, she found that she’d been crying bitterly, but she couldn’t remember the reason why.

“I’m confused,” she told her husband, Larry, who lay sleeping beside her. He’d been laid off from American Car & Freight for seven weeks. Now, she could lie in bed for hours and still get up before he did. For a moment, she thought her words had disturbed him, but when she saw they hadn’t, she said to herself this time, “Why am I confused?” and then got up without trying to be quiet and went downstairs.

The yellow kitchen was so clean it bounced back at her when she entered, the shine from the chrome and the floor and the windows all coming together to form one small leaping sun. She had cleaned it off and on all day yesterday. First the floors, then the cabinets, then the appliances time and again but because it was the same process, she only counted it once.

Marsha put water on for tea and studied the calendar on the wall. Two days past the middle of the month and again there would be no baby. There’d been no baby last month or the month before that. Trying for six lousy months in all and still no luck. She didn’t know why. When her doctor had told her to relax, go on a cruise, she’d laughed at him.

“We’re working people, Doc. We can’t afford that.”

“Well, can you afford to quit your job?”

“Are you kidding?” Marsha had asked, popping her blouse over her head. “Gimme a break.”

She found their conversation amusing and thought of it several times during the day. That evening, she repeated it to Larry over dinner. Larry, however, didn’t share her humor.

“If that’s what he said to do, do it,” he said. “We’ll make out.”

“Larry,” she stammered. “Have you lost your mind? What about the wood flooring for the living room? The car payments? My school loan?” By this last Marsha was referring to the loan she’d taken out to go to a two year technical college. She was now a hygienist in a dentist’s office and liking it just fine. In fact, it was the doctor she worked for who’d recommended the other. “No, it isn’t possible.”

“Yes, it is,” said Larry, and then he said a lot of other things she’d rather forget. It seemed her husband, who was non-committal about most things– had very definite views on becoming a father.

“Well, I guess we could try it your way,” Marsha agreed, finally.

The next day at work, she handed in her resignation, effective in two weeks. The dentist was sorry to see her go but nice. Her doctor was pleased. Larry was ecstatic.

“Now we’re getting somewhere!” he’d said, rubbing his hands.

That had been six months ago. Six months in which, other than not getting pregnant, a lot had happened. Larry had received a pink slip. She’d cleaned between the tiles in the bathroom with a toothbrush, read all the Harry Potter books and a paranormal romance, gained some weight. It’s better that nothing happened, she decided, putting on more water for tea, now that Larry’s not working, things would be too hard, although before the situation got desperate, she’d go back to work no matter what anyone said.

In fact, she’d already thought about reapplying for her old job until one of her former patients — a teenager with a mouthful of hopeful braces– had told her her replacement was now engaged to the dentist. “You should see her ring,” said the kid. “What a rock!”

The kettle sang and she poured water into the cup. The bag bled instantly and she watched the color swirl through the water. Such a small cup, such a burst of silent violence.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Suddenly Larry was beside her, his breath in her ear. Marsha kissed him back automatically, looking past to the clock. Ten of twelve.

“What will you have?” she asked.

“Bacon and eggs.”

“Larry, it’s nearly noon.”

He repeated himself, as though ordering at a restaurant.

Marsha made a face as she laid flat the slabs. She’d never liked bacon. The smell, the grease, the splats.

“Would you look at this?” remarked Larry, coming out from behind the paper. “It’s not even Thanksgiving and already the stores are advertising Christmas sales.”

Marsha turned the eggs. Any other time, she’d be at the mall, hunting through the stores on her lunch hour. This year she was going to order everything from the Penney’s catalog, his family and hers. Larry insisted they not slight anyone, not even his brother who’d once cheated him out of some real estate. “Let’s just get Dale socks,” Marsha had suggested. “Or aftershave. I can pick up something from the drugstore.”

“No, a sweater,” Larry said. “Something nice.”

“Here you are,” she said, and put his plate before him. While he was eating, Marsha took half of the paper. She’d read through the local section twice when she looked up and caught him watching.

“What are you going to wear to mother’s tomorrow?” he asked.

Marsha flushed deeply. ‘I don’t know, but not that tent she bought me.”

“Come on, now. Mom didn’t mean anything by it. The whole family thought. . .”

“I know what they thought,” Marsha snapped. “I wish we could go to my parent’s for Thanksgiving. They never say anything.”

But Larry said it was already planned they go to his and except for a few bland comments, they didn’t speak again until after the evening news.

Marsha dreamed again that night, and judging from her pounding heart and racing pulse, this dream was just as awful. Yet, she couldn’t say what was behind it all. Once, before waking, she thought she heard someone calling and waving their arms. Or maybe they were dancing. Maybe it wasn’t even a figure. She wasn’t sure so she didn’t tell anyone.

Thanksgiving Day passed without incident and so did the days into Christmas. She repapered the guest room, got a haircut, ordered from the catalog. Everything was routine except for one thing. Marsha had begun going to an interdenominational church at Christmas, but this year she drove to a different one across town, the kind she was raised in. She went to confession. Without prior thought and without telling anyone, she went to an unfamiliar parish where no one would identify her troubles. She wore a toboggan with an attached muffler and poured out her heart and soul to a nameless priest to whom she, too, wished to remain nameless. At the end it all, surprising herself, surprising the priest, she blurted out, “Father, do you think I could get a divorce?”

He mumbled something she didn’t understand, made the sign of the cross and rose to slide the curtain from the top. The crucifix about his neck shone dully in the half light, and Marsha lifted her hand in a staying gesture, but before she could speak again, the curtain had shut. Her question, poised as it was, seemed to fly back into the palm of her hand. It was Christmas Eve.

Around seven that evening, they visited her parents. On Christmas Day, they visited his. Her parents were frugal, a depression mentality, but Larry’s were generous gift givers. They gave Marsha a white winter suit with an expandable waist and didn’t mention the baby. To Larry they gave a wonderful navy sport coat with brass buttons, size forty two. It was a good fit, a grand coat. There were two rows of buttons and they were, in themselves, miniature works of art: heavy, etched, intriguing. Larry’s mother was worried that the brass would eat through the thread but his sister said she had some special thread and she’d sew them on.

Standing in the light, surrounded by his family, Larry looked handsome and happy; he exuded hope. Marsha thought he hadn’t looked this good in months, perhaps years. He smiled at her across the room and she caught a gleam, a boyish appeal in his eyes. Tonight, she decided, they’d make love.

Their passion began just before midnight. Marsha washed her face with a greaseless cleanser, then toned for oily spots. Larry turned down the thermostat and checked all the doors. Then, he switched off the lights, took off his clothes, and stretched out on the bed. Marsha opened the door to total darkness, the glare about the medicine chest spilling into the room. She stood in its path, slightly illumined and very plain, a solemn figure in a white nightgown.

“Get under the covers,” she told Larry.

“Come on,” he grinned. “I’ll warm you up.”

“No. Get under the covers or I won’t do it at all.”

The sheets were cold to the touch and cold to smell; lately, Marsha had been hanging them out on the line. They dried into a thousand wrinkles, but she ironed out every one. Larry kissed her on the lips. He touched her breast, her thigh, and so it would have been as it always was, except this time Marsha was very plain about her longing. She didn’t know why. Her hands searched his body for clues. Her sighs were not of passion. She arched and preened and squeezed and mumbled until Larry, alarmed by her dilemma, held her down. She raised her head to protest and caught sight of the jacket, the new jacket, hanging on the knob of the door. The buttons winked at her. She winked back, and in that moment of mutual admiration, Marsha saw bright starts, licks of promise, gold with a feral gleam.

“Larry,” she said, “put it on.”

Larry continued to hold her.

“Put it on,” she said again and, giving a jerk, bumped her knee into his pelvis.

Larry shut his eyes at the sudden pain, then opened them and looked down at her. “What are you talking about?”

“I said to put it on.”

“Put what on?” Larry blinked genuinely puzzled. Even in the dark, his eyes were still blue. Then, a flash of understanding. “Marsha, we’re trying to have a baby! Why should I wear a rubber?”

He tried to move into her; she blocked him at once.

“Not a rubber! I meant your coat. Put your coat on.”

“My coat? Why?”

“Because we need it.” Marsha inhaled deeply. “And it’s for sure I can’t wear it!”

Larry, influenced by urgency, did as he was told.

The buttons pressed into her breasts, her belly; they were hot, they were cold, sometimes they hurt, but at least when it was over, she slept. Slept like a baby, like a child in a coma, heavy and held down in sleep. She dreamed, but it wasn’t disturbing, and when she woke, she remembered only motion and light.

As for Larry, he slept even later than usual, making him late for an appointment at the unemployment office. Two more weeks until compensation. His brother-in-law, a house painter, called, and Larry agreed to help him paint some interior trim. The pay was under the table. The weeks passed and there was nothing between them but stretches of idleness, days of needless action, and small quarrels. Larry got a guest pass to the YMCA and lost fifteen pounds. He was very happy about it, but the the sport coat was too big.

“Take it back,” said Marsha, turning another egg. She’d always done the shopping and saw no problem. “They’ll exchange it.”

Larry called his mother, but she’d thrown away the receipt. “You should have told me that you planned to diet,” she said. “I would have saved it.”

“Take it back anyway,” said Marsha, taking the phone. “It’s time he learned how to do these things,” she told his mother.

So, Larry went to the store and told the clerk, a young bearded man, that he needed a forty instead of a forty two.

“What you need first is a receipt,” said the clerk. “A bill of sale.”

“I don’t have one,” Larry replied. “But I know Mom bought it here.”

“The policy of the store is that no merchandise can be returned without a receipt,” insisted the clerk. “Unless, of course, you agree to accept the sale price.”

“I suppose that would do,” said Larry. “All I want is something to wear. A coat, you know.”

“I know, sir,” said the clerk, sympathetically. “But I don’t have one like yours in a size forty.”

In the end, it was all settled amicably. Larry took the sale price and the clerk gave him credit, and then Larry paid ten dollars on a size forty corduroy out of the catalog. It would arrive in less than a week, and he was very happy about it.

Marsha listened to all of this white-lipped.

“In other words,” she said, squatting on her haunches, having just scrubbed the kitchen floor on her hands and knees. “You took sixty dollars off a two hundred dollar coat, then ordered a cheaper coat for which you paid ten dollars extra plus shipping and handling. I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.”

Marsha began to rock on her heels, sobbing. Her knee knocked over the bucket, but she paid no attention. Her dream had invaded daylight, spilling across her mind. She clenched her fists until the rings cut into her fingers, moaning, “They were pennies, dirty pennies . . . all my silver . . . gone.”

“Honey, it was a gift.” Larry put out his hand, offering to pull her up. “We really didn’t lose anything.”

The sun, clouded until now, suddenly bore through the window with an uncomfortable intensity, but Marsha didn’t blink.

“Get off the floor,” said Larry, finally. “You’ve worked enough.”

Marsha squeezed her eyes shut.

As he studied his wife, something began to turn in Larry’s brain. It had to do with a memory: something he’d left undone, had done already, had wanted to do better. When the answer came, it came whole and without question.

“You’re pregnant,” he told her.

Marsha couldn’t answer; she’d begun crying. Her sobs, which had started out normal enough, were now heaves that contorted both face and body. So much hurting. She looked looked like a stranger in pain.

“Don’t cry,” Larry told her. “The plant will call me back. I’ll get the original coat. I’ll fix everything.”

He led her tenderly to a chair, then left her. He telephoned his mother and had a long conversation. After that, Marsha heard the sound of the car in the drive, but she didn’t lift her head. It was Larry going back to demand, not only his original coat, but a free alteration as well. All this Marsha would learn later.

She didn’t move until the first wave of nausea hit her. Then she sat, extending her legs, pressing her arms across her chest, fighting it as long as she could until she got up, unwilling. She didn’t want to make a mess on her perfect floor, the new wood planks. Still, she took the stairs slowly. She went to the bathroom and raised the lid on the toilet. Everything was clean from this morning and smelled like pine. The water in the bowl was as clear and calm as a resort lake. Marsha fell on her knees, her eyes closed.

“God in Heaven,” she cried out loud. “If there’s no way out, make it bearable. Would you please please please make me dumber than he is?”

There was no answer, and she rose in a bit, flushing her nausea. Her husband was a kind man, a decent man; there was no reason to get upset over a jacket. Her outburst over, she started downstairs for her bucket and brush. While on her knees, she’d noticed discoloration on the porcelain. In fact, the whole bathroom could use a going over. It never hurt to be too clean. Things were, after all, not exactly hopeless.

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