[img_assist|nid=7420|title=The Kuerner Farm by Annette Alessi © 2011|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=250|height=187]Holly scrubs sauce pans and three-quart pots and centers her attention out through the kitchen window, across the driveway until he emerges from his house and mobilizes, punches his fists on his hips, elbows poking right and left, surveying in his usual way. Holly always wonders what. What is he looking at? What precisely does the world look like from his viewpoint?
At her back, the rustle of the local newspaper muffles her husband’s voice. “New cereal?” he asks, and then, like the path that their marriage has taken, he renders the question rhetorical with a non sequitur. “Still working on that artery project, if you can believe it.”
The python curled inside her stomach slithers to her throat and she smoothes her hair with her hand, though her neighbor would be unable to detect a stray strand due to his lack of proximity and his misdirected gaze. They existed as neighbors for years and Holly barely noticed him, but all of a sudden this summer, whenever she sees him, she can hardly breathe. All her organs pulse and squeeze their various rhythms into erratic backwards and opposites. At some point, she couldn’t say when exactly, she started watching for him. Every day.
As a housewife, approaching middle age, Holly maintains a youthful appearance, with pale smooth skin, strawberry blonde hair and a slight, fit figure. On the other hand, Mil, for whom she aches, resembles a well-aged Maple. His face, deeply grooved like gray bark, surmounts his skinny trunk. Limbs stick out at odd angles, and with their sprawling gangly grace, epitomize all the brave forbearance of a harsh winter before the promise of spring. In the midst of summer now, Holly reminds herself that the season delivered its potential, and she remembers her dentist, last summer’s crush, when she fabricated symptoms and scheduled unneeded extra appointments so that she could sit in his chair while he leaned close, spearmint-scented, gently touching her.
Earlier that year, in the spring, there was a young man at the deli counter with dark hair and brown eyes whose long thin fingers handled the meats and cheeses with a sexuality she found difficult to resist. That crush engendered an unusually high number of cold cut lunches – nitrate, sodium, and fat loaded meals eventually making her believe that her indulgences were killing her family. So she bought the meats and threw them away. Finally, the shame of wasted food drove her from the store and toward a moratorium on deli foods and cougar crushes.
Those were playground romances compared to the intensity of her feelings for Mil for whom she wants to abandon her marriage and race across their driveways into his waiting arms where he gathers her to him, his long bony limbs against her back. He presses his thin torso to her breast, his leg between her thighs, their bodies crushing together in an embrace so tight that neither of them can know, can feel, where one body ends and another begins. He whispers her name.
The sound emanates from behind her, the newspaper insinuating itself into her moment and denuding her pleasure.
Rustle, rustle, rustle, the newspaper speaks again. “Are you gonna pick up the invites today when you’re shopping?”
She asks, “How do you know I’m shopping?” A jarring metal screech followed by a thunderous reverberation represent all that remains after Mil disappears into his basement bulkhead and slams the doors closed. Holly swings around and faces Scott.
“You always go Tuesdays,” he says.
“How do I know what invites?” Her voice rises as the newspaper lowers. She knots her arms across her chest.
“How can you just say invites like that and figure I know what the hell you are talking about. You just say invites with no preamble.”
Holly’s anger derails him. She watches as the tracks run out from under him.
Finally, he says, “Well, I ain’t no constitution, baby.”
She concludes that he is missing a gene, always confused by her anger, perpetually wondering what he’s done wrong, unable to comprehend why they argue, drawing no conclusions about it after all these years. It must be a genetic defect, like a thyroid dysfunction, to believe that all anger is the same and that he can mollify her with a pun or a joke. “Okay.” Now Scott treats her to the slowed-down speech reserved for children and rabid animals. “Invitations for the fiftieth wedding anniversary party for my parents.”
“Fuck you, Scott. I know what they’re for.” From her angry words, she extrudes a calm clarity. The whole concept of a couple staying together for fifty years eludes her, especially her couple, mismatched from the very beginning. She’s going to have to tell him, crack open the sophistry of their union regardless of the consequences. She’s not sure when or how but Holly will confess Mil. And Brian, too. All of it.
Holly liked to party with boys. Fifteen years old, an average student in a small, conservative, blue-collar town that proved, for many, tough to leave. Holly overlooked the pool of insouciant teenagers from which she could select her girlfriends. She gravitated to football players. Lured by their doctrine of entitlement, she admired their matrix of fundamentals; assigned roles, hard work, inevitable pain, measurable points and savored victories. She loved their rough voices and coarse words. And their smell, like fields of spring mud, intoxicated her. When she got high with them, she embraced the out-of-control feeling, her power stretched before her without horizon. Tacitly, she shared their glorious dreams of fame and fortune, fast cars and freedom. In a sober moment, alone, she devised the plan that would fulfill those dreams.
Phase One began with an unwitting boy, all too willing to accommodate Holly’s desire. Even if he was in love with her, he fell to Holly’s plan in a strafe of collateral damage. Her first time – was it his too? — they abandoned only enough clothing so that their bodies connected. Years later, Holly would forget his name and all the ancillary events of the evening. But memory of the sex imprinted; the stinging pungency of cheap cologne, his initial struggles, telling her to relax, just relax, then the brief, ripping pain, surprise when his body jerked and shuddered against hers, and finally, probably only minutes later but seeming much longer, his belt buckle digging into her thigh. For days, she wore the bruise from it, an odd shape that made her think of getting a tattoo there. She stopped at every mirror, examined her reflection, and the C student congratulated herself. “That’s an A, baby.”
Fortune delayed her deployment of Phase Two because her frequent absences from home alarmed her parents and drove them to search her room. There, they unearthed an old baggie with a few joints Holly had neglected because there was something better to smoke. Infuriated, her mother flaunted her discovery at Holly, herbs trembling inside the murky plastic. Her father imposed the strictest curfew ever; home directly after school, no TV, no computer, no music, no, no, no, no…no! Okay, whatever. Holly didn’t waver. Her resolve deepened. The week of her eighteenth birthday, she met Scott.
Scott, green eyed, thick lashed, dirty blonde, halted, at Holly’s request, outside Dave’s Liquors on Main Street. While she addressed the stranger, he stood by, his towering six-foot plus, muscled frame stuffed into a fresh off the rack business suit. “Hey,” she said. “Buy me a six pack?”
“Name’s Scott.” His low strong voice reminded her of a Great Dane.
“Scott, buddy. You’re over twenty one?”
“Yeah. Buy me a six-pack. I’ll owe you big time.”
“And you are?”
She hesitated. “Well, I am twenty one. It’s just I left my ID home.”
He smiled a goofy, white-toothed grin. “I meant your name.”
“Uh. Barbara.” She should have waited. All of a sudden, this guy seemed really extra tall. “I’m kind of in a hurry so if you – “
“Never mind. I’ll do it if you keep your word.”
“You said, you’ll ‘owe me’. So that’s your word.”
Holly’s instinct said run, but something about his tone sparked her anger and she glared at him instead. “That was just a figure of speech, you know.” Plus, she would have liked to commission the job to someone else but he was the only guy anywhere near the store in the last half hour who didn’t know her. “Look,” she said. “I’m not gonna sleep with you.” Although he did have a nice ass and all those muscles in just the right places. And when she saw her comment actually made him blush, she softened and considered the possibility.
He said, “I meant I’ll buy your six pack if you have one with me.”
“Is that all?” Holly couldn’t help but feel a bit of disappointment over not at least being forced to choose.
“That’s all. I mean, if your plans can wait.”
“You said you were in a hurry.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay. Deal.” Holly realized suddenly that she wasn’t exactly showing off a spectacular vocabulary.
A few minutes later, mission accomplished, they walked along the street. Scott reached into the bag and handed her a cold one. He unleashed the Great Dane voice. “You always drink Rolling Rock?”
Holly struggled for something to say that would seem witty or, alternatively, sexy. “I’m usually a Bud kind of gal.” She pictured the horses with their regal white booties.
“Ever try Magic Hat?”
Holly gave up on wit and squinted at him. “You’re not from around here.”
“I was. Um, from here.”
Then he said it. Medical school. Scott’s name preceded by the title, “Doctor.”
She said, “You know, my name’s not really Barbara.”
“Didn’t think so,” he said.
Three months later, when Holly missed her period, she celebrated alone with a Thai stick and a bottle of Jack Daniels that she lifted from the same store where she’d met Scott. He didn’t hesitate with his proposal. She didn’t hesitate with her response. Holly didn’t know if the arrangement horrified her parents or bewildered them. But they probably preferred their daughter’s chances in a loveless marriage to a doctor versus single motherhood. On the other hand, Holly envisioned her plan miraculously unfolded. She pictured herself in a big house with a swimming pool, enjoying a pedicure while she lounged with a frosty drink and socialized with her wealthy friends.
Then Brian was born.
What a surprise, after waiting out an easy pregnancy in their tiny studio in Western Massachusetts while Scott, absent mostly, interned for barely enough pay to cover the rent. How unprepared Holly was, equally for the pain of childbirth and for the even more painful joy of intense love that she immediately felt for Brian, a love that torched in her a mortal fear for his well-being. The baby in her arms immolated all remnants of her plans and dreams, giving way to a steadfast devotion to every aspect of her family’s sustenance.
She discovered a diversity of banal talents working nights on the computer at the library, clipping money saving coupons, haunting Salvation Army stores for used housewares, purchasing in bulk from BJ’s Wholesale and cooking to stock her freezer. Scott wore GAP while she wore K-MART. Brian got Bauer skates and football camp and Holly got This End Up furniture, in southern yellow pine. “That’s the same wood they make floors out of. It’s guaranteed for life,” the sales clerk assured her.
Long after it was necessary, Holly practiced frugal ways. When Scott suggested a cruise to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, Holly funded Brian’s college education instead. When Scott wanted to trade in their southern yellow pine, Brian’s budding musical talents warranted drums and lessons and his teeth required braces. And when Scott surprised her with the sparkling diamond anniversary band on their tenth “for the diamond I couldn’t afford back then,” he said, she snapped the box shut. She hugged him and insisted she’d be afraid to wear such extravagant jewelry. Besides, she needed a new refrigerator and she wanted Scott to buy that convertible sports car from the brochures he’d collected and studied for the past two years.
Now, seventeen years later, Holly looks at Scott look at her and she sighs. Scott folds his newspaper and drops it on the table. He stands, strides directly to her and, inexplicably, he kisses her gently on the cheek. One soft, brief suck, Scott’s lips and Holly’s skin, a meeting arranged thousands of times before, now the incontrovertible truth of her life enfolding all of the dirty diapers and scary fevers, ABC’s, PTA’s, Little League and MCAS. Math homework and meatloaf. After years of Scott’s affection, the steady performance of all of his obligations – all the qualities that drew her to him – she feels it only as this shabby, relentless taunt. She hates Scott for her own complicity in her privileged, even life, a life marked neither by great joy nor by great tragedy. Only Brian.
When she sits across from Brian at the dinner table, Holly can still visualize her beautiful new baby burping formula all over her only fancy holiday blouse. But she recognizes her son, now licensed to drive, as a tall, athletic blond occupied with researching schools in California and Wisconsin. Brian’s presence obliterated her teenage dreams, what would his absence do to the rest of her life? Does she really have to tell Scott? Can’t he see for himself, the crumbling after-effects of a Brian-less house?
“OK, honey. I’m on call tonight. Don’t forget.” Scott reminds her of his years and years and years of Wednesdays – half a day at the office with light morning appointments, on call all day and night, swapping with the other doctors in the practice only for vacations and emergencies. Holly clenches her body as Scott withdraws silently. She pictures the bruise on her inner thigh from when she lost her virginity at age fifteen. She wonders how it could have faded, how she failed to notice, how first the pain left, then she gazed at her skin one day and the bruise had vanished.
Mil and Scott converse outside in the driveway. Inside, Holly chops celery, peppers and cucumbers into three-inch strips for the fiftieth anniversary party. Her preparation of appetizers is a holdover from her frugal years, doing for herself when she can easily afford catering.
She hasn’t told him yet.
Tree leaves flutter in an eastward wind, and simultaneously Mil’s gray hair and Scott’s blonde hair lift in the breeze and now settle. In spite of their disparate appearances, their relaxed demeanor, side by side, makes them seem like brothers, as if they share a long history, not just the street. Mil gesticulates his description of some phenomenon; the fingers on one hand form the “O.” He pokes the index finger of his other hand in and out. Besotted by Mil’s innocent illustration with a lewd gesture, Holly momentarily perceives the heady, slightly rancid aroma of sex. At the same time, she embraces the solace that her lust for Mil offers.
“Ma, where’s the keys?” Her son’s voice surprises her, not by its interruption of her thoughts, but by its tone. She often forgets how strong he has become, how his strength has carried along with it a new voice, from flute to tuba.
Holly turns slowly and raises her eyebrows. Brian, a tall, lanky teen sports all of Scott’s features, as if Holly’s genes weren’t involved.
“Ma,” Brian says. “The car keys.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m in a hurry.”
“I didn’t ask for your state of being.”
Finally, he looks at her. “You’re so bizarre.”
“I’m meeting friends.”
Holly reaches into her pocket, withdraws a set of keys, and jingles them, playing the music of his independence. Brian swipes them from her hand but at the last moment, Holly clenches her fist around the keys.
“Call me and let me know where you are.”
“What for? Isn’t the tracking chip implanted in my head working right?”
He kisses her cheek and runs out the door as Holly calls after him. “It’s not you I worry about.”
She stretches over the sink and peers out of the window trying to track Brian’s progress, but she sees only Scott. Mil has disappeared from view. Before Holly can return her attention to washing snow peas, slicing broccoli and to her dilemma, she sees Scott’s eyes widen. He jumps and shouts. Holly hears him through the glass. “Not in my car you don’t!” Brian trying to sneak away in his Dad’s sports car again.
How will she explain to Scott that all this is just a lie behind thickening smoke and mirrored glass that Holly positioned long ago? The time Brian fell off the ladder and broke his finger, the afternoon Scott wrecked the car jockeying for position on Beacon Street near Fenway, the Thanksgiving Holly celebrated in the hospital with double pneumonia – none of it really happened. Insert Scott’s pun here.
Holly arranges the hard, crisp vegetables on a platter. Green vegetables on a green platter. Torpid and green. Green, all green. Holly breathes deeply and musters myriads of magenta, violet and chartreuse, striped purple and orange eggplants, luscious swirls of royal blue and neon pink tomatoes. She giggles aloud. And that damn lifetime of southern pine will be the first to go.
Through the window, the sun strikes the green plate, and ignites a blinding emerald glitter. The harsh light intensifies and explodes into all colors. She concentrates hard on this bright anomaly as if it is a gift, useful but complicated and without instructions. Don’t stare at the sun! Don’t stare at the sun! The warnings Holly delivered to Brian all through his childhood. He was eleven years old for the eclipse and they constructed an elaborate pinhole device for an indirect view.
But Holly stares and stares directly for so long that the light and the power of the light, all the power of the colors radiate inside of her, dig through her cells molecule by molecule. When she finally cuts away, her sedition cracks open the kitchen walls. From the cracks, the blood of her house oozes, a green slime, the blood of open circulation, insect blood. It streaks the walls with color, pools in the serving dish, runs in a jagged path down to the floor, snakes across the linoleum, and stops, finally, just before it reaches her feet.
Well into the eighth decade of their lives, Scott’s parents celebrate fifty years together, along with a meager gathering of friends and family still alive and more or less ambulatory. From the kitchen, Holly spots Brian fading into a corner of the living room where a battalion of canes stands ready. He mopes, absorbed by his only companion, an overflowing plate of food.
Holly sees him, and not for the first time, as Scott must have looked, before the burdens of life crossed his path, medical school and the family Holly forced on him. Over the years, Brian brought lots of friends by the house but she can’t recall one particular girl – or one boy for that matter – in whom she suspected a serious sexual attraction. Music inspires Brian’s passion and in that also, she sees his counterpart in Scott. She envies both her son and her husband in a way that reminds her of the boys she envied in high school. Whatever they accomplish, however they succeed or fail, they begin at the rim of their lives and fearlessly eye the roiling fire of their potential. Mil is finally Holly’s very own desire, not one she borrowed from someone else. All she has to do is tell Scott.
Stationed in the kitchen Holly avoids the party and observes her elderly guests. Aunt Greta, a widow for decades, always wears a frown. She readily and competently debates any political issue and Holly could serve drinks off the old woman’s stooped back. Cousin Fred loves to flirt but Holly wonders if his viscous, clouded eyes can still deliver the distinctions between male and female. Cousin Harriet, the faded party girl, spills more than she consumes and insists on wearing fancy pumps in spite of swollen ankles and puffy feet. Brian catches Holly’s eye and she suppresses a smile. When she confesses to Scott, a celebration like this won’t factor into her future.
Holly turns her back on the party and pirates a moment for her kitchen window fantasy. Mil’s red pick-up is parked in his driveway. Beyond it, on his side porch, he stands over his wife who smiles up at him from an orange plastic chair. Animated, he explains some mysterious concept that utilizes a full repertoire of his awkward, beautiful gestures.
“Everything okay, Hon?” Scott interrupts. “Have we got any more toothpicks?”
He opens and closes a few cabinets, hunches over the utility drawer and rummages.
Holly says, “You should invite Mil and Dot over.”
“You should go over there right now, Scott, and ask Mil and Dot if they want to come to our party.”
“Mil and Dot?” Scott straightens from the toothpick quest.
“I’m sure your parents won’t mind a couple of extra guests.” Holly opens the drawer at her hip and from the clutter, produces a box of toothpicks, multicolored plastic spears with miniature sword handles.
“Well, all right,” Scott says awkwardly, taking the box.
He won’t go.
She can picture Mil in her house, in her white house, sampling her green vegetables, sitting on her southern yellow pine. His cigarette ash falls to the floor and she drops to sweep it up, hesitates at his feet. He pulls her to him.
But Mil is two driveways away, and might as well be continents away as likely as she is to convince Scott to get Mil over here. And before she absolutely explodes with her desire, she pulls Scott to her meaning to say, “In seventeen years, I’ve asked you for nothing. Now all I want is for you to bring Mil to me.” Instead, what comes out is, “Brian wasn’t a mistake.”
Desperate now. “It’s Brian. It’s about Brian.”
Scott pulls up, still in her grasp. “My god, what? What?” Scott guides her into the bathroom and searches her eyes so deeply that it blinds her. She composes herself by concentrating on bathroom fixtures, porcelain anchored to the linoleum floor, toilet tissue gripped by a cheap plastic holder and guest soaps molded into seashell shapes. She represses the urge to smash it all to unrecognizable bits, all the porcelain and plastic, especially the seashells.
She says, with measured calm, “Brian wasn’t really a mistake. I never told you. Brian wasn’t really an accident.”
“I know that.”
He shrugs, inscrutable. Perhaps he didn’t hear her.
She begins again, “I said…”
His voice is hard. “I heard what you said.” His eyes release her. For the first time that she can ever remember, he seems angry and she can’t reference why. “What’s this all about, Holly?”
“I just told you…”
“I mean, what are you trying to say?” Holly remains silent. He shakes his head. “You want out? Now? You’re telling me now?”
She tries to respond, stammers a few beginning syllables and trails off.
“I was twenty six for chrissakes. I knew what I was doing.” Pale and shaken, he sinks down to the rim of the tub. He drops his head heavily into his hands. His voice is softer now, distant. “I stole your youth, your chances in life. You think I didn’t know? You think I didn’t know how much your parents hated me for it? Well, I didn’t care. Holly, you were so wild, unattainable. I was so damn in love with you.”
His words linger, regroup, grab her by the neck, and choke off her air. The floor undulates and vanishes. Walls warp, twist, and jet away. The ceiling swirls, presses down, and crumbles. For a moment everything slams and crashes and in this one moment Holly sees her entire life burn in an unexpected way, caramelize sweetly.
Scott looks up at her. His eyes glisten. “Please, don’t leave me. I don’t know what you want, but I’ll do anything. Don’t leave me.”
“Shh, Scott.” She ventures toward him.
“Don’t leave me.”
“Shhh. Shhh.” She reaches out, cradles his head against her breast. She feels Scott’s body pressed warmly to hers, her eyes open wide, not wondering, just feeling all of it. The thought makes her laugh aloud, a genuine laugh that climbs her like a vine. She says, “What more could I want?”
D Sprung Kurilecz grew up in Middletown Township, New Jersey. She frequently visited her mother’s family outside of Philadelphia including Grandparents in Conshohocken who owned a candy factory nearby in Norristown. Currently, she lives on the South Shore of Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing. Her fiction and nonfiction have received international award recognition and been published in numerous literary journals, including most recently, North Atlantic Review, Willow Review, The MacGuffin, American Letters & Commentary, Oyez Review, Blue Earth Review, The Jabberwock Review, The Broome Review, and West Wind Review. She has a Masters in English/Creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.