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Open House

First-place 2016 Fiction Contest Winner

There was no dew, so she could work without the discomfort of grass clippings stuck to wet bare feet. Ken had always said that dry grass in the morning meant there’d be an afternoon thunderstorm. He was often right about things like that, rural folklore that he learned from magazines or neighbors at the working farms along the road. But already she could see the storm front low in the sky to the west. I’ll tell her when the rain starts, she thought. When I feel the first cold drops.

Diane set the potted plant in the grass and looked across the field at the split level going up at the edge of the woodlot down the road. She’d planned to move the butterfly weed that grew along the fence line, but the machinery had arrived and dug the foundation before she’d found the time. She wondered how long before the field was filled with such houses and the daisies and goldenrod would disappear when the mounds of subsoil were spread on top of the good top soil. She’d learned something about topsoil in her twenty years on the farm, and weather patterns, too. 

She tipped the pot on its side, supporting the trellis with one hand, and lowered it to the grass. Knowing of her love of plants, some people sent decorative combinations to the funeral, arranged to look like diminutive tropical forests sprouting from baskets, with no sense of irony, and when the plants turned yellow Diane transplanted them to separate pots to accommodate their horticultural needs.

She’d tossed out most of the blooming plants, the chrysanthemums and azaleas, but this philodendron had been growing up the trellis for two years. Searching among the leaves, she found a growing tip and unwound the vine from the thin strip of cedar until she freed the entire length, which she stretched out on the grass at an angle from the base.

Not long after Ken and Diane bought the farmhouse Diane converted the glassed-in porch to a solarium, and hung spider plants in the windows and misted ferns with a spray bottle of water. When she saw a wholesaler set up a display on a grassy strip in front of the gas station at the entrance to the interstate, she stopped and looked at each plant before she purchased a Dracaena with multi-colored leaves and a staghorn fern. In this way she filled the room, and on warm days the porch smelled like the earth of the tilled fields to the north of the farm.

Mary Jane didn’t want plants in her room, even when Diane offered her a choice of anything on the porch, including the jade plant and the African violets. She looked up at Mary Jane’s curtained window. Her room, on the east end of the house above the porch, heated up in the sun. Mary Jane met her curfew the night before, which Diane set two hours later because it was graduation night, but that little bedroom always got too hot in the morning. She’ll be down here before the rain, she thought. Please let her wake up before the rain.

When they first moved in the farm had a backhouse by a cluster of lilacs at the edge of the field, and a hand pump in the kitchen. After three years they were able to add indoor plumbing, but they hadn’t done anything about insulating the walls. Mary Jane’s room was as cold in winter as it was hot in the spring and summer. Ken thought their children—all children—should be able to tough it out and he suspected them of faking ordinary discomforts and even illnesses. “Let them get up earlier,” he said. “Let them put on an extra blanket, wear long underwear to bed.”

But they’d achieved what they’d dreamed of for their children. Kenny Junior had toughed it out, and was sullen and resentful only through his early teens, exuberant about leaving home as he got older. Mary Jane could be defiant and what Ken called mouthy, but Diane was proud of her when she spoke up. Trying to undo the damage now was like picking at a scab. Little bits of hardness came off around the edges and revealed sensitive pink skin. If she pried too much or got too close to the center a drop of blood came out. But scab was one of those words her own mother had told her an educated person should never use, like lousy or snuck.

She found another end of the vine and followed it down the trellis to where it branched. She let that piece hang and followed the fork up to the top and unwound that one too, holding the Y-shaped stem while she loosened the rest of it. If a piece broke off she could root it in a jar of water and pot up a second plant, but there was no time for that now. Her new place might not have much room, or even sunny windows. But she was careful with the plant even though she viewed it as common and somewhat weedy; it didn’t have the allure of the slower growing and perfect-leaved orchids and bromeliads she collected. Visitors often commented on the size of the philodendron, and the plant had only one week to reorient itself to the sun on the trellis before Mary Jane’s party next weekend.

At the graduation ceremony the day before Mary Jane walked smiling across the stage and pumped the hand of the principal and superintendent and later stood with a group of her classmates, recipients of full scholarships. Mary Jane had chosen Iowa State, which she pointed out to Diane was far enough away that she wouldn’t be coming home for weekends. Maybe she’d come for Christmas, or if she was lucky she’d join a classmate from southern California or Florida for the holidays and avoid the Michigan winter altogether. 

The farmhouse’s wooden back door, with its sagging and patched copper screen, had hinges that creaked and it slammed shut on its own. These clichés of rural life made Diane laugh out loud whenever she heard them, and they did now, too, when Mary Jane came out with a plastic bowl mounded with dry colorful cereal and sat on the top concrete step and raised her face to the sun. She’d seen her sit there a thousand times, with her cereal, with the cat, with a book. Mary Jane rubbed her bare feet back and forth on the concrete and picked up one piece of cereal and placed it on her tongue. Diane could see her red fingernail polish. 

“Good morning, graduate,” Diane called.

“Good morning, Mermaid.”

Mermaid was Diane’s nickname. Kenny Jr. had started using it when he became too shy about the intimacy of calling Diane Mommy or even Mom during his adolescence. Mary Jane started using it after Kenny Jr.’s death and some of her friends called Diane Mrs. Mermaid and Mary Jane Minnow.

“Feet hurt?”

“Too much walking on high heels,” Mary Jane said.

“Have a nice time otherwise?” Diane asked.

Mary Jane was her class’s valedictorian and following her peppy speech in the afternoon to her classmates and the audience of parents and grandparents, she made the rounds to parties at her classmates’ homes and then to a dance at a United Auto Workers hall rented by the parents of her best friend Kelly. On the coming weekend there would be more parties in the daytime, including Mary Jane’s. The daytime parties were open to all her classmates and their parents. Mary Jane’s was to be a picnic on the lawn, with volleyball games, but Diane was readying the house for the traipse of girls to the bathroom and parents to the kitchen to help with food preparation and cleanup. 

“Mmmm hmmm,” said Mary Jane. She stood and came to where Diane was working and sat in the grass next to the philodendron. She scooped up a handful of cereal, tipped her head back, and let the cereal cascade into her open mouth. Mary Jane was not small like a minnow. Diane had learned how to fish, and to identify the different kinds, on their vacations to a state park near Lake Michigan. Diane was the petite one. Mary Jane was more like a pike, she thought, with her father’s bones and lank. 

Ken had been nuts about fishing. Once the children were old enough to camp they had joined the masses of families in southern Michigan on weekend trips, to northern cabins and campgrounds where they fished all day and sat around a dirty campfire and cooked food on sticks in the evening. She wondered if there were other states with this kind of weekly exodus or if it was particular to the blue collar workers of southern Michigan. Growing up in Washington DC, she and her parents vacationed on the Chesapeake, a short drive to the east, where they stayed in a clean white cabin with nice linens and dishes. 

Mary Jane stretched her legs out on the grass and rested backward on her hands. She and Kenny Jr. had their father’s athleticism, too, and Diane’s favorite photo of Mary Jane showed her jumping high at the volleyball net, spiking the ball to the other side. Her pony tail was above her head and her mouth was open in a surprised scream yet it was clear that every cell of her being was focused on the moment of returning the ball with perfect form and grace and also with the intent of winning even at the expense of kindness. Was she projecting that onto Mary Jane? The family therapist they saw together for their first year alone suggested she was. Mary Jane wasn’t as timid as Diane, and sometimes that made Diane resentful. But Diane often saw hesitation in Mary Jane’s eyes and recognized it as her own. In the angle of her face she glimpsed how she herself looked twenty-five years ago and she, Diane, was fearful they were caught in a cycle, no, a lineage, that she couldn’t stop, especially after what happened to Kenny Jr. 

The heart-shaped leaves of the philodendron, spread out like a fan and nestled among the linear blades of grass and dandelions made a complicated pattern. Diane lugged the hose from the side of the garage and sprayed the plant and brushed at her nose as dust blew up from the leaves. 

“Phew. It’s good to get rid of this dust.”

Mary Jane crawled backward like a crab, away from the mist of the hose, with the cereal bowl resting on her stomach and again tipped her face to the sun. Then she licked her fingers and touched each to the cereal and ate the pieces one-by-one from her fingertips.

Diane opened a box of leaf polish and threw aside the box. She shook the bottle. The dauber attached to the cap was milky blue. She kneeled next to the plant and lifted a leaf and spread the polish. It pooled with the water droplets, and Diane used her finger to push the liquid to the edges.

“Only six billion to go,” Mary Jane said. “That looks officially boring and pointless.”

“You’re right,” Diane said. “It is, and that’s a typical teenage thing to say. I think you officially became an adult yesterday. And I just officially decided not to polish the leaves.” She kept her voice light and playful, and set the bottle in the grass and worked her fingers into the mass of white roots, still compressed in the shape of the pot. The soil fell away and she slid the roots into the overturned pot and opened a plastic bag of potting soil.

“Would you help me put this back together?” She looked at the sky and rubbed at the mist of water on her arm with her wrist. She wanted to feel the raindrops when they started, to get what she wanted to tell Mary Jane out of the way.

She turned the pot upright while Mary Jane scooted closer and held the trellis and tugged on the vines to draw them closer. Diane positioned the roots in the pot and poured soil around them, pushing it around with one hand while she gripped the bag at an angle between her knees, encouraging the soil to flow with punches at the bag. 

“What does this remind you of?” she asked Mary Jane.

Mary Jane giggled. “Can’t you dig some god damn black dirt from the woods?” She spoke in a low voice. “What a god damn waste of money.”

Diane laughed and moved her head from side to side as she said, “And you’d get some god damn worms in it.”

Thunder rumbled in the west. Mary Jane spun on her bottom and faced the clouds. “Oh goody, a storm,” she said. She lay on her back and stretched her arms and legs. 

It no longer felt wrong to mock Ken. Diane was embarrassed by how quickly her grieving subsided, the second round of grieving coming so soon after the first, and surprised, when she remembered their young love, by how she could no longer identify what had attracted her to him in the first place. Ken had gone right after Kenny Jr.’s funeral, right from the funeral. She hadn’t known he’d filled the car’s trunk with his clothing and fishing tackle, and while the undertaker was driving her and Mary Jane back to the funeral home in the shiny black limo, where they gathered the baskets of plants they wanted to keep and were loading them into her sister’s car, Ken was withdrawing what was left of their savings after the funeral expenses. With her sister’s car filled with plants, when it became clear that Ken wasn’t coming back, the funeral director had driven them home. 

How could you know so little of someone after twenty years? She’d wondered that daily for the first six months, until she received the divorce papers from a lawyer in Costa Rica, where Ken had gone after the accident. In the same envelope was the deed to the house, notarized and signed over to her. She didn’t know he’d taken that, too, but at least he’d had the decency, the common courtesy, she thought, to let her have the farm. She’d included a note when she returned the papers. She’d told Ken that they missed him, that there was another new house going up at the edge of the field, and that Mary Jane was doing well in school. Mary Jane had withdrawn after that and she let her do so for a while. But she’d gone willingly to the counselor and the relief they both experienced with the plain talk felt good. Why couldn’t they continue that at home, without the counselor’s guidance? Maybe it was Mary Jane’s age, she thought, and her shyness. She could see that wearing away with each milestone in her life. She’d sent another note to the Costa Rican attorney’s office the following fall to tell Ken about Mary Jane’s scholarship, and another when she was selected as valedictorian.

Diane looked at the mailbox, leaning on its round post at the end of the driveway. Mail had become an event in her life. She expected her own college transcripts today, to include with her application, and the realtor said she’d send a how-to packet for staging the house. Mary Jane loved to get the mail, and used the trek down the long driveway as training for volley ball, leaping over the depressions that filled with muddy water in the spring. She’d need to think of a reason to beat her to it. But if the rain came first, it wouldn’t matter. She’d keep her promise to herself and tell her when the rain started.

Ken had taken Kenny Jr. on a guided bone fishing trip in Costa Rica for his 18th birthday, right after his graduation, when she’d gone through similar preparations for a party. Kenny Jr. had sent a postcard with a colorful postage stamp of tropical plants that she knew he’d chosen just for her. She kept the card in a box on her dresser. His left-slanting handwriting, so boyish and tight, told of his ride on something he called a Tarzan swing, and of walking along a suspension bridge where he saw monkeys and parrots. He’d listed on the bottom the scientific names of the tropical trees he’d learned. But he hadn’t come back to enroll in the botany program at the state university or to start his summer job at the lumber yard.

Once they got to Tortuguero, Ken had forgone the expensive charter they’d talked about and hired another boat, a smaller boat with unlicensed guides, not the best guides according to what she could glean from the police report. Kenny Jr., a non-swimmer, had fallen off the platform on the back of the boat. Not that swimming lessons would have saved him, she told herself over and over. For a few days her imagination let her see Ken with a beer in one hand, waving his other hand while he boasted of all the fish he’d caught on chartered trips in Lake Michigan. But the police told her otherwise, that the guides had to restrain Ken from jumping over when they saw Kenny Jr.’s cap floating on the flat water far behind the boat as they sped along to a more productive reef. And that Ken jumped in next to Kenny’s body and performed CPR long after it was clear that Kenny was dead. And that Ken lay on the floor of the cabin with his arm across his son for the long ride back to the marina.

From where she stood, she could see the mail carrier turn off the state highway a quarter mile away and begin his stops at the mailboxes along the road. She finished pressing the soil around the roots and shook the pot. She stood and brushed at the philodendron’s leaves. It would look good for the party; maybe one of the guests would take it home. Mary Jane was on her back, one hand playing with the cereal in the bowl and the other twirling a dandelion flower under her chin. Thunder cracked overhead and they both shrieked. The sky opened and what fell was not rain, but hail. 

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Allison Slavick lives near Cable, Wisconsin, where she works as a consultant to nonprofit organizations, especially museums, around the country. She is a mountain bike and cross country ski racer and berry picker. Her short fiction has been published in Storyglossia, and won the H.E. Francis/Ruth Hindman Foundation Short Story Award.

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