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Still Life with Plums is a vibrant collection of short stories that weaves together the outwardly distant lives of several strangers. With heaping doses of dark humor and magical realism, these ten stories enliven a cast of characters carefully speckled throughout the southern portion of the United States. From West Virginians, to Texans and Latinos, Still Life with Plums circles the paths of a Black-Irish West Virginian, a wise-cracking dog groomer, an emasculated husband, a Guatemalan widow, a ...
Still Life with Plums is a vibrant collection of short stories that weaves together the outwardly distant lives of several strangers. With heaping doses of dark humor and magical realism, these ten stories enliven a cast of characters carefully speckled throughout the southern portion of the United States. From West Virginians, to Texans and Latinos, Still Life with Plums circles the paths of a Black-Irish West Virginian, a wise-cracking dog groomer, an emasculated husband, a Guatemalan widow, a Japanese-Latin-American poster child from WWII, and a meticulous predator. Marie Manilla’s accessible prose is deceptively layered, as she births and wrestles this quirky ensemble that unflinchingly probes the human psyche, while affirming a concrete connection to a shared place and identity.
Hand. Me. Down.
Holy Thursday, 1965, I squatted over the heater vent in the kitchen picking knee scabs when my father’s voice boomed from down the hall: “You kids get in the car!” His reverberating diktat roused a pummeling of footsteps up from the dank cement basement where the KKK tortured crickets or mice or my younger brother, Duff. The KKK was an apt acronym for my three older brothers, terrorists all, Kevin, Kieran, and Killian, ages twelve through fourteen. At the top of the stairs, the KKK banged out the back door and skittered and slipped up the muddy hill, their great escape unfoiled since my parents had lost control over them long before. The storm door squealed shut behind them in the April drizzle. Duff started to follow, testing his six-year-old mettle, but Killian roared: “Not you!”
Duff slumped there, eyes welling.
Mom wiped crumbs from the supper table and recentered the doily and bowl of emerald glass balls, the ones I tried to juggle when no one was looking.
Dad thumped down the hall sliding his scary belt through the loops on his waistband. “Where are the girls?” he muttered, though I was crouching right there, one of his girls. I looked too much like him, a Black Irish reminder of his father’s mean joke: Who’d yer mother bed to squeeze out the black-assed loiks-a-yew? Mostly Grandpa lobbed this insult at my dusky father. The first time he flung it at me, however, when he was out of earshot I whined to my mother: “I’m not black.”
“Of course you’re not, Doreen.” She stopped darning a sock and patted her knee, a rare invitation. Once I was settled on her lap, she spun a fantasy about Spanish sailors in a sixteenth-century Armada who set off to invade England. The Armada shipwrecked off the Irish coast, however, leaving a few water-logged survivors struggling for shore. The Irish women took pity on the pathetic crew and soon they married and started a dark-skinned, dark-eyed bloodline.
“That’s rubbish,” Grandpa O’Leary snarled from the hall. “She’s kin to Irish colonizers who mixed with those West Indie, Montserrat niggers.”
Mom sat there, stunned, and it took her four months to convince me that I was as white as my older sisters, nearly, who were not only twins, but willowy, pale-skinned, blue-eyed fairies like Mom.
“Change your shirt,” Mom whispered to me as Dad buckled his belt.
I knew better than to grumble in front of Dad, so I scuffed to the room I shared with my ethereal older sisters, my narrow twin bed looking like a lone dinghy beside their luxury liner of a French Provincial queen. Still, it was better than the two sets of bunk beds crammed into the boys’ room, the wall beside Duff’s mattress slathered with dried boogers because that was the KKK’s designated booger wall.
My eleven-year-old sisters sat shoulder to shoulder on the upholstered bench in front of the vanity we inherited from Dad’s mother along with the luxury liner queen, combing their golden tresses, the blunt-cut ends skimming their backsides.
“It looks better parted on the left,” Mary said to Meg. They lifted identical combs to re-part their hair and secure the corn-silk locks with matching barrettes.
I slid open the closet to dig through the box of clothes I had recently inherited from a neighbor girl three years my senior. Her leftovers would smother my sisters, whose slight shirts and pencil-leg pants would never accommodate me. I found a striped turtleneck, faded from washing, but new to me, and punched my melon head through the taut opening. It only choked a little. Hunching forward, I tried to wedge between the twins and peer into the vanity to see just how unkempt my own wiry mane was, if I needed a brush or my fingers would suffice.
My sisters pressed their shoulders together more tightly, a bony gate slamming. “Use the mirror in the bathroom!” they jointly bleated.
Mom doled out coats and scarves from the hall closet and we crowded there tugging and grunting, buttoning and zipping. Duff and I stole peeks of Dad’s face trying to decode the pucker of his mouth, the squint of his eye. Dad wedged his Sunday wingtips into slide-on galoshes which sent Duff, another Black Irish disappointment, rummaging through the mishmash of snow boots and sneakers at the bottom of the closet for his outgrown rain boots. When he found them he backed out and plopped against the closed bathroom door trying to yank them on over his shoes. He groaned with effort, biting his lower lip, and finally succeeded, though he had the right boot on the left foot, the left on the right. He saw his mistake and his face collapsed, but he stood up anyway since Dad was already banging through the front door. “Hurry it up!”
Duff tried to walk, his mouth pulling tight against the pain that was still better than the sting of a whipping.
“Sit down,” I whispered, yanking off one boot, then the other, before ramming them correctly in place.
Duff held out his hand and I tugged him upright and outside where Mom and the twins huddled under an umbrella and scuttled down the front steps.
Dad opened the driver’s side door, his diagonally striped necktie fluttering up and over his shoulder. Dad never slicked up for the annual trek to collect Mom’s mother from the train station, so I knew his attire had to do with our impending car ride. Sliding behind the wheel was still a novelty to him—to all of us—since we had recently acquired our first automobile, a glorious elevation into solid middle class even if the car was used.
It was a black 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon with faux wood paneling on the doors and tailgate. It sported wide whitewalls and blunted tail fins cradling round taillights. The Squire was top-of-the-line when it rolled out of the factory and into Uncle Merritt’s driveway. By the time it rumbled down to us the slick black paint had faded, the decaled wood finish was dimpled with dents, the whitewalls scuffed and gray, and one of the taillights was cracked. Still, we were happy to get it and it could seat nine—our number exactly when our complement was complete—since it was also equipped with a rear-facing bench seat in the cargo area—the designated slot for Duff and me. We were the youngest of the O’Leary brood and thus had no vote, not that any of us had voting privileges besides Dad, not even Mom.
Mom and Dad sat up front, the twins behind them, and Duff and I settled into the rear, kneeling forward on the seat, bums on our heels, so we could avoid motion sickness. Dad started the engine which choked and coughed and finally held steady so that he could back out of the driveway, tailpipe farting blue smoke. Dad steered down our street and I craned to look at Easter decorations taped in our neighbors’ plate glass windows: giant cardboard eggs and bunnies and crucifixes. I caught sight of commotion between the Franks’ and Hollanders’ houses. Three shadowy figures lobbed eggs or rocks or dog turds at the second-floor window of Gary Hollander’s room, a hare-lipped, mildly-retarded teen who wore his pants too high and a girl’s pink watch. The three goons were my brothers and I was delighted to see them leveling their thuggery at someone other than Duff, or more precisely, me.
The KKK learned early on not to target the twins, Dad’s greenhouse beauties whose slightest pouts and pointed fingers would earn stripes to the KKK’s backsides when they were young enough to catch. Duff and I learned that our best defense was invisibility and Duff spent hours twisted inside the tight cabinet beneath the bathroom sink. In warm weather I played in the woods; in winter I climbed through the trapdoor in the hall ceiling to the attic and pretended I was a gymnast tiptoeing back and forth on the narrow boards, trying not to fall into the insulation that would leave me scratching for days. Or worse, smash my foot through the ceiling which would incur harsher penalties. We couldn’t hide forever, though, and the KKK’s preferred torture for Duff included Indian rub burns and holding him down while they related gruesome details of how they killed various birds, squirrels, turtles, and frogs. True or not, the cruel exploits left Duff’s face sticky from snot and tears, and I think if given the choice he would have chosen the rub burn every time. Our family never owned a pet.
Their favored torture for me was bending my fingers backward toward my wrist until I cried Stupid-Ugly, their nickname for me. I tried to endure it, keep my face placid as I recited multiplication tables in my head. 2 x 2 = 4; 4 x 4 = 16. But I hadn’t yet mastered the art of disassociation and eventually I would concede: “Stupid-Ugly. Stupid-Ugly. Stupid-Ugly!”
I don’t know if Dad spied the KKK between the houses, but he barreled out of our neighborhood, windshield wipers squeaking, leaving behind his immune sons whose hides and dispositions had finally thickened under Dad’s repetitive belt- and tongue-lashings.
“Mother will love the car, Dolan,” Mom said, pulling a compact from her purse to powder her dishwater-steamed face. She peered into the mirrored disk in the evening’s last light and tried to fluff her hair and apply lipstick because she never had one single minute to gussy up at home.
Dad grunted, spine straightening as if he’d forgotten about the dents and dings and his older brother’s smug mug when he handed over the keys. “Don’t ride the clutch,” Uncle Merritt had said. “Change the oil more than once a year. And don’t ever let those wild boys drive it!”
“Maybe she’ll buy us new Easter dresses!” Mary said, a thought that set the twins shivering, and me, too, but for different reasons. I remembered too well the previous year’s shopping disaster, all that purple chiffon and itchy lace because the three girls had to match—though I was no match for my sisters.
“Don’t you girls pester Grandma,” Mother said, craning around to better glare at the twins, her eyes more fearful than challenging. Clearly she remembered my father’s ear-steaming rant when he discovered that his mother-in-law had clothed his daughters in a grander style than he could ever afford.
“Didn’t your mother just make you new dresses?” Dad said, his black eyes peering into the rearview, a look that would have me stuttering but that had no effect on the twins.
“Nobody wears homemade clothes anymore,” Meg said.
I looked at the back of Mom’s head, her shoulders stooped as if she were still hunkered over the sewing machine with the bobbin that routinely clotted with thread. The way her eyebrows furrowed whenever she tried to untangle the knotted mess, as if she wanted to hoist the blasted machine over her head and hurl it through the side window.
“Your mother wears handmade dresses,” Dad said. “What’s good enough for her should be good enough for the loiks-a-yew.”
“Then let her wear them,” the twins spat.
The turtleneck pinched my neck as Duff and I glanced at each other, both of us holding our breath. I don’t think Mom was breathing either.
“Spoiled brats,” Dad finally muttered, his voice firm, but the crinkle around his eyes betrayed pride in his mouthy offspring.
I marveled once more at the twins’ nerve.
“Your father called today,” Mom said, tugging her earlobe in that frantic way she always did when she delivered bad news.
Dad’s shoulders drew up. “What for?”
“He wants you to pick him up after Easter mass and bring him to our house for dinner.”
Dad hunkered over the steering wheel, jaw grating back and forth. “Something wrong with his car?”
“He didn’t say.”
“He can’t drive two miles?” Dad said, voice raspy.
Mother didn’t answer because what could she say?
“Why can’t he eat over at Merritt’s?”
Even I knew the answer to that. The last time the extended family gathered at Uncle Merritt’s for a family meal, Grandpa knocked over his water glass. He mechanically drew his hand back and swiped at his wife who would have been sitting beside him if she hadn’t bluntly died a month before. Instead, Grandpa struck Merritt’s eight-year-old daughter who wailed like the banshee she was.
Aunt Sally swung around from the stove, spatula in hand. “Did he hit you?” she asked her sniveling daughter. “Did you hit her?” she spat at Grandpa.
Mom and Dad slunk down in their seats as Uncle Merritt thundered up his basement steps, bottles of homemade beer clinking in his arms.
“Your father hit her!” Aunt Sally squealed.
Hand. Me. Down. 1
Still Life with Plums 78
Counting Backwards 100
Crystal City 114
The Wife You Wanted 147
Get Ready 160