Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tell Me A Lie

Who hasn't told a lie? In Tell Me A Lie one of 16 stories in Black Pepper Visions: Original Folktales & Stories You Can Eat (FolkHeart Press 2012) Terry wants to know - and doesn't want to know - about her husband's affairs. Can you blame her? 
Enjoy the Clam Chowder recipe!

Terry had been waxing the floors of Jerry’s Pacific Dance Hall when the unexpected phone call came. Dropping her supplies, she ran home to find her husband Mickey lying dead on the kitchen floor. Stunned, she ignored the volunteer firemen who had contacted her. She circled her husband, hoping to catch sight of his eyes opening.

“Jesus!” She had said when the firemen told her it had most likely been a heart attack. Ray, the mailman who usually stopped by each morning to say hi to Mickey, had found him on the floor.

Silent, Terry rubbed her plump hands together and waited. Moving around his body, she held back her words. “Mickey,” she thought to herself, “Is this some game? Are you playing with me?” She wanted to hear him say “yes,” that he was a playing a cruel joke on her.

They had met during their last year of high school. He had let her know then and there, the Midwestern winds whipping around them, that he didn’t take life seriously. His casual attitude was appealing. It suggested to Terry that problems didn’t have to exist. All was well if that’s what one wanted. “My world is filled with laughter and I plan to keep it that way,” he had said.

It was that same 1960’s promise of easy living and freedom that drew him, and then her, to California. Mickey’s joviality had been punctuated with days and sometimes weeks of sadness. He could not shake or wipe it away like he did the dirt on windows. A professional window washer standing high on ladders, he had a knack for polishing glass that gave others a clearer view of their world. But, unlike airborne dust that collects on windows, his sadness could not be removed. At those times it was only in the beds of other women that he found temporary relief.

“You’ve got to do something about this! Go to a shrink. Get some help before it’s too late.” Terry had cried many times.

“It won’t work,” he’d say. “’Besides, I’ve got a handle on it.”

His dark moods were seasonal. When they came, he was not able to work. So Terry dutifully filled in the gaps. Besides doing light janitorial duties at Jerry’s Pacific Dance Hall, she cleaned littleneck clams for chowder at the Clam Shell Café, soaking and then scrubbing their barnacled shells until they were grit-free. A strong woman whose hands grew more rugged with age, she’d sometimes stay late to prepare the clams with chipped shells.

“Must be a way to use the one that aren’t perfect,” she’d said more than once to the café owner who wasn’t interested. “We won’t serve these here,” he had explained. “They don’t look good.”

For years Terry had held steady during Mickey’s changing moods. A large woman with soft blue eyes and light blond hair she had a way of putting her feet into places that needed her weight to hold them down. In that way there was always food on the table for their two teenage children, even if it was only a bowl of blemished clam chowder.

“I’m like gravity for this family,” she had confided from time to time to her friends.

“Sure, it keeps everything from completely falling apart, but don’t you get tired of it?” Her friends used to ask. Now they just listened as she’d say again and again, “I keep my family together.” The words were meant to erase the way her own family fell apart when her brother took his young life. It pulled them hard in many directions; first came the arguing over everything and then her parent’s divorce. It left a hole in Terry’s heart that felt sometimes as big and as deep as the ocean.

Each time Mickey siphoned their bank account for unexplained expenses or lied about where he spent his time, and with whom, she would chant repeatedly “For better or for worse” until, on the pier of her own protective shore, she couldn’t hear anything else.

“It was a mistake, okay? Don’t worry. I’ll never see her again. You are my family, remember?” Time and time again her husband’s words soothed her.

Walking around Mickey’s still body Terry recalled their conversation earlier that day. While sitting on the porch in the squeaky wooden chair, she had closed her eyes and listened to the sound of familiar movement inside the house. She could hear the tea kettle’s whistle and then the screen door closing behind Mickey.

Not a word passed between them as he squatted down and lit a cigarette. There was nothing to say. Eyes partially shut with unfinished sleep, Mickey had come home late again. He hadn’t said where he had been and Terry hadn’t asked.

“Not today,” she softly announced. She too, was tired. “Right now I only want the truth.” The words rolled out on the waves of a long-held sigh. She couldn’t explain how right then and there she had run out of steam. Just like that. Made her think of the countless times she had tried to find a purpose for the café’s damaged clams. The tender sea meat irrevocably exposed, the shell would never close again. She was not going to be able to stop Mickey from sinking into the quicksand of his making anymore than she had been able to keep her young brother’s promising future alive. Like it or not, she was going to have to let her husband go.

During their early years, Terry had only half-heard Mickey’s promises and lies. She had been too busy raising children to sort through his behaviors and explanations. There had been no time for her to try to figure out whether or not he had been telling her the truth or what to do if everything he’d said had been a lie. Above all else, she had a family to protect.

“I can’t listen anymore,” she had said to Mickey that morning while rocking back and forth. “Nothing has changed.”

Without her prompting that morning on the porch, Mickey got to his feet and said, “Last night was the last time.”

And it was.

Terry kept circling Mickey’s breathless body on the kitchen floor, expecting him to clear his throat, to say “This is a joke, really. I’ll be back.” But he said nothing. Defenseless beyond words, he just lay there.

Eyes fixed on Mickey, Terry finally stopped walking around him. In her stillness, the volunteers reached down for his body. As they carried him through the room’s narrow archway, one of them speculated that Mickey, still in his blue flannel bathrobe, had been near the stove warming his hands against the morning’s coastal chill.

Terry shrugged her shoulders. Her still dry eyes followed the men one of whom whispered to another, “Have you got a good grip?”

“Wait!” Terry suddenly called out as they headed towards the front door. In less than a moment she had removed a safety pin from the stretched waistband of her own pants and pointed to the floor. In response the men put her husband down. She quickly bent down to his side and carefully pinned together the front of his now-opened robe so that his very white chest was no longer exposed. Then she pulled on the robe’s hem until it lay neatly over his pants.

Terry patted his thigh. In that instant she was 18 again and, in the darkness, had just crawled out of bed to watch him sleep. She stood like that over him now, no longer the young woman who had been warm butter in his arms. In the shadows of that early afternoon-lit room, Terry blushed as she reached out to the man at her feet. Again he had eluded her.

Questions flooded her: What had he been thinking before he died? Had he even known what was happening? Where had he gone and would he be coming back? Terry let them wash over her as they had done for years. The slight touch of a hand upon her shoulder brought her back into the room. She looked down at her calloused hands and then closed her eyes in an effrt to stop the tide of anger welling up inside.

“How long?” she asked herself, “how long must I wait?” She silently demanded that he open his dark brown eyes and tell her to get back to work, he’d see her that evening for supper.

The sound of his silence lingered like sea mist in the house after his body had been removed. Mickey would not be coming back. In his absence, Terry clenched her fists and struck out at the air around her.

“Damn you!” she cried out, “Tell me a lie!”

 Clam Chowder

1/2 pound bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 unpeeled potatoes, diced
2 carrots, diced
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound of chopped clams
clam juice
1 medium leek, finely chopped
1 quart Half-and-Half

Cook bacon in large pot over medium heat until brown and crisp. Remove bacon but leave drippings in the pot. Add potatoes and carrots to pot and season with salt and pepper.
Cook for approximately 5 minutes.
Pour in the clam juice and add enough water to just cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer covered until the potatoes are just tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
Gently stir in the leek and then the clams. Add bacon and half-and-half. Stir about 10 minutes more until the chowder returns to a simmer and thickens.

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