March 8, 2015

FICTION BY MARY LARSEN "FLATTENED CORN"



I am a graduate of Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas where I obtained my MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. For my thesis I wrote a collection of four short stories that explored the relationships between individuals suffering from great losses and deep mistrusts. My passion is unlocking the intricacies that bind people together or tear them apart. 






Flattened Corn


I miscarried my first child the same day my mother’s diagnosis came back as cancerous. In the office, my body naked except for a blue hospital gown and lying supine on the exam table with the brash plastic covering wrinkling underneath me, my gynecologist muttered the normal condolences you tell to someone who has recently suffered a loss. After he performed a D & C—the sharp metal instrument that sent jarring stabs into my uterus in order to scrape the dead baby from inside me—I wanted to tell him that miscarrying wasn’t the biggest loss I’d suffered. In fact, my father’s death two years before had torn me apart inside much worse, and I was afraid my mother’s fatal disease would do the same. At only twenty-six I was positive not much else could come my way.    
I rested in the recovery room afterwards—the pearly white walls feeling like an infinite field around me. I desperately wanted my mother there to hold my hand the way mothers do to calm a frightened child, but instead I waited there alone, until I could drive myself back to the trailer Andy and I shared. He didn’t know I was pregnant and I’d decided to keep the knowledge of our dead child to myself forever—not knowing how he’d react to the thought of being a first-time father. My nine week-old fetus had disintegrated into a bloody mess by the time I’d adjusted to the thought myself—by the time I realized I could love an unplanned baby.
My sopping red underwear on the bathroom floor wasn’t the worst realization I’d had the day I knew something was terribly wrong. Instead, I felt more pain at the memory of my mother, crying inconsolably twenty years prior when I’d caught her in the bathtub, the water tinged pink as though she’d been soaking with one of my fizzy Crayola tablets. While staring at the bloody underwear containing what could have been my own baby, I then understood that my mother’s tears in that bathroom weren’t over ruined panties or symptoms of PMS.
I hadn’t seen my mother since my appointment a few days prior. The house my family and I had shared felt different when I pulled down the driveway in Andy’s truck. I sat for minutes staring out at the landscape of the five-acre lot I’d grown up on. The cornfield my father used to tend, now taken over by an old family acquaintance, was about ready for harvest; the tassels had begun their change from green to yellow and the stalks were beginning to dry out. The field appeared longer and wider than I had ever noticed before, stretching away and away to a line of dark trees at the far edge; dark trees that blocked our view of the train tracks that ran along the back edge of the property. The bulk of the field outsized the ranch-style house, and looking at it then, I felt as if I were gazing at something a million miles away. My father’s passing had caused the house to feel differently then, too, changing it into something almost unrecognizable. A new feeling had taken over, only then the house was too great: too many rooms and not enough people.
What transformation would the house incur when my mother ceased to exist in it? Her oncologist’s voice still hung in my ear from the phone call I’d had with him days earlier—on the morning of my appointment with the obstetrician he’d left a voicemail wanting to talk “at my earliest convenience.” The cancer wasn’t just in her colon as they’d originally thought; the disease now comprised her liver, lungs, and—worst—her lymph nodes. Six months or less, there’s nothing we can do, he had said. I wanted to tell him how convenient it was that they could rid a body of dead babies but they couldn’t rid it of cancer.
    “Ma!” I called after entering her front door. “You presentable?”
I scanned the take-out containers and Coke bottles on her living room floor. The place was wrecked; I could smell the rank odor of the trash before fully entering into the kitchen. A frying pan with yellow-crusted egg scraps sat on the stove top. A mass of fruit flies lulled above the sink where the dirty dishes were piled so high that I wondered if a single clean dish remained in the cabinets. That would explain the take-out containers that were stacked on the floor beside the couch.
    I quickly emptied the trash container and set it outside of the back door. At least the smell in the kitchen would be close to bearable now. On my way in, Lola, my mother’s gray tabby cat, met me with a meow and rubbed herself against my legs.
    “She hasn’t fed you, huh, Lola?” I bent down and stroked Lola’s back, then grabbed the dry cat food from the pantry and poured a heaping pile into the cat’s bowl.
    “Ma!” I called again, this time on the way down the hall to the back bedroom.
    My mother’s door was cracked—I peered in, afraid of pushing it open too far and finding her dead on the floor. I constantly feared the day when my mother wouldn’t budge no matter how hard I shook or yelled for her to wake up—my fear now one day being justified. I felt like a mother myself, barging into my children’s room to wake them, only my mother was a grown adult and she certainly wasn’t going to school.
    The room smelled of must and marijuana—a lot like Andy’s bedroom at his parent’s house during our teenage years. We’d lie in the confined room, have sex, and then afterwards he’d smoke a joint, the smoke exhaled from his mouth and enveloping us on his tiny twin bed. Although I never smoked, I’d always make sure to spray extra perfume on my way home to mask the bitter skunk smell from my father. I missed the way he’d looked at me, as if he saw everything I tried to hide but then pretended he knew nothing. I wished now that this bed was Andy’s and that the familiar smell of pot wasn’t presently mixed with cancer.      
I went to Ma’s bed and stood still until the covers moved slightly from the inhale and exhale of her shallow breaths. Feeling relieved, I pushed the red velvet curtains apart, revealing the only window in the room, letting in a flash of sunlight to shock her awake, but still she didn’t respond.
    “C’mon. Get your butt up.” I tapped at the bulge of covers with my foot. “You can’t sleep all the time, it ain’t good for you.”
    Nothing.
    “Ugh, Mother!” I said, finally flinging the covers from her sleeping form.
    I looked quickly away. She was wearing a pair of loose panties and a white muscle shirt, her braless chest visible through the thin tank. When she finally rolled from her side and onto her back in a groggy mess, her tank had slipped up on her stomach, part of her colostomy bag now obvious. The source of my mother’s decline stared back at me with its familiar stench of shit. I turned to gag, but then quickly gathered myself and helped her limp body from bed.   
    “Get up, Ma. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
    I helped her into the bathroom and sat her down on the toilet. Although I often helped dress her, when I removed her tank top the sight of her skin pulled taught against her bones jerked mercilessly on my heart. I knew this was the image I’d have once she was gone: protruding collar bone, dark spots on pale skin, blue veins a road map of her chest. I’d always see my father in blue jeans and his checkered flannel shirt—perfect for fall weather. I could smell his cologne, feel the sharp bristles of his unshaven face against my cheek when he’d hug me goodbye. His image was preserved in memory from the last time I’d seen him before he died—a quick and simple hunting accident. But my mother, her image was one of decline, her smell a sour aroma like the trash she’d been unable to take out.
I heated a washcloth in the sink and knelt down before her.
“How are you feeling today, Ma?” I asked before beginning to sponge her face and neck.
She put her head back to rest on the cabinet above the toilet. “Oh, I feel okay. I’m awfully tired still, though.”
“I know. But you gotta get up and move around some,” I said. “It’s good for you.”
“I hate you having to clean me up like this,” she said in reply and then raised her hand to my head and cleared the bangs off of my forehead.
That was her touch, the thing she’d always do when I was upset or sitting next to her on the couch watching TV. It was the touch I’d often brushed off or taken for granted, but the same one I’d longed for in the white recovery room days earlier. This time I leaned into her icy hand and covered it with mine, hoping for the world to stop, hoping to spend eternity right there as we were in the bathroom.
Time didn’t stop, though. I eventually stood her up to remove her underwear. I felt six years old again, handling my mother’s underwear timidly, only then I’d tried to rinse out the bloodied pair in the kitchen sink—streaks of red flowing down into the drain until my mother found me and tossed the panties away. This time, when we were through and I finally had her dressed, I left the panties on the cold tile of the bathroom floor, unable to pick them up because, just like back then, rinsing them wouldn’t rid her of the pain.   
    By the time we’d worked our way to the front porch to sit, the fading afternoon had brought with it a cool breeze. Ma’s house sat on a comfortable five acres just outside of town, with neighbors far enough away that no one had to feign friendliness for the sake of being polite. To the left of the house and stretching on back, the stalks of the cornfield looked picturesque. Part of me wanted to take off from the porch and fling myself into the field without any cares burdening me, as if being inside that enormous square crop would somehow stop time—would somehow prevent me from having to tell my mother she’d soon be dead.     
    “The truck smoked all the way here,” I said. “Hopefully I can get back home.” I laid my head back on the white rocker chair next to the swing she sat in then looked over at her. I didn’t care much about the problem with the truck, other than that Andy had been wrong—the engine’s issue was something to worry about. Even I could tell the smoke most likely meant a blown head gasket, not the spark plugs he’d initially decided wasn’t worth the bother.   
    “That ain’t supposed to be doing that, is it?” Ma asked. Her voice hadn’t completely lost the grogginess from her pill-induced sleep; I’d been worried about her getting addicted but that didn’t matter much now. The polished glare in her big, beautiful blue eyes told me she existed elsewhere; the Ma idling on her front swing, bare feet dangling like an infant child’s, wasn’t the Ma I knew or remembered.
    “No, Ma,” I replied. “It’s not.”
Our days of talking about Andy, or Dad, were numbered. It had been a while since we’d harped on about the men in our lives—hers dead, mine living—until we ran out of subjects to complain about. She used to tell me that Andy would grow up when we settled down together—get married, start a family she’d say. I wished now that I could confide in her about Andy and me—our missed opportunity—and the horrible feeling in my gut about our future together. But her time was past hearing confessions regarding unborn grandchildren: she’d die well before one finally came along. Now she tiredly carried on conversations, talking about medical billing and school PTA meetings as though she were mingling past and present.
    When I finally gathered enough courage to tell Ma about the call from her doctor, she’d begun to doze off; her head swayed down with weight and her mouth hung open. I watched her the same way a mother watches a sleeping baby, taking in each wrinkle on her face and the glossy look of her skin as though she were made of wax. Earlier I’d helped her dress in a pair of comfortable Capri sweats and an old t-shirt, noticing now that neither hid the amount of weight she’d lost in the past year, despite their bagginess on her sleeping form. Her arms hung limp over her belly, the embarrassment of her colostomy bag showing even in sleep.  
    I remembered back to last year when we’d gone to a meeting together in order to help deal with her discomfort at having a stoma and how the entire time she’d held her hands laced together over her stomach, shielding something no one could physically tell was there. I’d been surprised at the number of people in attendance and, although I didn’t remember most of them, I specifically recalled an older man named Ted because the first thing he did was show off his stoma and colostomy bag proudly to the entire group. Ma hadn’t been impressed, and she stopped wanting to go after only the second meeting.
    I heard the sound of a car and turned to see Andy’s pulling into the drive. Only then did I remember that he’d mentioned something about stopping by after work. I watched him walk toward me, this man with whom I’d spent the last ten years of my life. He still had on a bright orange vest over his plain white tee and his bulky brown work boots. Usually at this hour he’d be at the train yard, because in hot summer temperatures the train tracks required monitoring. This summer had been particularly mild though, and at almost six o’clock on an August evening the breeze blew just enough to cool the heat of the day.   
    “Hey,” Andy said when he’d made it to the porch. He looked over at Ma asleep on the swing and then took a seat in a brown wicker chair next to mine.
    “How was work today?” I asked.
    He laid his head heavily back on the chair and sighed. “Long as hell. Dale couldn’t get a piece of his track in, so I had to spend most of the day helping clean up the huge mess he made. Didn’t get my portion completely finished, but I had to get the hell out of there.”  
    Andy worked as a track laborer for the railroad, making good money, but some days the money wasn’t worth the strain of the work he had to put in. I compared his arm to mine, noticing how it looked almost black, it was so leathered from the sun. He’d spent every day outside this summer. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t tell him about Ma or the baby. He had too much on his mind, and so did I. We sat, staring out at the land, not needing to speak again until Ma finally woke back up and we went inside for dinner.    
Later that evening, I sneaked one of Andy’s joints from the glove box of his car and marched myself straight into the cornfield I’d wanted so badly to jump into earlier. I shuffled through the rows until I found a spot plowed over by passing deer. I mushed myself down in the tiny row and sat motionless on the dry cracking ground of the cornfield. I planted my hands behind me and interweaved them between the stalks in order to lean back and scrutinize the sky. I marveled at the stalks, whose height gave the impression of reaching almost into the blue, far enough that if it were possible to climb one I’d surely reach heaven, or somewhere awfully close.
When I sat back up I took out the joint and cigarette lighter, imagining that my father was watching me fumble my way through lighting it and then awkwardly taking my first drag. I mimicked Andy’s way of exhaling, pushing my mouth out into a sideways oval and slowly releasing my breath, as if savoring something I wasn’t even sure I enjoyed. I doubted my father would be shaking his fist at me now—I wasn’t his little girl anymore and I knew he’d understand. I considered that maybe he’d done the same thing after my mother had an affair with a Navy Seal officer while he was away trucking: Run into the cornfield he’d taken such great measures to care for and float away for a while. I bet my mother didn’t know that he’d told me her secret just a few weeks before he passed—maybe she herself had forgotten. I expected she’d do the same, reveal some deep secret of his or hers while on her death bed. Protecting me from the world was made impossible through death.
I thought I heard Andy call my name, but his voice sounded obscure and far off from where I sat. I knew if it was him he’d have to be on the front porch, close enough to hear my mother in case she needed him. I had told him I’d be just a few minutes, although by the diminishing light I could tell many more minutes had come and gone. Andy would have to wait; my body refused to move, the field of corn swaddling me inside of its rows, a soft bed of turned-down stalks nestling my sitting form.
I listened more closely, but instead of hearing Andy’s voice again, I heard movement in the corn and then rustling close by. I threw my head back, looking toward the sky again, and waited, feeling as if I were weight-less and my body were floating up past the stalks. I considered for a minute that maybe the rustling had come from me or that yet again I’d imagined hearing something at all, just as I’d thought I’d heard Andy’s voice. But the movement was unmistakable the second time, and in pulling my head up I caught sight of a tiny deer maneuvering its way through the field directly in front of me, on its shaky legs not more than a few days old. It passed further into the field, out of my vision, directly followed by a momma doe who stopped, dipped her head towards me, and then trailed on after her baby. I ignored the fact that I’d seen deer disappear into this field hundreds of times—I’d even had to avoid hitting them in my car when they’d cross from out of the corn stalks to the other side of the dirt road—but tonight I pretended instead that I’d never seen a deer before and that I’d never be close enough again to touch one as I had been tonight.     
~Mary Larsen

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