Thursday, 23 September 2021

F Fic, Non-fic

Lot's Wife

by Patti Rutka


And it came to pass. . . that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed. . . . The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.

                                                                                                Genesis 19:17, 19: 23-24

Mrs. Nathaniel Parish stood still, taking in the world outside her kitchen window. Ducks waddled to the lake's edge and tipped in for a splash-and-wash amidst ice chunks melting in Maine's mud season. Encircling the pond, forsythia perforated the grey day, having survived another winter's deer browsing. Ducks are so tidy, prim. They glide serenely on the surface. Their webbed feet worked a paddle wheel under the water, but you never see that; all you see is the glide, she thought. Mrs. Parish removed her hands from the sink's edge, turned, crossed the large living room of the open-plan house to the stairs, her fingernails clicking lightly on the banister as she ascended.

She walked toward the master bedroom, the eggshell-painted wall cool under her steadying hand. Mrs. Parish approached the walk-in closet. Its carpet deadened her footfall and the housekeeper jumped like a cat straight up into the air. Mrs. Parish pointed into the closet.

"Remember, Nadifa, my husband's suits should hang according to color. Don't mix the blue and brown and black. Please." With a brittle smile at the newly hired Somali woman, she entered the closet and knelt to line up some stackable storage bins on the floor.

"Sorry, yes, sorry, Mrs. Parish," said Nadifa, furrowing her brow at the suits of indistinguishable color. She re-filed the suits correctly, then joined in the ordering of storage bins, her own green and burgundy batik shouting like Mardi Gras in the dull closet ravenous for color.

"I vacuum?" Nadifa tendered. She marveled at Mrs. Parish's ability to bend and move her legs in her tailored, navy blue worsted wool suit.

Mrs. Parish peered at Nadifa as if through sleet, slowly registering the housekeeper's question.

"No, I want you to pack the girls' bags next." There. It wasn't complex. She'd decided. Her frozen fog began to lift.

With that, Mrs. Parish turned to go back downstairs to confront the prattling television, from which voices seeped from the living room into every adjoining space downstairs.

As she descended the stairs into the living room she heard,  "…the Parishes have two daughters, one nine and one thirteen, both students at St. Johnsbury

Academy for Girls." The broadcaster sounded pleasantly serious.

"How long, Mrs. Parish?" A voice drifted down from above and behind. "How long they go away for now?" Nadifa had followed her mistress from the bedroom and stood at the top of the stairs, speaking down to Mrs. Parish's back.

"Well, pack the large suitcases," the other woman responded over her shoulder but not taking her eyes from the television. "And the smaller ones as well. For a long time, Nadifa. I don't know exactly how long yet." Her attention fully absorbed again in the explanation unfolding before her, she sat down in the brocade chair, ankles crossed, hands in her lap.

The commentator had funny hair. It looked as if it was naturally curly but she straightened it each morning with a flatiron. And she needed to shape her eyebrows. We are women, after all, Mrs. Parish thought. We ought to look our best. She touched her fingers lightly to her own streaked hair. It's supposed to make me look younger, but it just feels dry. I will have to speak to the hair stylist. Dry, and brittle. Like our sex life. Maybe I should never have cut it. I could have kept it long. He must like that. She bit her lip. If I had been willing to sit through that chemistry class, and taken biology after zoology, I might be a veterinarian today. I would wear my hair in a long silken braid down my back. Men like long hair. I could have done anything I wanted. My hair would be long and soft and I would be a veterinarian. I would have been good with small animals. Not birds. Not ducks. Cats, and dogs, except not those little yip-yip dogs.

"It is uncertain how this will affect Nathaniel Parish's hopes for the Blake House…" the t.v. pressed on, mentioning Maine's governor's residence.

I wouldn't just wear my hair long. As she sat and stared at the television she clawed at her pantyhose and caused a thin, spreading run. She frowned at the tear, then reached up under her skirt, grabbed the waist of the pantyhose and yanked, peeling them off her legs. Holding this piece of her uniform like a found but broken robin's egg, she weighed out the nylon fabric in her palm. Then, knees freed and splayed, she threw the nylons at the television screen. Like a badminton birdie the nylons fluttered in the direction of the T.V. but only made it half way there, resting in an airy heap in the middle of the living room. You know, she thought, instead of supporting Nathaniel through his schooling, I could have provided for my own. I was smart. Am I still smart?

Mrs. Parish's hands quivered in her lap. A lone tear ran down one cheek, leaving a mascara streak, but she sat motionless. Except for her hands. The media onslaught would begin soon.

"Mr. Parish's aides said that he had gone to St. Andrews in Scotland for a golf vacation, but in a YouTube clip he appears at a private night club in Rotterdam, dancing with the woman he now admits he has been seeing for two years. Giselle Hanten was self-described back in 1999 as a 'high-end call-girl' in her PlayBoy magazine feature…"

Oh, there it was, that pang in the center of her chest again, that little squeeze she felt when Nathaniel told her in a terse cell call that he had decided to extend his stay in Rotterdam. And also that time he had yelled at her, when he threw a pillow at the wall because he was so…perturbed.

"I can't help when I'm called away! You know my job," he had bellowed. "You always used to understand. Why have you changed? Why are you putting us both through this?"

In twenty-two years of marriage he had never raised that deep voice at her, much less thrown anything. He'd always wanted to be noticed; he supposed it was a requirement of his job. She had taken notice of him then, and now, well, now he had more notoriety than he could handle from more than just her. She had always helped him handle every predicament. But this – this was different. He was on his own. I'm hardening, she thought. Or is it freezing?

She fingered her hair again and looked at the airy pile in the middle of the floor. Oh, she knew everybody would ask: didn't she suspect anything? And she would say that she really hadn't. Hadn't had the notion that he had withdrawn the very intimacy from their relationship, though in truth, the color had bled out of it at least eight years ago, maybe longer. Even with the girls cared for, they hadn't found the time to come close, to make their marriage strong. He had withdrawn his intimacy to paint his passion on another woman, skin applied on skin, lips brushing the crook of her neck, the way he had his wife's. She hadn't known. Had she? She lurched out of the chair into the kitchen, toward the sink, arriving just in time to vomit once, twice.

The ducks, heads down, floated in a cluster under the raw spring sun. She clasped the edges of the porcelain sink, her bare toes feeling the cool tile, as she smelled her own acrid bile. She splashed water on her face and in her mouth and rinsed some of lunch down the drain, but was distracted as she looked outside. It's time to get my ducks in a row, and she smiled weakly at her own pun. She padded in her bare feet to the living room, found the remote, clicked off the screen, then ascended the stairs to find the housekeeper.  

"The girls and I will be going away for a while, Nadifa. Mr. Parish will not be joining us, so you needn't pack for him."

Nadifa, standing straight from having carried bundles on her head in her own country, searched her employer's red eyes and drained face. "Everything is okay, Mrs. Parish?"

Mrs. Parish held out her hands to Nadifa. She held the woman's wrinkled hands in her manicured ones. "I hope so, Nadifa. We have to go away for a while, but I would like you to stay here to keep house for Mr. Parish. We're going to be strangers in a strange land, like you. You give me courage, what you're doing here, making a new start." Her eyes welled up again as she squeezed Nadifa's hands and let them drop.

Mrs. Parish noticed Nadifa looking down at her employer's bare feet on the carpet. She smiled at the housekeeper, and said, "Here, let me help you," and they went back and forth between the master bedroom and the girls' rooms. They worked side by side, packing t-shirts and pants and dresses and stuffed animals in silence. How hard could it be to go for a while to my sister's in California? Mrs. Parish wondered as she cordoned off tears again, comforted by the presence of the dark-skinned woman who, despite her stoop, surely possessed more backbone than Mrs. Parish had ever shown. She might not know Nadifa's whole story, but she grasped that displacement was displacement.

It was unfair of Nathaniel to put her girls in the middle, to exile them all to a new existence. Nathaniel will pay for that, for stranding Deborah and Rebecca between us. It wasn't that she actually needed child support, but it was the principle of the thing. There were more costs in this scenario than his lost bid for governor. Certainly, she was okay on her own financially without him, but there had to be a price exacted for what he'd done to the girls.

Still, she had never known life without him. She had stood behind him through his every blunder, every foot-in-mouth stupid move he had ever made. She had covered his ass, dodged questions – lied, basically - kept the girls from the media, worked her public causes, all in his support. Her hands worked methodically now, packing books, iPod, socks as the housekeeper handed them to her. Rigidity returned to her spine as she thought about all that she had helped her husband accomplish, indignation swirling through her like the florid patterns of Nadifa's cotton wrap. She had even dressed the way he needed her to in order to…in order to…and she began crying again as she held Rebecca's sunflower-embroidered cardigan in her hands. Nadifa ran for some tissues, offered them, and patted Mrs. Parish on the back, uncertain.

Downstairs the girls had come in from school. Voices in the kitchen wafted up to the two women.

"Mom? Mom!"

Deborah called for her mother up the stairs. "Mom! Are you here? What are all those cars doing parked out in front of the house? Rebecca and I had to come in the back door! What's going on? Mom?"

Mrs. Parish nodded at Nadifa and thanked her as she rose. She paused on the landing space, out of sight of her oldest daughter. Why am I hiding from my own daughter? It's Nathaniel who has something to hide, not I. But his shame was hers. Wasn't it? She stood motionless on a tightrope between her child and her husband in her own hallway.

Plan. I have to plan. She practiced what she would say to Nathaniel when he came through the door, as if running through the conversation in her head would make the difficulty of facing her own child evaporate.  "I'm taking the girls. We're leaving, and we're not going to look back. I can go back to school with my father's money." Her throat constricted and her mouth was dry, but she ran through the words in her head over and over, a thousand revolutions of mind in the space of three of her daughter's heartbeats.

Footsteps started up the carpeted stairs and she realized Deborah was coming in search of her. But then they reversed and Deborah rattled downstairs, drawn back to the kitchen by Rebecca's, "Eew! Eew! Deborah!" when she found the remnants of her mother's sickness in the sink. A door slammed, and the girls' voices faded to the basement.

Mrs. Parish padded downstairs now, stood undecided at the bottom of the stairs, her hand trailing on the banister. Into the kitchen again, as sounds of the girls came up from below. She went over to the sink and began spritzing it out with the hand-held sink attachment, flushing all traces of her stomach into the dispose-all.

The chorus of inquisition grew louder outside the house. Nathaniel must have come home. There were raised voices, then, "No comment!" as Nathaniel shouted at journalists trying to wedge their way in through the crack of the door as he opened it, then slammed it, so that its knocker clattered.

Mrs. Parish steadied her hands on the sink, her tongue still thick on the back of her throat, seized in the old vise. We are going to California to stay with my sister, I am taking the girls, Nadifa will be here to help you. But what she really wanted to shriek at him was How long? Since Rotterdam? Or before? Why her? Are there any others? Is that the best lie you could come up with? Do you have any children with her? How do you plan to explain this to the girls? Do you know that I haven't loved you for a very long time? In fact, maybe I never loved you. Bastard.

The sink was cold under her fingers. The ducks were nowhere in sight. She knew her husband stood dripping on the front mat, knew his dark hair was plastered across his forehead, face glistening wet. It was that feral look, back up against the wall, that she had ignored all these years.

He stood there, eyebrows bunched as he looked through the layers of air between the living room and kitchen, contemplating his wife's back. Why was she barefoot, and why were her pantyhose in the middle of the carpet?

Clearing his throat, he projected in the direction of her back, "How will we handle this one?"

Speaking to the sink, she said, "I'm taking the girls…"

"What? I can't hear you."

Nathaniel Parish's wife turned to face him, her back up against the sink.

"Just as we always have, dear."

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