A Still Life
    Joseph M. Faria
Bob Highsmith considers himself an upstanding citizen. He's a real-estate broker. He owns a modest size business on 574 Main street, near Campagna's pharmacy. He employees four agents and one secretary. He smokes big, black cigars. He says they're Cuban to those who don't smoke cigars. Bob's hair is gray-speckled white and on his upper lip he wears a slippery thin mustache that looks as though he painted it on with a magic marker. He says to those who don't dye their hair that it's naturally black.

Betty, his wife, is a blonde. Her eyes are stone blue and her lips are full and expressively red. She keeps a diary. She uses a tiny copper-colored key to open the clasp. She writes diligently everyday as if she were errantly snowbound. She is quite utterly alone until Bob returns from the office. The words in her diary are not the same words she uses in real life.

The couple have been married for twenty-three years. They have lived in the same house for the better part of them. In front of the house there are two maple trees, a bright yellow mail box, a brick walk to the front door, and a black-top driveway to a two car garage. In back of the house there's an in-ground pool. The pool is dry and filled with twigs and autumn leaves.

Bob is in the kitchen reading the Evening Journal. Betty is running her fingers over a rump roast. Outside, an easterly wind is poking its nose at every window. Soon the pink clouds will turn dark, and Betty will have to turn the lights on.

The next morning, Bob is sitting at the kitchen table reading the morning paper. On a plate in front of him, are three strips of bacon, one fried egg, and two pieces of golden brown toast. Betty is standing over the kitchen sink, peeling large, new potatoes. Three skinless ones are sunken into a bowl of water. She pauses for a moment and stares out at the dwarf cherry trees, swaying a little in the wind in the backyard. Long tufts of grass sparkle in the sunlight.

Betty is barren.

Bob pushes the plate away. I'm not hungry, he says into page three. If this guy Kennedy is elected, the interest rates will go right through the roof. He turns the page. Mark my words, right through the roof.

The navy blue sport coat he's wearing smells of last night's cigar and beer. Betty stares at the eyes of the potato she's holding in her hand. The translucent skin reminds her of her eighty year old mother-in-law's face. Her mother-in-law resides now at Crescent View nursing home.

She rinses the paring knife. The solid wood handle fits snug in her hand. For a moment she thinks of using the blade to dig up weeds in the garden. Bob stands, folds the journal, and places it into his back pocket. He walks up to his wife and says, Smell this jacket.

Betty is reluctant to let go of the potato. She leans into her husband's coat and wrinkles her nose. It stinks, she says.

I know. I know. He takes the jacket off. Goddamn it. It's the only one I got. The other two are at the cleaners, aren't they?

She nods her head. The potato is heavy in her hand. She cuts into its skin and begins a long, thin slice around the body.

Have you seen your mother lately?

What the hell does that have to do with my jackets? He throws the smoked filled jacket over a kitchen chair. Sometimes. I don't know. Sometimes. He pulls out a big, black cigar and lights it.

Please use the ash tray.

Bob looks at his watch. Oh Christ, I gotta run. He races to the front door. What's for supper? he calls back.

Potatoes, she says, and plops the last one into the bowl.

I'll eat at the club, he shouts, and walks out.

Betty turns the faucet on and scrubs the white flesh clean. Outside, the morning dew melts away unnoticed while the wind makes another pass through the weeping cherry tree. That night, Bob is sitting up in bed sorting in his mind, prospective home buyers by their annual gross incomes. He always likes to tackle the higher brackets first. They're so impatient, he blurts.

Betty is propped up comfortably on her oversized pillows, reading the New York Times No.1 bestseller by Robin Cook.

Housing has run amok, Bob had exclaimed a week ago to his friends who have lived in the same neighborhood for the last thirty years.

He puffs rapidly on his big, black cigar. Fat globs of smoke give the impression his entire face is smoldering. This is your last chance, he'd said, to get in on the money. Believe me, it won't come again.

Betty shuts the book and looks at her husband. His eyes show excitement big, round, and wide awake. His hands are animated. He is making a point. Housing has run amok, he says to his wife.

Betty opens her mouth to respond, but she knows better. She places Robin Cook on the quilt where a large space separates their legs, then leans across the bed and opens the drawer to the night stand. She pulls out her diary, and unfastens the small copper key that is pinned, always, to her dressing gown. She opens the diary and passes her fingers softly over the next blank page.

Betty, he shouts. I'm going to sue that newspaper boy. Two weeks and no plastic bag. Everybody else in the goddamn neighborhood gets their paper delivered in a plastic bag except me. I won't stand for it. I've told him time and time again, the grass is wet in the morning. He puffs emphatically. No tips. You hear me, no tips.

The wind, towards midnight, has picked up significantly, lifting and flapping the edge of the bay window's blue awning, and inside the double dormer cape, Bob is on his back snoring, and in the ashtray, the cigar is a long, gray ash.

A peek-a-boo light in the hallway, shines through the bedroom door just out of reach of Betty's sleeping hand. The diary lies open on the night stand to November sixteen. It reads: BIG FAT TIP, in the otherwise, clean, white page.

Joseph M. Faria was born on the island of Sao Miguel, in the Azores. His short story "Threshold" won 2nd Prize in the 1997 CWA National Writing Competition. His first book of short stories, From a Distance, (Nova Grafica, Lda., Azores) was published in 1998, and a book of poetry, The Way Home (Lit Pot Press Inc., Fallbrook, CA) in October, 2003. He has poems forthcoming in the print journals NEO, Riven and Poetry International. Joe is also the Contributing Editor of the web quarterly, Linnaean Street. He lives and breathes in Warren, RI.


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