Fiction · 06/06/2018

Brittle Arms

Marcie arrives at Danworthy Independent Living’s potluck with no expectations of delight. She made Swedish meatballs yet again, not because she likes Swedish meatballs or thinks that she makes them particularly well, but because it’s the only crockpot recipe she’s ever known, and at eighty-seven, she doesn’t see fit to learn anything new.

Larry Hershberger places his crockpot next to hers and smiles wide. “Are these your famous meatballs, Marcie?”

Larry lost most of his teeth after his wife, Florence died; Marcie’s pretty sure he lives on lobby-supplied peanut brittle.

She nods, looks away from Larry’s purplish gums. “What about you, Larry? Creamed corn again?”

There’s something about the way Larry looks at her — half-impish, half-vacant — that sends out a Mayday signal. And then she sees it — Larry’s crockpot, filled to the brim with baby doll arms.

“What on earth is he thinking?” Marcie tries to whisper to her across-the-hall neighbor, Anna, but her voice bugles; it was trained to once fill a gymnasium.

“You sure they were doll arms, not sausages?”

“Definitely doll arms.” Marcie sits straight up as if she’s won Wednesday bingo.

“Florence — his wife. She was a doll maker. You know, those holiday bazaar dolls. Cheap ones.”

Hal Danworthy, the facility director, is up front kicking off the potluck with his battle cry for October — Are you ready, Spooky Seniors? — when they smell it. It’s like the time Kitty Adams’s television tube caught on fire — first the odor, then the acrid taste that hits like vinegar at the back of the throat. Gray fingers of smoke. Alarms that pierce the hardest of hearing.

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Outside at the emergency congregation point, Marcie looks through the field of polyester tracksuits and aluminum walkers until she spots him. Larry Hershberger. He’s standing by the pickleball net, a bowl of peanut brittle in his arms. He looks guilty. Caught. And then he smirks at Marcie as if they’re co-conspirators.

Larry reminds Marcie of her philandering first husband, how he would hide one eye with a flop of hair and use the other to flirt with her, shy and slow, until she took him back. Larry looks a little like her son, too, now that she thinks about it — that repentant look he had when he’d wake her at three a.m. because he wet the bed again. Marcie wonders why she hasn’t noticed these resemblances before; she thinks maybe there are other patterns in her life that she’s let slip by, unexamined — how she popsicle-froze her legs together to drive each of her husbands out; how she pecked away her only son with her judgments, her relentless why don’t you’s _and you should’s_ — and now she’s here, in Danworthy 24B, alone.

Marcie touches Larry’s sleeve, gentle, like he’s her “before” son, the one who still visits her. “Why the baby arms, Larry?”

“Baby arms?”

Marcie’s tongue rises up with familiar bitter; she clamps it down between her teeth. She waits. A fog drapes over Larry’s eyes, and before she can stop him, he has her face in his hands; his breath smells like corn syrup and Little League games, and when he says her name — Florence — all that Marcie can hear is Mother. All she can think about is her baby boy, how handsome he’s become.

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Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, The Adroit Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, jmww journal, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Follow her @m_finn_johnson or visit michelefinnjohnson.com