The Tower Journal

Teresa Burns Murphy


 Finer Than Frog’s Hair

       

       As she made her way around all the baby things that had practically taken over her living room, Stephy bumped into Harrison’s little red dump truck sending it spinning across the hardwood floor.  She blamed this incident, along with her recent bout of clumsiness, on her inability to see clearly out of her old wire-frame glasses.  She had known for some time that she needed to replace them – she just hadn’t taken the time to do it.  As she stooped over to pick up the dump truck, she hit the side of her husband’s golf bag, tipping it over.  The clubs spilled out, and one of them knocked the pink Depression glass bowl, an heirloom her father had given her as a wedding present, to the floor, shattering it.  Leaving the bowl on the coffee table had been Stephy’s only act of noncompliance in baby-proofing her home.  Ordinarily, Stephy would have swept, vacuumed, all but licked the spot where the glass had fallen, but her parents had just left with Harrison in tow.  He would be at their house for the entire weekend, leaving Stephy plenty of time to obsess over the location of every shard of glass.

     Stephy had gone practically nowhere in the eight months since Harrison’s birth, and she wanted to take her time getting dressed for the evening ahead.  As usual, her husband, Sean, would meet his buddies after work for drinks at the Kennerly Country Club.  She wondered if he would even remember that she was planning to meet her friend Marla at the Bird's Nest, a small private club tucked inside the Ramada Inn on the outskirts of town.  All week Stephy had looked forward to wearing something besides a pair of knit pants and a nursing top.  Marla and Stephy were getting together for supper to celebrate Marla's thirtieth birthday and Marla's "big news."  Marla wouldn't tell Stephy what the news was over the phone. She said she wanted to see Stephy’s face when she heard it.  Stephy was pretty sure the “big news” was that Phil Saunders was finally leaving his wife and had asked Marla to marry him on the “business” trip they had taken to the Bahamas. 

     When Stephy arrived at the Bird's Nest, she took a seat close to the door.  A lanky red-faced man sitting at the bar leered at her and leaned toward two other men, whispering something that produced an outburst of laughter.  She tugged at the neckline of the blousy silk dress she’d found on sale at Penney’s.  The glamour she'd felt when she looked in her mirror at home evaporated.  She felt like a buxom Pillsbury doughboy draped in a cobalt blue parachute.  She would have been more at ease in jeans if she owned a pair she could zip up. 

    When it seemed no one would be joining Stephy, a sad-eyed waitress with puffy blond hair and heavy orange make-up came over to take her order.  Stephy told the waitress she was waiting for a friend and would have a frozen strawberry daiquiri. The waitress rolled her eyes and said nothing. Stephy wondered if the waitress thought she looked pathetic or maybe expected her to get a more grown-up drink.  Stephy was determined not to let anyone spoil her evening.  She was going to have a drink to celebrate a milestone of her own – weaning Harrison.  After seventeen months of abstinence, she needed to taste something sweet.

    The waitress had just set Stephy’s daiquiri on the table when Marla breezed into the Bird’s Nest.  Wearing a pair of skin-tight jeans and a black scooped-neck top, Marla was as trim and taut as ever.  Her shoulder-length hair was pin straight, and her skin had that fresh-from-the-beach glow.  She asked the waitress to bring her a martini, “very neat,” before bending down to hug Stephy.

    Stephy caught a whiff of bourbon mingled with peppermint when Marla kissed her on the cheek and said, “You look so beautiful.”

     “I look like a big fat hen,” Stephy said. “You’re the one who looks gorgeous – as always.”

   “Oh please,” Marla said, waving away the compliment.  “I look terrible.”

   “No you don’t.” 

   Tilting her head and smiling as though she’d bitten down on something tart and delicious, Marla pointed her finger at Stephy.  “You’re right.  I look great.  You look great.  We both look finer than frog’s hair.”

   Stephy laughed, remembering all those long-ago times when her father had driven them places in his Cutlass convertible.  She and Marla would ride together in the backseat, giggling when he’d break into the song he’d made up to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”  Oh I feel fin-er than frog’s hair/ I’m feeling great today-ay/ I’m happy just to breathe the air and keep the blues at bay.  He’d look over his shoulder, his eyes twinkling as they met Stephy’s and say, “Sing it with me now, girls.”

     A few weeks earlier Stephy had taken Harrison by her parents’ house for a surprise visit.  Stephy and her mother had sat in the porch swing and talked until Harrison fell asleep.  Stephy assumed her father had gone on an errand, but while Harrison was napping her mother whispered that he was “finally seeing a therapist.  She leaned close to Stephy as though a nosy neighbor might overhear and whispered that he had suffered from depression most of his life and had been on and off anti-depressants for years.  By the time Stephy’s father pulled into the driveway, Harrison was awake and her mother was taking him for a stroll.  Stephy wanted to put her arms around her father and tell him she knew how he felt, that she, too, was considering seeing a therapist.  But when he bounded up the front porch steps and sat down next to her, she fell into her usual habit of talking about Harrison.

     “So,” Marla said, looking at Stephy’s drink.  “You must still be feeding Harrison.  I see you’re on the wagon.”

    “It’s got rum in it,” Stephy said, sitting straighter in her seat and pushing her glasses a little higher on her nose.  “Actually, I started weaning him this week.”

     Stephy felt what her mother called “the milk coming down,” leaking into the double-reinforced pads she had stuffed inside her bra.  She just hoped they would hold until she could get home.

     “So how’s he taking it?” Marla said.

      “Like a big baby.”

      Marla hooted and Stephy smiled before putting her mouth to the straw and slurping up the sweet slush. 

      “Let’s not talk about Harrison.  It’s your birthday.  The big 3-0.  Now you know how I’ve felt for the past six months.”

        “God, we’re old, aren’t we, Stephy?”

        “Nope.  I bet we could still pass for twenty-eight or twenty-nine if we tried real hard.”

         Marla laughed.  “I’m glad to see motherhood hasn’t taken away your sense of humor.”

         “Speaking of humor, I got you a little present.”

         Stephy pulled a small white box out of the huge purse she’d taken to carrying since she had Harrison and handed it to Marla.

     “You’re so thoughtful, Steph.”

      “It’s not much, just something I think you’ll appreciate.”

      When Marla opened the box, she squealed, “Oh my God, Stephy!  Where did you find this?”

     “It turned up a couple of weeks ago when Mom and I were looking through some old pictures.”

     “Look at us.  Were we cool or what?”

      Marla held up the picture of them standing side by side at the edge of the city pool – Stephy, her pudgy tummy pressing against the floral-print one-piece, and Marla, sleek and tanned in a neon orange bikini.  Stephy could almost smell the sunscreen and feel the warmth of the afternoon sun on her skin as she remembered how cheery her father’s voice had sounded when he said, “Say see and hold it.” 

     Marla stared at the picture. “Do you remember that summer?  I’d just moved here, and I taught you how to dive.”

      “Yeah.  I remember how scared I was looking down with my arms out. You told me to duck my head and close my eyes and not to open them until I was underwater, and I did it.”

      “That was the best summer of my life.  Mom and I were finally away from Dad and all his yelling and we hadn't discovered boys.”

     “You mean boys hadn't discovered you.  I’m still waiting.”

     “Pffff, you’ve got two guys.  I don’t even have one.”

      Marla bit down on the corner of her lower lip to keep it from trembling as tears welled up in her eyes.

      Stephy put her hand on Marla’s arm.  “What’s wrong?”

      “Phil and I broke up.”

      “What happened?”

      “His wife’s pregnant.”

      “Oh, Marla, I’m sorry.”

      Marla looked down at the table.  “I was going to break up with him anyway.  That was my big news. Phil really just made it easier for me.  Besides, I met a new guy in the Bahamas.”

       “Really?”

        “Yep.  It happened right after I got this.” Marla lifted her shirt so Stephy could see the tiny pink heart outlined in blue across the smooth brown space between Marla's navel and the snap on her jeans. 

      “Did it hurt?”

      Marla raised her eyebrows, but kept her eyes focused on the table.  “Let’s just say I was feeling no pain when it happened.”

      “Looks good.”

      Marla smiled.  “I think it might be a good luck charm.  Right after I got it, I went for a walk on the beach.  And, I met this really cool guy, Tim.  You’re not e-ven going to believe this, Steph.  He’s from here.”

     “Kennerly?”

     “No, but close enough.  Memphis.”

     “That’s great.  And so – it’s totally over with Phil and you’re okay with that?”

      “As I was leaving the hotel the night after Phil told me about his wife, I saw him in the lobby chatting up a couple of high school girls.”

     “What a creep.”

     “Yeah, but later, when he saw me with Tim, he tried to get me back.  Typical Phil.  Always wants what he doesn’t have.”

       “So will you see this new guy, Tim, again?”

       “Next weekend.  I’ve got to go to Memphis on Thursday for a little medical procedure.”

        “A little medical procedure?”

        Marla picked at a hole in the tablecloth.  “Just a matter of some unfinished business between Phil and me.”

     “Oh, Marla, I’m sorry.”

     Marla shook her head, but she wouldn’t let her eyes meet Stephy’s.  “Don’t be.  I wouldn’t want to be linked in any way with a jerk like Phil.”

      “Are you okay with this?”

       Marla made that sound in her throat Stephy had heard so many times, especially when they were in high school and Marla would tell Stephy about her father’s Thursday night phone calls.  Something always seemed to come up at the last minute to prevent him from spending the weekend with Marla.  Stephy couldn’t remember all his excuses, but she remembered the sound Marla made every time she finished recounting them.  It was a catch like a sigh or a half-laugh, something so painful there were no words to describe it.

     “Don’t worry, Steph.  It’ll be over soon.  Then I can move on.”

     Stephy’s mind was reeling with a thousand questions when the waitress arrived with Marla’s drink.  Marla drained the glass and asked for another.  By the time the waitress took their order, Marla had drunk three martinis.  Stephy ordered a chef salad, unsure she could swallow a bite, while Marla ordered a steak and a bottle of red wine.

     “I’m starving,” Marla said when their food arrived.  “Is that all you’re getting?”

     “Yeah, I’m trying to get rid of some of this baby fat.”  Stephy sucked in air.  “Oh, Marla, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it that way.”

      Marla shook her head as she poured each of them a glass of wine.

     “Let’s not think about it anymore.  I just want to have a good time.”

     As they clinked their glasses, Stephy tried to forget all the times she wanted to tell Marla she didn’t trust Phil Saunders.  “So Tim’s really a cool guy, huh?”

     Marla smiled.   You are going to love him.”

     Stephy listened to Marla talk about Tim’s incredible blue eyes, his broad shoulders, his great laugh until Marla’s speech became so slurred it was almost incomprehensible.  Stephy poked around at her salad, feeling relieved when the waitress finally came and picked up her plate.  She lifted her wine glass to her lips, realizing she hadn’t drunk a single drop while Marla had polished off the rest of the bottle.

    When the waitress put the bill on the table, Stephy picked it up.  “My treat.”

    “Thanks, Steph.  But can’t we have one more for the road?”

     “Sure, but let’s go back to my place.  I’ll drive, and we can drop back by later and pick up your car.”

       Stephy put her arm around Marla’s waist and led her to the parking lot.  She opened the car door and guided Marla into the seat.  Before they had gone very far, Marla was snoring softly.  Stephy drove past the big brick house where she and Sean had lived for the past seven years and headed across town to Marla’s apartment. 

     After Stephy put Marla to bed, she went into the living room to call Sean.  When she checked her phone, she saw she had one new message.  It was from Sean’s friend Mike, letting her know Sean had had one too many and was sleeping it off on his couch.  Stephy rubbed her temples and headed for Marla’s spare room where she’d spent so many nights before Harrison was born.

     She turned on a lamp and slipped out of her dress. Her nursing pads were soaked all the way through to her bra.  As she headed toward the bathroom for a towel, she tripped over a large red shopping bag propped against the wall next to the door.  The floppy ear of a stuffed yellow bunny was hanging over the edge.  Stephy figured this was just another one of Marla’s little gifts for Harrison.  She bent down and rubbed the bunny’s soft ear, imagining Harrison’s face when he saw it.  His eyes would get big as he reached out his chubby hand and pulled the new toy to his mouth.  As Stephy lifted the bunny from the bag, she noticed a little white t-shirt underneath it.  When she unrolled it, she saw it was a gown for a newborn.  Stephy sat down on the floor and began taking things out of the bag.  There were more little gowns; tiny socks; a pair of crib shoes; a small plastic box with a baby comb, brush, and nail scissors inside.

     Stephy opened the box and took out the nail scissors.  When Harrison was a newborn, she had cut his nails with scissors just like these.  His baby nails were soft and papery, and her hands always trembled when she tried to snip them away.  Once, when he was not quite a month old, she had nicked one of his little fingers, drawing a few drops of blood.  Harrison had howled, and Stephy had dropped the scissors and held him close to her.  Eventually he nuzzled his little face against her shoulder and fell asleep.

    When Sean came home from work, she was still holding Harrison, rocking him and crying.

     “What’s wrong?” Sean had said, kneeling beside her.

      “I cut his little finger trying to trim his nails.”

      Stephy remembered having trouble just getting the words out.

     “For God’s sake, Stephy!  You can’t keep obsessing like this.  He’s a tough little guy.  He’ll get over it.”

      Sean had stood up, run his fingers through his perfectly styled hair, and announced that he was feeling a little trapped and needed to take a drive.  Later that evening Mike had called to tell Stephy that Sean was too drunk to drive home. 

      Stephy remembered holding the phone to her ear after Mike hung up.  She listened to the hum of the dial tone until the robotic woman’s voice said, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.  If you need help, hang up and then dial your operator.”  The voice repeated the message and then a beep blasted through the line.  Stephy had jerked the phone from her ear and slammed it down.  For a long time she had sat beside the phone, wanting to call Marla and tell her she was thinking of leaving Sean.  She had even picked up the phone and begun to press in Marla’s number, but she had slowly returned it to the base, unsure how she would ever unravel the intricate web of lies she had woven about how happy she was.

     Stephy wondered at what point people stopped listening to their hearts and when make-believe stopped being a harmless game.  Already, Harrison was learning to pretend.  When Stephy played peek-a-boo with him, she always watched him through the crack in the door to his room.  Standing in his crib, Harrison would turn his head toward the door.  When his eyes met Stephy’s, he would quickly look away. Gripping the crib rail, he would stand perfectly still, staring straight ahead, ready to greet Stephy with a gush of laughter the moment she reappeared. 

     Stephy placed her thumb and forefinger inside the handles of the scissors.  She opened and closed the tiny blades before setting them down.  She started to put all the things spread out on the floor back inside the bag.  Instead, she got to her feet and headed toward the door.  She took a towel from the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink and wrapped it around her breasts before going into Marla's bedroom.

   When she crawled beneath the covers, Marla rolled toward her.  “Steph, is that you?”

   “Just rest now.  I’ll be here when you wake up.”

   “Are you okay, Steph?”

    “I’m fine.”

    “Finer than frog’s hair?” Marla said through faint laughter.

    Stephy lay awake, listening.  When Marla’s breathing evened out, Stephy rolled onto her side and cradled the pillow under her head.  She knew she would lie there all night, kept awake by the presence of Marla’s dreams.  In the morning, Marla would wake up and see what she had found. 

 
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Burns Murphy


Teresa Burns Murphy is the author of a novel, The Secret to Flying. Her short fiction has been published in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women, Dreamstreets, Gargoyle Magazine, Southern Women's Review, THEMA, and Westview. She won the 1996 WORDS (The Arkansas Literary Society) Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2006 Kate Braverman Short Story Prize. Originally from Arkansas, she currently lives in Northern Virginia. To learn more about her writing, visit her at www.teresaburnsmurphy.com

The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2015