Still Life

Martha soaped her washcloth then lifted her foot from the warm bath water. Her foot looked faded. She propped both her legs on the side of the tub and bent as far forward as she could to examine her feet in the steamy, lavender-scented air. The right foot was definitely less distinct than her left, the outline blurred. She reached toward the foot with a shaky hand but drew back slowly without making contact. She felt her heart drumming against her side. Her eyes traveled up her legs toward her chest. The rest of her seemed normal. She patted her face with her fingertips. It didn’t seem especially fragile either.

“It’s getting late.” Frank’s voice boomed into the bathroom, startling her. She sighed and slid both legs back into the soapy water, rolled forward, then sat on the side of the tub. She stepped onto the linoleum with her left leg and leaning against the vanity, she toweled off and put on her robe standing flamingo-style. She was in the act of slowly lowering her foot to the hallway carpet when Frank yelled, “Are you coming?” She teetered, and the toes of her right foot grazed the shag and tingled on contact. She put her hand on the wall for balance and cautiously increased her weight on the foot. It was like balancing on a sponge. With each step her body rolled, her right foot sinking down into the carpet until she corrected the tilt with a step on the opposite foot. She let out her breath, practiced more steps of her new gait, and entered the kitchen on her sea legs.

The travel agency ads were on her side of Frank’s fortress of newspaper. Martha drank her tea and looked down at her foot every now and then. It still looked bleached and dim and buzzed like she had been sitting on it. She thought for a moment about mentioning it to Frank but decided against it. Frank said she was always making something out of nothing. She didn’t think she did that. She just noticed things more than he did. She went back to reading the ads for trips. Just imagine. Taking a cruise along the California coast, maybe seeing whales.

“Frank, can you take a vacation next year? I know Mr. Henderson needs you to help with the late tax returns ’til June, but couldn’t he spare you in July? Maybe we could go to Yosemite.” The pages of the newspaper wavered as if caught by a gentle breeze. Ever since she’d watched a TV program about the park, she’d imagined walking through Tuolumne Meadows toward the massive green forest.

Her ankle felt itchy with the same pins and needles feeling in her foot. When she bent to scratch, she saw that now her ankle also was pale, fading. “The strangest thing is happening to me.” 

“You’re probably just imagining it.” Frank stood up abruptly, flapped his newspaper closed and folded the pages as he walked to his open briefcase on the buffet. “I don’t want to be late.”  He seemed to be addressing the newspaper which refused to fit neatly in his briefcase. Then she realized he was addressing her. In her fascination with her foot, she had forgotten it was her town day.

“Karen’s coming to pick me up. She’s going to take me shopping, and then we’re having lunch at—”

Released from his weekly obligation of delivering her downtown, he was already opening the door on his way out to his Buick in the driveway. Martha wobbled to the door, listing toward the spongy foot then tilting back again. She was growing more adept at compensating. “See you tonight.” She thought she heard him reply “Yeah,” but it could have been the rumble of the garbage truck at the corner as it squashed down the neighborhood’s trash.

She stood on the front porch and waved goodbye as his car veered around the garbage truck and turned onto Tremont. Their across-the-street neighbor hurried down her driveway, high heels clattering on the concrete. Martha called a good morning. The young woman turned briefly then folded her tight-skirted body into her car and drove away.

Martha didn’t know any of their neighbors’ names now. She always thought of the blue clapboard house across the street as Neerman’s, even though it had been sold twelve years ago and occupied by three different sets of people since that time. Not only were the Levins gone from the lot behind Martha’s house, so was their red brick two-story framed by maples, all destroyed by the new owners and replaced with a house of concrete and glass set at dizzying angles. She missed the trees with their blaze of color in the fall and Ira’s bird feeders that had attracted cardinals and chickadees to the neighborhood. The new owners obviously didn’t. Their drapes were always drawn.

The phone rang, and she stepped inside to answer it.

“Has Dad left yet?”

“Oh, Karen. Good morn—”

“Is Dad there or not?”

“No, dear. He just drove away a few moments ago.”

“Damn it. I thought I could catch him. Listen, I can’t take you shopping, Mother. Now don’t sulk. I know we haven’t gotten together for a while, but I’ve really been busy at work…”

“Karen, the oddest thing is happening. My foot seems to be disappearing. I just noticed it this morning, so unusual, fading away. I can’t imagine why.”

“…and Randy always needs a ride to computer camp or somewhere.”

“It’s okay dear. I’ve worked out a way to walk on it, and the bus stop is only a block away. I can manage.”

“So maybe you can take the bus into town. Look, Mother, I’ve really got to get going.”

Martha hung up the phone and returned to the front porch to water her geraniums. The plants were so full, the large leaves and fat, bright flowers brimming over the edges of their pots, she had to force the spout of the watering can through them. A few individual blossoms broke off and fell to the floor each time she watered, making a mosaic of colors on the grey wood. Their vibrant pinks and oranges always cheered her in the morning after Frank had left, but this morning she didn’t seem to need cheering up, even after Karen’s call. She was feeling—what was it? She stood holding her watering can. She almost felt like she did as a girl before an exciting event—her first ride on a train or before a school dance. Yes, like that, filled with anticipation. She looked down at her foot. Only she wasn’t at all sure what was happening to her would turn out to be a happy experience. 

Shopping list, coupons, bus fare. She clicked her handbag shut, hung it on her shoulder and stepped to the living room mirror for a last pat to her hair. Hand to her temple, she paused. She looked more closely at her reflection. That couldn’t be right. The purse strap had pulled down her dress into a v-shaped valley, a wide groove, between her neck and shoulder joint. She swallowed then grasped the strap where it connected to the purse, relieving any weight on her shoulder. Without the drag of her purse, the crevasse disappeared, and her dress again followed the contours of her neck and shoulder. She dropped the purse and sat down on the sofa. Martha took quick short breaths, head down, staring at her low-heeled pumps. Her hand trembled as she slowly removed her right shoe. Most of her foot was now transparent, and she could see the pink swirls of the carpet through it. When she replaced her shoe, the foot felt numb. She knew the shoe was on her foot and could sense the carpet beneath as if those feelings were coming from her knee instead of her toes.

She got up slowly and returned to the mirror. She started to unbutton her collar to fold back the fabric and look at her shoulder, but her fingers were suddenly clumsy and unable to manage the buttons. Holding her breath, she tentatively explored the blue-checked material of her dress, probing the area of her collar bone gently with two fingers. Instead of bone and muscle, she felt an area as yielding and soft as goose down that shivered slightly under her fingertips. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sounds came out. The room shrank, the walls moving closer to her. She could clearly see the shading of the leaves on the wallpaper. She couldn’t breathe. She grabbed her purse and fled as quickly as her new stride would allow down the hall, through the kitchen, and out the back screen door to her vegetable garden. She leaned against the south corner of the house, gulping air, head down over her tomato plants.

Only five plants, but each one had been a powerhouse. In the first week of July, she had harvested sixteen plump Beefsteaks, each one as warm as the flame of their color, and firm, the skin stretched tight to contain their juices. She had lined up the tomatoes on the kitchen counters, round summer Christmas lights illuminating the room. In her spirit of celebration, she took the largest one and bit into it, its sweet juicy pulp squirting into her cheeks and onto her tongue. Karen had come in and was appalled to find her surrounded by her harvest, juice and seeds flowing down her chin and onto the front of her dress. Martha had invited her to share in the bounty, but Karen had quickly left, shaking her head.

The plants persisted in their fruitfulness. She fed Frank tomato dishes all through July and August. Salads, three different kinds of spaghetti, gazpacho, beef noodle casserole, until he had threatened to go outside and rip up her damn plants if he tasted one more tomato, fuming, “Why can’t you buy vegetables at Acme like everyone else?”

Karen was already a reluctant recipient of the abundant crop, and the soup kitchen, beneficiary of everyone’s summer garden, wouldn’t accept further tomato donations. So she took a basketful to the Loman Home for the Aged and Infirm, just past downtown on Hilliard. She had a picture in her mind of infusing the summer’s heat and power into the frail grey bodies of the ancients she often saw on the front porch of the home. The administrator, Miss Spinks, coughed a few times then said she would try and distribute the tomatoes to any residents or staff who wanted them.

Martha had secretly eaten the remainder of her harvest. Whole bowlfuls of cut up tomatoes in vinegar and oil. So many tomatoes she had developed a rash, an exotic tattoo of little red bumps in wavy patterns around her waist.

The leaves weren’t as green or full as they had been in summer. The nights were cooler now, and the plants were getting the message. Martha finally straightened up, her breathing calmed. She gently thumped the one remaining tomato that was hurrying to ripen before the onset of cool weather then poked delicately at her shoulder. Was her body somehow ripening? Or undergoing a strange kind of decay?

She needed to talk to someone. Frank. She would call Frank. But he would be busy, and she would get excited and not explain it well, and he would dismiss this terrible, exciting change as one of her notions. It was warm in the sun, and she felt a drop of sweat roll down her back. According to her watch it was eleven o’clock. She would go into town. By the time she got there, he’d be ready for lunch. They could go somewhere quiet, and she could tell him about her shoulder and show him her foot. She locked the back door then cut through Levins’ yard on her way to the bus stop.

Two cars passed. Some toddlers screamed and laughed as they ran around in their front yard. Martha sat on the bench keeping her body motionless, purse in her lap, hands resting on it, feet placed carefully on the grass. She thought she caught a faint whiff of gardenias. She turned and looked up the street for the bus. Three houses away she saw a woman hurrying toward the bench. The woman smiled and waved. Martha smiled too. Was that Sally Murphy? The woman waggled her hand more enthusiastically, grinning broadly. She tentatively raised her own hand as the woman drew closer. Was it Sally?

“It’s good to see you!” Martha jumped at the voice from close behind her. Another woman, the object of all those salutations and smiles, moved toward the waving woman, and the two friends hugged each other. “I’m so glad we could get together today! What a miracle, both of us finding sitters.” The women stood immediately in front of Martha, so close they were almost stepping on her shoes.

Martha slid down the bench where there was more room and watched them. Part of her wanted to join in their chatter: “Yes, it’s such a pretty day…how old is Katie now…let’s go to the café.” Martha wanted it to be just another shopping day. In some ways it was a normal day, life going on all around her. But another part of her wanted to interrupt their conversation, to make them see what was happening to her. A fly buzzed near her ear then landed on her arm. She looked down at it and noticed that her left hand was now pale too, like alabaster, the outline blurred. Her fingers traveled lightly over her thighs and torso, checking for but not finding any insubstantial patches. What would the women say if she showed them her hand or her transparent foot? Her lips and tongue formed the word “look,” but before she could say it, the bus pulled up. The women, still absorbed with each other, talking and laughing, boarded the bus. Martha quietly climbed up behind them, careful to take the first step on her left foot and keep her purse tucked under her arm.

As she walked past the stores on her way to Frank’s office, the breeze blew through her hair and ruffled her collar. An empty can rolled along the gutter, and gingko leaves scooted across the sidewalk. The air soon would be crisp. She thought of the clean snap of October’s blue skies, the coming festivities. She loved all the preparations for Halloween and Thanksgiving as much as Frank and Karen hated them. A man jostled into her side and walked on without a word, disturbing her reverie. She hadn’t really felt the impact, just lost her balance.

She stood on the sidewalk in front of the furniture shop window with its display of chairs and tables. Her thoughts flickered back to the coming autumn. Would she see the leaves change color, give thanks for her harvest? She tried to look at her reflection, but sunlight glinted off the shiny lettering of Fran’s Furnishings, and she couldn’t seem to see her face clearly. She shifted to the left, and her face came into view, made stretched and wavy by the window’s glass. She straightened her collar and hurried toward Frank’s office.

The secretary was on the phone and didn’t look up when Martha came in. All the individual office doors were closed. She couldn’t remember if Frank’s was the second one on the right or the left. She stood directly in front of the secretary’s desk and spoke as soon as the young woman hung up the receiver. “I want to see Frank—I mean Mr. Parker.”

The girl reached for her memo pad, and her words came out in an over-rehearsed sing-song. “I’m sorry he’s out of the office. Do you want to leave a message?”

“No. I’m Mrs. Parker, and this is urgent.”

She gave Martha a brief glance. “I’m sorry, but he took a client to lunch.”

“I need to find him. She gripped the front edge of the desk. “I’ve got to show him.”

A look of annoyance crossed the young woman’s face. “He’s not answering. He must have turned off his phone.”

“He’s got to—somebody has to help me.” She felt the blood rushing, pulsing through her body. It almost felt bubbly, like champagne, and she nearly laughed as she stood there trembling. “I can’t go through this by myself.”

“Um, Mrs. Parker, you’re obviously not, uh, feeling well.” Signs of nervousness appeared on the secretary’s polite mask, cracks around the eyes and lips. She was trying to make her mechanical voice sound soothing.

Bubbles. Intoxicating. Martha began to giggle.

“Why don’t I call Dr. Logan? He’s just two doors down.”

Martha took off her shoe. Only the heel of her foot was barely visible. “Look. Look at my foot. My hand. Look at what’s happening to me.”

“Damn.” The girl slammed down the phone. “I can’t get through; their line is busy.” She headed for the door. “I’ll just run down there. You stay here.”

“No. Look.” She tore open her collar and held out her hands. “Just look at me.”

But the secretary was already gone, and Martha stood alone. After a moment she slowly sat down in one of the leather chairs and carefully smoothed her dress. A doctor. A stranger. No one would understand. They would just put her in a hospital, this doctor and Frank. They’d confine her to an antiseptic room so they could watch this episode, this whatever she was experiencing. “I’m not going to let that happen,” she announced to the quiet room. She bent down, put on her shoe, and stood up. She was tired, and her body felt fragile, but she had to get away. She hurried out the door and headed back down Main Street to find a cab.

Martha slowly made her way through the gate and stood on the walk in front of her house. She hadn’t been able to think of anywhere else to go. There were no friends to ask for help. She had thought of telling the cab driver to stop at a church, of asking someone there if this was a kind of punishment or a miracle. Then she had thought of her garden. That was where she had always been comfortable and happy. Outside, under the warm sun, with the soil and plants, listening to the birds. As she moved toward the corner of the house, the breeze strengthened, and she felt her body begin to yield to the gusts. The wind was blowing apart her frail, disappearing pieces. She threw back her head and screamed. Her loud, wailing cry hung in the air. Martha crouched down next to the porch, between her geraniums and the vegetable garden with her arms wrapped over her chest, huddled against the wind’s energy. But it kept blowing its freshness through her, into her. She was filling with excitement again.

Martha lifted her head and looked at the flowers, each petal brightly colored and perfectly formed, and then at the one remaining tomato. The cooler weather would soon overtake all her plants. Did they fear the coming season? 

Martha knelt and pushed her pale hand into the black soil. She could remotely feel the warm earth. She buried her other hand in the dirt and looked down at her arms, ending at the wrists. The wind blew more strongly, bending the top of her plants toward her, catching her eye. She shook both her hands free and slowly straightened up, leaning against the bricks, brushing the soil from her skirt. It was time to stop hiding. Time to stop being afraid.

She stepped onto the grass and faced into the breeze. The wind began to blow her thinner, finer, lighter. She rode the cool, dry air, rising on an updraft. She was free, and it felt exhilarating. Her shoes dropped off, and when she heard them hit the driveway, she saw that her feet were gone. “Oh, that’s awful.” Had she spoken or only thought? Her hands had disappeared too, and her shoulders and torso were quickly fading. “Oh no, no. I don’t know if I like this. I’m scared.” But then her clothes floated toward the ground, and she laughed. How embarrassing. Her dress caught on the porch railing, then finally slipped down and settled near the flowerpots. She paused a moment to look down at her tomato plants. It was really all right.  She could do this.

Martha continued roller coasting on the breeze, thinking of her garden, gaining dimension, spreading more and more widely, joining the celebration.

Story by Linda Walters-Page

Art by Zoe Mazurkiewicz

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