John of Mine

By R.J. Barna

         Maggie’s head rests in the damp palm of her hand as her cherry red nails pick at her lower lip. She half-listens as a serial drones across the kitchen, abuzz with monotone fantasies of a brighter tomorrow, a better today, a different yesterday. The radio’s pale orange dial illuminates the dripping icebox, a rack of chipped dishes which lie about how often they’ve been used, John’s mother’s oak table and the three chairs that remain around it. The fourth from the set, too soiled, hides behind the back door beside a pair of blue slippers. They sit upon a great black spot waiting in the shadows, just out of reach of the radio’s tender glow. 

         Settling ice clinks in the lemonade beside her. It’s too awful to drink. Maggie curls her free hand around the icy beads speckling the glass and slides her slippery fingers across her brow, her cheeks and between her collar bones. The gentle brush of fingers sparks a warm, rolling shiver in her breast, and in spite of her best efforts to resist the swampy Alabama July, she feels her temperature rising. She swallows hard, the bitter memory of failed lemonade still trapped in her throat.

         “Stop it.”

         Her foot taps. It hasn’t stopped since John came back from the mine alone, and she could hardly expect different today. Since Jack. Hell, since John. He burst into her life like the Squall of ‘21 when he walked through a foot of snow to her house in his Levis and tee, hands and cheeks chapped as his lips. What happened to her blue-eyed boy dusted with white? Where was that boy she knew in clouds of jagged breath escaping a wool blanket beside her cast-iron stove? Maggie chuckles to think of him then: shriveled, clammy and pale as her fingers against the wet, chilled glass.

         The familiar dull scrape of a key finding its home brings her back to hers. The door swings in, but there’s nothing but a slivered moon and a pair of sickly blue stars. A shadow carries the stars inside and swallows up the waiting chair with a long sigh. Eventually, one pink foot slips out from the black, and then another. They find their way into John’s slippers, leaving two heavy mounds in their place beside a rusted lunch pail. The slippers cross the room and stop in front of Maggie and a red gap appears atop the mass where a mouth ought to be, were it a person.

         “Ok,” the shadow says.

“Ok?”

         “Ok.”

         Maggie slides an already filled washtub out from under the counter and pushes it into the center of the room. The flickering blue stars follow her every move. Her bare feet bound across the weathered wood floors, too careless now to worry for splinters, past Jack’s room for a stained brush and towel from the hall closet beyond. Her eyes linger on the abandoned room as she goes, its neatly tucked bed and packed hickory dresser, a baseball bat and stack of Action comics. Maggie feels him watching. Again her temperature rises. She closes the door behind her gently and returns to the kitchen where she takes her now empty glass from the shadow, revealing a pink palm beneath it. 

         “This lemonade is good.”

         Maggie smirks.

         “You’re right,” slips suddenly from white teeth; “it tastes like shit.”

         “I know. I made it.”  

         Maggie finds a pair of blue eyes, but they turn too quickly away to recognize. He squirms out of his shirt and she runs her fingers up and down his back, and soon her nails are clogged with coal dust. She helps him into the bath and sees some brief shimmer of a man before the water obscures it, transformed immediately to opaque muck. The serials conclude and Ben Selvin plays on the radio.  

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