The MFA in Creative Writing Program at Manhattanville College

April 29th, 2016

Winter Haven

The sun is coming up now, its first light a promise of warmth. It’s probably a lie, though. I’ve lived here long enough to know that the cold will fight off the day, that the snow won’t melt, that the icicles hanging from the gutters ain’t going anywhere.
Darla is still asleep. She won’t wake until I’m making lunch. Which is fine by me.
It’s cold in the bathroom. I lean one hand against the wall and hold myself with the other while I piss. It takes forever.
I want to crawl back into bed but I pull on my wool socks, my thermals and the cleanest pair of jeans I can find then make my way to the kitchen. There are still some embers in the wood stove so I shove a few logs in on top of the crumpled sports section. The paper catches and the flames march across it in a steady advance. I close the stove door, drop the latch and hold my hands over top of it.
It ain’t like this down there in Florida. In Florida they got palm trees. Here it’s just snow. Here it’s just two chairs at the eating table. I got half a mind to put the third one out, just to remember how things used to be. That wouldn’t change nothing though.
The birdfeeder out back is empty. Two sparrows with white stripes on their heads are scratching at the frozen ground below it. A cardinal lands on the perch, looks at the empty tray and flies away.
We keep the birdseed in the shed. We keep it there because it attracts mice and we can’t have that in the house. At least that’s what Darla says. I say bullshit. Put it in Tupperware on the top shelf of the pantry. But Darla’s not having none of that.
The cold stings. My breath freezes in my lungs as I walk along the path I’ve shoveled in the snow. The shed is locked. Seventeen, twelve, thirty-six. I pull down on the lock and it comes undone. It’s warmer in the shed. The wind is blocked but still the cold comes in through the building’s seams.
I turn on the electric heater. It hums. The coils glow. It’s old and very likely will burn down the shed one day. The lantern throws shadows against the walls. I pick up a wrench and hang it in its spot. Darla hates the shed. She says it smells. She says nothing’s in place. She says rodents nest in the walls. I love the shed. It smells. Nothing’s in place. Rodents nest in the walls.
I’ve come to get birdseed. I tell myself that but instead I lift up a floorboard and retrieve a shoebox and set it on the bench. My hands are shaking. It’s the cold. I crack the door. The house is quiet. There are no lights on.
I return to the shoebox. I breath in, the air now warmer, thanks to the heater. I grasp the lid. I close my eyes.
Darla won’t wake until I’m making lunch.
She’ll want me to make her bacon and eggs. I’ll say you know where they are you make them. She’ll yell at me and call me an ungrateful bastard. She’ll throw something. I’ll cave and make her eggs and bacon. I’ll remind her later, at night, when we’re both in bed, I’ll remind her what I did for her and ask her to repay the favor. Maybe she will. Probably she won’t. I’ll beg but it won’t matter.
The shoebox is held together by tape. The lid has lost two of its sides. I run my hand along the top. I look out the door again. The house is still dark. There are no birds under the feeder.
I should just put the shoebox back. Instead I lock the shed door from the inside. I open the box and pull out the pictures. It’s kind of silly, I know, because I’ve looked at them so much that if I were an artist I could paint them with my eyes shut. The wave of her hair, the dimple of her smile. The hand on her shoulder.
It’s all that’s in the shoebox. Three pictures. One held together with tape.
Outside there’s a noise and I drop the picture and run to the door, put my ear against it. The metal is cold. My breath hangs in the air. I hear nothing. Darla is still sleeping. She won’t wake till I’m making lunch.
I pace a couple times. My daddy used to do that same thing. The apple falls where it does. I pick up the picture that’s been taped all over. Tape nowadays don’t yellow like it use to. I run a finger along it. Sometimes I think when I do this she’ll come to life, just show up right there in my shed. I know it’s no good to think that but sometimes I think it anyway.
I push down on the floorboard that’s in front of the workbench. I pull out a different shoebox. Inside there’s an ad I’ve ripped out of one of those magazines Darla used to subscribe to. It’s a woman in a bra. She’s not a supermodel or anything. She’s just a damn fine looking woman. I think, when I first saw her this is what I thought, that she looks like the kind of woman I would have married if I hadn’t married Darla so I ripped it out and stuck it in my shoebox. It’s an old picture, but I don’t care. I’m old now too.
I set it aside and pick up the other ads I’ve ripped out of magazines. They’re paper clipped together. I take the paper clip off and set it on the bench. I walk over to the door and open it a few inches. This spooks some snowbirds and they fly off into the shrubs I planted with Amanda. The house is still dark. Darla won’t wake till I’m making lunch. I shut the door again and slide the deadbolt into place.
The ad on the top of the pile has a girl wearing one of those skimpy bikinis. She’s on a beach in Tahiti. The sun is shining. The sand is white. The water is light blue. There ain’t snow everywhere. The next couple of pages are a paid advertisement section I ripped out of a magazine I stole from the doctor’s office. It’s one of them infomercials but printed and not on the tv. It’s all about Polk County Florida. They got a place called Winter Haven there. A fellow could buy himself a trailer and live there and never have to light a stove first thing after he waked and pissed. There’s a phone number for a real estate person. I know it by heart. One day I’ll call it. Twenty-five hundred dollars could start me out just fine down there, in a trailer in Polk County.
I feel guilty thinking this and I look back at the taped together picture. This is the picture I had under my mattress. She’s eight years old, looking up like she’s looking at angels. Darla found it one day and ripped it up and beat on me. The doc said he thought my ribs were broken but I said that they probably was just cracked. That was the only time I ever hit her back. Punched her in the eye. Knocked her down. I hadn’t never hit anyone before. It didn’t feel good.
Darla said if the good Lord were going to take our little Amanda away she weren’t going have reminders of her all over the place. Not in her house. So after that there weren’t any pictures of her anywhere. Except for the three I kept.
I put the lids on both of the boxes and set them to the side. It’s starting to get warm in the shed but the stove in the house probably needs another log so I go back to the house. The sun is higher now. It reflects on the ice that coats the porch railing. I throw in a few more logs and then peek into the bedroom. Darla’s sleeping on her back. Her mouth is wide open. She won’t wake until later, when I’m making lunch.
I go back to the shed and lock the door and slide back the third floorboard. This is where I keep the moneybox. I got it from KMarts back when they was Walmart. Darla gives me twenty dollars every week to spend. It’s all inside this box.
I set the box on the bench and unlock it. I go back over to the deadbolt and give it another shove to make sure. I put this week’s twenty in the box then unfold the piece of paper I keep inside the box. I do the math. It’s easy. Two thousand, three hundred and eighty. I erase the old number and write the new one. I’m so close. I can feel the Florida sun on my face. It’s bright and it’s warm. I look directly into it. I close my eyes. It’s still bright. But there’s a black spot to the side. It’s always there.
I pick up a worn newspaper clipping. Johnstone’s Memorials. I cut it out of the Courier the day after Amanda passed. My company gave me ten thousand dollars to help pay for the service and what not. The headstone would have only cost two thousand five hundred. We had enough left over. We had plenty but damn her to hell, Darla wouldn’t have none of it. She weren’t going to waste good money on a headstone. God knew what He’d done. We didn’t need to make no monument for it.
But damn her to hell. Amanda deserves better. The snow covers her plaque. She looks so lonely. And I almost got enough to buy a proper headstone. I don’t give no care to Darla what she would think about it. It’s my money. She ever actually get out to the graveyard she might have some words for me. Maybe even give some bruises. But damn her to hell, Darla Jeannette Jones.
In six weeks my moneybox will have twenty-five hundred dollars inside of it.
I set all the boxes in their spots. I put the floorboards back. I pull the deadbolt and slide the door open. Long shadows cross my path. I walk out into the snow and hold my arms up. I’m in Winter Haven. There’s no aches in my joints. There’s no snow to be shoveled. There’s a girl in a bikini. I’m no fool, I know she ain’t looking at me, old coot that I am. But still, she’s there. The world spins around me. Palm trees go by but then I’m at Amanda’s grave. She needs dignity. Ain’t nobody should be treated like a dog, being buried without no proper headstone. Sometimes I imagine she’d say Go to Florida, Poppy. Spend that money on a trailer. I don’t need no proper headstone. Do what makes you happy. But no eight-year old girl ever talked like that.
I go inside. I pull the bedroom door shut. I stand by the stove. I put a pot on the burner. I go to the parlor and look at the third chair. I pick it up. It’s rickety. I put it down and go back to the kitchen without it. Soon I’ll make some porridge and eat the last of the donuts I’ve been hiding from Darla. She won’t know no different. She won’t get up till I’m making lunch.

*

John Bartell is an East Coast transplant who has resided in Fort Worth, Texas for the past fifteen years. Though he still hasn’t broken down and got himself a cowboy hat or a big old pickup truck, he has taken a fancy to Shiner Bock and the Austin music scene. He’s a winner of the Weatherford College Canis Latran Writing Contest and has short stories published in Sanitarium Magazine and in A. Lee Martinez’s Strange Afterlives Anthology. He has served two years as the president of the DFW Writer’s Workshop and is currently working on his second novel in between earning his keep as a microbiologist, which is probably the most glamorous job a person could have.

What motivates him to create:
He’s inspired to write because he has an unquenchable drive to express the beauty and the pain that defines our world, but also, and probably pretty much closer to the truth, it’s mainly to get the girl, which has worked out pretty well so far.

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