Excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds
She lay with her back to him in their bed. His warm hand caressed her shoulder momentarily and then pulled away, “You did real good Purslane. It was a good Christmas.” She looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was near midnight and she’d be up for work in just five hours. She sighed and felt the bed rock as her husband rolled over and pulled the blankets tight around his shoulders. Purslane’s body throbbed with tiredness. Her knees felt warm with inflammation and her lower back as stiff and rigid as the bare tree limbs outside the bedroom window. She did not taste the food tonight, so overworked and busy with the details of it all. Did not taste the wine or the beer or the coffee and pie and had no idea how her eyes, so weary and worn, could produce anything at all. But they did. As her husband’s breathing flowed and ebbed in the nighttime rhythm of deep sleep, a single solitary tear fell from the corner of her eye, flowed in a burning path across the bridge of her nose and over her ruddy cheek, finding its way into the outer crevasses of her ear. Morpheus was merciful tonight and Purslane fell quickly into his arms.
The morning after Christmas
With every step of her sock covered feet she felt the temperature drop. The carpeted stairs were worn and slippery in places and her hand followed the cool wood of the banister. The kitchen was dark and she opened the microwave letting the small light inside illuminate the counter top, the stove and the coffee pot that sat in front of her. She pulled a ceramic cup from the cupboard, filled it with water and heated it in the microwave for one minute, discarded the hot water in the sink and filled her cup with coffee. She zipped her sweatshirt up and held the mug with both hands and walked to the black leather couch in the dimly lit living room. She perched on the couch making herself as small as possible, shrinking her large, big boned body and hunching over her cup of coffee as it were a great source of heat. She took deep swallows and watched as her breath materialized and disappeared. Black plastic garbage bags full of crumpled wrapping paper and ribbons sat near the front door and the coffee table was piled high with opened gifts. It was a good Christmas. A very good Christmas. Purslane felt cold air moving around her shoulders and pulled the gray hood of her sweatshirt over her head. Even the lit Christmas tree looked cold. Standing next to the bare window, every one of the 300 twinkle lights had a halo of light surrounding it, as if each one was vibrating and trying to produce even a miniscule amount of heat. Purslane raised her eyes to the cathedral ceiling and cursed it for sucking up all the warm air. Empty mug in hand she returned to the kitchen and reached for the coffee pot when her eyes fell on St. Frances. A small prayer card hung on the wall, near the sink and next to the garden window where Purslane would watch the birds flit about as she did the dishes. She gently removed the card and began reading the words she loved but could not memorize. Lord make me an instrument of your peace…Purslane’s heart pounded and pushed her blood harder and harder through veins, arteries and capillaries, her hands grew warm and her face flushed redder and redder with each word. Where there is darkness, let me bring light, where there is sadness, joy…where there is doubt, faith….where there is injury, pardon….May I not so much seek to be consoled as to console… to love rather than be loved…
A small trickle of sweat formed on her upper lip and her hair grew damp at the temples. She carefully replaced the small prayer card back on the wall under the push pin where it had been for years, unzipped her sweatshirt and said aloud to God, “What is my purpose? What am I supposed to do? I want know!” …make me an instrument of your peace… “Make me anything!” Purslane heated another cup of water in the microwave, tossed it and filled her mug with coffee. She sipped at the mug while standing in the middle of the kitchen, eyes on a brass crucifix that hung near the garden window above St. Asissi’s prayer card, “haven’t I lived a life according to your rules? Don’t I deserve to know why I’m here in this world? If not to write—then what?” Purslane waited for an answer, a divine moment of vision and clarity, but it was of no use. God would not part the ceiling, the roof, the clouds. He would not offer a tissue to a woman about to cry. He would not offer a life saver to a woman about to cry so much as to fill a room with enough tears to drown herself. Purslane leaned on the kitchen counter and sighed. She blew her nose on a paper towel and reached for an ice cube from the freezer. Her red swollen eyes would not do. She ran the ice over her eyelids and face but it only made her feel chilled and feverish. Her husband and daughter were still asleep and probably would be for another two hours. Purslane quietly climbed the stairs, taking each step as slowly and deliberately as an old man afraid of falling.
Mariposa found her mother in front of the lighted tree. “It’s beautiful momma, really nice. After all these years of not having a theme and buying all different kinds of ornaments—we have a theme.”
“And what is it?” Purslane raised her eyebrows half expecting Mariposa to make a joke. So many Christmases her daughter had tried to talk her into buying a matching set of glass balls and to have a color themed tree, but Purslane never would.
“Rustic!” Mariposa hugged her mom and they both agreed. The Nobel fir was beautiful and all the ornaments purchased over the years from second hand stores and after holiday sales, given as gifts or hand- made have finally come together perfectly.
The smell of roasting turkey called Purslane back to the kitchen and she opened the oven door, letting more aroma escape as she basted the golden bird with its own simmering juices. She brought Mariposa a mug of hot cocoa topped with a hand full of mini marshmallows and garnished with a peppermint stick. Mariposa smiled wide took the mug and held it under her nose, “What time will Augustine be here?”
“Augustine will be here when Vance and Cherry get here and that should be any minute.” Reggie said as he plopped down next to Mariposa, skillfully taking the mug from his daughter’s hands. “Dad, get your own hot chocolate!” Mariposa took the mug back from her dad offering him the cinnamon stick.
“Are they really coming early dad? That would be awesome, right mom? I mean we eat kind of early anyway and it would be fun to hang out.”
Purslane’s eye caught something outside the window. Against the brown gray and barren branches nearly blending in with the white gray sky, it fell and rose sharply in response to a sudden wind. She saw it and knew she was not mistaken. Tiny punches moved paper-like in delicate swirls that seemed lost and floaty and then serious and determined as the air forced them down like torpedos or up like rockets. It was snowing! Purslane walked in awe to the window and put her hand against the cold glass. She heard the muffled sounds of her husband and daughter laughing. She heard the distant drone of the television and the faraway harp of the neighbor’s Chihuahua. No one appeared on the street below the window. Only the birds were moved to action. Only the birds and Purslane. While they soared and dipped and perched, chirping and flitting their wings in the cold snow speckled air, Purslane stood at the window. Tears moved in behind her eyes flooding her vision.
“It’s snowing!” Mariposa grabbed her father’s hand and pulled him up from the couch. They joined Purslane and stood looking at grass that was no longer green and pine trees that were dusted with powder. Purslane quickly turned away to tend her food prep in the kitchen, wiping her eyes with a towel that smelled of onions and celery, “Better enjoy it while it lasts. It’s too dry to stick.”
The tree took on a magical glow as shadows fell outside and what little natural light the room had disappeared. The floor was strewn with tissue and wrapping paper, ribbons and bows and boxes. The turkey and ham had been cut, carved and enjoyed by men with appetites like Neanderthals and the girls sat in the kitchen sharing pie and ice cream while the men talked sports. Mariposa and Augustine took turns reading from a book on dream interpretation, “It says here if you dream of a frying pan you may be feeling completeness in love. That’s just weird.” Augustine said as she slid the book across the table to her best friend.
“Let me see that.” Purslane stood up and reached across the oak table taking hold of the book, “You know Cherry, this is really a perfect Christmas present for me. I had a strange dream last night and maybe now I can find out what it means.”
“I only give gifts that are needed and desired by your deepest subconscious wishes!” Cherry smiled. “What’d you dream about?”
“She got pooped on by a bird!” Mariposa quipped and both girls giggled and pretended to wipe invisible bird droppings from their hair and shoulders.
Purslane tried to look up the meaning of her dream searching under excrement, feces, and animal droppings. “This is disgusting. My pecan pie is not looking like pecan pie right now and I’m not finding any answers.”
“Well, maybe some dream meanings are supposed to be a secret, mom.”
“You should keep a dream diary”, Cherry said, ”that way you’ll remember all the details and it’ll be easier to look up.”
The television volume in the living room grew louder as Vance and Reggie laughed. They both appeared in the kitchen with empty pie plates. Reggie walked to the table and gave Purslane and quick kiss on the lips, “Terrific pie my darling.”
“Terrific everything, Vance added patting his large stomach, “Tomorrow I’m gonna join the Polar Ice Team and take a dip in the lake. Gotta shrink this holiday girth.” He smiled, one hand still on his belly and the other holding a plate with a double wide slice of pie.
Cherry laughed and told her husband, “There’s only one thing that’ll shrink in cold water and we know what that is!” The adults laughed and Mariposa and Augustine covered their faces with their hands.
Cherry continued, “Vance has been secretly dieting. He thinks I don’t know. Maybe he’s afraid I’ll try to sabotage him or something.”
Augustine suddenly sat up straight, her eyes grew wide and declared proudly, “Mom has been secretly writing and now she has a contract!”
Purslane saw the shock and surprise on Cherry’s face and knew this information was not to be shared. Augustine fell back into her chair, stealing guilty glances at her mom.
Purslane felt the weight of the flesh of her cheeks collapse upon the bones beneath her skin, felt her jaw bone disconnect from its hinged mandibular joint and tried but failed to keep the corners of her mouth turned upwards. “What? why didn’t you tell me? What is it? What did you write?
“I sold a novella to an on-line publisher.”
“But why didn’t you tell me?”
Cherry pulled Augustine close, and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. Purslane felt her own daughter’s eyes and hoped Mariposa could not see her heart breaking.
“It’s kind of embarrassing you know, it’s romance. But I’ll email you the cover copy and you can see.”
“That’s wonderful Cherry. I knew this would happen for you someday-just didn’t know it’d be this soon!”
Cherry sent Augustine to the other room to see if Vance was ready to leave. Purslane sent Mariposa to help gather the gifts and find a shopping bag to put everything in.
“I have a one year contract to write and have my work published. When I found out I couldn’t sit still. This is a dream come true for me.” Cherry stood and gathered the cups and pie plates leaving Purslane at the table. Leaving Purslane to relive and cringe at every conversation she’d had with Cherry about writing. Cringe with embarrassment at her own belief that she could write too.
Reggie and Purslane stood at the front door with Cherry and Vance as they pulled on coats and gloves. Mariposa and Augustine hugged each other and they all moved to the front porch in the cold, peaceful darkness of Christmas night. A string of red, white and green lights illuminated the window and cast a warm glow on the group of friends as they said yet another goodbye to each other. Reggie and Purslane stood in the darkness and waved, watching the minivan pull away from the curb. Purslane thought of the kitchen full of dirty dishes and of the long work day tomorrow. Reggie laughed, and pulled her close, whispering something in her ear. Purslane let her husband guide her back to the house, grateful for the support of his arm around her shoulder but not hearing a word he said. Together they tackled the dirty dishes in the kitchen. Reggie washing quickly as Purslane dried. Too tired to shower, Purslane pealed back the flannel sheet on her side of the bed and let herself collapse onto the mattress. The heaviness of the comforter and the warmth of her husband’s body created a cocoon, a perfectly dark and safe place, an in-between worlds kind of sanctuary where she could surrender.