Against the Back
Out of one self same clod of clay
there sprouts both stinking weeds and delightful flowers.
She woke up in the darkness of morning, near his body. The thought
crossed her mind that she might straddle and make violent love to him,
shocking the man out of sleep.
A reversal of roles, she thought.
In the distance a dog barked and their dog, from its kennel, replied.
As if in sympathy with the canines, Mary Herman silently removed herself
from the room where she and her husband slept. The child’s door was open
and the night-light comfortingly lambent. This inspired her to lean against
the doorjamb and look at the raised rectangle draped in fabric where her
offspring slept. Unconsciously she kneaded her right breast. She was not
thin and her epidermis was full of human being. The sound of a truck engine
revving in the distance made her think, by obscure modes of association, of
eggs frying in a pan.
She walked down the carpeted steps and into the kitchen, and then began preparing
Why do I do it, she thought as she dropped a handful of small pork
sausages in the hot pan. They replied, sizzling, and the smell, as it
sometimes did, brought forth an epiphany of nostalgia. She felt an almost
overwhelming connection to the United States of America and what she
believed to be its history and tradition.
When the husband appeared the child was sitting in its special seat,
the yellow crust of egg decorating its mouth. Cooked food lay on the table.
She, the mother, looked at him as his teeth closed in on the toast; the
crunching projected the image to her mind of human bones being decimated.
He began to speak, apparently in harmony with the proteins ingested.
Hearing his words, she nodded, smiled. In a way it was a relief that he
talked, then teased the child. She loved him. She hated him. His mop of
silver hair was an insult to a woman under thirty. Then there was a feeling
of affection; she saw him tease their daughter. A slight warmth was felt by
Mrs. Herman between her hip bones.
When he wants to be nice he’s lovely, she thought. Then she wiped the
child’s mouth, a vague act of comradeship to ally herself to the man.
Receiving a kiss of significant rapidity, the husband left the country
house, his torso in a sports jacket. He would lawyer and fulfill certain
primitive instincts for survival.
The woman felt as if a railroad spike had been removed from the midst
of her spine as she saw his car turn out the long drive. The terror of the
early morning was removed by the appearance of a misted, bright orb hovering
low over the swamp, which she called "a lake." The kitchen table was scattered
with the traces of an eating and the child was there without being where
she, Mary Herman, was.
Without altogether making a human connection she took her daughter to
the living room TV, and then set her in front of it. In the kitchen she threw
away bits of masticated bread, ate a bowl of cereal, and listened to the
distant cartoon entertainment. She tried to feel a bond with the child and
in touch with the events on the screen though she could not see them.
TV brings people closer together, she thought. Yet I could not be
further away from her if I were on the moon.
The apparent injustice of this stirred her and later when she found
herself naked under the warm fluid of the showerhead, actually moved her to
The tears of a desperate woman, she thought as she lathered her hair.
By the time she put the child in the car seat she was completely dry.
Pulling on to the road, she nearly hit a man out walking. For a moment she
wished that she had. Then she saw him wave, and the bald crown of his head,
and his age. She waved back.
If all men could be like that, she thought. Friendly even to strangers.
She realized that she was smiling, repressed it, and then smiled again
self-consciously. The car moved rapidly through the farm country, the woman
behind the wheel a young mother.
At the supermarket she sat the child in the child’s seat of the
shopping cart and wheeled through the aisles, filling it with fruit, iceberg
lettuce and aluminum cans of beer and soda. The sight of the pork chops,
beef and other raw meats filled her with a certain pleasure. They were the
dead meat of once-living things, in plastic wrapping without any obvious
relation to life.
She grew more comfortable as the cart accumulated goods, the familiar
packaging making her walk with easier steps. Music, filtered through
discreet speakers, soothed her and brought out certain primitive,
pseudo-emotional instincts in her being. The smile of the cashier made her
feel that she, Mary Herman was an integral part of the community, yet at
the same time like drinking a very stiff gin and tonic, and smoking a
Later that day, the man who was jointly her husband’s best friend and
her lover came over. During sexual intercourse she tried very hard to enjoy
herself, and even cried out. But this was more from a sense of desperation
than pleasure. Afterward thunder growled outside, lightening cracked, and then
she saw the rain fall past her window.
The man beside her was a trucker by trade who carried merchandise both
licit and illicit over the interstate highways. Living was painful; he
reminded her of a pile of lard or inert matter. He smiled and said things
that were meant to be endearing but were very banal.
Slowly he became a living man again, and through shame and pity she
believed in love.
Her daughter came in but did not appear to be surprised to see them
both in bed. The child reported that there was a rainbow outside and Mary,
raising her body and looking out the window, saw it hanging over her lake. A
moment of true tenderness followed.
A flower in the desert, she thought.
"Happy, happy, joy, joy," sang the child, skipping from the room.
In the kitchen she made him a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich and
coffee, and the she had a cup of coffee. He ate and looked at her,
occasionally raising his eyebrows as if hoping thereby to communicate. The
house sat under tall pine trees, and even though the sun had come out and
birds sang the unlit kitchen was full of shadow. She could hear her stomach
rumble slightly from the coffee and looking at the clock saw that it was
As if this was a signal, he abruptly got up to leave.
After he left she turned on the radio and moved, almost danced around
the room. A strip of cold bacon lay in the pan on the stove. She grabbed it, and
then rammed it into her mouth shaking her head in time to the music. At the
sound of laughter she turned around. The little girl stood at the entrance
pointing at her.
Outside they watched the dog, a Dalmatian move around the property. It
sniffed at a tree, marked it, and then snapped at a wasp. Gunshots could be
heard from across the swamp where sportsmen shot ducks. The dog looked out
across the swamp. She played catch with her daughter, a small beach ball
passing in the air between the two.
As the feeling of domestic tranquility grew more pronounced so did her
feeling of listlessness and loss of purpose. She wished her daughter would
grow tired of the game and without admitting it, was not there.
Looking at her own lower body, she noticed how tightly the jeans fit,
though they were a size larger than the pair she had worn the year before. The
thought of liposuction flashed through her mind, and then a boat floating
across an ocean of puss.
The child was holding the ball, staring at her questioningly, she threw the ball and it bounced off her shoulder. Suddenly angry, she thrust the
ball back at the child. It missed, landing in the bushes. The child stared,
shocked, and then cried.
Disgusted and afraid of both herself and the other, she ran inside. No
sooner had she closed the door behind her then she heard the sound of tires
turning down the driveway. She looked at the clock and was surprised to see
that it was almost four-thirty. Outside she could hear the car door slam and
her husband’s voice. He was talking with his daughter and as Mary heard
this, she also heard the faucet dripping, the refrigerator hum, and the
click of her own jaw as it tensed.
When he came in she saw by the expression on his face that he was
upset. She made a feeble attempt to smile, knowing as she did so the sense
"You hit the girl," he said.
She denied it and tried to explain. He yelled and made sharp, abrupt
movements with his arms. As he yelled her thoughts rotated between killing
him, or preparing dinner. In the end he took a cold can of beer out of the
refrigerator, and then drank it. Pacified, he kissed her and felt her right
As she prepared dinner she snacked on small bits of food: a piece of
lettuce, a crouton, a lump of uncooked ground beef. The little girl walked
through the kitchen undisturbed, and the husband sat in the living room
watching the evening news. When the telephone rang, she picked it up and
heard the other man’s voice.
"I love you," he told her.
"Do you want to speak to my husband," she said.
She took the portable telephone into the living room and handed it to
him. As she set the table she heard her husband’s laughter. His tone of
voice had altered to one that men use towards men. Without knowing why she
knew that they were talking about the sex opposite to themselves - and
probably her. She looked out the kitchen window and, in the evening light
saw a deer move toward the edge of the swamp. For a moment she thought of
calling out to the man and the little girl, but then decided to keep it for
During the meal of meatloaf, potatoes, and salad the man drank
beer and talked, telling jokes and stories. After the table had been cleared
she still saw him sitting there, his fingers snapping open a fresh can of
beer. He was fourteen years older than her, and when she notice the large
ketchup stain on his shirt and the piece of lettuce that glowed between his
teeth every time he opened his mouth, she became suddenly queasy. He licked
the beer from his lips and continued to speak, while she leaned against the
"Please honey," she said, and then closing her eyes, tried to blot out
the sound of his voice. She thought of a gurgling brook, a woodpecker, the
white sands of a beach, a wicker basket full of shellfish. To her amazement
when she opened them again, he was not there. She heard him crashing around
in the garage; he had taken out the trash.
She stood motionless and listened as he came in, very near her, and then he
took another can of beer from the refrigerator. She heard his footsteps
recede into the living room, and then the usual sound of TV combined with
the voices of daughter and husband.
Mary went out the backdoor and stood on the porch. Moths beat
against the porch light, fragile and tragic. Walking out into the darkness,
she felt the moist grass beneath her bare feet. She gasped for breath, stuck
out her tongue, and then cried out.
Her husband’s head appeared in the living room window pressed against
the glass, looking out. Then ee was then gone and the curtains closed. She heard the
crickets and clouds sweep past the bright moon. It’s almost full, she
thought, and then with arms folded went back inside.
She wanted to go upstairs and lie on her bed, but could not do so
without passing by the living room. Her throat constricted. She breathed
deeply through her nose to help remove the panic. Quietly, she went to the
stairs and walked up. Out of the corner of one eye she saw the man and
child sitting side by side watching TV. There was an impulse to join them
as a member of the family, but she did not obey it. She found herself at the
head of the stairs.
In the bedroom she turned on the reading lamp by the side of the bed,
and then sat down. Her shadow, cast against one side of the room appeared
grotesque. She ran a hand up and through her hair; the dark motion
against the wall was that of an alien.
Rubbing the back of her neck, she went to the restroom, brushed her
teeth and then washed her face with soap and warm water. she changed into a
nightgown, and lay under the covers. Asleep, she drove down a highway paved
with coarse ground pepper, talked with a dead friend, and accidentally drank
dishsoap instead of coffee.
(previously published in The A-list)