Photo © Julia Van Middlesworth

Photo © Julia Van Middlesworth

Misbegotten

Story by Julia Van Middlesworth

          Floydean might be a problem once she got a sniff of the money.  Not that Flo told anyone about the will, yet she knew somehow the family would telegraph scraps of truths and untruths across telephone lines and behind knitting needles, over dinner plates of chicken bones and cold mashed potatoes.  It was always that way and Floydean was forever looming somewhere in the background ready to start a heap of trouble and rob the food right off your plate. Born with a fork in her hand. Always wanting, needing, hungry.

          Flo pressed her arms against the cold steel, the river below was black except for the flicker of gas lanterns reflected on the water. She’d just left the bar where she worked at the former lace factory and she was standing halfway between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This was her nightly ritual, studying the water and the pink lights of the two villages mirrored across the deep water. Resting one boot on a truss, she looked up toward the moon through the beams and what she witnessed was something she’d never in seven years of crossing the bridge seen, though surely they were there: hundreds of spider webs strung like sheets girder to steel girder, made visible in the moonlight, each with a pattern of sticky silk— the spiders fat and still, their prey hung all around them.

          From the shore, the villagers saw Flo daily, a large framed woman bounding across the steel slats, her black hair graying, flying behind her, her eyes upturned and blue, the old bobby pin factory on the riverbank, a brick structure next to The Laceworks Bar. She rented a studio apartment with a stray cat named Ringer, his huge orange head visible in the third story window. She’d found him, a skeleton with fur, tied to a tree, a band of white around his neck that made his head appear disembodied.

          It was only last week, when she was still poor, that the phone rang as she washed a tub of clothes in the sink, and a man cleared his throat, her one hand still in the sudsy water, a lawyer, saying something about Uncle Tex in Virginia.

           “I’m his executor,” the man said.

           “He was executed?” Flo asked

           Uncle Tex was odd but she hadn’t heard about a murder.

           He hung up the phone, but she’d hear from him again.  She was in the will for some reason she couldn’t fathom. The only memory of Uncle Tex was a childhood one: standing on his brown shoes as he danced to I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, Flo’s arms around his knees, hanging on, her head pressed to his fly for balance, the pennies in her palm, the curtains of flypaper buzzing, and the crude signs hung in every single room: No Smoking Of Dope Stinking Cigarettes.

          It was in the white house with the columns, chickens scratching dirt, the dinner bell, the oak table where her grandfather told her not to put her elbows.  Children up north had no manners, he said, and no manners were worse than bad ones. Now that house was hers, and everything in it plus two-hundred-thousand dollars and she didn’t know why but maybe Uncle Tex wanted her to dance on his grave.

          She remembered thinking it must be a joke, the phone call, staring down at the white shirt floating in the tub, the bloodstain still on the collar from the night she slipped on the icy bridge after one of Floydean’s phone calls.

          Flo was a nickname for Florida, the same name Floydean was given because He, their father, liked the sunshine state. Flo burned up when she heard. He said the new Florida was Flo’s namesake.  Two suns better than one, he said. Flo told Him two suns would scorch the earth and kill everything. It was Florida number one, Flo, who started calling the younger Florida number two Floydean and it stuck. She made sure.

          The early memories were still intact: Floydean a baby in a playpen, then a child, running on her stick-like legs screaming between buildings, chased by an old woman whose clothes were sacrificed on the shared clothes line, aluminum and shaped like an octagon snare, a maze of steel ropes. More than once, just for fun, Floydean sliced the old woman’s petticoats and underpants to shreds.

          It was the night of the ice storm, when Flo slipped on the bridge, her boot caught in the steel slat, her head bleeding, after Floydean’s call. She said Granny called it a burden. Four of her grandchildren were bastards and didn’t know it. Not even baptized and all of them going to hell.

          “Except for me, that is.”  Floydean said. 

          The words passed through the receiver, needles that struck everywhere, surprising her with the sting.  She never thought that sort of detail was important.  Since she wasn’t religious anyway, it shouldn’t bother her.  But it did.

          She grabbed a pencil.

          Call Granny, she wrote on the wall as Floydean ranted.

          Their history was complicated and simple: they shared the same father and their mothers were sisters. Floydean only knew him as He. But to Flo, as a child, he was Daddy.  When Flo was seven it became politically incorrect to refer to Daddy as anything other than He. But sometimes she slipped and her mother turned to stone and if Aunt Margaret was in the room, she turned to fire.

          “Flo?  Are you upset your name isn’t McGowan”, Floydean asked. Then she said Flo’s last name was Doe or X and that any documents she signed would not be legal. She said Flo would have to marry to be “legitimized”. This burned Flo up, though she knew it didn’t really mean anything. So then how come it did?

          Flo noticed Floydean used a southern drawl pronouncing you all, yawl, just like Daddy used to.  Floydean never spent time with him or in Virginia.  She grew up in New Jersey just like Flo. She could see Floydean with a cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other, acting like she had a high horse to ride, rolling her big cat eyes.

          Weeks later, Flo called again, wheezing cigarette smoke into the receiver before she said:  Heard you inherited that joke of a plantation and a shitload of money.

          He died without a nickel, and the place is a dump, Flo told her.

          Squatters in that house, Floydean said, squatters and bedbugs. Uncle Tex’s son was dead, his widow a heroin addict, a six-year-old granddaughter mentally off.  She gave off these details with a triumphant tone. Flo hung up.

          There was a time, long ago standing on the hot sidewalk outside the apartment house, that Flo loved Floydean, a skinny girl made of sticks with two green stones for eyes, a dirty face, bare feet, torn dress, runny nose, whining she was hungry, and Flo stole her a Mars Bar and two packs of red Twizzlers from Pop’s, the candy store on the corner of Maple.  But that was a long time ago and things had changed.

          After the call from Floydean announcing Flo’s illegitimacy, after her slip on the bridge, when Flo got back to her apartment she made a call of her own, a call to Granny who knew everything.

          Granny? How are you? Flo asked.

          She imagined her grandmother in her crinkle crepe nightgown, clutching the neck, a shot of whiskey in front of her, her black hair piled on her head, The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits on the television set.

          Oh, I’m sorry I woke you.

          I’m fine.

          My Mama and Daddy were married right, Granny?

          But …

          What?

          Flo smacked a rag on the counter.

          But, she said …

          I know … yes he was a rotten apple.

          You’re right. 

          Yes, it ruins the whole bushel.

          She threw the rag at the wall and it slid down into its own puddle.      

          How come no one told us? 

          I know, Granny.

          I’m sorry you don’t feel well.  Yes, the whiskey will help.  

          Baptized?  Who cares?

          I didn’t mean to upset you.

          Love you too.

          Goodnight.

          Afterwards Flo drank a bottle of Jack then ate an entire pizza while watching the movie Soylent Green.

          “Ah, people were always lousy,” the man on the screen said.  “But there was a world, once.”

          It took a year to settle but finally the manila envelope arrived.

          Flo packed on Thursday, not much though, a few pair of jeans and flannel shirts, then carried Ringer over the bridge to Johnny Dee’s house on the New Jersey side.  She’d be back to get him once things were settled.

          On the way back she walked down Goat Hill toward town. Children were dressed as skeletons and ghosts and they flew up Swan Street on their way to Coryell. She imagined Floydean dressed as a vampire, scheming. The moon appeared on fire, nearly red, in a vertical almond shape, a cat’s eye, so conniving she searched for the other eye and found it floating in The Delaware, drifting toward her as she stood on the bridge. If she had a boat and a net, she thought, she’d catch it and stop it from following her. It was Halloween and all the telephone lines were strung with toilet paper.

          One of the few things she brought with her was a framed etching she bought at the flea market, a pastoral scene with a house, a background of hills, a tree. On closer inspection, two women stood like pillars at opposite corners of the yard. She wrapped it with newspaper and string not sure if she liked or hated it but she brought it anyway. Along the towpath to the old stone train station, clutching the print under one arm, fog lifting in sheets off the canal, marching along in her steel toed boots and blue jeans, she remembered her southern relatives with their Civil War tales and meals where the only sounds were the many forks stabbing at china. Flo understood now why they viewed her and her sisters with downcast eyes—ghosts come to haunt the kitchen cabinets. Maybe it was the tension, her mother’s erect posture, her balled fists; her Grandma Edith’s mouth pulled tight as wire; her grandfather taciturn and wooden as a barn, that led Flo to wrench Grandma Edith’s prize duck by the neck till it went limp.

          From the train she watched the rush of houses sweep past all of them melting together in a blur of light and shadow like the house Daddy built and didn’t finish—termites eating the walls, flying in wide swaths, periodic waves of black. 

          When Flo’s Aunt Margaret got pregnant, a miracle baby, an immaculate conception, no one mentioned it.  But Flo, her mother and sisters and brother were rushed off to a one bedroom in a shitty town were old men with missing fingers clung to bottles of whiskey and children carried sticks.

          Her mother found a job doing keypunch but the refrigerator was always on empty, while Aunt Margaret and the Christ child got fat on peaches, Boston cream pie and jumbo shrimp. It was Aunt Margaret’s favorite food and she spoke of it as if it were her lover and not just a crustacean from the sea. Even with the termites it still made Flo’s blood hot to think of Aunt Margaret living in the house that belonged to Flo, sucking on her shrimp and her cocktail sauce.

          At 4:13 the train roared through the tunnel and out into the Virginia train station. There was a bus but Flo decided to walk along the road lined with many tall pines but not many houses or cars. Daylight dimmed the sky turning it purple around the edges and a red fox crossed her path and gave her the once over then scampered into the green. 

          There was a Super Chief with two cars in the lot. Flo got a cup of coffee and a Swiss cheese sandwich and tried to balance them with the print tucked beneath her arm. The cashier smiled and said hello and what a lovely day it was but eyed her up and down because she knew she wasn’t from these parts.

          It was the dented postbox she noticed first, the number 124 in red paint. Burdock overgrown. It clawed at her all the way up the lane, ripping the newspaper, catching the string, then the shadows of two columns slashed across the lawn and the house appeared, a fading white structure. One corroded tractor squatted in a knot of weeds and the iron fence sagged with rust. It was growing chill and the sun seemed to melt into the roof and a white sheet flapped from a window as she opened the huge door. The scent of wood rose, something malign and rotten beneath it as her eyes adjusted to the dark and she made out a brick fireplace coated with a slip of white paint and fingers of smoke.

          A bare bulb hung on a cord in the dining room just the way in did in all the scary black and white movies of old houses riddled with ghosts that Granny always watched. She flipped the light: a buffet, one drawer open and a tray of silverware shone on red velvet. She lifted a three-pronged fork and turned it over. It was recently polished. Maybe a squatter, silver for cash. On the crest of the fork were the letters: MG. She pressed her thumb there and sensed other fingers and dropped the fork in her pocket. To the left one wall merged with the cupboard, each a faded white, the cupboard nearly invisible.

          Sounds.  Heating pipes, creaking wood on the stairs, the house settling in on  old beams like a cat on ancient bones. 

          Who’s there?  Hello?

          She hammered the wall with one fist as if to scare the house into sitting still. Shutting up.  It belonged to her now.

          Who’s there?

          Silence.

          In the corner, beneath a ragged sofa, the springs popped, stuffing gathered in nests across the parlor floor, she recognized Uncle Tex’s leather shoes, now wrinkled and covered in dust. Scattered on the worn wood were balled up candy wrappers and empty, dented cans piled against one wall in pyramid. Through a large doorway she made her way into the kitchen, a massive willow tree filling the long paned window behind a large oak table stacked with old jars made of bluish glass, the metal lids strewn about the table as if someone had stopped in the middle of screwing them back on.

          Flo heard creaks again across or beneath the floor, she wasn’t sure, and picked up a broom then climbed the stairs to a hallway, a series of white doors that she kicked open one by one.

          A dark blue room held an iron bed, black with a white quilt, the imprint of a body still visible. Closet after closet revealed nothing but empty wooden hangers, a strange wooden doll with painted smeared features, a small pair of socks, a photograph of a man with red hair who resembled Uncle Tex. In the corner of one closet a blanket and a pillow lay crumpled in the corner.

          “Hello?” she called, but the house was silent again except for the wind and the knock of branches hitting the windows.

           Another door, a bathroom, a claw foot tub, the spigot shaped some sort of animal head, the faucets the paws, sat at in the center of a room surrounded by wavy windows, a view of the moon over blue mountains, perfume in the air, the kind her Aunt Margret wore, Tigress. 

          Further down the hallway she came to the master bedroom and heard the rush of water from the adjoining bath.  Perhaps a leak, but no, the stream was steady and steam wafted from the cracks.

          “Who’s there?”

          “Is anyone in there?”

          “Hello?”

          She raised the broomstick and kicked but the door was locked, so she aimed her boot heel at the keyhole and busted it open. Steam rushed in her face blurring her vision, then a dark head of hair emerged, the red tip of a cigarette, a long body floating in the clouds.

          “Who’s there?”

          As the steam cleared, she recognized Floydean’s green eyes burning with amusement through the fog.

          “Welcome home, Flo.”

          “What are you doing here?” Flo managed to say.

          “Taking a bath. What are you doing here?”

          “This is my house, Floydean.  You have no right …?”

          “Didn’t you ever hear of a welcoming committee, Flo?” She said, with a smirk. “I just wanted to get the house ship shape for you. Went over everything with a fresh coat of white paint.”

          Her chestnut hair was pushed behind her ears and her long legs hung over the sides of the tub, its claws planted solidly on the black and white tile.

          “You have no right.  How did you?”

          “Aren’t you happy to see me Flo?  You’re gonna need help.”

          Flo stared through the steam at Floydean, water dripped down her face as she squeezed a sea sponge over her head, the suds sliding down her cheeks.

          “I can lay a floor as well as clean a chimney, sew a slipcover and whip up dinner at the same time,” she laughed.

          “The last thing I need is you.”

          “Oh, I don’t know about that Flo.  Quit acting like an old sour bitty.  Don’t you remember all the good times we had?”

          “How did you get here?”

          “I borrowed a car.”

          “There’s no car in the driveway.”

          “I left it outside the Super Chief.”

          “Why’d you do that?”

          A pipe rattled next to the sink in the corner. A tapping sound.

          “I told you I borrowed it.”

          “You mean it’s stolen?”

          Floydean dipped her legs back into the water and immersed her head till her face was covered and Flo thought how easy to place the broom handle on her neck and hold her there. But Floydean sprang up, her hair pasted to her head, laughing, rising from the water, dripping torrents the length of her body. She stepped out of the tub and shook her drenched head and the bathwater smacked Flo in the face.

          “Could you please hand me the towel?” she said. “I can’t see.”

          Flo didn’t move.

          “Oh, be that way then, Flo.”

          Floydean grappled for a white towel on a black hook. She patted her skin then bent over and twisted the towel in a turban on her head. She stood naked and held out her arms then turned her back to Floydean and smacked herself on the ass.

          “Ain’t it a killer?” she said. “Still as firm as when I was sixteen. Oh, Flo, don’t look so grim.” 

          She picked up a silk kimono embroidered with elongated leaves, a lime color, tossed her cigarette in the tub where it sizzled, the smoke climbing to the crystal chandelier dangling from frayed wire.

          “Let me cook you dinner.  You must be ravished!” She said, tying the kimono at her waist, slicked back her hair with her fingers and sailed down the stairs. “Oh, Flo, this house is going to be spectacular!”

          Flo wiped her face with her sleeve and stomped down the hallway, her hands tight in her pockets. She searched for a bed with an unstained mattress and found one in the servant’s quarters, pried off her boots, threw down her backpack, shoved the bed against the door, pulled a bottle of Jameson from her bag, and collapsed, shutting everything down for the night. Oblivion. Sweet oblivion.

          In the morning, Floydean slipped through a connecting bath and stood over Flo with a scowl. 

          “Flo, wake up!”

          Flo pulled the pillow over her head.

          “I said wake up, Flo!”

          Floydean grabbed the pillow and Flo groaned and turned over.

          “What the hell do you want!”

          “Did you take my bobby pins?”

          “What?” 

          “I had a new pack of bobby pins on my dresser.”

          Flo rose from the bed.

          “Get the fuck out of here!”

          She grabbed Floydean by the shoulders and shoved her into the door.

          “Well, somebody took them.”

          “Maybe you put them up your fine ass!  Now get the fuck out of my house, Floydean.”

          Flo dressed. She’d head straight for town but then she smelled coffee. If she snuck down the stairs she could grab a cup and make a quick getaway. She waited a bit, then crept into the kitchen, poured a cup and headed for the stairs, balancing the steaming coffee with a steady hand, taking the steps three at a time, but not before Floydean caught her.

          Flo stared down at Floydean. She remembered what the guys at Laceworks always joked about—Flo severing arteries because they thought she looked like Angelica Houston in a movie called The Grifters and she thought to herself, yes, I could do that.

          “Oh, Flo! Sit down. It’s okay about the bobby pins. You need them more than I do. Look, I robbed a case of Opus One and I did some food shopping. I took a grocery cart from Super Chief and pushed it home. Put an entire chicken under my sweater. ”

          “You went back there?”

          “I sure did,” she said, one hand firmly on her hip. “After all this time the Toyota’s just where I left it next to that stinky garbage bin.” She reached into a chipped bowl, pulled out a knot of car keys and shook them in the air. “This town ain’t nothing but a bunch of sleepwalkers. Didn’t pass a car all the way home.”

          “Home? You said home and this is not your home, understand? You didn’t even know Uncle Tex. I’m selling this house.”

          “Flo, listen. That’s mostly true. We’ll talk tonight. I’ve got work to do.”

          She had a rag on her head and wore a pair of cut-off jeans. Her arms were still like sticks, her legs bruised and nicked but she was a good-looking woman, at thirty-five.

          “Hey,” she said, turning back from the screen door. “Remember smoking hashish, Flo? Wish I had some. Know where to get it but don’t have the money. You want some Flo?”

          Flo thought of the check in her bag. She’d have to find a bank.

          “How about that time we did acid and saw dead relatives in the wallpaper, remember?”

          “Yes, dead relatives,” Flo said, then turned and climbed the stairs, slammed the door and sank into bed with her coffee. The walls were papered but no dead relatives were visible that she knew of, only milkmaids in rows, sections peeling, a few maids feetless or headless and one torn in half. She opened her bag and started at the check. She’d find a bank in town.

          Flo slipped out while Floydean rummaged through the garden shed on her knees holding a trowel and a clay pot. If the bank was closed she’d wait until it opened. The sun was rising and the first outlines of corn nodded from the field. As she climbed the hill, the stalks of leaves waved ragged arms.

          The bank clerk gave her a suspicious eye.

          “I need to open an account,” Flo said.

          “Checking? Savings?”

          “Fifty-thousand in checking the rest in savings.”

          “The check has to clear. That will take around ten days,” the woman said, and lowered her eyes. 

          Flo nodded.

          The woman had platinum hair and thick black lashes and Flo felt the woman’s stare move up and down her back as she walked out the door and let it slam.

          The house was quiet. Feeling a bit better, the money safely in the bank, she started a fire and unwrapped the print from the newspaper and placed it on the mantle shelf. She’d do some painting and reset some tiles maybe pull some up.  Maybe she wouldn’t sell the house after all. It had a sort of black and white film charm to it as if any moment a wall would flicker to life and a man in a black jacket would appear and ask her if she wanted to dance.

           “A fire! Perfect!” Floydean said, appearing in a plaid shirt and jeans, leaves stuck in her tousled hair. “It’s a mess out there. I cleared out an area where we can plant in the spring.”

          “You won’t be here in the spring.”

          “Did I say we?”

          She shook a cigarette from the pack and flicked a match.

          “Randy’s after me,” she said.  She was staring into the flames as if reading tealeaves.

          “Randy who and why is he after you?”

          “I got myself in trouble gambling. Can’t go back to California. House gone. John took the kids. Everyone runs away.”

          Flo threw a log on the fire, turned and faced Floydean.

          “I’m sorry about the times we locked you out, Floydean. I’m sorry you were always hungry. We hardly had food for ourselves. But that’s in the past and this is my place and I’m starting a new life.”

          Floydean stared into the fire.

          “I know that,” she said.

          Flo stacked the wood to one side.

          “Now, I’m going to rake leaves for a few hours then cook us a nice southern dinner. A good hot stew.”

          Flo spent the rest of the afternoon with the torn milkmaids, the bed pushed against the door, wondering what to do.

          At dusk, she slipped out into the backyard and walked around the property.  The trees across the field made a leafy black wall against an orange tinged sky and a small shadow darted in circles across the lawn. Flo looked toward the house. A wooden balcony hung precariously off the attic. The willow shook in the cold wind and she took refuge beneath the branches and asked the tree what to do and it said to get rid of Floydean at all costs. If Floydean tripped from the balcony she might die.

          Then Floydean came calling.

          “Flo? Oh, there you are. What in the world are you doing? I made us a lovely dinner. It’s freezing out here. I aerated the wine and built a fire.”

          Flo moved forward and stood in front of Floydean.

          “Floydean, you can’t live here. I’m selling this place, understand? I’m not going to say it again.”

          But Floydean turned and fluttered up the back porch and into the kitchen, the screen door smacking behind her.

          In the kitchen light Flo noticed Floydean’s hair was teased and styled and she wore heavy make up and a red satin gown.

          “Are you going to a ball?”

          “I just like to dress up. Admit it Flo, ain’t I still beautiful?” She smiled at herself in the mirror, touching her hair approvingly, then spun around and her skirt rose above the floor planks, then she lifted the backside of the gown and smacked her bare ass.

          “Well?”

          “You look very much like your mother,” Flo managed to say.

          “Now! Let’s have our wine,”  Floydean said, and filled two glasses.

          “Let’s toast the plantation house, Flo!”

          Tired and drained, Flo pulled out a chair, slugged down the wine and thought of different styles of murder as Floydean rambled on about acid trips, good and bad highs.

          When they finished off the first bottle, Floydean opened another and lit a cigarette, still talking.

          “ … and then we got stoned, remember Flo?”

          Flo had lost the train of the conversation, devising different scenarios of Floydean’s demise her head.

          “Yeah, I remember. Then we got stoned and robbed the fake tapestry off the wall of the laundry mat,” Flo said. She was sure they did that at least once.

          She was thinking if she gave Floydean money she’d get rid of her but she’d only gamble and come back for more. She’d call the police about the car. They’d arrest her for sure.

          “I’ll be right back,” Flo said.

          “Where yawl going?”

          “To the bathroom, okay?”

          “Don’t be long,” she said.

          There was a wall phone in the upstairs hallway. Flo didn’t own a cell phone, couldn’t afford one before. She was relieved to hear a tone and dialed 411.

          “Henrico County Police,” she said.

          “One moment please,” the woman said. “Have a nice day.”

          “Thank you,” she said, but the phone clicked the operator away and the dial tone went cold.

          “Flo? You all right up there?” Floydean called, from the bottom of the stairs.  “Flo?”

          “I’m coming down now, Floydean.” She’d wait till Floydean passed out. That shouldn’t be long the way she was drinking.

          “Hey, we forgot to eat! Come down here. I made a Brunswick stew, your favorite. Everything He liked you liked right down to those butterscotch Tastycakes  wrapped in waxed paper. Everything He liked. Chipped beef, fried chicken and biscuits.”

          “How would you know what He liked? You weren’t born yet, Floydean. You were a baby when they split. How would you know if He liked chipped beef or not?”

          “He told me. Flo, it doesn’t matter about you being misbegotten.  Everybody’s a bastard these days.”

          Floydean ladled the Brunswick stew into Flo’s bowl. Her rhinestone earrings swaying as she bent over the black pot, Flo staring at her long neck.

          “There you go, Flo. I’m so hungry! Seems like I’m always hungry. I know I was hungry all those times I banged on your door because my mother was drunk and there wasn’t anything to eat.”

          “We barely had enough food as it was, Floydean. He never paid alimony.”

          “Well Flo, what does that tell you? My mother got alimony and your mother didn’t. This may come as a surprise, Flo, but I did know him. I was here when He died. He begged me. My mother wanted nothing to do with him, and neither did yours. But then He didn’t ask for her. He wanted only my mother.”

          “What? Floydean we made a pact never to speak to Him remember?” Her hands gripped the corners of the table as if to hold it down. As if it would rise like some unholy ghost. “He was to blame!” 

          “He asked for me,” Floydean said, running her hand through her hair, smoothing her skirt, tilting her chin toward Flo, displaying all her haughtiness.

          Flo was livid and her face grew tomato red.

          “No reason to get your Irish up, Flo. I asked him before He died how it happened with my mother and why He didn’t make good with your mother and his bastard kids.”

          Flo sat in a frozen position, her spoon poised over the Brunswick stew. Floydean kept shoveling the stew in her mouth as she spoke and it was dribbling down her chin.

          “He said it was because of my mother’s big boobs. Can you believe that?”

          “Enough!” Flo felt she would fly up from her chair and knock out the ceiling when her spoon crashed into the bowl. For a few moments they sat listening to it reverberate.

          “I’m just sayin’, Flo” she said, and then she started to laugh, a stoned-out nonsense kind of laugh that rolled on and on.

          “That’s enough,” Flo said, her hands clenched stiff.

          “Well, it’s not like I said it, He said it,” she said, once she got her hysteria under control. “If yawl gonna get in a huff about every little thing I won’t tell you the rest.”

          “What’s with the yawl?  You’re not from around here! “

          “I picked it up from, well, from Daddy. Turned into six-months before I left.”

          Flo poured the rest of the wine in her glass and downed it.

          Floydean rose from her chair, her silk gown swishing against the floor, the rhinestones glittering from her ears and she uncorked another bottle.

          “You know Flo, I’ve been thinking. You don’t have a legal right to this place the way I see it. McGowan is not your birth name. Like I told you, you’re either Flo Doe or Flo X. I’ve got a mind to take you to court.”

          “Shut the fuck up, Floydean!” Flo shot up from her chair and searched the cubbyholes for some real liquor.

          “By the way, Flo. I told the bank you’re an imposter.”

          “Are you insane?” But Flo already knew the answer.

          “Thought I didn’t know about the money? Wills are a matter of public record. I’m in a lot of financial trouble. I know the bank teller. She’s a friend. Met her at The Tin Roof. We were gambling buddies. I told her you robbed my check and my identification and showed her my own. That check won’t be deposited in that account, Flo.”

          “But I deposited it today!”

          “I know that Flo. I told her to call me and not to get the police involved.”

          Flo glared at Floydean, her eye makeup melting from the heat, leaving black tracks down her cheeks, her red lipstick weeping from the corners of her mouth.

          “You know, Flo we really need to fix the furnace,” she said and lit another cigarette. “I’m running out of these, Flo and I go crazy without them. I need to borrow a few dollars,” she said, twisting the empty pack. “Just a loan.” Pipes from somewhere in the house gurgled then made a few knocks, a teeny elf hammer sound. “Hey, I meant to tell you, last month it turned cold and the damned boiler wouldn’t fire up.”

          “Last month?” 

          “So? I’ve been here for a while. Been keeping squatters out. The girl you know, lost her father. Mother died from an overdose two weeks later. I used to hang out with her.”

          “Girl? What girl?”

          “Calm down now, Flo before yawl have a stroke.”

          “Get your things and get out,” Flo said.  “I mean it, Floydean.”

          “Well now where my gonna go with the kid, Flo?”

          “There’s no kid here.”

          “I was gonna tell you Flo. If you ever gave me a chance.”

          “Get out and take what ever you brought with you dead or alive!”

          “I’ve been wanting to tell you Flo. He told me it was your mama’s idea to keep popping bastards. He never asked her to marry him. You know what his last words were? He said tell that bad ass sister Flo, I had to pay out a lot of money when she got sent to reform school that time.”

          “You fucking insane liar!”

          “I wish I was lyin’ but I ain’t Flo.”

          Flo grabbed her skirt but Floydean slipped away, Flo at her heels, tipsy from the wine, tripped on a chair, and Floydean spun out the door and crept across the yard, her skirt glowing with moonlight till she disappeared in a shadow.

          Flo spotted the hem of Floydean’s gown shimmer beneath the willow branches, her back nailed firmly against the tree trunk as if for protection.

          “I was just sayin’…” Floydean said.

          Flo wrapped her hands around Floydean’s neck.

          “What are you doing? Stop Flo…”

          “I said shut up!”

          “You ain’t no McGow…an ...Flo.”

          “I said shut up, Floydean! Shut up!”

          She squeezed and wrung feeling the tendons tense in Floydean’s neck muscles, scaring herself with her own strength till she let up a bit.

          “You’re a bastard …”

          “I said shut up!” Flo said, and a hawk cried from somewhere above as if seconding the command.

          Something had always needed to be done, Flo thought. Something to end it all. 

          Flo pinned Floydean down, clutching her neck harder now, gaining leverage against the tree trunk, applying pressure on her jugular. Floydean’s arms thrashed, she tore at Flo’s hair, drew blood with her nails and gagged, her throat convulsing, gurgling.  Her body twitched, went stiff, then limp. Then she was quiet, her head like a broken doll’s when the neck snaps and it hangs on by a single strand of hair caught in an armpit.

          Flo struggled to pry her hands from Floydean’s neck. She let go and Floydean’s body slid down the bark, the red dress floating, one earring sparked in a blade of grass, as Floydean’s, head came to a rest on the twisted roots.

          Flo wanted to pick her up. Floydean could plant her garden in spring after all and grow potatoes and turnips. Maybe Flo could love her again. They could have a vegetable stand at the end of the driveway. Everything would be okay. They’d smoke hashish every night and see dead people in the wallpaper like before.

          “Floydean cut it out!  Get up!”

          But Floydean didn’t move and Flo knelt in the grass and felt for a pulse as a cloud shifted and the moon shone bright on the garden shed tangled in a clump of dead bushes, the windows wavy and filled with the moon. Flo had a vision of Floydean there in the eye of one window, swimming in the wave of the glass, her nose pressed flat, eyes wide, drowning.

          A piece of wood rot dropped from the roof into the grass when Flo opened the shed door. She found a shovel, a pair of gloves, a rag, a can of gasoline. She dragged the body onto the porch, dropped it into a straw chair with a thump, a crunch of straw, a swish of silk.

          Floydean’s head bowed, hair covering her eyes and Flo shoved her head backwards and it hit the straw, her chin upward toward the moon. Flo smoothed the silk skirt, crossed Floydean’s legs at the ankles, and her arms in her lap.

          There were headlights on the road up over the hill. Flo grabbed the gasoline can and the rag. The can was full. She poured half onto the chewed up floorboards then doused one pillar then another until she soaked all four and put the rag in her pocket where the prongs of the fork pierced her fingers. She pulled it out, stuffed the rag back in her pocket and placed the fork in Floydean’s hand. There was a box of matches in the kitchen, a large wooden box of them, next to the stove, alongside a stack of newspapers on the floor. Flo rose, her boots crunching dry leaves as she marched toward the kitchen door, opening it slowly, the door moaning on rusted hinges until it flapped shut with a groan and a bang. Everything seemed louder then before. 

           As she turned to the cast iron stove, something caught her eye, a quick shadow on the floor, the fox on the road, but then she noticed the flesh on a pair of small knob like knees, a girl, small and ragged, squatting on her haunches, her hair a close cropped mess, her fingers inside an open can, one by one sucking on her fingers, oblivious.

          “Who are you? And what the hell are you doing here?” Flo said.

          The girl jumped, her eyes flashing wide and the empty can fell from her small hand and spun across the floor crashing into an aluminum wash tub. She wore a dress with a torn collar and pockets, the hem caked with mud, her hair, greasy tufts held in place with dozens of bobby pins. Her eyes upturned, elf-like and wild.

          “My name is Pearl,” she said, faintly. “Pearl McGowan.”

          Flo grabbed the car keys from the bowl. If they ran they’d make it to Super Chief in twenty minutes.  

          She turned up the flame. The black pot still simmered Brunswick stew. She tossed the rag toward the burner and kicked over the can of gasoline.

          The girl was light as a doll when Flo lifted her. They’d drive the Toyota to the station; catch the next train out of there. In her mind’s eye Flo had a vision of Floydean running, sprinting, flying hungrily on her thin legs, the silk of her gown gathering around her in the firelight.

          It seemed only seconds till the blaze sheeted the roof and the front porch with a loud swoosh propelling them further down the road, singeing their skin and hair, the flames so high they seemed to lap the edges of the moon.  As they ran the air became cooler, the trees ahead fanning white tails of paper.

Julia Van Middlesworth has published short stories and poems in: The Plains Poetry Journal, Hibiscus, EOTC, The Literary Review, Broadside, Enigma, Alura Quarterly, Horizon Review, Southward and The Fish Anthology among others. In 2008 she won both The Fish Anthology Short Story Award and The Séan Ó Faoláin Short Story Award. In 2011 she won Honorable Mention in New Millennium Writings Short Story Contest. She is the recipient of The New Jersey Council on the Arts Fellowship for prose. Currently, she is finishing a novel and short story collection and working toward her MFA in creative writing under the mentorship of Rene Steinke. Julia will receive her degree early in 2013. Click here to read another story by Van Middlesworth in Salt's Horizon literary magazine.

Julia Van Middlesworth has also studied black and white photography as an undergraduate and beyond, and has a darkroom in her basement where she develops and prints her own work. Her photography has appeared in two college shows, one of which was juried by a professor from the Pratt Institute.