Peevish Pendulum

by Mary Brunini McArdle


“The afternoon seems to be dragging today,” Gran remarked, as she helped Margo peel a mountain of fresh figs. Margo’s daughter Ann sat nearby with her sister Kelly, both relieved that Gran had volunteered for the sticky and unpleasant chore. It was hard to peel figs; they slid away from your knife as often as a piece of their skin was removed.

“It’s still so hot,” Margo said. “That’s probably why time’s dragging.”

“I wish they wouldn’t start school this early,” Kelly complained. “It’s too hot to even have cheerleader practice.”

“Maybe you could get a head start on studying,” Ann suggested.

“Study before I have to? No way. I’m not in Junior College like you. I’m still in high school.”

Ann laughed. “Let’s get you ready for Amy Ruth’s party. Okay, Mama? See you later, Gran.”

The sisters shared an unusual and attractive room at the back of the house on the lower story. The room was large, with oak floors and off-white sheer curtains looped back on the windows. The far wall had a screen door opening to the back yard. At first Margo had balked at the idea of allowing two young girls a room with a separate entrance, but the yard was fenced in and Ann was very responsible. She would discourage Kelly from sneaking out and would make her confess if she did. “I swear I will, Mama, don’t worry.”

Houses weren’t fully air-conditioned in small east Texas towns. Ann’s parents had put in a unit for the upper floor, but the downstairs didn’t need it. Enormous shade trees kept the structure sufficiently cool with fans.

The uneasy whir of Ann’s fan lifted the curtains at the edges, making them seem like ghosts. She had propped open the back door. Dim light filtered through the oaks and sweet gums, making the yard misty and yellowish.

Kelly pranced over to one of the twin beds and sat down expectantly while Ann brought out a curling iron and brush. “Shouldn’t I change first?”

“I guess.”

Kelly fingered an off-shoulder pink blouse and khaki shorts. “Bill Noble’s gonna be there,” she said.

“You’re not leaving here with those shorts on if I have anything to say about it.”

“Oh, Annie...“

“They’re too tight and they hit below your waist. You’ll look like a slut.”

Kelly shrugged. Ann proceeded to work on the younger girl’s long blonde hair. The light outside dimmed further, the trees whispered.

“Taking a long time, Ann.”

“Your hair is not easy to work with.”

“It’s never taken this long before.”

Ann glanced at the clock, which had scarcely moved. “I thought it was nearly six, but it’s only five-thirty.”

“Gran and Mama are still peeling figs and it’s almost suppertime.”

“Why should you care if you’re going out? Amy Ruth throws a super barbecue.” Ann frowned. I could have sworn that clock said five-thirty fifteen minutes ago, she thought. She shivered as a draft lifted the hair from the back of her neck.

* * *

A bored and dejected god sat cross-legged on the tail of a comet, brooding. He was balanced by something other than gravity; flames and glittering dust spewed around him. Having offended somebody or other at a gathering, he had become shunned. It was probably temporary, but he had a lot of time on his hands. He had grown desperate for amusement.

His face lighted up at the thought of the mischief he had already instigated. He just needed to think of some variations.

* * *

Gran backed her 1987 Buick out of Margo’s driveway, puzzled. It was still full daylight. It should be almost eight, she thought. The clock in the old Buick didn’t work, nor did the radio.

* * *

Bill Noble didn’t even look at Kelly the whole evening. She ate so many ribs she thought she would pop. This is the worst party I’ve been to all summer, she reflected. There were plenty of other guys, but it frustrated Kelly not to attract the attention of the one she really liked. Ever since June she had been head over heels.

Amy Ruth lived on the same block as Kelly and Ann. I need somebody to walk me home, Kelly thought. I hoped it would be Bill. Maybe if I ask him flat out...

She made her excuses to Amy Ruth and sauntered over to Bill, trying to look casual. “I promised Mama I’d be home early to help her with something. Walk me home?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to leave yet...”

“Please, Bill. You can come right back.” Her voice took on a slight whine in spite of her good intentions.

“Oh, all right. Come on.”

“The moon looks kind of weird,” Kelly said as they started down the sidewalk.

“How so?”

“It should be higher and smaller. It’s late. That moon looks more like it’s rising or setting.”

Bill gave her a puzzled look. “You’re kind of weird yourself, Kelly.”

* * *

The god shifted his position. Annoyed that nothing startling in the way of creativity had come to him (for he was spoiled and used to not putting much effort into anything) he opted to settle. A minor manipulation...

* * *

Ann looked up from her books as Kelly entered the room. “You’re home early.”

“The party was a dud.”

“The party? Or someone at the party?”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Need a morale boost? How about I do your nails?”

“All right.”

* * *

Margo was an excellent cook. She had been making the family recipe for fig ice cream for years. An expletive of dismay erupted from her lips when she discovered the ice cream was hardening much too quickly. “Damn!”

Cups of sugar and figs mashed to a pulp covered the kitchen counters. Margo glanced at the clock, puzzled. How could it be so late? she wondered. I started right on the button. This has never happened before.

* * *

Kelly extended her hands. “I’ve still got polish on.”

“Go in the bathroom and get if off. What color do you want?” The sound of water came from the bathroom as Kelly finished with the polish remover and rinsed her fingers. “’Plum Secret,’” she called.

“Okay.”

Ann squinted with concentration as she worked on Kelly’s right hand. Then Ann began applying the first coat to Kelly’s other hand.

“Now for the second coat,” Ann said, shaking the bottle of nail polish. “Kelly... that’s odd...”

“What?”

“I was so careful. I know I covered your nails, a perfect job. But look at your little finger; it’s the first one I did.”

“There’s a rim of uncovered nail at the top.”

“Uh, huh. Almost like it grew while I did your other hand.”

Kelly laughed. “That’s silly. You must have missed a place.”

Ann shook her head, perplexed, and reached out to do the recalcitrant nail over.

* * *

The mischievous god giggled and clapped his hands as Margo threw out the ice cream mixture she had been working on all evening and started wiping down the counters.

* * *

Kelly yawned. Ann looked up from her magazine. “Tired?”

“Really sleepy.”

“It’s not that late.”

“Don’t care. Sleepy.”

“Well, go ahead and turn out your lamp. I can read with just the one.”

Kelly reached for her lamp switch. Ann’s mouth dropped open in surprise. There was plenty of light from the lamp; her eyes were not deceiving her. Kelly’s nails all had a white rim at the top.

“Cheap brand,” Ann muttered. “Stupid polish melts off after it dries. I could have done a French manicure if Kelly had asked for one.”

* * *

The morning broke, already hot and humid by six. Gran worked in her garden until around noon, then ate a lunch of scrambled eggs and bacon.

She took a bath, lingering until perspiration broke out on her upper lip, then dried off and doused herself with violet toilet water. Her summer dress sprinkled with blue forget-me-nots was freshly starched and ironed. She put on some lipstick and combed her short, white hair.

She started her car, then sighed and turned it off again. Hurriedly she went back in the house; when she came back out she had retrieved a red-checked apron. There was no way she was going to peel figs without one, and she knew there weren’t any aprons in Grace’s kitchen. “Grace changes clothes too darn much,” Gran muttered. “So do those girls. Wears out the washing machine. It’s a waste.”

* * *

Bill Noble’s mom had to drag him out of bed after ten to get him to his summer school class. “No party tonight unless you go,” she warned.

Grumbling, he obeyed. He didn’t want to miss the barbecue even though he could foresee a problem. He had fallen hard for Amy Ruth with her petite figure and golden-brown eyes. How do I deal with Kelly? he wondered. We only had a couple of dates and she’s been crowding me ever since.

He pulled on his loafers. Ignore her, he decided. That’s the best way. Just ignore her all evening.

* * *

Grace unloaded her groceries an hour before Gran arrived and began getting out mixing bowls and measuring cups. She was ready for an afternoon of messy work — jeans, rolled-up sleeves, and canvas shoes.

* * *

“You’re not leaving this room with those shorts on if I have anything to say about it.” Ann had a stern expression on her face.

“Oh, Annie...”

“They’re too tight and they hit below your waist. You’ll look like a slut.”

Kelly shrugged. She would never admit it, but she sort of liked it when her older sister laid out the rules.

Wish Bill cared for me that much, Kelly thought.

* * *

Clouds rolled high above the earth, emitting huge forks of lightning. Thunder roared. The comet’s tail whipped, unsettling the god, forcing him to straddle it with his knees. Sparks flew around him, blowing backwards from the comet into a black sky. “Uh, uh,” he said. “Maybe I went too far.”

He sucked his finger where an errant spark had landed and screwed up his forehead, a petulant look on his elfin features. “Shunned again,” he said helplessly.


Copyright © 2005 by Mary Brunini McArdle

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