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Mrs. Morrison

by Channie Greenberg

Family Spycraft
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Mrs. Morrison’s hours were filled with making YouTube videos, with crocheting, with gardening, and with cooking. Recently, they had become filled, as well, with urging Dr. Janice Sarsfield to participate in the international writing community.

Hattie Morrison considered it her mission to warn Sarsfield against relying on an academic comfort zone. She insisted that the younger woman immediately improve her command of select literary devices and urged her unwilling protégée to enroll in online writing workshops.

It happened that, one day, when the Sarsfields’ two older grandchildren were at the park with their step-grandfather, Hubert, when their middle grandson was napping on a sofa near where Janice was working at her PC, and when their youngest, an infant, who was lying on a sheepskin, was contently staring at the ceiling, a determined knock sounded at the front door. It was a graying matron holding a plate of Yemeni honeycomb bread.

That grande dame, who was neither tall nor dark, but ethnically handsome, invited herself in. After choosing a chair at Janice’s table, that crone, sloppily sucking some melted cheese and sugar syrup goodness from her yeasty offering, explained her presence. She was a widow by choice and a hobby cook. Subsequent to her husband’s passing, she had begun an around-the-world culinary journey. She thought it would be nice to share some of her creations with her neighbors.

Minutes later, that elder was tipping a knob of khaliat al-nahl into the tea that Janice had brewed and was telling Janice about her crocheting videos. Her life, apparently, which had morphed into one of words about words, was boring. Yet, venturing out of town was no option, since the witness protection program, which sheltered her, spelled out strict limits.

Janice smiled as she wiped up infant spittle and then lifted her grandbaby to burp him. The lady seated opposite her, who had brought the tray of Yemeni food, was the only “big time” crocheter, other than Wild Bill Needles, whom Marvin, her son-in-law, adored. Hattie was famous the world over for her YouTube series. Maybe, she could visit again so that Marvin could meet her. For the present fortnight, he and Glenda were away, kidfree, participating in a librarians’ convention.

Dr. Sarsfield and Mrs. Morrison talked and ate. They finished half of Hattie Morrison’s gift before the girls plus Hubert came home from the park. When they returned, Mrs. Morrison welcomed each of them by name.

Thereafter, she distracted the oldest three with portions of her sticky bread, told them adventure tales and made sing-song rhymes for them. Quickly, the children became sated. Willingly, they and Hubert drifted to the plate of cut fruit and the videotape of brightly colored dinosaurs that Janice had prepared.

While they sat entranced, the sounds issuing from Hattie’s mouth took on the quality of terrycloth dryness commonly associated with worn robes and kumquat juice. The guest’s indigo eyes shone with a qualité spéciale. Hattie Morrison explained to Janice that “venues soliciting manuscripts are not always reliable and that paying folks fees to read creative work is a sorry way of doing business.” She then more softly added, “You ought to give up all hope of promoting books through vanity presses.”

Her wisdom bestowed, Hattie took back her bread tray, leaving the remainder of her gift directly on the Sarsfields’ table. She was careful not to bang the door when she let herself out. The door harp, accordingly, chimed mellifluously.

Janice sighed. The woman would make a suitable adversary for Hubert, her former intelligence officer of a husband. She, herself, was too busy frightening university students and proffering colleagues bits of her research to enjoy such a playmate properly. She would try, though, to make nice-nice to that oddball woman during the rest of her summer break.

It was a good thing that Janice had plugged in her compassion; the following day, Hattie came by just after baby had had his bath. She asked to hold him for a few minutes and made quiet, mewing sounds as she put her face next to his. Swaying gently, she rocked him to sleep.

For that visit, Hattie brought over a covered tureen of creamy, fish soup, supplemented with rye bread. Her map of the world ran neither according to longitudinal nor latitudinal lines, but according to gastronomies that fascinated her. During later visits, the epicureanism of Latvia and then of Bahrain would follow her concoction of potatoes, onions and salmon.

Hattie again greeted each of Janice’s grandchildren by name. They smiled at her and then started stacking sofa cushions into a fort.

Janice offered them a televised nature show about lions ravaging wildebeests and gave them fruit salad to eat. Hubert did not need to be distracted as he was yacking to someone in Washington about suspected outworlders.

While the children watched the flickering screen and sucked on citrus, Hattie demystified, unprompted, the consequences of employing unsupportable plot twists, that is, the consequences of making a narrative’s marionette strings detectable. “Hocus pocus in plot development,” she pealed, “is only good for magicians.” She postulated, as well, “Writers ought not to give away their works to venues self-rubricked as ‘for the love of’ any more than cardiologists ought to donate surgery.”

Janice frowned. Her Great Aunt Abby would have been dead if not for a heart doctor in Taiwan, who had charged her nothing for necessary emergency intervention. Janice was ignorant that Taiwanese managed health care is among the best and the least expensive in the world and that the hospital for which the kindly doctor worked had reimbursed him for all of his costs.

Ignoring her hostess’ ill-ease, Mrs. Morrison rambled on. “Writers ought to toughen themselves to becoming adaptable to all but the most insufferable things. Pens can slay where swords fail.” “Authors are not,” she continued, “if they choose not to be, at the mercy of the linguistic-semiotic conditions set by any culture’s establishment. Truth, even more than creativity, can and ought to be part of all works. What’s more, while novels are like roasts — good if limited to once a week — short fictions are like peanut butter sandwiches; usefully filling, inexpensive, and nutritious to all but individuals with allergies.”

Janice nodded as she took their dirty dishes to her kitchen sink. She had written little more over the course of her life than a sketch for a flash fiction and a handful of poems, her scholarly articles notwithstanding. She wasn’t really interested in creative writing. Yet, since Hattie didn’t seem any more dangerous than Hubert or his army buddies, she hoped that Glenda would get to meet her.

Unfortunately, Glenda and Marvin took their children directly home after their two-week vacation. Although neither met Hattie Morrison, she continued to visit the Sarsfields almost daily.

Around the time that school started, she disappeared. If not for the fact that she cooked kapama as well as did Janice’s Athenian college roommate — both used just the right amount of cinnamon — or that she could unclog a disposal unit better than could Captain Hubert, Janice might not have missed her.

Dr. Sarsfield thought she had been providing kindness to a senior who was “merely” a good cook and avid gardener. After all, Mrs. Morrison’s large, white-colored house, visible from Captain and Dr. Sarsfield’s bay window, boasted impeccable flowers, including dahlias and irises that grew in obedient beds and a lavender border that never bristled. Hattie’s annuals, especially her petunias, died proper deaths, and her marigolds went to seed in due season. Even her sunflowers respectfully attracted no more than one jay at a time.

What Janice Sarsfield realized, though, was that Mrs. Morrison had become a friend. So, when Hattie Morrison stopped showing up with plates and posies, Janice got worried. No amount of phone calls, emails, or, later, pounding on her front door, elicited any response.

Hubert eventually told his wife to leave well enough alone. He, for one, had more important matters to which to attend, like continuing to probe why his son-in-law didn’t leave fingerprints. He suggested that their neighbor had intentionally disappeared from their lives in the same way that she had suddenly and intentionally appeared.

Janice pouted. She stared out their window and looked at the flowerbeds across the street daily until she had to return to teaching. She couldn’t believe that Hattie had rejected her.

Copyright © 2016 by Channie Greenberg

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