Her grim face like a melting candle, Paula lumbers to her feet, collecting the paper plates she’d shoveled her homemade cake onto and pushes her way past the screen door to the kitchen. She was hospitalized a month ago for what she called “heart shivers,” and told to part ways with her beloved Marlboros. When she came home, her niece Joann gave up the first-floor bedroom in her own house so Paula didn’t have to do the stairs. That was before she caught Paula sneaking cigarettes in the backyard, sucking them up right next to her oxygen tank. Joann said, “Do that again and I’m turning you out.”

Today, on Joann’s 61st birthday, after they had a calm hour sitting outside together, after they talked about how they’d have to rake up the leaves soon and bring the lawn chairs in, after Joann sat down to work, her aunt went into the sacrificial first-floor bedroom to nap. At dinnertime, Joann found her slumped half onto the floor, face blue, mouth open, tongue bulging. The EMTs needed room to work, so they dragged Paula out onto the hallway floor and pronounced her dead at 7:30, her fluids leaking through the sheet that covered her; her hands slipping out on either side. Even on her birthday, Joann couldn’t get anyone to pick up the body until two o’clock in the morning. She didn’t want to touch Paula’s hands, so they stayed like that, palms-up, asking the world for a better life.

13 Comments

  1. Andrea Marcusa

    Wow Anita, this is really realistically drawn. We see the situation, the tension. I really feel this tension. If you were going to revise, I would paint in a bit more about Joann. Right now she is mysterious. I want to know why they are together. I want to know if this has been foisted upon her and why her. I think the switch back to Paula in the end works, but I think we need another beat before we get there. We feel Joann’s burden but we don’t know that much about Paula. Perhaps if we knew a small amount of her hopes and fears, the wonderful last line would hit us more deeply than it already does. Thanks for this.

  2. Anita Brienza

    Hi, Andrea! Good points, all. This is a piece I have revised three times – I really tore it up for today’s submission so that it’s quite different from the original (which is good – pretty sure I made it better!), and I think I’ve been trying to keep it shorter than it needs to be, so I’ll take your suggestions to “heart” (sorry about that!! 😉 )

    Thanks!

  3. Sarah Freligh

    Anita, I’m thinking that this is totally Joann’s story–her birthday, her conflict, her splintering cross to bear — so maybe recast so that it arises from her vantage point: After Paula was discharged from the hospital where she’d been treated for what she called “heart shivers,” her niece Joann gave up the xxxxxx.

    Feels, too, like the story shakes out in two grafs, summary/backstory and scene (the day of Joann’s birthday) and let graf 2 maybe play out a little more.

    • Anita Brienza

      Ahh, okay. That makes so much sense. I’ll try that – could I keep that last line by making it Joann’s observation? (I really like it…)

      • Sarah Freligh

        Absolutely. Maybe add “. . . as if they were asking the world . . . ” The simile–the “is like” construction — conveys the way she’s seeing it.

  4. Koss Just Koss

    Powerful and heartbreaking. This resonates with me on so many levels, including my ggrams who smoked with a tank as emphysema took her out. The boldness of this is appropriate to the trauma. Nice writing.

    • Anita Brienza

      Not sure my comment is getting posted – but if the first one didn’t – thank you, Koss!

  5. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Anita, so sorry I didn’t get to your piece until this late on Sunday. But oh man, I’m so glad I did! First of all, Marlboros in both of our pieces: kismet! You’ve flushed out the core of what this relationship is all about. And I agree, perhaps it might work better in Joann’s POV, as Sarah suggests? I do love the entire second paragraph, so please do keep some of those compelling details, perhaps 3rd Omniscient POV might work to keep all of this, versus Joann’s 1st person POV. Anyhow, you can see how I am invested! Please work more on this one? So happy to “meet you” this weekend in Sarah’s workshop. Happy writing!

    • Anita Brienza

      No worries about timing, and thanks for reading and responding. I do want to keep going on this; it feels like it wants to be written. And nice to meet you, too, Robert!

  6. Jayne Martin

    Anita, this relationship is so intriguing. I want to know more about its history, how they ended up together. I wouldn’t concern yourself about keeping it short at this point. There is so much to these characters still to be mined. By starting the piece at the end of the story, you have an opportunity to tell it backwards and then bring it forward again, if that makes any sense. This is definitely a book I would read. A couple of little nit-picky things:

    In the opening line, suggest cutting the word grim. The melting candle is such an intriguing image. Let the reader come to their own conclusion on that. Also, at the end (and this is where my day job as a paralegal raises its head), EMTs don’t have the authority to pronounce death. Only the cornoner can do that when death takes place outside a hospital. But that last line and image is pure gold. An easy fix would be to have the EMTs raise her up on a gurney and as they wheel her out have her hands slip out for that killer last line.

    I’m excited to see where you take this. It’s been lovely being in the group with you.

    • Anita Brienza

      I think I put this in the wrong place, which means it won’t flag you, so I’m trying again!

      Hi, Jayne! Hope it’s not too late for you to see this. Thanks for your terrific feedback – I never thought of writing a whole book about these two, though it’s an interesting thought. (I’m in the middle of writing my first novel at the moment – maybe this can be next! Or at least it lends itself to a solid short story.)

      On the EMT issue – something similar to this part of the story happened to someone I know, and most likely she shortcut the story and left out a coroner visit, but the way I heard it, the EMTs pronounced her dead. I should have checked that for veracity. I do appreciate your expertise there.

      I, too, enjoyed being in this group and reading your work. If you’re on Twitter and want to connect, I’m @anitabrie (I don’t tweet much, but I find the #writingcommunity there very helpful and kind!.)

  7. Anita Brienza

    Hi, Jayne! Hope it’s not too late for you to see this. Thanks for your terrific feedback – I never thought of writing a whole book about these two, though it’s an interesting thought. (I’m in the middle of writing my first novel at the moment – maybe this can be next! Or at least it lends itself to a solid short story.)

    On the EMT issue – something similar to this part of the story happened to someone I know, and most likely she shortcut the story and left out a coroner visit, but the way I heard it, the EMTs pronounced her dead. I should have checked that for veracity. I do appreciate your expertise there.

    I, too, enjoyed being in this group and reading your work. If you’re on Twitter and want to connect, I’m @anitabrie (I don’t tweet much, but I find the #writingcommunity there very helpful and kind!.)

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