Root Cellar Wife by Kimberly Bliss

If Mr. Morris believed in God, he kept it to himself the day they dug her out from his old root cellar.  The bones came out from the thick soil in pieces, a femur separated from a patella, lifted up and through a shaft of light from a headlamp, handed upwards from person to person until coming to rest in the gloved hands of a man who then slipped it in a plastic bag marked evidence.  Mr. Morris shivered and drew his hands close to his chest.  It was almost four in the morning, and the light would soon filter through the wall of forest that lined the northeast part of his property.  The mountainside was high enough for daylight to split open the sky in the later hours.  Mr. Morris quietly prayed that they would finish bringing his wife up before it was too hot to catch his breath in the wetness of the sun.  His frail body steadied against the wind and inched closer to what was now an open grave. 

The phone call came an hour earlier.  He woke to the sound of a woman making noises between the legs of another woman.  They didn’t make porn like they used to, the kind he liked when he was a boy and Truman was President.  One could remain innocent back then.  A man could lose his virginity just watching today’s pornography.  But he watched it nonetheless, every evening, when he sat in his chair debating the minute he should push himself up and make his way to the bathroom to brush his teeth.  This everyday decision of when, exactly, should he end his day was always made easier with the porn channel on cable.  It was predictably irrelevant, and let him just relax without thinking about why he was tense in the first place.  Shawn, the young man from town who installed his satellite dish and raved about this particular channel and the wonders it had done for his sex life, was the one who introduced him to Mrs. Morris.  She was off kilter not only in her gait but also in her head; the woman liked to drink all the time and if you tried to follow her train of thought you’d lose your mind, but she had the most voluptuous body he ever laid hands on and honestly for a man like Mr. Morris that was more than enough to make up for the slightest mental instability.  He was sane enough for the both of them, he reasoned, and she seemed to like to rest in the crook of his elbow after they had sex, and he liked that most of all.  If a woman didn’t leave you after doing everything you asked of her in bed, then that was a woman to marry.  He was nearing his fifties by the time they met, and she was only twenty-eight.  But when he asked her to marry him she jumped into his arms with unabridged joy and cheap bourbon on her lips, pressing into his heart with what could nearly be called love.

They married in this very field, near this very root cellar.  The original farmhouse was built by his great-grandfather after the Civil War, but burned down in ’62 in a firestorm that swept from nearby timberland and through brush and old forest and freshly pruned rows of highbush blueberries.  Mr. Morris built the new one closer to the road, down slope some few hundred feet.  He spent two summers clearing enough land to lay the new farmhouse’s foundation, picking through overgrowth and rocks in the hard earth, offering a wave of the hand to cars that passed by looking curiously at the aging farmer framing a house on his own.

Every weekend Mr. Morris would drive down to Portland to go to the bars and drink and look.  He would look at women with long legs and large breasts, women with short necks and wide mouths, women who knew what a wry grin was and knew it could stop a man in his tracks, women who wore clothes skin tight and tilted their heads when you talked to them and told them how lovely they looked, women who could undress and stop talking and just get down to it.  He liked women like that, and Mrs. Morris was like that, and while she was three sheets to the wind more often than not she was practical and caring.  She was unable to bear children, and that suited Mr. Morris just fine.  He was selfish and not one to change his ways, and children had a way of making one yield, so he was relieved when Mrs. Morris told him with a worried brow and downcast eyes.  In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Morris clicked together like well-timed gears, the sharpness of who they were not only acceptable to the other, but a perfect fit.

The man on the other end of the phone was a police officer who apologized for the interruption so late at night, and in the fog of his waking brain Mr. Morris began to understand that there had been some teenage love birds in the root cellar, and somehow during the course of events they had happened across a skull.  Mr. Morris could hear the melodramatic sobbing of a young woman in the background as the officer recounted the reason for his call.  And could he be so kind as to let the police onto his land and into his old root cellar?

There was no use saying no.  No never got anyone anywhere with the police.  Especially in a town this small, where they wore their starched uniforms and shiny black boots from mud season through the throes of winter.  It was Police Chief Banks himself, a man with silly putty cheeks and a thin gray comb-over that danced in the wind, who showed up at Mr. Morris’ door, with a young policeman Mr. Morris couldn’t quite place.

Banks rambled on about the lobster glut while they marched through the field’s tall grass, Mr. Morris showing them the way with the dew staining the shins of his trousers.   He led them into the root cellar and caught his breath in the stale air.

He knew, of course, what lay in the root cellar before Banks knew.  A searching flashlight beam found a finger in the dirt with a shiny brass ring and its small diamond.

Mrs. Morris met his mother right before she too passed on.  It was a damp spring day and the black flies were buzzing and biting, so they took lunch on the screened in porch out back. 

“Where, dear, are you from?” his mother asked politely.  In more formal company her British accent surfaced in and out of words. 

Alicia, soon-to-be Mrs. Morris, replied “New Orleans,” swallowing the r.

“Louisiana, really.  Hmm.” She sipped the sun tea with a straightened back, her gray hair wound back into a bun.  He was sure his mother had never given Louisiana much thought before.

“Yes, I moved to Portland for work.”

His mother nodded.  She liked that she used to work.  After they married she would no longer work in the city, but it was good she knew the meaning of the word.

She wanted to ask more questions, of course, but wouldn’t.  The fact that his mother said this much thus far was sign enough that she liked her.  She even showed off her needlepoint pillow collection, long after lunch was over and the sun moved to the front of the house and the crickets raised their song.

Alicia had arrived in a red and blue sundress, with black flats and a homemade blueberry pie still warm to the touch.  He knew then that he had made the right decision to marry her, and he knew that his mother agreed, her arms outstretched for a stiff embrace and the taking of the pie.  He still thought he had made the right decision, after all that had happened, because what could he do otherwise given the circumstances? Of course she had her quirks.  It would have been nice if she had told him before they married, but it was understandable why she didn’t.  One night, the first night they had sex, he thinks she might have told him then if given a chance.  Women like to talk a lot after the first night, he noticed.  It was usually after they came, which was always long after he came, and they would collapse on his chest and start talking, slowly at first as though finding their way through the dark.  Sometimes he would learn about their fathers, or their brother’s wife, or they would talk about their friend’s boyfriend who had something wrong with them and just what could it be?  They liked to think through things, the things in life he found too mundane for thought, but he liked the sound of their voices, throaty and soft, murmuring in his ear as he drifted to sleep. 

“I’m from a family of six,” she said as she rolled over, took a long sip from a bottle of Maker’s, and lit a cigarette.

“Mmm hmm.”

“All brothers.”

“Really?”  It made sense, she was ballsy the way a woman who grew up with boys is, unafraid with not a deferential bone in her body.  He liked that, that she could order off a menu in the same amount of time as he, and that even if she did expect him to hold the door open for her, which she most certainly did, she did not expect him to initiate sex or conversation.

“Yeah,” she blew smoke through a small opening in the side of her mouth.  “Five older brothers.  I think when I was born was the greatest day of my mom’s life.”

He nodded in her hair, a wild head of curls that was blue black.

“Until I grew up, of course.”

“And your dad?”  He didn’t really care, but it seemed to be logical turn in conversation.

“Wasn’t around much.  Growing up in New Orleans is….” her voice trailed off into the darkness and he lay still, waiting for more.  None came.

“I didn’t know you grew up there,” he said finally.  Not that he would know anything beyond the fact that she worked for Southern Maine Railroad.  “What brought you to Maine?”

He felt her lips smile against his chest.  “The weather and the men.”

He half laughed and moved his hands to the top of her ass, giving it a squeeze.  She was alright. 

“Most people move far away to run away.”

She was quiet for a minute, so quiet that he began to think of things to break the silence, words or a quick action, like a run to the bathroom or a moment to get up and close the window an inch.  It is here that Mr. Morris thinks she should have told him and might have, her eyes bloodshot and longing.  But the moment passed, and they moved under the sheets and she straddled him with a force he thought of as desire. 

Shawn would come by periodically with his sister, Annabel, who had thin blond hair that she fingered in self-conscious twists.  She was Alicia’s age, and the two would often disappear for long walks on the land, up the south side of the mountain that was on the property.  After several hours they would come home with flushed faces and scratched ankles and Alicia would always have a large clutch of wild flowers.  Those evenings they would make love with a violent fervor, and Mr. Morris would find himself asking Shawn and Annabel over more often.  Shawn and he would drink beer in the garage and sit on rusty hoods and talk about how the world was working itself out these days; the price of a recently sold hemi-powered 1970 Plymouth Road Runner in Piper Shores, the pitch of the asphalt on the newly constructed Hounds Road, the best way to get a blow job on a first date, whether or not Mr. Morris needed to get a dog and whether or not Shawn needed to trade in his F-150.  The banter was easygoing and he enjoyed Shawn’s company despite the age difference.  He was no tree-hugger and would shoot a deer or a Democrat with equal respect, but he could appreciate any passing of the time with another man that didn’t regress into a verbal sparring session.  Shawn was more liberal than Mr. Morris would care to discover in any conversation, so they steered clear of politics.  He was also quiet about his sister, though they frequently commented on how much the two women got along and enjoyed each other’s company.

Alicia got Annabel her old job at the track station, and about two years ago, right before her disappearance, Alicia started to visit her for lunch every day.  Mr. Morris didn’t mind, he was lost in the land for most of the day, and he never had any delusions about Alicia heeding the stay-at-home expectation of marriage.  She liked to toy with their age difference, at times telling him unremarkable sentences such as, “There’s an app for that”.  Eventually, he even relented and bought her a computer.  It confounded him, how the information stream was so prolific and directionless, but she liked to email her family and at times he even sat next to her as they stared at the screen, talking to a brother’s wife on a live video feed.  He would find himself trying to look relaxed and at ease, yet noticed how jerky his movements were, how his wrinkled hands could be seen plainly, how his brow was grayer than his wiry hair and formed an imperfect V, and his eyes stared back at him with a dimming look of surprise.

It was almost an hour and a half round-trip drive to Portland, and Alicia was always home with plenty of time to spare to prepare dinner and bake something for him to eat in the morning.  He liked the regularity of their life, and was surprised when she came home late one evening and gently pushed him away when he came close to her at night.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing.  I’m just tired.”  She pushed the hair off her face and rolled onto her side.

He thought of other things to say, but he was never one for coming up with other things to say in place of nothing, so he just turned off the light. 

In the morning she left without saying goodbye, leaving him to his wire and the rotting footage of fence, and he watched the tail lights wind down the hill and away from him.  She did not come home that night, nor the night after.  He waited up for her, stirring coffee made from that morning’s grinds, his boots walking the long boards of the porch in expectation.  The day was filled with the same events that his days were always filled with, and by the third day of her absence he called Shawn.

“My wife is not here,” he said when Shawn answered the phone.

There was a pause.  “Hi, Mr. Morris.”

Mr. Morris noted that Shawn did not ask where she was, or what happened.  He noted that the sweat under his collar was spreading down his back, and that there were four dead black flies at the bottom of the sill, and dust had collected itself on the top of the phone jack, and that men like him who had no need of noticing more than what they thought they needed to, sometimes thought wrong.  “Shawn,” Mr. Morris said with a sharp intake of breath.  “I need to talk to my wife.”  He knew that Shawn lived with Annabel, and he knew that Shawn was kind, but kind people can do cruel things, like keep things to themselves.  “Please,” he added.

He heard the phone handed though the muted press of a closed palm.

“Hi.”  It was his wife.

“Please,” he said.  “Please come home.  It is ok.  Whatever it is, it is ok.”

“I need time.  Time to think.”

“Can we talk?  I need to talk, I cannot take being alone and there is nothing sensible to think about when I am alone.  Can you come home and help me just make sense of it?  Can I have just that, please, just that I ask of you.”

She was quiet, he thought she was crying and secretly hoped it was so.  “Ok,” she said finally.  “I’ll be there tonight.”  And then she hung up.  So he hung up the phone, and took his forefinger and wiped the dust off the phone jack, scooped the four black flies into his palm, and walked back to the porch where he slapped his hands together in the moonlight, and stepped off into the night.  He didn’t know what to do so he walked through the darkness aimlessly, breathing in air like a task he’d been meaning to get done.  When he came to the entrance of the root cellar he peered into the dark and tried to shut his mind while he waited for her to return.

Later that night, when his mind was raging and there was no amount of willpower in him to shut it off and stop her screaming, he thought how simple it was to squeeze a neck, that to be human there is so much to be thankful for with each and every life we take, and that the land will always take back what it helped raise, to keep for us until we need it to live.

# # #

Kimberly Bliss is a Philippine-born, Buffalo-bred, and Brooklyn-boroughed writer. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, and was a writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook (WA) and Denniston Hill (NY). She is currently a writing workshop leader with the New York Writers Coalition at Serendipity II, a residency for women who are dealing with substance abuse and involved in the criminal justice system. She sees great writing every week, and it makes her day each and every time.

Photo credit: Terri Malone


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