S. J. Murray
Issue 15 • Spring 2015
Gertie was soft mannered normally, but whenever she did become angry, there was no mistaking it. She knew recent events were pressing on her, weighing her down to the point of drowning. It had all become too much. She had been stretched and stretched until her elasticity had been expended. She would never forget the sheer, unadulterated joy she experienced when her anger broke out and neither would Mrs. Wallace.
It all began when Gertie stepped into the luncheon at eleven fifty-three. She had told herself it was time; that she needed to get on with her life and be strong. However, nothing had prepared her for what it would feel like to face her accusers in their Sunday best over a plate of cucumber sandwiches. Surely by now, the event had become old news, she told herself. Surely they had moved on to fresh meat. But the whispers and mumbles that met her as she crossed the threshold cleared up any ambiguity.
“It’s not right.”
“It ain’t done.”
“A sign of modernity if you ask me.”
Here were the faces of the past, gathered to heckle her. Forgiveness was not in their lexicon. Only the elderly and eccentric Mrs. Wallace pulled out a chair and motioned for her to come over. The other women at the table feigned the need for air, muttering under their breath how “it just wouldn’t do.”
“What’s that?” Mrs. Wallace retorted, cradling her ear and shooting Gertie a wink. “My hearing ain’t so good these ’ere days.” That shut them up.
It was uncanny. Not so long ago, Gertie had been a favorite. So much, indeed, that she couldn’t keep up with her social calendar. But the day after she walked out on her husband, she was banished. She told herself it was complicated. Dinner parties might as well be hosted by Noah, guests seated two by two. What to do with the awkward seat? A game of musical chairs was out of the question. But deep down, Gertie knew that wasn’t the truth of the matter.
Some old friends went so far as to offer choice morsels of unsolicited advice. “Enjoy yourself, take a lover…” urged Nina as her husband fetched a micro-brew. “Fill your dance-card. The twenty-four year-old Buddhist apprentice was best part of my divorce.” Henry, on the other hand, was decidedly British and decidedly of the opinion that first marriages resembled medical residencies. “Everybody does one. It’s common knowledge, my dear. It takes practice to get it right. Patricia is my third.” In the midst of such verbiage, Gertie couldn’t help but wonder if she was one of those rare souls on the brink of the abyss who maintained an endearing yet primitive belief in marriage and fidelity. Of course, there was no shortage of folks keen on pointing out how Gertie’s inability to embrace her fledgling independence made her boring at best and a tad old-fashioned.
The most tragic of all had to be Camilla. (The very same Camilla who now sat in the library pressing her lips against her teacup until her face resembled a persimmon.) Camilla had convinced herself that Gertie had become a threat, an inconvenient happenstance that must be addressed before the town’s good reputation was forever and irreversibly marred. Under the guise of compassion – for Camilla was the most devoted confession attendee – she commandeered the local priest to stake out her rival. It took the waxing and waning of several moons for Gertie (who until recently had always expected the best) to realize the man behind the collar was a spy. To add to the irony, each of these God-fearing, family-loving good Christian women had at one point or another seen Gertie’s husband out with a lady friend – and seldom the same one. After burning up the town’s quota of three-way calls for the next decade, they had reached the unanimous conclusion that “what that man did on his own time was none of their business.”
Gertie’s red lips, those brazen coals that surely warranted their owner being burned at the stake, confirmed their suspicions of her character. By walking into the luncheon, Gertie had released them of any moral obligation to treat her as a human being. Their eyebrows furrowed with contempt. No civilized and well-mannered lady would dare red; and Gertie, it must be remembered, was foreign. If her husband had strayed, if he had committed fraud and expended her life savings leaving her flat, it had to be Gertie’s doing.
In the midst of her reverie, Gertie had failed to notice Mrs. Wallace’s predicament. The cucumber and cream cheese finger sandwiches had found cause to quarrel with the matriarch’s false teeth. Having put up as much of a fight as one might expect, the teeth leaped into her cranberry-basil tea. The unmistakable plop and splash yanked Gertie back to the present.
“Don’t you listen to ’em, dearie,” Mrs. Wallace mumbled, as Gertie fished the dentures out of the reddish-green herbal concoction. “Don’t let ’em see they’re getting to ya. Them rattlesnakes out there in the woods are the least of your worries ’round here.” She shot Gertie half a smile, chomping her lips. Without her teeth, Mrs. Wallace resembled an oversized pug with a feathered bonnet and it took Gertie an immeasurable level of control to maintain composure. “Give ’em an inch, and they’ll eat ya alive,” Mrs. Wallace concluded, fumbling about in her gargantuan purse until she located a tube of denture glue. And just like that, with dedication unmatched by any Olympic figure skater, Mrs. Wallace (no one seemed to remember her first name) proceeded to clean her teeth on the corner of the tablecloth and prepare the victims for reinsertion. It was a sight to behold.
Gertie couldn’t help but admire the old lady for having the guts to do precisely what she wanted to do, regardless of the company. It had been a long time since Gertie had felt such freedom. The incessant buzz and hum reverberating through the room was a staunch reminder of her ongoing captivity.
Over the past three months, Gertie had convinced herself no one could recognize the truth if it hit them as hard as an extended-cab truck smacking an armadillo on the central Texas highway. These women cared little for facts. On the contrary, they were obsessed by whatever projection of reality made them feel better about themselves. As one of them had crassly noted just last week, “It don’t matter what the truth is. It matters what sticks.” On the very same day, Gertie’s colleague had intensified her dilemma by explaining he didn’t need to know her side of the story for it was always the woman’s fault. If that bothered Gertie, she had perhaps best look for another job, somewhere beyond the geographical territory of her demise.
Given the unbridled compassion surrounding her troubles, Gertie didn’t let anyone in. There could be no point explaining why she wore long sleeves in sweltering Texas summer. How could they conceive of the tall, handsome Southern gentleman with whom they golfed up at the country club dragging Gertie by her ponytail across a driveway until the asphalt shredded her blue jeans? No, they would not stand for the suggestion that he pushed her around and would resent any hint Gertie made about him hurling her across the bathroom floor in a fit of ill humor when she forgot to put fresh beer in the fridge. On that particular occasion, Gertie had landed “accidentally” against the tub with a set of fractured ribs. That, too, she kept to herself. There was of course the matter of her safety, a minor detail that kept Gertie biting her tongue on more than one occasion. But they had all seen her husband deliver two-dozen roses to vast public acclaim. None of them heard the surreptitious whisper: “You don’t want to go telling anyone about your accident. The way you remember it, they might get the wrong idea and there might have to be repercussions.” Repercussions. Shackling her down with that lonely, lingering, multisyllabic chain, he had winked and flashed a tortured smile.
Worn down until there was nothing left to grind, Gertie’s mind, soul and gushing enthusiasm for life had been stripped away until she had become something even she couldn’t recognize: A prisoner in her own home. It was at this point she surmised not even God could help her. But help her he would. After incalculable prayers, Gertie was presented with an escape. Her husband made a critical and unmistakable error (the kind to which no judge could turn a blind eye) and Gertie threw herself down on her knees, pleading that God himself summon any lingering, pulverized dust of courage from the depths of her being. Three months ago, inside the county courtroom, she had been set free. Delivered from what could only have amounted to a slow death, Gertie shed the memories of her internment, beginning with every peach and pastel pink lip-gloss that man had given her during their nine years together. She sealed the celebration of her as of yet unwritten future with the purchase of a scrumptious, eye-catching red lipstick sealed in a dainty, etched silver tube. This was her big break. This was her chance. And every morning Gertie’s starlet lips reminded her she had been redeemed and set free by grace alone. Now, for that very lipstick that embodied her liberation and the end of servitude, the nosey tarts at the luncheon condemned Gertie. Weary and expended, forced into the borderlands from which there seemed to be no return, Gertie had no strength left to defend herself. The relapse into hopelessness would begin anew.
“That’s better,” ventured Mrs. Wallace, admiring her teeth returned to their former glory with a silver-plated hand mirror she had received from the governor’s wife on the occasion of her eightieth birthday. “More tea?”
Mrs. Wallace was gesturing with the teapot so that it looked as though a porcelain elephant, suspicious of the secrets Gertie once hid under her shirt, was sniffing at the breezy silk. Taken by surprise, Gertie mustered a whisper. Her hand shook as she lifted the cup towards those shameful lips. It seemed the whole place shuddered at her profanity. If rumors had the power to work as many miracles as they do harm, the whole restaurant would have levitated. Doing her best not to choke under the pressure, Gertie drained the cup to the last drop and as she drank, something extraordinary and peculiar happened. There trickled up from her toes to the tip of Gertie’s head a baffling ache to stand and confront her accusers. It ended today. If not now, when? If not here, where?
Gertie leaped to her feet. Teacup in hand, she faced them and basked in their horror. Grinning wide enough to make a Cheshire cat blush, she stood there and said absolutely nothing. The ladies held their breath. Make no mistake, this wasn’t the kind of silence that permeated the air in the beginning of the world, when the earth was yet new. This was judgment hour and Gertie was poised to deliver her verdict. In two seconds flat, Camilla convinced herself that Gertie must be in league with Mrs. Wallace, whom she suspected of hiding a revolver in her monstrous purse. Oh, God, none of them would get out of the room alive! Camilla’s breath faltered. She suspected she would be first: she had been weighed and measured and found wanting.
Gertie blinked (just to make sure she wasn’t day-dreaming) and released such a sigh of emancipation that all around the room the ladies’ hair quivered. Camilla could scarce contain herself. Until today, Camilla surmised, the teacup in Gertie’s hand had been a perfectly darling piece of heirloom china. But now, the telltale red stain it bore around the rim had forever tarnished it. Following Camilla’s gaze, Gertie released the poor thing from its misery and after what seemed like a week and a half, Gertie’s cup smashed with a triumphant chorus on the marble floor. Camilla let out a tortured yelp and fainted right out of her chair.
The whole room sat transfixed. After what could have been minutes or hours, Mrs. Wallace let go of the belching cackle compressed deep within her bowels. It grew and grew, along with the clacking of her teeth, until she clutched her side and spat the other half of her mouth right onto the cake tray.
And just like that, Gertie was free. A new era had begun.