Fiction

PERISHABLE

Tonee slipped in her mouth the last piece of fried chicken she had swaddled in a napkin for safekeeping. Just like she slipped from the event hall before they could load up her car with leftovers. She didn’t need the store-bought chicken that spent hours at the repast sweating in an aluminum pan to spend days in her fridge, until she ate it all. 

She could see the package on her doorstep from the car. Though stamped across its face, “PERISHABLE” failed to invoke any sense of urgency in her. Folks had been sending her things left and right once word got out that her mom passed. Why should today be any different? She unlatched the glove compartment looking for the restaurant napkins she always grabbed in generous bundles. Empty. She rubbed her fingertips together, hoping to make them less greasy. She wasn’t wiping her hands on her good black sheath dress—she was sad, not stupid. The sheen on her seatbelt buckle confirmed that her bright idea had not been her best idea.

She stretched her leg from the car, placing her bare foot onto the curb. “I know, Mom,” she thought in response to hearing what felt like her mother’s judgement at her short walk to the porch without shoes on. She grabbed the package, leaving greasy silhouettes of her fingers on the sides of the box. She sat the package at the end of the entryway table atop an uneven stack of bills. It slipped from the leaning tower to the floor. The sound of its impact—like a last breath, a deflation—annoyed her.  She wanted it loud and dramatic, so leaving it on the ground would feel like defiance. Like she was in control and ignoring it. “PERISHABLE” stared up at her as she stepped over it on her way to do nothing. Almost wondering who sent it. 

***

Funerals often made her physically ill. She could feel the collective pain followed by a deep guilt for thinking her own mattered at all, especially in comparison to the folks sitting in the front pews. Last funeral she went to, she didn’t even get in the receiving line. Instead, she sent prayers of comfort from her rear seat. She wondered how folks just sat there, all neat like. She wanted to scream with her whole body. Yet today, on THE DAY, she woke up filled with peace. Feeling the warmth of light on her skin. Felt like what the grief blogs described as acceptance. 

In the front pew—an unasked for upgrade—Tonee lost her train of thought in the folds of the casket’s satin inlay.  She squirmed as her slip rose up her thighs. Even in eternal rest her mother looked poised. Say what you want about Sula Proud, but sis was always put together. Even to a fault. 

Chile, sit still. Squirming like a toddler on Easter Sunday. 

The word escaped her mouth before she could put it back in reality. 

Mom?”

A question she already knew the answer to. 

Comfort in the form of fingers on her right shoulder startled her. She hadn’t felt the church filling up around her. 

“It’s just me, baby. I didn’t mean to startle you.” 

She knew the voice without seeing the face. Aunt Ethel would be dressed to the nines, a crown covering her lush lilac-in-the-right-light locs. 

“Aunt Ethel!” Her joy startled her.

“Hey baby. I’m so sorry for your loss. I know this ain’t easy. You know we’re here for you, right?” Aunt Ethel spoke on behalf of her mother’s sorority sisters. “Imma come on up and sit beside you. No reason you should be by yourself,” Aunt Ethel decided aloud.  

The warmth from earlier was back. Radiating from the highest peaks on her face. Settling along her spine, even in the snug sheath dress whose lining waged war against the slip she wore. 

Mommy, I even wore a slip, she thought. 

Why the hell did I wear a slip with a lined dress? 

***

She woke up to three missed calls and fifty-eleven text messages. 

You good, girl?

You need anything?

Did you eat?

I’m praying for you.

No words. Only love.

I swear if I don’t hear back from you soon, I’m coming over. 

She’s in a better place.

“What the hell?! I don’t need her in a better place, I need her here!” she shouted. 

“I need her here. Mommy Why aren’t you here?”

Her chest rapidly rose and dropped. Her tears crashed against the crest of her breasts. Losing control, she caught her next breath in a gulp—swallowing the panic that had come over her. 

Breathe in. 

Breathe out.

So much for that acceptance shit she thought—parting her panic in half. 

The missed calls were from Paul. Maybe he had sent “PERISHABLE.” 

Oh well. 

A text message lit her screen up. 

Paul

She peered over her nose like she didn’t want to get caught caring about the man she said she ain’t care about two weeks ago. The man whose love scared her.

He was calling to check on her. He knew her mother had passed. Hell, everyone in the city knew Sula Proud had transitioned, though no one knew she was sick. Proud described her perfectly. Mama did what she wanted, when she wanted. True to form, she slipped from this dimension to another, without so much as letting anyone know her final trip was on the horizon. 

Tonee unlocked her phone to read his message.

Babe. You know I love you. And I know you love me, too. You ain’t gotta do this alone. I’m so deeply sorry for your loss. Won’t you let me come over and be with you. I need to see you. I need to know that you’re okay. 

Two tears slipped from her eyes onto her phone—turning her screen into a mosaic.  

She needed something to drink. 

Paul’s words revisited her as she sipped the cool water:  I need to see you.

“I need to see you, too,” she offered to the air, placing her glass on the counter beside “PERISHABLE.” She stared at her faint fingerprints on the box. It had been a long day but she was sure she had left the box in the entryway. Didn’t she? Grief had been running interference on her thoughts and memory. Seemed like she had forgotten whole blocks of time over the last two weeks. 

She tossed “PERISHABLE” in the garbage can. She would be sure this time. Her satisfaction was met by a knock at the door. She knew it was him. Knocking a bit louder the second time, Paul retracted his hand back to the potted orchid he balanced on his left palm. Tonee looked through the peephole and cracked open the door. Yup. 

“Hey.”

The ‘y’ was barely out of his mouth before she was in tears. He slipped between the opening in the door, found a safe place for the potted orchid and wrapped her up in his arms. All the weight left her body as he held her.

“Baby, I’m so sorry,”  he offered as her tears landed near his mouth.

***

The smell of her favorite breakfast greeted her. She slipped up behind him in the kitchen and rested her head in the valley of his back, anchoring herself by putting her hands in his pockets.

“Hey baby. How long you been up?”

“Just opened my eyes and made my way here.”

“Sooooo, you ain’t hit that mouthwash yet?”

“Hush!”

“I’m just saying. Don’t be melting the skin off my back with your morning breath.”

“You know what?! You ain’t right.”

He caught her bottom lip with his, mid-laugh. 

“Be right back. Gotta go hit that mouthwash.”

She almost tripped over “PERISHABLE” on her way out of the kitchen.

“Paul, did you take this box out of the trash?”

“Huh?”

She directed him to the box with her toe. “This box. Did you take it out of the trash?”

“Oh. Yeah. I went to throw the egg shells away and it looked like it hadn’t been opened. I just wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be in there is all.”

Her heart sank. Had he sent it? She searched his face before offering an admission of guilt. 

Nothing. 

Besides, didn’t he show up with a plant last night?

“But my bad, if I overstepped.”

“Nah, it’s all good. We can take it out with tomorrow’s trash if you don’t mind.”

“Whatever you need. I got you.”

And she believed him.

***

On his way out, Paul kissed her and guaranteed that he would return shortly as he pulled the trash and recycling bins to the curb—placing “PERISHABLE” on top where she could see it. The letters unsettled her. Perish then, she thought as she went in the house to the sound of the garbage truck at her back.

The wave of grief gripped her before she even made it out of the entryway. The doorbell buzzed, a welcomed interruption. Tonee looked through the peephole but didn’t see anything. She opened the door. Nothing in her straight-ahead-sight. She looked down and “PERISHABLE” was sloping towards her. 

She rotated the box, hitting every angle looking for a label, a sign of who was responsible for this persistent package. 

Nothing

With “PERISHABLE” on the entryway table, she slipped her left hand between the cardboard slat while removing the packaging tape. Nestled between two blocks of bright, white foam was the saddest looking little plant she had ever seen. Most of its leaves were curled unto itself like a child learning it can roll its tongue for the first time. She looked again for traces of its sender. No name except its own—Maranta Leuconeura, its nickname appearing in quotation marks:  “Prayer Plant.” 

“Lord knows, I need prayer,” she offered to no one in particular. She left the plant and its box on the table.

More text messages and not a single, “Girl, did you get the plant I sent you?” in sight. 

Babe, how are you feeling? I stopped by the office to grab a few things. I’ll be back with lunch soon. 

She perked up at the promise of food and typed three smiling emojis—sent. She slipped under the covers into a dream. 

Paul was staring at her when she opened her eyes. It took her a minute to settle into consciousness. Her body was heavy all over, like a wet blanket had been draped over her. Reaching for Paul felt like she was parting quicksand with her arms. He noticed the difficulty she had reaching him and slid across the covers to wrap his arms around her. She sobbed into the warm crook of his neck. 

“I know, baby.” 

She rotated between silent tears and moans that vibrated against their bodies. He didn’t move until she did. 

It felt like everything in the room was taking up too much space. She could see everything but couldn’t settle into the shape of any of it until she saw “PERISHABLE” with its outstretched arms on her window sill. Paul followed the tilt of her head. 

“I moved it from the table. That type of plant needs some sunlight to come to life.”

“Oh.”

Tonee hadn’t really thought about what she was going to do with it when she left it in the entryway. Now it had an ally or accomplice in Paul. Just like him to befriend a plant. In that moment she decided that he had not sent the plant. 

She grabbed her phone. Three missed calls.

Aunt Ethel, her friend Felice and her mother’s attorney. 

“Yeah. That thing was buzzing. I’m surprised it didn’t wake you.” 

“I’ll be right back. I need to call this attorney.”

Empathy spread across his face. 

***

The office looked like it was transported from the set of a crime drama—of course her mother would spare no expense in the handling of her affairs. Tonee was engulfed in the slick cognac chairs with her eyes closed when she heard her name. 

“Ms. Proud? Ms. Proud?”

She hopped to her feet and extended her hand in one swift motion.

“Impressive,” her mother’s attorney joked. 

His humor put her at ease as he extended his arm towards a full glass wall, “This way, please.”

“As I mentioned on the phone, this won’t take long. Your mother took excellent care as to sort out all of her affairs prior to her passing. As the sole documented beneficiary of your mother’s estate, your signature on a series of documents settles it.” 

The conference room lived up to the movie-esque feel of the entire place. 

“Can I get you anything to drink? Care for any snacks?” he offered, as she settled into another impressive leather chair.

Tonee wondered how long she would be there.

“No, thank you,” she answered. 

“Your mother left a video for you. Here is the remote. Just hit the green button when you are ready. You can use the conference dialer to contact me when you’re finished watching the video. Take all the time you need. You can sign the documents when it’s finished.”

“Thank you.”

She let go of the breath she was holding and pressed the green button.

***

The sun had just missed her when she returned home. But the warmth was back. Around her ears, under her jaws. In the palms of her hands.  

In her bedroom, she closed her eyes over her new plant, and accepted its prayer.


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Filed under: Fiction

by

Julia Mallory is a poet, children’s book author and founder of the creative literary arts brand, Black Mermaids, www.blackmermaids.com. Her latest book, Survivor's Guilt, takes an unflinching look at grief. She is the mother of three children: Julian (deceased), Jaya, and Kareem. She lives in Central Pennsylvania. Most recently, her work was featured in the special Barrelhouse Magazine edition, I've Got Love On My Mind: Black Womxn On Love.