Stains All Over Everything

Scott Schrader

She wore a blue dress and a floppy black hat. A sprinkle had begun and her umbrella was pitted with small moldy holes, so she was glad for the hat, though she hadn’t considered the weather in choosing it, only that she needed something black. She also wore an onyx ring and black-and-gold earrings. Her shoes were a dull, scuffed black. She had tried on a black sweater but it made her look heavy. She had tried on a fuzzy black coat and lost all perspective, and all sense of time. She had looked too long at herself in the full-length mirror inside her bedroom door before turning and heading from her house. That mirror had never been kind to her. It was melted in places.
    Round-bellied and bony-legged, her heels slipping occasionally on the pebbly road, she descended the hill into the village. The grass at her either side was tall and green, and somewhere buried in it was a fence, and somewhere a sign that must have tipped over ages ago, claiming the hillside as Horace Dreyton’s. It was Horace who owned the house in which she lived. He had loved Brudita since they both were children.
    It was Horace who had suggested to her when she was sixty-five that she move into his house up on the hill. “It’s an easy place to keep clean,” he had said, “because it’s so small. I won’t miss it, I haven’t had a friend to take there in a while, and being alone there only makes me think of old friends and better times, so I’d just as soon not go. But you could make a life for yourself there, Dee . . . ” She had left behind her job at the post office, and a small room overlooking the village square. She had left behind a reputation as a spinster. If people thought of her at all, they thought of her now as a recluse.
    The village rose to greet her—no, it didn’t, rose before her and she stepped upon its surface, somewhat smoother than the road, and down a tree-lined sidewalk where people lived whose faces she might not recognize at once after so many years. There were houses she did not recognize. She rarely saw the village through the mist enshrouding the hill. She dreaded seeing anyone, and kept her eyes ahead
    At the center of the village square stood a statue of someone’s shouting ancestor astride a lumpy, bounding mule. Drizzle like a coat of sweat shimmered on the animal’s plaster hide in an interplay of sunlight and shadow as Brudita crossed the square. She did not look up at her old window. She pricked her ears at the clinking of the bell on the door of Dreyton’s General. The store was out of view from here, round the buildings that formed the opposite side of the square. She took a shortcut between Dora’s Beauty Bar and Crawford Automotive. The passageway was greasy. Drizzle whirled into her face.
    It was Agula Berbetch who had phoned her this morning with the news that Horace had died in his sleep, six days ago. “I woke with a start realizing you hadn’t been told,” she had said in her careful, grating voice. “Please try and understand. I’ve been left to handle everything. I had to make the phone calls. I helped arrange the service. I had to squeeze an obituary into the gazette. I was even left to manage the store for a day! I can’t say at what point I became this sort of-advisor, this village matron—this—rectress! I don’t know who decides these things. But once a path is cleared, my, everyone walks it, don’t they! The ditch is dredged and everyone falls in! I’ve become goddamned important, Bru!”
    Reaching the end of the alley Brudita turned down the lane toward Dreyton’s General. Beneath an awning outside the store sat a girl of nine or ten, with thin brown hair, who raised her eyes at Brudita’s approach. Something in the girl’s expression took Brudita by surprise: some trace of expectation in a minutely widening eye. Then glancing downward the girl crossed her stockinged feet, pulled her hands inside the sleeves of a furry coat and shivered noticeably. The coat stopped above her knees, which were pale and bruised. Brudita rasped in her pleasantest tone, “Good morning, dearie.”
    “Morning,” mumbled the girl.
    “Well, quite a dismal morning, really,” rasped Brudita. And just at that instant the sun came out and the drizzle danced like powder.
    Brudita peered through the store window at a display of rakes and hoes
on a green plastic turf. The design was symmetric: not Horace’s work. Behind the display ran a shelf usually crammed with paperbacks, but arrayed this morning with dolls posed side by side in shiny dresses. Elsewhere were tools splayed out in fans and circles, darts dead center of their bull’s-eyes, cooking utensils all gleaming and stacked according to size. The floor was polished and streaked with reflected neon.
    “Are you a witch?”
    Once more Brudita was taken aback by the girl.
    When it was clear that Brudita had no answer, the girl faltered, “I don’t mean to be rude.” Her lowered lashes shifted, and she covered a bruise on her knee with a thin white hand.
    Brudita folded up her umbrella. “I don’t mean to be old and ugly,” she rasped, and pushed open the door to the store, which stuck, so that she had to give it a shove. The bell clattered loudly.
    She looked up at the clock on the wall. 8:30 already.
    She headed over to an oak case that Horace had built to house her breads. Her kitchen table was piled this very moment with loaves of bread. She had been expecting Horace this morning when Agula phoned.
    The case was polished and empty.
    Through a curtain behind the counter came Agula’s voice: “What my father didn’t know about bookkeeping! He was studious and innovative. And he passed down to my brothers whole compiled generations of financial expertise, shrewdness, gumption, with the result that my brothers are all quite well off now in their mid-to-later years, and their children also well off, and myself quite wholly dependent on the advice of my male relations— Oh, but I’m rambling on. Forgive me, again? All I mean to say is that I envy you your masculine know-how . . . which is not, to be honest, what I set out to say, which was that I do not envy you all this bookkeeping of Horace’s to check over, all that tiny, tiny print to decipher, and these wads and wads and wads and wads and wads of old receipts and invoices and who knows what all is in these—oh, my—boxes. Ooooh, boy, I’m dizzy. I can’t stay much longer, Wesley.”
    Wesley’s tone was flat. “Shall I take your glass for you?”
    “No, I’m . . . good, fine. This is, this was . . . I only meant to say what a . . . saying how nice for Horace that he died in his sleep, because he was always afraid, I think, that he would come to some violent end, or die of disease.”
    Brudita had stepped nearer the counter.
    “Oh, I miss him already! Let’s see. It was during my senior year in high school, Wesley, some time before Horace took over the store from his father, that I landed a part-time job here, my first and only paying job. That’s why, sitting here again, I grow nostalgic.”
    “I’m sure you were an asset to the place.”
    “Well, I was young and enthusiastic, and people seemed to like me better than Mrs. Dreyton, who could barely manage a smile at the time, for reasons we now fully understand.”
    “I never knew her.”
    “One day Mrs. Dreyton—she would be your great aunt? One day she called me upstairs to a room now used for storage, whose one small window she had darkened with tinfoil, and on whose floor she had spread a yellowed mattress and some pillows. Lying pale on the mattress and clutching a blanket to her chin, she insisted I come in and rub her hip, which she said was cold and aching.”
    “My father’s aunt would be my great aunt. My uncle’s mother would be my grandmother.”
    “Oh. Well, she rolled onto her side and jutted the hip, and with it her behind, in my direction, and I came in and knelt down and took the cold hip in my hand, and first with one hand and then with both, without uttering a sound, rubbed and rubbed until my palms were hot and damp, all the while Mrs. Dreyton whimpering into a—a pillow— Well, now, why do I think of it particularly? . . . ”
    “I don’t know.”
    “Why am I reminded so vividly just now of Mrs. Dreyton and how she smelled and how she clutched my arm and hissed into my face that I was good! Why do I think of her small yellow teeth and her breath? That sudden eruption of feeling from her . . . poor woman . . . very ill . . . ”
    “I’ve only seen her in photos.”
    “She was quite attractive before she— Well, whatever made Horace buy up all these peanuts? In twenty years you’ll never, ever sell all these cases and cases of peanuts!”
    “My uncle was an eccentric.”
    Brudita cleared her throat, but failed to gain the attention of the two behind the curtain. They seemed not either to have noticed the bell when she came in.
    “May I try a—Wesley, do you mind? . . . ”
    “Go ahead.”
    “Are they? . . . Yes, they’re salted. Mmmm, that’s good. . . . Well—in those days, when I was working here, long ago, I looked like an angel. My hair . . . ”
    In those days, when Brudita and Agula had been in school together, and Mrs. Dreyton was dying of some secret malady, and Horace just starting the poems he would abandon with chagrin in middle age, Brudita’s own hair had been thick and auburn, her mouth very small, and she remembered standing in a nightgown before her bedroom mirror and how her hair lay long and glowing down her shoulder and over one breast. She remembered feeling that she must look like someone’s idea of an angel, Horace’s possibly. And yet, she thought now staring into the curtain, somehow to myself I wasn’t quite real . . . as behind the curtain Agula sighed, “Wesley, I’m doing a piece for the gazette about you and the girl! Now, let me get this straight: Horace has left his house and the store and everything else to you, correct?”
    “Are you planning to write that?”
    “Before I write a word, I want to be sure of my facts. Everything goes to you. Is that correct?”
    “I saw an opportunity.”
    “Yes or no.”
    “We’ve moved from a rented house in the city into a three-story house of our own, a handsome place with a fireplace and a library, and a yard full of trees. I left my job as assistant manager of someone else’s store to take over a store all my own. I’m pushing forty. I saw an opportunity for myself and my girl.”
    “Am I wearing you out, Wesley?”
    “Not at all.”
    Agula laughed, a breathless, clicking sound. “Oh, you’re sick and tired of me! We’ll talk later. I want to write something that pleases you. I want a picture also, of you and the girl. But not today. This is no day to be taking pictures! May I use your phone to call my helper?” She passed through the curtain, and came to a halt at the sight of Brudita.
    For a moment neither spoke.
    Then, “No bread,” said Brudita, smiling shyly. “I should have brought some down.”
    Agula raised a crispy brow. “Brudita, we were concerned.”
    “I have more at home.”
    “Yes? . . . ” A man pushing forty, in a black suit and tie, emerged from behind the curtain, a clipboard at his side and a pencil over his ear. His face and jaw were square, and even his eyes somehow squarish, gleaming black under thick, straight brows. It was as if the face of a young Horace had been chiseled to handsomeness. He looked Brudita up and down, and her neck began to prickle.
    “Wesley, this is Brudita Whitmare. It was Brudita’s bread that you sampled this morning from the case before I helped you clean it out. It is she who lives in the house on the hill which—oh . . . Well, I suppose Brudita is your tenant, Wesley, and you are her landlord.”
    Brudita struggled to maintain a pleasant expression.
    Wesley looked for an instant as though he might lean over the counter to shake her hand. Instead he hesitated, took the clipboard in both hands, and frowned over it.
    “Brudita, we were concerned,” repeated Agula, her eyes boring into Brudita’s, then gliding away.
    Brudita focused on Wesley. She winced. At the word landlord she had begun to tremble from some hollow place under her ribs. “Was the bread to your liking, sss—” She had almost called him sir! “Did you like the bread, Wesley?”
    “I’ve been telling Brudita that we were concerned.”
    Wesley seemed preoccupied with his clipboard. “It was stale,” he answered tonelessly.
    “I have a fresh batch at home.”
    “Thanks, but I’ve got a deal lined up already. I’ve been doing business with these people for years.”
    Brudita smiled, nicely.
    She was struggling with the measure of her breath.
    She smiled at Horace’s nephew until he looked at her again, not up and down this time but squarely. “It’s nothing personal,” he said. “Let’s leave it to my customers. Even with your bread in its own case the major brands were selling better, according to Horace’s records. Let’s put a major brand in the case and see how it sells there. That will tell us something.”
    “You’re not taking my bread?”
    “Did I order it from you? Did Horace, rather? I see no record of his having ordered any bread from you. Do you have—”
    “Interesting,” murmured Agula, glancing around the store.
    “I meant to say I’m sorry about your uncle.”
    “Not necessary,” said Wesley.
    “There’s a psychology involved,” murmured Agula, “in the successful operation of a store. Well, there are bound to be many sciences and psychologies, relationships to balance and maintain, powers to establish and powers to be held at bay. I’m thinking just now, though, along visual lines, of the importance of display, the need for subtlety, smooth surfaces, attractive lettering. I’m thinking—”
    “Aren’t we forgetting the time?” interrupted Brudita.
    Wesley glanced at his watch. Brudita pointed to the clock. “It’s almost nine. I suppose we should be going?”
    “Going where?” Agula creased her brow.
    “To the funeral. Hadn’t we? . . . ”
    “Oh, Bru . . . ”
    “You missed it,” said Wesley to his clipboard.
    Brudita felt her heartbeat surface to her lips. “Agula, you did say nine!” It came out the thinnest of rasps.
    “Seven-thirty, Brudita. I said seven-thirty.”
    “You said what?”
    “Seven-thirty,” repeated Agula.
    “Say it again!” A terrible, jarring croak.
    Wesley set down his clipboard. He looked at Brudita somehow without seeming to register her presence.
     “Seven-thirty,” said Agula again.
    Brudita felt her neck perspiring. She kept wincing involuntarily. On the counter lay some copies of the gazette, gleaming silver under neon, flashing silver through her vision as she said, as lightly as possible, a tad rapidly, “Well, never mind, it’s nothing, really. I’m sure that Horace would under—understands what has happened here. . . . Well, that’s that, he’d say. . . . ” She clapped her hands and nearly dropped the umbrella tucked under her arm. “In the village that is always that! The thinking through of a thing in the village is done by those in the know, while the rest . . . People know a thing by proxy. . . . ” Her voice crumbled away.
    Agula widened her eyes until they welled perceptibly.
    Brudita turned without saying good-bye.
    As she headed from the store she heard Agula say behind her, “Everyone else got there on time, everyone else heard me correctly . . . ”
    “It’s over and done with,” said Horace’s nephew.
    Brudita stepped outside without looking at the small bruised girl who still sat beneath the awning. She shut the door without disturbing the bell, and turned and started her return, lunging down into her flabby shoes. It would be a humid, blinding walk, and she would reach home wringing wet and feed loaves of bread to the pigeons, maybe sit on the roof with the pigeons in the hazy brightness, maybe find some way onto the roof. . . . Best move without thinking, she thought to herself, a tough journey ahead, the steep hillside, perhaps a minor lapse of grief and madness. . . .
    Behind her she imagined the girl whispering, though of course she could not hear her, certainly not as she rounded the corner back into the alley, whispering, mole . . . whisker . . . toad . . .
    Whispering, sticky road . . . stuck newt . . . wet fingered fruit ha ha ha . . . ha ha ha . . .
    Brudita held on tight to her umbrella.
“He never felt clean, Wesley, that was my impression of your uncle. His hands were raw—I realized it during the service—from scrubbing! And his fingernails there in the coffin, bit right down to the—did you notice?... So afraid, he must have been, just constantly. So I was saying to myself, during the service, that it was nice for him that he died in his sleep. But also asking myself, Why so afraid? I mean, Why . . . ”
    Wesley ate some peanuts.
    “Why, why, why, why, why. Well, it may be there’s no satisfactory answer. Horace was a man of several ambiguities. Really I get impatient with people who don’t make themselves clear, or at least try, damn it. As you get to know me you’ll see that I strive for precision in all aspects of my . . . Oh, boy. Do you mind if I rest my eyes?”
    Wesley wound his watch.
    “I must say that I need this sherry, well, appreciate it. I was due for a respite. The service was depressing, wasn’t it, very warm in there, and stains all over everything, did you notice? I was saying to myself during the service that I was due for a respite.” Agula rested an arm against a papered shelf, and rested her eyes. She was sitting on a screaky metal stool. She touched a shoulder to the wall and gave a shiver, drawing away. Keeping hold of her glass she eased her arm out onto the shelf.
    Out through the curtain, the bell above the entrance clinked softly. Probably the girl coming inside, thought Agula. She had got used to the timid way the girl had of moving about.
    She let her face loll into the crook of her arm. “Wesley, would you like me to have written more about your uncle?”
    “No. You did a good job.”
    “It means a lot to me to hear you say so. But—would you like me to have included one of his poems? We printed a few, years ago, but they were works in progress, and no one understood the empty spaces. Really I didn’t like that he submitted them that way. But he carried us here in the store, so—well, politics, politics . . . ”
    The girl could be heard now breathing behind the curtain, thinly through her teeth, by the sound of it. If Agula opened her eyes she might see below the curtain a pair of white stockings and black buckled shoes.
    “Do you know what I miss? . . . ” murmured Agula softly, momentarily. “I miss my old typewriter.”
     Wesley yawned.
    “Well, I shouldn’t say I miss it: I’ve kept the old thing and just don’t use it anymore. It sits on a shelf in my kitchen cupboard, out of reach, and full of dust and spiders. It’s a handsome thing, tall and black, with a light deep touch, a cavernous smack. It looks like something you could hurt your hands inside of.”
    “Probably worth something.”
    “God, yes, I imagine. Well, more than I paid. I bought it from a fortune teller named Myrtle, who lived in the village for less than a year before she had to sell her things and move inland. I bought it for a dollar and some change.”
    “Good deal.”
    “Wasn’t it? I’ve made my own way, Wesley.”
    “Sounds like it.”
    “And I leave others to find their own way, or ways.”
    “Sounds like a good philosophy.”
    “It serves me well. I don’t coddle people.”
    “Neither do I.”
    “I bide my time. I’m willing to be underestimated.”
    “So am I.”
    “I may talk your ear off, Wesley, but never assume I’m saying any more to you, on any subject, than I feel you can be trusted to have heard.”
    “Well, I think I can be trusted.”
    “But I can’t. That’s my point. That’s the whole point.” Agula smiled, floppily, with her eyes closed. With her fingers she was absently fondling her glass.
    She listened again for the girl’s breathing, and somehow got it mixed up with her own. She tried breathing through her teeth, and said through her teeth, “You’ll want to keep an eye on that column of mine, Wesley.”
    “I’ll do that.”
    “Just see that you do.”
    “I’ll read it when I can.”
    “Just see what I can do. . . . ” With a slow exhalation the girl drew her attention once more. She opened an eyelid, and sure enough the small black shoes shone under the curtain.
    She sat up a little. “Well, come say hello, little one. . . . ”
    The curtain seemed darkish in a circle where the girl’s mouth should be. She held silent out there.
    Agula rubbed between her eyes with a knuckle, and peered through her glass. “Doesn’t like me much, does she.”
    Wesley had hunched himself over a catalogue. Without looking up he smiled a rectangular smile, the skin of a peanut over one tooth. He made no reply.
    “Well, at that age, she’s just developing a personality. She has no face to show.”
    “Sure, she has a face.”
    “I mean . . . no face! Like this. Wesley, look.”
    He kept his eyes to the catalogue. A vein was pulsing under his jaw.
    Agula relaxed her face. “She’s nondescript.”
    “Nah, I wouldn’t say that.”
    “She’ll give me trouble when I go to write my piece.”
    “Maybe you should leave her out of it.”
    “I may have to, if she gives me nothing to work with.” Again Agula spoke toward the curtain. “Do you hear that? Unless you bring something to the table, there’s no place for you here. That’s how we play here.”
    “Now, look.” Wesley pushed away his catalogue. “I’m going to have to ask you to behave yourself. If you can’t—”
    “Did you hear that? If you wish to be present, you’ll have to make a presentation!”
    Wesley laughed, unexpectedly.
    He had a surprisingly hissy laugh, like dimes spinning.
    After it Agula looked at him differently.

Scott Schrader lives in Bodfish, California. His ficiton has appeared previously in the Gettysburg Review and the Wisconsin Review, and he has written articles for the Advocate.

“Stains All Over Everything” appears in our Autumn 2005 issue.