Religion or Politics
“Well, grow wings and fly here,” Norah replied into the cell phone through chattering teeth. It sounded a bit surlier than she intended.
“I would if I could,” Cody’s voice crackled back. He may well have been calling from the Ozarks, for what the phone reception was worth. “It’s a white wash out here, and it’s bumper to bumper. This really came outta nowhere, baby. Mona’s not liking it. One bit.”
Wrapped in a scratchy wool blanket, Norah beheld what could be seen of the landscape from the covered patio she stood shivering in. The snow fell so hard and heavy, it resembled thick white streamers whipping down, like the whole world was being T.P.’ed by some drunken celestial prankster.
She felt selfish. “Please be careful,” she said, picturing Cody hunched low in Mona, swerving around crashed cars and icy snow banks just to save his fiancé from an awkward social situation. She had yet to see Mona, but understood her to be a twelve-year old station wagon, rented in New York, which Cody had quickly named after a slutty ex-girlfriend of his whom Norah loathed. Cody was a real card that way.
“You too,” he answered, and Norah just knew he was flashing that sarcastic little smile of his which she loved and hated. “How’s she treating you?”
“Fine, I guess. She’s been keeping to herself for the last few hours.”
“Really? What’s she doing?”
“Right now, your mother is going over passages in her Holy Bible with a pink highlighter, Cody.”
“You’re shitting me.”
Norah glanced through the sliver of picture window unconcealed by the ugly drapes, just to make sure she hadn’t been hallucinating this whole time. All remained as she left it.
“I shit you not.”
She could hear Cody sigh. “Well, that’s new, I guess.”
“How did you turn out so normal?” she asked. It was a legitimate question.
“I left there young. Remember, be nice, and don’t talk about religion or politics.”
“Give me something, Cody. Give me a topic. I’ve got nothing, here.”
“Fuck!” Cody shouted suddenly, followed by a loud horn honk.
Norah’s heart leapt. “Cody?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine. This motherfucker in this motherfucking, gas-guzzling… forget it, I’m fine. Look, I gotta watch the road, Norah. Just be cool for me, okay?”
“I’ll be fine. Be careful. I love you.”
“You too, babe. Hang tough.”
Norah waited for his disconnection, and then buried the phone beneath the layers of blanket, which whipped about her with abandon in the vortex wind. She pondered the lesser of two evils before finally reentering her future mother-in-law’s big, dumb house.
The intense gas heat of the living room was a jarring juxtaposition from the blizzard, and it nearly caused Norah to faint dead on the spot. But she’d be having none of that today, not here of all places. She plopped down on the itchy sofa, and recovered her tea mug from the wicker coffee table to sip from it. The tea taste was still drowned beneath a clod of sickly-sweet honey. Norah never understood why people did these things to tea.
Were she five years-old, Norah might have found comfort living in a house like this. Obviously no expense was spared to heat the home, and all the cushions were oversized and plushy. There was enough space in the big rooms to run and play in, although the hallways were dark and narrow, and the willowy carpets crackled with static electricity. Everything smelled of earth and hazelnut, and the walls settled with quaint creaks in the wind.
But as a twenty-nine year old who had lived in the outer world, Norah couldn’t help but flinch at some of the more garish aspects of the place. Faces of evil stared down at her from all directions. Here was a framed sheet of stamps, little patchwork Ronald Reagan heads snidely grinning. There was Christ with his haughty martyr frown, screwed into his cross above the mantle, man and symbol both carved lazily from some third-rate wood substitute. Here was an autographed Rush Limbaugh, his bulbous face a giant blubbery wink, looming from a gilded frame above a row of simpering Hummel figurines. There was a deer head glued to a plaque, a simple doe whose eyes were replaced with black glass balls, removing the evidence of pain and fear that accompanied her last moments.
And here, there, everywhere, that woman. Those jerky glasses and that fucking stupid flip of hair that Norah wanted rip out by the roots every time she saw her stupid face. That shit-eating grin, and those sing-songy ditherings of rambling idiocy she vomited all over the airwaves—
Don’t look at her. Look at Christ. Look at Rush. Anyone but her.
Norah knew she had to calm herself. This wasn’t helping. Maybe she should move to a different room. But were any of the other rooms here so different? She didn’t think so.
From the kitchen, unseen from her current vantage, a microwave chimed. After a few minutes of fuss, Kay entered the room holding a tray before her. The teeth of her wide smile were whiter than the blizzard.
“I thought you might be hungry, dear,” she said. Kay’s voice was a sugary squeak.
The woman lowered the two small bowls and their tray onto the wicker table and sat cubby-cornered from Norah on a perpendicular loveseat. Norah politely leaned in to investigate. Mashed potatoes? Really?
Kay took a spoon from the tray and went to work on her own bowl. “They’re instant,” she said, as if this meant anything.
Norah mustered a smile. “Oh, thank you so much, but I’m really not up for eating right now.”
“Ooh, hot,” Kay muttered as lowered her spoon to dabble her still-smiling mouth with a paper napkin. Her gray-green Frisbee eyes honed vapidly onto Norah.
Everything about Kay screamed false: her perfect bleached bob, her pearly rows of ivory teeth frozen in permanent state of delight, her “natural” makeup, her clunky beaded necklace hanging over a violet sweater that swooped out on the shoulders and tapered into the waist, her oddly-proportioned Mom jeans and her sporty pink sneakers. This was a mother from a world that Norah only heard about in cautionary tales from her own family.
Kay had always been unflinchingly nice to Norah, and refrained from asking questions of sustenance. Had she pressed, she would’ve learned just what sort of world Cody was marrying into, the sort of territory he dared to tread when he agreed to attend college in New York City.
Norah was the daughter of socialist Swiss Jews turned radical college professors, who converted to Wicca in the early ‘90’s. Norah herself settled for atheism. Aside from this, she was a also a practicing vegetarian, a lefty-blog journalist, a poet and performance artist, a bisexual and an egg donor with no intention of having children. Any attempt on Norah’s behalf to clarify these characteristics (which she tried to do on occasion prior to her compliance with her fiancé’s insistence that it wasn’t worth it) resulted in a bemused grin from the woman, and a change of subject.
So there was really no need to take anything this woman said seriously. Just eat her damn potatoes and then shut your mouth, she told herself. But something about this house… those pictures… she truly had no appetite. Norah needed all her mental efforts to keep herself from alienating this woman just months before the wedding. She had to hold on just a little bit longer, until Cody came. Then he could do all the talking.
“Was that Cody on the phone, dear?” Kay asked after putting aside her half-eaten meal.
“Yes, he’s running late, I’m afraid. I told him to be careful driving.”
“Oh, it’s a miserable day, just miserable. I’m glad you had the good sense to fly in the day before.”
“Yeah. He would’ve joined me, but, you know… work.”
“Yes, I know. Work is always a priority with that one, just like his father, God rest his soul.”
Kay shook her head solemnly as she said this. Kay reported the death of Cody’s father four years ago, claiming that sudden pneumonia-like symptoms had done him in. A key set of dissenters, including Cody himself, suspected a suicidal overdose of pain medication as the real culprit. This was never discussed openly among the surviving family members, one of many such topics that never saw the light of day.
“You must of caught your death, standing out there on the porch,” Kay cooed sympathetically.
“I’m okay. I’m afraid your blanket got a little wet here, though. Sorry about that.”
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” Kay responded with a twittering laugh. “Water dries, dear.”
With this, Kay carried her potato bowl back into the kitchen, still laughing. Norah felt her face heat up. She spent a lifetime dealing with adversity, but everything this woman said or did boiled her over with contempt.
After a surprisingly long bout of washing, during which time Norah sat quite still behind her untouched potatoes, Kay returned to her living room chair. The woman smiled dully, and seemed to be scanning the room in search of a conversation piece. Norah knew she had to intervene before the next topic revealed itself to be one of those shit-eating grinners pictured throughout the house. She felt all of those pig-eyed stares burrowing into her, taunting her with their evil self-confidence.
“So… what have you been doing lately?” Norah mouthed clumsily. It was as bland and general a question as she could think of on the fly, but she knew it could go horribly wrong.
“Well,” Kay thought aloud, “I’ve been busy with my TV shows. Did you catch Dancing with the Stars last night?
Ugh. Well, could be worse. Norah thinned her lips into an odd grin and shook her head.
“Suzanne Somers won. And Cedric. What do you think of Cedric?”
“Her partner. He’s a very handsome guy, but…”
Kay stood up again and began to rummage through items beneath the table, stooping low.
“My girlfriend Piper is in love with him, but I tell her all the time that he’s not available, if you get where I’m coming from.”
Somehow, Norah had a feeling. She never saw the show, but she could only figure why someone named Cedric might not be available. Change the subject.
“What do you got there?” she chimed, forcing her sweetest facsimile of a smile. She was starting to itch all over.
“Some old photos,” Kay replied as she sat down right next to Norah on the couch. She spread open the aging binder with its peeled plastic page cases and began to prattle on about each picture. This pleased Norah. She wasn’t particularly interested in the pictures, but the activity passed the time, and Kay’s narration was pleasant white noise.
One photo sent a nauseous tic shivering through her. Cody had a framed copy of it at their apartment, and they both enjoyed mocking it. It featured Cody, aged sixteen, along with his three younger sisters and one older brother, lying side-by-side on the grass in matching khakis and white t-shirts, barefoot. It was at once saccharine and creepy simultaneously. But Cody said that these matchy kid photos were popular in the community he grew up in.
Normally it turned Norah’s stomach, but listening to Kay cheerfully list the behind-the-scenes antics regarding the photo set her mind adrift. She was an only child, and had often felt very lonely growing up. It would’ve been nice to have a few brothers and sisters growing up. But then, she knew the truth about Cody’s siblings. This one was a closet case, that one an alcoholic, those two locked in abusive marriages. How did Cody do so well? Or better question, what did this say about Norah? And here was Kay, all gloss and charm. Was she truly oblivious to the horror of her children’s lives, eyes permanently shielded beneath rose-colored lenses? Was she putting up a bold bourgeois front? Or was she one of these magical thinkers, who threaded together the truths she needed to hear like a fine quilt?
This metaphor had crossed her mind because Kay had now changed the subject to knitting. Kay had finished a scarf that morning; it was blood red and bulbous and hanging on the front door hook. Was Norah a knitter, she asked. No, but she could sew a button here or a patch there. How lovely, how lovely. Then, another lull.
“Listen to it out there,” Kay uttered. The two women were still as the winter wind violently battered the house. Norah pictured Cody in Mona and heard the beating of her own heart.
“Perhaps I should get dinner ready now,” Kay said, rising once more. “I don’t want it to be cold by the time Cody gets here.”
“Wait, I’ll help you.” Norah followed her future mother-in-law into the small kitchen. Her own feet felt lead-weighted as she plodded.
Kay was battering chicken breasts in egg, then breading them in a large bowl of crumbs, then dropping them onto a sizzling pan. Norah absently began to copy these motions before realizing that she was touching animal flesh and yolk. This bothered her a lot less then she thought it might. Perhaps the rhythm of repetition soothed her.
The pan hissed loudly, and the kitchen was rank with the smell of burning fat. Kay was wringing her hands and wiping sweat from her brow between movements. Finally she turned to face Norah, her wide smile now frozen on her as if she were a petrified clown.
“Maybe you should call him again,” she announced, her voice cracking. Kay’s eyes were wild in her skull. It was very off-putting, and the fear Norah tried to bury was now shivering through her whole body.
“I don’t want to disturb him,” she replied. “He needs to focus on the road.”
Kay pondered this, then nodded and returned to the breading. Nearly all breasts were sizzling in the pan, but the last one out of the crumb bowl slid right out of Norah’s hands and plopped onto the floor.
Norah covered her mouth immediately. Kay beheld her with a toothy expression that aligned somewhere between a grin and a grimace. Norah stooped to pick it up, but Kay’s pink sneaker suddenly clamped down on the squishy thing, blocking her access.
“Leave it,” she said. Norah looked up at her and saw a death mask aflame in a halo of kitchen light. She slowly rose, and Kay removed her foot. The splattered raw chicken breast looked like an abortion prop, and terribly out of place on the spotless tile floor. The pan chicken continued to sizzle.
Kay crossed to a small closed window and raised the blinds. Drifts of snow could be seen at level with the pane, and still it continued to fall. The stillness was maddening.
The ironic hip hop of Norah’s ring tone broke the silence as awkwardly as possible. This musical selection indicated an unlisted number. Unknown callers made Norah nervous under the best of situations.
“Hello?” she piped, as she fumbled to bring the device to her ear. The static on the other end roared like an electrical inferno. “Hello?”
After several seconds she disconnected. Kay was staring at her, no longer smiling. The mother’s eyes were agape with panic.
“It was probably a wrong number,” Norah assured her. She had never seen her like this.
Kay slowly retired to the kitchen table, plopping to her chair like a corpse, and began to page through the Bible. Her lips moved silently as she skimmed passages with her fingers.
Norah blinked, unsure of how to behave. She turned to face the chicken in the pan. The tanning patties steamed with deathly smoke.
“Kay, I can’t do this,” she heard herself saying. “Should I be doing something here?”
The single word spoke volumes, as did Kay’s knowing glare.
“Well, I won’t be doing that,” she said as she gestured to Kay’s Bible. Here was the point where the Real Norah would bitchslap the Polite Norah and take over, consequences be damned. There was no stopping it. She had to roll with it to be sane.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Kay hissed back. “I wouldn’t really ask you to do anything. You’re the last person anyone should ask to do anything.”
Norah swallowed. The blood in her body sizzled like the meat.
“The nicest thing I could do right now is ignore you,” she stated. “So I’ll give that one more shot. Why don’t you just sit there and read your little prayers.”
The Bible swung shut. Norah felt Kay studying her as if Norah were a curious fungus under a microscope. Finally, she spoke.
“You don’t know anything about me. You thought you knew all there was to know from the minute you met me. I bet you think you know a great deal of things. You haven’t been married, you haven’t raised a family. You haven’t lived through anything of value. You surround yourself with… pastimes. Culture, causes, all that… crap. You distract yourself from life. That’s… cute. And that’s young. But it’s also useless.”
Norah turned off the stove burner. It had felt good to do that, for some reason.
“Cody told me never to discuss religion or politics with you. But that’s really the least of it. I’d probably enjoy arguing that stuff with you, because you’d have your little talking points, and I guess I’d have mine, and we’d throw them at each other and no one would ever convince the other one of anything, and we could do it all again the next time.
“But the truth is, I can’t really talk to you at all, about anything. Especially important things. Because you pray, and you wish, and you reminisce. That’s all you do. And if those aren’t useless pastimes to me, then I don’t know what is.”
The outside winds continued to howl, and the snowdrifts continued to rise. Norah and Kay now sat on the couch, completely silent since Norah’s last speech. They continued to thumb through photo albums, but there was no narration. Cody was very, very late. There had been no more calls.
Norah studied the other woman peripherally. She no longer seemed angry, just lost in thought. Norah wasn’t angry anymore either. The gazes from the conservative boogiemen in their frames no longer had any power over her. All she felt was sadness. Kay clearly felt the same way. Everything around them and between them felt like an open wound.
Norah imagined floating up out of her body, through the roof, way up high into the snowy night clouds, and looking down at the house below her. It would seem small, and safe, and warm and cozy from her frigid vantage. It would seem like a nice place to live, after all. A nice little home, anchored into a merciless tundra.
Born in Queens, New York in 1977, James R. Silvestri is still trying to find his place in the world, but is enjoying the ride along the way. He graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 1999 and has worked as a supermarket cashier, a dishwasher, a barback, a customer service representative, a freelance writer, a marketing assistant and a parochial school teacher. He is currently an adjunct professor of English at TCI School of Technology in Manhattan and lives in a Queens apartment that could seriously use some dusting.
Silvestri is the author of three screenplays, one of which, Bag Man Ray, is currently in super low-budget independent production. His short stories have appeared/will appear in the literary journals Sick of Em? The Anti-Literary Journal, Kerouac's Dog Magazine, Sci-Fi Short Story Magazine, and Children, Churches & Daddies as well as the anthologies Hawthorn Road, Strange Tales: An Anthology, Dark Things II: Cat Crimes and For the Oceans. Follow his career on Facebook