Friday, December 13, 2013

Lily Steps Out by Rita Plush: Spotlight and Excerpt

 



Empty nest, retired husband … after thirty-three years of making beds and cooking dinners, Lily Gold has had it. She has a brain. Why isn’t she using it? Much to the mocking disbelief of her now retired husband and grown son, Lily “steps out” of the comfortable life she knows and decides to look for a job. It isn’t so easy to find one, but once she does it’s a perfect fit. Antiques! Right up her alley. Lily works and loves it, but Leon doesn’t like not having her at his beck and call. When he discovers she wants to open her own antique center, he runs to the bank and empties their joint savings account. This is marriage? This is war! Follow Lily as she turns the status quo into quid pro quo and gives her husband a run for the money.


 




 

Chapter 1
LILY STEPS OUT
LILY
Sex, Lily thinks, next to Leon in their bed, everything is better after sex—even her thighs are a little thinner—but for how long? The afterglow will fade soon, and then it will be business as usual for them… one with a scar down his chest, one with the cellulite dimpling her thighs. Suburban married housewife married thirty-three years, and what has she got to show for it? Making beds and fixing breakfast.  
Resting on her side, she watches the filmy curtains. They ripple, they dance. Puffed up, they rise off the carpet and balloon into the room, until without warning, the earth’s great breath sucks them flat against the window screen. Again they fill with air, flutter still and stay that way. The breeze has gone, turned on its heel. In search of another dancing partner? She puts an ear to Leon’s chest.  
“I’m alive,” he assures, and throws an arm around her. His fingers play her bare arm. “That was dynamite.”  
“Ummm.” She presses into him, and in the early morning silence of their room, she thinks what would she do if he had died? A sudden panic seizes her. Suppose he was in danger again? To safeguard his body from imagined assault, she gets on top of him. Chest to chest, legs to legs, she kisses his face and neck. That’s how she is with him, with the warm beat of his body under hers, desperate to keep him safe. As if he feels what she feels, thinks what she is thinking, he murmurs, “What would I do without you?”  
Him do without her? Is he kidding? She rolls off, sits up. “You? Women will take numbers just for the chance to make you a fat-free meal. It’s me who’d have the problem. Some eighty year-old looking for a nurse, that’s who I’d get.” 
“One hell of a nurse. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.” 
 He’s right. She was the one last spring, while Leon was driving and suddenly gasped, grabbing at his chest. She, who leaned over his slumped body and fumbled with the wheel… swerving, accelerating, slamming the brake, blaring the horn. Let me through!  Let me through!  And begging Leon, “Please don’t die,” all the way to Emergency.  
But outside of that, what has she done? Outside of all the work of wife and mother, what has she accomplished? She has a brain; why isn’t she using it?  
She fends off his hand reaching for her breast. “No.” She swings off the bed and goes to her bureau drawers.  
He sits up. “One minute you’re screwing like there’s no tomorrow, and now it’s no?  What about breakfast then?”  
He wants a trade-off. No feel? Then feed me. But Lily isn’t in a bartering mood. “You fix it today. I bought Egg Beaters; you can make a nice omelet,” she says to the mirror, to Leon, who’s leaning back on his elbows watching her get dressed.  
She steps first one foot then the other into her cleaning pants, pulls an old shirt on over her head. She fluffs her hair. “Get the phone, will you?”  
Leon picks up. “Hey, how’s the dynamo?” he says.  
Diane, Lily thinks. If she’s five feet it’s stretching it, but the drive packed into that tidy little frame. Because she’s been at the wheel all this time? She had to be. Her husband took a hike and took along his masseuse, a Viking queen who’d come to the house, twice a week, to walk on his back. Diane got the kids and the mortgage, years ago. Now she heads an insurance agency. People work for her. It makes Lily think back to what Diane said last week when they met for a quick lunch.  
‘Three meals a day, what’s with you? Get with the program, Kiddo. June Cleaver traded in her apron for a brain and a briefcase a long time ago. Or haven’t you heard?’  
‘Oh, I heard,’ was Lily’s reply. ‘Betty White is Hot in Cleveland and I’m nowhere. He wants me around all the time. I breathe in, he breathes out. Where are you going? When will you be back? That’s his favorite line. I never thought it would be this way when he retired. I just thought it would be. And his health is fine now. What am I supposed to do? Sit around and hope he doesn’t have another heart attack?’ 
‘You need a job. Come work for me. I’ll train you.’ 
Lily recalls throwing her napkin down on the table. ‘I’m so trained a ball is spinning on my nose.’  
That’s when Diane leaned in, scooped her hair back behind her ears and said, ‘Then maybe it’s time the lady broke training.’ 
Lily’s been thinking about it. It makes her depressed. She shakes her head when Leon holds out the phone. “Tell her I can’t talk,” she says. She wriggles her feet into her slippers.  
“Madam is busy,” Leon says into the phone. “She’ll call you back.”
 
He rummages through the sheets, finds his pajama bottoms, hitches them up, and ties the strings. “Don’t do me any favors with breakfast—I can get my own meals.” 
“Good,” she says, face to face with his bare-chest. “Get mine while you’re at it. I’m sick of cooking.”  
She doesn’t like the long pucker scar where Dr. D. Klott—formerly Daniel Klotsky—broke into his chest. ‘Bad hearts and bypasses, that’s my business,’ the young, chubby-cheeked surgeon said outside Recovery. Paper hat still on, green scrubs and white booties, he grinned and gave two thumbs up. This was a doctor? An infant… a child. She felt like writing him a bar mitzvah check.  
She must look at his scar though. Leon’s scar is her scar. What was done to him was done to her. But she took it too far. Like an ingredient in a recipe, she baked herself into him, and she isn’t sure now if she can bake herself out. Face it Lily. He made your life. Wife. Mother. Widow, if he dies. He’s been your title giver and title taker away. 
She moves to the window, draws back the curtains, and looks out onto the street—a quiet residential street of three-bedroom ranch houses, just outside the city line. The maple tree they planted out by the curb, how long ago was it? For years, a skinny crooked tree that had to be pegged into the ground, and now look how it straightened out. The size of the trunk, the leaves! 
She sits back down on the edge of the bed. He sits. 
“I have to do something. Before some young pisher wearing my jewelry climbs into my bed and gets you to do over the kitchen. The second wife gets everything.” 
“Very funny. Like I’m going to outlive you.” 
“It’s the healthy one who goes first,” Lily says. “Look at Gail, a regular horse, and on day—boom—an embolism. Don’t you see?” She shows him her palm as if Gail had been laid out in the flat of her hand. “And Sammy with his arthritis of the spine? He’s a dance hose on a cruise ship! Tell me about life expectancy!” She brings down her hand like a guillotine. “And he’s seeing someone. Gail’s gone three months. Men have their pick, Leon. Nothing new there.” 
“That’s what you’re afraid of? Who’s going to want you if I drop dead?” 
What she’s afraid of doesn’t have a name, but it’s getting bigger by the minute. She can barely contain it. It pushes her off the bed and sends her stomping down the hall. He keeps up with her, stopping short of the closet when she stops.  
“What it is then? Me? Haven’t I always let you…? It’s the kitchen isn’t it?” 
How she had wanted to gut that room, build out; put the dinette where the sink is, a big picture window and a full view of the yard. She could’ve watched Larry when he was young playing out there. The contractors with their rolled-up plans—elevation A, elevation B. They would move the stove, the old fashioned soffits would go, and there would be cabinets up to the ceiling. But it was too much money then. And later on, when Leon was more established and she’d asked again, he’d said it wasn’t the right time. 
“You want a kitchen so bad, we’ll get some estimates.” His tone is airy, benevolent, but with an edge. You win, it says—but only because he says so. 
She scowls. “You want to redo the kitchen now? So I can spend the rest of my life in there? No thanks.” 
She swings open the closet door, stoops, and pulls out the vacuum. Then she grabs the hose and the attachments and deposits them into his receiving arms. “I’m fifty-five years old,” she says. “Do you realize that the fastest growing age group in America is people over a hundred? I could live another forty-five years. What am I going to do with all that time?” 
“Larry’s not going to be single forever,” he replies amiably. “You’ll be busy with grandchildren one day.” 
“One day when? And I don’t care about grandchildren.”  Not true. She’s dying to be a grandmother. 
“What the…?” he says, when she opens the door to Larry’s old room. 
It gives her a shock too, the little feathers strewn all over the floor, as if someone had torn apart the pillow last night. Keeping quiet about her guilt, she recalls lying awake in bed last night, unable to sleep, staying very still so as not to disturb Leon. She had listened to the oil burner kick in, and a while later shut itself off. She heard the metal arm of the icemaker clink rows of cubes into its dewy tray. She put an ear to Leon’s face to make sure he was breathing. Then she slipped away and opened the door to Larry’s old room.  
Earring-studded rocks stars still clung to the wall. An old Playboy centerfold smiled emptily, leeringly, spread-eagled on the night-table. She sat on the edge of her son’s abandoned bed, holding his pillow, so worn and thin and slept-on. Like a fine membrane, the ticking had actually dissolved in her fingers when she reached inside the case. As though under a spell, she flung the pillow up at the ceiling. Feathers drifted down, turning in the air, settling. She stood awhile before she brushed them from her shoulders and shook them from her hair. Then barefoot, she padded back to her room, to sleeping Leon.  
Bending over now, Lily picks up the ticking and folds it into a neat little square before dropping it into the waste can. “I have to get this mess cleaned up,” she says. 
Leon sets down the vacuum hose and the attachments, waits in the doorway. “I’ll help.” 
“Go have breakfast.” 
He waits for a moment, then walks away. She plugs the cord into the wall and goes to work on the carpet, pushing the vacuum over the feathers. First she cuts a narrow path through the pile, then another path, a little wider, then wider still, until all the feathers are gone. The whine of the motor and the mindless back and forth movement of her arm calms her, as housework often does. She snaps the floor brush into place, trails it along the baseboard, and finds herself thinking about Larry. 
In high school there was that pretty exchange student from Hofstra College who was helping him with algebra. Lily had stood outside his door, the napkin-wrapped rugelach from her Hadassah luncheon in one hand, knuckles of the other poised to knock. She started to say his name but stopped. His moans and the girl’s high-pitched little cries. 
“No kidding?” Leon had said that night when Lily told him. “Nice ass on her.” He cupped his palms and hefted the air. 
“You’re disgusting.” 
But he wasn’t disgusting: he was just being a man, saying what a man would say in a case like that. But what if Lily would have said that about the darling boy in those snug jeans she’d hired to take over the tutoring? It’s different for a woman. A woman can’t get away with what a man can. Sex, she thinks, brush-cleaning the windowsills. What would happen to sex if Leon died?  A woman her age, who would she get? What would it be like with another man? Would she be shy again like a young bride? Or would it be like smoking when she went back to it that time…beginning right where she left off? She feels a little guilty thinking about sex with someone else while Leon is scrambling his Egg Beaters in the kitchen… just a little.  
She takes down Larry’s posters. “You are disgusting.” She jabs the brush at pelvis-thrusting Mick Jagger, still tacked to the wall. “Married to Jerry, how long? And you come up with that cockamamie priest who wasn’t a priest, so you could get away without alimony. Please.” She rolls up the bony rocker and darts him into the waste can. “Who taught you how to dance? Who gave you those moves?” she says to the can. “A woman thank you. Yaaay Tina.” She pops out the brush, reaches down for the flat ended crevice tool. She tries out her catwalk, tosses her rough jungle hair, and hoists the vacuum hose over her shoulder. With the flat end to her mouth, she back-kicks the long cord that snakes on the just-vacuumed stage and bows humbly to her thrilled and mystified fans screaming, Lill-lee! Lill-lee. 
“What’s luuuhv got to do with it?” She struts, she stomps. “Baaay-beh. Bay-yaay-yaay-beh.”  Fearless. Nervy. Endless legs in spandex capris. She’s moving. She’s grooving. She snaps the vacuum cord as if to subdue a beast. That Ike creep, those beatings Tina took. Unbelievable. Not really though. People get used to their life; they don’t think it can be any other way. But Tina showed him. She showed the word. “Priii-avit daaan-ser, a dancer for muuunee…” She stops, sniffs the air. After shave. She turns. “Leon.” 
“Shake it baby. Shake it.” He grins broadly. 
“That’s not funny, standing there watching me. You could have said something.” 
“Priii-vait daaan-ser,” he mimics, rocking his hips under the breakfast tray he holds out to her. “Madam says fix her meals. Madam gets her meals fixed.”  
“Thank you.” It isn’t easy being annoyed at a thoughtful man. 
He sets the tray down on Larry’s desk. Once a stocky man, his sporty shirt and chinos fit is newly trimmed-down size—doctor’s orders—and make her suck in her paunch and vow another diet. His face glows and, except for the fleshy area under his chin and the slight pouched look under his eyes, he looks fit. He’s had sex and survived. He’s alive, he’s a man again. 
She remembers him on the gurney, so still and chalky white. Her freezing terror that he might die. The nights alone in the house. She slept in his pajamas, willing herself to be inside him, pumping his heart, pushing the blood through his stopped-up veins. Live Leon, live! she begged. And now she’s not satisfied just to have a live Leon? What kind of wife is she? 
She makes a place next to the tray and boosts herself onto the desk. A sip of coffee, a spread of butter on the toast he brought. She bites, chews, she swings her legs.
“Let’s get in the car and go,” Leon says. 
“Where to?” Lily responds, working her legs. 
“Wherever the car takes us.” He opens out his arms. “I’m retired, remember? I have all the time in the world.” 
How could she forget? Their little jaunts to Waldbaums. This cucumber? No that one. Do we have enough paper towels? Last week he parked on a husband’s chair’ in Loehmans, waiting for her to go through the racks. Her life is we now. She wants me now.





Rita Plush is an author, teacher and interior designer. Her writing practice includes fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the novel Lily Steps Out (Penumbra Publishing, May 2012), and is at work on a second novel that follows some of the characters in Lily Her short story collection Alterations was published by Penumbra in May 2013. She has lectured on the decorative arts at libraries throughout Long Island, at Hofstra University and CW Post-Hutton House and is Coordinator of the Interior Design & Decorating Certificate at Queensborough Community College where she teaches several courses in the program.

Rita, and the publication of Lily Steps Out was the feature article—“published and proud”—in Newsday’s Act II section in July, 2012, and “Rita Steps Out,” was featured in the Times Ledger  August, 2012. She has guest blogged about writing on Best Chick Lit, Women Fiction Writers and Dames of Dialogue to name a few.  

Visit her at www.ritaplush.com for more news about Rita.


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