A Nice Package
by Team Knipper: Chloe De Segonzac and Lani Jo Leigh
Mrs. Florina Assumption tugs at the waistband of her full skirt. Made more than twenty years ago, it is unlike most goods manufactured these days, and has faithfully withstood the test of time. The forest green has not faded, and the gathers still fall neatly over an expansive derriere. But elastic in the waistband has stretched beyond the limits of its flexibility, and it pinches Florina’s love handles. At least that’s what her dear husband, God-rest-his-soul, Mr. Harold Assumption used to call them before the Lord saw fit to take him to heaven on the wings of a brain hemorrhage.
Of course, that was eleven years ago, and now Florina cares for neither love handles nor love. Retired from teaching English at Our Lady of Perpetual Misery parochial school, Florina spends her days keeping house for Father Joseph Poker at the rectory of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
Washing up, cooking, a little mending—days are busy and full. Florina ties the strings of a black and white polka dot apron over the ample folds of her sensible skirt. She likes having a man to take care of, especially one who doesn’t require any ministration to the fleshly desires. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course. A place for everything and everything in its place, Florina is fond of saying. But she’s happy Father Poker has his mind on spiritual matters. How are you today, Flo, my dear, he says. How are those grandchildren? Anything weighing on your heart? She likes the way he says grace before meals and asks a blessing on the hands that prepared the food. Her hands, her heart, her family, her food. That’s what Father Poker cares about.
Father’s been away in Mexico for a month-long retreat, and Florina has missed his company. He’s coming home today, and this morning Florina got up early to decorate the foyer with flowers and a three-foot high banner. Finished with lunch and all her morning chores, Florina paces the floor wondering how she can keep busy for the next few hours before Father Poker arrives. What you need, she tells herself, is a nice cup of tea and a good read.
Florina puts on a pot of water for tea, samples one of the tasty cranberry scones she baked yesterday, and after tidying up a bit, sits back in the comfortable wing chair by the fireplace. With swollen feet elevated on the matching ottoman and reading glasses squarely on her face, Florina is ready to enjoy one of the many romance novels dropped off for the Ladies’ Bazaar, a huge fundraiser for the festival. She has no intention of buying the book, but figures it can’t hurt much if she thumbs through it. After all, it’s already used. Tumescent Summer takes place in Savannah, Georgia in the spring of 1858. Florina has long had a secret crush on Brent Tarleton, and the picture on the front cover looks just like the actor who played him in Gone with the Wind.
Just as she settles in with a half-dressed blond Adonis jumping down from a sweaty thoroughbred, Florina hears the doorbell. Because Father refuses to wear a hearing aide, the sound is amplified ten fold. Even music as beautiful as Ave Maria can be jarring when it’s played at the same volume as a vacuum cleaner, and Florina jumps at the sound. What you need is a nice set of earplugs, she thinks.
The doorbell rings again. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” Florina shouts.
She lumbers to her feet, spilling a bit of tea. As she places Tumescent Summer on the small side table, she realizes Earl Grey has fallen all over Loreli in the flashy blue dress. She wishes Brent would take Loreli away from her violent husband to live with him on Sea Island. Loreli deserves a little happiness after all. “Wait, am I rooting for Loreli to break her marriage vows?” she wonders a bit scandalized.
Strains of Ave Maria peal through the house a third time like a fire truck on its way to a three-alarm fire. “My goodness, who can that possibly be?” Florina frets. “The entire parish knows Father won’t be home until tonight.”
In the entryway, Florina pulls aside lace curtains covering a large pane of beveled glass in the center of the door. She spies the torso of a deliveryman through slatted blinds. The blinds are covered in thick dust, and Florina brushes aside the unwelcome notion that she should be dusting instead of reading.
Pulling back the heavy oak door, Florina squints through the screen door, also thick with dust, and takes in the man in brown.
“Can I help you?” she asks. The sound of her voice is lost in the squeaking of the screen door as it is cracked open.
“Package for Joseph Poker, “ the deliveryman sighs. This is his tenth and last delivery of the afternoon, and he’s ready to dump the truck, finish his paperwork, and hook up with Fred and Mark at the Winking Lizard for Happy Hour.
“Sign here, ma’am.” He hands Florina a cardboard box the size of a waffle iron, and holds out a clipboard.
Florina takes the box in her left hand, but keeps the right in the pocket of her apron along with her rosary. Peering at the address label through her reading glasses, she asks, “Joseph Poker? Do you mean Father Poker?”
Jesus, Mary, Joseph, what does it matter, the young man thinks. Before I hit the bar, maybe I’ll stop at home first. What you need is a nice piece of ass, but you’re not going to get one without a cool shower. The day has been a scorcher, temperatures in the high nineties, and he realizes he smells like sweat and sunscreen. Not exactly a winning combination if humans of the female persuasion are hanging out at the bar.
“Ma’am, the package don’t say nothing about no Father. Sign here.” He holds the clipboard out to Florina once again.
Only two years out from high school, the young man clearly remembers better ways to spend summer days than driving around in a UPS sweatbox. He and Mark and Fred would spend hours on the Sandy at the spot up river where a large oak extends its branches almost clear to the other side. They would climb the tree, crawl out on the longest limb and jump into a pool so deep and cold it would knock the breath right out of them. The girls in their bikinis would laugh, their bodies felt hard and soft, warm and cool, the sand in the blankets scratched, the air was thick with the scent of coconut oil and Pink Sugar, and . . .
“Wait a minute. Aren’t you Billy Eveready? Yes, yes, of course you are. I would know that dreamy expression anywhere. I’m Mrs. Assumption. Sixth grade? Our Lady of Perpetual Misery? Billy, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten your old teacher. Although it’s clear you’ve forgotten the proper use of English grammar.”
“No, Mrs. Assumption, I haven’t forgotten you. Nice to see you again.”
Billy can’t believe his bad luck. Mrs. Assumption always had it in for him. Billy, sit up straight. Billy, your penmanship is atrocious. Billy, one more remark like that and you’re going straight to Father’s office. What you really need is a good stiff drink, he decides.
“Mrs. Assumption, I would love to stay and chat, but I’ve got to get going. Can you sign for the package, please?”
Florina glances at the box in her hand. “But look, Billy, it’s crushed. I can’t sign for Father if I’m not positive the contents are OK. Come in while we open it. It’s hot outside. What you really need is a nice glass of apple cider.”
“Gee, Mrs. Assumption, that’s awfully good of you, but I really have to get going. They keep tabs on us, you know, how long it takes us to make a delivery and all. I’m sure the package is fine. It’s not marked fragile. Just sign here, please.”
“Well, I certainly hope there’s nothing breakable in this box or you’ll have to replace it.” Florina gives her rosary a squeeze, and removing her hand from her pocket she takes the box in both hands and shakes it next to her ear. “I am not signing for this until I’m sure it’s OK, so you’re going to have to come in and wait until I open it.”
Billy scratches his head. Can she open the package without signing for it first, he wonders. He’s only been on the job a couple of weeks, and he doesn’t know all the rules. Maybe he should call the office. But before he can voice any reservations, Florina is on her way to the back of the house.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Come in!” Florina calls over her left shoulder.
Billy takes the first step into the house, and ducks his six-foot frame under “Welcome Home, Father.”
“Stop right there, Billy Eveready. I just waxed those floors. With Father coming home tonight and the Cardinal coming tomorrow for the festival, no dirty shoes are going to mess them up for me. Certainly not yours. So take your shoes off,” she yells back without turning around.
Billy closes the door, takes off his shoes, and lines them up on the shiny fir floors underneath the table with flowers. Stilly carrying the delivery sheet clipboard, he follows Mrs. Assumption through the spacious living room down a dimly lit hallway back to the kitchen. Florina places the box on a long wooden table in the center of the room and retrieves a pair of scissors from the top drawer in an antique sideboard on her right. Looking down out the package, she pushes half glasses up her long nose.
“I really gotta get going, Mrs. Assumption” Billy says with the urgency of a third grader needing a bathroom.
Once again, Florina loves playing the part of teacher, ignoring the upraised hand. “Sit down, Billy, and be quiet while I open this package. Then you can go your merry way.”
Billy reluctantly takes a seat at the end of the table with the clipboard in his lap. “But Mrs. Assumption, they don’t like us to come in for more time than it takes to get a signature.”
“Oh, Billy, you never could sit in one place for very long,” Florina says pointing the scissors in his direction. “Let me get that glass of cider for you. One of the ladies dropped a case off for Father Poker just the other day. He won’t care if you have some.”
Florina sets the scissors down on the table next to the package. Excited to be once again in her element—teacher and student, host and guest—she goes to the fridge and pulls out a bottle of imported Normandy cider. Taking a quart jar from the cabinet to the right of the kitchen sink, Florina fills it with cold hard cider. “Have you been to that new restaurant on Ankenny? It’s called Summer in a Jar. They serve everything in jars—clam chowder, Caesar salad, Grandma’s pot roast. I guess it saves on dishes.” Florina sets the cider in front of Billy. “Now let’s see to this box.”
The return address on the box is smeared, and there is no indication of its contents. Florina slices through the packing tape until she separates the top four cardboard flaps, but sees only Styrofoam peanuts.
Just then a large crash and the insistent mewing of a cat in the next room diverts Florina’s attention. She turns her head toward the living room.
“What’s that cat up to now? Billy, drink your cider. I’ll be right back.”
Florina has been in continuous battle with the white cat Father Poker recently adopted. He’d spent months pretending the cat was just visiting, but every day he would pour a bit of milk into a saucer, open the back door to the garden, and make little “shhh, shhh” sounds until the cat came into the kitchen. With its tail as straight as a broom handle, the cat would show its appreciation by wrapping the entire length of its body around Father’s legs, leaving his pants white with fuzz.
“Flo, my dear,” Father Poker said. “I think we should officially welcome this cat to our home. What should we name him?”
Father Poker let out a hearty laugh. “ I don’t think I should be heard calling for Lucifer day and night. Let’s call him Jonah.”
Florina walks quickly through the dining room looking for the cat.
“There you are, Jonah. What did you get into now?”
The cat starts purring at the sight of Florina, for no matter how much she cursed him, she also was comforted by his companionship during long days spent alone. And as for the trouble, Florina doesn’t need to look much further than the cat’s whiskers. The potted palm tree is on the floor, with pieces of the orange glazed pot scattered about. The poor plant seems to have broken a few of its large leaves.
“Oh you are such a pest,” she says, shooing the cat into the next room. Florina’s torn between going back to the kitchen or cleaning the mess, but decides it’s best to attend to the broken plant right away and prevent a possible stain.
“Billy, can you hear me?”
“Yes, Mrs. Assumption?”
“Be a good boy. Open the box and check that nothing’s damaged.”
“OK, Mrs. Assumption, but then I really gotta get outa here. My boss is expecting the truck back.”
Florina ignores Billy, and walks out the side door to the small shed adjacent to the main house. She returns to the house with a bag of potting soil, a little trowel, a broom and dustpan, and a five-gallon bucket to collect the broken pieces and the spilled dirt.
Billy listens to Mrs. Assumption walk back and forth. How long is this gonna take, he wonders. He chugs back the jar of cider and immediately feels flushed. Whoa, that’s some cider, he thinks. I wonder what’s in it?
“Mrs. Assumption, what do you want me to do with these peanuts?”
Florina gingerly kneels down on arthritic knees and delicately gathers broken pieces of the pot to deposit into the bucket. “Just put them in the garbage can under the sink.”
Billy opens the cabinet underneath the sink, pulls out a blue plastic garbage can, and begins dumping Styrofoam peanuts into it until he is left staring at a flat plastic package. Inside there’s a business card edged in gold with text in large block letters. Billy reads the three lines with an ever-increasing sense of anxiety.
Life-size Virgin Mary
Cyber-skin, Natural Hair
Selected for your Personal, Private Pleasure.
Underneath the card he sees the outline of a face with blue eyes and ruby red lips that even Angelina Jolie would envy.
Still on her knees Florina starts sweeping the dirt. “Billy, are you still in the kitchen?” The white cat leaps at the bristles of the broom in motion, and the dustpan spills its contents.
“Yes, Mrs. Assumption, and umm, I…”
“We should have called you Lucifer. Now, be on your way. Well, go on,” and she gives the cat a little tap on his backside.
“Are you speaking to me, Mrs. A?” Billy asks.
“No, yes, well, what’s in the box?”
Florina gets up from the floor, holding on to the dinning room table with one hand, and pushing on the broom handle with the other.
What you really need is another glass of cider, Billy thinks. “It’s a . . . uh, well it’s a . . . balloon? Of the Virgin Mary?”
“Did you say a balloon of the Virgin Mary?” Florina’s voice sounds incredulous.
“Well, umm, I’m not quite sure what . . .”
“Billy Eveready, is it or is it not a balloon? Should I come and see for myself?”
“Yes, NO, no need, Mrs. Assumption, the card definitely says Virgin Mary.”
“Oh, how lovely. I bet Father ordered it for Our Lady’s festival this weekend. Let’s make sure there are no surprises at the last minute. Why don’t you blow it up?”
Taking another look at cyber-skin Mary, Billy wants to bolt. “Mrs. Assumption, I’m sure it’s fine. You know, I really gotta get going. My boss is probably wondering where I’m at. Won’t you sign the delivery sheet now?”
“Billy, I’ll be happy to sign it once we know the balloon wasn’t punctured by your carelessness.”
Silence reigns from the kitchen.
“I really don’t want to upset Father Poker,” Florina continues. “If he ordered it special, he must be anxious to have it. It won’t take long, I promise.”
Billy hesitates before saying yes. What an old biddy. Even after eight years, she’s still pulling my strings. Well, I might as well get this over with so I can get outa here. “OK, Mrs. Assumption, but I really gotta go after this.”
Florina exhales. Billy’s been quite a big help with this unexpected chore. I think we’ll put it up right away—a nice little treat for Father when he comes home. The palm is back on the little table, centered on the white doily Mrs. Pointsetter gave the rectory last Christmas. As Florina walks to the side door carrying the little trowel, the broom and dustpan, and the five-gallon bucket now filled with broken pottery, spilled dirt, and the empty potting soil bag, she thinks about this weekend’s festival for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and her trip to Mexico the previous year. She had loved the fruits offered to her every morning, the warm sun, the wonderful Christian devotion, but most of all she had fallen in love with the painting of Our Lady, with her cerulean mantle and gold trim, the little gold stars surrounded by golden sunrays. She chose a print to bring back with her with the inscription “Let not your heart be distressed, are you not under my protection?” and she rereads those words everyday on her way out into the world.
When her eye catches the empty vase in the middle of the dining room table, she decides to take it out to the garden with her. The flowers in the foyer are so pretty, she muses, it would be nice to have them all over the house.
“Billy, I’m going out in the garden. I’ll be right back. Hurry up with that balloon. I can’t wait to see it.”
Billy lifts the plastic package out of the box and pulls apart the top. He prides himself on his familiarity with female bodies. As he removes the cyber-skin body, Billy knows this is different. So life-like, yet . . . yet not life-like at all.
It’s creepy, that’s what it is, he decides. The “natural hair” is glued to the top like an old man’s toupee, and Billy fights the urge to laugh. He locates the mouthpiece inside a dark brown circle on the left of the torso and starts to blow. I don’t think Father intended this for the festival.
The two legs pop out first, toes painted in a French manicure. Great, Billy thinks, perfect for a virgin bride. And now as the arms fill with air, they open wide as if ready for a crucifixion. Billy suppresses a giggle and hopes God doesn’t smite him dead for being so sacrilegious. He looks down and realizes that the “natural hair” is naturally located on other parts of the body, too. Just above Mary’s painstakingly, anatomically true-to-life private parts. And like many of his former girlfriends, the hair colors on top and bottom don’t match.
This time a burst of laughter echoes through the kitchen. Billy knows he’s feeling more that just the effects of the cider. He’s probably hyperventilating from blowing up Mary. He’s dizzy. Man, I should be feeling this way after leaving the Lizard, not before.
Florina returns from the garden with a large bouquet of pink and red roses, yellow sunflowers, purple Japanese irises, and white Asters. “What’s so funny in there, young man?”
“Nothing, Mrs. A. I’ve got the balloon all blown up. No punctures anywhere. Do you want me to let the air out now? Can you please sign the delivery slip?”
“I’ll just be a few more minutes, doll. Would you mind hanging the balloon in the entrance with the other decorations? You can find string in the top left drawer of the sideboard. I’ll come and sign the slip in a flash of a lamb’s tail.”
“Are you sure that’s what Father wants?” Billy asks.
“Yes, he’s expecting this, don’t worry Billy, and I’ll give you all the credit.” She lowers the vase on the table careful not to spill the water. Pleased with herself she walks back to the side door and locks it.
“All right, whatever you say, Mrs. Assumption. And please, I don’t want credit. Don’t mention my name.”
Billy plugs the stem so air can’t leak out, and then cuts a few feet of string. He feels funny about leaving Mary naked. I thought these things usually came with some clothes, he murmurs. Maybe they’re coming in another box. What you really need is a nice bathrobe like my mother’s. Still it’s not right to leave her like this, he decides, so he takes off his brown UPS shirt, removes his undershirt, and threads the life-size doll’s arms through its sleeves. Billy’s embarrassed by his sweaty armpits even in front of this female impersonator, and as he tugs the damp undershirt over the doll’s torso, he sees a bit of pubic hair peeking out from underneath. Well, I guess that can’t be helped, he thinks as he takes the length of string and ties a monkey hitch around the waist.
Billy passes the dining room and hears Mrs. Assumption still puttering with the broken palm fronds. In the foyer he ties the doll to a coat rack under the banner. There, Father Poker’s gonna get quite the homecoming.
He retreats back to the kitchen, quickly throws on his uniform shirt, and grabs the clipboard, taking it to Mrs. Assumption in the dining room.
“No leaks, Mrs. A. And the balloon is hanging up by the banner. Just sign this and I’ll be out of your hair.” He hands her the clipboard, which she finally signs.
He must have gotten awfully hot blowing up that balloon. For the first time Florina notices Billy’s curly chest hair, sweat glistening on his neck. She blushes thinking of Brent on the cover of Tumescent Summer. “Thanks, Billy, you’ve been a big help. Make sure you send my regards to your mother.”
Through the sheer curtains covering the dining room, Florina watches the UPS delivery truck pull away and out of view. She scans the room to make sure nothing is out of place. Hearing the sound of a car engine close by, she wonders if Billy’s forgotten something. I did sign that damn slip, didn’t I? She glances out the window, and sees nothing. Relieved to have the house to herself again, she decides to make a final walk-through to inspect the house before Father’s arrival.
Let’s see how the Virgin looks, she thinks as she walks down the hallway toward the foyer. I bet Father will be tickled pink.
A few steps away from the entrance, Florina looks up and sees a wet t-shirt clinging to a shapely derriere. Two pink legs dangle directly above her lovely arrangement of white lilies. Her breath is caught midway between her diaphragm and throat. Blood rushes to her face. Florina gasps. Then a loud cry escapes from her lips as the front door begins to open.
© 2010 Chloe De Segonzac and Lani Jo Leigh