All Stories, General Fiction

Just the Way She Likes It by Sharon Louise Howard

Mary deadheaded the bruise-brown marigolds with a quick jab of her small shears, accepting a certain amount of collateral damage. Finger-pinching took too long.

On the far side of the front lawn the mower shut down. Mary’s hand shot forward, the shears snapped shut and a tumble of golden-eyed blooms stared up at her. Nate had finished. She tried to ignore his approach as he made his way across the lawn to return the mower to the backyard shed. But he paused beside her where she knelt near the front corner of the house. Mary tipped her head back. It hurt her neck to peer at him from beneath the rim of her wide-brimmed hat. His shadow loomed over her, his face a tan moon that blocked the sun.

“You done yet?” he said.

“Still the petunias and pansies along the side.”

“Be quick about it.”

She pushed to her feet, one hand under her protruding belly as if it could lessen the weight of her seven-month pregnancy. She wobbled slightly from the tingle in her legs. Mary stood still a moment until the feeling subsided, until she could move her legs with certainty.

Nate shot a glance toward the house next door. “I’ll grab a beer, then help you.”

He moved on, taking his shadow with him. The sun slapped the side of her face. Mary bowed her head and pulled the hat lower. He had to put the mower away, too. She could try it now. She could walk over to the neighbors, knock on their door and ask—for what? Maybe no one was even home. One of the two cars was not in the driveway. Nothing moved, not even the usual hint of fingers parting the window blinds. Mary made her unsteady way around the corner to the side yard and knelt beside the petunia bed.

She couldn’t risk it.

Mary snipped the tender tentacles that threatened to reach out and run through the grass, out of line with the boundaries. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t loved flowers. When she was four, her mother had set her up with a pack of seeds, a watering can, and her own garden bed beside their house. The other children on the block had teased her when she spent more time with her flowers than with them. “Mary, Mary quite contrary,” they would call out as they passed. Though she wasn’t—wasn’t the least bit contrary, not then and certainly not now. Mary worked her shears with quick strokes, snipping the green stems and the lavender-pink blooms until all that remained were the bunched ones set pretty and neat behind the silver-metal edging of the flower bed.

Flowers were her one real joy, but not like this. Not done up in neat rows, huddled within strict limits. She wanted a wildflower meadow of rampant disorder, but that would have ruined the look of Nate’s perfect yard. She wanted a rave of flowers, and that was what Nate had promised her when they made their next move out, way out where there were no neighbors to see. It would be their fifth move in three years—each time to a place where the world closed in on them a little less. Here the houses were widespread with bands of trees between, except for the house next door, that of their landlord. Most of the family seemed hardly ever home, making their presence felt mainly on the weekends, which included many very loud and very late Saturday night parties. Something that would not do at all, Nate had decided, especially after the baby arrived.

Part of her wanted to look forward to this new move—no neighbors that she would have to ignore, a large yard near the woods where she could let her flowers run free and wild as they wanted. She imagined a place where she could move with ease, leave the drapes open during the day, and not have to hide her swollen eyes beneath large floppy hats. Imagined, too, a protective womb like that which surrounded her daughter. Imagined Nate calmer.

Then that other image would hit her, and make her breath catch in her throat—that of an isolation so deep she would surely drown in it.

Behind her a car pulled into the driveway next door. She should go inside, she should rise at once and at least go to the back of the house. Instead, she imagined herself getting up and heading straight for the car, getting inside and refusing to budge until they drove her away, as far away as possible. It didn’t matter where.

“Mary, what the hell?” Nate stood at the back corner of the house. He strode toward her with grim purpose.

Mary could not move, even to stand up.

A beer in one hand, Nate waved the other. “Vince,” he called out over her head, “Have that last check to you tomorrow. Sorry about it being late.” Car doors slammed, but no one approached. Nate took hold of her arm above the elbow and pulled her to her feet. His jagged nails bit into her flesh.

He leaned close. “What’s the deal?”

At first, she thought he’d read her mind, and then her foot kicked something solid as he yanked her away from the bed. She looked back. The garden shears were stuck straight up in the grass where red clay scars blemished the manicured lawn. Mary couldn’t help a quick smile, which turned to a grimace when Nate guided her toward the back of the house. He thrust her down onto the porch steps and backed away. She stared down at his work boots.

“He say something to you, Mare?”

“What? Who?”

“Vince. Or is there someone else?”

“No—no one at all, you know that.”

“Look at me, damn it. I’ve seen the way he stares at you.”

Mary raised her head. “I’m sorry about the lawn.”

Nate reached over and snatched her hat from her head. He tossed it onto the porch. “Forget that. Not talking about that.”

“I’m pregnant, enormously so.” She needed to shut up, she knew that. “What man would want—why you don’t even….” Mary pursed her lips.

“Not getting enough? That your pathetic excuse?”

She shook her head. “Nate, I never even talked to him, to anyone.” The baby kicked hard into her right side. She clutched at her lower abdomen afraid that her bladder would give way at any moment. “I need to pee.”

“As always. How convenient.”

Mary stared up at him like a small child waiting for permission. He took a step forward, then turned and walked away.

“Gotta check on the damage to the lawn,” he called back.

“Said I was sorry. I don’t know what happened.”

“Doesn’t matter, we’re out of here in a week.”

Mary scrambled to her feet and headed for the bathroom. Whatever was coming, she wasn’t going to face it with a full bladder. She took as long as she could on the toilet and then sat there even longer, her mind as numb as her legs had been. Mary focused on washing her hands and drying them thoroughly. Then she moved into the adjoining bedroom and changed out of her sweaty, grass-stained clothes. She heard Nate banging around in the kitchen. She sat on the edge of the bed. A nap is what she needed, but that was not possible. Sleep would elude her. Mary didn’t move until she heard the screech of the screen door and Nate’s footfalls on the wooden steps. At least he hadn’t come after her. That was something—for now.

She crept out of the bedroom and back down the hall and through the kitchen. On the counter by the sink sat the hulls of a dozen squeezed lemons and a dusting of spilled sugar. Mary paused at the screen door. Nate was sitting on the step she’d vacated earlier. She studied the stillness of his broad back and hunched shoulders, which told her nothing. So she stepped through the door and sat down beside him.

He did not acknowledge her presence, but continued to drink his second beer. The first can teetered at the edge of the bottom step, crushed nearly flat. Nate swallowed the last gulp, crushed the second can and said, “It’s the baby, right? Making you all crazy like.”

Mary shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe.”

He grunted and turned away to pick up something next to him. He handed her a glass of iced lemonade, and grinned. “Fresh made, lots of lemon and a little sugar.”

“Thanks,” Mary said, taking the cold glass. His gaze was calm and expectant. Once again so much like the man she’d married three years before. She took a sip of the lemonade, and then grinned back at him. “Just the way I like it.”


Sharon Louise Howard

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8 thoughts on “Just the Way She Likes It by Sharon Louise Howard”

  1. Much goes on inside the piece. Aside from the symbolism, and beyond the questions raised in the reader’s mind, comes an air of quiet desperation. Although the writer displays her own voice, Mary is a fine character who Shirley Jackson would be proud of.


  2. Beautifully written and hopelessly touching story of a sweet young pregnant wife drowning in a sea of flowers as she clips the dead heads. Offered the gift of a glass of lemonade by her abusive and controlling husband, she accepts it and her trapped life with a grin, unaware that she has joined the army of lost souls. I look forward to more stories from you, Sharon.


  3. Hi Sharon,
    There are many stories of this type but yours has an understated class about it.
    There are recognisable traits which some would rather ignore to make the work different but in doing that they would take away the authenticity. You weren’t frightened to let the character take centre stage from the events.
    It takes a skillful writer to write a common theme.
    I look forward to seeing what else you come up with.


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