Each year, the Piccolo Fiction Open suggests a theme that writers can interpret however they like, to their best literary ability. It’s the tenth year for the contest, sponsored by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, and Present Tense is the theme. Nearly 150 entries tackled different variations on the idea.
Five stories were chosen by judges Gail Westerfield, Michelle Mueller, and Lisa Annelouise Rentz: "This Story Takes Place on a Ship" by Carmen Bush, "Five Finger Discount" by Susanna Glattly, "Cedar Waxwing" by Emily Wood, "Music Appreciation, a Correspondence Course" by James Foster Osborne, and "Presently, the Tension Drains" by Heather Magruder. The stories will be read on Sat. June 5 at 5 p.m. at Blue Bicycle Books (420 King St.). You can also check out the PFO archive housed at eatgoodbread.com.
"Presently, the Tension Drains" by Heather Magruder is shared here. "Magruder understands the deep entrenchment of disappointment and hostility in families," Mueller says. "In a small amount of space, she conveys mood and setting concisely and unforced. Ina’s character is understood and recognizable in our own lives."
Presently, the Tension Drains
By Heather Magruder
Ina’s pink-slippered feet press against the grey tile of the laundry room floor. Her sweet-pink painted nails curl around the handle of the iron. She bears down, creasing Humphrey’s grey slacks.
The size of the waist of him, she thinks. A hippopotamus would be embarrassed. And him out on that old bicycle of his. In the rain.
The cycling might make a difference if he wasn’t likely to stop off and have a latte and a cream bun at Nardini’s on the front, staring out at the Firth of Clyde and the western Scottish islands beyond. Or a cup of tea and a bacon butty when he gets home, staring into the tele. Or both.
Ina turns over the trousers, lining up the edges again, pressing hard as she moves the iron over the starched polyester blend. Razors she’s after, thin blades reaching from pleated waist to cuffed ankles; razors to match what she feels, the words she wishes she could say to the adult son upstairs. Their Great Hope, he was, now turned into a great lummox, making and unmaking the same remote-controlled car day after day. Once the lad was champion of the physics team at university. Once he was married to his lab partner, a brilliant girl, and with a nice, dimpled chin as well. Nearly made you not notice the buckteeth. Cecil hadn’t noticed, anyway, until a few months ago.
"I’ve just gone off her, Mum," he said, dragging his suitcase up the front stairs to his old room just the other day.
He’s gone off alright, Ina thinks.
She adds starch, turns the trousers again, hears the rain, harder, on the roof.
Humphrey comes dripping in just as she’s lifting his double-starched, sharp-edged slacks from the ironing board. Soaked, he is, soaked through, yet somehow telltale pale dots of creamy dough still cling at the corners of his mouth. He peels off jacket, jumper, trousers; he keeps going — vest, socks, underpants.
Humphrey stands, wrinkly pink toes on the smooth tile.
"Shove over, darlin’." He elbows her, lightly. "I’ve to dry my skivs here."
There’s something else that’s gone off, Ina thinks.
The white y-fronts flop onto the ironing board, wet. Ina has a pile of laundry and anger to work through. And now there’ll be a wet spot on the ironing board.
Humphrey’s pale legs seem to sprout directly from his tummy. He reminds Ina a wee bit of a Mr. Potato Head from her childhood. They used actual potatoes when she was a girl — poked stray buttons and other bits in for their eyes and nose and so on. Twigs from the garden for legs, modeling clay feet.
Humphrey’s whale hump of a belly jiggles slightly as he runs the iron over the cotton, drying one side with the heat. He flips the underpants to the other side, not moving them to a dry spot. His tongue reaches for the edge of his mouth, perhaps in concentration. It finds and curls around the cream puff remnant.
Ina slides out of her slippers, turns for the door, pulls on her Wellington boots. She steps out.
"Only be another minute," Humphrey calls after her.
Ina marches, she doesn’t know where, in the direction of the sea, the frothy Firth of Clyde like an ocean of freshly pulled pints. Not normally a drinker at all, Ina thinks she might fancy one today. She passes the pub, though, but stops short of the sea, diverting herself with the park at the end of the close.
Snowdrops huddle at the feet of the trees. Ina leaves the path, sloshes across the wet grass, slumps in front of a cluster of them. She admires the slender stalks, wonders at the delicate flowers, so bold as to bloom in the face of the Scottish winter and with the good sense to keep their heads down. Shrouded in white petals, they see only their slim green stalks and never have to face cloud or wind or rain. What snow might fall is landed, settled, peaceful by the time it comes under their gaze.
Ina leans over, vaguely realizing that the wet has soaked through her jacket and trousers and underpants already. She grasps a stalk, gently at first, between thumb and forefinger. Ina squeezes. She bends the stalk backwards. She pulls, snapping the wee white head right off. The rain slackens. The wind stills a bit. The wet spreads down her legs. She drops the first head, not even looking. Ina reaches for another and another.
Ina has shouted at boys for doing this very thing to the daffodils that line the main street in the village. Years ago, when Cecil was 14 or so, she shouted at him and a friend, doing the same to her very own tulips at the end of the drive. She wonders if someone will come to the park and shout at her, a woman, older than she, not that many of those exist any more or are fit enough to come out in weather. She wonders if she should shout at herself.
Ina grasps, bends, snaps, drops, again and again and again until only one blossom remains.
"There." She leans closer to it. "Now we can see you."
Ina rises, presently feeling the tension drained, not caring, even, about the grass stains that surely must mark the backs of her trousers. She dusts herself off, wiggles her toes.
They are warm and dry in her Wellies.
Heather Magruder is a writer, teaching artist, and arts integration consultant who lives in Greenville with her husband, children, cat, dogs, and bagpipes. Heather is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte. Her work is published in a variety of literary journals. "Presently the Tension Drains" is the third of her works to be selected for the Piccolo Fiction Open. She grew up in Scotland, loves rain and bicycles, and is sure she has an ironing board around here somewhere. Heather’s mother, who may iron entirely too much, provided the seed for the story.