Fiction

Cosmic Embrace, oil painting by Marcella Peralta Simon

A Temporary Guest

My guest Marva was not what I expected. Sixties, rail thin, and missing a hunk of hair on her crown where a track of staples held her scalp together. A long, soiled gauze strip fluttered from her fist. I followed her glance out my back door to see her driver step off my back deck.

 

“Welcome.” I extended a hand for her to step fully into my kitchen. 

Marva ignored the gesture but eyed warm biscuits, butter, and jam on the table.  

“Have a seat,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

I hurried outside to the shelter’s unmarked van and shouted at the thoughtless driver, “You didn’t introduce us. Is there anything I should know about her?” 

“Oh, sorry.” The driver, herself a former shelter resident, struck her forehead with the palm of her hand, three inches of woven bracelets at that wrist. “Marva called a neighbor to take her to the ER this morning, but the incident happened last night.” She heaved her body into the seat with a sigh. “Hospital staff reported her injuries—she’d been treated before—although she initially denied the abuse. You know how that goes.” 

Yes, I did.

The engine started. “They wanted me to tell you that they won’t have a bed for Marva until tomorrow at the earliest.” 

“Glad I asked,” I said as she backed out of my driveway. That woman and I were part of a support network for our fledgling women’s shelter. I occasionally hosted abused women until space came available in the shelter, a farmhouse recently deeded to us. Even then, our goal was to place every guest with her choice of a safe friend or relative while our organization provided her other services. 

Walking back to my house, I thought about this guest. Marva had been beaten two times that we knew about and likely more. Not unusual; unchecked violence escalates and often goes unreported until someone dies. I wondered where my guest and her abuser were on that continuum.

I’d witnessed the effects of family violence in my therapy practice. Although retired now, I remembered too well how every family member in a violent home carried emotional if not physical scars from what they witnessed—or received.

* * *

 

“Coffee?” 

“Milk and sugar.” Marva directed these first words toward Otto, my golden retriever, whose chin rested on her thigh. 

I placed the sugar bowl and a carton of milk on the table and served us each a biscuit. 

“That’s Otto. If you feed him, he’ll never leave your side.” 

Marva thrust one boney shoulder forward as if I’d accused her of slugging him. “I didn’t feed him.”

“I just meant, Otto’s a beggar. Here, have another biscuit.” I slathered mine with butter and took a bite. When I glanced up, she was staring at me, sizing me up. She didn’t return my smile but rather reached for her purse, strung over the chair back. Her jerky motion threatened loss of control, like her joints randomly caught and sprung open. She eventually tapped out two tablets from a prescription bottle and downed them with coffee.

“That nasty gash looks painful.”

“You could say that.” Dry skin radiated crow’s feet from her hard eyes, while laugh lines taunted from her tight mouth.

“I know this is difficult, but many women have stayed here until the shelter could accommodate them. It’s never easy and often frightening to take this step.”

She spoke with her mouth full. “What step would that be?”

“Well, asking for help. I hear you asked a neighbor to take you to the hospital.”

“Couldn’t stop the bleeding.”

“Head wounds are like that.” I waited a moment. “You might have a concussion, too.”

“Ya think?” She lifted her chin like a sullen teenager and looked down her lacerated nose at me.

Marva’s gruff attitude put me off, but I recognized and understood bluffed personal boundaries. She had none at home. She coped.

When I failed to react, Marva’s body slumped, braced by sharp elbows on the table. “Sorry. I’ve got a concussion and splitting headache, like splitting my skull wide open.”

“Let’s go out to the studio so you can rest. You’ve been through a lot.”

“Motherfucker,” she mumbled while standing slowly. 

“Who is?”

“Never mind.”  

I held open the screen door for Otto, waiting for Marva to follow. She stood rooted to the spot. Despite her bravado, Marva balked at stepping outside.

“I call it my studio, but it’s a little cabin out back. Come on. It’s all ready for you.” I rarely if ever disclosed my former profession to guests or that the cabin had once served as my office for therapy sessions. My sole purpose now was to make guests feel safe—not engage them in therapy. 

We clomped along the wooden path to the rustic if not charming structure, with me encouraging her along the way. When I opened the door, sunlight sparkled on the pond beyond the windows. I cranked one open. Chickadees chirped from the feeder hung in a nearby crabapple tree. Hopefully, Marva sensed the peace this haven afforded her. 

“It’s pretty here.” She touched the back of the desk chair and bent toward the window for a better look at the grassy slope behind the pond.

“Thank you. The cabin is yours until you get settled at the shelter or find a permanent place. You gave them names and numbers, right?”

Marva’s dark eyes stared through me, devoid of understanding or emotion—what my former profession calls absence of affect. Did she even have people to contact?

“You’ll be safe here.” 

Her slow, careful gaze took in the sparse amenities—coffee maker, microwave, food staples, and paperbacks stacked on a low table beside the day bed. 

“I’ll bring you dinner later,” I said, wanting to shake a reaction out of her. “What would you like to eat?”

She shrugged. 

“Okay. Do you have more pain relievers for that gash?”

“Three.” 

I pay attention when guests count their narcotics.

“I have Tylenol if you’d rather. Anything else?” Aside from the small purse, she carried nothing. 

“No.” Marva rubbed her arm as if chilled. “That girl said she’d bring over my stuff.”

“This conversation can wait. Rest now.” Leaving her alone troubled me. The vulnerability behind her earlier gruff demeanor now displayed as a wan grimace—possibly a normal reaction to her trauma, but it concerned me. “Just knock on the kitchen door if you need anything.”

There was a paper lying on the desk, a set of instructions for operating the coffee maker and holding down the toilet handle when flushing. She picked it up and held it at arm’s length, squinting. “My glasses broke. I can’t read this.” 

That accounted for the scraped swelling on her nose. I quickly explained.

She flicked the paper away, finally looking up at me. “He’ll show up. He always . . .”

“The man who hurt you?”

“I pissed him off.” Marva’s fingertips grazed the shaved spot between her ear and the gash. “Cops went to his work. He could lose his job because of me.” She eased onto the bed.

“You didn’t cause this.” 

Hands pressed between her clenched knees, she added, “He’ll come after me when they release him. He might already be out.” Frantic eyes searched the tree line. With some women, I might sit beside them, even put my arm around their shoulders to comfort them. But Marva had established her boundary with me. She didn’t care to be touched.

“No one knows where you are except the shelter staff and me, and we’re not telling.”

She nodded, whimpering. I handed her a box of tissues.

“What kind of car does he drive?”

“Truck. A Ford—huge.”

“Color?”

“Black.”

“Okay. I’ll be on the lookout. In the meantime, you’re hidden from the road, completely safe. I’ll check in on you later.” 

I needn’t remind Marva to keep her location private. She couldn’t call anyone without my knowing about it. Shelter staff always confiscated their clients’ cellphones to protect them from their abusers.

* * *

 

In the early evening the dinners I ordered for both Marva and me were delivered. She hadn’t ventured outside and appeared to be sleeping the one time I peeked in. Her dinner in hand, I lightly knocked on the cabin door. 

“Marva, I brought Mexican food.” I waited several seconds. 

The door opened. She had rested on top of the duvet, all windows and most of the shades closed, but she looked weary. She had blotted her seeping head wound with tissues now scattered on the side table, and the gauze bandage once again circled her head, this time in loose tangles.

“I’ll just leave this here.” I placed the bag on the desk. “Hope you like enchiladas. Here’s iced tea, too. Should we return to the ER for a look at your wound?”

Marva backed away from me, shaking her head. Creased eyelids drooped under sparse eyebrows. Her hands massaged one another, unable to hide her anxiety.

“Something’s troubling you. How can I help?”

My cell phone pinged. I took it out of my pocket to see the shelter’s text: Courier bringing client’s clothes etc now.

“Someone’s bringing your things over. Anything important I should tell them to add?”

Marva shook her head. Her quaking fingers rubbed her brow.

I texted: We’re in the studio

“Your head still hurts?”

“I hurt everywhere.”

No telling what signs of violence her long-sleeved T-shirt and baggy khakis hid. 

“I’d be happy to stay with you until they arrive.”

“No, not necessary.” Marva groped for the desk chair and sat down hard, wincing. Perched in the chair, her rigid posture accentuated the fragility she tried to disguise. 

She wanted me gone.

Otto and I let her be and walked to the back porch to wait for the courier. I planned to mention then that Marva was behaving erratically and might need hospitalization. 

Otto took off running around the corner to greet whoever arrived with Marva’s clothes. I followed him, but instead of the courier I found a burly bald man hustling toward my studio. His arms bowed around his torso, and when Otto growled, the man growled back.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Can I help you?”

“Sure. Stay out of my way.” The young man swaggered to within inches of me without turning his head. 

Marva emerged from the studio, clutching her purse to her stomach, its shoulder strap flapping against wrinkled khakis. The enormous bloody bandage had unwound again, revealing the shaved oval and grim stapled track. Blood on her shirt collar had crusted brown.

He shouted, “Get in the damn truck, Mother!” and jerked a thumb as if hitchhiking.

Marva shuffled behind him toward the black truck parked in my driveway. 

“Your son? He did this to you?” 

Marva walked on, showing no affect.

This abuser was likely a victim himself when he was a kid. Perhaps Marva mistreated him. Perhaps his father taught him how to handle women. 

I knew better than to block her from leaving but had to at least ask her to reconsider. I followed her, keeping the brute in my peripheral vision. “Give yourself one more day. Just a few hours to think this through.” When she still failed to answer, I was struck by a thought.  “Wait. How did he know?” 

He stopped at the front bumper. “Tell her.” He gloated. “Tell her how you begged me to come get you.” 

“But how?”

Marva kept her head down.

“Lady, are you really that dense? She used your phone. Now get in the fucking truck.” He disappeared around the high hood.

I felt the cellphone in my pocket which Marva hadn’t touched. 

My landline! I had left her alone for a minute when she first arrived.

“You never gave yourself a chance. Do you want to go with him now?”

The jacked-up pickup sported a step bar under the running board to assist in stepping up and into the cab. Still, Marva struggled. Off balance on the bottom step, she fumbled for the door handle. She grunted, her cheeks reddening with the effort. 

Meanwhile, her burly son climbed behind the wheel. He gunned the engine and reversed. 

Marva screamed.

When he slammed the brakes, she fell onto the gravel. 

“Stop!” I yelled.

Her head wound seeped along her hairline. He raced the engine again, then opened the driver’s-side door.

I brushed pebbles off her backside and her skinned knuckles. “He’s going to really hurt you next time. He could kill you.” 

She stiffened at the sight of the brute rounding his front bumper. 

I whispered, “You don’t have to go.”

He suddenly loomed over us.

“You could have killed your mother with that stunt.”

He sneered down at me and lifted Marva by her upper arm. Manhandling the passenger door, he shoved her into the cab, slammed the door hard after her, and spun around to confront me.

“She does that for attention.” Close-cropped beard and fresh clothes, even his fingernails were clean and manicured. The tricked-out truck cost at least eighty grand.

“She does what?”

“Falls. Pretends she’s hurt. Poor Marva. You have no idea how good she has it.” He turned away.

“Did she pretend to have that gash on her head?” 

Otto came to my side, sensing my fear.

The son pirouetted 180 degrees to face me, his expression a mixture of disgust and menace, his imposing bulk a warning he could snap me in two. 

Instead, he snarled, “Who do you think raised me?”

The truck backed onto my lawn, executing a three-point turn. Then they drove away, Marva invisible behind blacked-out windows. 

 

 

Author's Comment

“A Temporary Guest” was taken from a current work in progress.

 

“Rich in characters and awash in period details of Gilded Age New York as well as the sumptuous fashions of the time, this book is a treat for historical-fiction fans.” --Booklist THE WINTHROP AGREEMENT is a captivating story about a determined immigrant daughter's ascent from a miserable Lower East Side tenement to the heights of haute couture— her yearning for a place in society and secrets she must not betray. Part history, part romance... with a twist of gothic ALICE SHERMAN SIMPSON, accomplished visual artist taught drawing and design at F.I.T, NY, The School of Visual Arts, The New School and Otis College of Art and Design. Her artist books about dance are in Special Collections including; Lincoln Center Library for Performing Arts, Yale, Harvard, and The Victoria & Albert Library. Ballroom (Harper) was her debut novel. Guy Ryan appears in Jerry Jazz Musician. Eldridge Street, 1902 and Aboard the Coastal Starlight appear in Persimmon Tree Magazine. She lives in Southern California...and dances tango. Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble or your favorite independent bookstore. For more on Alice Sherman Simpson, please visit: http://www.alicesimpson.com.

Bios

Ann Minnett lived most of her adult life in Dallas, raising a family and working as a developmental psychologist and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Texas-Dallas. She set aside that career and moved to northwest Montana, finding inspiration and a supportive writing community. After twelve years in the gorgeous Northwest, she and her family now live in Mid-Missouri, which offers its own marvels. Although life has been good to Ann, her novels explore difficult family relationships (see: https://annminnett.com).

Marcella Peralta Simon is a retired Latinx grandmother, splitting her time between Cambridge, UK and Kissimmee, Florida. She has been a diplomat, university professor, and instructional designer. She writes poetry and short fiction. Her artwork has been featured in Smoky Blue Literary and Arts MagazineBeyond Words Literary MagazineTofu Ink Arts PressPersimmon Tree, and The Acentos Review.

5 Comments

  1. Ann Minnett’s complex and finely-drawn characters reminds us that in every tragedy there is complexity. Thank you for this magnificent story.

  2. This sensitive, beautifully written story moved me deeply. I had a moment’s confusion when the abuser calls the abused “Mother” because I assumed that was short for Mother F***er and that the abuser was a lover, not an actual son. But in the end, the identity of the abuser and the possibility that the abused mother may have helped create this monster make the story all the more poignant and morally complex.

  3. I could hardly breathe by the end of this piece. I was an abused wife/mother, and what “the victim” did here is so often what the abuser depends on to deny his/her actions: She did it to herself! She is the agressor, not me. I was only protecting myself, etc. Until we deny the agressor power over us, we will always be victims.

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