Friday, December 29, 2017

The Silent Treatment By Lena Andersson

The small agricultural town of Magnolia Falls has always been distinguished by the McCrorys and their overdeveloped vocal cords; by Lena Andersson.

By the time the McCrory sisters died, a strange and alien silence had descended upon the town of Magnolia Falls, Mississippi. God had blessed the McCrory family with an extra vocal cord. What we would normally call hollering or bellowing the McCrorys called normal pitch. So it wasn't all that surprising that, when we laid to rest the last of the McCrorys, Edna Mae and Clorice, alongside their illustrious ancestors whose mouths had long been silenced by the damp, dark earth, we did not know what to make of the quiet that hung in the air.

As long as anyone could recall, the McCrorys had always spoken loud. Delbert, the first McCrory to settle near Magnolia Falls, had been a plantation owner. Since he was out in the country and rarely ventured into town, no one found his speaking insufferable. But the Civil War changed everything.

Delbert had long since died when the war broke out, and his son Frank now ran the plantation. But Frank lost everything - first to Union troops, then to carpetbaggers. Despite Reconstruction, however, Magnolia Falls was booming. Frank found a job in the lumber mill and settled his family here.

The noise coming from the McCrory house was deafening. At first our grandparents tried to ignore it, but the cost of replacing their constantly shattering windows proved as painful as their earaches and pounding heads. Faced with the threat of a recall election, Mayor Lillingford paid the McCrorys a visit. He emerged from their house fifteen minutes later looking like a man who had barely survived the Great San Francisco earthquake. He refused to disclose what had passed between him and Frank, only mentioning that he was powerless to do anything at all. Of course, thanks to Frank's hereditary quirk, the whole town knew what had been said, at least on the McCrory side: Frank didn't see anything peculiar about how loud his family spoke, but if they did speak loud, well, he couldn't help it, seeing how God had seen fit to bless him and his family with that extra vocal cord, but, since they seemed to be disturbing their neighbors, they would try their best to lower their voices, but please understand he wasn't promising anything.

Frank and his family did try, but their fight against their distinctive biology failed. Soon enough, the family was speaking at its normal pitch again. But they had been so genial and had tried so hard (they even moved next door to the lumber mill), our forefathers swallowed their anger and, determined to make the best out of a bad situation, began manufacturing ear plugs.

Unfortunately, Frank's son, Albert, did not inherit his family's friendly disposition. Believing that Magnolia Falls had victimized his parents, he went out of his way to be uncooperative, even going so far as to marry a woman he evidently couldn't stand. When they weren't quarreling, Albert was doing his damnedest to start a fight.

Albert was Edna Mae and Clorice's father, and from him they got not only the additional vocal cord, but also his temper. Worse, they were twins, and the sibling rivalry between those two rivaled none seen before or since. But seeing how everyone in that household was miserable, we all just bided our time, assuming that once the girls were grown (their mother had died when they were eight), they would go off to college and never return. We were half-right: they went off to college, but they returned, teaching certificates in hand, saying they needed to take care of their aging daddy. They promptly obtained jobs at the junior high school and began spreading their general discontent to their students. After their father died, they continued to live together, and argue, in the house they were born in. The pharmacist's wife said they were doing it just to be ugly.

We tried to placate them and reason with them, but it didn't work. We even offered to pay for, and install, foam siding on their house, but they were as surly and mean as their father had been. We didn't feel like we had any recourse left but to ask Sammy Sherman, our state senator, to intervene.

Although he thought we were exaggerating the twins' vocal powers, Sammy agreed to intercede. One Sunday afternoon Sammy drove to the McCrory residence. Even before he turned onto their street, he later told us, he could hear the sisters arguing about what type of green bean, French cut or the regular blunt cut, to use for the green bean casserole they were preparing. Sammy said he had never heard such explosive power, not even during his three tours of Vietnam.

His surprise grew when the door opened. So booming had their voices been that he had expected to see women built like Amazons or navy frigates. Instead, he saw two women whose fragile frames, barely five feet tall, reminded him of desiccated corn husk dolls left in some dusty attic corner of an abandoned Nebraska farmhouse. Their complexions were so delicate and light he could see their veins wending their way over their faces like rivers mapped across Antarctica. They both had their chestnut hair pulled into severe chignons, exposing large blue eyes that bespoke a certain icy vulnerability in faces that seemed chiseled out of the finest bone china.

"WHAT DO YOU WANT?" Clorice said in a voice so loud that Sammy jumped.

"The Misses McCrorys?"

"YES," both sisters said.

"My name is Sammy Sherman. Senator Sammy Sherman."

Edna Mae drew herself up. "I KNOW WHO YOU ARE. I DIDN'T VOTE FOR YOU THE LAST TIME, AND I'M NOT VOTING FOR YOU NOW." She started down the hall as Clorice began shutting the door.

"Ma'ams, this isn't about any campaign."

Clorice stopped. Edna Mae looked back from the hall. "WELL THEN, WHAT IS IT?" Clorice asked.

"May I come in?"

Clorice looked at Edna Mae; Edna Mae looked at Clorice. Clorice opened the door and stepped back to let him pass.

Sammy stepped into the dimly lit parlor, all the while looking at his hostesses with rude curiosity. "It was like hearing," he later told us, "the bark of a Rottweiler coming out of a Chihuahua." He sat down in a faded love seat; Edna Mae and Clorice sat in the identical Queen Anne chairs.

"Ladies, some of my constituents have contacted me about the... volume of the discussions radiating from this domicile."

The sisters stiffened. Clorice rose, took a folded document from a curio box on the mahogany sideboard, and thrust it in the senator's face.

Sammy unfolded the paper. It dated from their college days, and testified that the sisters each had an extra set of vocal cords and thus could not be held responsible for the volume of their discourse. To do so, the document continued, would be equivalent to holding a wheelchair-bound person responsible for not rolling up a flight of stairs quickly enough. It was signed by three doctors and a judge.

Sammy stared at the paper, then back at the sisters. The sisters were within their legal rights to speak as loudly as they did, but that conflicted with the rights of his constituents to live in peace, which conflicted with his chances of being re-elected. "I'm not here to tell you lovely ladies to speak quieter."

"THEN WHAT ARE YOU HERE FOR?" Edna Mae asked.

"Your neighbors, good and decent people like yourselves, are concerned that y'all don't get along all that well. They want y'all to be happy, and think that maybe y'all should live apart."

The sisters gasped. "LIVE APART? NEVER!" they said in unison. Clorice continued. "WE MAY APPEAR NOT TO GET ALONG, SENATOR SHERMAN, BUT WE ARE FAMILY, AND DESPITE WHAT YOUR NOSY CONSTITUENTS SAY, WE ARE CLOSER THAN ANY CONJOINED TWINS. AND WE INTEND TO STAY THAT WAY, DON'T WE, EDNA MAE?"

"YES, WE DO, AND I AM SURE MY SISTER JOINS ME IN ASKING YOU TO LEAVE OUR PREMISES IMMEDIATELY." The two sat there as stonily as statues until Sammy broke out in a sweat, grabbed his hat, and ran out of the house. The McCrory sisters had vanquished him hand and foot, and in the next election, we also vanquished him, throwing him out of public office forever.

Senator Sherman was not the only official in Magnolia Falls to suffer at the hands of Clorice and Edna Mae. They had threatened to sue Dr. Charles, the principal of Magnolia Falls Junior High School, if he didn't hire them. Since Magnolia Falls had a chronic teacher shortage, especially those certified in English, Dr. Charles had no recourse but to hire them. When the other teachers complained about the din coming from the sisters' classrooms, he moved Edna Mae and Clorice to the farthest ends of the school, by the band room and gymnasium. Overall, this worked, but he still had to contend with what he called the twins' unique pedagogy, a pedagogy based on their love of the inconsequential.

Clorice, the scholar of the pair, had done her thesis on the use of "the," "a," and "an" in Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," arguing that the strategic positioning of these unacknowledged Atlases of the English language greatly contributed to the prevalent existential nausea experienced by the famed scrivener. Thus she emphasized articles in her class.

Edna Mae had never written a thesis and resented being in her sister's scholastic shadow. Thus she forbade the use of "the," "a" and "an" in her classes. By the end of the school year, her students, all born and raised on American soil, sounded like Third World migrant farmers.

As much as Dr. Charles wanted to be rid of them, Edna Mae and Clorice always squeaked by on their evaluations and they never had any discipline problems. As long as they kept their jobs, they'd never leave town, and we would never get any rest. Nothing, it seemed, would ever change.

Then Tom Wormwood came to town. Tom was a smooth talker whose tightly fitting, checkered, double-knit pants revealed how perfectly molded his derriere was. His raven-black hair was greased back to reveal every crinkle in his leathery, weathered face from which his green eyes shone like malachite. We didn't pay too much attention to him until we noticed that he spoke real loud, almost as loud as the McCrorys. It didn't surprise us, then, that both sisters fell for him. We fell for Tom, too, hoping beyond hope that he would court at least one of the sisters, marry her, and leave. That would get rid of one sister and silence the other since she wouldn't have anyone to talk to.

Despite our ulterior motives, we softened toward the McCrory twins. After all, they were old maids in an age when there were no old maids, only single people. For once in their loudly bitter lives, they seemed to have a shot at happiness. So while they enjoyed being courted by the debonair Mr. Wormwood, we enjoyed watching it. Even the pharmacist's wife took an interest in it, and soon a pool sprung up at the Boot-n­Shoot Bar for people to bet on which twin Tom would marry.

No bet had an edge since Tom appeared equally smitten with both sisters. He would sit in the garden with Edna Mae and drive around town with Clorice in his burgundy '69 Camaro. Once when they passed us, Clorice, her head wrapped in a pink nylon scarf, smiled and waved to us. Stunned, we waved back and smiled at each other. Maybe, we thought, Clorice and Edna Mae were really as nice as their grandfather had been, only they had never shown it for fear of upsetting their bile-infested father who believed our parents had victimized his. Over the years, we reasoned, their bitchiness, which had started off as masks, grew until it fit their faces. But now Tom, with his patient and gentle courting, was slowly peeling away those masks.

The relationship between Clorice and Tom and Edna Mae could best be described as a seesaw, with one sister gaining the advantage only to be upset by the other. One Sunday Edna Mae and Tom were picnicking in the park when a shower broke out. They sought shelter under the roof of the concession stand. Tom looked around and whispered in Edna Mae's ear, "WHY, EDNA MAE,YOU'RE THE PRETTIEST GIRL HERE."

Edna Mae turned as scarlet as a robin's breast. "WHY, TOM," she whispered back. "STOP THAT. YOU'RE EMBARRASSING ME."

"WELL, I'LL BE HANGED EDNA MAE, BUT YOU ARE THE PRETTIEST GIRL HERE, AND MY MOMMA ALWAYS TOLD ME I GOTTA TELL THE TRUTH."

Edna Mae blushed and giggled some more, saying he was really embarrassing her now. We all thought that Tom would marry Edna Mae after this, but that was before the incident at the museum.

An exhibit of the whaling life, displaying everything from harpoons to bottled blubber, had come to town. Since Clorice adored Melville, Tom took her. As they were admiring photographs of Norwegians harpooning and cutting up minke whales, Tom took Clorice by the hand, gazed into her eyes, and whispered, "CLORICE, I LOVE YOU."

For perhaps the first time in her life Clorice was speechless.

"SAY SOMETHING, CLORICE, HONEY," Tom said. "YOU LOVE ME, TOO, DON'T YOU?"

She could only gape. Finally she managed to ask, "WHAT ABOUT EDNA MAE?"

Tom looked pained. He turned around. "I GOTTA BE FRANK WITH YOU, CLORICE. I DON'T KNOW WHICH OF YOU I LOVE THE BEST. YOU -" he looked at the floor before looking at her again, "- YOU'RE THE MOST INTELLIGENT PERSON I KNOW, OR HAVE EVER KNOWN. BEING WITH YOU IS LIKE BEING WITH, WITH -" he flailed his arms, "- LIKE BEING WITH PLATO! I FEEL SO ENLIGHTENED AROUND YOU! BUT THEN, EDNA MAE HAS GOTTA BE THE SWEETEST PERSON I'VE EVER KNOWN. I FEEL SO WARM, SO LOVED, SO SAFE WHEN I'M AROUND HER."

Clorice, who had been melting under this passionate disclosure of the heart, froze up at the mention of Edna Mae. Tom noticed. "BUT THEN," he said, "THERE'S YOU." He stomped the floor, threw his head back and cried, "WHY THE HELL CAN'T WE LIVE IN UTAH?"

It was a painful scene to witness. Not only did our ears ring, but we were also moved by the obvious despair in Tom's voice. Despite our Southern Baptist upbringing, we, too, could not help but wonder why we did not live in Utah.

So the wooing continued, Tom being unable to decide,and neither Edna Mae nor Clorice willing to give him up so the other could marry him and be happy. In fact, the sisters took their sibling rivalry to new heights as each sought to outdo the other in their tokens of love.

Clorice fired the first volley at Jimmy Ed's Car 'n' Tackle Shoppe when she turned to Tom and said, "LET ME CHANGE YOUR PLUGS FOR YOU, TOM HONEY. I BET I CAN PUT MORE SPARK IN THEM THAN EDNA MAE."

Tom turned as pink as a young azalea bud opening up under the gentle yet persistent rays of the spring sun. He was embarrassed, but he was also flattered. And we were staggered. Not only had the cerebral Clorice taken an automotive maintenance and repair class, not only had the chaste Ms. McCrory made a lewd remark, but she had also punned, something which, only a short time ago, would have been as likely as a humble Texan.

At first poor Edna Mae didn't know how to counter her sister's attack. Not only did she lack Clorice's intellect, but also her mechanical ability and her courage to break through gender barriers. So she opted to win Tom through more traditional means - through his stomach. To that end she probably outdid Julia Child herself, especially when it came to Italian dishes. She even went so far as to make the pasta from scratch. Knowing Tom had an especial weakness for this type of cuisine, Clorice became more expert in engine maintenance and fender repair, and began disassembling Tom's beloved Camaro. While Clorice rebuilt her beau's car, Edna Mae busied herself with her garden, which she expanded to include wheat, barley, and corn. In the northeast corner she built a mill with which to grind her grains.

Of course, when Tom mentioned that he had lost his job as a Certified Public Accountant with the city of Seminola Springs when that city had filed for Chapter 11, the sisters fought each other to get him a position with the school system. Lou Lou Perez, the school board president, was only too glad to give Tom a job since he had, in his own modest way, brought some measure of peace to Magnolia Falls. Unfortunately, Lou Lou was unable to say which sister had been more instrumental in getting Tom his job since both had demanded it at the same time, so their triangular relationship continued in its teeter-totter state.

This stalemate continued for quite some time. Clorice not only rebuilt the Camaro's engine, but also reconstructed the body, repainted it, and refurbished the interior, even tanning the leather for the seats herself. Meanwhile, Edna Mae qualified for U.S. agricultural subsidies.

Then the unspeakable happened.

One night Tom was over at the McCrory house to have his oil changed while he supped on rigatoni with braised lamb ragu. He kissed them both good night, put the leftover tiramisu on the passenger seat, patted the hood, and drove off into the crisp October night. And that was the last anyone ever saw of him.

The sisters wasted no time in accusing each other of foul play. Given their quarrelsome dispositions, Sheriff Duffy decided to investigate. But despite launching the biggest manhunt Magnolia Falls had ever seen, no one could find any trace of the man.

And it was very likely that no trace would have been found had not the school board been the subject of a surprise audit. The auditors found lots of money missing, money meant to buy football helmets, basketballs, and books, missing. Moreover, all the money in the retirement and savings accounts of Edna Mae McCrory and Clorice McCrory was gone. Sadly, our suspicions turned to Tom, whose abrupt departure did now appear to be due to foul play - his own.

Lou Lou confirmed our suspicions when she checked Tom's references. He had indeed been a Certified Public Accountant for the city of Seminola Springs. And it was because of a Mr. Thomas S. Wormwood that that city was in receivership. The mayor of that swindled municipality said it all for us when he said, "Tom Wormwood - that name's poison in my craw."

But the most poisoned craws belonged to the McCrorys. Vampires might as well have sucked out all their blood, voodoo doctors might as well have turned them into zombies, so devastating an effect did Tom's treachery have on them.

They turned in their teaching certificates, cleaned out their desks, and withdrew to their house.

They never spoke again.

For years our town had prayed for quiet. Now, it seemed, God had answered those prayers. We all felt guilty, horribly guilty. Not knowing what else to do, we agreed to give Edna Mae and Clorice the money we had collected in our fevered wagering over which sister Tom would marry.

But when we rang their doorbell and offered them the money, the sisters refused to accept it. They would not, they explained in pantomime, be recipients of charity. Their family had survived innumerable hardships, from floods to droughts, from civil wars to Yankees. Surely they could survive the swindling of a lowly con man. Without another gesture they closed the door.

Two days later they were dead.

The mood at Clorice and Edna Mae's funeral was as gray as the Spanish moss draping the limbs of the live oaks that had stood sentry over our forefathers' graves for three centuries. As much as we tried denying it, we couldn't escape the inexorable truth: the McCrorys had changed us forever. We knew that we could never again live in such infernal peace.

5 comments:

  1. An amusing story with strands of both hilarity and sadness threaded into the tapestry. Also elements of 'Be careful what you wishes for...'
    Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Imaginative and thought provoking well written story with finely drawn characters.
    Mike McC

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  3. Imaginative and thought provoking well written story with finely drawn characters.
    Mike McC

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  4. An engaging story with wonderful descriptions, especially the physical description of the twins. Thank you.

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  5. Fun story! Let’s hope extra vocal chords remain in a purely fictional state.

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