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Fiction Friendship

The topic for Sunday's weekly discussion? Mervin. What better subject for the four ladies to dissect. He was the new neighbor, and something was odd about him.


Maybelline sat at the dining room table, watching through the window with a red ink pen in hand, analyzing the young man's every move the way a circling buzzard hones in on fresh roadkill.


Observation #47, the pen squiggled in speedy, forceful motion onto a canary yellow legal pad, Subject seen looking around in all directions while picking up newspaper.


An evil-eyed smiley face marked the end of her rehearsal notes, and a shiver of anticipation made her bony body shudder. She capped the pen in the same manner of finality as a judge's gavel slamming down, clasped her hands and crossed her fingers together, wrinkled elbows resting on the glossy mahogany.


***


Gargantuan chunks of ice could be heard crackling in the arctic water of the lake yards away from the giant, frost-framed window of Maybelline's dedicated Tea Room. In contrast, the ladies' chatting space was like a fireplace. Four lit faces formed a tight circle around the discussion table. Still in church outfits, they almost looked like they were praying to the fat, round kettle she had placed in their midst. The screaming whistle divebombed before dissipating into quiet streams of steam. Then she performed the routine ritual, pacing around everyone clockwise with the pot, filling each delicate china cup with the same precise amount of floral-smelling Earl Grey. 


After seating herself armed with forty-seven bullet points of ammo and a stretched grin coated in maroon lipstick, she cleared her throat eager to begin firing. Heather, Rosa, and Annemarie grew giraffe necks, leaning in.


"Well, gals," Maybelline kicked off the discussion with bergamot vapor escaping her lips, "I'm sure you can't help but have noticed we have a new one in town."


"Ooh, what have you got? What have you got?" Heather, the youngest of the bunch pushed. Her protruding, pointed nose hovered in direct line of the host's jet black pupils.


"You think he might be a pedophile? As far as I can tell, he lives alone." Annemarie cut in with her snappy voice.


"I think he's blooming schizo!" Rosa giggled above her double chin. "Did you see the way he looked at us when we lined up to study him out in the driveway? That was a death stare if ever I've seen one!"


"Oh, you won't be disappointed," Maybelline promised, "I've been working all week on this kook. Name's Mervin."


Heather spewed a sip of tea laughing. "It fits him! He looks like the kind of goof who probably still spends all day playing Dungeons and Dragons at his age. With himself."


Maybelline inhaled a gulp from her cup ignoring the scalding heat of the burnt umber liquid. "I know he rarely comes out during the day, probably because he's up all night every night. Always has lights on. I know he wears boxers; a three-pack of them fell out of his shopping bag Wednesday evening when he snagged it on the hedge trying to get to his front door. I know he still uses a flip phone. I know he drives insanely slow and sits at stop signs forever. And that's only the beginning." she stated, all ears in the room welling with goosebumps. "I can go on for hours!"


Rosa rubbed her hands together while jerking her plump head around in search of the customary cakes only to realize the plates were absent from the table.


"Hey!" she whined with a persimmon frown, peering at Maybelline with Bassett hound eyes.


The host gasped when it dawned on her. "Oh, silly me! So sorry, Rosa, I guess I was focusing so hard on prepping the discussion I forgot the snacks. Don't worry, they're ready!"


She sprang from her polished oak chair and shuffled for the kitchen. Observations #12 through #29 ran through her clustered cranium at the speed of her flying fingers while heaping a hill of confection sugar-crusted Russian tea cakes onto a royal blue corningware platter. The cackling in the next room further adrenalized her. They must have some pretty tabloid-worthy observations of their own to share this week!


The Victorian carvings of the pastel peach kitchen door beckoned her forward with the platter. She pivoted sideways to nudge it open with an elbow, and as she did, the unmistakable snappiness of Annemarie's voice sent blood curdling through her heart.


"It's dementia, I tell you! She never forgets the tea cakes!"


"Well she blasted sure did this time!" Rosa remarked.


"It's got to be dementia!" Heather chimed in. "Have any of you noticed the way she's been leaving cupboards open here lately? My grandma did the same thing. In my opinion, it's time for this old bag to hang it up!"


***


Colors coursed through Maybelline's mind and body, the cakes shimmying on the platter. A red, feverish as the kitchen was stuffy; a blue, cold as the northern Minnesota sky above Fosston; a white, blank as the monotonous field of snow beyond the lake.


This is my house and my party! And this is their idea of gratitude?


She set the cakes back on the counter, trying to ignore the steady stream of mumbling and laughter making its way through the cracks around the door. She looked at the lakeshore, and the wooden fishing pier which hung over the patchwork of jagged ice and crystal water.


"Mayb! You okay in there?" all three guests asked in amplified chorus.


"On my way!" she shouted, simultaneously gearing up with her beige fur coat, scarf, and gloves.


"Ladies, I have a special surprise for all of you today!" she made sure to announce before anyone could ask. "But we have to head outdoors to see it."


Rosa, Annemarie, and Heather all turned to each other with the same silent question. They slipped their own coats and hats on in slow motion. Whatever this surprise was, it had to be truly good to require bringing the teapot along.


The four huddled together out the back door and across creaking boards with Maybelline hugging the pot tight and clouds of foggy breath adding to the wisps that vented through its lid and spout. She set it down at the end of the pier with a quiet thump and paused to catch her breath.


"What in Sam Hades is this all about, Mayb?" Annemarie was first to ask, her stained, crooked teeth chattering.


"I told you she's losing it!" Heather shook her head sneering before realizing what she'd let out of her mouth.


"You still haven't brought the tea cakes!" Rosa lamented with a gurgling growl in her stomach.


Maybelline smiled, crossing her arms and gleaming at the forlorn trio. "I have the following announcement to make:"


Leaning over the pot, admiring the pleasant aroma for a short moment, she continued: "Effective immediately, and forevermore, this weekly discussion is cancelled."


The crystal water around the pier took on an abrupt color change. Three gasps echoed across the vast pond as the final drop of their favorite Sunday afternoon beverage fell from the overturned vessel in Maybelline's hands.


"Say that again?" they all shouted. A blend of watery faces, canyon mouths, and crossed eyes gazed at the vacant kettle, signaling the end of their world.


"You heard me." The former life of this party stood treelike, allowing the reality another moment to sink in.


"Look at us! Four grown women acting like teenagers! We've become so obsessed with these discussions that we're starting to talk about each other now! It's time to grow up!"


She abandoned her retired teapot and marched back across the pier without so much as a sarcastic farewell to the bunch.


"Well!" Annemarie yelled, rushing past her in a march of her own toward the car.


"Fine! I'll just go to the donut shop from now on!" Rosa cried.


"Some friend you are, Maybel!" Heather snorted. "Old bag."


Their mini van fired up and peeled away, leaving Maybelline with the vacuum of an ambient neighborhood. She aimed her shoe tips for the kitchen to go cover the tea cake plate for the freezer, reckoning she'd get them eaten herself eventually. But she thought about everything she'd just said, and two minutes later, Mervin's doorbell rang.


"Oh, I do hope I didn't wake you, dear! But I just wanted to take a second of your time to say: 'Welcome to Fosston!'"


The young man's colorless face began to show signs of life as he accepted his neighbor's delectable gift.



January 14, 2022 21:26

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25 comments

Moon Lion
21:38 Feb 08, 2022

This was really well written, especially in terms of imagery and phrasing. I wanted to ask what a 'persimmon frown' was in the story, because that was the only thing I didn't really understand. Otherwise I thought the characterizations were eerily well done.

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Gip Roberts
20:49 Feb 10, 2022

Thanks so much for reading and commenting. A persimmon is a type of fruit with a bad reputation for tasting unbearably sour, causing anyone who tries it to make a hideous face. But it's been a long time since I've heard the word used. I have to remind myself when I'm writing to be careful not to use outdated terms (which is getting harder to do now that I'm almost 50).

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Moon Lion
20:53 Feb 10, 2022

Oh thank you for explaining, that's a very cool way to write about emotions.

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Graham Kinross
06:05 Feb 28, 2022

I like that, persimmon frown, is that not something you came up with yourself then? It was in more common use once?

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Gip Roberts
22:08 Feb 28, 2022

"Persimmon frown" was my idea, but people did used to say: "Puckered up like a persimmon" back in the day, especially my grandparents' generation.

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Graham Kinross
00:29 Mar 01, 2022

I think the closest I’ve ever heard to that is “lemon sucking scowl”. It’s nice to have more variations.

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Coffee Mc Cann
23:27 Jan 20, 2022

Great story. I loved the imagery of them growing giraffe necks to lean in for the gossip. Thanks for the entertaining read!

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Gip Roberts
20:58 Jan 21, 2022

Thanks for the comment. It was a fun story to write, especially describing the extremes these ladies went to trying to hear it all.

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Graham Kinross
06:06 Feb 28, 2022

The human ability to hear things you want to and block out things that don’t interest you is incredible.

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Gip Roberts
20:30 Feb 28, 2022

Thanks, Graham. Those tea party gossipers certainly kept their ears tuned for every little thing they wanted to hear.

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Graham Kinross
00:35 Mar 01, 2022

I read that gossip is good for social bonding, presumably among people who aren’t the topic of the gossip. I also keep reading research that says those who talk more during life experience memory issues far later in their old age. That idea worries me as I’m not much of a talker and I already have a terrible memory. On the other hand I read that reading and writing is good for your mind so that’s a bonus.

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Amy Jayne Conley
18:22 Feb 28, 2022

Man, this took a turn I did not expect!!! Nice work, as always, Gip! I'm really glad Maybelline realised her errors and put it right with Mervin! Very well-developed characters, too, given the shortness of the piece - that talent you have never ceases to amaze me!

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Gip Roberts
20:51 Feb 28, 2022

Thank you, Amy. I try to assign at least three distinct traits to each of my characters, which I think adds some dimension to them without overwhelming me when I write. I got the idea for the title (and the dumping of tea as a plot point) from an actual historical event in America that was known as "the Boston Tea Party". Nothing remotely like each other aside from those two things, but it made the story more fun to write. I'm weird like that.

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Amy Jayne Conley
11:05 Mar 01, 2022

Ahhhh, then I love it even more! I thought the title rang a bell! I think your story and the actual Boston Tea Party are very similar - Maybelline's physical and metaphorical tea-dumping is so well-written, I really love it!

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Kathy Roberts
16:38 Feb 28, 2022

I enjoyed this story. It was funny and at the same time had a lot of truth in it. There are a lot of people,both women and men who can,t think of anything better to do than sit around drinking tea or coffee putting other people down. In the end they all got what they deserved. Mabelline may find that Mervin is a really nice neighbor to have.

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Gip Roberts
20:39 Feb 28, 2022

I'm glad it entertained you, and thanks. I think I enjoyed creating Rosa's character the most, but they all made me laugh.

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21:09 Jan 29, 2022

I really liked your story.Every town and village has gossips. I remember we had a next door neighbor who summered in Maine and she was from New York. When she came up in the summer to Maine, the first place she stopped was at the Post Office and she would catch up on all the local gossip. She would saunter over to our front porch and talk to my Mom but my Dad wouldn't talk to her at all. You had to watch what you said to her because you knew it would be repeated.

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Gip Roberts
19:12 Jan 30, 2022

Thanks for the reading and feedback, Kathryn. Yes, towns and villages, workplaces, anywhere two or more people get together is a breeding ground for gossip. I've always wanted to visit Maine, but not the villages so much as the mountains and coast.

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19:58 Jan 30, 2022

The best beach and prettiest has to be hands down Old Orchard Beach. I grew up in Sanford, Maine which is 15 minutes from Wells Beach and Ogunquit. The Bushes summered at Kennebunk and you can see their mansion on a jetty in the distance from Wells. Bar Harbor is gorgeous but you can see the Tall Ships every summer at Boothbay Harbor. Maine has over a thousand islands, and they call my home state Maine because its the Maine land and when the islanders took the ferry over to the Maine land, they were not treated like locals. I have been away ...

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Shaylynn Skinner
20:41 Jan 26, 2022

LOVE IT...............................................................read mine?

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Anna Nonymous
19:57 Jan 23, 2022

Gip, this was great. And the writing is just beautiful. We all know these ladies, right? And have probably been to one of their tea parties? Really enjoyed this one. Well done!

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Gip Roberts
20:16 Jan 23, 2022

Thank you for the compliment, Hannah. I think every small town and neighborhood in America has its little gang of gossipers to this day. I probably would have been the topic of this tea party had I been the new neighbor, but luckily I was safe in my writing chamber, far away from these ladies where I could make the story go any way I wanted it to.

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Anna Nonymous
20:20 Jan 23, 2022

Neighborhood weirdo right here, subject of much gossip! I swear my neighbors think I'm a witch 😂

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22:58 Jan 14, 2022

Well, these old ladies were certainly not sweet! I loved the comparison between Maybelline capping the pen and a judge slamming their gavel; it emphasizes how judgemental these ladies were. The contrast between the coldness of the icebergs and the heat of the tea party was excellent. I'm glad Maybelline experienced a change of heart and reached out to Melvin—they could probably have some interesting adventures of their own! Nice job!

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Gip Roberts
19:28 Jan 15, 2022

Thanks for the read, Phoenix. It would almost be a funny story if it weren't based so much on real life. There's no shortage of Maybellines and Heathers in the world.

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