At Ethel and Harry’s on the Last Day of 1959 • Kathy Fish

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Ethel attempted to “frost” the green gelatin mold with a mixture of Miracle Whip and catsup, but it kept running down the sides. Her friend Imogene helped with the pimientos as together they formed “1960” on the top. It didn’t look anything like the photo in the style section. It looked magnificent in the newspaper with the woman standing over it waving a serving spoon like a magic wand to the amazement of her friends.

“I could cry,” Ethel said.

Imogene lifted the platter and set the gelatin in the sink and rinsed it with cold water. She grabbed a couple of paper towels off the rod and patted it dry. It quivered and shone under the ceiling light of Ethel’s kitchen. The hot dogs and macaroni suspended within looked like sea creatures in an aquarium.

“Voila,” Imogene said. “It becomes a conversation piece.”

In the living room, Dale Littlejohn turned up the volume on “Hound Dog” and grabbed his wife, Lois and spun her around. All the furniture had been shoved up against the walls and now the couples were dancing, flushed and wild-eyed. The whole place smelled of aftershave and sweat, cigarette smoke and dousings of Arpege perfume a couple of the women had gotten for Christmas.

The tree in the corner looked about to burst into flames. One string of lights was burnt out. Another flickered and buzzed menacingly.

All the women were trussed up in girdles and tight, complicated dresses. They tottered on high heels. Imogene wore a sleeveless black swing dress and a white fur cap that framed her face, accentuating her wide, dark eyes. Her feet, delicate as two ladybugs in patent leather flats.

“You look like Audrey Hepburn,” Ethel told her.

“Hydrangeas would look so pretty back there,” Imogene said, leaning over the kitchen sink to look out the window at Ethel and Harry’s snow covered backyard. “Maybe a plum tree.”

“I’m not much of a gardener.”

Imogene surveyed the bare expanse that was interrupted only by a wooden shed in disrepair, a fence along the alleyway. “That’s a shame,” she said.

Imogene was the only single woman present. There were three couples: Ethel and Harry, the Littlejohns, the O’Connors, then Imogene, and lovely Ralph who worked with Harry selling life insurance. Ralph was very tall and very handsome but for a pair of very thick glasses that tended to migrate down his nose. He sold more policies than all the other men in Harry’s office combined.

By 8:00 most everyone was already drunk. The bottles of whiskey and vodka and gin and all the mixers were spread out on Ethel’s washer and dryer. Ethel herself maintained an aggressive and unwelcome sobriety as she bustled about refreshing everybody else’s drinks, setting out the platters of cold cuts, emptying ash trays. She cracked the back door open, breathed in a blast of life-giving air.

A conga line had formed. Her Harry had positioned himself behind Imogene, gripping her narrow, swaying hips. He’d loosened his tie and Ethel could see dark circles under the armpits of his new shiny shirt. The hem of one of his pant legs was frayed and dragging. His party hat had slipped down and now it poked out of his forehead like a narwhal’s tooth.

Imogene reached back and squeezed Harry’s hand.

Nobody had touched the Frankfurter and Macaroni Gelatin Surprise. It had begun to seep and run off the platter onto the tablecloth. Ethel strode over to the record player and lifted the needle off the album, scratching it.

“Shall we play a game?” she said. Harry plopped in his armchair and Imogene curled on the floor at his feet like a cat. Across the room, Ralph lit a cigarette and stood holding it over an ashtray, letting it burn.

Ethel realized she had eaten too much. The band of her girdle dug into her waist. She wanted to reach up inside her skirt, roll it down, set her stomach free. Or sneak outside and lie naked in the snow. Someone had put another record on, something slow and moony. The O’Connors, who had been married every bit as long as Ethel and Harry, stood holding each other in the middle of the room, barely moving.

Ethel picked up the gelatin mold and dumped it in the garbage, platter and all. Imogene tapped her shoulder.

“Do you have a safety pin?” she asked.

The music stopped. In the corner, the last string of lights on the Christmas tree sputtered and died. Everyone had fallen into stuporous silence. Ethel slipped her shoes off, felt her feet expand. Imogene knelt, the safety pin gripped between her lips, and took hold of Harry’s pant leg. Ethel saw his eyes were closed but she knew he wasn’t sleeping. Leaning in, Imogene folded and smoothed Harry’s hem, took the pin from her mouth, and secured it. The new year had not yet been born, but outside, Ethel could hear the banging of pots and pans.

_____

Kathy Fish teaches flash fiction for the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver. She has published four collections of short fiction: a chapbook in the Rose Metal Press collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (2008); Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011); Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2012); and Rift, co-authored with Robert Vaughan (Unknown Press, 2015). Her story, “A Room with Many Small Beds” was chosen by Stuart Dybek for inclusion in Best Small Fictions 2016 (Queen’s Ferry Press). She blogs at http://www.kathy-fish.com/.

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