Full-Price Angel by Mariflo Stephens

From what Fern can tell it looks like a fight. Fern’s watching through a back screen door which makes the scene look like a pointillist painting. Grace flies across the kitchen floor at Philip, something in her hand, and it looks like she’s hitting him across the shoulder with it. Fern stands still for a minute, holding a bottle of white wine with one hand, her book bag and purse in the other. Then she goes for the door handle.

“Ask him what he’s been doing!” Grace shouts into Fern’s face, jerking the screen door open for her.

“O.K.” Fern sets her packages down on the kitchen table, under a huge bay window, ready for her Tuesday night ritual.

“It was nothing unusual,” Philip said. “We played with each other’s pee-pee’s, that’s all.”

Philip’s face is ringed by long, soft curls like Jesus. He’s studying his nails. His eyelashes are long and curly too.

“Air heels,” Grace screams and rises to tiptoe, her body in perfect camp of a high-heeled drag queen.

“Grace doesn’t like Wayne,” Philip says.

“He’s such a fag,” Grace says and turns to lean closer to Fern’s face. “Wayne’s a hairdresser. A redneck hairdresser.”

Fern had never seen the siblings fight before. She didn’t think them capable of it; they were so talented and so unlike most of the people she knew that they stood out in Fern’s world like two bright gems in a long road of gray gravel.

Every Tuesday after Fern leaves her teaching job she travels to this farmhouse and spends Tuesday and Wednesday nights with Grace and Philip, cutting her commute by half. During the long weekends she is at home, she feels she accomplishes nothing but laundry, meals, and car-pooling. Usually one of her three children is unhappy about something.

Philip studies Fern’s packages, asks about her husband George, then looks out the window. “Uh oh, Hank alert.”

All three gather at the window and watch as Hank, the farm manager, dressed in a white t-shirt, pulls a bag of feed from a nearby shed. He drops the feedbag, pulls off his shirt, and wipes his forehead with it. It’s Indian Summer.

None of them can look away. Two of the three want him bad. Grace feels the same way about Fern. She wants her. All three are emitting so many pheromones that, if visible, those chemical substances of sexual attraction, those little pheromones, would surround the trio like a stand of fireflies.

“George used to be normal,” Fern says to Philip, not moving an inch. “He went to Woodstock, took LSD. Now he falls asleep with the newspaper over his face.”

“They went up to the barn,” Grace spits out and Fern realizes Grace is still talking about Philip and Wayne. Philip makes a high animal noise and shivers.

Outside Hank spoons cracked corn out of the bag onto a tray he’s rigged up on the side of the deck. Technically, Philip, Grace, and Fern are supposed to help out with the work on the farm but they never do and Hank never mentions it. They own the farm as a corporation, were advised by Fern’s husband George to buy it as a tax shelter and a sometime-second home. Their actual homes are in nearby Nashville, Tennessee, a place the media once dubbed Cash-Ville in the 1950’s but Grace calls it either Nash-Vegas or Trash-ville. Only Grace still needs to live in the city. She works in the country music industry.

Both Philip and Fern are academics. Phil accepts the occasional lecture at Vanderbilt, right in Nashville, but mostly opts for non-tenure track positions in outlying areas. That way, he says, he can fly away if he needs to. Both Philip and Fern have taught at Austin Peay State University, about 50 minutes away. Now Fern’s tenured thirty minutes to the southeast, at Middle Tennessee State University. Philip’s current appointment is in her same building at Middle Tennessee.

Fern thinks of herself as a failed poet but she’s had one book of poetry published by a respectable university press. It’s not poetry writing she teaches, but criticism, called “Forms Of Thought” in the catalog.

The phone rings and Grace leaves the kitchen for the den, barks into the receiver, “Sweetest Song.”

“It’s the prednisone,’ Fern says softly to Philip, but thinks, “Screen, for God’s sake.”

Sweetest Song is the name of the corporation, a limited partnership, that owns the farm. Philip is still leaning out the window, his curls loose and lugubrious. “Could be, could be the prednisone.” Fern sometimes wonders if Hank senses their fantasies and is playing to them. He’s probably overheard Philip, whenever Hank’s outside around the yard, call out: “Oh, take me! Take me now!”

On the deck, Hank is scattering cracked corn and Fern climbs into the window seat to look for Marvin, the male peacock on the farm. Philip puts water on the stove for tea. Philip loves any kind of pharmaceutical. He’s going to drink his tea with a prescription cough medicine loaded with codeine. But he lectures Grace and Fern sternly on their white wine consumption.

“I said, SWEETEST SONG,” Grace screams and, in her prednisone-induced rage, is repeating, “What? What?” each time with more incredulity in her voice.

She calls out into the kitchen: “You all want burial plots?” She snarls into the phone. “No, we don’t want burial plots. My brother Philip wants to be cremated, so all he needs is a ginger jar; and my ashes are going to scattered by helicopter all over Trash-ville.”

Fern is listening, searching the outside intently, wondering if Grace will figure her into the burial plot plan, as if she’s a full family member.

She thinks: How deep am I in with them?

“Our partner, Fern, she’s not gonna die.” Grace says and hangs up the phone.

Aha.

His back to Grace, Philip says, barely loud enough for Fern to hear: “We have to help Grace. Without her we wouldn’t have the money, we wouldn’t have this farm.”

“We wouldn’t have this problem.”

“We wouldn’t even have the song.”

“Oh, I know Philip. All we’d have is a joke on a cocktail napkin. We tried so hard with her last Tuesday. Setting her up in the woods. Remember?”

It all started last fall when Fern walked into the Blue Bird Cafe one day looking like what she was—a neglected wife—and carrying her latest purchase. She’d been in Nashville’s Green Hills neighborhood to attend an antique auction, long an antidote for upper-class neglected wives. At the bar, Fern put down her prize, a wooden angel, apparently part of a gargoyle pried off a flying buttress, and ordered a Killigan’s, noticing that a low-life type was coming up behind her, aiming to sit right beside her. She placed a cocktail napkin to her right, before his would-be stool.

Later that evening she would attend a barbecue in her own neighborhood of Elysian Fields, a place so tacky she can’t believe she actually lives there. If it weren’t her husband’s family home, she never would have agreed to live among neighbors like Tammy Wynette on Franklin Road.

“This taken?” he asked.

“Yes it is.”

“What’s that you got? Hey! I say, what’s that you got?”

He had a blonde stringy handlebar mustache and a long blonde ponytail down his back. He wore ancient blue jeans and a sleeveless leather vest that showed the tattoos on both his arms. On one arm a snake uncoils, its forked tongue heading toward the wrist. On his left arm is an elaborate crucifix with drops of blood falling toward his hand.

At least neighborhoods like Elysian Fields and Green Hills were guarantees that you didn’t meet up with these types routinely. And, when she went to the barbecue she’d be seeing Philip and Grace, because their parents were Fern’s neighbors. They always invited Fern and George over with Philip and Grace, hoping for a “turnaround,” as their mother called it, “from that homosexual fad that’s so popular.” Their mother wants Fern to call her Barbara and has a habit of instructing Fern in mothering, starting out this way: ”Oh, I knew what to do.” This conversation never failed to make Fern remember what Philip and Grace told her about a housekeeper Barbara hired. They called her “Hopeless Chest” because she was so flat-chested and, they said, giggling, as teenagers they both had slept with her.

“I said lady, what’s that there on the bar?”

“It’s an angel. I got it on discount after it didn’t sell at an antique auction.”

“Discount?” he said. “Discount!”

He turned his full face to her. His pale green eyes had filled with tears. He gave her one long, slow shake of his head.

“You ought to pay full price for an angel.” His voice was incredibly deep, slow. He slapped a fiver on the counter and got up to leave. He gave her another wet look, another slow shake of his head.

On her cocktail napkin, she scribbled, “Full price for an angel.”

That night Philip and Fern, outside under the magnolia, smoking the forbidden cigarettes, jointly wrote a song called You Ought To Pay Full Price For An Angel. Grace pitched it and it sold and sold and sold.

When the money really started coming in, both Philip and Grace were limp with indecision and shock over what to do with all of it. Fern was ecstatic—maybe she could quit her teaching job—until the point where she could go nowhere in Nashville without hearing that whine about that damn angel.

Fern remembers Grace’s face when news of the hit’s real escalation started coming in.

“They say it’s bigger than Ache-y-Break-y Heart,” she’d said.

Grace’s face, Fern thinks, was solemn, as grave as if someone had died.

“You’ve never heard of that song, have you, Fern?” Philip had asked her.

When she said no, Philip said, “Remember. It’s country music. Bad is good.”

Now Fern spots Marvin near the cars in the driveway. He backs up to her red Saab.

Marvin slowly fans out his lime green and aquamarine tail feathers. He’ll come up on the deck, hang out in the driveway, fly up to the air conditioning unit, do anything except present to the peahens. When every feather is fully fanned out, his plumage completely visible, Marvin vigorously shakes the small, downy feathers on his rump.

“Oh,” she moans. “Marvin’s presenting to the cars again.”

Grace comes into the kitchen and she and Philip face off, back to their arguing position. “Ask Philip where your white nightgown is,” Grace barks in Fern’s direction.

“I know how you feel, Marvin,” Philip says over Fern’s shoulder.

“Where’s my white nightgown Philip?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Fern ignores him and starts upstairs to the bedroom where she sleeps every Tuesday and Wednesday night. Behind her, Grace is saying, “I bet they wore it. You two wore it didn’t you? Pervert. I bet you took turns.”

Usually the gown hangs there spectrally all weekend, the only garment in the closet, while Fern’s living her weekend life in Nashville. This has caught her off guard. She doesn’t care what Philip does but, really, her own nightgown? She could ask him flat out but somehow she doesn’t want to know. Why couldn’t he wear his kimono? He looks stunning in it. Or his muumuu. He looks so cute in his muumuu.

Downstairs Grace is crying into her hands, sitting at the kitchen table and Philip is giving her a neck rub.

“She threw up,” he says

Other than the peacock farm, Fern and Phil found what they could also invest in—Grace.

On the strength of Full-Price Angel Grace was offered and has signed a seven in twelve, which, in the parlance of the country music business, means that a songwriter has to come up with seven songs in twelve months.

“What she needs is marijuana.” Philip thrusts a tiny pipe toward Grace.

So far Grace has been on Prozac, Elavil, Zoloft, and now, for her poison ivy, steroids. Last Tuesday Grace had convinced Fern and Philip if she could just compose while sitting outside in the woods with recording equipment, she’d come unstuck. They rigged up extension cord after extension cord and, on an unusually warm autumn day, Grace sat right down in a patch of poison ivy.

Fern goes back upstairs in a trot. She swings the closet door open. Her nightgown isn’t there. This is as shocking as all those damn publicists. They had almost sold out, all three of them. They got as far as the photo shoot. The publicity people tried putting cowboy boots on Philip and a shoulder-padded jacket. He still looked about as masculine as Sigourney Weaver.

The phone rings again and by now Philip is in his office, closed off from the den and the kitchen, thoroughly focused on his research into Japanese puppet theater. Fern’s cleaning the kitchen floor and Grace stands behind her, her head on Fern’s shoulder, wearing a black baseball hat on backwards. She moves with Fern, as if they’re waltzing. It’s hard to sweep that way but Fern does it.

I’m in deep here, Fern thinks, and goes for the phone.

Philip pokes his head out of his office and says disgustedly: “Is that Julia Roberts again?”

Both Julia Roberts and Goldie Hawn have read the movie script for Full-Price Angel and both want the lead. The producer is keeping them at bay by referring to the creative control clause George threw in the contract that Sweetest Song finally signed.

“I’ve heard of a short story being made into a movie, but a song?” George had asked.

Typically supportive, Fern thought at the time. Financially though, Fern knows he saved their asses, put them in a limited partnership called Sweetest Song and had them buy a nearly worthless property—a peacock farm with a confused male peacock and female peahens that can’t stop running away.

That night they all eat together out on the deck and sit there until it’s too cold and dark to be there any longer. Fern’s been drinking more wine than usual so she’ll feel sleepy, trying to forget what George had told her on the phone. The next morning Fern wakes up wearing an old T-shirt of Philip’s, feels a warm lump in bed beside her and knows that Grace has crawled in bed with her again. A soft hand to her hip. Uh-oh.

“Fern, listen.”

Then Grace begins humming and Fern realizes Grace is only testing a song out on her.

“And here are the lyrics: ‘Artificial…’ ”

Fern hears something about an “artificial sweetness in an artificial light” and then, in the refrain, “a fat-free romance on a fruitless night.”

“I don’t think so Grace.”

After breakfast Fern takes a stack of papers to grade out to the hammock. Hank is sharpening something near the shed where the peahens are trapped so they won’t run away. The sun and the orange glow of the leaves over her make her feel sleepy. She’s about to doze off when she hears leaves rustle nearby.

“Fern, listen to this one.” Grace strums an A chord, then a D, then an E. Back to A, she strums and sings: “I’ve tried phone, e-mail and fax. And still, I can’t get my baby back.”

Fern closes her eyes. Remember, bad is good.

In the living room she lies on the floor holding the dreaded student papers over her head. Every time she finishes reading one, she drops it. She sees Grace standing in front of her holding her guitar at performance pose but Fern ignores her. Instead she looks over the top of Grace’s head where their platinum record for Full-Price Angel is hanging. It looks to her like a guillotine over Grace’s neck.

Grace sings: “I was drunk the day that Momma got out of prison. Or this one: I gave her the ring but she gave me the finger.”

Philip bounds out of his office and stops Grace by clamping a palm over her guitar fret. “It’s a joke Fern. Those songs are already published and recorded, covered. She’s playing a joke on you.” Philip returns to his desk and slams his office door shut.

The phone rings again and both Fern and Grace hear Philip throw something.

Grace moves toward the phone but comes away from it subdued. “Sweetest Song members, we have to have a meeting,” she says.

Philip comes out of his office scowling but Grace stops him with a palm to his shoulder. “We HAVE to meet. ”

“All we’ve done is meet,” Fern says. She has stayed past her Tuesday through Thursday teaching schedule, past her usual Friday night restaurant date with George and now she pictures herself as missing the pancake-cooking motherly Saturday morning role she’s never actually played. This week she didn’t even want the Friday night date. She hadn’t felt kindly toward her husband since he told her on the phone earlier that now she couldn’t quit her teaching job. She’d have to get the group health insurance for the family from her college. He’d quit his law firm to hang out a shingle. Fern thought of the firm’s annual Christmas parties, summer pool parties, and the annual cash bonus at the end of the fiscal year. Gone. Gone. Gone.

“We always meet. We sit around this table.” As Fern’s voice rises, she points to the window. There’s Marvin, moving in his slow turkey trot, those skinny legs that look, Fern always thinks, like they’re stepping across flypaper.

“No,” Grace protests loudly, “listen, what I’m saying is this: the money walked.”

Philip approaches the telephone like he’s seeing it for the first time. “The money walked?” he asked. “I guess those publicity photos will never be used now.”

“That’s it! That’s it!”

“Of course, that’s it, Grace. Nobody’s going to make that movie without the money.”

“No, I mean, that’s it, that’s the song. Listen:

The money walked/And everybody talked

I said the money walked/Then everybody balked

“They said, ‘If she–ee–ee is through with him-a-im…’”

Like the melody? But it’s the lyrics that are going to make it—I can change the tune. It’s also got the door thing.”

“Door thing?” Philip says.

“It must be like Ache-y Break-y Heart. Something we don’t know about,” Fern tells him.

“You know, ‘I wanna be your back door man.’ and ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’ I’ll say something like ‘when the money went out the door, her love went out the window.’ ”

Fern: “It’s over, I think. She’s unstuck.”

Phil: “That song’s just bad enough to be good.”

“I think I’ve got it now people. If I could just have some peace.” Grace backs up. Her head is near the bay window in the kitchen and Marvin shakes his rump. He’s presenting to Grace. “That’s a hopeful sign,” Philip says. Now Marvin has finally done it—he fans his full plumage out and the feathers spread around the back of Grace’s head like beams of color from a radiant sun.


Mariflo Stephens
Mariflo Stephens, whose fiction is included in Contemporary American Women Writers, also writes essays, two of which were published in The Barbie Chronicles and Successful Writing Strategies. She was awarded two grants for fiction from the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

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