MARBLE HOUSE


By Anne Skalitza



In the end, Marble House truly lived up to its stone-cold title, where only one of its inhabitants was not a victim.

"I am waiting, Bartholomew," the voice demanded from the upstairs hallway.

Bart sighed, adjusted his silk tie, and opened the door of his bedroom suite. One look at Mother's flowing dress and he thought of an undulating ocean in the darkest night, as her large bosom heaved with each breath and as she leaned on her cane to steady her legs.

"Took you long enough," she said, squinting her beady eyes at her oldest son. "Your father always said one must always be on time, even for simple dinners at home. You inherited his looks but not his ethics, I'd say." Bart wondered why his father had to die two decades ago, and not Mother. Freak accident it was, their boat capsizing. Mother claimed it was survival of the fittest.

Those who knew her secretly felt that neither heaven nor hell wanted her. When she broke her leg recently, they discharged her from the rehab center faster than any patient should have been. "She'll be far more comfortable at home," the social worker said, a look of desperate pleading on her face. With Mother's money, they hired 'round the clock nurses, all of whom, of course, left after a few days. "I'm on the mend," Mother insisted. Bart knew something had to be done soon, knew that his sanity rested on his taking leave of being in charge of the house and its day-to-day upkeep. Of course she would cut-off his inheritance as well, and that just wouldn't do. He needed a plan.

Like the gentleman he was raised as, he held his arm out for his mother to take, and together they slowly walked down the sweeping marble staircase.

As they stepped into the foyer, the doorbell rang and the maid solemnly opened the towering oak door. Cold air blew in, mingling with the already frosty atmosphere. She greeted the guest with a smile, "Hola, Señor Teufel." Mother liked servants who barely understood English. "Better that way," she'd say. "Then they don't tell tales."

A young man with laughing eyes rushed into the house as if carried in by a strong wind, his voice booming to the maid, "Editha! Good to see you." With a flourish, he gave her his tweed hat and a kiss on the cheek, which he knew would absolutely horrify Mother, and then wrapped his arms around his older brother and Mother. Mother lost her balance; Bart steadied her.

She glared at her second oldest. "My word, Mark, you have always been like a bull in a china shop."

Mark wondered why Bart didn't just let her fall. He raised an eyebrow. "So sorry about that. Just enthused to see you, that's all. Spending so much time going here and there for the family business, I barely have time to crash at the apartment in the city. How long have I been away, six months, six years?"

Mother sniffed. "No love lost, I'd say. You could have at least called more than once a month. I hear more often from my attorney."

Mark knew he should have kept in touch, just to keep up appearances, but talking to Mother was like talking to a plant. And her advice was more like a command from a five-star general. "Mark," she would say, "You just cannot do what you wish. All decisions come from me. You are merely the liaison." More like peon, Mark thought. If she ever knew the truth about her darling daddy's company, Mark would be out of her will, out of her life, and out on the street. He interrupted this unpleasant thought. "How has your health been, Mother?" He wished to hear that she only had three months to live.

"Doctor says I'm in fine shape, thank you. This leg will heal soon. I shall live a long, long time."

Damn, he thought. She looks like a horse and she's built like a horse. How much longer could he stand this?

Before Mark could make any feeble congratulatory comments on her excellent health, a woman with brown curls half-hiding her face came toward them from a side room. She was big boned but walked quietly, as though not wanting to disturb the dead. Or Mother.

"Catherine!" Mark cried, hugging her. "How wonderful to see you!"

The woman smiled broadly at her sibling, glad for the vitality he brought to the stuffy place. "You've been gone too long," she said warmly. His sister fiercely resembled their mother, with the same small eyes, long narrow nose, and jutting chin. Catherine secretly considered plastic surgery to make her facial features softer, and maybe even change her last name. The latter she knew she couldn't do lest Mother disinherit her, just like Mother threatened from time-to-time to each of her four children.

A not-so-rare anger swelled inside Catherine and the thought of grabbing Mother's cane while Bart left Mother's side was gone in an instant. As Mother would say, "Certainly not lady-like in the least." Mother's words, Mother's imposing voice, Mother's tight-fisted ways with her money. How many times had Catherine heard her say, "With all that you have here, why on earth would you need to work? Or want to? Marry a nice rich man." The insinuation being that if Catherine got it into her head to pursue college or a career, she'd be cut-off. If she married someone who was "not our kind, dear," she'd be disinherited. Far too long was it ingrained in Catherine that she just didn't have what it took to hold a job or get a degree other than high school. Their father died too many years ago for her to know differently. And the governesses that had come and gone all were versed in Mother's philosophies toward her only daughter. And those nice rich men came and went when they saw whom they were being paired with. Money or no, Catherine had two strikes against her: Her looks and Mother.

A plan, Catherine often mused. That's what was needed. A plan to get herself out from under Mother's control. It would have to be soon in order to save her sanity, what little was left. Straightening her shoulders and pushing back her hair, she followed them into the dining room.

In one of the seats around the elegantly set table, a young man with the same dark curly hair as his brothers and sister, sat with pen poised in the air, staring dreamily at nothing.

Mark called out "Paul!" and went over to greet him. As if awakened from a deep sleep, Paul jumped and dropped his pen. Mark thumped him on the back and Paul winced. "Oh, sorry, dear brother! You always were easy to startle. And so pale and thin! 'The quiet one,' we all say, right?" Bart and Catherine smiled in agreement.

Paul grimaced and clenched his hands in his lap.

Mother glared at the youngest of the Teufels. "No writing at the dinner table. You know the rules."

Paul picked the pen off the floor, closed the writing tablet, and put it under his chair. It was the book she asked him to write about her; a book she insisted must be called The Elizabeth Antoinette Randolph-Teufel Story. Boring title, boring life. No matter how many rewrites, he just couldn't make her biography scintillating. But the epilogue — oh, the epilogue! — it had to develop in a way where his life could be lived as he wished. For twenty-two years he lived under Mother's iron fist and pointed finger, and inadvertently this manuscript, with a few tweaks and some more thought, could become a map of his way out.

With Bart's help, Mother settled into the chair at the head of the table, her cane hooked onto the chair's arm. Bart sat at the other end, as was expected of him. The matriarch sat regally, surveying the scene before her. China, crystal, and silverware arranged perfectly; her offspring looking like dull accompaniments to an otherwise ornate setting. Mother wondered why she ever bothered to have such a nuisance as sons and a daughter. A poodle, properly trained and groomed, would have been a far better companion. It was her husband who had wanted children but then did such a disservice to her by dying fairly young. It sullied any fond memories she recalled of their marriage. Thankfully she had more than enough money to hire governesses and maids to help her raise the children after his death. If it weren't for the bad leg, she would right now be on a world cruise with delightful and entertaining people.

Mother sighed and bowed her head for prayer. The others followed suit. As she intoned the blessing and her four off-spring silently prayed for deliverance, Bart thought of how, instead of the scene before him looking like a festive Sunday dinner, it resembled a last meal given by a self-centered queen to her minions, who were awaiting the guillotine.

Mother sharply clapped her hands, bringing Bart out of his reverie. Two servants, Cymone and Anastasya, came into the dining room, one holding a silver tray, the other a wine bottle. Cymone passed the breads and Anastasya poured the Pinot Noir. Like Editha, they were hired because they barely spoke English. Mother bragged how she taught them well, through signals with her hands and her perfect example.

Aside from the silverware clinking against china and the occasional cough, there was silence, as Mother wished. Though far beyond childhood's gates, she preferred that they been seen and not heard while eating. Through each course, Bart discretely poured more wine into his continuously emptied goblet. Mother took no notice, as she eyed the food and made sure it was to her liking.

When Cymone carried in the lamb on a large platter, Bart slowly rose from his chair, took up the carving knife, deliberately gazed around the opulent room and drawled, "This place should be called Marble House."

His siblings stopped what they were doing and stared at him. Bart's arm wavered, and the carving knife with it.

Mother forcefully put down her wine glass, spilling blood-red drops onto the white linen tablecloth as well as the napkin on her lap. "And what do you mean?" she asked.

"Marble, Mother. Marble fireplace, marble floors..." Bart's voice trailed off as he now waved the knife in the air like a magician.

Catherine gulped down the rest of her wine and her body suddenly became animated as if breaking free of a puppeteer's strings. "Yes! It was quite lovely when the fireplace was framed with Louisiana brick, wasn't it though?"

Mark raised his glass in toast to what once was. "Remember the foyer? And this room? Wood floors the color of honey."

Paul looked as if he was waiting for something, a look of gleeful anticipation. He refrained from rubbing his hands together.

Mother glared at each member of her family. "I gather you find the marble oppressive."

Silence answered. It wasn't the marble they found oppressive. Bart concentrated on holding the knife still, the sharp metal blade reflecting the overhead chandelier lights like so many tiny shooting stars.

Mother banged her fist onto the table, knocking over two lit candles. One landed in a glass nearby filled with ice water. The other fell onto the linen tablecloth, its flame sputtering and dying quickly. Paul visually traced the outline of the charred cloth, perceiving it to be the shape of a cup or a chalice.

Throwing down her napkin on her plate, Mother slowly and unsteadily rose from her chair, her imposing shadow falling over the table. Her right hand gripped the wooden cane and held it up like a staff. Small, slit-like eyes glared at her oldest son. "You want me dead."

This truism ran like an electrical charge among the four watching her. Bottoms shifted uneasily in the antique chairs, small coughs emanating from the gathered clan.

"Oh don't be a silly," Bart finally managed to say, as if talking to a child.

Turning toward the faces marked with years of impatient waiting, Mother held on to the table with one white-knuckled hand while the other fisted around the cane, jabbing the air with each word. "I will not die for a very long time!" Such vehemence filled those words that her body shook and her grip on the table loosened. She grasped at the edge but came away with her napkin. Mother fell back, her large body shoving the spindly-legged chair away.

Her head hit the black marble floor, hard, like the sound of a coconut being smashed open. Her arms splayed out from her body, one hand still clutching the cane, blood oozing around her white hair, dying it red. The white linen napkin, spattered with droplets of red wine, covered part of her torso. Bart, Paul, Catherine, and Mark sat staring at the now-empty space at the head of the table, as the two servants and Editha rushed into the room. They, too, stopped short and stared as Mother lay on the cold unforgiving marble. No one moved until Mark pulled out his cell phone to summon help. As the oldest, Bart felt it was his obligation to check her vitals.

Slowly he pushed back his chair and went over to her. He knelt down, his fingers on her wrist, his face near her mouth and nose. No pulse, no breath. Bart stood up, his eyebrows raised in surprise, but a small smile curling the corners of his mouth. He looked at each of his brothers and his sister and said, "Well, she did say we found the marble to be oppressive and that is furthest from the truth. Actually, I'd say it released us."

Editha nodded her head while Cymone and Anastasya suppressed smiles. They understood. They always did. Contrary to what Elizabeth Randolph-Teufel always thought, they spoke English fluently.

Paul's mind raced. The annoyance of dealing day-to-day with Mother was now taken care of. But since he had been privy to Mother's diaries and assorted letters, he knew what the will would read. The bulk of the Randolph-Teufel estate was to go to an animal shelter; he'd have to share the remaining meager inheritance with his brothers and sister. That just would not do. Killing them all off was impossible. But the threat of a literary knife to their collective backs would certainly do the trick. Being the quietest, each of his siblings had confided in him their unabashed hatred toward Mother and wondering ways and means of, well, delivering them from her, so to speak. He was a good listener; they had no idea that Paul was writing Mother's biography. And it was all on a tiny recorder he had kept hidden from view.

Before the authorities arrived, Paul cleared his throat and to the surprise and ultimately, horror of Bart, Catherine, and Mark, he made a toast. "All these years, I was the quiet one, the one you would go to about your darkest, most secret wishes. You thought I was too meek to speak up. Or to do anything. Well I was. Now that Mother's met her quite timely demise, I propose my own toast." Holding his crystal wine glass high, he said, "To the almost-completed book that Mother asked me to write about her life, with a new title though — Marble House. And to each of you, for your anticipated monetary cooperation in making sure I don't include your many hours of ramblings I have on my recording device. Which, I might add, is in safe keeping with my own attorney."

Taking a sip of the blood-red wine, Paul basked in the pale faces of his siblings, proving that a pen could be mightier than a sword.


Anne Skalitza is a freelance writer with many short stories and essays published in magazines and anthologies, such as the Birmingham Arts Journal and Adams Media publications. For Anne's thoughts on writing and life in general, and a complete listing of her published works, visit her blog at www.anneskal.wordpress.com.


Copyright © 2011 Anne Skalitza. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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