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The Unhappy Life of Constance Thornberg (1989)

The Unhappy Life of Constance Thornberg (1989)

©1989, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1989). The unhappy life of Consance Thornberg. Unpublished short story.






The Unhappy Life of Constance Thornberg

By Dallas Denny


Miss Thornberg is a desperate woman, and desperate women are different from desperate men. Men, in their desperation, often turn anger upon the outside world; desperate women turn their anger inwards, steaming in the bitter juices of frustration and helplessness until eventually the juices are all used up and only a dry husk remains. But Miss Thornberg is different from other desperate women. Her anger is directed both outward and inward.

This is my picture of Miss Thornberg in her fortieth year. She is drying up, and so she unleashes her anger on the largely indifferent world. She is a virgin. She is a desperate woman.

It is Tuesday evening. Miss Thornberg takes Mary Louise, her mother, shopping at the Piggly-Wiggly on Tuesday evening. Mary Louise is a short and stout gray old woman with her hair pulled up in a bun. Now, her coffee-colored stockings rolled down below her knees, she is waddling up the aisles, pushing a grocery cart. The cart has a bad wheel and Mary Louise has to womanhandle it back on track every time it tries to muscle its way into the displays of Campbell soups or Libby cling peaches or B&M Brick Oven baked beans. She makes a noise like a stout pig each time she leans over the cart and yanks it front and center.

Miss Thornberg follows Mary Louise at a distance, her purse tucked under one elbow. She hopes no one will know she is with Mary Louise. She picks up cans with her free hand, studying the FDA-mandated nutritional information of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs and Armour potted meat spread. Miss Thornberg is not the least bit interested in spaghetti or potted meat, but the idle reading keeps her mind occupied and her thoughts away from what she thinks of as her undeserved misfortune.

Miss Thornberg is unhappy for these reasons: she, an only child, considers it her duty and responsibility to look after her widowed mother. She, with a Master of Fine Arts degree from a fine woman’s college, is but an assistant librarian in a small-town public library. She, a fine-looking woman, is unloved. She has no husband, no children, no home of her own. She doesn’t even have a suitor— at least, not a suitor to suit her. She tends to avoid the men who tend to pursue her. She finds men, as a lot, artless and coarse. The reality of balding heads and sagging bellies and nose hairs doesn’t jibe well with her romanticized notions. She hasn’t yet given up the romance that her shining knight, too gentile to perspire under his heavy armor, will one day show up to claim her, but her picture of him is growing ever less clear.

Mary Louise is, of course, perfectly capable of looking after herself, but she doesn’t comport herself in a way which pleases Miss Thornberg, and so Miss Thornberg believes her mother cannot possibly be competent to manage her own affairs. And to tell the truth, after all these years, Mary Louise has come to expect her daughter to look after her.

Miss Thornberg has had offers of employment at better libraries. She has turned them down, each time with curses and recriminations directed at Mary Louise, whom she holds responsible for her present underemployment. Miss Thornberg has, of course, also had offers of love—but she has, for reasons already mentioned, spurned those who would be her lovers. Each, because of an error in taste or judgment or appearance, has in turn fallen away from the blindingly pure altar of Miss Thornberg’s love.

So every Tuesday evening, Miss Thornberg, the virgin, follows Mary Louise down the aisles of the Piggly-Wiggly. Tonight she is pale under the rows of bright fluorescent lights. She feels as if she is on exhibit, a butterfly impaled with a pin to a piece of green felt in a cedar box at the back of the top shelf in a closet filled with bowling balls and tennis rackets with broken strings and old shoes with holes in them. She is a butterfly; other women are mere moths. Why, then, is she not elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere else, in the company of a man who would hold her, love her, cherish her, make love to her, die for her? It isn’t fair. It isn’t her fault. She holds God personally responsible for her spinsterhood.

Miss Thornberg is not a naive person. She has read Camus, Sartre. She knows life isn’t fair, but she often talks herself into believing it is—she insists that life be fair; she needs to justify the sacrifices she has chosen to make. Perhaps her greatest failing is that she cannot bring herself to accept the fact that life isn’t fair.

Miss Thornberg is a striking and intimidating woman— striking, but she misses being pretty because her mouth and nose and chin are those of a degenerate or miser. Despite her hard name—thorn, as in every rose has one, and berg, as in iceberg—despite the cruel features of her lower face, the overwhelming sense of her is of softness and vulnerability. Her eyes are her best feature—fiery and black, they smolder fiercely beneath delicately arched brows. Her mouth is heavy and sensual, and in a certain light, perhaps a little cruel. Her nose is too large and hooks on the end, like a witch’s. She wears her long thick dark hair unbound. It cascades nearly to her waist. She is too proud to color the gray, which threatens to predominate. She has a tendency to put on weight, and only by strenuous exercise has she managed to keep herself as thin as she wishes to be; and even at her ideal weight, her corners are rounded and her knuckles are dimpled. She dresses primly, in crisp white high-necked, button-front blouses and grey woolen skirts. Although her legs are shapely and sheathed in stockings of high quality, she hides their light under a basket by wearing sensible flat shoes.

Examination of almost any disembodied piece of Miss Thornberg’s flesh would reveal the fact that she is a woman and not a man. She is soft, silky, delicate, and this applies to the webbing between her fingers as well as to the swelling of her hips. Her skin is pale and soft, the finest parchment. It glows. Men who might pass her rigid inspection are attracted to her, but the intelligence and anger which flash from her eyes warn them away like a lighthouse warns errant freighters from offshore rocks.

Miss Thornberg—her proper name is Constance—Constance was popular in high school and college. She had not been desperate then, had been less angry. She had been an amusing and articulate date. She had become semi-serious with a great number of men, but her one great love—the love to end all loves—the special love she knows waits for her somewhere—has never arrived. Once she thought perhaps it had. When she was twenty-five she was prepared to surrender herself to a handsome young man when he had committed an unforgivable social blunder, misusing a word everyone—or at least everyone with whom Miss Thornberg would wish to be acquainted—should know. She had known at that moment he wasn’t the one for her. She had made a hasty excuse, buttoned her blouse, put on her sensible shoes, and walked out, leaving a somewhat bewildered and aroused young man in her wake. He hadn’t called again. Her other suitors had foundered on other rocks.

And so now Miss Thornberg is forty, and she is desperate, and she is following Mary Louise past the meat counter at the Piggly Wiggly. Mary Louise has refused to shop the Safeway since they remodeled the store. She claims she can’t find anything any more. Now she waddles up the aisle past the steaks and chops, headed for the ground beef section.

Mary Louise always manages to embarrass Miss Thornberg, and tonight is no exception. Ignoring the bell fastened to the display case, she raps on the glass with a can of frozen orange juice until a man with a bloodstained white apron throws open the double stainless steel doors. The doors, like those of a stainless-steel saloon, have round portholes, as if they were on a ship. Forcing a smile, the man asks Mary Louise what she wants. Mary Louise launches into a diatribe about how meat isn’t what it used to be. The man warms to Mary Louise, chats with her with a big smile on his face, and finally departs to grind some beef especially for her. Mary Louise’s smirk is wasted on Miss Thornberg. Constance, who finds animal products of all types distasteful (even though she consumes them), and who is irritated that Mary Louise has succeeded in charming the butcher, has gravitated down the aisle to the luncheon meats, where she feigns interest in a package of Lay’s bologna. She notes that it contains beef liver, tripe, lips, tongue, ears, snouts, and tails.

“Constance! Constance!” puffs Mary Louise, holding up in triumph her package of ground beef. “Come with me! I’m going down the cereal aisle!”

“You can go to hell,” mutters Miss Thornberg, just loud enough for Mary Louise and the man in the bloodstained apron to hear. But she dutifully follows her mother. She is an obedient daughter, if not a respectful one.

In the checkout lane Mary Louise embarrasses Miss Thornberg again by talking back to the cash register, which speaks the name and price of each item she has purchased. “Don’t forget that yogurt is on sale,” she says. “Don’t forget those are three for a dollar.” Outside in the parking lot with Mary Louise beside her in the passenger seat, Miss Thornberg takes her frustration out on the local populace. “Goddamn fool! Cretin!” she hollers at a lanky man in overalls and his five tow-headed children. He has just pulled out in front of her in a rusty white Oldsmobile station wagon with a dragging muffler. The wagon produces great volumes of white smoke. The lanky man doesn’t hear her assessment of his intelligence, but he does hear her horn, which she has held down for a good ten seconds, and he makes an obscenity with his finger. This sends Miss Thornberg even further over the delicate edge of discretion. She returns the obscenity with one hand while she pounds on her steering wheel with the other. In a paroxysm of rage, she revs her engine and slams the transmission into reverse. Her tires screech as Mary Louise’s Toyota lunges violently backward. The back of Mary Louise’s head snaps against her neck as Miss Thornberq slams on the brakes. Now she crams the shift lever into the drive position. Mary Louise’s car leaps forward, narrowly missing the back bumper of the Oldsmobile, and Miss Thornberg is around it and down the street and gone.

Except for the time her neck snapped, Mary Louise has sat motionless throughout this amazing display. She manages to make herself look small in her seat. It is a not inconsiderable task. She learned long ago that it’s useless to say anything to Miss Thornberg when she is in what Mary Louise euphemistically calls one of her “moods.”

An hour later, Miss Thornberg is in a better state of mind. She and Mary Louise watch television until, finally, it is time to go to bed.

Every weekday, Miss Thornberg arises at 5:30 A.M. and does a brisk round of calisthenics. Afterwards, panting, with a towel thrown across her sagging shoulders, she goes into the kitchen, where she finds Crazy Herimann, the cat, waiting to go outside. She opens the door for Herimann, puts coffee in the Mister Coffee machine and turns it on, and then retires to the bathroom. Her morning ablutions consist of a facial massage, flossing and brushing her teeth, a brush through her thick, luxuriant hair, and a quick sponge bath (she always bathes and shampoos her hair at night). Then she sits at her vanity, and while Mary Louise snores loudly in the bedroom across the hail, she applies foundation, powder, blush, eye liner and shadow, mascara, and lip gloss. Sometimes a tube or jar of cosmetics tumbles to the floor, and Miss Thornberg curses, making Mary Louise’s snores break up into staccato motorboat noises, or, if she is up, causing her to cringe over her scriptures. It seems to Miss Thornberg that God goes out of his way to make her life difficult.

Today things get off to an even worse start than usual. Miss Thornberg’s makeup tray falls to the floor; the mirror cracks. “I hate this goddamned house!” she wails. “I hate this goddamned stupid town! I hate my stupid job!” She begins to cry. “I hate my life! I hate it! Hate it! Hate it!” She raises a defiant fist toward the heavens. “I hate you, you son-of-a-bitch! Why do You pick on me? Why is it always me? Goddamn you! Why don’t you take me! Take me now! I’m ready. Take me, Goddamn you!” Meanwhile, Mary Louise sits nervously in the kitchen, afraid to tell her daughter her toast is growing cold.

Every day Miss Thornberg puts on her white blouse and skirt and slides her feet into a pair of flats. Although she considers her ankles shapely, she doesn’t own any high-heeled shoes. She puts a pair of Cubic Zirconium earrings through the holes in her ears and dabs a bit of WindSong cologne on her neck and wrists. Then, twisting her long thick hair around and around like a whirlwind, she pins it securely into place. Grabbing her purse, she sips a cup of coffee, black, takes a bite of the cold toast, lets the cat in, and gets into Mary Louise’s Toyota to drive to the library. She always tries to get away before Mary Louise can arise and make her sleepy way into the kitchen, but Mary Louise has learned this and has taken to getting up earlier.

Two weeks ago, Miss Thornberg, while stopped at a traffic light, was rear-ended by a youth in a driver’s training class. Her Chevrolet is still in the shop, and Miss Thornberg is driving Mary Louise’s ten-year-old Toyota sedan. The Toyota holds a decade’s worth of Mary Louise’s accumulated debris: lipstick-stained napkins, unpaid parking tickets, junk mail, sales receipts, paper bags, empty tin cans and soft drink bottles, shards of cellophane, pencil stubs, hair ribbons, nylon stockings, rubber bands, spark plugs, used Kleenex tissues, an empty container of Elmer’s glue, Styrofoam fast-food cups, paper clips, wrapping paper, suppositories, empty books of matches, cassette tapes with their entrails hanging out, Monopoly game pieces—mostly houses and hotels— envelopes, lottery tickets, scraps of paper with phone numbers scrawled on them, write-protect tabs from computer diskettes, a toothbrush, picture frames, discarded batteries, and empty Virginia Slims Packs. Miss Thornberg, who keeps her car immaculate, is embarrassed by the Toyota, and drives it only because of Mary Louise’s insistence that a rental car would be an extravagance. Miss Thornberg drives with her teeth clenched, the scowl lines on her face more deeply etched than ever, cursing other drivers, dreading another day at the library.

Miss Thornberg is an efficient librarian. She is industrious and creative in her work, considerate to customers, kind to fellow employees. She goes out of her way to help others. She is good at her job and knows it and is pleased by the knowledge that she excels at it. It is only when she considers herself crossed that her temper and blood pressure flare and she says things she will later regret, even if she is too proud to retract them. Miss Thornberg is a proud creature.

It’s not difficult to cross Miss Thornberg, and she is not prone to forgive or forget. After fifteen years of service, she has been crossed at least once by most of the other employees of the library.

Miss Thornberg is not a popular woman. Most men are more than a little afraid of her intellect and education, and she is rarely asked out a second time. Most women sense her anger and steer clear of her. She spends most of her evenings at home with Mary Louise, watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and anything else the networks have to offer. Mary Louise doesn’t want cable in the house, and Miss Thornberg, even though she is paying the house note and the utilities, submits to this; it is, after all, Mary Louise’s house. Besides, it gives her one more thing to complain about.

Miss Thornberg’s fortieth birthday has come and gone. Still she remains with Mary Louise, alternately bullying and protecting her. Still she remains unmarried, finding fault with her few suitors. Still she remains at the library, even though she is qualified for any number of higher-paying jobs.

Will things ever look up for Miss Thornberg? Mary Louise, who is only fifty-eight, could easily live to be eighty. That would give Miss Thornberg, at the tender age of fifty-eight herself, her freedom. Miss Thornberg could get married—but her suitors are so—human. Flawed. They have big noses or hairy backs or low intellects. But then, maybe that one perfect man will come, if she only waits long enough.

What is it, one wonders, that makes Miss Thornberg tick? Stick? Is it the job, the checking out of innumerable books to pimply-faced adolescents? Is it the questionable companionship of Mary Louise? Or is it the fear of the unknown—the different? Is she punishing herself?

The sad thing is, not even Miss Thornberg knows.