"Oregano," by MaryLee MacDonald

MaryLee MacDonald

MaryLee MacDonald

MaryLee MacDonald has won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Matt Clark Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and the ALR Fiction Prize. Her stories have appeared in Yalobusha Review, New Delta Review, Briar Cliff Review, StoryQuarterly, Folio, Reunion, Broad River Review, American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, North Atlantic Review, River Oak Review, North Atlantic Review, Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, Briar Cliff Review, and the anthologies ROLL and NEW SUN RISING: Stories for Japan. Her novel, MONTPELIER TOMORROW, is forthcoming from ATTM Press. 


Wiped out by a long day of shooting, Janice Dawkins slid her camera bag into the kitchen, removed her winter boots, and slammed the door. Laundry baskets, recycling bins, brown bags of junk mail, and stacks of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch filled all but the arc where the door from the garage swung in. She hated coming home and confronting the detritus of married life.

“Hey, Greg,” she called. “Why’s this crap still here?”

“I’m on top of it.” His voice drifted down the hall.

“You’re obviously not.” Her sock feet slid across the linoleum and the dining room’s parquet floor. In her office (a mess from the manila folders she’d not had time to file) she popped out the memory stick from her Nikon. As it uploaded images to the Cloud, the card reader buzzed, and she tried to estimate if doctoring these up would take two hours or ten. February was supposed to be her slow month. She’d thought she could get away for a weekend workshop, and now she regretted that she’d crammed too much in.

Greg was in the bedroom, naked, Jockey briefs around his ankles and his gym bag on the floor. Light slanting through the window heightened the muscle definition on his legs, and she was tempted to run back and grab the Nikon, and would have, except that ever since the wedding he’d grown shy about exposing his body to her lens.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do what I promised,” he said. “There’s an inch of ice in the truck bed.”

“Never mind,” she said. “It was just the first thing I saw. I brought the day in with me.”

“Where were you?”

“Out in Boone County. Mom-and-pop maple syrup operation. Their web guy wants the photos by tomorrow.”

“But you have your workshop,” he said.

“Yeah, I know.”

Outside, it was five above. Not much warmer tomorrow. Her fingers felt on fire from the cold. She tapped his back, and when he turned, she nestled against the fuzz on his chest. “How about warming me up?” she said.

“Not now, honey,” he said, unwrapping her arms.

“Why not?”

“I’ve got a racquetball game.”

What good was it having a young husband if the first thing that went through his mind was racquetball? She was forty-two; he, twenty-nine. They should have been well matched, but lately it seemed like once a week was all he needed. She sank down on the hope chest at the foot of the bed and watched him dress.

He fished a dingy jock strap from his gym bag and stood on one leg then the other while he hiked it up around his hips. The sagging elastic looked disgusting. She pictured herself with her face screwed up, tongue sticking out, holding the thing at the end of a stick.

“Don’t you ever wash that?” she asked.

He put on shorts. “I just took it out of the wash. I did the rest of the laundry too.” He pointed to a heap of folded clothes on the bed.

Game or no game, she would have pushed him back onto the mattress, but the clothes were in the way. Sighing in a way that sounded too much like her mother, Janice picked up a stack of tee-shirts. They felt damp. She unfolded them and draped them across the radiator.

“Didn’t I get them dry enough?” he said.

“They’re just a little damp,” she said.

She wanted to say, Come here, feel this, does this feel dry to you? but she had done that before, and he still never let the clothes get all the way dry.

“What time’s the workshop start?” he said.

“Six thirty,” she said. “Magic hour.”

“Even when the sun comes up, it’s not going to be warm. You better wear long-johns.”

“I wore them today and it didn’t help.”

He grabbed the tee-shirt from the radiator, and slid blue sweatbands on his wrists. She waited for him to make a comment about the shirt’s dampness, but he tucked it in his shorts and sat down to pull on his socks. “Maybe we could do something fun when you get back.”

“Sunday’s our day to clean the house.” She picked up the clothes he had dropped. There was the bathroom. That had to be done. Should she mention it, or would it occur to him?

“I was also thinking, maybe we could do something mid-weekish,” he said.

“But you’re at the store.”

“I’ll talk to my dad and see if Wednesdays, I could make it home by six. That’d give us time to catch a movie or maybe take a class through adult ed. Maybe a massage workshop or water color, something that’s outside both our comfort zones.”

“Have you looked in the paper?”

“I thought you could do that.”

“I’ll think about it.” She wanted to say, let me know when you’ve got a plan figured out, but instead, she took a deep breath. One thing, one among many, that seemed harder lately, was figuring out their calendars. Hers was complicated because she had jobs during the day and a studio class at St. Louis University three nights a week. Greg worked at his dad’s True Value and if an employee called in sick, Greg had to fill in.

“What are you making for dinner?” he said.

“I need to bond with Photoshop.”

“I could pick up a pizza on my way home.”

“Get a salad, too,” she said, trying to hold back the weariness that threatened to settle in. “What I’d really like is just to have a nice meal together when I get back.”

“That could be arranged.” He smiled and shouldered his gym bag.

She walked with him to the kitchen, where her small clay herb pots lined the sill. A month ago when she’d gone out to Hermann, he’d killed off the basil, sage, peppermint, and rosemary, and now she stacked the pots, handing him the wobbly tower.

He cradled them to his chest. “What do you want me to do with these?”

“Throw them away.”

He nodded to the remaining pot. “What about that?”

Only the oregano had tolerated his neglect.

“It’s still alive.” She clasped the oregano’s pot and moved it to the center where the plant would get full sun. Its delicate, heart-shaped leaves quivered when she let go. “Should I water this or will you remember?”

“I’ll remember,” he said.


Janice had never wanted to marry and even joked about how universities, jails, and marriage all fell in the same category: institutions that locked you up until you graduated or escaped. Too many women in her MFA cohort had had their creativity extinguished by the demands of married life, and, as she had observed from following the career moves of her Facebook friends, when women felt no urgent need to earn money, they dabbled, never giving their work the attention it deserved. Her mother, a frustrated artist, had a fine hand for watercolor, but she had wasted her life making crafts from Family Circle and birthday cakes with seven colors of frosting. Janice, the oldest, had practically raised her three brothers. No desire to do that again.

Greg had come into her life by accident, and their age difference had made her immediately dismiss him as date material. He was simply the model for the fashion-photography segment of studio photography. After his first modeling gig, when he seemed to be wincing from the exposure of so much skin (not nude, but undressing down to his swim trunks) she had invited him for coffee. He was tired, she saw, and wondered if it was because she’d had him moving around. She wanted the students to see what it was like to art-direct, to tell a model how to assume different poses and how long to hold them.

“Was this your first time modeling?” she said.

“Yes, plus I already put in a nine-hour day before coming here. My day job’s working at my dad’s True Value.”

She almost made a joke about working in a hardware store (plenty of screws), but decided not to when she saw his eyes. They were large and blue as opals, a sparkling star in the center of each one, and she felt those stars extend their light around her shoulders.

“Why’d you sign up to model?” she said.

“I wanted to be around creative people,” he said, “and I need the money.”

It wasn’t long before Janice realized what working in the family True Value meant, before she understood the mixed messages he got from his parents. Work hard. We’re leaving the store to you, but we won’t pay you what a manager should earn. Greg rarely complained about the hours stocking shelves, pasting on orange tags, or running the cash register when one of the clerks called in sick. He earned little more than minimum wage and had always lived frugally, but after their marriage, he surprised her by suggesting they open a joint account. When she asked why, he said because she should have a cushion. It was no fun groveling. He wanted her to take master classes with leading photographers and use the money in the joint account to pay for the workshop fees.

“Really?” she said, not quite believing he’d be so generous, but even more, astounded that he’d realized this was just what she’d been longing to do.

“Go for it,” he said. “Make art.”


Groggy from a late night with Photoshop but determined to not let exhaustion ruin her day, Janice drove along the Great River Road toward Alton. The workshop she’d signed up for had been called “Advanced Nature Photography,” a title that made her think of Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams and Stieglitz and that reminded her of how ambitious she had been, coming out of school. It had been ten years since she’d done any work that could hang in a gallery. She needed a subject and a vision. Larry Kanfer, a photographer the department had invited over from Illinois, had claimed the low horizon, dilapidated barns, and dramatic Midwest thunderheads. He'd made it. Inspired and casting about for something besides the Gateway Arch, she’d come up with the idea of flowing water: the Mississippi River in all its floods, freezes, and thaws. She hadn’t been over to the locks and dams since grade school, but when she stepped from the warmth of the car into the predawn dark of the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, she learned that the true focus of the weekend would be birds.

After her initial disappointment, she reminded herself that nature did include birds, so why not? Greg deserved his money’s worth. Stoically, she bayoneted a 200-400 zoom onto the camera body and screwed on the 1.4 teleconverter. She vowed to stick by the instructor’s side and catch up every little crumb of wisdom, but felt her resistance mount as she followed eight men (all above seventy, all with lenses that required carrying with two hands) along a trail that led to a duck blind at the water’s edge.

“I’m going to walk up the shore a ways,” she called, heading north before the instructor could summon her back.

Snow fell into her boots. The rising sun gradually burned off the fog that hovered above the sluggish, sullen water. Eagles made lazy circles above the eddies, but the light was too low to shoot a moving target. Besides, eagles were so obvious. She hated expeditions where everyone came back with the same pictures, and now she hated them even more because she was cold and being overtaken by a bad mood. Maybe the problem was where she was placing her attention. Since leaving the group, she’d been looking out at the river, fifty yards away in the middle distance. Look far, look close, avoid the middle distance if you can. This advice is what she would have told a class of beginners. She stopped and stared at the grass just off the trail. At last, something worthy of springing the legs on her tripod.

She changed lenses and got to work, looking up when she heard footsteps. The instructor’s sun-weathered face and cropped white beard made her think he’d just returned from the Caribbean. Over his polar fleece he wore a many-pocketed vest like her own, but no parka. At least he’d had sense enough to wear a ragg-wool hat.

“Find a nest?” he said.

She had just knelt down in the snow, gloves in her pocket, fingertips already stiff. “I’m not looking at birds.”

He crouched beside her. “What have you got going?”

“Just grass,” she said, moving aside.

“Wild millet, cutgrass, sprangle top or beggarticks?”

“Grass grass.”

“In other words, you don’t know.” He squinted at the LCD window. “If you’re going to shoot birds, you’d better know the names of the grasses, too.

“Why?” she said.

“Because of captions. You can’t just turn in a photo that says ‘grass’ or some naturalist will call you on it.” Without disturbing the tripod, he moved his eye to the viewfinder. She hoped he appreciated the seven perfectly frozen teardrops clinging to the bottom of the bent blade. He pulled back.

A slow smile spread across his face. “Photography is a way of saying ‘I see something and want to save it for myself. I see something and want to show it to you.’ Thanks for showing this to me. I would have missed it. Howsomever…”

He raised an eyebrow and formed his fingers into the slideable rectangle that all photographers use to frame images. “…you missed our early arrival.”

“What early arrival?” she said.

“The Black-throated Green Warbler.” He put a finger to his lips and looked through the viewfinder again. “Little songbird. Yellow face. Olive green crown. White wingbars. Zoo-zee, zoo-zoo-zee. If you allow me, I think I can bring him in.”

“By all means,” she said.

He began to refocus, changing the depth of field. “Argh! Dadgumit!” He slapped his knee and stood. “He’s off.”

She saw a bright yellow flash.

Smiling ruefully, he said, “Always, always check your depth of field. I know you wanted a shot of those water drops, but he was not fifteen feet from you. I caught his movement in your viewfinder, and you could easily have bagged both shots. When you’re shooting in nature, always give precedence to the shot that moves. Then come back and shoot the static shot for however long you want.”

“Okay,” she said. “Thanks for the tip.”

He laced his fingers together and turned them inside out. Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Look inside and there’s all the people. She couldn’t tell if he was making fun of her or simply acting like a goofy little boy, which was what all men reverted to if given half a chance.


Two days of trooping around behind professional birders who merely wanted to come home with close-ups from their latest bird walk convinced her that wildlife photography was not a direction she would ever pursue. Classes weren’t going to turn her into Eliot Porter or Ansel Adams, and she doubted this weekend would give her anything mountable in an exhibition or printable in a book. Frost clung to the hairs of her nose, and she was frozen through. She eased open the door from the garage, praying that the crap would be gone, but it wasn’t, and the house smelled like onions. How could that be? They had no food in the house, apart from some frozen hamburger and moldy vegetables. Unless Greg had gone to the grocery store. That would be a first.

“Are you cooking dinner?” she asked, walking into the kitchen. The windows were so fogged, she couldn’t see out. Greg stood at the stove, whistling and stirring spaghetti sauce. He’d put a colander of pasta in the sink.

“You want me to put the noodles on a plate?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said.

Janice picked up the strainer. The strands of spaghetti stuck together, a gummy, glutinous mess. She turned on the water and tried to rinse the slime. The noodles felt thick and cold as earthworms. He’d forgotten to put in a tablespoon of olive oil and then cooked them too long. Had he never heard of al dente and the little trick of throwing the noodle against the wall? After plunging the pasta under the hot tap, she separated the strands with a fork.

“You can put the salad on the table,” he said. “It’s in the fridge.”

“I didn’t think we had any.”

“Oh yeah. I found some tomatoes and lettuce in the bin.”

Janice opened the refrigerator and took out the salad bowl. The lettuce looked like compost. She went straight to the service porch and dumped the contents in the garbage. She didn’t say anything. There was no point. Still, the sound of the lid slamming down made its own statement. After moving the colander, she rinsed the bowl.

“What happened to the salad?” he said.

“We can’t eat that,” she said.

“It’s just going to be spaghetti, then.” He took a ladle from the drawer.

“It is what it is.”

She turned on the tap to wash her hands. On the sill sat the little clay herb pot. The oregano’s leaves had turned from green to grey. She sucked in her breath.

Wiping her hands on her jeans, she said, “I’ll be back in a sec.”

She went in the study. On his roll-top desk she saw a white ring on the finish where he’d left a coffee cup. She rubbed it with her finger, but it didn’t go away. He kept the bank statements in a cubbyhole. Two thousand in their joint account. Seven thousand in the interest bearing account, which was still in his name alone.

If she got a divorce, there would be no master classes. That wouldn’t be the end of the world. Her days would consist of weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, catalogues, restaurant menus, Kiwanis, and Rotary, plus whatever part-time teaching she found time to do.

She replaced the statement exactly as she had found it, and stood for a moment in the hall, her breathing shallow, trying to compose a face.

“Come and get it,” Greg called.

She pressed her eyes.

Greg had dimmed the dining room light and lit candles, and now, he was pouring two glasses of Cabernet. Before even sitting down, she reached over and slugged one down. The glass landed hard on the table.

“Thirsty?” he said.

“Dehydrated.” Her chair scraped the floor.

Greg went back in the kitchen and returned with plates.

The best way to motivate people was to encourage them. He needed praise, but she could think of few things to praise besides his effort. She watched him eat and forced a smile.

“I appreciate you cooking tonight,” she said.

“Thank you,” he said. “How was the class?”

“Fine,” she said. She was not cut out to sit for days in a duck blind, waiting for some stupid bird to plop down. “I took some pictures of grass.”

“No birds?”

“Not enough light. Moving target, you know?”

In fact she hadn’t been able to capture a single bird in her viewfinder. Not an eagle. Not a mallard. Not the lone cardinal she’d seen pecking at red, frozen berries. Her fork picked at the edges of her spaghetti. Fresh herbs would have made a better sauce, not one where her tongue kept encountering dried twigs.

“I was wondering why you didn’t water my oregano,” she said.

He twirled spaghetti around his fork. “What oregano?”

He knew perfectly well the plant had died. He must have seen it while he was cooking dinner. “I was gone two days, and you forgot to water my herb.”

“That’s its problem.”

“What? The oregano’s?”

She didn’t mean to get angry. She hadn’t meant to even bring it up. Was he really saying it was the oregano’s problem? As if it had willed itself to die? As if it were a sentient being committing plant suicide?

“I’ve told you a million times to water my plants when I go out of town.”

“Not a million. Twice. If you want to know, it froze before I could water it, and I thought if I watered it, ice might form around the roots and it would be worse off.” He sucked a long strand of spaghetti slowly through his lips.

She put her fork down. “You could have moved it to the countertop before you went to bed.”

He took a sip of wine. “I didn’t think of that.”

“You didn’t think of that.”

“What’s the big deal? I’ll buy you another one?”

Maybe the oregano wasn’t dead after all. She pushed her chair back, turned on the kitchen light, and took the clay pot down from the sill. With her fingers, she stripped the brittle leaves one by one. He loves me. He loves me not. Or maybe, I love him, I love him not. She stared at the stubble.

“What are you doing out there?” he said.


She held the plant as if it would speak to her, tell her this is your stop. This is where you get off.

“Janice, you’re on my case all the time.”

She waited a moment to see if this tipped the scale. Whining just might. But he said nothing. Carrying the plant she marched into the service porch. Her toe slid toward the shiny pedal on the garbage can. As she pressed down, the lid on the can creaked open.

“I hear you doing something,” Greg said.

“No, I’m not,” she said.

On top of the remains of Greg’s salad sat two empty cans of Pomodoro tomatoes. The cans should have gone into recycling. He had been too lazy to rinse them.

From out in the dining room, she heard the sound of him clearing his throat.

“You are just like my mother,” he said. The cork sucked out of the bottle and wine sloshed into a glass. “That must be why I have such a high tolerance for this sort of thing.”

“What sort of thing?” The pot in her hand trembled.


Whoa, baby. Like his mother. “So why do you tolerate it?”

“Because I love your creative spirit,” he said, “and I don’t want to see you crushed.”

She bent down and placed the dry little pot of oregano on top of the cans. How lifeless the oregano looked. She did not mean to cry. She should wait until she could talk calmly, maybe after he’d put her name on his account, after she’d figured out if she’d be covered by COBRA if they divorced. She eased her toe off the pedal.

“I can front you a month’s rent, or more if you need it. Don’t stay with me for money,” Greg said, his voice jerking a notch higher. “I couldn’t bear it.”

She felt a wave of nausea, as if she were a child caught running away from home. He was an entire room away, but she felt as if the walls were transparent. Was it possible he applied to her the same kind of scrutiny she applied to him, that this is what marriage amounted to, this not very flattering reflection? She saw an enlarged snapshot of herself, grainy, with every pore showing, her hard eyes examining his every move.

She lowered the metal lid of the trashcan to keep it from banging shut. She put the plastic recycling bin on top of the dryer to clear a little space. Who needed herbs anyway? They could eat out. They could go to gallery openings and foreign films. She would plan something mid-weekish to help him forget the soul-deadening boredom of the hardware store. She had not meant to be so cruel. In another month Schnuck’s would sell flats of herbs, and she could plant them outdoors where they belonged.