Short   Stories

 

 

 

 

  The Collector

 

    by      

 

  Vanessa Gebbie

 

 

He is completely, utterly bald, the vacuum cleaner salesman. Shining. No hair anywhere I can see. No eyelashes, no eyebrows, smooth, pink cheeks like a baby, and clean, white, podgy hands.

 

“Mr and Mrs Braithwaite,  I am privileged to introduce you to the Homevac system.”

 

Jane, my wife, has a problem with cleanliness. Compulsive disorder. It started when we were  newlyweds… she washed her hands three times, drying between the fingers with a clean towel each time, putting the towels in the machine. “I don’t feel clean unless I do…” The bathroom is scrubbed every time it's used. Top to bottom. God knows how much bleach we get through now. The house is dusted , vacuumed twice, three times daily. Clean sheets every day, top and bottom.  And if I touch her, if we… clean bedding straight away. Sheets in the wash. Now it's stopped, all that. We both have to wear underpants in bed.

 

She extra-cleaned the house today because we had this salesman coming. We wear out vacuum cleaners regularly. They burn out. The motors. Jane says they aren’t made for domestic use. I know they are. It’s just we don’t use them domestically. Her hands are red raw. “Why the hell didn’t you wear rubber gloves?” I say. But she’s never been one for rubber gloves. Says you can’t feel if there’s dust on things. Dust? How in God’s name do you feel dust? 

 

He reminds me of a spider. A big, fat spider flexing its legs, waiting to spin.

 

Jane is hovering, watching, waiting to see this magic machine that will allegedly make her house so clean you could eat off the floor. Or eat the bloody floor. We can’t eat anything until  he’s been and gone. It would untidy the kitchen. She'd have to wipe everything down, polish the chrome…

 

I’ve switched out of this.  But something makes me look at Jane. She’s looking worried. Distraught. The spider (I don’t even know his name) is leaning out of the chair, assembling his machine on the carpet. He’s lining up black cotton or paper filters, like small coffee filters, on a side table.

 

“Soon, Mrs Brathwaite, you will see how your own bodies are betraying your every effort to keep your home sanitary…” he spits out the word ‘sanitary’ as though it is covered in old blood. Jane has gone pale.  The machine is a large, silver canister, a hose, and interchangeable nozzles… I’m thinking it's exactly like any other vacuum. The spider gets up, bends with a grunt to plug it in, fits a filter over the hose and attaches a nozzle.

 

“Right,” he says. “Shall we start with your husband’s chair?”

 

“I don’t think so…,” I’m about to say… but the machine has been switched on, a high whine…Jane is pulling me upright, and I’m standing, watching this ill-fitting man sweeping the nozzle slowly, deliberately over the place where I’ve just been sitting, the chair cover pulling taut as the vacuum passes it.

 

“So strong…,” he soothes. “Can I ask you… when was this chair last brushed, cleaned, vacuumed?”

 

“Only this afternoon,” says Jane, biting her lip. I am willing there to be no dust…

 

The spider finishes, switches off the whine, detaches the nozzle, and takes the filter away from the hose with two fingers, holding it up for inspection, curling his lip. “Mrs Braithwaite,” he says. “Do you see this?”

 

He places the filter on the side table. There is a white circle in the black…he looks at me, and says one word,

 

“Bodies.”

 

“Look here," I say…" there’s all sorts of things come out of a chair if you suck hard enough… the stuffing, cotton, dust from the wooden frame…" (I’m searching frantically for things to make white dust that isn’t me…). He looks at Jane and says two words.

 

“Men’s bodies.”

 

She looks shocked, appalled. “What IS it?” she says, looking at the filter, not too close… one hand over her mouth like a mask.

 

“Dust mites. Dead dust mites. Dead skin. Dandruff. General bodily detritus. Tiny hairs. If you analysed this… (I wouldn’t suggest…) traces of faecal material maybe. It has been known. The bed? You sleep together?”

 

Jane’s eyes are huge. “Well, yes, I…”

 

He sighs. Picks up the machine, and Jane follows him to the hall, up the stairs. I listen for the whine.

 

****

 

 

Finally, after vacuuming the mattress with his nozzles and collecting me, my bits, in his filters, he comes back downstairs.

 

Lined up on the side table in my sitting room are half a dozen black circles, covered in white deposits. The spider sits back in his chair, strokes on the  filters with a forefinger, lifts the finger, inspects it… for a second, I think he’s going to put it to his mouth, or smell it… but he says…

 

“There’s no rush. We have a policy. No hard sell.” He begins to collect the filters together, stacking them carefully one on top of the other, slides them into a white paper wallet, and seals it, licking the flap with a pink, wet tongue.

 

Jane is wringing her hands. “But we would love to buy your machine, Mr…. Please?” she’s saying as he unscrews the hose, curls it onto itself, packs the cylinder away.

 

He stands, suitcase in one hand, the wallet in the other.

 

“Thank you.” he says, walking to the front door.  And I just watch my wife crumble, following him, saying, “Please? I need…”

 

And I sit down in my chair again, and wait.

               

                            *************

 

 

 

Bio: The author is a journalist living and working in the UK. Her short fiction has been widely published on the net and in print, and she has had some success in writing competitions. She teaches Creative Writing at a drugs rehab.

 

 

 










 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Visit in September

by   Deborah   A.  Chaney

 

The notes of jazz float over my ears like downy caresses of breath. His face only in my mind, is recalled in soft detail. The edges are fraying; the stark reality of absence is falling away in tiny pieces. Memory shoring up the image with fantasy and color. He’s been gone twenty-five years. The vodka burns my nose with its abundance of alcohol. My eyes tear as the telephone rings. I jump, almost spill the precious liquid from the fancy glass. Wiping the drip of liquid from the glass with my finger, I stick the digit in my mouth and close my eyes at the elixir of damnation. The phone continues to ring.

The clink of the glass on my tile counter acts as a switch. Normality washes over me. I rise; hoping the interruption will die of its own accord. The answering machine will pick up on the sixth ring.

I decide not to worry the caller and push the talk button on the receiver. I smile, "Hello?"

It is the same every day, the soft voice full of love saying ,"Hello Dear." Our life has a rhythm, a schedule, and a comforting, boring routine. The voice is not my husband’s.

"Hello, Z?"

I drop the phone. It bounces on the wood floor. My hands fly to my mouth to stifle a scream. I pick up my glass, drink deeply, and pour another while the phone rests on its side at my feet.

Sitting down at the kitchen bar I stare at the phone, drink, pour another, and drink. The shaker is empty now. A buzz begins in my ears like a wind of recall; the jazz is too soft to push through. I pick up the phone from its resting-place on my clean-grained floor. Holding it up to my ear, I hear the dial tone. A smile spreads my lips into a numb grin.

Rinsing the evidence of my relapse, I hum softly. I reach over to change the radio station. Words blast my world with their personal tirades that attempt to sway, to convince listener’s to side with the politics. I push the CD button; Joni Mitchell wafts through my world recalling a simple, different time in a different house, during a different life, a different husband. I begin to sing along, washing the implements of my demise. Slurring my words, I stop to dry my hands on a towel. I pour coffee into a sunflower mug and zap it in the microwave. Looking at the clock, I see it is ten in the morning. The first buzz. It is glorious and frightening all at the same time. I am slowly killing myself. If courage were to visit my hollow heart, there would be no greater relief than death.

The ringing phone sends a tightening through my body. My stomach lurches. I freeze, sing a few lines of "Hejira", my favorite song of all time. Turning to look at the phone, I wish I’d turned it off. I fix a smile on my face and say "Hello?"

"Z, don’t hang up." The voice at once familiar, abstract, sends chills through me in waves of apprehension. It is a consequence of my insanity. This is not happening, I think to myself as I listen to the deep, masculine voice pleading with me to speak. There are many words, statements floating up my throat. Swallowing with the rising scream, they vanish.

"Hello." I finally say. The pause seems interminable. This man left my world a lifetime ago, two lifetimes if I count marriages. His face, no clearer, his voice no comfort. I don’t know his heart; I don’t know his face which had to have changed, wrinkled, become sketched with regret or happiness or both. All I know are the vibrations of his vocal chords. They are beautiful, haven’t changed. I swoon, sit down heavily on the barstool.

"Sorry to pop out of the blue like this." The silken threads of apology wind around my heart, strangling hope. Hope that he may profess amnesia, paralysis, or imprisonment as reason for disappearing and remaining that way.

"You’re apologizing."

"Modus Operandi around you Z."

"No one calls me that. No one ever did except you. I have had a few different nicknames since; Devo, Bitch. Both have interesting stories . . .."

"Z . . .."

"Yes Thomas?"

"No one calls me that except my father."

"I always did."

"You did a lot of things no one else ever did." My sharp intake of breath silences him. These conversations happen frequently in my head. I can’t be sure if this is real. How much alcohol did I consume? "Sorry, this has to be a shock."

"Something like that." I study the tile, scuffle my socks on the way to the sink. I dry the implements of martinis and put them back in their places deep inside a cupboard as the receiver, still silent, is cradled between my neck and shoulder. No one would know I began drinking again. I didn’t believe it would go that far. The fact that my daughter left home has a great deal to do with my insanity. For that is what it is. Insanity, otherwise, I wouldn’t be imagining this conversation with Thomas. It could not happen. Surprises rarely occur to someone like me, as I am now. Although good things happen all the time, just not of the hysterically screaming variety.

The sunrises paint the sky with a pink embrace; the sun sets with an orange tinted glee. These are anticipated and treasured. This is my life. From my wild past came cultivation of mediocrity. A relentless struggle to be respectable and sober. I killed myself and birthed a calmer, boring clone. My daughter would not have survived if I had not.

"Listen . . . I’m in Corvallis. I wondered if I . . ." I hang up the phone. This has gone too far. Imagine Thomas from 1978, Thomas from San Francisco. Thomas and Z, an affair so intense, so absolutely romantic now here in little , old Corvallis, Oregon. I feel the edge within my mind, a dark forbidding abyss illuminated by Thomas’s voice I am about to fall. I may never make it back. Normality has been hard won. I cherish, covet, and hold it close to my chest in a mental hug of comfort. Thomas is the end of all that. He cannot be. He is not here. Yet the phone rings again and I fear it will manifest into his voice. The undertones of loss, regret and longing are cuddled in my mind from that baritone of long ago. I watch the phone. I turn off the ringer. The ring from the upstairs phone faint and disturbing. The light blinks in absence of sound. It stops.

The ring begins again. Surely, the cup of coffee I just finished will do its trick. My husband’s voice will infuse me with contentment. "Yes?", I say tentatively, my insanity could be continual. How long do things like this last, I ask; yet no answer from the space inside my skull.

"Z, why did you hang up on me?"

My eyes close of their own accord. I cannot be here. I cannot deal with this. My entire life has turned upside down with Courtney’s departure and apparent happiness at college. Happiness is mine in this drudgery, in this prison I call a home. A very well decorated home, a clean and tidy home that houses memories, love and family. This interloper cannot call one day and change my existence. Even if I’d been praying for this exact thing to happen. "You are not real." My voice croaks with clogged emotion. Clearing my throat, it is shockingly loud. "Sorry."

"What do you mean I’m not real?" The incredulous question causes me to laugh.

"Ah, the laugh. I’ve starved for the sound." His voice carries the moans of pleasure too real, too personal, too intimate.

"We didn’t say goodbye." I twirl my graying blond hair in my right hand. Holding the phone with my left, I watch the birds flit from one branch to the other making their way to the birdfeeder. A birthday present from my husband. I can name all the birds by their calls and colors. Sometimes we see Tanagers; yellow and orange, they are as colorful as parrots. I love our house, our area, and our life. I have to; it is all I have; sometimes choices leave little choice at all.

"Yeah, um, Z, I’m in town . . .."

"You said that."

"Can I see you?"

"Of course not."

"What?"

"No."

"Z, I took this job knowing you were here. I want . . .."

"I don’t care what you want."

"Yes you do. You still care. I know you do, you have to."

Holding the phone at arm length I stare at it as if it were his face, which I still cannot recall in detail. "I don’t have to do anything . . .."

"Petulance, that much hasn’t changed." I hear this, pressing the plastic against my ear a bit too hard. It sucks at my eardrum.

"Too much has, Thomas. The woman you knew died. She had to for me to live."

"Yes, I know. You were on a pretty fast track for a while. I witnessed some of your undoing, remember?"

"I don’t want to."

"Understandable. Can I see you?"

"I don’t know . . . I’m married, happily married--whatever that means. I’m content and comfortable. I married my best friend."

"You couldn’t have. I’m your best friend."

The conversation resembles target practice. One shot after another. I can barely keep up.

"You were. I found a new one, finally."

The lump I swallowed earlier rises to do its worst. The tears begin to course down my face; the sob that lacerates my silence is uncontrollable. The moans of emotional suicide spur him to speak.

"Z, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. You scare me; hell you’ve always scared me. I tried to come back . . . remember?"

I could not respond. The emotion falls out of me like bricks. I cover the receiver to stifle the tortured sounds of my heart rending, attempting to expand to hold this man inside, again.

"Listen. Let’s get together and talk. Nothing more than a conversation."

He waits silently while I attempt to catch my breath. The elusive air hides from my lungs. "Are you okay?"

That did it, three words he had said over and over during our yearlong relationship, non-relationship. "Oh my God, you are an asshole." I didn’t wait for him to respond. I heard the intake of breath. It would be the same as with my husband, they deny what you have just said, which closes the subject, negates the emotion that spurred you to lash out.

Reality shifts that easily. No residual thought is spent on the outburst, to articulate feelings that may have taken me days to formulate. A simple ,"I am not . . ." is all it takes for them. "No, don’t deny it, it is the truth." Silence.

"Of course I am not ‘okay’. I haven’t been okay for quite some time, now you waltz into my little town and expect me to get all mushy. That ship has sailed my lost love. It has circled the horn." My metaphor is juvenile, but so what. Breathing, I can hear breathing. The intake and exhalation from the man I cannot forget. "I’ve never forgotten you, Thomas."

"There’s my Z. I understand why you’re angry. I’m angry too."

"You don’t say." Sarcasm drips like the rain from the gutter of emotion. I grin.

"Listen. Can I come in?"

"Come in?" I stand up, look out the dining room window. There is indeed, a car in the driveway. "Why didn’t you tell me you are parked in my driveway?" I draw back the curtains and wave weakly. I can see his hand gripping the wheel. His face is in shadow at this angle. It is white, a rental car. A Ford Taurus or some such innocuous model.

"Is that your car?" My breath makes a blurring circle on the window. I would have to wash them soon; they smell dusty.

"No. My car is still in Colorado. This is the house-hunting trip."

"You’re serious, then?"

"Dead."

"Dead?"

"Serious."

"Oh. Well, I guess you could come in. I can give you a cup of coffee. Maybe we can have a real conversation without me blubbering and crying. No promises."

My mind will not wrap around the fact of Thomas outside my house. Even as I hear his footsteps on the porch, I cannot fathom the consequences of opening the door to much more than his mere presence.

I stand in the middle of the living room. It is magnificent, this space lovingly constructed for me by my husband. Three walls of windows with views of nothing but trees. We live in a forest. We own an acre and a half of forest with streams and a pond. The seasons dress the trees and bushes in such vivid detail it leaves me breathless.

Now I stand with my hands covering my mouth, away from the dining room window that looks out to the porch, away from Thomas’s glance. The world is yellow with its fall dress, my favorite color. My mind cannot rest on a thought. I smell the coffee on my breath, the lasagna I made last night. In just a few seconds, I’ll smell Thomas.

I am wearing a black sweater with jeans and black socks. I didn’t wash my hair today. I did yesterday. It looks unkempt if it’s not washed. Anger flares in my chest. A whoosh fills my ears with white noise. Being a housewife, I am not groomed particularly well.

I remember when Thomas and I were together, one morning he played with my belt on the kitchen table. He asked what it was. When he learned it went around my waist; he commented how tiny it was. I would need three of those now. I am not thin, I am fat, and I am thick and old. My armpits become damp with the certainty of Thomas’s impending disappointment.

The doorbell rings. Movement is beyond my ability. The doorknob jiggles. He knocks, says the acronym that isn’t me, not my name, "Z". I hesitate, rake my fingers down my face; then step by step I watch the door get closer. I watch my meticulously manicured hand, my only constant grooming ritual, reach for the shiny, brass knob. It turns seemingly of its own volition and I stare at men’s shoes. I think they are Merrels, a brand my husband prefers. Odd, that he would wear the same shoes.

"I forgot my key." The voice is immediately familiar. It’s my husband, Steve. "What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost." I stare at him, dumbfounded, searching my memory to ascertain I didn’t leave the martini paraphernalia on the counter. I did not. They are tucked safely away. My breath smells of coffee . . . I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if I’m going insane. My stomach flips with the danger I apparently stepped upon, quashed, killed, I don’t know.

"Are you sick?" I ask, stepping aside to allow him access to the house. The wind is whipping yellow leaves around the pine trees. I see the white car roll slowly down the street. Shaking my head, I close the door. Watch Steve hang up his coat. I wait for his response. He turns to me with his arms outstretched for a hug. I walk into those warm arms. I am safe, pressed in comfort and unconditional love. He holds my shoulders and looks into my face. I swear not to drink again as his hazel eyes search for someone he recognizes.
"Are you sick?"

I shake my head and look out the window over his left shoulder. "Of course not."

"Why were you . . .."

"Nothing is wrong . . ." I begin, interrupting his concern, knowing any buzz I had was killed by the hallucination of Thomas. "I was just thinking about my story." I lie. I’ve not written a word in almost six months.

He walks into the dining room and sets down his briefcase, walks into the kitchen sniffing for baked goods. "What time is it?" I ask, wonder why he’s home before noon. He uncovers a plate of chocolate chip cookies, takes three and begins to eat, smiling at me. I walk into the kitchen and see that I’ve baked cookies and cleaned up the mess.

I’ve done the housework I do every day yet I do not remember doing any of this. The swell of blood rushing to my head is deafening. I sit down at the kitchen table, paste a smile on my face and wait for Steve to tell me about his day.

"You don’t look as if you feel too well."

I press my face into a confused dismissal. "Of course I’m fine. I baked you cookies; I cleaned your house. Who knows what else I did for you today? I’m just Susie Homemaker and you tell me I’m sick?"

The forced cheerfulness sounds ludicrous to my own ears. Steve chuckles. I’ve done it. I’ve covered up my insanity and perjured the circumstances of my day. A day I lost. No more booze. This cannot be happening.

"You are a wonderful wife, Rebecca. No doubt about that." Steve wipes his mustache with a paper napkin; it is yellow in a red napkin holder my father made me. I dislike worms intensely so my dear father put a big fat green one on one side of it carved from wood. People love to tease me, I don’t know why.

Steve rises and throws the napkin away. "What’s for dinner?" My life ticks away like clockwork.

"To tell you the truth I don’t know, but I’ll figure something out."

"I know it will be scrumptious." Steve disappears down the hall.

I hold my head in my hands, close my eyes. I hope mere wishing will bring Thomas back to my door. Knowing this cannot happen since I apparently imagined the entire thing, I rise, mentally brush myself off and head into the kitchen to prepare dinner.

I sit, sipping my coffee, reading the advertised specials of the grocery paper as I make a grocery list. Today is Wednesday, grocery day. Yesterday was a lost day; I am a day behind. I must shop and iron to atone for my loss. I frown at my easy life. This is not so easy to other people, but is to me. My best friend has nicknamed me Hestia, after the goddess of the hearth.

She is amazed at my domestic bliss and apparent talent for it. I have named her Kairos; she is much too busy and unwilling to change. I think about calling her or writing her an email. She is my best friend because we have parallel lives. Such pain and joy rolled into our scarred hearts; we found each other limping along. Now sometimes we soar with the blessings that rain down on our wounds. Sometimes we feel we are drowning.

The doorbell rings. I jump sitting at the kitchen table. My head turns towards the dining room window that looks out on the front porch. It is a man. He is slight of build, has blond hair, cut short and squared at the neck. A lock of wavy, gold hair falls over his forehead. He sticks his hands in his jeans pockets. It is Thomas. I would know that back anywhere with as many times it was turned on me. He stares at the door as I stare at his back.

I sip my coffee under the sunflower chandelier that hangs over the kitchen table. The window is to his left. He does not turn toward me. That is a telling inaction, this distance that separates us even in our most intimate times. He rings the bell again.

I rise, thinking he’ll see me. He doesn’t turn; the odd quality of this tickles my consciousness as I walk past the window with my eyes locked on the side of his face. He wears glasses. I do now, too. I take them off. As I go by, his head remains in profile. There is that shiny knob. My heart begins to beat faster; it is beating so fast it stutters with effort.

The welcome mat of sunflowers summons my feet. I stare and wonder how my life will change with the opening of the door. I reach for it, hear a rush of blood in my ears, a distant ringing. My hand grasps the knob. The door begins to open; a bright light crowds the crack of the door and frame. Pain suffuses my body; my left arm is suddenly numb with a great pressure on my chest. Expectation blots out the pain as I pull the door open. I shade my eyes from the bright light. I step over the threshold and realize the price. Thomas wraps me in his arms. It is over.

 **********

 Bio: Deborah A.  Chaney  lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two dogs.She has been writing since she can remember but only recently began to submit her works. Deborah has written for newspapers and has been published on the net.

 

 

 

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The Important Relationship Between Lasagna and Embalming Fluid

 

by

Kitty Vincent


 

 

 

My city is a relatively small one in the middle of the country.  There is no ocean here, no Chinatown, no Harlem, no little Italy.  The Irish did not come to our shores in droves during the nineteenth century.  Nor are there revolutionary war battle sites safely preserved as memorials in the green fields outside of town.  My city was founded by cowboys and settlers who made their way west looking for fortune and opportunity; who sometimes found struggle and death instead. 

Today, Denver’s most visible population consists of mostly educated, white, middle class types who spend their weekends in the mountains on hiking trails and ski lifts.  To find diversity here, one must seek it out. 

If you head up Federal Blvd., you will run into the Asian markets.  You will know them by the artful and seemingly abstract symbols printed on low budget light box signs and bars on all the windows.  Keep heading north and the signs will change from Korean and Vietnamese to Spanish, but the bars on the windows will remain.  From there, a turn to the west will lead you to the Italian neighborhood.

According to local legend the neighborhood was created sometime during prohibition when a large number of your basic “family” types moved here from New York and Chicago to seek refuge from what was shaping up to be a rather unpleasant set of circumstances. 

They all set up shop up near  40th and Wadsworth, which to this day remains the only part of town where can I go to get decent mozzarella and ricotta cheese.  Today, I was headed up there because I had to make lasagna.

My mother is a third generation Italian from New Jersey, I am fourth generation and living in Denver. That makes me pretty far removed from the culture and traditions in many ways, but there are still some rituals that remain.  The most important part of Italian life that my mother passed down to me was food; the purity of the recipes and ingredients  that  still binds us all together all the way back to the old country. 

As in many cultures, when someone dies it is the duty of friends and family to bring food to the bereaved.  If you are blond, over thirty  and living in the suburbs with 2.5 kids, an oversized SUV, and a secret Prozac prescription, that means baking a casserole of some sort, or maybe a pot pie.  For me, it means making lasagna.  It’s just part of the deal like breaking for a red light, you don’t question it, you just do it.

No one expected Anna’s father to die.  It was her mother Eleanor who was sick.  Breast cancer.  She had had to grab hold of the arm on her chair to steady herself when the doctor told her.  She had not wanted her husband of thirty-five years sitting next to her to see that she had lost her balance.

I’d only met Mrs. Eleanor Wilson a few times, but within a few short months she had evolved quite rapidly from a tall, solid, handsome woman to a frail version of a lifetime network movie about a woman enduring chemotherapy.  Having watched my own mother go through chemo and survive, it was a sight I knew well.  Eleanor is an unusually kind and perceptive woman. She has a sympathetic smile. The first time I met her she declared to me, “You must be an artist!”

Anna’s father, Harold, never showed any signs of heart disease.  He liked to walk and had never to my knowledge been caught stuffing large quantities of bacon or doughnuts in his face.  Yet one afternoon , he just collapsed on the kitchen table right on to the Saturday sports page and a partially eaten turkey wrap. 

Eleanor had been out all morning running errands, she had wanted to get to the yarn store before she headed to her next treatment later that afternoon.

She was knitting a new cap to cover her freshly
exposed head.   She had learned to knit to keep her hands busy while she sat with the IV in her vein, running poison through her arms and fingers, through all her healthy organs, until it finally reached the lump in her breast. She had  knitted  a cap in almost every color.

It was late afternoon when she got the phone call from a neighbor who had come by to return a Tupperware and seen Harold face down on the table through the kitchen window.  Eleanor was in the middle of her treatment when her cell phone rang with the news.  The ambulance had rushed to the site, but it was too late, her beloved husband was dead. 

It took a moment for the reality of the situation to set in, but after her initial bewilderment, Eleanor began to panic.  There, in the middle of the sterile treatment room, filled with pleasant pastel colored wallpaper, Ladies Home Journal magazines and women in wigs and head scarves, the usually poised and graceful Eleanor screamed and ripped the IV tube from her arm. 

She slumped down out of her teal  naugahyde armchair and screamed, “Oh God, Oh God, how could this happen!”   She dropped her knitting needles and fell to the floor.  She declared that she was finished with her chemo and that she would be joining her husband.   A pack of flustered nurses teamed around her trying to calm her down and decipher what the hell had just happened.  We didn’t hear the news until later that evening.  Anna’s boyfriend , Scott, called us from the hospital. He sounded exhausted.

Anna and Scott live together not far from the home I share with my long time boyfriend, James. Here is the part where, like most modern American family trees, it starts to get confusing. 

Scott and James are brothers, well, step-brothers, unofficially.  Although James’s  father and Scott’s mother were never married, they have been together for nearly twenty years.  They are the healthiest couple  I know. I guess because they have no formal vows obligating them to each other.  They make the decision to love and honor one another everyday. 

James’s father once said to me, “In this world, it is our choices, not our obligations that give life beauty and meaning," but that is a story for another time.  Neither of us are married either,  James and myself or Anna and Scott, but as couples we have been together a little too long to use words like boyfriend and girlfriend.  We are not-quite-married, so to me, that makes Anna and Scott not-quite-family.

This morning I got up earlier than I normally would on a Sunday. I put my hair up and I headed for a little market on the northwest end of town called Deli Italia.  The drive is a good half an hour, decidedly, outside of my usual boundaries, but well worth it.   It’s a tiny shop where they sell things like cheese, fresh pasta and marinated olives.  They make their own fresh mozzarella everyday. My mother used to bring me there when I was little.

I needed lasagna noodles, parsley, two fist- size balls of mozzarella in water, and four pounds of ricotta.   It’s not made with skim milk, and it doesn’t have a big, blue Kraft label on it.  My lasagna’s not for the calorie concerned, and it’s not for the lactose intolerant. You can’t get this stuff  at the local grocery, at least not in Denver.


At home now, I set my ingredients out neatly on the counter.  I climb on the step stool to pull my mixing bowl down from the top shelf.  I open my four pounds of ricotta cheese and empty it into my bowl.  As I crack the eggs into the bowl, I count each one out loud like I did as a child in my mother’s kitchen, so as not to lose count. 

I chop the fresh parsley into a small pile of finely minced greenery and I add it to the bowl.  I’ve never really understood what parsley adds to the dish, but it’s written on the recipe, so it goes in the bowl.  I add a pinch of cinnamon and I mix them together with my hands.  The mixture is too thick for a spoon; my hands are the only way to mix it properly.  The eggs and cheese are soft and wet.  They squish through my fingers like mud after the rain. 

The mixture is so cold my hands begin to turn numb and I pull them free to warm them for a moment before continuing on.  Once the ingredients are sufficiently mixed, they must set for awhile.  They should sit overnight in the refrigerator, but I don’t have that kind of time, so they will sit for an hour.  I pull a couple  of containers of tomato sauce out of the freezer from a large batch I  made a couple of months ago (I always keep it around, it gives me comfort to know I always have sauce made) and I put them in the microwave to defrost.  I turn on the TV.
    

It’s snowing outside.  January is upon us like a  Leonard Cohen song.  These are the dark weeks, when the morning does not arrive until I get to work and the evening has already settled in by the time I leave.  Today it is gray, the snow is light and comes and goes in waves, I know the sun is slowly moving it’s way west across the sky, but I can’t see it.  It is a good day to stay inside and cook.

Tomorrow I will get up early and find my most respectful, dark colored clothing to put on.  It will take some time because I don’t work in an office and my clothes are not typically of the conservative variety.  I will decide on a simple black dress and some low heels.  I will have to squeeze my ass into a pair of panty hose.  I think I have some at the back of a drawer somewhere.  They have a couple holes in them, but not anywhere obvious. . . I better check. 

James will have to get on the internet and find a website to teach him how to tie his tie, and when we get to the church, his brother will have to retie it for him.  We will get to the church early.  Anna and Scott will be there with Eleanor speaking softly to family and friends as they arrive one by one.  They will thank us for coming and we will stand awkwardly near them with the rest of the family making small talk and commenting on how nice the church is and how nice the music is. 

James and I, along with the rest of his family (except for his sister) will filter inside and find a pew to sit in.  Anna’s family is Catholic, so the tone will be somber and filled with ritual, the service will be long.  Once it has started, James’s sister Cara will breathlessly sneak in ten minutes late, as usual. 

She will frantically try to remove her coat, hat, scarf  and gloves without being noticed, while quickly whispering her apologies to us.  Eleanor will sit with her daughter on one side of her, her two sons on the other, and the lavender colored cap she knitted covering her head. 

As the priest begins she will secretly think to herself:  what a twisted fuck God must be.  We are all thinking it. Through the service we will stand and sit and kneel and sing.  When the priest says, “God be with you”, we will repeat back, “And also with you," along with a number of other standard refrains.  James will look at me like I have four heads when I know them all. “My grandmother was Catholic,” I will say. 

Harold’s wife and children will stand up to retell the stories of his life and praise him as a husband and father.  In the middle of the story of how he once set his eyebrows on fire while lighting his oldest son's birthday cake there will be laughter that will seem that much more sad.  I will look over at Cara to see her rummaging through her purse in vain for a Kleenex. 

James will turn to me and whisper, “Funerals always make me feel so-dust in the wind.”  I will know just what he means.  Just when it all seems unbearable, the whitest man I have ever heard in my life will sit down at  the grand piano in a three-piece suit and sing, "Wade in the Water."

Are you fucking kidding me?  James, his sister, and I will look at each other in horror and disbelief at the absurdity of this new development.  Our sadness will be replaced by discomfort while trying to stifle our uncontrollable, inappropriate laughter.  Is this bad Pat Boon sound alike really trying to pull off an African spiritual?  It will all be too much to take; we won’t be able to stop ourselves from making sarcastic jokes and comments under our breath.

"Where the hell did they find this guy?" Cara will say.

"Hey, maybe next, he’ll do some James Brown," James will snicker.

Then I’ll chime in with , "Guys, seriously, when I die, defiantly book this guy."

We will look up to see James’s  stepmother eyeballing us and quickly look away as if we had just been caught passing notes in study hall.  The service will finally end and we will caravan over to the home Eleanor shared with Harold for the last three and a half decades for cold cuts, dip, and white wine in small, plastic cups.  Everyone will be able to breath a small sigh of relief because the focus of this new venue will not be a casket and the bible will be safely tucked away in a bedroom drawer.

I look at the clock to see the hour has passed.  There are old reruns of Family Ties on TV. I turn them off and return to the kitchen.  I pull my lasagna filling from the refrigerator and get back to work.  I cook my lasagna noodles in a large pot to soften them, but not too much.  The art of the dish is in the layering. 

If it is too loose or  if  there is too much sauce, it will fall apart while being served.  If there is not enough sauce, the dish will be dry and flavorless. 

It is snowing hard now.  The flakes collide with one another on their journey downward to become large, heavy  globs of snow.  They are beginning to stick to the pavement; there will be a clean , white blanket over the city by morning. 

I ladle a thin layer of  tomato sauce in the bottom of my grandmother’s glass baking dish. I drain my large, flat noodles and lay them end-to-end to create a foundation.  Next, I  spread my ricotta filling mixture, being careful to keep the thickness uniform throughout the dish.  I open my fresh mozzarella cheese and cut it  into thin slices. I carefully lay them down in rows, one by one, from one end of the dish to the other.  I cover it all with a layer of sauce and  locatelli cheese and I start again with the next layer until the glass dish is filled to the top. 

The recipe hasn’t changed in generations, I was taught by my mother who was taught by her mother who was taught by her mother.  My great grandmother used to pick the tomatoes from her garden and grate them over a screen with her bare hands until her fingers were raw and bloody.  I use crushed tomatoes in a can for my sauce. . . I’m a working girl.

Cooking comforts the bereaved.  It gives us something to do with our hands, with our thoughts, with our pain.  I did not know Harold Wilson well.  I didn’t really know him at all.  When someone dies we grieve for those who loved them and we grieve for ourselves.  We cook for the families of the dead to distract our thoughts from what inevitably lies in front of all of  us. 

Scott and Anna will appreciate the lasagna, yes, but that is not why I  make it.  I make it for me. I make it to find some sense of control where I know there is none. I put the dish in the oven and I try to busy myself about the house.  James will be home soon.  He will kiss me with his scruffy beard and playfully pinch me as I bend over to take the lasagna out of the oven.  I will give him a scolding look, but he will know I am only feigning disapproval. 

We will cover the dish in foil, and bring it over to his brother’s house, who will graciously thank us  for our kindness.  Anna will not be there, she will be with her mother making arrangements for tomorrow, staying busy.

For a split second , I imagine James’s truck slipping on a patch of ice and careening off the road into oncoming traffic.  I have that same thought every day. I can’t help it, it could happen. I shake it from my head and call his cell phone to hear his voice.  “I’m just down the street," he says, “I’ll be there in two minutes”. 

I close my eyes and breathe just a little when he answers.  I never tell him I do this, but I know that he knows. I hang up the phone. 

The city is quiet and dark.  The valley beneath the Rocky Mountains is closed up tightly.  There are lights from the windows and the streets and the only sound is an occasional car across the wet pavement. There are no children playing outside, only television sets softly cooing into living rooms.  What goes on in those living rooms, I can only venture to guess.

                 ********************** 

 

Kitty Vincent  lives in Denver, Colorado  with her husband and two cats and is a hairstylist by trade. She has studied art at CU Boulder, worked at record stores and sung in punk bands.  This story was workshopped on Short Stories-uncut-EOTW.