by Claudia B Pfeiffer
The sheets were twisted around my ankles. I yanked at them and kicked. Kicked again and again. Almost in tears, I finally freed myself and rolled from the bed. For a moment I felt dizzy from standing too abruptly, and paused, fingers pressed against the top of the dresser. I took a deep breath and stood for a moment then pulled clean clothes from a drawer and made my way to the shower. The hot water beat on the base of my neck and through my tangled hair, as I leaned with both hands on the tiled wall. Tears came.
Usually it was the unexpected memories that came during the day that shattered me. This time they’d returned as dreams. The same, though. My anger was there, strong and tasting of metal. And the dry, bitterness of guilt bringing its piercing talons to grip unmercifully. There was the elusive smell of dying. The hollow rattle of breath not easily taken. The birdlike structure his figure became. All elbows and wrists sticking out at angles. Legs like tendons covered with a frail sheath of skin. Toes too large for the bony feet. His body worn down to the basics.
Guilt prevailed in the dream. The heavy, judicious sense of wrong I visited on him. My inability to bring him comfort when he needed it most. My inexplicable resentment toward him for dying. For departing from my life. It was all about me. His dying. And that brought the guilt. My heaviest burden. The tears became great gasping sobs. I turned my back to the wall and slid down to sit on the floor of the shower. I gave in to the torrents of pain that grabbed my inner recesses. When they slowed down, I felt weak and slightly nauseous. I stood to turn the water to cool and remained under it until the nausea passed.
I dressed with angry thrusts then returned to the bedroom. With tearful, swift jerks I pulled the blankets from the bed and piled them in disorder on the chair. Tugged next with brutal wrenches at the sheets until I’d stripped them clear. The pillow cases too. They all had the pungent smell of sweat. I carried them to the laundry room, adding them to the other dirty clothes.
I started with the linens. Got that load begun while I sorted the rest. The darks. The reds and browns and jeans. The pastels. Pink and pale yellow and light blue. The lingerie. The towels. No briefs. No knit golf shirts. No dress shirts with button-down collars. No trousers going shiny in the rear. No white handkerchiefs.
I could feel the tears coming again and slammed my way to the kitchen. There I made a pot of coffee. Returned to the bedroom and opened the windows without paying any attention to whether the air was moving or not. Just opened them and headed back to the kitchen.
When the coffee was done, I drank a cup. Not slowly with enjoyment. Just dumped it down, too hot to drink, scalding my tongue and throat. The timer sounded in the laundry room. I went there and reached into the washer, lifted out the sheets and turned toward the dryer. My eyes caught the glow of sunshine from the window, and I saw the tree limbs swaying in invitation.
I placed the sheets on top of the dryer, filled the washer with the next load then reached into the closet to find the wicker basket pushed to the back. The rough edges plucked at my fingers. I found the old clothespin bag, still half-full of wooden pins. I grabbed a rag and tossed the sheets and clothespins in the basket. Carrying it on my hip, I stepped out the door, across the thick grass that needed mowing, to the clothesline in the back yard. The smell of damp earth and the wet wood of the old posts were somehow soothing. My feel felt wet, and I looked down at the crystal drops clinging to the grass then remembered the sound of rain against the windows as I fell asleep. It brought a clean freshness to the air.
I dropped the basket to the ground and took the rag in hand, running it along the old gray rope that hadn’t been used in years and sagged in its stretching. Sagged the way my heart did as I felt again the terrible weight of his leaving. The day he died I couldn’t touch him. I let the children gather around him while I sat off to the side. I wish I had held my hand to his cheek. He wouldn’t have noticed in his detached state, but I would have. I wanted to reach out, but felt I didn’t have the right anymore.
As I bent to the basket, I hung my head and forced myself to breathe against the pain then reached for the first sheet. Taking two corners together, I pinned them to the line and continued down the rope to pin it four more times, fastening it securely. The breeze grabbed the flowing white linen and snapped it loudly. I bent to lift the next sheet, and as I rose I heard the crisp snapping again. Then caught the scent of pure cleanliness. I breathed it in deeply and continued down the line with the next sheet.
But instead of sheets, my mind had me hanging baby diapers. Miniature white sheets catching the early evening breeze. There was a toddler playing with the wooden pins and the feel of strong, tanned arms reaching around from behind to give me a hug while gentle lips whispered words of love and ‘what’s for dinner’ in my ear. I closed my eyes and remembered leaning back against that solid body, loving the musky smell of it, the strength of it, the warmth.
Snap! Snap! The breeze blew the sheet into my body, almost wrapping me in its freshness then flowing away, releasing me into the sunshine and vigorous air. The diapers were gone and the toddler but not his presence. I still felt his arms around me and the soft, warm air of his breath as he whispered in my ear. The weight on my heart seemed diminished.
I breathed in deeply then closed my eyes and turned my face up to the sun, in an effort to find calm in the golden red aura behind my lids. Maybe this memory was his way of saying he forgave me. Perhaps I would be able to make it through another day. Snap, snap.
Bio: Claudia B. Pleiffer is a widow living with my daughter and her family in Indianapolis, Indiana. She has another daughter living in a cabin in Montana, and a son in Minnesota. There are five grandchildren scattered in those three states. She draws her inspiration from what’s around her. The environment, the people, the conversations. Smells, tastes. Anything that touches her mind, or her heart. And sometimes that touch comes from her own life, as in this short story.