Lady Madonna Folds / Bethanie Humphreys

She cleaned the garage.

It hadn’t been cleaned once in the two years they’d lived in the mud brown duplex on Grayson Road. They’d moved in from a two-bedroom apartment after throwing their stuff into refried bean, canned peach, and pickle boxes markered over with Living Room, Kitchen, Boys Room. They moved over a weekend and hadn’t had time to unpack much beyond the cereal bowls, spoons, and underwear before going back to work and school on Monday. Or since.

She remembered how excited she’d been to finally have her own washer and dryer. Three boys under seven makes a washing machine as much of a luxury as matching gym socks.

She cleaned the garage so her car would fit. Ten garbage bags of crap taken to Goodwill, high chair and bouncer to the neighbors across the street with an ever-swelling flock of kids, empty boxes flattened and shoved in a corner, and done. It had been put off for so long, yet it took less than two hours to finish.

Even nearly empty, the garage still looked dirty. She retrieved the broom and dustpan that were buried beneath a drooping stack of fallen towels in the linen closet. She swept the litter of empty webs, gray lint tumbleweeds, and drywall crumbling along the walls like irregular hunks of dehydrated marshmallow. The bedraggled broom left streaks of white dust across the cement floor like a drunken Zen garden. She gave up, trashing the broom along with the contents of the dustpan. The garage now smelled of sidewalk chalk, almost pleasant compared to the usual aroma of work and play-torn clothes.

Earlier that morning:

“Boys get your shoes on, time to go.” She felt around her purse for her keys.

“Mom, where’s my sweatshirt?” Vincent asked, slipping his tennis shoes on without tying them.

“Which one?”
“The dead racecar driver one.”

“Um, under the chair.” She finally fished out her keys. “Jackson, TV off. Shoes now!”

Toby wound himself around her leg. “Mama, is it a stay home day?”

“No honey, it’s Wednesday.” She bent and helped him tie his shoes.

Vincent grabbed his backpack, shouted, “Bus is leaving!” and slammed the front door behind him. Toby wailed, tried to go after him, but his hands kept slipping on the knob.

“He can’t leave without us honey. I have the keys.” She opened the door for him and he tore down the sidewalk after his brother.

She turned off the lights in the back bedrooms. No sign of Jackson in the house, so she locked the front door. As she walked around the car to buckle Toby into his booster seat she only saw two heads. “Where’s Jackson?” she asked them. They both shrugged. She slammed Toby’s door, ran back up the walk and unlocked the front door, yanking it open. “Jackson, we’re late!” Silence.

“Jackson!” She heard a chair scrape the linoleum in the kitchen. He was kneeling behind the kitchen table, just like his daddy had the last two nights. Sick of the droppings and holes chewed into their cereal boxes, he had set out a mousetrap with peanut butter in the corner behind the table, much to the delight of Vince and Toby. Jackson had stayed in his room.

“Jackson, get your ass into the car. Now.”

He was using a pretzel stick to try and get the trap to snap, but it wasn’t working. He wouldn’t look up at her. “I thought maybe if we caught it without hurting it, it could live in Frankie’s cage.”

He looked so forlorn, she gritted her teeth to keep from yelling. “It wouldn’t work honey. They’d probably just kill each other.”

He didn’t say anything. She looked at the clock, and yanked him to his feet. “Don’t tell Vince and Toby,” he pled.

“You’re late,” she said, and pushed him a little too hard out the door. He tripped on the threshold and started to cry. She locked the front door and stepped around him to the car.

Once her car was parked in the garage, she thought to look for the garden hose, but remembered their neighbor’s dog had chewed through it just as the autumn cold came creeping in to kill off what few scraggled patches of grass were spared by the August sun. There didn’t seem to be any point in replacing the hose then. But now? The garage was small. A few hours should be enough.

Before going inside, she shoveled the load of darks into the dryer and tossed the pile of towels and a stray sock into the washer. These two loads were the last. She pushed the button and stood to watch the garage door unscroll, replacing dead trees and houses with contrived darkness.

Back in the kitchen, she continued down her mental checklist—emptied the dishwasher, stacked mismatched plates and bowls on the yellowed and curling shelf paper, angled in chipped coffee mugs with the last of the sippy cups, wiped down the kitchen counters. The broom was dead, so forget sweeping. She couldn’t remember the last time the floor was mopped. When Toby began to crawl, she’d been so tempted to hire a cleaning service, even called one out to give an estimate, knowing they couldn’t afford it.

Following the trail, she picked up random toys, tennis shoes, cups, and bowls scattered in the living room and strewn like hopscotch down the hall. She often yelled at the boys to pick up after themselves, not that it helped much. She stood in the dim hall for a moment with an armful of toys. Her plan was to pick up in the boys’ rooms too, the whole house, but she couldn’t bear to go in. Vince’s walls covered in monster truck posters, the floor littered with papers from school, sports equipment, a crumbling clay volcano that was last year’s science project. Jackson and Toby’s a mishmash of shoes, toys, and a maze they made for the hamster out of a giant cardboard box.

Instead she threw the toys into the closet, closed their doors, grabbed the flannel blanket from her bed, and folded herself up on the couch. It felt better not to move. Maybe not better, just familiar.

She had called in sick the last three days. Her mother-in-law insisted on picking up the boys every afternoon even when she wasn’t sick, so all she had to do was drop them off at school and daycare in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day on the couch.

Watching Miller’s Crossing over and over, wearing the same sweats, same dark knot of hair on her nape. She ate the same instant oatmeal and ramen noodle soup. The only thing that had changed recently, in what felt like years, was the pattern on her tissue box. A minor cold had given her an excuse to not work so hard at pretending to be okay.

She used to eat up free days. Even sick, she could still balance the checkbook, do some laundry, and read more than a paragraph at a time without interruption. It used to help.

Her battered box of journals from the garage, even the journal in her underwear drawer, she’d thrown them all away. There was a distant, muffled clang of alarm. She could hear it through her haze, but couldn’t stop the sinking. The only thing left on her mental list was whether to leave a note.

She should leave a note . . . the kids. Her husband. This would become the most memorable thing she ever wrote. They would dig into each word, each syllable, deconstruct the syntax and context and squeeze every drop of meaning they could from every single speck and wrinkle and comma. And it would never be enough. Did she really want them to read something she wrote when she had nothing to say? When there was no explanation?

The laundry buzzer sounded. Slowly she rolled over, pushed up from the coffee table, let the blanket trail off and puddle behind her on the living room floor. The garage still smelled of wet towels and chalk. The washer and dryer looked strangely white and small without their usual accompanying piles. She pulled the warm darks into her yellow laundry basket, and wrestled the wet towels into the dryer. Last load.

She carried the heavy basket down the unlit hall toward her room. Her mother-in-law would move in. The woman was always hinting at it, wanting to help more with the kids. The offers were well intentioned, but only served as another reminder of her endless failures as a mother, a list that wagged like a finger in her face from every corner of the house.

The heater kicked on, blowing the smell of burnt hair from the vents. Balancing the basket on her hip, she flipped the thermostat off. The bill was too high last month. She overturned the clothes onto her unmade bed and set the basket on the floor.

She picked up a sweatshirt from the top of the pile. It crackled with static electricity, and the shock of warmth on her cold hands almost made her drop it. She held it against her cheek. A tiny moan escaped. Dipping forward into the pile, she slid onto the bed and scooped the clothes out from under and pulled them over herself, curling into a ball. So warm. Warmer than she had been in months. Her throat caught. She started to cry, but it was just the ground swell.

There was no one she could talk to. Her mother would just tell her again how lucky she was to have married a man that didn’t drink a six-pack for breakfast like her dear old dad, wherever that deadbeat was. Her husband was a good man, almost as buried as she was, yet he somehow managed to keep his head above ground. She hated her friends. No, not really. She was just weary of having to explain yet again why, even though she loathed her job, she couldn’t leave because they were so flexible whenever her kids were sick, had dentist appointments, special events at school, and so on. And worse, if she made much more, they would no longer qualify for daycare assistance. And if they didn’t get daycare assistance, she couldn’t work. And they couldn’t afford for her not to work.

She used to dream of being a writer, a stay-at-home mom tapping away at the keyboard while the kids were napping or in school. What sort of a tax-bracket do you have to be in for one person to support a family of five now? Health insurance, daycare, housing, food, clothes, transportation, it just seemed impossible. She never felt like writing anymore anyway.

As the last bit of warmth was sucked out of her pile by the frigid house, she crawled out and picked up a tiny pair of blue jeans, Toby’s. At least the kids were doing okay, for the most part. When she wasn’t yelling at them, that is. She folded a little red and white striped polo and layered it on top of the jeans. They would be okay, eventually.

Three black sweatshirts covered in skulls and racecars in Vince’s stack. He was finally learning to read, after so much struggling the last two years. Homework sessions were a nightmare. Work, then home, dinner, then a scant half an hour till bedtime when everyone was already exhausted, and that’s all the time they had. She knew his trouble with reading was her fault. There was never time to read with him by the time all the workbook pages were done.

She started another stack for Jackson’s clothes—all brown or blue, animals and fish. Jackson had been absolutely petrified to start kindergarten after seeing Vincent’s hell. She wished for the time and patience to homeschool like some of her friends did, but knew she would never have enough of either. At least in some ways they were better off in public school.

The clothes were half folded, but she was thirsty. After shuffling into the kitchen for some water, her hand froze at the cupboard door. She thought she heard a faint scratching sound by the kitchen table. It couldn’t be. In the middle of the day? She stepped up on a chair, holding onto the back with both hands, looked down, and stifled a scream. Blood was smeared all over the floor, and a small gray mouse dangled awkwardly from one side of the trap. It wasn’t moving. Was it dead? It must have been gnawing at its hind leg, dragging the trap around in circles like a monstrous wooden shoe. Shit.

She got down and grabbed her kitchen gloves and a trash bag from under the sink. Moving the chair out of the way, she knelt, but couldn’t bring herself to pick it up, even with gloves. Grabbing a grubby towel from the closet, she laid it over the mouse, trap and all. Nothing happened. Please be dead. Tucking the sides underneath, she shoved it quickly into the garbage bag and left it on the floor as she stood up. She waited. Not a rustle. She sprayed bleach on the tired linoleum and wiped up the blood with paper towels, keeping her head turned away as much as possible.

She took the bag to the trash bin outside, holding it out in front of her as if it already smelled. After dropping the bag in, she stood holding the lid open for a moment, staring blankly. She peeled off the kitchen gloves and threw those in too. Back inside, she washed her hands. Twice.

She wandered back down the hall to the garage to check the laundry. The buzzer was about to go off, but the towels were still damp. She added more time, then stood for a moment listening to the whir and tumble. Her little red car looked abstract in the enclosed space. It was so dirty it was almost orange. One of the boys had drawn happy faces in jail in the dust on the back windows. She actually hated bright colors, but chose red because of its visibility—if people can see you, they are less likely to hit you. The irony of a car chosen for safety ultimately becoming her method of escape was not lost on her. But the thought was not welcome either. It would work without a hose, wouldn’t it?

Pressing her fingers into her eyes, she went back into the house to lie down, but the laundry was still on the bed. She sighed, and picked up a small pair of sweatpants. Toby’s. He seemed to like preschool, came home with all kinds of tissue paper ghosts, handprint turkeys, green and orange paint down these pants. Why on earth don’t they use washable paint with four-year-olds? She dropped the stained pants back into the basket to rewash later, picked up a t-shirt and started to fold it, then stopped.

She looked down at the stained pants lying askew in the basket. She hadn’t planned to do any more laundry, ever again. She slowly unfolded the shirt she had just picked up, brown with black bears on the front, and brought it to her face. Jackson’s. Oh God. She could never tell him about the mouse. The dull ache rooted in her chest for so many months suddenly spiked and flowered out into her limbs in painful spasms. Her knees started to give. The three stacks of clothes slanted up in a steady grade of hills into mountain peaks across her bed, Toby’s small stack, Jackson’s bigger, Vince’s falling over. How could she ever set it right?

Dropping to her knees beside the bed, still clutching Jackson’s shirt, her face tight, jaw locked open, no sound. How could she? Dear God, how could she? She pressed the shirt against her mouth, against the storm.

The laundry buzzer sounded.

On autopilot, she stiffly pulled herself up from the floor and headed for the garage. Her car waited, with its dust and Cheerios and broken crayons and crumpled napkins. There had to be another way to get through, get past this, but how? There wasn’t much that could be changed in her day-to-day routine, but that didn’t mean she was stuck forever in the same seasonless inertia. Did it?

She turned, tracing her hands along the walls toward the living room, waiting for the stumble. As she passed Jackson and Toby’s room, she could hear Frankie spinning noisily in his wheel. He seemed pretty happy not getting anywhere. She found her phone on the coffee table and held it to her chest for a moment. The sky outside the living room window was just as flat and mind-numbingly gray as it had been for days. She opened her phone and pressed two for her mother-in-law. Not bothering with any of the usual niceties, “Yeah, it’s me. I’ll pick up the boys today.”

Not half a beat later, “Positive.”

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