She was accustomed to living in a dull silence with Fred -
feeling him creep through the house. There was an unfamiliar
hush to the apartment. The blank face of walls.
Fred was gone, and Wren was too young to ask questions. Laura found an apartment right away. A little more than she wanted to pay, but it had a dishwasher. Remembering Fred towards the end, standing before their old sink. In slippers with the heels torn away, a stained shirt she’d tried to coax him out of for days. Washing the same dish over and over. Never dunking it in suds. Just constantly smoothing porcelain with a rag, eyes trained on the kitchen window. Smoothing the dish in precise circles, like a genie’s lamp with one last wish. Or a worry stone to lock secrets into.
There was no window above the sink in the new kitchen. So Laura scraped her single dinner plate, rinsed bottles, and loaded the dishwasher with the blank face of whitewashed walls staring back. She was accustomed to living in a dull silence those last few months with Fred – speaking to him in gentle tones, feeling him creep across the house. There was an unfamiliar hush to the apartment. She stepped among moving boxes, re-arranging them into a better path rather than commit to unpacking. Grateful that Wren couldn’t talk yet, relieved that she had a chance to perfect the story of Fred’s absence. Time to decide what details to leave in, which ones to discard.
Alternatively, she looked at Wren’s burbling mouth and willed her to speak real words. Something to break the spell of newness that the apartment, the city, had cast on them.
After Fred, Laura tried to stick around. Then she overhead her mother-in-law on the phone. Laura had gone over to sort through Fred’s old boxes. Everything he abandoned on his way to college. “Why don’t we run off?” Laura asked after they married. “To a place where the whole damn town doesn’t know your name.” No, he couldn’t bear to leave. The boxes in his mother’s cobwebbed basement had hooks in him. A safety net he always needed within reach.
Laura called Fred’s mother about coming over. “Just let yourself in, dear,” Judy instructed. “Don’t ring the bell, I’ll be napping. I’m so tired these days. Go on down and take whatever you want. I can’t stand thinking about it anymore.”
So Laura eased the door open, just wide enough to slip inside. Careful not to create any tell-tale rattles or creaks. With any luck she’d haul the boxes up the stairs, pack them into the truck, drive home, and watch them burn in the backyard bonfire pit within an hour. All without speaking a single word to Judy.
|Judy's kitchen was a relic to Fred's boyhood.|
A dense cabbage smell pricked the nose.
The kitchen was a relic from Fred’s boyhood. Cracked linoleum curling in the corners. The yellow wallpaper with its odd nautical pattern. A battered kettle on the burner. Dense smell of cabbage pricking the nostrils.
Once inside, Laura quickened her pace. Avoid the meticulously arranged knick knacks and the endless tunnel of hours they spoke of. One hand on the basement doorknob, sensing the spiders and silent mold. She listened for sounds from the bedroom. Judy was in the living room. Murmurs of agreement, clatter of cup against saucer.
The jig was up. Better go in and say hello. She took a few reluctant steps, then stopped, realizing that Judy was on the phone.
“It’s a tragedy, Phyllis. Freddie was such a happy soul. Marrying that woman wore him down. I don’t know what she did to my boy.”
Laura opened her mouth, closed it wordlessly. A dying fish. She contemplated her next move. Maybe march into the living room and enjoy the twisted shock on Judy’s face as she realized what Laura overheard. Rip the phone from Judy to let Phyllis know about the time Fred locked himself in the bathroom after his French toast came out soggy. Or his compulsive need to sweep the driveway. Running the broom back and forth, back and forth. For hours. Bristles rasping until the invisible specks of dirt were removed. Did you know, Phyllis, that during the last month, he taped newspaper over the mirrors in the house? Because the sight of his own reflection made him too damn anxious. I mean Phyllis, if you’re going to flap your lips, you might as well talk about it all.
But Judy went on talking, unaware of Laura. Silently cursing, Laura put one foot behind the other and stepped backwards across the kitchen. Bumped into the kitchen table. A vase of plastic flowers wobbled, stayed upright. Her hand found the front door. Only then did Laura dare turn her back on the living room. Almost free. Out the door, down the steps. The same ones Fred used to pry weeds from to earn allowance. Laura fished her keys from her pocket, but shook so much they hit the ground with a useless clink. Stay calm, just pick them up. Once in hand, she ran to the truck, the sting of the key’s teeth against her palm pushing her on.
Laura jerked the truck into gear, stomped on the gas, and with crushed grass and mud flying, she was gone. Remembered Wren at home with the babysitter. That’s it, she thought. We are out of this fucking town. White knuckled, teeth grit in determination, she barely noticed a woman and a little girl crossing the street.
Tires squealed as the truck swung wide at the last minute. The woman snatched the girl up in a fluid motion, running for the safety of the sidewalk. Laura glanced in the rearview. The girl had dropped an ice cream in the sudden burst of action. She pointed at it smashed in the middle of the road, face pinched in tears. Still clutching the girl tightly, the woman screamed at the tail end of Laura’s truck.
Laura exhaled in a long whoosh. A sudden mantra rose up in her mind, and she latched on, reciting it the rest of the way home. Stupid bitch, stupid bitch, stupid bitch…