Messy

Mashed potatoes were all over the ceiling and the boots were making the table muddy. She knew she should never have let Harry look after the kid. As Emma stood in the doorway of the kitchen, she watched a clump of potato detach and fall, with a wet thunk, to the floor. There was a scuffling sound in the hallway and Harry appeared with a spray bottle of cleaner, a sponge, and a dawning look of guilt.

She watched him approach without saying a word, her mouth tight, her fingernails engraving lines on her palms. Harry shuffled past her, into the kitchen, and applied himself to the table. She didn’t move as he scraped the mud off of the wood with a rag and then sprayed the table with surface cleaner. He scrubbed until the sponge had removed all the mud, and then it seemed to occur to him to take the boots off. He dropped them, and they thudded on the tiles. She signed at the spray of dirt from the soles.

“Mama, what is Daddy doing?” Great, Emma thought. Angie was up again. She turned and picked up her daughter.

“Don’t worry, baby, he’s just cleaning up the mess you two made. It’s okay. Go back to sleep, okay?” She bounced Angie on her hip, gently.

The child clung to her neck. “It’s dark in my room. I don’t want to sleep. I’m not tired.”

Emma disentangled her daughter and held her hand, pulling her down the hall. “I know. I’ll put the nightlight in, honey, but you’ve got to sleep. Can you try?”

Angie nodded. Her eyes were round and trusting. Her daughter’s face sent a wave of warmth through Emma, edged with irritation. She lifted Angie into bed and dragged the blanket over her, kissed her forehead, and plugged in the nightlight. Motherly duties dispensed with, she returned to the kitchen to check on her husband’s progress. He had found a mop and upended it to wash the ceiling. The stringy bits of the mop scraped against the ceiling, wiggling at the end of the handle, while Harry dodged the ends.

Emma walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. She had left the house so neat that morning when she’d left. She had known it wouldn’t stay that way. Harry had a magnetic power to him, a charisma that charmed grease and grime to creep shyly over surfaces. He persuaded everything to get a little crooked, just for him. He was very convincing about it. He liked things a bit messy.

Emma was neat, usually. She tidied and dusted. Harry used to tease her about her domestic tendencies, but she’d been hurt, despite the affection in his voice. He’d tugged at her apron and called her Mrs. Clean. She’d spritzed him with water and they’d ended up getting very messy. She smiled, remembering.

Now Harry had somehow managed to spread the mashed potato in a thin smear from the refrigerator to the space over the stove. Emma wondered if it would dry that way, making a bumpy crust on their kitchen ceiling. It had been a long day, and she couldn’t bring herself to care very much. She would fix it tomorrow. Sometimes it felt to her as if she spent more time cleaning up after her husband than she did after her child.

Harry paused in his efforts, his lips pursed and his gaze resting on her face. He propped the mop against the counter and leaned toward her. Emma’s husband put his dirty hands on her shoulders and he kissed her. She didn’t respond, didn’t move, for a moment. He was soft, but she was annoyed. Harry moved back and looked at her. “Hello,” he said. “I’m sorry, babe, long day.”

“Mine too,” she said, her tone forbidding.

“I know,” said Harry. “I’ll fix it.”

“The kitchen, or my day?”

He smiled, hopeful. “Both?” He held steady, looking at her, waiting for her reaction.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think you will.” His eyes flickered, and she could see him holding his smile in place.

“Okay,” he said. “I won’t. I will try anyway, though. Come here one second.”

“Okay.” This time she kissed him back, letting him pull her face to his.

They looked at each other, his shoulders hunched and her brow furrowed. A chunk of potato that had been awaiting its moment freed itself from the ceiling and fell with a splat to the tiles between them. They couldn’t help but laugh.

Will

Today I will get off of the couch. Yesterday I watched TV from twelve noon til ten thirty and then I went back to sleep. Tomorrow I will not watch any television at all. Today I will watch only a little. Yesterday I had to watch so much especially because they were doing a marathon of that show from the nineties, that silly one with the laugh track and the bad hair, the bouncy theme song and the wacky family dynamics. Tomorrow I will answer my email, finish the job application, wash my hair, check the messages. Today I will go grocery shopping because that is a big enough goal for one day if it’s anything like the days that have been blurring recently, nothing happening and no reason to do very much at all. My living room is starting to have that smell of stale human and unwashed clothes, even though I don’t leave any dirty clothes in the living room, and of the crumbs and oil that cling to the creases in the blanket on the couch. Yesterday I wanted to clean but I couldn’t, it just seemed overwhelming, so I let it go for one more day, just one day. When you’ve got it waiting one day, it’s easy to decide it can wait another. When you wake up at ten in the morning when you know you used to get up at seven, it’s easy to decide you can sleep one more hour, and then when you wake up again you make the same decision. When you stay on the couch, it’s hard to get up.

Tomorrow I think my sister is coming to visit. She’s a psychologist, but one of the hippie kinds who wants to hold your hand and refer you to a psychiatrist to give you happy drugs. She comes once a week or so to tell me that I’m clinically depressed and should get on something right away, by which she means I should take prescription medications to alleviate the symptoms of my mental illness, which she sometimes says in her professional voice when she notices me ignoring her. She clucks at me like a suburban bespectacled cardigan-wearing chicken, and attempts to straighten up around the house before she lets her fluttering hands fall and just leaves me alone again already. Today I will try to clean up a little bit so that I won’t feel that embarrassed shame in my stomach, the burn that lazily starts in my gut when she looks like she’s hopeless in the wreck of my living room. Yesterday I wanted to pick up but I only lasted as long as one commercial break. Sometimes I get back up again, and sometimes I don’t. Today I will make sure there are no food cartons or wrappers or anything on the floor. I can at least make that concession to basic hygiene so that my sister won’t be completely disgusted by my squalor. Though it’s not like she would show disgust, she would consider that psychologically damaging to betray her professional tact like that. With me my sister needs a lot of professional tact.

Yesterday another bill came from the electric company. It was marked urgent and I didn’t open it. I know I need to pay my electric bill, even though I’m scraping the bottom of my savings account. I don’t know how I’m going to pay it next month. I guess it’s a good thing I’m trying to watch less TV. Tomorrow I will write a check and put it in the mail. Actually, that’s probably the sort of thing I could just do online, even though I always associate bills with a stack of envelopes. The idea of ripping out the letters, with the amount due printed in the front so it’s easy to see, automatically makes my pulse flit harder in my throat. Today I will check to see if there are any other unpaid bills in the kitchen, which is usually where I keep them. If I can find them I will make them into a stack that will be easy to find and I will leave a sticky note on top to remind me. Yesterday at least I checked the mail and found that one. There wasn’t anything else interesting, though it did remind me that I have a letter for my aunt that I meant to send her ages ago. Tomorrow I should buy stamps when I do everything else. Lately I haven’t been doing most of the things that I need to do, or even any of the things. I haven’t been doing what I need to do. Today I will.

The Perils of Everyday

When the cars speed past, their rumble grows and swallows Meg whole, only to let go as they pass and leave. The noise relaxes and she tumbles out of it, swaying slightly as they round the bend. Her hand is wrapped around the metal pole, the thin edge of it pressing a line into her skin. The old man in the rain hat next to her is peering into her face sideways, and she pulls on a smile for him, faintly and without much conviction. He grins at her under his bushy mustache.

The bus appears at the edge of the road, barreling down the hill with a roar. When it shivers to a halt before them, smelling of oil and metal, she starts and digs in her bag for coins. The bus doors are starting to close when she scrambles onto the steps and clinks the coins down. There is only one seat empty, so Meg plants herself there and hugs her purse to her chest.

“Hi there,” says the lady sitting at the window. “Are you a follower of Christ our Lord?”

Meg tries to put on a polite smile, and shakes her head just enough to see.

“No?” The woman’s eyes widen, wrinkles creasing her forehead. “Why you devil, then! Go take your red skin and your tail down under, into the sewers, flames and all.”

 

Inside of Bus

Photo credit: Carolyn Coles

The words worm into her ears and she flinches, hunched and small in the bus seat. She looks straight down at the ridges of the floor, keeping her face averted. Her heart is pounding painfully in her chest. The woman leans closer.

“You think you can escape, oh no. You’ll be burning with the rest of them, oh you evil thing you. Nobody loves a sinner, you know.” The woman’s voice is grating, high and unwieldy. The bus lurches to a stop, and Meg gets up. She has to sidle around the crazy lady, ducking past her and letting her steps propel her onto the sidewalk and then a few paces more. When she peeps up, nobody has followed her. She begins to walk, sucking in a deep breath. The supermarket is at the next stop, but it’s only a couple of blocks. Meg slings her purse over her shoulder and scuttles around the homeless man draped over the curb, his cardboard sign tilting dangerously in the wind.

When she gets to the story, she swings a basket out of the stack and surprises herself with the motion. The first few feet inside the door are piled with pots of flowers, and she walks through the yellow-and-pink sweet-scented flurry – two for ten! – and then dives into the produce aisle. There the bushy handfuls of parsley and the streak of red in the rubber-banded chard calm her. This is familiar, gently dripping water, and perfectly ordinary.

After a moment judging weight and bruised spots, she reaches for a plastic bag. The quick movement of another person makes her cringe, but when she looks up it is the old man from the bus stop, with his rain hat and mustache. He looks just as startled by her for a moment, but then his face relaxes with recognition.

“Oh!” he says. “You again, hello!”

She feels so grateful to him that she smiles, her eyes vague, and can’t think of any words. He gives her a rather worried smile back and hurries away, leaving her lost, unsteady, clutching a bell pepper and staring after a stranger.