2017 Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing Honorable Mention

 

Girl Talk

by Sarah Freligh

 

There is a bus she can take to work, but Cecile prefers to walk the three or so miles. Along the shoulder of the highway, wearing her prison issue sneakers, the flimsy canvas kind with eyelet laces. The gravel stabs the bottom of her feet but the pain feels deserved somehow, apt punishment for a crime she hasn’t finished paying for. Often she will spend the first few minutes at the laundromat picking stones from the rubber soles of her shoes.

     She unlocks the back door as the sun is coming up. She puts on a pot of coffee, and while she waits for it to brew, she scrubs down the toilet and the sink in the bathroom. The night attendant mopped the floors, but Cecile goes over them again with a dry mop, sprayed with a lemon cleaner, to give them a little extra shine. The owner is a stickler for clean: floors, washing machines, rest rooms. People notice the scent and comment on it often: how walking into the humid, lemon-smelling room is a little like stepping into the tropics. Cecile has arranged the plastic chairs near the window in what a home magazine refers to as  “a conversational grouping,” two graceful arcs like parentheses flanking a small bookcase that she found in the basement. People tell her they like the feel of the place. More than one person has told her they don’t mind going to the laundromat at all anymore.

     Once Cecile’s done cleaning, she has time for a single mug of coffee before she has to open the doors to the customers. She drinks her coffee black, something she learned to do in prison—to enjoy, even welcome, the bitter taste. In her old life, she kept a pint of real cream in the refrigerator next to the gallon jugs of skim milk and orange juice. If it soured or  curdled, she poured it down the drain and bought more. Such extravagance. She also owned a closetful of expensive clothes and a wallet full of charge cards. Every week she’d pay a girl to file the dead skin from her feet, to rub her calves with some gritty, yet fragrant cleanser, and to paint her nails while she read magazines fat with ads for expensive clothing. Cecile didn’t speak to the girl unless the water was too hot or too cold. Even now, she can’t remember what the girl looked like, couldn’t pick her out of a police lineup if her life depended on it. She never knew her name.

     The clock shows seven o’clock when she finishes her coffee. She rinses her mug in the bathroom and dries it with a paper towel. She ties an apron on over her t-shirt and jeans and only then does she unlock the front door.

A week out of prison, Cecile reported to her counselor, Mrs. Bettis, who gave her a   folder of forms to fill out—name, age, address, Social Security number, level of education, on and on—and a stack of pamphlets that offered up cheery and encouraging tips on the proper way to get a job. The women in the photographs were all smiling, their hair arranged tidily in out-of-date styles. They smiled as they spoke on phones or sat, hands poised, over a computer keyboard. In one photograph, a man is leaning over the woman’s shoulder, pointing at something on the screen. Both are smiling. The computer is huge.

     Cecilia applied for a job as a lunch lady. She wasn’t a good cook, but she figured she could manage pots of soup or chili, grilled cheese sandwiches and fishsticks. Kid food.

     “I’d be around children, right?” Cecile said. “At the school job?”

     Girls who were Lily’s age. Who covered their thin legs in plaid leggings and shouldered enormous backpacks stuffed with boxes of animal crackers and lined notebooks with sparkly covers, sneakers for gym class. A sweatshirt in the fall, light jacket in the spring. 

      “Do you think that might be a problem?” said Mrs. Bettis. She had a heavy, wide face that and brown hair cut short and tucked behind her ears. She wore corduroy jumpers and turtlenecks in the winter, denim jumpers and t-shirts in the summer.  She could have been 35 or 60, or any age in between.

      “Do you?” Cecile said.

Cecile likes her job at the laundromat. She likes the little spikes of activity followed by the troughs of quiet where the only noise is from the traffic on the highway or the murmur of voices from the accountant’s office next door. She likes the symphony of sound and sights in the Laundromat: the slosh of the washing machines, the hum of the dryer, the heat-steamed windows through which the late afternoon sun glitters like a promise. She learns the proper way to fold the rounded edges of fitted sheets. She likes to make change for the customers, exchanging dimes for quarters and limp dollar bills for crisp bills the machine will accept. 

     She has her regulars: the college boys with their pillow cases stuffed with dingy gray Jockeys and raggedy sheets; the man who stops by on his way to work to play the pinball machine, the drunk who staggers in to sleep it off on the row of plastic chairs. Cecile lets him be, but Dave, the owner, will rouse him with a loud: “Hey, you.” The man stinks of urine and booze—bad, stale booze and the cold dirt of sleeping outside—and is bad for business, according to Dave. The man leaves slowly, sorrowfully, but never without first offering Cecile a sip of his coffee.

     When it’s quiet, she sits behind the counter and reads—library books, mostly, or the occasional magazine. This is also new. In her old life, she subscribed to many magazines but only to look at the advertisements. Reading the articles made her head ache—all those letters marching across the page, like ants toward honey—and she’d give up after a page or so and go back to studying the photos.

     Then came prison and everything changed. In prison, quiet was precious, as rare as freedom. Even at night, the air was loud with a zinging tension, like the sullen buzz that precedes a thunderstorm.

     The prison library was an oasis, the rustling of pages or the clearing of throats muted by the dim cool of the place. The librarian was named Elena, relatively new to the prison, who volunteered three days a week. The prison was full of women like Elena, do-gooders intent on rehabilitating the women, missionaries without a mission. They counted on the gratitude of the inmates, stray dogs grateful for the smallest mouthful.

     Most of the volunteers didn’t last long.

     Elena, though, seemed indifferent to the hostility, shrugging it off with her bustling confidence. Indifferent, too, to Cecile’s protests that she didn’t read very well.

     “So?” Elena said, indicating that Cecile was to follow her. For a big woman, Elena moved gracefully, silently on thick-soled shoes. She stopped in front of a shelf of books, studying their titles until she found what she was looking for. A thin-spined book that she handed to Cecile.

     “Poetry?” Cecile said doubtfully. The author’s eyes glittered up her from the photograph on the back cover. In a denim workshirt with her chopped-off hair, she could pass for a prisoner. “Adrian?”

     “Ahhh-dree-EN,” said Elena.

     Cecile repeated it to herself. Such a gauzy name for a woman who looked sturdy as a pair of prison jeans.

     Cecile read that book and another, this time a novel, and pretty soon the quiet of the library was in her. She could slow down time or speed it up. She could slip out from between the bars of her cell and float up and out through the skylight. She could be anyone or anything, the way she used to feel when she was drinking, only now she was stone sober. Maybe there was hope. She believed that then.

     Now that she’s been released, she’s not so sure. Without Lily, what is there to believe in?

Once a week, on Wednesdays, a blue bus pulls up to the front door and drops off a dozen women each carrying several bags of laundry. The women are from a shelter down the road, a safe house for women who have left violent husbands. Dave had filled her in on them her first week, warned that they’d be demanding, that their kids were often trouble. That Cecile should keep a sharp eye out for anything unusual. “What do you mean ‘unusual’?” she asked him.

     He put down the t-shirt he’d been folding. “You’ll know.”

Cecile is three months on the job and deep into a book about a nineteenth century prostitute when a blonde woman from the shelter asks her for the key to the bathroom—though john is what she says. (“It’s bathroom,” Cecile’s mother used to say. “Or better yet, ladies room.”)

     Cecile explains that Dave, the owner, leaves it unlocked during the day. No need for a key.

     The woman laughs. Her top teeth are yellowy-gray, dingy as pebbles. She smells of smoke and roses. “Well, yeah, I know it’s unlocked. I mean, it was unlocked until my son went in there, now the damn kid’s locked himself in.”

     Her children are what Dave would call trouble. Though he can barely walk, the littlest one likes to push laundry carts into walls. The middle boy climbs into the empty dryers or bangs the open door against the window of the adjacent dryer until his mother yells at him to stop. The oldest is alternately wild or moody. He chases his brothers through the aisles or sits by the window, perfectly still, staring at his reflection. Sometimes he sucks his thumb, though he seems too old for such a gesture.

     Cecile puts down her book. “If he pulls the handle down, the lock will open.”

     The woman twists her hands together. “That’s just it. He doesn’t know how. Is there a key someplace? A key to get into the bathroom?”

     Cecile explains that the owner has the key, but is some miles away. If she calls him, he’ll just tell her to handle it.

     The woman says, “He don’t listen to me. Nothing I say. I told him not to lock the door.”

     Cecile is aware that a line has formed for the bathroom. “Do you want me to try to talk to him?”

     “Could you?” the woman says, sounding grateful. “His name’s Patrick.”

     “Sure,” Cecile says, smiling. What she hopes is a reassuring smile. This is her first crisis, and she’s determined to handle it. It’s why Dave hired her out of the three candidates for the job, because she seemed like someone who could handle the occasional trouble when it came around.

     She knocks on the door. “Patrick?”

     There is shuffling, a shift of some kind “Yeah?”

     “It’s Cecile, Patrick. Do you know who I am?”

     Another sound, the squeak of sneaker on the tiled floor as walks over to the door. “The lady at the desk?”

     “That’s right,” she says. Now what? She takes a breath and tells him to grab the handle with both hands and pull down as hard as he can.

     Footsteps. The door clicks, opens, and Patrick is holding onto her waist for dear life. Then his mother yanks him away and cuffs him across the head, a quick, sharp slap that echoes in the hallway.

     Cecile expects Patrick to cry, to howl even, but he stares at the floor, glassy-eyed. For the rest of the time they are there, until the bus rattles up to the door two hours later, Patrick and his brothers sit in a row on the plastic chairs and don’t make a sound.

“How did that make you feel?” says Mrs. Bettis.

      They are sitting on a couch in front of a window. The couch is upholstered in some kind of satiny fabric, a floral pattern in pinks, purples and blues. Cecile has never noticed the view outside before, a small hill of grass and wildflowers sloping down to a pond. There are ducks on the pond, or geese; she isn’t sure what the difference is.

      Cecile fingers a button covered in the same satiny pattern as the sofa. “You mean, when she hit him?”

      She could look it up in one of her books. Ducks or geese.

     “Well, that too,” Mrs. Bettis says. In the light from the window, she looks younger than she does when she’s sitting behind the desk. “But I was thinking more about the hug. When you let Patrick out of the bathroom.”

     “He let himself out,” Cecile says.

     “Thanks to you,” says Mrs. Bettis.

     “I would never hit a child,” Cecile says.

     Mrs. Bettis writes something in the tiny notebook she keeps on her lap. “I believe you.”

     “I never hit my child,” Cecile says.

     “I know,” Mrs. Bettis says.

     “Lily,” Cecile says. It’s the first time she’s said her daughter’s out loud since before prison. The name pulls at the corners of her mouth, stretches her face into something like a smile.

Patrick’s mother’s name is Patsy. Each week she greets Cecile as if she’s her new best friend, throws her clothes in the washer, and orders the boys to sit still with the promise of “ice cream later.” When it gets cold enough for jackets, she hangs those up first and bribes the boys with hot chocolate and video games before pulling a chair over to the counter and launching into the continuing story about her and her husband.

     Today she’s explaining how everything changed when she turned up pregnant for the third time. Turned up pregnant, she says. As if conception were a weed that might have sprung up on its own volition, not something that she might have participated in, even welcomed at the time. 

     “See, he didn’t want kids after the first one over there,” she says, nodding at Patrick who has wandered over to the television where he stands, sucking his thumb and mouthing the words to Frosty the Snowman. Though they are just past Halloween and weeks from Thanksgiving, Dave has already decorated the laundry for Christmas, complete with a silver tree in the window and a video loop of Christmas movies on the children’s television.

     Patrick is named for his mother, but Patsy insists that was The Husband’s idea, not hers, no sirree.

     The Husband. Never “my husband.”

     “Now I think that was so he could insult him,” Patsy says. “Call him Patsy instead of his proper, God-given name. Half the time, I didn’t know if he was insulting me or the kid. More likely both of us.”

     The Husband was okay at first, she says. Not great, but okay. A lot of shouting was all—do this, don’t do that—and weird rules for the house. No junk food, not even popcorn. Skim milk, not whole—so much fat was difficult for the stomach to digest. No heat until December and even then Patsy was forbidden to turn the thermostat above sixty-two no matter how cold it got. Not too much drinking then, just the occasional night when he came home late, three sheets to the wind and full of plans for the three of them. Beer made him crazy in a good way. They would sell everything and move to an Indonesian island where they could build a hut and live on seafood and coconuts. Another night he decided they would move to Alaska, where he would get a job working on a fishing boat. And on and on. Some nights he’d pull down the atlas he’d trashpicked—an outdated atlas bearing the names of countries that no longer existed, but Patsy didn’t have the heart to tell him that—and study the contours and borders of the countries with his forefinger. She actually loved him best on nights like this, when he was full of beer and hope.

      Then along came Grady, the middle boy, and the occasional night of drinking became every day after work. And no longer beer but whiskey, cheap and raw. The dreaming over the atlas stopped, the beatings started. A cuff on the shoulder, a slap on the face at first. Then the closed fist, or fists, both of them, punching at her face, her arms, whatever and wherever he could land. The kick when she found out she was expecting Declan, aimed at her stomach.

     She packed up, one suitcase for the boys, one for her. Whatever she could fit in. The rest she left behind. Adios to bad rubbish.

                           

Cecile barely graduated high school and wouldn’t have were it not for a night class she took in the summer following senior year. Great Literature, or something like that: Shakespeare plays and flowery, rhyming poetry in a language long out of date.      While her friends spent their evenings cruising the town’s main street, she sat in a hot classroom with a dozen other dummies: The slow kids up from the basement rooms where they’d been stashed for three years of high school or recent immigrants who, when called to read out loud, sounded out each syllable in hushed, frightened voices. Their teacher, Mr. Curtis, waited patiently, rewarded each reading with a Very nice, no matter how badly they mangled the words.

     He saved Shakespeare for the final week of class. It was late July by then, and the hum of locusts drifted up through a row of open windows. Two fans positioned like stereo speakers at the front of the room blew back listless air that stirred the pages of their books, but did little to cut the terrible heat.

     Othello, they were reading. Lust and betrayal. It went with the heat, all that blood boiling close to the surface, an itch you couldn’t reach to scratch. Cecile found it thrilling, in a way, that people back then could behave like goats and monkeys. That a handkerchief, a simple scrap of cloth, could spin out into murder, that Othello’s fierce love for Desdemona could give way so quickly and completely to rage because of a whisper campaign by the devious Iago—well, Cecile didn’t believe that for a minute and said so.

     It was the first time she spoke up in class without being called on.

     Mr. Curtis twirled the pencil in his hand. “Interesting.”

     “It just seems awfully fast,” she said. “Him falling out of love, I mean. After fighting so hard for her.” She could feel her face reddening, the stain on her cheeks spreading to her neck. “Convenient” is the word she’s thinking of. A contrivance for the play’s sake, two people in love split up terribly because of an author’s desire that something bad must happen.

     Because she wanted to believe love was forever, an inviolable pact. Or better yet, a container forged from some space-age material that would withstand years of battering. A real love, not something created for fiction’s sake. Not a bargain you made in order to survive.

Of course, The Husband found Patsy.  She didn’t get far, a pregnant woman with two small children and no car. That left the bus, and with only one a day arriving and departing their small town, it was easy enough to track her down. People remembered her: the smart mouth, the brassy hair like a brightly-colored flag from one of those new countries that wasn’t in the atlas. The lady at the ticket counter, the elderly man who pushed a broom around the tiled floors, sweeping up potato chip bags and empty boxes of Skittles: they remembered. Easy enough to follow the bus and sit back and wait until she got off at a gas station ninety miles away. 

     Turned out getting her back home wasn’t as simple as finding her. She’d sworn out a complaint on The Husband before she left and they hadn’t gone two miles on the highway before a state cop sirened the car over and ordered him to put his hands on the steering wheel where he could see them. Or else. The car was impounded, and he was led away in handcuffs to jail where he waited to be arraigned.

     Patsy and the kids went home. The first thing she did was turn up the heat to seventy-two and stock the cupboard with bags of potato chips and pretzels.

                                  

Cecile married at nineteen, to a man she met at the country club where she worked. Mr. Curtis, her summer school teacher, had gotten her the job—he knew somebody who knew somebody else, she was never sure who or how it happened, just that she’d shown up for an interview at an appointed time and place. The dining room was terrifying—all glass and mirrors, and she’d never seen so much silverware in her life. The woman who interviewed her kept pressing a finger to her lips, as if buttoning up whatever bad words threatened to tumble out of her mouth.

     Cecile started in the dish room, wiping silverware and water glasses the moment they came steaming out of the dishwasher so there would be no water stains on the knives or lipstick on the glasses when the night waitresses set the tables for the next day’s lunch. It was mostly women who ate lunch at the country club—foursomes of golfers in the grill room or  elderly women in the dining room wearing white gloves and fur stoles even in the heat of summer—and they wouldn’t leave a tip if the silverware was so much as smudged. Not that they tipped much anyway—Cecile had heard the waitresses bitch about the women and their meager tips. A lot of running for complicated mixed drinks and iced tea, steeped from bags and poured hot over a glass full of ice. All that and you might get a quarter or two for your effort.

      After six months of wiping silverware she was promoted to day hostess in the dining room. No more blue jeans at work and entering the place through the loading dock next to the row of garbage cans. Now she wore hose and heels, tailored skirts and silk blouses and entered through the front door into the ornately furnished lobby. She greeted guests as they entered the dining room, distributing tasseled menus and assuring them that “Your server will be with you soon.” The waitresses who once shared gossip with her over the ashtray next to the dishwasher now gossiped about her. They bitched when they didn’t get good tables or sucked up to her in order to get the ten-tops that promised hefty bar tabs. Cecile tried to be fair, but it was hard to resist the little flatteries.

     Far easier to resist the sudden offers from men, members who wouldn’t have given her a second look when they passed her smoking a cigarette on the loading dock in her stained apron. There were invitations for coffee on Sunday morning (her day off) or for drinks after work. Most of the men were married and the single ones weren’t looking for a wife, but an easy lay. This had been drilled into her by the waitresses when she was a dish-wiper: They may play around with the help, but they’ll always marry a country club girl.

     Easy, then, to overlook Charles King, narrow-shouldered and bespectacled, a man who had a standing date to escort his mother each Friday to lunch. The mother loved the club’s New England clam chowder and the dry Tanqueray martinis that weren’t martinis at all, but gin poured straight from the freezer where Roman the bartender kept it especially for her. The waitresses called her “Mrs. King the Queen” behind her back though her given name was Vivian, a name that made Cecile think of ornately-ribboned Valentines and the curly-cue writing of the sort that appeared on wedding invitations.  Charles himself signed the check in blocky letters like an architect’s, though he wasn’t an architect or much of anything at all.      He didn’t have to be anything but his wealthy mother’s escort from now until the day she died, at which time he’d inherit her fortune, which was considerable, according to Gary, the country club’s assistant manager. It was never anything that he said so much as the extra deference he accorded the wealthiest members of the club: he, rather than Cecile, would escort them to their tables, pulling out chairs, assisting with the removal and stowing away of coats. In Vivian’s case it was a sable stole the color of midnight and softer than vapor. Once Cecile had sneaked into the cloakroom and rubbed it against her cheek; the fur smelled of cigarette smoke and Shalimar perfume with a faint undertone of pee.

     One Friday, Cecile was in the midst of trying to figure out where to put a twelve-top  for that evening’s dinner. It was a crazy blend of families courtesy of divorce and remarriage: the husband’s children (and two grandchildren) from his first marriage and his wife and three-year-old son from his second marriage. The three-year-old did what he pleased without penalty while the father tucked away martinis and the young mother paced back and forth on the patio, chain-smoking and talking on her cell phone. Worse, they stayed for hours and griped about tipping fifteen percent.

     “Miss.”

     Said urgently. She looked up to see Charles King standing in front of the hostess podium, hands in the pockets of his tailored trousers. Instead of his usual sport coat, he was wearing a gray v-necked sweater that Cecile would later learn was cashmere. Charles, in fact, owned dozens of cashmere sweaters.

     “The sun is in my mother’s eyes,” he said.

     The windows in the sun porch were covered with shades that could be easily raised or lowered depending on the time of day and the amount of sun. Which was precious little at the end of October, dwindling daily as the days got shorter and the Xs on her wall calendar cart-wheeled toward Christmas.

     You must be fucking kidding me, is what she almost said.

     Then it occurred to her that Charles was so rich, he likely didn’t know how to pull the cord to adjust a shade. Or maybe he wouldn’t deign to. That was her first inkling he hired people to do things for him: to drive him and his mother, to ferry his cashmere sweaters to the dry cleaners when necessary, to polish his lace-up shoes. To buy his shoes, most likely, maybe tie them for him in the morning, the way a mother does for a child.

     “I can assist you with that,” she said, remembering what Gary had told her the first day she worked there: when it came to the members, no problem was too stupid or trivial.

     Gary had also warned Cecile never to expect a thank you. Indeed, Mrs. King the Queen barely looked at her as she handed Cecile her empty martini glass and announced that today, and only today because it was such a fine Friday, she would have one more.

     “Oh, yeah,” said Roman the bartender as he upended the cold bottle of Tanqueray into a metal shaker. “She says that every Friday.”

After six months in prison, Patsy says, The Husband was sprung. The conditions of his release were the usual: AA meetings daily, group counseling sessions weekly.      The men had “anger issues,” according to Jack, the group’s facilitator; they were angry at life and at God, but mostly they were angry at their wives or ex-wives or girlfriends—at their whorishness, their impudence, their refusal to accept their subservience. The Husband sat in a circle and drank bitter coffee. He listened to the stories and carried them home, shared them with Patsy over more coffee late at night. Prison had quenched The Husband’s thirst for liquor and for that Patsy was glad, though she still had a beer or a glass of sweet white wine on the rare nights she went out with her friends, careful to brush her teeth and rinse her mouth out before she got home. That and a pack of Juicy Fruit.

     The stories he told her were horrifying, like something you’d see on the television news or on Oprah. Bedtime stories, pillow talk. He shared them gleefully, it seemed, offered them up as if to say, See there, I wasn’t so bad, was I? One man had set his wife on fire—on fire—because she burned his toast. Another had locked up his wife in the basement for a month because she’d talked back to him. A third man, named Ralph, who on occasion did odd jobs for them around the yard, cut up every scrap of his wife’s clothing with garden shears. She had been forced to run to a neighbor’s draped into a sheet, chased by Ralph with the garden shears.

     At first, Patsy made it a point never to go outside when Ralph was around, or else she took the boys and went to the mall and window-shopped. Sometimes she took them to the video arcade and dropped a handful of quarters into a game where they pretended to drive a car at high speeds down a highway crowded with cars. She figured it was no worse than what they watched on television, and at least they might learn something about saving themselves. She drew the line at video games where men in hoods with holes for eyes fired their big guns into crowds of people. What was the point? She didn’t know. What parent would allow their kid to play such a game? Her boys had seen enough violence, enough shit already.

     The day Ralph came to the door asking for a glass of water—it had been freakishly hot for April—she didn’t think to look through the peephole before throwing the door open. She who always kept the chain on the door when the UPS man handed her a delivery.

     Close up, he seemed older—early forties maybe, but still trim, his biceps taut. She loved that part of a man, the snare drum of skin pulled tight over the clot of muscle. The Husband had looked like that before he gained eighty pounds from beer and bar food. He’d lost the fat in prison but emerged stringy and tough as an old rooster.

     Ralph, though, was still attractive. Muscular shoulders tapering to a slim waist. A sweet smile, even, a front tooth overlapping its neighbor like crossed ankles. 

     “Wait here,” she said.

     When she came back, Ralph was inside, studying the pictures that she’d hung on the wall one day when she was trying to pretend they were a happy family. A few taken on the playground behind the school two blocks away, several others from a car trip around Lake Ontario they’d taken the year Patrick was born. The Husband would look away just before the shutter snapped, as if there was something beyond the frame of the picture that was more interesting, more deserving of his time.

     She handed Ralph the glass of water, expecting him to drink it down. It was a hot day, the fifth in a string of ninety-degree days. Clouds full of rain sagged over them daily but never spilled. There was an odd tension in the air, the way it was when she used to tiptoe around The Husband, knowing that he could erupt at any time.

     Ralph took a sip—saying thanks so much—and continued to look at the pictures.

     She’d never realized how noisy quiet could be, the quivering energy of it like an overfilled balloon just before it explodes.

     He tapped one of the pictures. A forefinger, nail clipped and square. Red knuckles, a swirl of wrinkles. A picture of her in a bikini top and cutoffs, laughing at the camera. Just out of the water, hair clumped and shiny as seaweed.

     “So beautiful,” he said.

     No one had ever said that about her before.

Mrs. King the Queen died ten days after Charles proposed to her. The waitresses would joke at the bridal shower that the news of her boy marrying a dish wiper must have shocked her heart into stopping, but Charles swore that he hadn’t gotten around to telling his mother yet, that she’d died of what most elderly people die of, the wear and tear from old age. Years later, in prison, when she had nothing to do but think, Cecile would realize that this probably was not true. Charles didn’t leave the house without first consulting his mother about the appropriateness of his wardrobe, whether this tie went with that shirt. That he wouldn’t consult her about the woman—girl, really—that he was marrying was an absolute lie. Was he trying to spare her feelings, knowing that the old woman would have put a stop to it? She’ll never know.

     They had happened quickly. Cecile would later say she didn’t have time to think but in those days, she didn’t think much. That came later, with the booze and the paddlewheel of days. Six weeks after she was commanded to lower the shade in the dining room, she was standing next to Charles in the dark living room, promising to obey him. His lawyer was the only witness. She and Charles had that in common, at least, both of them satisfied loners.

     For a while it was fine. That’s what she would say when someone asked her about her new life—usually one of the waitresses at the country club who sneaked into the women’s restroom where only members were allowed under the pretense that they were dropping off toilet paper, but really to get the 411 from Cecile.

     “It’s fine,” Cecile would say. “I like it. Marriage is fine.”

     And it was, really. Instead of showing up to punch a clock, she had appointments to keep. Weekly appointments to get her nails done, her face deep-cleaned and sloughed of dead skin, her hair cut and colored by a skinny young man whose horn-rimmed glasses made him look like a hip owl. Often Charles went with her to these appointments, and it was like she wasn’t there. It wasn’t a conspiracy exactly as he didn’t consult with the stylist/aesthetician so much as indicate what he wanted them to do: take a little more off the back or perhaps even out the front so it didn’t look so spiky. The spikes, in fact, had been her idea, hatched with the owly stylist, on one of her only solo visits. Charles took one look at her and ordered his assistant to make a return appointment for tomorrow at eleven, to clear his schedule so that he could accompany her.

     All he was doing, really, was saving her from herself.

 “And you believed him,” says Mrs. Bettis.

     They are sitting on the couch by the window again. The pond is frozen over and the ducks have disappeared. The snow from the other day has melted down to a few tattered streaks. In two weeks, it will be Christmas. There’s a tree in the living room at the halfway house, a couple of wrapped presents underneath. Likely they are empty boxes placed there for show; at least Cecile hopes so. She hopes she doesn’t have to join the other residents downstairs on Christmas morning while they pretend they’re some kind of family. They’re there by circumstance, not choice.

     “Is that a question?” Cecile says now.

     “It sounds like you believed him,” Mrs. Bettis says. “That he saved you.”

     Cecile picks at one of the fabric covered buttons on the couch, the dent it makes. She wonders if she picked it off whether the couch would exhale in relief, puff out again. Gratefully freed from the trap of button.

     “I guess,” she says.

     Mrs. Bettis smiles at her. It is not a friendly smile, but more a pull of the mouth to show teeth. “Saved you from what?”

     Cecile tries to snip off a thread with her fingernails, but they’re too short. It’s impossible to keep her nails long when she’s wrist deep in laundry all day. Her hangnails could use a trimming, too, but there’s no money for that, no time. They’d just break again.

     “I don’t know,” Cecile says finally.

One thing just led to another. With Ralph, Patsy says. You know.

     She is leaning against the counter as usual, minus the usual red lipstick and mascara.

     I’m all out, she says, and the goddamn bus isn’t making a goddamn Walmart run until Saturday. What a circus that’ll be the Saturday before Christmas, eh? The boys’ll be in heaven, what with Santa and all. They’re old enough to know better, but still.

     “Still,” Cecile says, nodding. She knows if she waits long enough, Patsy will fill in the blanks. It’s how she works: the outline first, then a few cryptic references before looping around to enlarge upon the details, expand on motive. Cecile read a book in prison that did the same thing and found it maddening. This, though, gives her something to look forward to each week, like watching a serial drama unfold on television.

     Where was I, Patsy says. Water, right? Well, somehow water became coffee, a cup first thing in the morning, soon as The Husband left for work. Over coffee, Ralph, too, told her stories from group, but made them funny. He could imitate anyone’s voice and gestures, could capture the leader and how he leaned forward, hands on knees, in preparation for calling the men on their bullshit. In fact, Ralph said, the air was so thick with bullshit, it was a wonder any of them could breathe.

     He imitated The Husband, too, captured exactly the prissy way he had of sniffing the air before launching into long, whiny complaints about whoever had done him wrong that day: The clerk at the dry cleaners who couldn’t find his sport coat. The bank teller who wouldn’t look him in the eye.

     She laughed until she’d cried and when she was finished crying, she said, “He never used to be that way.”

     Ralph slid out of the kitchen chair at the table where they were sitting and knelt in front of her. No man had ever done that before, not even The Husband when he proposed. It was a powerful thing for a man to allow himself to be smaller than the woman in front of him.

     He held her hands and said, “Honey, none of us used to be this way,” and it was then that The Husband walked in the door, complaining that she had given him a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.

     And that was that, Patsy says, sketching the air with an unlit cigarette. The end, she says. Of a whole lot of things.

     That’s when the bus pulls up to take her away.

 

When Lily turned four, Cecile enrolled her in preschool for a half day, three afternoons a week. The chauffeur dropped her off and picked her up in the Mercedes, though Cecile yearned to do this herself, to park in a line with the other mothers and wait until the doors flung over and a swarm of children filled the sidewalk, like a milkpod gone to seed. She said so one night at dinner, how this was a mother’s job, not a chauffeur’s, and Charles had put down his fork to listen.

     No, he said. And that was that.

     Her afternoons yawned back at her. Time moved slowly, heavy as an elephant, each passing second marked by the grandfather clock. Only alcohol muted the noise, blurred time. Just an inch of something at first, delicious and amber, decanted daily by one of the servants. Cecile sipped her drink and waited for the world to turn Technicolor, the way it did when Dorothy entered Oz. Eventually she would replenish her glass with another splash, and it would happen. Something would click and whir, and time would cease to be a stone she was dragging from room to room.

     If there had been music she would have danced to it, alone in the middle of the living room. Turned up the volume to drown out the grandfather clock, its march of noisy time.

“So you needed music,” Mrs. Bettis says.

     “I guess,” Cecile says. Snow is falling, cotton sized flakes that blot out the view of the pond. A lake effect storm, something peculiar to Great Lakes. Caused by cold air blowing in from Canada across the warmer surface of the lake. If it stays cold, it could be a white Christmas, the first one in years.

     “That’s all?” Mrs. Bettis says. “You guess?”

     Cecile shrugs. She’s tired today, distracted. She’ll need boots, a heavier coat. Or she’ll have to start taking the bus, wedge herself next to strangers in their damp coats and puddled feet, their bags of gifts and rolls of Christmas paper.

     “What else?” Mrs. Bettis says. She’s not going to leave this alone.

     Cecile fiddles with the laces on her sneakers. Her socks are soaked, her feet cold. “What else what?”

     “What else did you want?”

     She thinks. “Someone who would listen to me,” she says.

Mr. Curtis listened. Richard Curtis, her teacher from the long ago summer school class. He looked less weedy than he had on those summer nights when he showed up often with a scruff of beard and wearing rumpled shirts. In a sports coat and tie, he could be a member of the country club.

     He’d laughed when she told him that. They were on their second round of drinks. Manhattans. “It’s cold outside,” he’d said when she hesitated. “You need the whiskey.”

     Serendipity, she thought. A word he’d taught her in that long-ago class, meaning “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise.” She would call it both fortunate and pleasant to run into him as she was walking from the salon to the parking garage, fortunate because he’d recognized her after five years, pleasant because it was so lovely sitting next to the fire.

     He was recently tenured at the university, no longer teaching summer school; in fact, he’d done that only while finishing his dissertation. No, never married. And she should call him Rich, everyone did. 

     “Rich,” she said. The consonants wrapped her syrupy tongue.

     He ordered another round. She told him about Lily, who wanted to be a lion tamer, though that was last week. The week before that, she wanted to be an astronaut or a truck driver or both.

     The table was cozy, the chairs heavy like in a library. She’s warm from liquor, her joints loose like she’d been thawed out.

     It isn’t until later—long after she is handcuffed and shoved into the back of a police car, after the quick trial and surprise sentence of a year in prison for drunk driving—that she will wonder how odd it was to run into him like that. After all this time.

     Or was it?

     The friend of a friend. Serendipity, indeed.

                                                       

The Wednesday before Christmas, Cecile is cleaning the lint from the dryers when the bus wheezes to a stop and drops off the shelter women—nine, ten, eleven of them today, but no Patsy. There are women she’s never seen before; newcomers, she figures, by the way they stare at the floor and finger their hair. One of them has a bruise on her cheek that’s hot purple in the middle, a feathered yellowy-blue around the edges.

     She waits until one of the veterans stops by for change, a woman named Betty. The dollar machine isn’t working well today—the humidity or something, it feels so much like snow—that Cecile has kept busy opening tubes of quarters and exchanging them for the faulty bills.

     “I don’t see Patsy today,” Cecile says. She tries to sound casual, as if she’s making conversation, rather than fishing for information.

     Betty shrugs. “Gone.”

     “Oh,” Cecile says trying to sound neutral. She knows better than to ask where Patsy might have gone, or how to get in touch with her. Betty won’t tell, she knows better—knows how easily information, even casually shared, becomes currency, something to carry back and lay at The Husband’s feet like a gift.

     She knows Patsy will not be back.

In the weeks to come, Cecile will miss Patsy. She will miss the resentment she feels when Patsy leans on the counter, gusting her terrible cigarette breath. She will miss the righteousness she feels over poor dumb Patsy and her awful mothering, the bad grammar and hacking laugh.

     Mostly Cecile will miss the stories, an end to the story. How it ended with Ralph or The Husband, what brought Patsy here and took her away.

      Write what you know, Mr. Curtis used to say. What Cecile knows is that Richard Curtis and Ralph are characters in the stories Charles and The Husband had written. They’d designed the plots, arranged events, even rigged the endings. Cecile knows this now; surely Patsy does, too.

     There are any number of endings to their story, Patsy and Cecile, any variety of scenarios, but all of them feature Patsy and her boys boarding a bus to a laundromat where they will end up on Wednesday.

 

 

Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Other books include A Brief Natural History of an American Girl and Sort of Gone. Her work has been published in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, diode, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She received a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

 

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