Here is Part 1 of my serialized short story, "Red Step-Stool." Come back next week for Part 2 and the following week for Part 3. And enjoy!
The last year to bake Christmas cookies will come. It will be just like the last day of summery weather each year; with enough warmth and light remaining in the day to go to the beach. You don’t really ever know it will be the last beach day until October when the season has firmly changed and you recall, oh yes, that was the last beach day. Maybe greater note might have been taken of that moment if you’d known it was the last. She will get to next Christmas and decide that she is done making cookies even though she has made them for decades and last Christmas she would not have known it was the last time. (Decades, she will reflect.) The buttery ones she fashions into snowflakes, the ones with dates and maraschino cherries, the kind with the chocolate kiss pressed into the center of the pale sugared dough. The cookies she has baked every year since her children were small.
From another vantage point, it seems a simple falling off of things. But nothing is quite so plain or smooth; nothing is so unadorned.
Who wants to think themselves as unfussy or light—effortlessly understood. Wouldn’t that be a humiliation?
Cleaning is near and dear to her. Cleanliness is a pronouncement on morality. Recently, she has been barred from climbing up on her old red step-stool to change the curtains. Her doctor and her children are the ones who decided this. They worry she might fall. She wonders how she will change her curtains when she does the spring cleaning. Her daughter says she will help and she tells her daughter that the she doesn’t want to put her out but the real problem is that she cannot plan this way and do things in her own manner. She cannot follow her timetable.
During the Depression, she was a young girl. When they changed the sheets, they alternated them every week so that one would be the top sheet one week and the bottom the next. This way the sheets wore evenly and lasted longer. All sheets were flat then—none of these fitted bottom sheets that wore out sooner than the flat top sheets. What are you supposed to do with a worn-out fitted sheet and perfectly good flat sheet? Used to be they thought about things such as this.
She says at Christmas, she and her sisters and brothers got oranges and cheap little toys that fell apart almost right away. Her father, who died in his fifties, an age they thought of as old then, grew a family garden to help feed his large family. Money was not abundant. He grew many things, among them pumpkins. They ate the pumpkins. And not just pie. Roasted and boiled. And pumpkin soup—a thing she despised. But she ate it because it was expected of her. Because it would have been unacceptable not to eat it. Because she would have gone hungry if she had not eaten it.
That terrible steaming bowl of pumpkin soup.
Choice is a new idea. This is what she thinks. Alternatives, she thinks—that is a new sentiment.
She worked as a seamstress in a clothing shop. When she was seventeen she started working in the shop to help support her family. The work conditions were good and they got regular breaks—she didn’t complain.
She lied and told the manager she knew how to operate power machines so he’d hire her. She got fired when he found out she didn’t know—it became obvious right away. She thought she would figure it out quickly, but it was more difficult than she’d expected. So she went in and worked for free to learn the machines with the help of her older sisters who also worked in the shop. This is what women did—they came of a certain age and worked in the shops. Women worked the machines and men supervised.
At first, it was standard hourly pay. Then piecework came in—a system for which she was perfectly suited. She made more money with piecework because her work was accurate and she was blisteringly efficient. The girls who griped were the ones who were too lazy to make the money. They wanted the hourly pay back. But not her; she thrived on the challenge of it. It bestowed an entirely new slant on the work. It made it less tedious. She sewed collars and shirt fronts for more than thirty years. She made the same thing, five days a week, all day for those thirty-something years. Once they began promoting women she became a supervisor and watched the girls sewing the same things, five days a week, all day.
The girls in the shop took their coffee break at nine-thirty but she did not engage in their theatrics. As if their lives were like the movies, they made much of nothing to see what they could come up with. Not much, she often noticed, even when they didn’t. But overall, it was pleasant working with the girls. Coffee and sandwich breaks steeped in the baked goods they made and shared with each other. They thought about each other in a very unconscious way—it just was the girls in the shop. And on a Saturday afternoon if you had some peace from the children, you’d bake a batch of blondies or a quick-bread to share at work next week. They did think of each other, even if it was just as a piece of everyday life. That is something—more than something. To be thought of in a way that is easy and graceful. An unrippled, but steady stream through the mind.
She eyes the step-stool. It is old and made of metal; has three steps. It used to be red and shiny but now most of the paint has worn off and it is dulled and dinged-up, but sturdy and still works fine. Everything today is made from plastic. It is late May. The winter curtains are still hanging in the windows. She eyes the red step-stool. She needs to wash the windows, too. She is a widow on a fixed income and she can’t hire anyone to do this. Her daughter says she will help.
She eyes the red step-stool.