Here is Part 2 of my serialized short story, "Red Step-Stool." Come back next week for Part 3. If you want to go back and read Part 1, here it is! Enjoy!
On Sundays, her best girlfriend comes over for dinner then coffee and pie. Her friend still drives but she herself gave it up some months ago. She had a near accident about which she told no one. Instead she said the mechanic told her that the catalytic converter on her car was No good anymore and will cost more than a thousand dollars to replace. I don’t have that kind of money! No, that’s it. A swipe of her hand. Her children said they would help her get a new car but she refused, waved them away saying they couldn’t afford it any better than she, even though she knows this is not true. She thinks she has fooled them. She thinks she has convinced them.
Who knows what anyone else is really thinking?
Her friend comes over and brings a pie or a sweet of some kind and as it is her own house, she makes the dinner. It is always typical Sunday Dinner faire. The kinds of dinners she used to cook when her children were still at home and then, when they were gone, the kinds she continued to cook for her husband when he was still alive. Every food separate on the plate and meat at the center of the meal. The food always very hot. Not too much salt.
No cold drinks—the food turns to paste in your stomach if you drink cold drinks with hot food. The doctor told her that years ago.
When her her children were small, she lived on the third floor of a tenement. There was no running hot water. On Saturday nights when she and her husband wanted to bathe the children, she boiled an enormous pot of water on the stove. Her husband called out, “All kids on the couch!” when it was time to carry the pot of boiling water to the tub already filled partway with cold water from the tap. And the children sat obediently on the couch, legs dangling. The cleanest kid went first, then those whose filth was of a greater level and the dirtiest kid last.
She worked first shift and her husband worked second. This way there was always one of them available to look after the children. She arrived home just in time to say goodbye to him. She tried to stay awake and wait up for him. Often, she sat up in bed and prayed the rosary. When he got home to find her asleep, he would gently remove the rosary beads from her hand and pick up where she left off before he got into bed himself.
She never knew this until he told her many years later.
When she needs to go to the department store or the pharmacy, she has to ask one of her daughters. She has two daughters. She tries to break it up: one daughter to take her here, another to take her there. Her sons don’t live locally anymore, but she would not be inclined to ask them even if they did. At least that would not be her preference. She finds her sons to be a puzzle. She recalls their infancy and it doesn’t feel as long ago as it is and somehow it feels longer ago than it actually was. She can still summon with great clarity specific particularities of their small and fresh bodies: the indentation in the skin of their inner thighs, the exact shape of their hairless heads, the exquisite softness of their bare skin. And the way they smelled! There is nothing like the scent of a new baby. She recalls a time when they belonged more to her than they did to themselves. She also remembers when she thought she might scream if she heard someone calling Mommy yet again. Four children. Four!
Her husband had a cousin who was barren. That is what they called it in those days, although she knows there are nicer words for it now and things they can do to fix the problem. But her husband had a cousin who was barren who wanted a child desperately, enough so that it made her a little imbalanced. A little loony, although she thinks this is another word that must be improper to say now. In those days, adoption was a rare thing. You didn’t ever know anyone personally who had adopted a child and if they did it was probably a secret. So much used to be secret. Now, she knows, you can get an Oriental baby pretty easy, but not then.
This loony cousin, who was called Mabel, once said to her, “Your little girls are so beautiful.” To which she said simply, “Thank you.” She was accustomed to being told her children were beautiful, but modesty and humility are qualities she has always held close. The cousin then said, “You could give one of them to me. You have others. You could have more.” As if children are too many zucchini that cropped up in the kitchen garden and must be handed out to the neighbors! Here—make a quick-bread! Imagine someone thinking they could just have one of your children. Like giving away a cat! She told the cousin, “You’re crazy!”
On the ride home, her husband told her that Mabel wanted to visit them at their house sometime. They still lived in that third floor apartment in those days and she told him, “If she comes, I’m going to push her down the stairs!” Mabel never did come to visit and she was never sure if that was Mabel’s lack of follow-through or her husband’s doing, and she never asked.
She sewed most of her children's clothes. She especially loved making the really elaborate outfits for holidays. Her children always looked just so. She doesn’t completely understand why mothers of young children now seem so scattered. She always got everything done and more. She doesn’t remember how. She just did. Mothers now think about everything so much; worry about everything so much. They didn’t know what to worry about back then so she supposes they just didn’t. There were things but they were everyday cares and life was more difficult overall. Well, certainly less convenient. But there was no global warming or organic food and non-organic food and these new diseases kids get, child molestation and abuse. Many of their troubles didn’t have names and not as much was known and people didn’t talk about everything on television at four o’clock in the afternoon.
You just carried on.
As best you could.
And some days were better than others.
You did the best you could.
Sometimes when she goes to bingo or a Teamsters meeting, she and the other women talk about how they did it all when their children were small. “How did we do it?” they ask each other and they really don’t know. They truly do not have any inkling of how they did it. It makes them laugh that they can’t recall. They can’t imagine ever having had that kind of energy.
Then the children grow. And sometimes she knows she aggravates her daughters and gets the sense that they tolerate her but don’t always enjoy her. And her sons, who never forget her birthday or Mother’s Day and always get her something thoughtful on Christmas, and call fairly regularly, have in truth drifted away. Floated away like a leaf on a big deep lake. And she knows she doesn’t really know them at all. Sometimes when this knowledge gets her down, she wonders if any mother knows her child once they have grown, once they have done that necessary separation. What mother does? And why does no one tell you that this detachment is inevitable and might hurt you more than anything you ever felt? Worse than birthing them in the first place.
The funniest thing of all is that children think they know their mother. They are unfalteringly convinced they possess this knowledge. Of this she is certain. But nothing could be less true. She tries not to get angry when they treat her as if she is an infant; as if they have her pegged. They try to placate her. At times, they make her second-guess herself. She is being reduced.
Maybe it was better when people died at earlier ages—when folks died in their prime or at least closer to it.
Now if she needs to go get a prescription or a few groceries, she must ask one of her daughters.
The winter curtains still hang. She tries not to think of the dust that she knows is accumulating. She hopes it does not permanently discolor the fabric. That’s the kind of thing that happens in homes where things are not well-cared for—in homes where cleaning is haphazard.
All that dust that she knows is up there.