red step-stool—part 3


Here is Part 3 of my serialized short story, "Red Step-Stool." If you want to go back and read Part 1, here it is! And here is Part 2. Enjoy!

When they paid off their mortgage, she and her husband burned the mortgage papers in an old coffee can and drank bubbly wine. They invited their children and grandchildren. She suspected her children must have no idea or at least no more than an inkling of what this meant to her and her husband.

The house is a four-bedroom cottage. Sky blue aluminum siding and white trim. They bought it from a family who had come upon hard times. A sad story about a sick child. She was never sure what happened to the child and she is rather glad not to know. The house cost thirteen thousand dollars—a small fortune to them. It sits on an acre of land that butts up against a small expanse of woods and behind the woods, a rural highway.

When they moved in, the house was brashly decorated—bright colors and fussy wallpapers. Not exactly filthy but not reasonably clean by any means. She recalls weeping over all the work they had to do to straighten it out. She left the kitchen and went outside, her hands raw from the bleach and the scrubbing. It was late June and a nearly full moon was above and she sat in the dewy grass of her new backyard. Even with all that moonlight the stars still poured down. And she cried which was not her manner and her husband came, sat down next to her in the grass, put his arm around her shoulders and said, “Don’t cry, sweetheart. It’ll be alright.” Things were said in a simpler way then. And she did feel better. And it did turn out alright.


After 9/11, her granddaughter asked her if this was what Pearl Harbor felt like and she said, Exactly. It felt exactly like this.

When do you feel old? Her granddaughter asks her. She wonders this herself because she doesn’t know the answer. You would think by mid-eighty you might know the answer to this question. Maybe you only know right before you die or as you’re dying.

But there are differences—they are all physical. She gets tired more quickly but that’s okay because she’s not in a hurry. What is there to hurry about?

When she does her laundry she must be careful. Her best girlfriend has the washer and dryer on the main floor of her house in a big closet. Her daughters have looked into moving her washer and dryer upstairs but it won’t work in her house. So she must do her laundry as she has always done in her basement. She used to just scurry up and down those stairs with the basket in her arms. Now she uses a cloth laundry bag and she fills it with the dirty laundry she needs to wash and she tosses it down the stairs to the basement floor where it lands with a soft thump. This is when she must be careful—she places two feet on every step and holds the rail firmly. She wears shoes that don’t have slippery soles. She won’t end up in the nursing home with a broken hip. That could be the last thing she ever does and over dirty clothes? No, no. Not me, she thinks.

No doubt she has slowed down. She can’t go all day long like she used to. Used to be she could spring clean the house in a weekend. Now it takes her a week and a half. Everything done in bits and pieces. Even the weekly cleaning. Now, she washes the floor and at the end of the day feels like she built a house.

But her step-stool. Her daughters won’t let her climb up on it, yet she thinks she could still do it, if she were very careful. She won’t, but she just knows that she still could.

The main thing is that in her head she feels the same. In her head she is sixteen, she is twelve, she is thirty-eight, twenty-two, eighty. In her head, there is no difference.


Her parents emigrated from Madeira. A beautiful Portuguese archipelago. Flowered and warm. She never visited until her retirement when she went there on vacation with her husband. Then she saw the village where her parents were born and raised and met some cousins. It touched her deeply, this connection, and it made her think of her mother, of whom she had not in years in a way that felt like her mother’s own warm hands upon her. That made her think of her mother’s hands on her childish body. Her mother’s hands in the family garden, cooking their food, washing their clothes and bedding in a washtub with a washing board. Imagine women had to do that once! Of course, her daughters can’t believe they ever lived in a house without running water. But when she was living it, it never seemed like such a burden. It just was what it was and they did what must be done and never really thought about it. Maybe because they never conceived of it being a different way. Maybe because it wasn’t so bad, especially when you were used to it. Maybe life is only as hard as you think it is.

Her mother gave birth to ten children, nine of whom lived. The first one was a boy, but he died. She then gave birth to seven girls before she had her two boys. She sometimes wonders how often her mother thought of the boy who died at birth—the stillborn baby. She has always hated that word, stillborn. It sounds too much like what it is and it has always horrified her. Her oldest sister’s first baby, also a boy, was stillborn. She carried a secret fear that her first would also be stillborn, as if this fate were inevitable. She was neither in her youth nor in her old age one to think like this. She is not and never was superstitious. Except about this. She wonders if her mother nursed a deep and enduring wound; carried it until the day she died. She doesn’t know. She imagines she would have but, like her mother, privately held it close. She was never the type inclined to hysterics or showy displays of emotion. It’s one thing to watch it on television and another to be like that.

That’s not how she was raised.


On Saturday nights her husband liked a hot bath and every Saturday night she drew the bath.

She told both of her daughters on the eves of their weddings, “Don’t start anything you don’t want to be doing for the rest of your life.” She was thinking of the baths. He was a good man, but somehow she came to bear a grudge about the baths.

Sometimes he came to her in the evening while she sat in her easy chair, knelt in front of her and placed his head in her lap. She scratched his head and the top of his back as far down as she could reach from where she sat.

This she would do willing for as long as he chose to be there with his head resting in her lap.


One of her daughters called her and said she might have some time in the next weekend to help change the curtains. “I’ll see what I can do, Mom,” she told her.

Yes, there are people who keep the same curtains up year ‘round—she knows. But she is not one of them.

She thanked her daughter then moved the step-stool into the parlor adjacent to her front room where she spends much of her time, her television remote and cordless telephone, the daily newspaper near to her hands.

That was Monday when her daughter called. Now it is Thursday and still no definite answer about the curtains. How can she plan?

She eyes her step-stool, chipped and faded red paint, dented metal. No—she won’t step up on it. She’s no fool. Even though she really believes she could do it.

She moves aside the lap quilt draped over her legs and walks slowly toward the step-stool. She lifts it carefully and carries it to the small utility closet off the back of her kitchen. It takes her a little while—she stops to catch her breath, stretch her back.

She returns to the living room and settles herself back in her chair.

Used to be time was her foe—it flew right by and she had to rush, rush, rush. Now what she does is wait. Time is loopy and streams slowly around her and the television marks the hours. She does not feel sorry for herself—that is not what her noting of time means to her. It is simply different and sometimes she envies her busy daughters just a little—their hours stack the way hers once did. There was too much to think about then but now it is difficult to conjure things to occupy her mind.

The dust gathers in the folds of the curtains. No matter, she thinks, and tries her best to believe it.