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The roast in the oven, the steam from the iron heating on its board, the katydids in the trees as the sun set. Ginny felt the buzz and hum, that endless drone, in her blood, and it made her anxious. She fiddled with the radio on the kitchen counter, hoping to mask the insidious hiss, but the reception was terrible, and even the music was threaded with static.
Ab had called earlier as she was putting the roast in the oven to let her know he’d be late. Apologetic, as always, though it hardly classified as “late” given that he’d been “late” every night for the last six months. Still, she went through the motions, setting the table with three settings as if he might just walk through the door, hat in one hand and bouquet of flowers in the other. That goofy Dick Van Dyke grin on his face, and her, his Laura Petrie, in her ballet flats and capris, standing on tiptoes to give him a kiss before ushering him to the table, where the pot roast and their freshly scrubbed son sat waiting.
But tonight, like nearly every night lately, she and Peyton sat at the table alone. She cut Peyton’s meat for him, sopped up spilled milk with a napkin when he inevitably knocked over his cup, and nodded and smiled as he recounted the injustices committed against him by their next-door neighbor’s son, a towheaded monster named Christopher. The two boys would be in the same first-grade class at St. Joseph’s this fall, and Ginny was dreading the unavoidable daily interactions. It was hard enough simply living in such proximity. She tried to prevent the inevitable front-yard skirmishes by sending poor Peyton to the backyard to play most days. But cooping them up in a classroom together every day would be like caging a hungry cat with a defenseless mouse.
Now she tried to focus on his story—something about stolen Hot Wheels cars and a sabotaged dump truck. But even his impassioned babbling couldn’t mask the underlying sizzle, the crackle and spit.
After dinner, she put together a plate of food for Ab, wrapping the entire thing in aluminum foil before putting it in the still-warm oven. She washed the dishes, noting the whine of the faucet, the low groan of the pipes behind the walls.
Upstairs, she knelt on the furry blue bath mat and gave Peyton a bath, those pipes clamoring, restless. He was six now, able to bathe himself, but he struggled with his hair, and so she helped him, careful not to get soap in his eyes. She was mystified by his ability to get so dirty in such a short period of time, the water turning a weak brown around him. Afterward, she helped dry him off with one of the fluffy towels she’d just washed and folded this morning, then handed him a pair of clean and pressed pajamas.
He didn’t bother to ask when his father would be home anymore. She feared Ab was becoming little more than a kiss on the cheek in the morning and perhaps the feeling of his blanket tightening as he dreamed his little boy dreams at night after Ab finally came home. He was an idle threat as well, Wait until I tell your father, an admonishment that meant nothing at all, since Ab had never so much as raised his voice to his son.
Ginny put Peyton into bed, the fresh Fantasia bedsheets tucked in tight, the soft glow from the matching Mickey Mouse lamp, the bulb illuminating an endless parade with Mickey’s marching band on the lampshade. She knew he would outgrow the cartoon mouse soon, in favor of superheroes or cowboys or astronauts, but for now, he was only six. Still just a little boy.
“Goodnight stars,” she said, as she always said.
“Goodnight air,” he recited, one stubby finger dancing in the air.
“Goodnight noises everywhere.”
Downstairs, the iron was waiting, the bottomless basket of Ab’s dress shirts expectant. Hiss. The iron exhaled its exasperated sigh. Sssss, the spray bottle of starch expressed. She lifted one of his shirts, each of them nearly identical, and stretched it across the ironing board. She always started with the collars and cuffs before tackling the front, carefully nosing the hot iron between the buttons. She saved the large swath of the back for last; there was something satisfying about the sweeping motions across the expanse of fabric. A small freedom. A bit of grace.
The TV was on, The Carol Burnett Show. But the audience’s laughter sounded sinister somehow, so Ginny reached for the knob and turned the sound down. Hiss, the iron exhaled furiously.
When the phone rang, it startled her, and she ran to the kitchen to answer it before it could wake Peyton up; he was a light sleeper and did not go back to sleep easily once woken. She figured it was Ab calling to say he was leaving the office soon.
“Richardson residence,” she said softly.
It was Marsha. She still lived in Amherst, where they had grown up. Usually, she called on the weekends when the long-distance rates were lower. She worked the swing shift as an ER nurse and almost never called at night. Ginny held her breath. Please don’t let it be Mother, she thought. Shirley had been suffering some shortness of breath lately but had been dismissive when Ginny suggested she see a doctor. She was overweight, had always been overweight, and insisted she, like Ginny herself, just needed to lose a few pounds. But Shirley shared a duplex with her sister now; certainly, if something had happened to her, then it would be Aunt Bonnie who called, not Marsha.
“I take it you haven’t seen the papers this week?” Marsha said.
“The papers?” Ginny tried to imagine what she could have missed. As a rule, she ignored the newspapers, the news. The Russians could have invaded the country, and she would be entirely oblivious. This willful ignorance was irresponsible, she knew. Foolish, even. But really, what could she do about an unjust war? She couldn’t even keep that little monster Christopher from tormenting Peyton; what could she possibly do about nuclear tests in the desert, bombings in Ireland, or earthquakes in Peru? The only thing she had power over, the only change she could reasonably and predictably effect, was the removal of wrinkles from shirts, of mildew from tile, of dirt from her child.
“No. What happened?” Ginny asked.
“No one’s told you? About the report?”
Ab was constantly buzzing and talking about reports, briefs, affidavits, and subpoenas. His briefcase was overflowing with them. He was still working for his father’s firm, but she knew the plan was to eventually become an assistant district attorney, a DA. Maybe even run for office one day. His life was mapped out in an endless stream of papers.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Marsh.”
“There’s a local reporter, here in Amherst,” she said. “He’s written a—damn, what do they call it—an exposé? There’s been an article in the paper every day since Monday. I just sat down tonight to get caught up.”
“The school, Gin. The reporter, he went in undercover and took photos. Of course, it’s the newspaper, so the pictures are kind of grainy … but, Gin, it’s so awful. I read the parents have filed a lawsuit.”
“Yes, of the children there. A class-action lawsuit. Gin? Listen. Will you be home tomorrow? I’ll drive over.”
“I don’t understand. You mean…” Her voice trailed off. She could imagine it like steam slipping away.
“Yes, Gin,” Marsha said. “It’s Willowridge.”
Willowridge. The hum and buzz were now filling her ears, she could see the hiss, taste it. Smell it burning.
“I’ll be there by noon.…” Marsha said.
“Oh, no!” Ginny dropped the phone and ran to the living room, where the iron was breathing smoke and Ab’s shirt, the gingham ironing board cover, and the pad underneath were scorched. The smoke alarm began to ring out then.
“Mama?” Peyton said as he came padding down the stairs, covering his ears with his fat fists. He was crying, his voice a high whine.
“Stop!” Ginny said to no one. To everyone. To the world. She pressed her hands against her ears to still the deafening noise.
She heard a car door slam and Ab flew through the door, wide eyed, frantic. “What’s going on? Is there a fire? I could hear the alarm all the way down the street!”
Normally, when Ab finally arrived home each night she’d feel an odd calm descend upon her, the ceaseless buzzing beginning to quiet. But tonight, it persisted. Even after Ab reached up to the wall and extricated the battery from the alarm, even as he hung up the dangling phone and scooped Peyton up in his arms, nuzzling him before playfully swatting his bottom and sending him back upstairs. Even as he tossed the singed Brooks Brothers shirt into the sink, took her in his arms, and teased, “Hey there! You tryin’ to burn the house down?” Normally, when he held her, he could somehow contain the thrum and hum. But now that incessant whisper would not fade.
“Your dinner’s in the oven,” she said, her own voice buzzing. “It’s still warm.”
“Marsha’s coming by tomorrow,” she said, her body still vibrating as he released her. The aftershock of an earthquake, the relentless shiver.
“Oh?” he asked, distracted, as he opened his briefcase and set it next to the plate at the table. He pulled out a stack of briefs, a yellow lined pad. He looked tired. His hair was messy, and there were shadows beneath his dark eyes. The carefully ironed shirt he’d left wearing this morning was now a wrinkled mess. Something about this nearly brought tears to Ginny’s eyes. He sat down, loosened his tie, and sighed, exhaling in one long exhausted hiss.
“Coming for a visit in the middle of the week? Everything all right? Your mom okay?”
“Yes,” she said, the words like bees at her lips. “Everything’s fine.”
* * *
That night, Ginny watched Ab sleep. At thirty, in sleep at least, his face was still boyish. Untroubled. She’d once marveled at the ease with which he fell asleep at night, able to slip into a peaceful slumber while her own mind whirled with whatever had consumed her day. She used to think it was affluence that assured his easy departure from the world, but even after they’d married and she herself no longer had to worry over finances, she was often turned away at the gate to Dreamland. Now, his ability to shut out the world with the flip of the light switch filled her with a quiet sort of rage. And tonight, while he took his solo flight to oblivion, Ginny was left alone again with thoughts of Lucy.
Ginny studied Ab in his blissful quiescence, the silence of his absence nearly deafening. She wanted to scream, to shake him from his willful slumber. But she feared that if she were to open her mouth, no sounds would come out.
Copyright © 2019 by T. Greenwood