Pour a cup of tea or a cup of coffee, as you like, and pull up a chair. I hope you enjoy Part One of "Late Night Games," a short story I wrote a year-and-a-half ago.
Mary always approached the steep steps that rose a full flight in front of her red brick townhouse with a sense of futility. She loved her home and had taken great pride in it, inside and out, since she purchased it two years earlier, creating splashes of color on her tiny porch with ivy, Gerber daisies, pansies, and red geraniums each year as the weather warmed. The flowers, she thought, made this red brick townhouse stand out among all of the other red brick townhouses that lined up next to each other, row upon row, throughout her community. When she bought the home, she swore the stairs would be good for her, would force her to get a little cardiovascular exercise into her day, but now she saw that thirteen stairs did not make a difference. She still found herself stopping after three or four stairs to catch her breath, so steep was the flight.
As she reached the top, she struggled to slow her breathing. It came out in white puffs, frozen as soon as it hit the air. She rummaged for the keys in her pocket while juggling the flimsy white box from the bakery. Her heart pounded so hard that she could see her blouse jostle with each beat. The phone in her kitchen began to ring; her dog began to bark. She fumbled the keys, dropping them onto the poinsettia mat at the door.
She retrieved the keys without spilling the cake. Turning the key, she threw her ample shoulder into the door. It held fast. She shoved again, throwing all of her weight onto it. Snow rushed past her into the living room, sprinkling Toby with glittering crystals as he leapt about and yipped his greeting. The ringing ceased, but Toby's yipping continued.
She sighed, "Get down, Toby!"
Toby sat up, waving his paws furiously in the air. Mary squeezed her hand into the pocket of her jacket once more and found a dog treat. Toby deftly caught the biscuit and scurried away. Peering into the bakery box, Mary saw that the cake had survived. Only a shadow of pink icing marked the inside of the box, a glancing blow from her battle with the front door. "Happy Birthday Mary," it said in her favorite colors. She tucked the box into the refrigerator and grabbed a Diet Coke. She scooped up some M&Ms from the candy dish on the bar. She was famished from her outing.
Checking the caller ID, she saw that the missed call was not from James. It was simply another unknown number, blocked. He would call. After all, the day was far from over, and the party was hours away. The sun still hung in the sky but was slowly sinking in the hazy flurries that continued. Mary's jacket and boots dripped tiny puddles onto the kitchen floor; she brushed the droplets onto the linoleum, which she would soon be cleaning.
Though she had always been known as a fastidious housekeeper, this day Mary had set herself a goal to make the house sparkle. Finishing the last swallow, she tossed out the soda can and unwrapped a Tootsie Pop, leftover in the tin from a disappointing Halloween. She would have plenty of time to eat a decent dinner later, after James arrived. For now snacking would have to do.
To a bucket in the sink, she added a little bleach, hot water, a scrub brush, and a white rag. Slipping on her rubber gloves with a snap, she set about cleaning the tile in the foyer. Expertly, she crawled around the floor giving attention to each crevice of each baseboard, the grout between the terra cotta tiles, and the burnished gold threshold. She hauled the bucket into the kitchen, scrubbing every dimple in the kitchen linoleum, every visible nook around the appliances, and the grilles of the refrigerator and stove. She followed each scrubbing with a swift wipe of the white rag, ensuring there were no streaks. Though she was a large woman, Mary had a strong back, strong arms, and found that the hard work energized her. Her strength was massive, as long as she did not have to haul herself up a flight of stairs.
In the dining room, she rubbed furniture oil into the wood until it reflected everything in the room. She polished the antique chandelier, her first purchase made for her new home, until each bulb shone. The chandelier had been a find on one of her trips to the flea market. A bit of tarnish remover and replacements for the missing glass beads made it look like new. Each new project made the house more of a home, a home she someday hoped to share with James.
Running the vacuum cleaner over the soft beige carpet in the living room, she made darted patterns that reminded her of the late-night backgammon games she shared with James. His photo, that of an unconventionally handsome man in his late thirties, smiled down at her from the mantle. Strong, rugged, he was the man she had waited for. A dark blue mat around the photo blotted out all but his face and shoulders. Mary paused to straighten the frame.
The phone, like the picture, was silent.
Rich new curtains dressed the front room; Mary had finished them up just after midnight and hung them over the windows that were already becoming glazed with the first snow of the season. The sage chintz was something she had picked out with her mother on a shopping trip just before the accident. The bolt of cloth had lain in her sewing room for many months after her mother's death. Mary would take it out and run her fingers over it, breathe it in to see if her mother's cologne still lingered, and put it away again. After many such false starts at making the curtains, Mary had finally been able to take scissors to fabric, to cut away the unnecessary parts that had once rested in her mother's hands. The scent of her mother's cologne was gone. More than a year was gone with it.
Mary tried not to notice the curtains as much as the fireplace, which sat empty and cold.
With the ease of a single woman, she swept out the soot and stacked the fireplace up with kindling and fresh logs. Toby settled onto his bed near the hearth as the first flames began to dance up the flue. Mary had never had a dog before Toby. He was a Bichon Frise, her mother's last pet, and he had another five years or so of good life in him, according to the American Kennel Club. Washing him, brushing him, and cleaning the tear stains from his eyes gave Mary something to do when the nights were lonely, when James was not around. Her mother had loved this dog, though Mary had not bonded with him in a similar way.
She and her mother had only been going to the doctor's office. Her mother needed a hip replacement and was going for a consultation with the surgeon. Mary drove her, as she always did, and they talked about the design for the curtains. Her mother preferred a traditional pleat, while Mary wanted to make tab tops. Mary firmly stated that the curtains were ultimately her choice, as the house was hers and the money paid for the fabric was hers as well. Her mother fumed in the passenger seat, silent. Neither of them saw the truck cutting across the lanes of traffic before slamming into the car broadside, into the passenger door. It had happened so fast.
Toby began to snore as the fire warmed the room. Mary plucked her cell phone from her purse and dropped it into her pocket. She headed upstairs to clean her bedroom. Pulling herself along by the banister, she wondered how her sister could always run up two stairs at a time. It sometimes seemed an affront to her, who could barely manage a single stair at a time. With a heavy sigh, Toby rose from his resting place near the fire and ran past her, up the stairs to the bedroom.
Winded but determined, Mary laid out fresh sheets – her finest set – and the guest pillows to stuff into the pillow shams. She replaced the sensible cotton dust ruffle with a handmade one boasting three layers of Irish lace, something she had been saving since her trip to Dublin with her sister Katherine. It was the only souvenir she bought for herself during the journey to scatter her mother's ashes near her birthplace.
The nightstands and dresser were free from clutter, tasteful pillar candles were standing ready. Mary drew the shades against the dusk and let out a sigh. Everything was in place.
"A hot bath would be nice," Mary said aloud to Toby.
But she knew that a shower would have to do. Some time ago, Mary had grown too large for the current tub and was saving money to renovate the bathroom to include a larger one. The last time she had attempted to enjoy a hot soak, her voluminous bottom had become wedged into the narrow floor of the tub. It had taken cold water and all of the strength in her arms to loosen her from the tub's steady grip. The experience so frightened her that she told no one, not even Katherine. She thought if she had not been able to extract herself from the tub, she would have gladly died there rather than call anyone for help.
The papers and news crews would have had quite a story. "Obese Woman Dies Wedged in Her Own Bathtub." Or would they have referred to her as morbidly obese? The very word "morbidly" made her think not of the danger to her life of the extra weight but of something one does not discuss at parties or in pleasant company. Her weight was a morbid topic, something that is the opposite of cheer, something one must be discreet when talking about, a taboo subject.
Showers, she therefore decided, were fine, and she spent this one waiting for the cell phone to ring, popping her head out from behind the curtain now and then, cocking it, listening. If James could not reach her at her home number, he would phone her on the cell, she knew. Giving in at last, she let her muscles relax under the fine, hot spray. She lathered up with the gardenia-scented soap from the basket James had given her last Christmas. He would remember. Certainly he would remember that.
Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion...D