Word House


December 31, 2007
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Dave knew he could always pull the reporter card.  He could tell the ladies he was doing a story on book clubs and he would be in.  And it wouldn’t be a lie.  He would do the story.  Only he wasn’t the least bit interested in book clubs, nor was his boss the sports editor.  What he was interested in was his wife and why she left him.  

Dave covered football for the New York Daily News.  He traveled around the country feeding game reports to the mother ship, watching his words magically appear in print the next day.  Last year he logged 20,000 frequent flyer miles.     

All the travel meant Dave was either gone or tired, neither of which sat well with his wife, Allison.

The good news was Allison wasn’t like most wives.  She rarely complained.   That is, until she joined the book club.  A year later, she announced she was leaving.  A coincidence?  Dave didn’t think so.     


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December 31, 2007
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The place was dark and the music was loud.  Flickers of light like fireflies dotted the empty dance floor.  He grabbed her hand and led her to a room at the back.  It had a couch and a cage in it.  There was a chair in the cage.  A red velvet chair with a light shining on it.

He made her sit next to him on the couch where they waited.  Then the scary naked lady appeared in the cage.  He slapped her hands away when she tried to cover her eyes.   He slapped the back of her head when she tried to squeeze them shut.   You watch, he said.                                

The scary naked lady moved like a snake.  She twisted and turned, sometimes bending all the way down to the floor, other times doing stretches like they did before gym class.   Then she sat on the chair and her hand was there. 

He said no, she could not go to the bathroom.  Sit!

The lady started to make sounds.  This time Sarah didn’t have to close her eyes or plug her ears.  She could see and hear other things.  She could see the girl in the movie she had watched yesterday.  The girl with the parents who wouldn’t let her go to the library.  The movie with the happy ending, where the girl went to live with the nice teacher.  Sarah could see the teacher pushing the girl on the swing in the backyard.  

When the scary naked lady stopped, Sarah’s father told her that this was what her mother did every night.  He said don’t believe your mother when she says she’s going to work the night shift at that company.  There’s no night shift.  This is your mother’s night shift.  Don’t be like your mother, he told her.    And maybe you should think twice the next time your mother tells you something. 

She always thinks twice.  Before crossing the street.  Before putting her homework back in the folder.  Before deciding which headband to wear to school in the morning. 

Sarah doesn’t want to think twice about her mother.  Her mother helps her with her homework and makes sure she has an apple in her lunch.  Her mother tells her she loves her and she doesn’t want to have to think twice about that.

When the scary naked lady starts up again and Sarah starts to gag, he pushes her off the couch.  He yells, get!  She stumbles out the door and into the black and suddenly there are lots of scary naked ladies.  She stands with her back pressed to the door and watches them all dance like snakes to the music.

She won’t go back in there.  She wants to go home.  She sees the door where the men come in and runs.

Hey kid, somebody yells.  How’d a kid get in here?   She pushes past the man in the suit and is out in the sun.  This is a tricky place.  It feels like night but really it’s day.  

She runs along the gravel on the side of the road.  She is careful to stay far from the edge because a car can get you.   

She feels him before he’s even there.  His car slows alongside her.  Get in the car, he yells.  I’ll beat you dead if you don’t get in this car now!  She is running.   He swings the car into the gravel and she runs around it.   She is running. 

He veers the car again and this time he hits.  She’s in the ditch.  Get up, he yells.  Get the hell up!  The naked lady is there.  Only she’s not naked anymore.  She has on shorts too short for school and a top with glitter-words on it.  

Blood is coming out of her nose and she feels it in her ear.  At least she thinks she feels it in her ear.  She doesn’t know what she feels. 

He kicks her.  Then he is jerking a finger at her like a crazy man.  She doesn’t close her eyes, even though she wants to.  Instead, they are razor-focused on him.   What she sees is hard to explain, but the swing is there.   She looks around in the corners and there are no scary naked ladies. 

The naked lady has bent down next to her.  She stares and makes a face.  She says this child needs help.  Let her mother help her, he says.  I ain’t paid to pick no lazy-ass children up off the sidewalk.   Let her mother pick it up.  The scary naked lady says he’ll have to go back to jail, the way it looks.  Either way.

He tells her to get in the car and shut up and they leave.  She lays there, warm things trickling everywhere.  She hears the gravel crunch again and the fear makes everything that hurts hurt worse.  Then a door slams and a different lady is at her side.  Are you okay, honey?  Oh my God.  Don’t worry.  I called for help.  They’re on their way.  The ambulance will be here any minute. 

The lady sits down on the grass and holds her hand.   She directs her eyes to the lady and she is everything.  She glows.  More time than seems right goes by.  The lady phones again.  No, left on Main, she shouts.  She says let me tell you a story while we’re waiting.  The story has a happy ending.  She’ll be very happy, the lady says, the way things turn out.       

Does it have a swing, Sarah manages to ask.  The words make her cough and everything hurts again.  The lady says, a swing?  Oh yes, there’s a swing.  A squeaky old swing, the kind you find at houses with kids who do nothing but swing all the live-long day.  Just you wait and see. 

Only she can’t wait.  She tries to tell the lady to hurry her story, to get to the part about the swing, but she can’t get the words out.   She closes her eyes.   

 …and then the little girl ran into the yard and her mother said let me push you on the swing I’ll push as long as you want and as high as you want there’s nothing I’d rather do than push you on the swing because I love you with all my heart forever and for always you are my angel and …  

The ambulance comes and she let’s go.  They place her hand with the other across her chest.   It’s dark now, with flickers of light dancing across the sky.      

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December 31, 2007
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That it crossed her mind to be embarrassed about being seen in a public Laundromat made her heart sink.  All that therapy and still.   Maybe it was too late to change.

Charlotte had been down the street a million times but had never noticed the Family Laundry wedged between the Mexican grocery and Subway sandwich shop.   Even the rugs and bedspreads went to the dry cleaner.  The last time she’d been in a Laundromat was college.  It was the year of the apartment, after the dorm and before the sorority.  Once a week she would lug her Santa sack of jeans and t-shirts to the university’s Suds ‘n Duds.  While the other more studious types used the time between loads to study, she passed the time taking in the people.  There was the food stamp family with the giant box of powdered detergent, the homeless man with his plastic grocery bags and empty toilet paper rolls, the dreadlocked Rasta with his backpack of balled up t-shirts — and the flip-collared co-eds like her forced to slum at the Suds. 

Now, some 20 years later, she was back, a broken washing machine, a cleaning lady off to Poland, and her own final pair of clean underwear at stake.     

Charlotte quickly made her way past the woman at the front counter to a table at the back where she emptied two garbage bags of dirty laundry into a cart.  As she sorted the darks from the whites, she heard what sounded like a slot machine unloading a win.  She turned to see the woman at the table next to hers shaking change out of a plastic peanut butter jar.

The woman’s hair.  Charlotte noticed it immediately.  Thin, like seaweed, with occasional patches of no hair at all.   What there was of it she tied in a high, tight stub of a ponytail, its’ girth no thicker than a pencil’s.  Maybe she lived in a trailer park, Charlotte thought, or her mother’s house, or with a boyfriend who abused her.  Wherever it was, Charlotte was sure the place was worn and outdated, maybe even dilapidated.  Maybe she raised pigs.  Just then one of the woman’s quarters dropped on the floor between them.  

I feel like I’m in Vegas, Charlotte said, offering a rare smile to a stranger.  She made the Vegas comment because she wanted the woman to know that despite what she saw, they were two women on equal playing fields, only this time, in this life, the roll of the dice had landed in Charlotte’s favor.  She was the lucky one only it wasn’t her fault.  The therapist had said it wasn’t her fault.    The woman picked up the quarter.        

Charlotte was almost certain the woman saw her hide her purse beneath one of the garbage bags in her cart.  And her shoes.  Charlotte couldn’t decide if the woman would recognize the label but either way, she hoped she would think they were the knock-offs.  The blond highlights, salon nails, the embroidered horse on her shirt – all of it would need explaining.  She wanted the woman to know she was not who she had dressed herself up to be.  Not anymore.

This is so much work, the woman said, pulling a sheet from the dryer.

Yeah, it takes a lot of time. 

Just then the woman’s cell phone rang.  Charlotte heard her telling the person on the other end that she needed more quarters.  I need the quarters now, she urged.  Charlotte heard her say that they should go to the car and look for the quarters and bring them to her as soon as possible.  When she hung up, Charlotte reached into her purse and pulled a $10 bill out of her wallet.  The bill was worn and rumpled and Charlotte was glad. 

Here, she said, holding out the bill.  I heard you say you need quarters.  Here, take this.

Oh, no, I can’t take that. 

Please.  Take it.  I work, Charlotte said.  She added the work part because she didn’t want the woman to think she was the kind of person who handed money to strangers just because she had it handed to her.  She wanted her to think she worked for her money, maybe in a factory or warehouse or waiting tables.

I work too, the woman said, looking a little puzzled.

Please take it.  I want you to.  At this point, Charlotte’s Good Samaritan was making her sick.  She couldn’t decide if offering the money was more about making her feel good than it was about helping the woman.  Charlotte thought the same thing every time she looked at one of those celebrities on the cover of a magazine at the checkout counter, their white picket teeth smiling as they blathered on about saving orphans and AIDS victims and girls from circumcision.  Why not do the rescuing quietly, without fanfare and photographs?  Charlotte envisioned re-telling her Laundromat story to a friend, recounting how she had given the poor trailer park woman $10 and how the woman had lit up like the birthday girl.  Charlotte promised herself she would not repeat the story.      

You’re going to make me cry, the woman said

I’m the one who’s going to cry, Charlotte said.  Take it, please.

I don’t know what to say.  This is so nice of you.  Thank you very much. 

It’s kind of beat up, Charlotte said about the bill.  I don’t know if it will work in the change machine. 

It’s okay, I just live back here. The woman motioned out the Laundromat’s open back door.  Just beyond the garbage dumpster and privacy fence Charlotte could see the apartment building.  Plastic toys and resin chairs and empty flower pots crowded its small wooden balconies.  Charlotte imagined the woman’s was the one with the purple petunias. 

My mother is coming this week, the woman said.   I’m picking her up halfway in Missouri.

Ah.  The white glove. 

Actually, she’s not like that.  She told me not to go to any trouble.  She knows I’ve been working 60 hour weeks.

Charlotte wanted to ask where she worked but she was afraid the woman would ask back and Charlotte would tell her she didn’t have the kind of job that gave you blisters and backaches and just enough money to get by.  Then, just as Charlotte would make judgments about the woman based on her job, the woman would make judgments about Charlotte based on her lack of one.   Charlotte would decide that while the woman was clearly poor and struggling, she was also a tireless worker who had never been given a break; that growing up her mother worked two jobs just to make ends meet; that her father left when she was just a baby.  Charlotte would decide the woman had been pregnant three times and the third time she had given the baby up for adoption.  She would decide the woman kept her worn and outdated apartment immaculately clean because despite her circumstances, the woman had honor and dignity and self-respect.  She never took a quarter for granted, not like Charlotte.  The woman would be glad she was not Charlotte.  Charlotte would envy her.  

Charlotte fed a quarter into the dryer.  I work in a hot warehouse, she lied.           

How do you stand it, the woman sympathized.  I couldn’t take the heat.  It’s hot enough in here, that’s for sure.

I duck into the air-conditioned offices whenever I can, she lied again.   The idea was not completely out of the realm of her experience.   Charlotte remembered her father telling her how he had escaped the heat of the factory where he packaged auto parts by claiming minor cuts and scrapes that sent him to the receptionist’s desk for the first-aid kit.   He said eventually they got so used to seeing him in the front office they put him there permanently.

Just then a boy on a skateboard rolled up to the Laundromat’s back door.  Mom, he called.  The woman shot him a narrow glance.  He looked to be about 10, the same age as Charlotte’s son.  He wore the long skater shorts popular with the boys his age and a t-shirt that read “my sister did it.”  With his hair flipped up over his ears and his frayed, dirty shoelaces, yes, he could have been Charlotte’s son.  The boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of quarters.  Finally, the woman sighed, and he skated off.

Here.  She held the $10 bill out to Charlotte.  Thanks so much but I’m good now.  My son brought me more quarters.

Are you sure?

Absolutely.  But it was so nice of you. 

Charlotte put the $10 back in her wallet.  It was the wallet she had picked out for herself for her birthday and given to her husband to give to the kids to wrap.  Charlotte had feigned surprise when she opened it.  Now this is nice, she had said. 

The woman was folding a towel when a truck – the kind that sat three people across the front and hauled a dog and a tool box in the back – pulled up to the back door.  Charlotte watched a heavy-set man with a shaven head step out.  Without a word, he walked up to the woman’s table, picked up one of her laundry baskets and headed back out to the car.   The woman gathered up the other basket and her peanut butter jar, along with her cell phone and a free copy of the Smart Shopper and followed him out.  She stopped at Charlotte’s table. 

Thanks again and have a nice rest of your day. 

You too, Charlotte said, not surprised that the words felt hallow, aware that the inflection in her voice could only be described as perky, wondering if anyone was watching.   Charlotte looked up at the clock.  Quarter past two.  Meghan had a pool party at 3 and wanted to wear the shirt with the eagle on the front.   Charlotte stuck her hand in the dryer.  Still damp.   She dropped in another quarter, and then another and another and another and another until all the quarters were gone.   She pushed the change lever but it was too late. 

# # #

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December 31, 2007
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This is a book with a sibling twist created by three twisted siblings.  Me, the unpublished writer hung up on the past, and my two brothers, one an alcoholic architect without hope or a job, the other a businessman with blood clots and a book fetish.  Together we lead mostly mundane lives working drudge jobs – half lives already half over, our collective talents destined for the crematory. 

Oh, the waste.

We would not be the first in our family to take our passions into the fire.   We come from a long line of people who turned a deaf ear to their creative callings.  An aunt who sculpted in the basement, a grandmother who painted water colors on the porch, a father who played piano, a mother who sketched boats from the shore.  Surely, the sheer volume of our collective artistic entry would equate to something.  This book seeks to make something tangible of that.  More important, though, it begins to pave a path of courage and conviction for those who will lead our family into the future…

The poet, the decorator and the coronet player, ages 19, 15 and 9. 



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About author

I do PR for a writing instruments company. I have three kids. I like to write. I used to write for a newspaper. I am very busy but still find time to over-think things.