A story of an ordinary family…but what defines an ordinary family?
It was Saturday morning.
I was in the computer room working on a short story. I had closed the door earlier because of John, my husband, was in the adjoining room, the music room, with the CD player, turned to full volume…or so it seemed. And even as I read my work out loud, the music was in competition with the story rhythm.
I yelled, “Cut it down. Please…?”
He simply closed the second door between us. After several attempts, I still failed to get a handle on the cadence of the words. I upped the sound of my voice. But the music always won. I rose, shoved my chair back and jerked open the door. My shoes touched wetness. I pushed back the second door and my eyes fell on the glistening sheen of moving water gliding rapidly across the tiled floor. My husband whirled around in his chair.
He followed my glance, and in the next second he was up and running to the laundry room. Water covered the concrete floor. It stood a good two inches over a vast area, extending over most of the lower level of five rooms. Small rugs floated in abandonment. The cold water line behind the washer had burst open and water was spewing like a small geyser. John ran outside to cut off the main water line.
We rushed around cleaning up the mess, sorting through things that were damaged, or no longer in current use, and setting up fans to dry the carpet in three rooms. This spurt of domestic cleanup then led to another long-awaited chore: the getting rid of the excess, of thirty-years-plus, stored in our attic.
I stood backed against the wall in the hallway, ready for the job ahead. How was I to know that special gifts laid in wait for me in the next few hours?
John pulled the cord that lowered the attic trapdoor. He unfolded the wooden stairway and secured the ladder to the floor, climbed up and stepped off, disappearing into the dimly lit storage room.
After a handful of minutes, he began handing down bags of heat faded ribbons, shapeless picnic baskets, and several boxes, labeled ‘Miscellaneous.’ He slipped the last box, plastic tableware, into my hands and went back into the shadows.
I heard him coming toward me.
“Here’s memories,” he said, his look momentarily meeting mine. His arm extended downward as I reached for the arms of a child’s potty chair. My throat tightened; sudden tears stung at the back of my eyes as the years fell away. Visions of small, round bottoms squirming in the chair crowded my mind. A painted brown rabbit winked at me from the backrest. Funny—I’d never noticed him being there. I sat the chair by the other items; but my gaze stayed on it, reluctant to turn loose.
The playpen followed, and John and I wrestled with its bulk until we finally got it placed near the kitchen door. Tooth marks, ragging the plastic cover around the squared top, freed memories of chubby hands holding on as baby teeth gnawed away in boredom or in soothing swollen gums. And signs of frantic baby play were also evident in the snarled mesh netting where caught-up toys were most likely yanked in frustration.
Legs of a highchair then came into view; I grasped the middle rung as John lowered the chair farther down. On the seat, designs of pink and blue dancing clowns stood faded and disjointed from the restless motion of wiggling babies. Scratches and chipped marks on the food tray pointed to impatient hands banging toys or spoons, and over the racket, a shrill cry of, “Cookie, cookie.” I swallowed hard and swiped at a new rash of threatening tears. I fingered the tray; my hand trembled as I imagined the touch of small fingers to mine.
“Are you coming back?” My husband called out, his impatience showing in his sudden high pitched voice.
I hurried to retrieve a rocking horse. At one time—it seemed only yesterday—the regal white toy, now a sickly yellow, held two laughing children. I gazed at the rust crusted around the fat coiled springs, and at the wooden bangles on the hand-rest, pushed together to one side. I could see those flashing beads even now; oh, how they had danced when a small child’s fidgety hands spun them as a tiny body rocked happily away.
Soon, John brought the stroller down and placed it with the growing heap. Its present inhabitants, several dolls, lay sprawled nonchalantly on the seat. The sun cover, leaning haphazardly, threatened to dislodge the silent guests. I straightened it, and the dolls and all the while imagined my daughter’s grinning face looking up at me.
Plucked next from the attic was a red rocking chair, with arms and legs missing; it drew scenes long-stored in my mind of my son’s—let’s see how things are put together—inquisitive phase.
Following was a bundle of silver aluminum bed bars, once used with such confidence, and now, they appeared fragile and ineffective in their ability to control a child’s mindset of escaping.
“Remember this?” my husband asked. He offered down an overly sized plastic tricycle.
“Of course,” I answered. I took the Big Wheels tricycle. And as I added it to the pile, I noticed that the front wheel curved to one side—another dismantling gone awry due to my son’s formidable curiosity.
The stored possessions pulled from dusty corners, charted my children’s growth. Each piece claimed its place of importance. One such item was the empty Aunt Jemima syrup bottle—which my daughter and I painted on a rainy day—packed away in a cardboard box among coloring books, brittle crayons, and tubes of half-used, dried, acrylic tints. In one corner, I spotted a pair of athletic shoes, the steel cleats still shiny, worn only a brief time when sudden desires erupt and fade with equal interest. Various sizes of lead pencils, some with chewed erasers and stubbed points, filled out the rest of the contents.
The square end of a glass aquarium showed. John yelled for help. We grappled with it and soon had the bulk container sitting alongside the other items. Eager young faces and hushed voices sprang before my eyes, sending me back into those long quiet periods of watching the antics of two hamsters. I remembered how the scurry of those furry little animals would bring silence to young voices when nothing else could. I recalled, vividly, the day when a hard learned lesson subdued our young children, our daughter, Robin, and even younger son, Scott, for one full evening. I had put the baby hamsters, with their mother, in a tall cardboard box so John and I could give the aquarium a much-needed cleaning. We carried the container to the porch…with the children following closely behind. They waited nearby, watching with eager eyes that read—hurry, hurry—while we emptied the soiled wood shavings; washed and dried the container and filled the bottom once again with clean, sweet smelling shavings. Robin and Scott ran into the house. We heard the yells before we rounded the doorway. We hurried to the room; both Robin and Scott, with fright contorting their faces, were pointing to the cardboard box. The mother was the only hamster in sight! We were all beyond words…what had happened? They could not have gotten out. We put the mother back into the aquarium, the children hugging onto my husband and I…and both were sobbing as though their world had ended. In a short time, I looked over at the container and could not believe my eyes; the babies were playing around the mother hamster as though nothing had ever been amiss. I later learned that the mother will swallow her babies, keeping them inside her throat if she feels danger is imminent. She can spit them back out when safety returns, and with no apparent harm to the little ones. As the hamsters played so lively in the cleaned container, the moment of loss eased; although, the children watched with intense interest in the following days.
Later on, I recalled tears at first, then pouts, and finally a realization that unforeseen circumstances required that we give away the growing family of—how quickly everything changes—twenty-two pets.
A marvelous thing about youth, healing times are mostly short-lived and I watched those woebegone looks quickly turn into smiles when a new interest appeared on the scene.
The call of my name came again from the opened attic doorway. John stepped into view.
Another cardboard box was lowered to me. My husband’s eyes met mine in silence, holding me to him for seconds longer before turning to his work. I saw immediately why the long look: handcuffs, police regulated the size, lay atop the comic books, and assorted toys. I was thrown back into the afternoon of the infamous ‘handcuffs episode.’ I was cooking dinner one evening, the children were playing somewhere in the house, and my husband was taking a nap in the bedroom. A yell had me rushing toward the sound and when in our bedroom, I faced a red-faced, scowling Dad, with handcuffs on, and our young son cowering nearby.
“Do you see what your son has done?” My husband struggled to sit up. Our son ran from the room. I stood looking at my ‘caught’ husband. I choked back laughter, a real no-no for the moment. Whenever Scott was in trouble with John, our son became my son until things smoothed over.
My husband went on, “I was asleep, with my hands folded together. I felt something cool. I jerked, and that’s when I heard the handcuffs lock around my wrists. I told Scott, ‘Okay, son, you’ve had your fun, now unlock the cuffs.’ He just looked at me. I said again, ‘Scott, the fun is over, unlock the cuffs. Get the key, now.’ And you know what Scott said then, ‘What key, I don’t have a key.’” My husband hit the closet door with his handcuffed wrists. His outburst matched the blaze of anger glaring from his eyes. I heard Scott fly out the front door, the loud slam echoing in the bedroom. I looked at my husband, looked at the handcuffs circling his wrists, and knew this evening wasn’t going to end in any good fashion. I went in search for Scott and found him hiding behind the house. It seems the cuffs were a gift from a former neighborhood playmate whose dad had worked with the police department years before. The long night passed with my husband swearing with every turn in the bed, muttering our son’s name and enough expletives to last a lifetime—and me, getting a headache from holding in the giggles rocking inside my head. I did a lot of throat clearing, pressing my lips against my teeth… and sighing.
The cuffs finally came off the next morning when our neighbor came to the rescue with a hand saw, and all the while having a good laugh at the churlish look on my husband’s face. The story ran rampant throughout the neighborhood in a matter of hours. For weeks, John was greeted as—how’s the prisoner holding up these days? Laughter soon followed.
Another call for me went out; I stepped near the ladder.
With the package of rolled straw mats filling my arms, memories of warm days, the aroma of coconut tanning oil and giggling teenage girls sunning on the upper deck, walked across my mind.
Then, a large paper bag, holding four green rubber horseshoes, was dropped into my hands. My thoughts soared to yard games, boyish laughter and voices, both husky and high, dependent on the stage of growth. I hugged the memories close.
On the bottom step, John placed my cosmetology case, scarred at the corners; its contents used for styling hair on those special prom dates, sometimes taming curls—but then again, sometimes not.
Years chronicled milestones as a bingo game, a favored Chinese checkers set, and several scrabble boards, all bearing signs of much-used handling, landed in my grip.
The roots of our marriage lay in the vast collection filling half the room. The items, however, could be disposed of, but their intrinsic value of daily happenings bonded my husband and me in ways that only the two of us could share.
Overhead, the rustling noise stopped. I saw John’s head pop out.
“Here’s one more thing,” he said, passing me a very large, black garbage bag, the sides bulging out in all angles. Grappling with the bag, I felt the skeletal edges of empty clothes hangers, dozens perhaps—a final testament that life had spread out in other directions.
Dark vacant closets now held only the whispers of hurried searching hands and along the walls inside, the scent of energetic beings no longer warmed the air.
I slipped that thought to a safe-keeping place in my mind, knowing full well that the living goes on. It simply takes a different path.
This short story is nominated for the SALISMANIA.com Best Short Story Of The Year Award 2017.