In the pale dining room, almost grey and almost purple, where her mother had loved to feed people for fifty years, Rhonda Jones stood staring at a clutter of plates and teacups. The room smelled like old wood and maybe just a little like mouse. Her mother would have been horrified that it didn’t still smell of Pledge and Lysol.
“All these dishes,” Rhonda said.
The box she’d brought in from the car would not be big enough. Some of the dinner sets weren’t too bad; there was one with a band of light aqua blue that would probably go home with her.
“I guess I’ll take most of this to Good Will.”
It was odd to hear her own voice breaking the dead silence of the house. She closed her mouth firmly, set aside her purse, and shook herself out of her coat. It was tight on the arms. She’d been building muscle at the gym recently.
If it hadn’t been for keeping fit and working hard, this winter would have been unbearable. The election the year before had set her teeth on edge, made her break with a few friends on Facebook, and gotten her to read too many feminist dystopian novels.
In this state of anxiety, her mother had finally succumbed to her cancer, passing away last summer in the middle of a heat wave. The grass had browned all over town, except for where people snuck out at night to water their lawns even though it was against the ordinance.
Rhonda knew the ordinance well because she had helped draft it. People liked to think no one who worked for the city really did anything, but they’d be mad as hell if everyone got to green up their lawn and then nothing came out when they went to turn on the shower one day. There had been some lunchtime jokes at city hall about all the toilets that couldn’t be flushed.
“They’ll get over it,” Rhonda had said. She tapped a button on her keyboard and the email was sent. Her employee would shoot it along the proper channels and the town would know about it by the next morning.
Still, some people felt entitled to look out for themselves, turning on their garden hoses real quiet, padding around their own driveway with the sprayer in hand, their slippers getting wet, head spinning as they peered into the dark around them like thieves.
It was August when her mother finally wilted and left. How she kept herself together during the funeral with all the family around to drive her nuts, Rhonda would never know. Her cousins would say with Jesus’ love and mercy and Rhonda would nod in agreement, although she’d stopped believing years before. That was an unwinnable debate. Saying you didn’t believe in Jesus in the Jones family was tantamount to trash talking somebody’s grandmother.
Rhonda considered herself good at choosing her battles. She saw peace and calm as the most cherished state of mind and organized everything in her life to protect it. How calmly she had decided to get out of her marriage. How still she’d been as they sat next to one another at a lawyer’s desk, her signature a brisk scratch, his a slow and mournful note.
After the funeral, her cousins lost interest in comforting her quickly.
“She doesn’t want that from us,” Charline had said. She was the leader of their small tribe, the oldest and the biggest, with shoulders and arms that strained to burst from under the triple layers of bra, floral sundress, and ecru cardigan.
Rhonda always looked on at her cousins in amazement. The ring of seven that were the backbone of Mt. Hebron Baptist Church. They dressed liked their mothers did for church. None of them were over fifty-five yet, but they might have been born the same year as women who were pushing eighty. She knew it was a tradition and something that made them feel connected to the comforts of lost mothers and fathers. She also knew that it was the proper ceremonial garb for the new queens of the church.
Still, to Rhonda, who always wore the same simple navy dress when at last her excuses ran out and she had to make an appearance in the aisles, the others looked like children playing dress up. Truth be told, they tired her.
Church tired her and so did tradition.
Yet still she was guarding herself against upsets, against drama, like if anything normal were to blow up, she knew she’d take the shrapnel in the gut. Maybe that explained why she always passed a hand protectively in front of her stomach whenever the cousins approached her.
“You’re your own worst enemy,” Charline said to her one Sunday last winter. “You don’t have to do it all alone. Besides, you don’t have time to clean that place out and Aunt Edith would be so sad to see her house go to rack and ruin.”
She wanted to say that it was only getting a little dusty, that she kept gas in the tank and the heat set just low enough so no pipes would freeze. She should have said that she paid a man to keep the lawn mowed and that she popped in once a week to double check the window locks and to wave the flashlight around in the basement in case the old water heater started to leak again. It had that once but it had been fixed.
Instead she said, “Thank you, Charline. I’ll think about it.”
Today she had planned to finally start going through the things, taking the house apart. She had pulled her car all the way up the drive, into the shadows of the wisteria arbor, just in case one of the queens drove by and saw her there. She didn’t want their help, their soft flower perfume and soft flower dresses, their forceful voices, the cluck and close by thunder of their laughter – they laughed exactly alike to a one – and their knowing confidence about how to best wrap up dishes and put away tablecloths so they wouldn’t yellow.
Maybe she didn’t want them to know how much she wasn’t going to keep. If they saw how disposable the past was to her, they’d probably start to figure out why she was the most apt to miss church. Why she never stayed too long at reunion picnics. Through a series of self discoveries, Rhonda had become unlike the tribe. And knowing the views of the tribe, she had unhitched herself from them in ways that were always just beneath the surface.
So now to wrapping the dishes in sheets of newspaper, to having the tips of her fingers blacken from stories about wars in other places and games won here at home. She knew this was going to take a while. Pulling a few containers of Chinese food she’d picked up to eat later from the box, she went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.
It was humid, tepid, and empty. She had forgot that she’d unplugged it months ago, when she cleared everything in it into a big trash bag and took it to the land fill. Pickle jar, mayonnaise jar. Ketchup. Mustard. Capers. So many kinds of jelly. Her mother loved toast and jelly.
It was too much, all the sudden, keeping guard against all the things inside of her that would disrupt her peace and quiet. There was rage inside of her and there was pain. Rhonda could almost see the former like white light racing out of a tunnel, and she could nearly smell the other. Old hurts that stank like sour milk and regrets that all blended together to make a drab and familiar odor like a spice cabinet.
Cumin for the time she didn’t come home from college to help her mother make barbecue. She’d shown up the day of instead, driving straight to the park, and letting some of the boy cousins get the food out of her mother’s car. She’d been talking to a friend she brought from school.
Clove for that winter night years ago when she headed over for chili and, seeing the light on behind the lace curtains, was unable to make herself pull into the drive for a visit. She called over later and said she wasn’t feeling well. Her mother had sounded so disappointed.
Cinnamon for when her mother nursed her through the flu as a child and all she could keep down was little torn pieces of toast. Her mother told her she would have put a little more butter on it, but she wasn’t sure if it was too rich. In a sick room that she had been in for a few days by then, the sugary warm smell of the cinnamon toast might have brought on her nausea but it didn’t. She was probably already getting better, but it seemed like her mother had made magic happen.
Celery salt and cardamon for the legendary potato salad her mother taught her to make a month before she died and which Rhonda had never made since because she didn’t want too much starch in her diet. The recipe, written carefully on a notecard, kept surfacing in her purse like something thrown in the sea that insists on coming back to shore. That spidery hand of her mothers. No one wrote like that anymore.
It was so close to the surface, her grief, that she felt it would push out through her eyes and ears. Her heart had started to race. She should sit down and try to breath the way her therapist had taught her. This time she knew it wouldn’t work.
If Charline were there, she’d pull her into her arms and cradle her like a child.
Charline would say, “You have to go through it, Rhonda. There’s no other way.”
Rhonda paced in circles, as if she were escaping the clutch of something, and then she stopped because she felt a little dizzy and like her heart was going to abruptly cease beating. She had to get out of the house, she thought, and her hands trembled as she unlocked the kitchen door and stepped out onto the back porch.
It had started to rain.
It drew her out from under shelter, it brought her to the center of the lawn, not far from the clothes line where her mother used to walk up and down with fistfuls of fabric and pins, her face hidden by a wide straw hat. She’d always seemed a little turned away from Rhonda, bent over her work, and except for when she absolutely needed her mother, Rhonda had always stayed a little back, watching her movements with a hungry urgency and a mouth set in a straight, mute line.
She ran her fingers along the clothesline, trailing it up to the post and turning and walking it again to where the line ended in another post that had been overtaken by lilacs. Her wet shirt clung to her coldly, her hair dropped beads of water into her open mouth. The tears were close now, and she simply needed to wait for them. The time had finally come and whether or not she could survive the pain was not even a thought her mind could form. She was rendered animal for the moment, all wide eyes and gathered shoulders, moving up and down the clothesline while the rain fulfilled a promise to the grass under her feet.