She carefully compared the label on the aspirin bottle to the brand name specified on the shopping list, then checked the quantity. He had once put down a midsize count, to test that she was actually going by his directions and not choosing what she thought was the economy size, or the amount that she thought was necessary.
Then she double-checked the expiration date. If she brought home old aspirin, or stale-dated food, it would not be the store that paid for the mistake.
Holding the list where she could see both it and the shelves, she pushed her slowly filling cart along the aisles. He had mapped the store when they first moved here, and he ordered each grocery list to proceed step by step through the selections from the entrance to the checkout counter. The store had been rearranged several times since then; she chose to follow the exact order of the list, and move back and forth in the present layout. He would not be very angry if he caught her doing that. If he caught her skipping around on the list it would be dreadful; to tell him that his map needed changing was impossible to contemplate.
When she had filled her cart with exactly what was required for that week's menus, she pushed it to the end of the nearest line, and occupied her waiting time filling out check and ledger, in neat small black printing, with all information but the amount. She kept an eye on the rollers of the cart ahead, to move up herself as soon as necessary and cause no delays. With waiting time still, after the check was ready, she verified the items in the cart one more time against the shopping list.
She kept a watchful eye on the checker's hands as the woman swiped packages over the barcode reader and weighed produce and punched buttons. She kept an anxious eye on the running total, feeling the rising fear as she always did at this point, that the total would come out differently than his calculation, and she would be trapped between the horror of holding up the line to track down the mistake, or the terror of going home to hand him a sales slip that differed from his budget.
An unreasoning fear, as always; the store's calculated total came neatly in the middle of the margin he had allowed for variation in weight of produce. She filled out the amount in check and in register, then handed the check over and tucked the sales slip in behind the register, for his verification.
She watched for passing feet as she pushed the cart out of the market to her car. Many people just did not watch where they were going, especially children. It was amazing how many of other people's children ran everywhere.
Holding her body between the cart and the car, she carefully inserted the key in the trunk latch. She had made a scratch on the paint once, in haste during a late night emergency trip to the drugstore when she panicked over strange young men approaching her car. He made her eat her meals standing up for a week.
After stowing the groceries, she returned the cart neatly to a rack, still watching carefully for intercepting feet.
At home, she moved with increased sureness and deft speed, placing every item in its assigned place, folding all bags precisely and filing them in their storage slot. She then toured the kitchen three times, checking again for any scraps of litter, droplets of condensation from frozen food, unaligned edges, cupboard doors ajar -- anything out of place. Just in case he came home early. Just in case.
Of course, the children came home first. Being so close together, all three were, for a while, at the same grade school and on the same schedule. Their macaroni-and-cheese, with green beans, was waiting on the kitchen table. Within two hours they were fed and bathed and in their rooms, doing homework or playing quiet games, and she had his own dinner waiting on the dining table when he came home.
She was checking the kitchen again for tidiness when she heard him enter the house. She listened anxiously to the weight and pace of his steps and the emphasis put on closing doors.
He sounded relaxed this evening.
As she served out his pork chops, mashed potatoes and salad, he mused out loud over the pleasures of his day. "The prick never even realized I was the Loan Officer," he chuckled. "I'll bet he's forgotten all about the day his kid's stupid baseball hit my car. He has no idea why his loan was disapproved. He won't be able to get financing at any respectable lender in town, either. He'll have to go to some rip-off credit joint. They might even end up ripping a joint off of him!"
She heard the chair creak as he leaned back and laughed. Her eyes darted to the floor beneath the chair. Any food spilled when he was inattentive would not be his fault; if she cleaned it up very fast, it would lessen her punishment.
As the laughter faded and the chair legs settled back, he picked up his napkin, perhaps to wipe his eyes. Muffled, he said, "Pour me some more milk, that made me thirsty," and chuckled again.
Pouring the milk, she kept watch on his hands. Even in good moods, he could suddenly pinch, or slap. It never helped to duck, but knowing it was coming seemed to help.
She quickly ate the leftovers and loaded the dishwasher while he bathed. As soon as she heard the tub emptied she started the washing cycle and went upstairs to give him his backrub. Then she took her shower and joined him in the bed.
This night his wants were straightforward. He fucked her, hard and fast, missionary position, and didn't leave more than a few fingergrip bruises on her hips. She fell asleep almost as fast as he did.
Learning to wake silently without an alarm clock, and rise from the bed without the slightest disturbance, had been a long and painful lesson, but she had mastered it years ago. The children were fed and off to school and his own bacon and eggs were ready when he came whistling down the stairs.
"Mother's will was probated yesterday," he said without preamble as she handed him his filled plate. "You can go pack up her things today. I've called a transport company to pick up everything at 2:30 this afternoon and take it to storage. That gives you time to be back here when the kids come home." He handed her a bus schedule with neat red arrows marking two time points. "Since you won't be transporting anything yourself, you don't need the car. There's a bus stop right by her apartment building."
After he left for the bank, she cleaned up the breakfast things quickly. His mother had lived in a two-bedroom apartment these last three years, but both rooms were full of bric-a-brac, pictures, and other mementos. She would need every bit of time for the packing.
She took along her Bible to read on the bus. Along with the dowdiness of her dress it almost always discouraged conversation, as it did this time.
As she had remembered -- and he had remembered -- her mother-in-law's back closet was filled with neatly folded-down packing boxes, tissue, styrofoam, shipping tape, and every conceivable packing need. She had been prepared to be uprooted at a moments notice -- as she had been several times in her life, when her husband had decided to move, and later, after her husband's death, when her son had decided to move.
Now her daughter-in-law packed the things she had left behind in the final move that was beyond even her son's control.
She neatly folded clothing into boxes and precisely labeled them, then packed shoes, handbags and other accessories; pots and pans; dishes and cups and eating utensils; books; pictures from the walls and mantels and dressers and tables; collections of ceramic birds and ceramic clowns. Finally she began packing the contents of the desk. Knowing that he would have already taken charge of any important papers, she simply stacked what was left in shoeboxes, without reading.
Everything was packed, only the last box of papers left unsealed. She had half an hour to go before the movers arrived and the very last item, a family album, in her hand. Yielding to an altogether unaccustomed temptation, she sat down to browse.
The wedding picture was so like her own her heart thumped an extra beat and she stared at it for several silent moments. That his father had been so much like him was not at all surprising. But that the tiny and brittle woman who had faded away in this apartment had been this dark-haired, laughing mirror image of what her own son's wife looked like on her wedding day -- she stirred restlessly, but subsided. She hadn't looked in a mirror for years.
She paged on through the album. With each page, the father's face grew a little fleshier, a little redder, the mother's face a little quieter, a little thinner. In some photos, her face was in shadow, especially after the first baby. The focus was on the babies, anyway. Especially accomplishments -- a victory at the track, awarding of a bowling trophy, notice in the paper of a scholarship won.
She shifted the weight of the big book in her lap. With the motion, one loose photo poked out of a pocket in the back. Curious, she grasped the edge carefully between thumb and forefinger and pulled it out.
It was a baby, naked, lying on his back on a blanket in a fenced-in back yard, under the shade of two trees growing close together. Bright sunlight threw mottled shadows across his face and body.
Except they weren't just shadows, she knew, staring harder and harder at the photo. It was not only the shade of summer trees that made the dark patches on the little torso and thighs; the marks like huge inward turning thumbs on each upper arm, where the mind painted four smaller finger shapes on the opposite side; the depth of shading around the left eye.
She knew, even before turning the photo over to verify the name and date on the back, recorded in the need to leave some record of the truth, however hidden.
She tucked the photo back into the pocket of the album and placed it neatly in the box of papers, sealing it up just as the doorbell rang.
As she strode to the door, her eyes sought the mirror in the hallway. The face was still pale and pinched, graying hair tightly pinned and rolled back. But the dark eyes were wide open and level, and her chin was up.
The faces of the three moving-men were tanned and weathered. They acknowledged her, but their eyes were all for the job to be done. She showed them in and left, knowing they would be just as dependable as they looked. He would have made sure of that.
On her way to the bus stop she noticed that as many men were working in their yards as women. They all seemed to be enjoying the gardening tasks of fall. A group of children were playing a game on the sidewalk involving a lot of hopping and shouting, but there were no complaints.
On the bus, she watched faces. Men and women talked to each other, and smiled. Not all of them, but some. Children asked questions, and were answered in soft voices. Not all of them, but at least some. None of the faces were bruised.
Her stop was coming up. With her pulse pounding in her ears, she kept her hands in her lap. When the bus was just past, her hand flew up to pull the cord. Two blocks out of her way, two unplanned blocks to walk, two blocks of new scenes and faces -- for today.
When she got off of the bus, she looked up.
The sky was very blue, and very wide.
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