When they find the papers on her bedside table, they thought it was a note. But it was just a letter.
Three colors of pen, three dates, and addendums littering the margins.
The man in the blue gloves picked it up and turned it over. “Jesus,” he said.
“What?” said the man going through the trash can next to the desk.
“My mom used to write letters like this,” said the first man.
The other man stood up and looked over the paper the first man held out. “Who’s she writing to?”
“This was under it,” he said, holding up an envelope postmarked in Wisconsin. “Some friend of hers, I guess.”
It is two o’clock in the afternoon. The mailman revs his engine and moves on to the next house. The neighbor’s dog finally stops barking and the sunlight leaves shadows under the trees in the front yard.
A woman sits on the thick pine boards of her kitchen table. Her worn clogs have fallen off and lie on the linoleum at drunken angles. Her thin fringe of bangs wilt on her forehead. She leans back on her palms on the tabletop, taking long, slow breaths, taking the air into her lungs as deeply as it will go. On the table is a single sheet of stationery, crammed full of curling letters in different colors of ink, and a pen lies on top of it.
Her eyes are fixed on a spot across the room. “One wild and beautiful life,” says the handwritten note on the fridge, next to a handful of children’s drawings and grocery store greeting cards shouting their congratulations.
The sister always sends postcards with snatches of poetry scrawled on the back sides. This one was from San Francisco. They haven’t spoken in three years, but the postcards still come.
So far away. But things would have to be very different.
She smiles. Life had been wild and beautiful. Before.
Now, it was going to be spectacular.
She takes slow, audible breaths, something she learned in a Lamaze class. She is counting the seconds, listening to the old analog clock above the fridge tick away, its plastic face lightly coated in sticky dust.
With each greedy breath she smells the damp, rich-dirt smell of a moldy bread heel sitting in the trash can. The bananas on top of the fridge, turning brown and patchy. The lingering scent of burned cheese from the quesadilla grease charred in the bottom of the cast iron frying pan on the stovetop. The scent of her own body, warm and clean and soft: baby powder deodorant, nursing hormones, and the faint prick of sweat under her bra band.
The breeze outside picks up the clean wet air from the window, which is set down an inch in its tracks over in the corner of the kitchen nook. The outside air cuts through the warmth of the stale kitchen and her breath catches when it hits her.
She closes her eyes. Just for a moment.
Then she sits up and slides off the edge of the table, fishing for her shoes one at a time and putting them back on, curling her toes with precision. She reaches for the letter and pen on the table and holds them together in one hand. She does not look at the sheet—she knows what it says.
June 6, 1994
This week is busy, and we’re on summer break. I’m going to be running a booth at the convention again this year, but Doug is asking me to scale back next year so I can focus on the kids more. The weather is warm and the crepe myrtle tree out back is in bloom. I think we’ll do swim team—sign-ups are tomorrow.
The boys are growing so quickly. I’ll send you a photo when we get their school shots back. How are the girls? Are you doing ballet with Valerie again next year? I’m trying to decide about Peter and gymnastics.
More later, must make dinner before Doug gets home. Chicken a la King tonight!
Oh I just found this! Sorry I haven’t sent it yet. I found a picture of the boys for you—it’s enclosed. We didn’t do swim team—too expensive this year. Gymnastics are out, too. We’re doing a day trip to Shenandoah, though, and the kids will get their ranger badges from the junior ranger program there. Have you looked into that program? It’s really fantastic. :)
They’re doing a sermon series at church on Streams in the Desert and I’m really thankful to have this right now. Spectacular book, especially right now. Been feeling so dry these days. The baby is due next month and I’m just so ready to be done. Doug is excited and the kids are too. He’s really busy with work—the committee meetings in the evenings are twice a week now. Maybe I’ll swap childcare with another mom at church so I can get some organizing done. Things just seem to pile up and I know it bothers him. I just have no energy.
It’s our anniversary! I was looking for Hailey’s paci on my desk and found this! I’ll have to send it. 13 years—can you believe it? We can’t do much this year, because of the baby. He is bringing home some ice cream and we’ll watch a movie.
Still feeling very very dry. Can’t sleep much—mastitis for the 2nd time in two weeks. Pray for renewal. Let’s talk soon.
She walks down the hall slowly, her hips shifting easily with each step, her skirt hem whispering on her bare calves. She passes half-open doors to children’s bedrooms, all empty, the shades drawn and the beds unmade. Books and toys layer the floors, archaeological evidence of this morning’s rumpus.
The hall linen closet is open; a couple of towels have tumbled out onto the floor. She picks them up and shoves them back on an overfull shelf, and shuts the door with a little shove of her hip. She passes the bathroom, but the door is closed and there is no noise coming from behind it. A tiny whisper of cold air hits her ankles from under the door, and she shivers.
The bedroom she shares with her husband is at the end of the hall. She rests her hand on the door handle so softly that it doesn’t shift and open, not yet.
She looks at the little picture frame on the wall next to the door. It holds a child’s writing paper with wide lines. The top half has stick figures in yellow and orange: a mother and a father smiling and holding hands with a smaller figure in red. Below, it reads:
Dear Mom an Dab
will you reab stories to me before beb?
She strokes away the dust on the bottom edge of the frame with her thumb and smiles, but her touch is fatigued and her smile is wan. She lets her hand weigh more heavily on the doorknob and the door swings open.
The bedroom is dark. The room smells warm and sweet and a little dusty. The blinds are drawn, the flannel sheets tangled, and the hall light illuminates a white plastic laundry hamper overflowing with socks and underwear and white men’s undershirts. Silky throw pillows are scattered all across the floor.
She slips her shoes off under the edge of the bed and eases slowly onto the mattress, her hips sinking into the fluffy coverlet bunched up on that side of the bed. She wiggles her shoulders to tuck one under a pillow, shifting until she has one arm hooked under it, and eases her head to rest on the smooth pillow top, facing the bedside table. She lets the papers drop to rest on the bedside table. The pen rolls off and onto the floor. She pulls the chain on the bedside lamp; the clock is lit up. 2:15.
“Wednesday,” she says to herself, slowly, savoring the syllables. “Wednesday. Right. It’s Wednesday.”
She rolls back onto the pillow and looks at the ceiling fan. Dust traces its edges in soft lines. The light bulbs are all burnt out. There is a strand of acrylic yarn hanging from the pull chain—twisting from blue to purple to yellow to green.
She reaches for a water bottle on her nightstand first, dropping it in her lap. Then she pulls a bottle of pills out of the nightstand drawer.
She looks at the label, then sets it back on the nightstand, and lets her arm flop back onto her chest. She slowly gropes her breasts, first one and then the other, scooping underneath and squeezing gently. She winces, and then sits up. Reaches an arm around and under her shirt, unclasping her bra. She shifts out of it, first one arm, then the other. She pulls the bra out of her shirtfront and throws it on the floor. Dark spots soak her shirt where it pulls taut over her distended nipples, and she glances down at them but ignores them. Exhaling, she falls back on the pillows and reaches again for the pill bottle.
A strand of her bangs catches her eyelash as she leans forward, and she blows at it, but her bangs flop back into her eye. She reaches up and strokes them back, and then opens the drawer again, groping for a bobby pin. Nothing.
Easing up from the bed again, she walks across the room to the door, nudging aside a sitz bath pan in her way. The rubber tubing snakes past a throw pillow and away under the bed.
Down the hall, she opens the bathroom door. The air is sharp and fresh in here, the window open. Curtains flutter with the air pressure change as she enters.
She does not look in the mirror, pulling open the hidden cabinet. She uses a little too much force and it shudders when it hits the corner wall. She takes out her toothpaste and toothbrush and closes the mirror.
The light catches her eye and she looks now, but not at herself. The tub is full of water and the air from the window makes it ripple and flash reflected light on the mirror, the ceiling, the wall.
She runs the water in the sink and begins to brush her teeth. Her scrubbing motions are brisk and distracted. She turns and faces the tub, leaning one hip against the countertop and grasping the corner.
This is beautiful. How it should be. One wild and beautiful life. Three wild and beautiful lives. No, four.
She turns back to the sink. Spit, rinse, swish. She wipes her mouth and then kneels at the tub. She leans over it, kissing the heads of each of the three small bodies face down in the water.
She stands up again. Her movements are heavy—she grips her knee and the towel rod to pull herself up.
She steps out, closing the door gently behind her. She walks back to the bedroom and shifts back into the pillows.
Easy does it.
She reaches for the pills and the water bottle again, and opens the bottle. She shakes the pills out onto her palm. She swallows them all, one at a time. Gulp, swish. Gulp, swish.
She leans back into the pillow and traces the dust on the ceiling fan again. I should clean that. Someday.
She reaches for the clock, pulling it close. 2:30. She closes her eyes and lets the clock drop back onto the table with a clatter.
I’m glad you called last night. Sorry to hear about the move—you guys just got settled there, I know. It’s hard to leave a church like that and your roses you just planted.
I keep forgetting to mail this, but maybe I’ll send it out in the mail on Wednesday. So tired and foggy—can’t remember things. Yesterday I couldn’t find the car after we finished grocery shopping.
I made extra casseroles this week so Doug has leftovers to take to work. Do you know of any good recipes for enchiladas? Mine always fall apart and are dry in the middle. I just can’t get it right.
Write when you can. I know you’re busy with the move and school and everything. The boys and Hailey just need so much from me. I feel bad asking Doug for help when he’s working all the time, but it’s hard to do it alone. So take your time.
When they find the papers, the front yard is quiet and no one has moved the Little Tikes car out of the bushes by the driveway yet. The mailman revs his engine and drops a letter from Wisconsin in the mailbox and pulls away.
Hännah Ettinger fell through a rabbit hole and came out 30 going on 17. She works in the publishing industry as a peon and loves every part of the business of telling and sharing good stories. For now, she lives in Los Angeles with an orange cat and weaves a web by moonlight. You can read her blog, watch her on YouTube, or follow her on Twitter @haettinger, where she mostly tweets about how hungry she is.