Even before Father sat down he was
looking for something wrong. His eyes
landed on the center of the table, on the long,
narrow loaf of bread, the crust so perfect it
“French bread?”—a rolling dark cloud in his
voice. “French, not Italian?”
I ate quickly, then went down into the cool,
dark cellar, where I would not have to hear
his fist on the table, where I would not have
to see Mother's embarrassment and tears. I
hid under the old drop-leaf table, spiders no
doubt lurking, but still the only place I was
safe when the storm clouds came rumbling in
over our lives. I held my breath, and closed
The table was draped in a pineapple-yellow
oilcloth, so I went unnoticed when my mother
came down to do the ironing. She pulled the
string, click-click, and the bare light bulb
above created a buttery spotlight. She
pounded the board with the iron the way my
grandmother pounded a rock-shaped lump of
dough on a floured tabletop. The rhythm
made clear that she was ironing my father’s
handkerchief: the sprinkle of water, two or
three short strokes, then in half, quartered,
one-eighth before the slight shifting as she
placed one handkerchief aside and collected
From under the table I saw the hem of her
housedress, frayed and hankie thin, the curve
of her softly muscled legs, her toes peeking
out from the flimsy dime-store slippers. The
board creaked against her weight while the
smell of heat and starch on cotton warmed
the damp room.
So quiet I could hear my heart beat, feel it
beat. Mr. Oulette had told our fifth grade
class that the human heart is the size of a
closed fist. I opened and closed my hand to
the beat of my heart—open, closed.
I knew without looking that Mother had
moved on to ironing shirts. The movements
were softer now—graceful around the collar
and the buttons, gliding down the sleeves. I
also knew that they were white shirts. That
was all my father wore, white shirts, perfectly
white, perfectly ironed, creased perfectly
from the shoulder to the cuff—or else. Or
else, he would throw them at Mother, the
sleeves like broken wings dragging the shirt
to the floor.
Another click and the radio was on. “Cherry
Pink and Apple Blossom White,” no words,
just the saxophone’s plaintive swirls up,
down, around. The whisk-whisk of a broom
across a drum. The piano—plunk-plink, like a
faucet dripping into a silver bowl.
Suddenly the music went staccato. Mother
put the iron down hard on the dampened
cotton and air escaped in an exasperated
huff. Then more steam, a genie out of a
bottle, a sizzle and schhh schhh, like a
mother scolding a child into silence. The
smell of sweat, of starch, of cloth burning.
I wanted to move, to scratch the itchy scab
on my right knee but didn’t dare. I just kept
listening and watching for what little I could
see, this jigsaw piece of my mother’s body.
The music flew up again, up beyond the
ironing board, up to the ceiling, and with the
change in tempo and tone, I saw her extend
one leg, point her toe, drop the heel of that
foot down in a thump of exclamation. A flurry
of white petticoat. The other leg followed—
pointed toe, thump of heel. Flamenco style.
A dance? Dancing?
Clearly a dance! My mother was dancing!
Alone. Back and forth again and again, toes
skimming the floor, heels thumping one after
the other. Twirling foot over foot, again and
again, ankles nearly touching, feet just a
I had never seen my mother dance. Not at
weddings or at backyard parties, but she was
dancing now. She danced the whole tune,
danced until the deep, self-important baritone
of the announcer broke the spell as he
proclaimed, from his invisible pulpit, the
miracle of Brillo soap pads.
I continued to watch and listen unmoving,
heard Mother unplug the iron, click the radio
off and reposition the iron before she
gathered up a softer version of the melody
that she took, humming, up the cellar steps.
I brushed the cobwebs aside and crawled out
from under my hiding place to approach the
ironing board. One of my father’s white
shirts was still draped there, backside against
the board, arms dangling down on either side
like a helpless, un-muscled man. I moved
closer still, toward the oddity of this
unfinished work, to see a perfectly centered,
smoldering triangle, the size of my own
Gloria Nixon-John is a
freelance writer and teacher
living in Oxford, Michigan.
She has published in
academic journals, small
and mainstream presses.
She has recently completed
The Killing Jar, a novel
based on the story of one
of the youngest Americans
to serve on death row.