FLASH FICTION CONTEST
by Gloria Nixon-John
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 seemed shellacked.
“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 my eyes. 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 another.
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 whisper now.
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 clenched fist.