"Leo! Leo! I'm going to get the mail," she hollered back into the house from the mudroom.
She shook her head and then opened the door and walked into the breezeway. It was only 26 degrees. The middle of January in the small Northern Wisconsin town.
She looked through the breezeway door window and down the long driveway. She could just make out the mail box that hung on chains that could be lowered or raised depending on the amount of snow. She pulled her housecoat tight around her frail shoulders as she leaned against the door and gave it a determined shove. It always stuck in the cold. She walked down the long driveway to the mailbox and glanced at the two houses visible only from the end of her driveway. No activity only the slow curl of wood smoke from the rickety chimneys. She shivered and watched the smoke that didn't seem to move at all. She grabbed the mail and made her way carefully back to the house.
Helen was 62 and she had her routine. She set the mail on the kitchen table to be savored in time. Made her one piece of toast with peanut butter and poured the one cup of vanilla flavored coffee she allowed herself per day. The pill case was by her water jug near the sink. She filled the water jug, her daily allocation, and moved the pill case and the jug next to the small plate with the piece of toast. She looked at them all congregated there and then arranged them just so. She picked up the mail and fanned it out above the plate.
Helen walked to the counter and brushed the crumbs off the toaster and put it away. She then walked to the sink and got the dishtowel and washed the counter. She had already cleaned the kitchen once after Chuck's breakfast. Chuck, her husband left for work everyday at 6:30 a.m. and she was up everyday at 5:30 to cook him breakfast and clean up after. Although he was 68 years old he still worked at his job at the plant.
Helen returned to thetable and took a tentative bite of her toast. She picked up the first piece of mail which was a large post card. It was an advertisement for carpet cleaning. She read the front and then turned it over and before reading the back admired the bright colors. She read the back and put that in the pile to discard. The next was the county shopper. It was full of ads from the grocery stores in the neighboring towns. Hectorville, her home town was not big enough for a grocery store with a population of only 183. She read the shopper, every word, cover to cover and then laid it in the discard pile. She took another bite of her toast and a sip of coffee. The letter must have been hidden under the shopper and she looked at it for quite some time and then picked it up gingerly as though it were a hot pan.
The letter was from her sister Francis in Oregon. She hadn't heard from her sister in over 30 years. Had pretty much for gotten that she was alive. Not that she had any malice towards her sister. She hadn't. It was the other way around. Her sister hadn't wanted to have anything to do with Helen. She set the letter back down and decided to dwell on Francis. She wanted to try and remember what had happened.
A very loud yowl interrupted her train of thought. Leo walked into the kitchen tail straight in the air, back arched.
"Leo are you going to interrupt my breakfast again," she asked?
Leo arched his back again and walked in circles before running to her leg and rubbing against it. He yowled constantly and she bent and picked him up.
"My big boy you interrupt mama's breakfast everyday, don't you?"
She cradled the large Siamese cat in her arms on its back and walked to the bathroom. She set him on the bathroom counter next to the one sink and turned the cold water on to a dribble. The cat paced then knelt gingerly in the sink and started to drink from the faucet. She waited patiently until he had finished. He looked at her, as though undecided,circled and started to yowl again. She picked him up.
"Leo I'll check, but you know your food will be full and your box will be clean." She carried the cat in the same manner out through the mudroom and breezeway and down into the basement. It was dark and damp but clean. It wasn't a big area but everything was in its place. She set Leo down and he walked around looking up at her and yowling. She bent down, laboriously and ran the shovel through the litter, even though it was perfectly clean. Then she reached over took the already full food dish and put it in the bag, pretending to fill it and put it back on the floor. Leo arched his back and purred loudly as he circled between the litter box and the food dish before finally settling down and daintily eating.
Helen walked back up to the kitchen and washed her hands before settling down to her toast and now lukewarm coffee. She took a sip and smiled and then looked down at her mail. She had forgotten the letter and picked it back up. She looked at it again and then slid it to the bottom of the remaining stack of mail.
There were three more pieces of mail and they were all bills. She looked at them each carefully and then picked them up with just the tips of her fingers. She carried them to the small box where Chuck kept the bills and slipped them in. She walked back the table and started to slowly finish her coffee and toast her eyes never leaving the letter.
She kept watching the letter while she finished her toast one miniscule bite after the other. She sipped her cold coffee and looked around. Brushed some hair from her face and stood. Walked into the small living room and parted the curtains. She looked out at the snowy silent world and with a sigh turned and went back to the kitchen.
Helen opened the letter carefully with her finger and slowly pulled out the folded one page. She sat back down in front of her finished breakfast and opened the page.
I know it's been some thirty years that I chose to not speak with you. I'm writing to let you know that I am on my death bed. I'm not using that as an excuse or to lessen my stupidity for going all these years being angry with you. I had no business trying to run your life and you married the man anyway and it seems you've lived with him all these years.
What I have is a brain tumor. They call it inoperable and I am given three months to live. I am writing you this note to ask you to forgive me.
Helen folded the letter and carefully put it back in the envelope. She slipped the letter into the pocket of her dress and stared across the small table at the calendar on the wall opposite. She could see the present month prominently displayed and the rest of the months in small boxes parading across the top of the page. January, February, March. Three months.
She stood and walked back out into the mudroom down the steps into the breezeway and around to the left to the basement door.
She walked down the steps carpeted with patio carpeting and looked at the well stocked freezers in the corner. There were two. The one was filled with game. Fish, deer, rabbit. The other with frozen garden vegetables. The rest of the first room was filled with Billy's stored furniture. He was Chucks brother. Dead now thirty year. There was a narrow hallway after the big room. To the right in the hallway was a door to the furnace room. It was dark and cluttered. Full of cobwebs. There was a string with the little silver nub to grab and pull on. She had no trouble finding it in the pitch dark. She had been down there a thousand times. Walking in the dark. A certain amount of steps. Didn't know how many. She reached up and the cord was there. She pulled it. The forty watt bulb dimly lit the room. The furnace hulked and spit. She had been down there so many times that the old furnace seemed to talk to her
She walked to the corner and moved the ancient stack of records Chuck's mother had owned. She moved the picture albums from Chucks family. She went down on the floor and barely felt the uneven concrete greedily snatching at her skinny knees.
There it was just a ways behind the stuff, pushed into a corner. It was a small suitcase. She had packed it the week after her wedding. She had tucked it away in the furnace room of Chuck's small house. It was also a week after the first rape.
She pulled the suitcase out and brushed the dust away. Opened it carefully and peered inside.
The cloths inside were thirty years old. A toothbrush. She picked out the yearbook under the clothes and leafed quickly to the page her friend Bill had written. "I hope I see a lot of you after graduation."
The tears spilled out of no where. Helen couldn't remember the last time she had cried. It didn't last long though. She closed the suitcase and put it in the hallway. Without looking for it she grabbed the string and yanked it down. The string came off in her hand and she put it in her pocket. She turned out the other lights as she came upon them on her way back upstairs.
Without thinking she started her cleaning. It was living room day and she pulled out the correct dust rag and rattled the old Electrolux into the middle of the room. Halfway through the cleaning she shook her head and walked back to the table. She felt the letter in her pocket. Helen walked back to the coffee and poured another cup. She never had two cups. To much acid.
She pulled the letter from her pocket. Fingered it and then absently reopened it.
Helen reread the letter. She tried to think back about it. It had been so long now. Francis was her only sister and about five years older than her. Their father had died in an accident at theplant and there mother had raised them. Her sister Francis was out of school for about two years, going to secretarial school in the Green bay.
At some point she had found out that Helen, a sophomore in high school now was dating Chuck Broadmore a local boy that had graduated high school in the same class as Francis. For the next three years Francis had waged a very aggressive campaign to break the two of them up. She didn't like Chuck, never had. She claimed that he was a very bad man. The more she tried the more Helen clung to the man and she married him the day after her graduation. Francis graduated from secretarial school and moved out west taking their mom with her. She met a man and married but Helen knew little about them.
Helen picked up the letter put it back in the envelope and tucked it into her pocket. She went back to the living room and resumed her chores. At two p.m. she took her break and watched Deal or no Deal on television. Just like she did every day. She sat in the big lounge chair next to the couch and smiled and giggled to herself through the whole show.
When the hour was up she started in on Chuck's dinner. The preparation was almost the same everyday even if the main dish changed. There always had to be potatoes. Only three variations were allowed. Mashed potatoes, baked potatoes or fried potatoes. During the first years of her marriage she had experimented with potatoes au gratin and others but these were not allowed. Next was a vegetable. Fresh when the garden was ready at mid summer. Frozen all winter long from the freezer in the basement. The meat was the thing that changed daily. Meat everyday of the week. Mostly wild game but some years Chuck would buy a half a cow or a pig.
She went down to the meat freezer and dug through until she found a venison steak. She would have to thaw it in the micro wave. It was Chuck's favorite. It was while she was pulling if from the freezer that she realized she wanted to see Francis Just the thought of her had brought back the memories of her early years. The years before Chuck. Her family.
Helen was a nervous wreck the rest of the day. Everything that she cooked were Chuck's favorites. She set the table in the kitchen where he always ate just so. It all had to be perfectly planned but she had years of practice. He liked his food hot when it was served and he wanted it on a hot plate. She worried over when would be the best time to ask him.
She sat watching the kitchen clock slowly tick its way towards six o'clock. At the appropriate time she went to the stove and started the various courses. Finally as she put his clean plate into the micro wave in preparation to heat it for exactly one minute on high.She heard the garage door open.
Helen started to count to herself from one. At around 100 the door opened. At 150 he had hung his coat and taken off his work boots. At 175 she pushed the start button on the micro wave. He sat at thetable .
"You wanta know what happened today," he asked in a stormy voice?
The bell on the micro wave dinged and she pulled the hot plate out. She took the venison steak from the frying pan and carefully spooned some onions over it. She took a scoop of mashed potatoes and put it next to the steak on the plate and put a dab of butter on them. The buttered carrots were next and then she quickly brought it over and set it in front of him.
He looked up at her.
She looked at him.
She never forgot the coffee. She hurried into the kitchen and came back with his steaming cup of coffee.
She stood beside him and watched him eat.
"So that damn Henry Thompson and your old grade school flame Bill are trying to retire me again this year." He cut a big piece of steak and jammed it into his mouth and continued to talk, mouth open and chewing loudly.
"I'll be going back to the union tomorrow.You can bet on that. Those bastards don't know what their dealing with."
He took a long drink of the hot coffee and roughly set it back on the table. Helen hurried to the pot on the counter next to the stove and brought it over and refilled the cup.
Chuck ate quickly. He scooped large forks full of mashed potatoes in his mouth even though he was still chewing on a piece of steak. He finished and pushed the plate away from him. He belched loudly and patted his big hardstomach with both hands. He stood up pushing the stool out behind him. He walked slowly into the small family room next to the kitchen and sat in the same chair that Helen used for her daily break. He took the remote control off of the metal TV tray beside the chair and turned on the TV.
Helen took a small coffee cup out of the cupboard and spooned some mashed potatoes into it. She took a large pat of butter and stirred it into the potatoes. She leaned against the counter and slowly ate them.
"Helen I don't know what the hell has gotten into you today. Where the hell is my beer?"
She could hear him shifting around angrily in the chair and heard him mumble, "damn woman."
Helen set her cup of potatoes down and quickly grabbed a bottle of Milwaukee best from the refrigerator and opened it. She brought it quickly over to him and then walked back into the kitchen and started to clean up the supper dishes.
The next morning Helen was eating her breakfast when Leo came into the kitchen and began his yowling. She picked him up and brought him into the bathroom for his water. She took him downstairs to check his food and litter box. After that she went back up to her breakfast and the mail fanned out above her plate of toast. She glanced at the calendar. It was garbage day she noted. Three months she thought. January, February and March.
After breakfast Helen put on her ragged coat and went into the garage. She pushed the button and the old door rattled up. A cold gust of snowy wind blew in and she turned her head from it. She pushed the garbage barrel on wheels to the end of the driveway.
Helen walked back through the garage and into the breezeway. She went down the stairs to the basement and past the freezers to the small hallway by the furnace room. She picked up the suitcase in the hallway and carried itback through and up the stairs to the breezeway. Helen walked through the breezeway and then through the garage and down the long driveway.
It had started to snow and the wind was picking up. Small swirling clouds of it jumped and swatted at the garbage pail. The mail box started to move slowly, creaking on the old rusty chains. She looked at the smoke painted above the chimneys of the neighboring houses and then she slowly swung the suitcase on to the top of the garbage barrel and walked back towards the house.