The house was quiet, as always, when Emily awoke in the winter darkness. She listened, hearing nothing but the noise of her blood in her ears, not even any rain. I wish I had a dog to wag his tail when I wake up. Or a cat to purr beside me.
She got out of bed slowly, feeling little creaks and twinges in her arms and back, probably a result of the accident last night. The thought of the little Ford Focus sitting in the driveway made her shudder. Rather than drive that around, I think I'll stay home today and finish going over the guest rooms.
How can it only be Friday? She looked at the calendar in her bathroom as she brushed her teeth. Mark left on Wednesday, and in that space of time I've found out not only that he was messing around with a slut, but also has been such a jerk at work for so long that he got himself fired. She rinsed her mouth and looked at her grinning reflection as she thought of the phrase "jerk at work." I just keep getting funnier every day. Every day that he's gone? Yes, I get two days to myself and I ransack his office, trash his bedroom, trick his secretary, wreck the car, and decide that I'd just as soon ...
She shook her head and got her baggy sweatpants from her bottom drawer. There was a matching hooded sweatshirt crushed in behind the sweaters; Emily felt like having a baggy, sloppy day. There was no one to visit her and be shocked at her flyaway hair and droopy, worn sweats; there was no one she had to call upon or attend appointments with who would have to be quietly impressed by carefully styled hair and simple but obviously expensive clothing. She picked up her laptop and carried it downstairs with her to the kitchen. She read The Santa Cruz Sentinel on line while she made and ate her breakfast, wishing that Middi and her father were home for her to call or visit. While she hadn't been ready to talk about Mark's strange behavior on Wednesday, Friday was like an entirely different experience of life, and Emily wanted a sounding board she could trust.
Dummy! You have e-mail now, and Middi has their computer with them! She slid the cursor to her Bookmarks and clicked open her mail. There was an unopened message, dated yesterday. I can't believe I didn't check this last night. But then I did have other things on my mind. The message was a basic "What the hell is Mark doing in Michigan in January without you?" query, more politely phrased. Emily replied, typing, "Hi Middi! So much has happened in the last couple days that I can hardly take it all in. When are you two coming home so that I can run up a huge phone bill?
"As to why Mark went to visit his parents without me, I believe he's looking for work there.
"If that surprises you, guess how I feel.
With only a moment's hesitation, Emily clicked "Send." Running to Daddy for help, am I? She imagined the phone ringing (as she knew it would as soon as Middi found this e-mail) and her father's deep voice demanding to know what the hell was going on. She couldn't bring herself to call his cell phone number and ask him what the hell she was supposed to do now, but she wasn't above giving him the invitation to ask her what the hell questions. But I'd rather it was Middi's voice. Dad will get angry, but Middi will try to help me first and curse later. So I guess I'm not running home to Daddy, I'm turning to the only real friend I have. Thinking about friends she could talk to, she picked up the wooden spoon from the counter and put it in her deep right pocket. "I hate to make you go to work," she told it, "but God knows what we'll find today."
The two guest rooms were done by seven. Their closets had yielded up another coat, some dresses that Emily didn't really like but looked chic and professional, and a box of shoes that Emily had forgotten about for more than a year. A ceramic vase from the dresser that matched the cranberry color of one room's accents joined the Shoes of Forgetfulness. There were a few extra blankets in the dressers, but those might come in handy in Michigan.
She carried the box and the garbage bag of clothing out to the car, where she bade it keep company with the things she'd transferred from the trunk of the battered Lexus. She was vaguely unsettled in the early morning light, as though she were missing something, a sense of satisfaction, about her task. She thought about the other rooms she'd gone through. What had been different? She pocketed her car keys as she walked back to the house, stooped to pick up a flyer that someone had tossed onto her porch, and realized what was bothering her. I didn't throw anything away. I'm passing stuff on to someone else, but it doesn't feel the same as opening the garbage can and dumping junk into it, never ever to be seen again. But I can fix that.
Emily smiled as she looked in the door of Mark's bedroom and beheld the mess she had made. At random she chose three of the magazines, escorted them to the kitchen, and introduced them to the contents of the kitchen waste can. "I hope you enjoy cucumber peelings and wilted lettuce, my dears," she told the cover girls, "because I'm making a salad at lunchtime. Don't mind the eggshells in there, they just think they're a higher form of garbage than you are."
Washing her hands, Emily wondered which room to tackle next. There were really only three rooms, not counting the attic and the garage. But this was where it was going to get a bit sticky, because all three of the rooms were hers.
The bathroom needs going through, anyway, so I'll start there. I'm still amazed that Mark had so little clutter in his bath. Emily found a paper bag in the kitchen pantry and took it with her. Superficially, the bath was tidy. However, the mirrored medicine cabinet, the little drawers that formed the side of the vanity, and the vanity themselves were a mess. This Emily had no choice but to admit. Neat on the outside, chaos on the inside. Sounds like me! Only part of the clutter was a defense against Mark raiding her bath for soap, shaving cream, or lotion. It was true that one peek into the disarray would send him seeking other supplies, but Emily just had a thing for sample bottles of shampoo or body wash, and even when she didn't like the product particularly, rarely threw them away. And then there were the first-aid kind of things, why throw out a tube of antibacterial ointment when you might nick yourself with the razor the next day?
She started with the vanity itself, because it was the easiest. The rose-colored towels were fine, of course, six of them in two stacks. And four guest towels, matching. And three wash cloths, the same color. (One was still hanging on the edge of the bathtub. She took them all out and set them on her bed, along with the hair dryer.
There were three plastic bottles of shampoo and one of conditioner tucked in there, beside where the towels had been stacked, experiments in scent and service that just hadn't given her the glossy, manageable hair and more body and bounce to her hairstyles that they'd promised. She'd tucked the bottles in there to use if and when she ran out of the baby shampoo she went back to time and again because it didn't smell horribly perfumey and didn't burn her eyes. Come on, Emily, be brave. You haven't used them in six months, you never even remembered they were here, you won't miss them when they're gone. She pulled them out and dumped them in the paper bag, along with a few cakes of moisturizing soap that left her feeling greasy after her bath. The flip-flops from two summers ago went, too. The roll of paper towels, crushed and tattered, were put to work, dampened and plied to wipe up the dust on the floor of the vanity that Emily hadn't remembered building up there.
The mirrored medicine cabinet was next. Start at the top. The cup with her toothbrush and toothpaste was a keeper; people can't do without dental hygiene. Her daily vitamins were also good, although she didn't think she'd taken them since before New Year's some time. Did she need them?
Need. That's what I have to keep in mind. What do I need to keep in order to keep going? There are lots of things I can do without, but what actually is necessary day to day?
The phone rang. Middi! Emily walked quickly, with a skip, to her desk and picked up the phone. "Mrs. Emily Fatzer? My name is Denita Germaine, calling on behalf of National Insurance. We understand you filed a claim last night, January 9th, following an accident?"
"Yes, I braked to keep from hitting a coyote in the road and skidded into a ditch." With the help of the insurance adjustor, Emily relived the wreck of her Lexus and the bewildering maze of procedures afterwards. There were so many questions, like in which direction was the front of the car pointing when it came to rest ("Up. And then ... when it fell over, it was pointing towards town. I guess that would be sort of west, although the road curves so ... ") how fast was she traveling when she hit the brake ("Maybe forty-five? The rain had just turned to sleet, I should have slowed down more") and did the towing company provide a good example of customer service? ("No, ma'am, they sure didn't. The driver was surly, wanted to leave my car in the ditch until the next day, and tried to charge me a fifty dollar deductible!")
By the time they were done, Emily felt drained, and it was nearly nine. She made another cup of tea and sat in the kitchen, staring out at the garden, sipping little sips. She was still preparing the house for sale, as though she still thought that Mark was about to abandon her for another woman. But now I know differently. Well, at least I think I do. Yet if Mark was not leaving her, he was still thinking about moving, and so they would have to sell the house anyway, so she might as well just keep on with her task. She stood up to get back to work, but stopped when she saw the Siamese cat from next door flatten itself and slither under her fence. It straightened, shook itself (making a little bell rattle that Emily could hear through the window) and slunk wickedly towards her fish pond.
Emily grabbed a stainless steel frying pan from the cupboard. The only one of the fish that she thought the cat could actually handle was the newest fish, Moskvah, because he was the smallest, only about eight inches long, but he was precious to her, unusually colored very dark, darker even than Oslo, and she was not about to risk losing him. She opened the kitchen door to see the cat crouching by the pond, its blue eyes focused on the water, its tawny body motionless.
"Get out of here!" Emily shouted. The cat looked at her briefly, then turned its attention back to the fish, which had begun to swirl close to the surface of the water at the vibrations of her feet. Emily stomped forward, yelling "Scram! Git! Go!" the cat pinned its ears at her and growled, an eerie, spine-chillingly loud dissonance. The damned thing's going to attack me! Emily over-handed the frying pan at the cat, missing it by a mile and chipping the aggregate deck as the pan clanged noisily into the geraniums. The cat ran towards the gate, turned to face her, and growled again. Emily grabbed the blanket from the deck box and began to swing it about her head, hoping to look large enough to scare the cat. It ducked a little, but did not move, glaring at her hatefully with its little fangs showing a little. Then it hissed at her, and Emily let fly the blanket, furious at the creature's temerity and ready to follow the blanket with the deck box itself.
The cat slithered back under the gate, and Emily heard it hiss again, and then growl, and be answered by a growl. There was a cry of feline anger, a battle-cry, one might say, and then a terrific scream of agony. Emily heard the cat scramble through the pyracantha and scrabble over the privacy fence just before the wave of scent hit her and she staggered backward into the house, shrieking in delight and amazement.
Oh, my God, that stinks! She had caught whiffs of skunk before, and never thought it was all that bad, but she was in awe before the massive power of the odor of the blast. There, but for the grace God grants fools and drunkards, go I. I've even let them play by my feet! Do I stink? I can't tell, I can't smell anything! Her laughter echoed through the house triumphantly. She didn't care if she smelled of skunk. If the scent lingered, she'd call the industrial cleaning service in town and have them de-stink the whole house. They could do her house after they finished with the neighbor's. Maybe this would teach them a sharp lesson about letting their cat roam freely in and out their little cat-door while they were at work. And I think Kitty just learned to avoid my gate.
The phone rang again. Middi! Emily picked it up happily.