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July 15, 2024

Place Settings 13

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Thirteen: The Dust of Memory

"In all the excitement of Ben and Steve coming over, I didn't get a chance to ask you if you and Elsie got the hot Christmas clothes to wear to church." Gloria sat at the oak kitchen table, hands folded, leaning on her elbows.

"Hah! I forgot about them! Here, I get my outfit and show you." Maria scurried off to her bedroom, returned with three hangers. "Pants, the top -- I got to be careful of the beadwork, but it was so pretty -- and this big scarf to keep me warm when I take off my coat."

Gloria stroked the burgundy colored material. "Is that wool?" she asked.

"Yep. Blame the hysterectomy -- I'm feeling too good to want to wear polyester any more. From now on, I stick with the good stuff: cotton, wool, silk. I take that back, some. The scarf is something different. Maybe rayon."

"That's a gorgeous outfit, Maria."

"Thank you. I wear this and earrings to Mass and people won't know who I am."

"You do look different than the day I met you. I like seeing you sparkling around and smiling."

Maria returned to the kitchen after putting her clothes away in the closet. "I like it, too." She slid into a chair. "I had fun today. Your brother is -- I think he could be maybe a genius, maybe a snake oil salesman."

Shaking her head, Gloria sighed. "He's ... well, I've always known he was smart, but it's like he's grown years smarter in the last three months. But then, all three of us have, I think. I look back at myself and how I was last summer and am ashamed I was such a complacent little idiot. Will was a lazy slob, Ben a grieving boy. Now -- Will is his own man, working hard and earning his pay, and Ben -- well, you see how he is, sharp and ready to take control of almost anything."

"We got one problem," Maria said. "You need a place of your own."

"What?" gasped Gloria, stricken.

"No, wait, I said that wrong. You need a place where you can go, that I'm not there. Still not coming out right. Psshh! I think maybe the front bedroom upstairs, the one beside yours -- that would make a nice little parlor for you. Put a couch in there, maybe a TV of your own."

"Oh! For a minute I thought you wanted me to move out!" she thought about the idea, looked toward the stairs. "That might be nice sometimes. Shall we go look at the room, and see what it's like? I've never been in there."

"Probably dusty. I haven't been in there in a long time, either. For years I just stayed downstairs; it wasn't until Elsie came over that I even thought about the upstairs rooms."

They climbed the staircase and opened the door at the end of the hall. "There should be a light in here," Maria said. "Don't know if it still works. Maybe we have to wait until morning."

Surprisingly, the ancient bulb in the lamp lit up the room, dimly, perhaps, but enough to see the dusty sheets covering a bed, a bookcase, and a small table.

"This is a big bedroom," Gloria noted.

"See, I was so sick I forgot. I should have given you this room to rent."

"My room is perfect, thank you. But ... if I'm going to use this room, then how much more will my rent be?"

Maria wagged a finger at her. "We are going to use this room. If you have a big party with a lot of people, I get to hide up here. We call this common living space, too." She poked at one of the dusty sheets. "Ucchh. Good thing tomorrow is garbage pickup. None of these is going in my washer."

"They do look too fragile to withstand a washing. But the floor -- it's hardwood, isn't it, like the hallway? That's going to clean up beautifully."

"Yes. I think I call the same company that did the hall and your bedroom floor. Might as well have them do the whole damn thing. Before Thanksgiving, I didn't feel like I was going to live long enough to worry about it, but now I'm even thinking better. This is a good house, I need to take better care of it."

* * *

Thursday was the Clean The House day, but before they began sweeping, Maria grumbled over her tea. "It would be nice if we could get that room cleaned before Christmas, but it's too late to get them out here today, I think, and that means no one is here to supervise until we get off work after Christmas."

Gloria laughed. "Why not get your authorized representative to house-sit while they're here? I'm sure he'd be glad for any excuse to get out of the house."

"Call him and see if he would."

He would, gladly, and with a few more phone calls, he and the cleaning company would be there on Saturday.

With dish towels wrapped around their faces, Gloria and Maria removed the sheets from the closed up rooms gingerly, folding them dust side in, placing them carefully in garbage bags so the dust would not billow up. "This is disgusting," Maria said with a muffled voice. "What was I thinking? I could have had a cleaning lady come in a couple times a year, but no, I had to have this stupid pride, always thinking I will get around to it a little at a time, and then it gets so bad I'm ashamed to have anybody come in to clean, and then I'm too sick to care."

Gloria was glad of the dish towel that hid her grin. She wondered if Maria had always talked this way, possibly to herself. But perhaps not, for as they moved from room to room, Gloria realized that with four bedrooms upstairs, and the rooms downstairs, one older woman living by herself must have been lonely indeed in such a big house. Obviously, from the age of the television, she didn't entertain herself with media. Work and come home until time to work again. Well, isn't that what we were doing? Except that we weren't alone, and that made it -- fun.

They were nearly to the last room at the other end of the house. Maria stopped. "This the tough one. Used to be my bedroom with Bedencourt." She made the sign of the cross. "God have mercy on us."

"Do you need to take a break? Or wait, I can probably do this one by myself if it makes you too sad."

Maria looked at Gloria intensely. "Sad? No, not sad." She pressed her lips together, pulled the mask back over her face, turned the doorknob, and said, "Come on, let's get this over with."

The room was large, and the dusty sheets were removed to reveal a double bed, a medium-sized desk, two straight back chairs like the ones in the kitchen; two end tables and two dressers. There were two windows that overlooked the big back yard and wooded area. They worked in silence, and then carried the garbage bags downstairs and out to the garbage can.

Once in the kitchen, Maria tugged the dishtowel from around her neck. "If you load the light clothes in the washer, I make us some herb tea to wash away the dust."

"No problem. That would feel good, drinking something hot."

By the time she returned to the kitchen, there was a fat teapot on the table, with three paper tags hanging from under the lid. "That's a great smell -- what flavor is it?"

"Three flavors: orange, parsley, and ginger. Sugar is on the counter if you want."

"Parsley! That's one I've never tried before." She poured a cup, hoping that the combination of flavors wouldn't be terrible.

Maria held her cup and stared out the kitchen window at the cloudy day. "Know what? I should get rid of all that damn furniture. You know anyone who wants furniture like those beds and dressers?"

"Not off hand," Gloria replied, wondering at Maria's tone of voice. "Would your sons want some of it?"

"No, they were just as glad to get out of here as I would have been. They wanted nothing, even when they got married and had kids." She put her cup down and got the phone book from under the phone. "Who do I call? Is salvage? Is junk removers?"

"Big Blue -- they're in Stockton, but they also work here in Modesto. They were the ones that Joe Brady called to take out our furniture and -- junk when we moved out of the house. He said he always uses them because they're reliable and fast." Figures that I have to rely on the recommendations of a man I didn't want my mother to marry.

"He has a lot of junk to get rid of?"

"Apparently. His company does property management along with sales."

Maria nodded, looked up the number and dialed. Her demeanor had changed as they'd pulled the sheets off the furniture, and she was downright grim at this point. Gloria stood, walked into the living room to give her a little privacy. I know how I felt when I went back to the house and saw what all was piled up to be hauled away. It wasn't anything that I needed any more, but still, it was the kitchen table I remembered from pretty much my whole life, the end table with the marker stains on the legs from Ben as a little boy, the desk where I found my mother crying over the bills. Bits of our lives being discarded.

"Let's finish tea and get the dusting done. They say they get here this afternoon." Maria's voice sounded more upbeat.

"That was quick," Gloria commented. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yes, I'm sure. Get rid of all that stuff -- should have done it a long time ago. Then the cleaning company doesn't have to piss around moving stuff, wasting your brother's time."

"I felt pretty low when I saw the furniture from our house for the last time," Gloria began, not sure of her boss' emotional climate.

"I bet you did. You didn't try to move out because you didn't like it there. Hmmm, you think I'm sad, losing some memories? Listen. Everything I like is down here. Up there, all about fights my husband had with our sons, all about being reminded how the stupid wife needs to be told what to do every hour of every damn day."

"I -- I didn't know, Maria," Gloria stammered.

"Of course you didn't know. I never talked about it. I don't like to talk about it, don't like to remember what it was like. After that man died, I didn't want to go up there, went up there less and less, and then decided that sleeping on the couch so I didn't have to go up there was dumb. I changed the parlor into my own bedroom, bought myself my own bed, and closed up the rest of the house. Out of sight, out of your mind," she said. "And the more I liked my house without any fighting or mean spirits, the less I thought about all that junk. After today, I won't have to think about it again."

She finished her tea. "Maybe I get the parish priest to come out here and say an exorcism or something."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-02-22
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
02:00:37 PM
I like it that Maria is growing as much--or more--than any of the other characters. I also like that little details or small secrets are being provided to the reader to build character in the cast and help the reader know them a little more at a time.
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