by Jerry Zinn
Finally, spring arrived. St. Francis, askew in the pachysandras, had weathered another winter with his concrete nose corroded, and a once neutral expression frowned. From sunrise till one, the yard was sun-drenched. Alma set down the basket of damp sheets under the rays of midday and pulled the laundry line housed on the thick tree. Hooking it to a lesser trunk, she strummed the taut rope.
Inadequately filled bird feeders were stationed around the lawn where squirrels and birds foraged for refuse. At their bases were the beds where mums never grew, no matter how many times she watered and fertilized. Warblers played in the birdbath, and Alma tapped her finger to her temple saying, “change the water”—a Harvard Medical Review suggestion for memory solidification. She loved the birds, but it was awful to watch them splashing in algae.
Tall magnolias, with their snaking arms and waxy fingers, guarded the backyard. Few cars came down the cul-de-sac, and even with hearing aids, Alma’s serenity was rarely interrupted. No evidence remained of the family she raised there. For many years they set up party spreads under the afternoon shade, and Alma spent all day cooking. She assigned her children to refilling drinks, which they tasted. Her husband took his beer warm and was good about asking the children for more. The young ones ran around the patio—now mossy and split by swelling roots.
Alma opened the box of clothespins. They were sharp, and their springs squealed. Wind took the warning label, but it didn’t shift her hair, quaffed and liberally sprayed. Teasing with a morning brush grew challenging from days of product accumulation (she rarely washed her hair). It was a shade lighter now, edging closer to blonde. Her hairdresser, the only Macedonian she’d ever met, was easing her to the white she acquired in her seventies.
Movements were slower as she approached ninety, and more minor tasks grew in their demands—carrying in her stack of mail required two hands and a propped door. Once her youngest granddaughter, who wore canvas sneakers and cracked her knuckles too often, asked, “When did you start to feel old?”
Alma said, “I don’t feel old. Long as I can make that big bed myself, I’ll always be young,” which was met with knuckle-cracking.
Hanging clothes from the line connected Alma to her life before she was a matriarch. As a young girl at her grandparents’ house she adored playing in the curtains of wash. Staging vaudeville with her sister while their grandmother hummed waltzes, the backyard was a stage, and they were stars. Whether attending Easter Mass at St. Bernadette’s or pulling weeds, her grandmother dressed marvelously—pearls and a sterling charm bracelet.
She was nearly as petite as her grandmother now, though in her twenties people admired Alma’s height and slender figure. When they hung laundry together, her grandmother explained the importance of pinning the middle while gathering the ends—better than peeling wet sheets from dirty grass. Replaying her grandmother’s sweet voice, Alma clipped the middle. “Much like that, only try it this way,” her grandmother urged. “Now I hadn’t thought of that! I’ll give your way a try,” she said, which was encouraging for an eight-year-old.
Once she had the damp sheets stretched across the line, Alma noticed the second set, balled in the basket, wetter and more wrinkled. Had she washed those too? Identifying days was difficult when Tuesdays and Fridays held the same shape. A black squirrel bounded frantically, just like the ones in Chautauqua—they chewed wires and were enlivened by electrocutions. Most of their winter weight was gone, and they’d stopped destroying the yard for buried stores.
Alma hung the extra set. Dryers were better for certain items: thicker clothing and slacks. Sheets, towels, and private articles benefited most from the constant airflow that wrapped the brick house. It was a stately home with four bedrooms and weeping mortar. Groundcover hid most of the beds, which had not been properly mulched in years. A permanent charcoal grill rusted beside the patio, and she could still see her husband turning brats and overcooking hamburgers with a warm Bud.
The pack of new clothespins contained three dozen. There had been a sale, though the specifics escaped her recollection. New pins were grippier but ornery. Occasionally the dry wood snapped, or the springs shot out (they were made in Vietnam). Caught in the ritual of line-hanging, a splinter burned her finger.
Annabelle Lewis. Alma had not considered that name since their final day in St. Catherine’s jumpers and high, white socks, more than seventy years ago. A middle school classmate, Annabelle had a pound of freckles and reddish orange hair. Her uniform collars were heavily starched, so the skin on her neck was tough.
In a classroom where mistakes were discouraged by stiff prayer and stiffer rulers, Annabelle confidently offered answers. Annabelle’s classmates never saw red knuckles by her Claddagh ring, where theirs hurt from Catholic discipline. It was for that reason, coupled with a habit of oversharing, Annabelle sat alone at lunch. Besides, she ate such strange foods—heavy stews and potatoes, loads of soda bread.
Alma and her friends thought it was fun, holding Annabelle down and shoving slivers of mulch, splinters sharp as toothpicks, into her squirming fingers (even her hands had freckles). Waifish and small-statured, Annabelle fell easily under their weight. Crying out helplessly, she was embarrassed. Girls laughed, the boys too—Alma loved the older boys’ attention. Annabelle only bled a little. For all her piping up in class, she never told the nuns what they did to her.
With a lifetime of masses, of child-rearing, and example setting, Alma never considered herself a bully. She modeled her life on the messages of Fr. Warren’s homilies and Fr. Pike’s after that. When they spoke of caring for others, of giving of one’s self without need for reciprocation, she did not fret about her entrance to heaven. Alma wrote checks every month to a dozen charities and refused to deduct them from her taxes—though they were all deductible. Frequently, others referred to her saintly nature. And yet there was this unequivocal part, clear as though it was yesterday they tussled in the field behind the school. How angry the nuns were when they saw the grass stains, but no one told.
How well she’d forgotten Annabelle Lewis. St. Francis judged from beyond the laundry line. She was nothing like him, faithful to God and kind of heart. How much damage had she done to Annabelle, with her freckles and mortarboard collars? Alma was old, yet time was not a salve. How could her conscience rest knowing she once tortured an innocent girl? What happiness was she entitled to?
“Hangin up your laundry?” Audrey remarked obviously, emerging through the fence from Jean Salvatore’s old place—a house bought for well under asking. Her shorts were terribly short, synthetic shirt too tight and too supportive. She stood with her feet severely angled like a dancer’s.
“That’s right,” Alma replied, fingers tensed from guilt.
“I’m so jealous of you. You know how to do all these things the right way. I wish I’d been over here more often, so you could’ve taught me the ropes.”
“I’ve had time to practice.”
Audrey came closer, smiling large despite uneven teeth. “So, you just clip them like that? And the air does the rest? But doesn’t it have dirt—pollen, and such?”
“The sheets are clean.”
Alma smelled the fabric. She loved adding sprigs of lavender to the wash, a subtle and natural fragrance.
“And this works?”
“Certainly. Dryers are relatively new inventions. Not to someone young like you, but I’ve been around. Remember, I was born in the twenties.”
“I don’t feel young. Fifty has slowed me down. Not as flexible as I was.” Audrey reached down and touched her wrists to her feet. “Used to be able to scrape my elbows on the ground.”
Alma didn’t say what she was thinking. When she reached for more sheets the splinter stung. Using her Biotin-strengthened nails she extracted it, and her thin blood beaded.
“What happened there? Do you need a Band-Aid?”
“It’s nothing.” She brushed it off on her pressed capris. “If you make it this far, everything bleeds. Getting old’s for the birds, but it isn’t about the years; it’s a state of mind. My body may be coming apart, but I still feel young.”
“You should have a sit-down with my husband. On my birthday he gave me a card that said, ‘you’ve lived to see the cows come home.’”
“My husband’s the same way. Always quick with a joke. Men haven’t changed in centuries.”
Audrey rubbed her shoe against the flagstone. The birds beside her entertained themselves in the algae. She said, “Want me to put in fresh water? It’s no problem.”
“That would be very kind. I’m embarrassed it’s so horrid. If I’d noticed that I’d’ve taken care of it.”
“Neighbors must be good for something, huh? Such a stunning day, isn’t it?” She dumped the bath and used the hose to refill.
“It’s a day to be grateful for.”
“I’m sorry we won’t share many more with you. Heartbreaking to think you’re moving out. It’s been wonderful having you as a—”
“To The Valley. You and your daughter came over for lemonade last week and told us about it, remember? Being alone in that house must be difficult.”
“You must have misunderstood. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll die here. If I’m fortunate, out back on a day like this, hanging laundry. I’ve always imagined the beauty of dying with a smile.”
“Oh. Your daughter said it was decided.”
“No, I’m sure there was a misunderstanding. Nice of you to stop by Audrey. I must tend to the wash, otherwise I’ll be ironing all afternoon.”
Audrey’s shoes noiselessly carried her back through the fence gap. Alma saw through the pillowcases she was gone. There was a streak of red on the white fabric. What had she done now to make herself bleed? Every little nick bled these days.
A black squirrel darted to the shade of the wicker basket; it was looking more svelte than in winter. Alma shooed it away with a tsk-tsk-tsk. At least they were done tearing up the yard for acorns. Deeper in the basket sat undergarments. In the seclusion of the backyard, no one saw them dangle. Spread out and pinned in a row, her underwear caught the wind as though filled with phantom bottoms. How glorious it was to anticipate the flowers.