Helen stood at the kitchen sink, hands soaking in tepid dishwater. She stared out the window, looked at the early darkness of coming winter, saw the swingset, rusted and worn now, once so proud and shiny red, heard the call of the boys’ voices, swinging from the monkey bars, saw Ted gone out to fetch them, walking toward her with Billy on his shoulders and Joe held upside down, shrieking with fear and joy. She blinked and these things were gone, lost in the shadow of the night.
She pulled the plug, dried her hands on a frilly pink towel, rehung it neatly over its bar. She wiped down the counters and the wood table—the one they bought from that nice Amish family all those years ago. She swept the floor, though there was nothing much on it, and truth be told, it hadn’t been truly dirty in a long while.
When she was content with the kitchen, she moved about the house—straightening pillows, remaking beds, taking extra care with the hospital bed that sat beside the parlor window, put there so Ted could see the tulips come up in the spring, so he could watch the lilacs blossom. She had kept the window open, breathed deeply of their lovely smell, held Ted’s hand, once so rough and strong, then so small and breakable. She and the lilacs had kept a steady vigil that spring, so that now she couldn’t smell them without a tear coming to her eye. She pulled the blue quilt taut, tight enough to bounce a quarter off. It made her smile, to remember Ted teaching the boys to make their beds, letting them keep the quarter if it bounced. He’d been pretty hopeless around the house, had spent his childhood working fields, not learning to sweep or polish, but the army had taught him to make a bed and he’d never forgotten. It was far from the only thing he never forgot about that war, but it was a good thing, one he could speak about without choking up, so he got real into it, ‘til Billy asked Helen one day if all you did in the army was make beds and she pulled him close, said she sure wished so, and he struggled away, ran outside to play cops’n’robbers. She heard him soon, shouting happily, “bang bang bang, you’re dead.”
She went into the linen closet, pulled out a vacuum-sealed plastic bag, opened it, destroyed the seal, pulled out her wedding dress. She ran her hands over it, touched the delicate lace at the neck with the tips of her fingers, held it close to her body, twirled clumsily around with it, remembered being in his arms, the excitement of her life just beginning, everything ahead of her.
She set the dress down, returned to the kitchen, pulled several rags from the cupboard, set them in the sink. She went into the garage, found the half-empty bottle of gasoline beside the lawnmower. Carried it into the kitchen, doused the rags with it, and returned the bottle to its place. She set some rags on the stove. The rest, she carried to the family room with its big, blue couch and its pair of rocking chairs. She slowly built a fire in the fireplace, remembered doing the same thing while the boys watched expectantly, marshmallows already skewered on long forks, stockings hanging from the mantle above.
When the logs had caught nicely, Helen tossed the stinking rags on the blue couch, then went back to the kitchen, took the letter from the stack of bills—the letter that said she had thirty days to get out. Thirty days to leave her home. Thirty days to hand it over to the bank. A home she’d paid for. A home she and Ted had worked themselves into the ground for. A home she’d brought her babies back to. A home that still echoed with the voices, the memories, the love of her family. A home she had put on the line in a game of craps with the Devil, because Ted was sick and needed care and she hadn’t the money to get it for him.
Now he was dead. The house lost.
She slowly twisted the letter into a column, carried it back to the family room, held it into the fire, watched its end catch, then carried it over to the couch. The rags burst into flame as she left the room, went to the kitchen and turned on the stove. She walked to the front door, lifted the folding chair she’d set beside it, went out, walked slowly up the rise of the hill.
She set her chair beneath the sparkling stars, watched her breath turn to a cloud, pulled her chilled hands up into the sleeves of her nice, warm sweater, and smiled as she watched the flames.