The house was perfect.
Jessie brushed her fingers through her glistening hair and slowly released her breath. It didn’t seem real. Every room was immaculate. She studied the bed, with its covers spread squarely, pillows piled like snow drifts, and couldn’t quite believe what she saw. The clothes in the closet hung evenly, the shoes on the floor stood in military precision. It did not look like her house at all.
As she walked down the hall, Jessie glanced at the open bathroom door. The gray tiles sparkled cleanly. An unstained hand towel hung beside the sink. Across the hall lay the kitchen, open and bright; even the curtains were clean.
At the end of the hall waited the living room. Surveying it, Jessie shook her head, just once, a bare inch of movement. “Living room” was certainly the right name for it. They lived in that one room, she and Terry. And it showed. Newspapers scattered on the floor, empty glasses abandoned on the table, shoes kicked off by the door, waiting for tomorrow. It was a convenient way to live, no added strain on her overtaxed body, but it was depressing to live surrounded by such mess.
But today, things were different. Today she almost didn’t recognize the living room. Not one dirty glass marred the view. The newspapers sat in a proper stack on the corner table, the remote waited silently atop the TV, and – strangest of all – there was not a speck of dust in sight. Fro a moment Jessie shut her eyes. Then she opened them and a miracle happened. The clean house was still there.
As she stepped into the room, Jessie’s slippers touched the carpet and she looked down. Why, yes, come to think of it, they had picked light brown carpet, low pile. She hadn’t seen it in so long, she’d forgotten. But now it came back. They decided on brown in a quick compromise that horrible day last October when she could feel her knees giving up, right there it the carpet store. By the time they made it home, her knees hurt so bad, Terry practically had to carry her in the house. It had been…
No. Forget that. That day was not today. Today was today, and today, everything was good. Jessie smoothed her hair as she checked her reflection in the mirror by the front door. Without its customary smudges, the glass looked nearly invisible. Jessie smiled. For once her face was not the least bit red or puffy. Her shirt collar lay perfectly flat against her neck. Not even the tiniest wrinkle spoiled it. She couldn’t have asked for a better day.
Jessie slid into the recliner chair and breathed deep. Good days were so rare that she must take them for all they were worth when they came. Today was a real gem, too. She felt so good that she had cleaned the whole house, taken out the trash, bathed, washed her hair, even shaved her legs. Terry would be so surprised. Jessie leaned back into the soft chair. It was still nearly an hour before Terry got home. She could hardly wait for him to see what she had done.
She fingered the stack of newspapers on the table, but she did not want to disturb them. Right now all she wanted to do was admire her clean house and wait for Terry. He was a good man, he deserved a good wife, and she wanted to show him that she was, if only for today. Jessie felt tired, but it was a happy kind of tired from having done a good day’s work. Something to be proud of. It felt better than she remembered. So comforting, so relaxing, so… slowly, unaware, Jessie dozed off.
The shrill buzz of the phone shocked her awake. Jessie’s eyes jerked open. What time was it? She’d been asleep half an hour. The phone hollered again, and she sat up. Her left hand, numb from sleep, would not cooperate and she missed the receiver. She grabbed for it again, very deliberately, and caught it on the fourth ring.
“Hey, sweetie,” a male voice said.
“Listen, I’ve got another couple hours of work here before I can come home.”
Jessie rubbed her eyes with one hand. “Work?”
“Yes. Are you awake?”
“Uh, no. Yes. I mean, I just woke up.”
“I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just wanted to let you know I’ll be here another hour or two. We’re making a lot of progress. Cindy sure is a wonder.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t hire her sooner. She’s getting this office organized like you wouldn’t believe. You’ll have to come see it when we get finished.” Terry laughed into the phone. “Did you know some people keep their files in alphabetical order?”
“Alphabetical order. Yes, I’ve heard of it.”
“Once we get this place in order, I won’t have to work late so much anymore. I won’t waste so much time looking for things that are right under my nose.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s good.”
“Don’t hold supper for me. I’ll probably send out for a pizza or something. And don’t wait up, I know you need your sleep. Love you.”
“Love you, too. And thanks for calling.” The line clicked dead, and Jessie stared into the dial tone, still not fully awake. She aimed the receiver down toward the phone and missed. The receiver skidded out of her hand like a wet bar of soap. Using both hands this time, she caught up the cord and reeled it in, inch by inch, and finally got hold of the receiver and mashed it into place. Then she stared mutely at the phone. What was she doing? Oh, yes, cleaning the house. And she hadn’t said a word to Terry.
Jessie sighed. The house would keep, at least for a while. Besides, she didn’t really want Terry to see her now. Her body, reacting to all the work she’d made it do, was stiff and sore. It took three tries to get up from the recliner. Her hands refused to do as she asked, and she ended up using her elbows for leverage. She clambered to her feet, struggling to get her balance, and glimpsed her face in the mirror. Her neck protested as she turned her head. The left side of her hair was flattened by sleep. Everything hurt.
“Cindy,” she said aloud to the mirror. She was tired of hearing about Cindy. Such a wonder, such a whiz kid. She had taken over the whole office and whipped it into shape. Jessie had met Cindy once, right after Terry hired her, and she didn’t look particularly energetic. She was middle-aged, plump, divorced, a single mother to two sets of twins. But Terry gushed about her incessantly. She was tireless, level-headed, well-organized, and good-natured. She stayed late whenever he needed her to without complaining.
Jessie froze. Surely this wasn’t… Terry, in love with Cindy? A middle-aged woman? But he stayed late, night after night… Could he – ? Would he – ? If he did, the house cleaning would mean nothing.
No. He would never. Jessie started toward the bathroom. Cindy was only helping organize her husband’s office. That’s all. Terry appreciated order but he never could seem to figure out how to achieve it, and Jessie wasn’t much help. He needed Cindy to help with his office. That was all. She could make things easier for them both.
“But I would if I could,” Jessie said. She stopped again and looked around at the unfamiliar house.
“You think I don’t want to be that way?!” she demanded of her well-ordered furnishings. “You think I like living in a pig sty?! If I had a body that worked, you can bet I’d be just as organized as Cindy.”
Jessie took another step and her half-numb knee didn’t end up where she planned. She bumped against the corner table, knocking newspapers all over the floor. Awkwardly, painfully, she stooped to pick them up. She dropped the sections of paper atop the table and scowled as they landed in complete chaos.
Jessie raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Just give me half a chance!” But nothing happened. No bolt of lightning, no puff of smoke. Her body still ached. She left the newspaper alone, disordered.
With her hands braced against the wall for support, Jessie finally reached the bathroom. She kicked off her slippers, squirmed out of her pants, and rummaged in the medicine cabinet for drugs. A couple of Motrin might help her sleep a little, and then maybe she’d be refreshed when Terry came home. He’d be happy to see the house looking so nice. So what if a few newspapers were out of place, a few clothes on the bathroom floor? The rest of the house looked good. For her, it looked really good. But was it good enough for Terry to see that she wanted it to be that way, always? In her mind, she lived in a well-ordered home. If her body would just cooperate, she and Terry could live there, too.
Terry understood what she couldn’t do. He wasn’t about to leave her for Cindy. They were only straightening up his office so he could work more efficiently. Then he could spend more time with Jessie. He was a good man. He truly loved Jessie, no matter what. He’d never think of cheating. He was too honorable. Besides, he knew it would hurt her too much. And she had enough pain to deal with, just being alive.
Jessie folded back the cool, clean covers and surrendered the weight of her body to the bed. The fresh sheets smelled of sunshine. How long had it been since she’d changed the bed? She couldn’t remember. The smell was so soothing. Why, in a nice, clean bed like this, she could dream just about anything. A tidy house, a healthy body, a happy marriage, anything. Anything that could never be when she was awake, no matter how carefully she planned or how badly she wanted it.
Terry never had to worry about dreams. He could dream of reality and wake up, never knowing it was a dream, and never complaining if it wasn’t. And Jessie was left at his mercy with only the bed for comfort.
© 2007 Libby Block
First place, District – Richland College, “League for Innovation in the Community College” 2006-7 Student Literary Competition
first published “Parallax” XVIII, Richland College, 2007