The living room was small and immaculately clean. From my place on the carpet, I could see a few tiny crumbs from the crackers I had eaten earlier, but that was because Mommy hadn’t done today’s vacuuming yet. Soon, there would be no evidence that anyone had eaten a thing. No dust on the end tables.

Daddy did what he could. He varnished the wooden doors of all the rooms every year, and the wooden baseboards, too. He did projects, like fixing the toaster. First he would spread newspaper all over the kitchen table. Then he would take the toaster apart, slowly and carefully. I couldn’t fathom the depth of his patience.

The kitchen was even cleaner than the living room. The white sink and the formica countertop shone, the aluminum pots glistened. The linoleum floor reflected the sunlight that streamed through the sharply ironed curtains. Mommy moved through that kitchen all day, ammonia-soaked rag in hand, wiping and rubbing every surface until it was as spotless and perfect as it could be.

The clean rooms were pleasant. They smelled fresh, and they looked pretty. The knickknacks on the end tables stood tall and cried, “Look at me,” because they were so shiny. Everything was neat. Everything had a place.

Daddy’s place was in the recliner, mostly. Sometimes, he sat in the upright position. He could just sit for such a long time. I wondered what he thought about. When he got tired from thinking, he would sit in the reclining position and fall asleep. It was good to see him sleep. Sleeping meant peace.

Mommy cleaned and cooked and mended. She seemed to move constantly, from the living room to the kitchen and back again all day. After supper, when it got dark, Mommy and Daddy both sat in the living room and watched the news. There was a war in Vietnam.

My brother was in the war, and when Mommy and Daddy listened to the news, they seemed to be listening with every part of their bodies. To me, the news was just the background. I had paper dolls and books and jigsaw puzzles. I sat cross-legged on the clean carpet and played all evening.

The time came each night. Time to go upstairs, where the two bedrooms were, one on top of the living room and one on top of the kitchen. Mommy helped Daddy out of the recliner by putting her arm under his shoulder and lifting his heavy, stiff torso and legs. Then he stood still for a minute, to get his balance, and then he began to shuffle toward the staircase. Mommy walked behind him.

Everyone had a place. My place now was on the couch, with my knees pulled up against my chest. As Daddy took the first step up the stairs, I pressed my eyes closed as tightly as they would go, and then pressed again to make the seal even tighter. I pushed my index fingers against my ears to close out the sound. Any sound, all sound. What was left was a black, kind of oozy place inside myself. I knew just about how long it took for Daddy to make it up the stairs. One step. Pause, One step. Pause. I couldn’t fathom the depth of his patience.

Mommy was on the step behind him, with her arms outstretched. Would Mommy be able to hold him up if he lost his balance? What would it sound like if he fell down the stairs? Mommy would be under him. They would both be there at the bottom of the stairs, broken. What would I do then?

It could happen any day, and I didn’t want to see it or hear it. So far, it hadn’t happened yet. It didn’t happen tonight.

So, tomorrow we would all be back downstairs. Daddy would do what he could, and then he would sit in the recliner. Mommy would swirl around like a human feather duster, making everything look as white and pure as fresh snow. I would play and hear the news in the background, and when the news was over, when it got dark, I would take my place on the couch and close up my eyes and my ears and go to the oozy place and wait to hear the most awful sound.

At the time, I considered it a small price to pay to live in a place so immaculately clean.
 
 

Susan Gaissert

SUSAN GAISSERT is a writer, wife, and mother in the Northeast. Her essays have appeared in Life Learning magazine and in both the print and online journals of The First Day. She is currently working on a memoir about growing up in the 1960s with her disabled father and caregiver mother. She blogs at http://susanflies.blogspot.com.

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