The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 1: THE BOX
Cleaning is normal. Cleaning is the most normal activity there is. Everybody wants to be clean, to live in a clean place. It is true, an inalienable truth handed down by God Himself. In the beginning, He created a clean world, pristine in every regard. Eden was a world without garbage, and the creatures that lived in Eden, from the lowliest to man himself, were clean. The bliss of it was no one or thing cleaned; no one or thing had to clean; no one or thing had to be reminded to clean. There was no big-clean Saturday in Eden; all was naturally clean.
How long had it lasted? Iam wondered, flat on her belly, head and hands under Dominic’s bed, sweeping out his socks with her arm. A thousand years? A million? Well, what did it matter? How many times did He warn those two about the tree and its fruit? What good had it done? About as much as the constant reminders to Dominic to put his socks in the hamper when they were dirty and in the top drawer next to his underwear after she washed them, but never under the bed, or behind the door, or under his pillow. If only he were like Dominica, neat and clean, a child who listened to and obeyed her mother. While Iam knew it was truth that Eve defied His word, it also was inconceivable to her, unbelievable, as she fished the last of Dominic’s socks into bright daylight, that a woman was responsible for the need to root under a boy’s bed … for the need to be the servant of a man … of a man who claimed the devotion of a god. Backing out, she shivered at the recollection of him and them.
She seated herself on the floor with her back against the bed, blocking the memories, as she had for years, directing her attention at the socks in the bowl of her crossed legs. She smiled. In his sloppiness, Dominic had managed neatness, for he’d matched each pair, folded each sock into the other to prevent strays. She smiled against her anger, knew she’d forgive him, remind him, and repeat everything, probably as soon as next Saturday. It was her way with Dominic. Regardless of how much he ignored or defied her, her anger with him was always fleeting; she was always ready, even more, eager, to forgive him; she could not resist helping and pleasing him, or any man for that matter.
She tossed a balled sock into the air, caught it, tossed once more. Were the socks the only things underneath the bed? She decided to check before running the vacuum under it; otherwise the infernal machine might suck up something, a sock, anything too large and too malleable, and the belt would jump its pinions. With Billy in Knox County processing tornado damage claims, she’d have to waste a half-hour puzzling how to remove the housing and more time replacing the belt. Best to check.
She pushed the socks aside and rolled onto her stomach. She got her arms and head under the bed, muttered about a flashlight, marveled at how much dust and debris accumulated in June with the windows opened, wished Eve had denied the serpent and left that apple where she’d found it, and saw what appeared to be a box. It was far back near the headboard, in the shadows, where she often missed with the clunky upright. It was a small corrugated box, no more than a twelve-inch cube, easily overlooked in the dimness, situated, perhaps, so she would miss it?
She shimmied deeper, caught its edge with a hand, inched it forward, losing it twice before she was able to grip it with both hands. With it in her grasp, she slithered backwards. When she was sure she wouldn’t brain herself on the bed rail, she drew herself up onto her knees, lifted the box, and set it on Dominic’s bed.
It was her box. She’s stored it, hidden it really, in the basement.
The presence of the box in Dominic’s possession, by all appearances secret possession, shocked her. It was her life, everything that remained of it preceding Sullivan, Billy, the children, and peace, laid bare, stolen from her.
Except for the contents of the box, she’d never owned anything personally. When she lived with her mother, nothing was hers: not the clothes she wore, the bed she slept in, not herself, nothing.
She ran away at fourteen. There was nothing to take or leave behind. She ran blindly, hitchhiking cross-country, taking stupid, frightening risks, landing in San Diego for no other reason than it was thousands of miles from her upstate New York town, because it was the farthest point she could get to with the money she’d stolen from her mother.
A man found her curled into herself in an alley next to a restaurant dumpster convulsed by nausea, weeping in her own squalor, stripped of her childish protection of immortality, terrified by the certainty of death. She was starving and had scavenged the restaurant’s garbage, gulping scraps indiscriminately, not slowing to chew any of it, until her body violently purged the putrid hash in solid, searing chunks.
He squatted and pulled her head back by her hair. “Pobrecita, ¿Estás enferma? You sick?”
He said he was Ricky, and he saved sick chavas like her.
A week later she was recovered, living in a small apartment in El Cajon, healed and in love with her savior, with the man who insisted he was Ricky, solo Ricky. Shortly, Ricky’s amigos came. How many he seemed to have, and how generous he was to them with her. In the beginning, she resisted. He persuaded her by cajoling her. He loved her. Didn’t she love him? He saved her. Was she not grateful? He cared for her, provided her shelter, clothing, and food. He asked for nothing, except small favors for his amigos. Could she deny him? Burdened by her love and indebtedness, her reticence melted into concession. But mortified and hurt after the third small favor to two amigos who inflicted themselves on her together, laughed at her struggling and beat her for it, she refused to cooperate further. Ricky soothed her with understanding, endearments, and the cocaine she’d at first enjoyed and then craved. He told her, finally, she was free to leave, to go as she had come, with nothing, no money, no coke.
He was solo Ricky for the two years she was with him, along with a half-dozen other whores—she freely acknowledged what she had become. In the stable were three Mexicans, a black, and a white, a fragile redhead who almost died twice overdosing on heroin, her brother’s preference. She was forever grateful to the redhead, and, begrudgingly to the memory of her brother. It was the redhead’s distress that awakened her to the life she was living, to its deadly futility.
One day she snuck away from solo Ricky, the false savior, fled to the trolley, and rode it to San Diego. From there, she took to the road again, the Pacific Coast Highway, and hitched to Los Angeles. She spent a week on the streets of Hollywood, sick for coke, selling herself, buying it, afraid of it.
Then, people who professed to know the true savior proselytized her. She said she once believed a savior had found her, and she wasn’t ready for another. The boy and two girls smiled at her rejection. They acted extraordinarily to her. They treated her in a manner totally foreign to her, that she was incapable of understanding, until later; until she was cleansed, purified, and a proselyte to Pater: they overwhelmed her with love, love bombed her they said later.
Still, staring at the box and peeved at Dominic for taking her only possession, her own son violating her privacy—still, even with Pater, nothing was hers. Nothing in her previous life was ever hers, only the contents of the box.
She caressed the box for a long while before removing the lid; ostensibly to satisfy herself Dominic hadn’t damaged anything. Though she hadn’t looked inside the box in years, not since accepting Billy Brick’s proposal of marriage, she saw instantly that Dominic had examined the contents, for everything was neatly organized, arranged in discrete stacks, the photographs, the letters in their pink envelopes, the yellowed newspaper clipping, and beneath, the precious Jasperware. His penchant for classifying he’d inherited from Billy, who was a great advocate of order; she came to understand its value after years as Billy’s wife; but when she’d put everything that had meaning for her in the box, she’d been a jumbler, and pressed for time.
Dominic had touched and scrutinized every item. How much he understood, she couldn’t be certain. He was an accomplished reader for nine, but meaning often eluded him; she doubted he would comprehend what he’d handled. What concerned her was he might have questions … would have questions at nine.
He’d had the box for a week, or perhaps longer, for she noticed it by accident today. He hadn’t mentioned it or its contents, but doubtless he would. What would she say? “Dominic, the box is Mommy’s and you did not have permission to take it or open it.” Well, that would be an appropriate admonishment, but would not answer his questions. “These are Mommy’s private things. Do you understand ‘private’?” They were a family, and a family shared everything. At least that’s what Billy and she preached to him and Dominica.
She wanted to rifle the photos, envelopes, and the news clipping, mix them like a salad over the rose Jasperware cup and saucer and oval box. She couldn’t. She was different. Billy and the children had transformed her. They had healed her.
She’d come to love her new life, the quotidian rhythm of her days with Billy, mostly nothing unexpected or startlingly eventful, apart from the extremes of Sullivan County weather, of course; and most of all, Billy’s chivalry, his endearing, steady self, his beautiful levelness, his sturdy reliability, his stoic strength; so reminiscent of Sir Wilfred; her own knight Willy in times of trouble, she called him.
By contrast, the box was the past. The past was forever a mess, regardless of what Dominic had done to order it.
She put aside the news clipping to avoid it. She studied a photo of Aunt Margie, the composed, lovely, charming version of her in her favorite pink dress. Below it, screaming, it seemed, to have the burden of Aunt Margie removed from her, was a photo of her mother, tailored, as she always was, in a pencil skirt dress, hair in a ratted bouffant, her face, though obscured, still sneering and bitter, an awful picture, as terrible as truth. Who took the picture of the hospital, the granite edifice on the hill that loomed over the highway, under her mother? She required no photo to remember it; the administration building they called it, where they administered much more than patient records. She trembled at the sight of it and returned it to under her mother. She touched the envelopes addressed in Aunt Margie’s hand, elegant, schooled loops on all save one; on that one, broken and twisted strokes very much mimicking disease bacteria; the bunch so beautiful she smiled while she thumbed them. Finally, she found she could not evade the yellowed clipping folded to obscure everything but its short, harrowing headline: MASS EXECUTION.
She slammed the lid on the box and pushed it fiercely down on the bed, pushed twice, three times, attempting to reseal it and suppress again, she wished permanently, the past. She wept at the impossibility.
“Well, Dominic,” she’d say, when he asked, “you opened Mommy’s Pandora’s Box, and now all the ghosts have escaped into our world.”
He wouldn’t understand a word of it, she prayed, not a word, as long as the specters did not descend upon the house on the outskirts of Sullivan, Indiana, to terrorize them all.
Coming next week, Monday, February 23, 2015: Chapter 2: Pink Lemonade