The kitchen is unfamiliar. John stands in the doorway with his keys to the laundromat dangling from his pocket. He turns on the light switch to his right. The overhead light fixture buzzes. The kitchen table is bare and smooth. No small crumbles of crackers or bread. No napkins left behind. No signs of his mother having eaten anything on it today. There in the doorway, John notices for the first time that there are little cracks in and around the wood of the doorframe. Tiny black lines. He looks at them until his neck is stiff, until his back is sore. He calls out to his mother. The overhead light fixture buzzes.
John climbs the steps to the upper level of the house. His keys clank together noisily. He knocks on his mother’s bedroom door. She does not answer.
The phone rings.
John remains with his knuckles against the door. He waits to hear if his mother answers the phone on her bedside table. On the fourth ring, the automated voice recording tells the caller to leave a message. His brother’s voice balloons out of the phone. The voice swallows the silence. John inhales. He pushes the door open.
His mother is on her bed.
The duvet is turned down beneath her body, as if she never quite had a chance to crawl underneath its warmth. She is wearing her cotton nightgown, a floral print cut just above the ankle. The skin of her bare feet is wrinkled and soft. Her hair is scattered across her pillow. Her mouth, dry and sagging. Her eyes, open.
His brother has stopped speaking into the machine. The room is silent again.
John exhales. He notices a small crack creeping from behind his mother’s filigree headboard. The crack is thin and curved.
At six thirty in the morning a slight tinkling of bells signals that the laundromat has its first customer of the day. John’s eyes are swollen and itchy. His back is stiff from sitting upright for hours in his desk chair. In the back of his laundromat there is a small door which hides a small office. Nailed to the wall is a special ring on which he hangs his keys. The old desk that once belonged to his father, before everything happened, is kept orderly. Pens stand erect inside a brown diner-style mug. Mail is piled squarely on the right side. The book he reads during business hours is placed to the left of the mail. Occasionally, if he is embarrassed by the title of his book, he shoves it into the slim drawer in the middle of the desk when he is not reading.
He reaches over from his seat and turns on the light inside his office. A roach scuttles out from under the desk. He pretends he does not see it crawl towards the washers and dryers. He hates bugs. John rubs his eyes. He will have to tell Pete about their mother soon.
John sits quietly inside the office, and wonders if it’s Tracey who has come in. He knows that she’s an early riser. He waits for the scents that follow her, bubble gum and cigarettes. He hears a shriek and knows that the roach has been seen.
He breathes deeply before he rushes from his office, chest puffed. Tracey shrieks again and points to where the roach is scuttling. He runs. He squishes the bug beneath his shoe, turns his foot for good measure. Knowing the roach is there under the leather makes John panic. It does not matter that the bug is dead. It is almost touching him. His brother used to kill spiders and centipedes in their house and chase him, holding limp carcasses. When Pete hears about their mother, he will remind John that he was there to look after her. He will tell John that he has failed at something again.
“You saved me,” Tracey exclaims. She kisses John on the cheek.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says. He blushes. He did this one thing right. Maybe he does not need to rush into telling Pete.
“You’re so sweet. That’s why I like coming here,” she says. “And you have the best prices around on machines.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says again and tries to smile. His face feels heavy and thick. He is suddenly aware of how puffy his eyes must look. He raises a hand to scratch his temple in an attempt to hide his swollen eyes. Tracey turns to her laundry. He watches her bend over a washer. She picks clothes one by one from her cart and tosses them into the machine. He takes in the smoky scent that lingers after her movements, the very scent he waited for in his office. It is a warm day. He notices that Tracey is wearing a sleeveless shirt. He notices that the hairs on her arms are so light they cannot be seen from a distance. This is closer to her than he has ever been. John shifts his weight self-consciously. He remembers the shell and fluid of the roach beneath him. He thinks of Pete again and how he never comes to visit their mother, anyway. In five years his brother has not found the time to come back and see their mother, to share with her his children. What’s the rush in telling his brother what his brother doesn’t care about? The bells tinkle again
“Good morning, John.” Mrs. O’Keefe walks past John and Tracey towards another washing machine. She is the type of customer John usually prefers to avoid.
“Morning,” John says. He watches Tracey turn her machine on and retreat to a folding chair at the far end of the room. She opens a magazine across her lap and uses a chewing gum wrapper as a page marker.
“How is Ann?” Mrs. O’Keefe asks without looking at John.
“I made jam.” The door of the washer whines loudly as Mrs. O’Keefe pulls it open.
“I’ve been meaning to give her a jar.” Mrs. O’Keefe struggles to place her large bag of laundry atop the machine next to her.
“I can give it to her for you.”
“No, I’ll drop it off.” She waves her hand in John’s direction. The laundry bag slips from her grasp.
“You don’t have to do all that.” John reaches for her bag.
“I’ve been meaning to visit your mother anyway.” Mrs. O’Keefe pulls it from him.
“She didn’t pick up the phone this morning, you know.”
“She must have still been asleep.”
“I think there’s something on the floor there.” Mrs. O’Keefe points to the spot where John’s foot had been moments before he reached for her bag. John looks down at the exposed entrails of the roach. He hears Tracey pop her gum from across the room; she has not heard this exchange between Mrs. O’Keefe and himself. John decides that his brother can wait, because what happened to their mother was not his fault. John knows he has done nothing wrong this time.
John lies back in his bed and looks up at his ceiling. Cracks creep along the white paint like vines. They curl into and around each other as though dancing. He does not recall seeing these cracks before and he wonders how he has missed them. His mother’s bedroom is above his own, on the other side of the cracks. Her death will start to look strange. John knows this. He will start to look guilty if he does not say something to someone soon. People will talk. People already talk about him. He is the brother that never married. He is the brother that never left. He is the brother with the small indiscretion. They think he is strange but he did not always want to own the Soap Box Laundromat after his father and live in the same house on Murray Road. He wanted to write novels and sign hardcovers. Pete left the state and there was nothing else to do but remain. He will have to tell someone. His mother deserves for him to tell someone.
He turns on his side. His stomach rumbles quietly. He knows there is a Tupperware in the freezer with leftover meatloaf from the week before. He places a hand on top of his stomach and feels guilty for thinking of food. His mother would have had dinner cooked by now. He misses her; he rubs his swollen eyes. He pictures her up above him, pale blue in her dark room. He pictures the cracks in his ceiling inching up to meet her floorboards. He sees them reaching upwards and sideways. They twist like overgrown vines into her hair. They wrap around her arms and dive into her mouth. They slowly take her away in pieces. John turns on his stomach and hides his face in his pillow.
The phone rings.
The phone rings again.
John remains still, silent. He resists the urge to cover his ears with his hands like a child. The phone rings a third time. The automated voice recording plays.
John inhales. He can hear his brother’s voice again. He will listen to Pete’s message later. He is sick of his brother calling. He wishes his mother had been frustrated by Pete’s frequent phone calls instead of having been placated by them. He wishes his mother could have admitted that Pete was selfish. He wishes his mother had said out loud that it was John who took care of her. He was her second son, but he was the one who loved her more.
Mrs. O’Keefe stands on his front doorstep. She holds a small black purse in one hand and a glass jar in the other.
“Mrs. O’Keefe,” is all John can say. He had, in a way, forgotten about her.
“Good morning, John.” She looks at him. He can tell that she is looking at his clothes. They are the same clothes from the day before. “I brought this for Ann.” She holds the glass jar a little higher. It is hexagonal and filled with red.
“Thank you, I’ll take—”
“May I come in?” She steps into the doorway where John stands. She is closer to him than she has ever been. Her closeness makes him uncomfortable. She peers up at his face. He peers down at hers. Her face is wrinkled like his mother’s. Her face is heart shaped—framed by thin grey eyebrows and a pointy little chin.
“My mother isn’t here though, ma’am.” He watches Mrs. O’Keefe’s small grey eyebrows furrow. He inhales slowly.
“Where is she?”
“Out for the day.” They look at each other. “Errands,” he says.
“Will you have her call me, then? When she comes back?” Mrs. O’Keefe steps backwards out of the doorframe.
“Sure thing, ma’am.” John nods at her. He closes the door. He exhales slowly. He rubs his eyes. He is startled by the knock at the door. He opens it. He peers from behind it.
“The jam, John.” Again, Mrs. O’Keefe holds out the glass jar. Again, her eyebrows furrow.
“Of course,” he says and gives her a chuckle.
His mother has lain upstairs for two days now and he can smell her.
He feels that the shape of the ceiling above him has changed. He has noticed a slight curvature; a bowing under the weight of her absence. He has not showered. He has not changed his clothes. He has not slept. His eyes are bloodshot, and still swollen in the lids. He has gone back and forth to the laundromat absentmindedly. There is the sweet, bad smell developing in the house, but he cannot help feeling hungry.
In the kitchen he turns on the overhead light fixture; it buzzes and he pays it no mind. He takes two small plates from the cabinet and places them opposite each other on the table. He takes two pale blue linen napkins from a drawer and folds them into triangles next to each plate. Two butter knives, one teaspoon, and one rounded spreader from another drawer. Two teacups with matching saucers. A white butter dish, a yellow stick of butter. A loaf of bread. The red jam. He pauses to look at his work and is proud of the presentation. The napkins are from his mother’s drawer “for fancy things only.” The teacups and saucers, his mother’s favorites. He knows she would be proud.
Across the kitchen on the wall, a button on the telephone flashes red for missed calls. His brother has left a few new messages. He has still not said anything to anyone. John sees one small crack reaching out from underneath the machine. And this crack swallows his appetite.
“There you are,” Tracey says and smiles in her way. She picks clothing from the bag in her cart. Tracey comes to the Soap Box twice a week, every week. He knows this. He knows she does other people’s laundry for them. He knows they pay her to take their stained linens away in a pushcart with crooked wheels. He is grateful for this odd job of hers today. He is grateful for the routine of her. Even if she makes him aware of how awkwardly he stands on the floor of his own business. He feels exposed, like the laundromat fluorescents are there to highlight his faults. His thinning hair. His sloping shoulders. His belt that pulls at the last notch. He notices that she is still smiling though, like she cannot see these faults. Or that these faults don’t matter. He feels strange. He feels giddy.
“Would you like some jam?” he says. It escapes him.
“What’s that?” She pauses now, with a cup full of detergent in her hand.
“I have this homemade jam. Would you like some?” he repeats.
“You make jam?” she asks.
“My mother—I have it in the office.” He leaves briefly and comes back with the jar. He holds it out to her as proof that he is harmless. She looks at it.
“That’s awfully nice of you,” she says.
“Why don’t we have lunch or something?” he says before he can take it back.
“The deli around the corner. We can go when the clothes are in the dryer,” she says before he can stop her.
The deli is as old as the laundromat. Its floor is scuffed, white rubbery tile. The table where John sits across from Tracey is yellow Formica. Cream colored boomerangs decorate the surface. They both have tall sandwiches on paper plates set before them. The jar of red jam and a plastic knife rest between their plates. John watches Tracey as she rips a small corner of bread off of her sandwich.
“So, let’s open that jar,” Tracey says and holds out the corner of bread. John has thought about sharing a meal with her so many times, he can’t even count. He has thought about waking up to sunlight across her face. He has thought about the clothes she wears to sleep. He has thought and pictured and fantasized for years.
He cracks open the lid in a fluid motion; lunch suddenly feels like a delicate affair. It feels like something he can do here in this deli without the cracks on the walls and without the flashing telephone lights.
“Ladies first,” he says. He hands her the plastic knife. He watches her transfer a small dollop of jam from the jar to the bread. He watches her taste it. He waits for her reaction. He inhales.
“Strawberry,” she says after a moment of rolling the flavor around in her mouth, “my favorite.” John smiles, relieved.
“You said your mother made this?”
“It was made for her.” He lays his paper napkin across his lap.
“I misspoke.” He keeps his eyes on his lap as he says this.
“How come she didn’t want it?”
“Doesn’t like strawberry.” He does not want to ruin this.
“Well,” she smiles, “More for us, right?” She laughs, then. A real laugh with a snort. John likes her snorting. This is one of her faults, exposed. “My daughter would love this,” she says. She points to the jar.
“You can take it with you, if you want.”
“You invite me to lunch. You pay for my sandwich. And then,” she licks a dab of jam from her thumb, “you say I can take this home.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He nods. He likes that she has noticed his chivalries. He is doing this right.
“I don’t listen to what other people say, John. I think you’re a kind man.”
“I try,” he says.
“You’re respectable. I don’t worry about anything going to your laundromat.”
“Good,” he nods, feeling more confident.
“My boyfriend doesn’t worry either,” she says.
“Oh.” He looks down at his napkin again. He inhales again, slowly.
“I don’t think you’ve met him.”
“He’s a little like you. Misunderstood.”
John watches Tracey bite into her sandwich, then. He watches her lips move as she chews, the way her lips bunch up to one side and expand. He sees how the lipstick she wears has dried out her mouth, how it has settled in the thin lines of skin like tiny cracks. He knows what she means by misunderstood, what she means about what other people say. But what happened to his father was an accident. A mistake.
“I lost a parent too, you know,” she says. “When I was a lot younger. I get what it’s like.”
“It’s strange,” he says.
“Like you know it’s happened, but you keep forgetting it’s real for a while.”
“Yes,” he says, “it’s like that.”
“You want it to not be real,” she says. “So you avoid it.”
“Yes,” he says. “I have been avoiding it.”
“I remember when your father died. The whole town was so shocked—everyone was at that funeral.”
“I mean I’ve been avoiding thinking about my mother,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“Her death. I’ve been avoiding her death,” he says and wonders what it would be like to kiss Tracey’s dried-lipstick mouth.
Steam fills the small bathroom. It rises and curls around John’s head as he scrubs his body. The warmth of the shower is comforting. Rivulets of water fall from his brow, his chin, his elbows. He feels better in this moment than he has in days.
He dries and steps into clean clothes.
John starts by the knock at the door.
The knocking is loud and sharp. The harshness of the sound makes him panic.
He inhales. He exhales. There is more knocking.
When he crosses the room to grab the doorknob he sees, for the first time, a crack sprouting from behind the metal. And in the moment during which he is opening the door, he feels as if something is slipping from his grasp.
Pete stands, a near mirror image to John with keys in his pocket. The differences are slight, but John can spot them easily. Pete’s shoulders are still square. His hair, the same color as John’s, is thicker. His stomach, flatter. In five years he has not changed all that much.
“I’ve been calling.” Pete steps inside; he is chest to chest with his younger brother. “What’s going on here, John?” Pete peers around John into the house. “Where is Ma?”
John says nothing. He takes a step back. He looks at his brother standing in the doorway. He remembers his brother as a young man standing there in the same doorway on a night in early autumn. Rain from a thunderstorm had soaked through his shirt and dripped onto their mother’s nice carpet as she cried onto her firstborn’s shoulder.
“John? I left so many voice mails.” Pete steps into the kitchen and looks at the telephone’s flashing red light. “Did you listen to any of them?”
John stands, he remains silent. He cannot believe his brother has come home. In a way, he would like to embrace his brother. “I got a call from Ma’s friend, Mrs. O’Keefe. She couldn’t reach anyone on the phone either. She said she saw you.” John says nothing, again. “Where is Ma?” Pete says again. “What is that smell?”
“You have to listen to me, it’s not my fault.” John says.
“What are you talking about?” Pete makes his way toward the staircase. “Ma,” he calls loudly up the steps.
“I didn’t do anything, okay?” John says.
“Ma,” Pete calls again and climbs a couple of the steps. He looks up toward the second floor. John knows that he is expecting to find their mother smiling down upon his return. The house answers his brother with silence.
John watches Pete climb the stairs until his body disappears altogether. Once he is alone on his own level of the house, John sits down at the kitchen table. He is aware of the overhead light fixture buzzing. He breathes deeply. He looks down at the triangular napkins still left from the other day. John thinks of Tracey’s face after lunch; a little confused, a little uncomfortable. He remembers that she was ready to leave the deli without finishing her sandwich. At the time he had felt good to say it out loud. But now as he sits there, he realizes slowly, that lunch with her was a mistake. That he failed at something again. That he was wrong to think of Tracey as someone he could speak with. He does not know how long he sits before the silence of the house is interrupted by the shriek of sirens.
Michele Zimmerman is a queer writer earning an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work appears in Psychopomp, Postcard Poems and Prose, Sequestrum, and others. Her work has been nominated for Sundress Publications Best of the Net 2018. You can find her onTwitter and Instagram.