Her arm aches from the weight of the iron as she pulls it down from the top shelf of the closet. Most mornings it was light enough, but John had grabbed her arm last night and threw her out of the truck, after she missed his tone when he told her that he didnâ€™t want to â€˜sit and watch no trees turninâ€™ autumn shades.â€™ She was out the driverâ€™s side door and spinning up the walk before either of them knew what was happening. He was in a hurry, was all. And he tried to make things better, too.
After going into the bar and having a few with his work buddies, he came in where she was sitting at a table with some of the other wives, kissed the purple finger marks on her arm, and said he sure as hell hadnâ€™t meant to play that rough with his baby. After he went back to the bar, those women couldn't say enough about how sweet John was, and how handsome he always dressed. It was nice having all of them other women seeing her and John like that.
She untangles his blue shirt from a pile on the floor and positions it on the ironing board so the arms hang down over the sides and the back is flat and curved, then she just stands there stock-still, waiting for some feeling to come over her and make the iron move across the cloth.
She looks down at the rest of the shirts. They cover the carpet between John's recliner and the console TV.
She had only counted six when she pulled them out of the dryer but it seems like there are a lot more and her heart starts pounding and a wild airlessness comes over her, makes her sit down the iron and she close her eyes and lean on the board. She had been getting that feeling lately. Tiny things suddenly blew up all out of proportion and she was panicking and couldnâ€™t breathe. . . She never bothered telling John about the feeling, because she could just hear his bored, â€˜Whatever.â€™
She remembers when they were engaged, how she used to drive over to his apartment while he was at work, gather up his laundry, take it back to her parents and wash, dry and fold . . . have it back in his closet when he got off at three. Without even thinking. Like it was nothing.
She licks her finger and draws spit across the shiny metal surface she of the iron, hears steam snap and sizzle. Itâ€™s hot enough . . . still, she sits it back down on the board, takes a long drag off her cigarette and shakes her head over just thinking about how things used to be. Her daddy had once told her, 'Thinking about how things was is a waste of time, you got to be thinking about how things are and how they ought aâ€™ be.â€� She never could see how any of his little sayings made that much difference in the day to day.
He wasn't like John at all. Her dad had one outfit of factory gray clothes that he wore all week. By Friday his pants were black with the rubber dust from the plant, the arms of his shirts stained stiff and dark. She was sure that if he had been left to his own way of doing things, he would have worn his clothes until they were tattered rags.
Once when he left his shirt on the bathroom floor, she picked up the rough cloth and held it over her face, breathing in cigarettes and sweat and rubber dust. She thought that was how a man smelled, until she was sixteen and got to dating John-who always smelled strong of Old Spice.
When she first told her dad that she was going out with John, he asked her, "Now, why the hell would you want to go and do that?" Remembering him saying that still made her smile. He knew John from the plant and never had liked him. That first night, he started in with comments on Johnâ€™s fancy-ass dressing, and he kept up the smart-mouthing, right up until he saw that she had her heart set on that ring. After that he didnâ€™t want to talk about the wedding at all, just up and left the room whenever she went to discussing decorations and such with her mom. Come the day of the wedding, he was quiet and standoffish, kept going out onto the steps of the church, sitting down and staring into nothing chain-smoke cigarettes. He sat off by himself at the reception, too, and ended up getting drunk as hell
There were so many people there that she hardly ever got to visit with that she almost forgot he was there. He came out on the dance floor and put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her right away from the best man, led her off into a hallway of the church basement that smelled of ammonia and old ladies, pushed three hundred dollar bills into her hand and said, "This is something I got to do. You know what happened with him and hitting that girl he was living with and all. The jailinâ€™ . . . I know youâ€™re aâ€™ thinkinâ€™ that this donâ€™t mean anything, alright? I told you all this before, but . . . . you just put this back, hon, in case something happens. Don't you tell him about this money, hear me?"
At first she was scared, half believed him. Then she got angry, started yelling at him for spoiling her 'special moment.' Right away he started apologizing for upsetting her at the wedding, saying he was sorry he got so drunk, and he guessed that she should do whatever she wanted with that money.
The clock reads 2:40. John will be getting up in another fifteen minutes. She hasn't even started ironing. She pulls three shirts out of the pile and scoots the others behind the sofa with her foot. She doesnâ€™t want John to see the pile and say something about her lying around all day doing nothing. He knew she didn't lie around all day, and she knew he knew it. Sometimes he added, â€œHell, you're practically good for nothing,â€�' in a way that emphasized 'practically' enough to imply she was good for one thing. When they first met, heâ€™d say that same thing when she did something tiny, like walking past a window that filled her hair with golden sun. She didnâ€™t mind it then. Sometimes heâ€™d pull her down into his lap and theyâ€™d kiss, maybe make love. That line was all changed now. Sometimes he said â€˜practicallyâ€™ in a way that he knew hurt her feelings. Once he said it when he came home drunk and woke her up and made her . . .
The words had somehow come to mean the opposite --to her, at least. John didnâ€™t seem to notice the change.
Through the picture window, she can see the two brothers from next-door out on the corner waiting for the school bus, kicking a hackey-sak into the air with their ankles, trying to keep the toy afloat in the crisp, autumn air. She used to bake them cookies, before John said she had to quit, â€˜feeding the whole goddamned neighborhood.â€™ They didnâ€™t cost nothing, really. John just got sick of hearing them knock on the door.
The burning smell seems to come from outside, at first, because the trees are orange and yellow and brown and there were bonfires when she was kid. She knows itâ€™s the iron on the shirt before she looks down into the tendrils of white smoke rising. She pulls the scorched shirt off the ironing board, shoves it into the pile under the couch and lights a cigarette to hide the smell.
------------------------------------------------all work here is the sole property of John Scott Ridgway, Chicago Illinois, host of the elves attic reading, every Friday night at the Big Star Cafe.