The dust had never bothered her before, except perhaps in an abstract way on weekends. But now, as she sat in her pajamas and looked around the living room, Ellen realized that it was everywhere—on the lamps, the baby grand piano, a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry she’d started to read last month and forgotten about. Ordinarily on Monday afternoons, she’d sit in front of Laurel Savings Bank on her lunch break and stare at the trees along Main Street, the coffee shop across the road, the white station wagon always parked on the next block. But this Monday there were no trees, no jobs at the bank. There was just Ellen, alone and unemployed in a living room coated with dust.
When she smacked the couch cushions beside her it puffed out. She played tic-tac-toe with herself on top of the end table. Halfway through her fourth cup of coffee, she picked up Dickinson and curled up in the corner of the couch to read. Cheerio, excited that he wasn’t alone today, brought his bear and tried to get her attention. But she ignored him long enough that he gave up and instead jumped onto the couch to take a nap on her feet. Eventually she closed her eyes and joined him.
Ellen woke up around three-thirty. Her feet were cold. Cheerio was gone; but there was a small, yellow puddle by the front door.
“Stupid dog,” she muttered, rubbing her eyes.
After cleaning the mess and spraying it thoroughly with Lysol, she took a shower and stood looking at herself in the mirror, her hair wrapped in a towel. Her eyes were still bleary from too much sleep. She contemplated getting back into her pajamas; but she decided there was no reason to lookunemployed. And she wasn’t sure what Geoff would think. She took a long time with her mascara.
Geoff noticed when he came in the door a half an hour later and kissed her on the cheek. “You look nice.”
He never said that when she’d just gotten home from work, too. She always looked nice for work.
Together they moved into the kitchen. Ellen pulled the Stouffer’s lasagna from the oven and brought it to the table. They sat and chewed at each other across the table. Normally Geoff read during dinner, while she would eat and think. But this evening he left his book on the counter, and there was the awkward decision of where to look: the plate, the window, the spouse.
“How was your day?” she asked finally.
“Eh. Okay. Just normal.” He shoveled a mouthful of lasagna in and chewed it on the left side of his mouth, his cheek bulging. “How about yours?”
She stiffened. She knew it was an automatic response and tried not to get upset. “Not very interesting.”
“Oh.” He chose his next bite carefully, realizing his mistake. “Oh. Well, nothing interesting happened at work either.”
Ellen nodded, but didn’t say anything. They continued eating without speaking. When she finished, she carried her plate over to the sink and paused to look out the window. That was when she noticed the kitchen was dusty, too. It lay more thickly here, on the windowsill and the angel statue that stood over the sink. It covered even the leaves of the houseplant in the corner. Somehow that was the most depressing; that even this living, growing thing gathered a layer of dead dust. She blew gently on the leaves, but most of it stayed put. Grabbing a paper towel from the rack beside the sink, she moistened a corner and dabbed at it. A few leaves came off in her hand. She hadn’t remembered to water it lately. She crumpled them and threw them in the trash, suddenly angry.
“This house is so dirty!”
Geoff coughed and looked at her. “I guess.”
“Well, that’s one good thing about this. I’ll have time to clean.” She meant to be sarcastic, but somehow it came out sounding pathetic. She laughed and shook her head.
Geoff stood up, plate in hand, hesitating to speak or move. She could tell by his face he was trying to judge how to deal with this. “Sounds good,” he said finally.
Ellen laughed again—a small, mean laugh. She didn’t look at him to see it sink in, but she listened to his feet cross the kitchen and the clink as he set his dish on top of hers in the sink. He put his hand on her shoulder. It startled her, and she pulled away without meaning to.
“Hon, don’t worry about this. Remember, I told you, it’s okay for you to be between jobs for a while. There’s no pressure.”
“Thanks.” She left the kitchen. Geoff didn’t follow her.
Ellen went into the bedroom and turned on the television. All she knew was that another day of sitting around at home would drive her crazy. Everywhere she looked, she saw dust, gathered on every surface like a sad metaphor for her jobless life. Remember you are dust.
So . . . she would start in the bedroom tomorrow.
Ellen tapped her chin with the handle of her feather duster. The sheets bunched on the bed in the shape of her own body; pairs of Geoff’s dirty socks were thrown against the wall. Piles of old bills and papers were stacked on his dresser, and hers was littered with photos of their trip to Ireland last spring and forgotten earrings. Those would have to be moved before she could even think of dusting. She wondered how the accumulation of stuff hadn’t bothered her before.
She dropped the earrings one by one into the jewelry box, which carried its own layer of dust. Brushing it with the feather duster, she deposited it on the bed. One by one she moved things: blowing gently on the photos to clean them, setting the envelopes aside for sorting, wiping off the statue of the shepherdess Geoff had given her for their eighth anniversary. Her mother had kept one just like it above the fireplace for as long as she could remember; Geoff had bought this one in an antique store.
Ellen started on the dresser itself with a can of furniture polish and a beat-up kitchen towel. There was something satisfying about the first swipe of clear wood across the fuzzed-over surface. The color of the wood was reborn beneath her hand. It was like light trapped beneath the curved dark lines of the grain.
Ellen had to admit it was beautiful, even though she hated their bedroom furniture. Well, perhaps not hate; she’d gotten used to it by now. The set had been a wedding gift from her Aunt Nicky, who was going through a divorce at the time and getting rid of things that reminded her of her ex. Ellen didn’t mind hand-me-downs, especially nice ones. She did mind her aunt, who constantly criticized her mother and confided to half the people at the bridal shower that Geoff, who loved the ballet and kept his fingernails clean, was effeminate. She also made no secret of the fact she’d always thought the dressers were ugly to begin with.
Geoff loved them, partly because they were much nicer than anything they could have afforded, but also because of the elaborate scroll work along the legs and edges, swirls and leaves and flowers. Detailed craftsmanship fascinated him. When they’d scoped out furniture at Ikea, he’d nodded silently when Ellen pointed out the simple black bed she’d liked. At the wedding, he thanked Aunt Nicky so profusely the older woman was taken aback, and responded simply, “Well, at least Bud won’t get them.” As they’d moved on to the next table to greet his cousins, Ellen had caught her smirking.
Those scrolls were a great deal of trouble now. Ellen tried to clear the dust out with her fingernail, but there were cracks where she couldn’t reach it. When she stood back and looked, she couldn’t tell it was there. Just to be sure, she went to the window and opened the blinds.
The window faced south, and the sun shone directly onto the dresser. It gleamed softly. She came close to examine the scrolls; but instead she found herself lost in tracing the grain of the wood with her eyes, admiring the pattern and the way the afternoon light brought it to life.
But she didn’t leave the blinds open very long. She liked the light; but the window faced the neighbors, and she valued privacy more highly. As the slats shut, she saw that they, too, were dusty. Not a simple layer that came off cleanly, but a heavy, dirty smudge that came off in bits when she rubbed it. Ellen wondered if she could clean them without removing the blinds from the window, but decided to wait until after lunch to confront them.
She put her jewelry box and shepherdess back in their usual places. Picking up the pictures, she tapped them on the dresser like a deck of cards to align their edges, then tucked them in her lingerie drawer to take care of later. She considered the papers piled on the bed, but then turned away. That was his mess; he could take care of it. She drank the cold remains of her coffee and went to the kitchen for another cup.
That night Geoff had his book again. They ate without speaking. Yesterday bothered Ellen. She had no idea if Geoff remembered it, or if he was mad about the way she’d spoken to him. But she could almost see it laid out on the table with their dinner, and felt obligated to make up for it somehow. She spent half the meal trying to think of a creative topic of conversation, but found nothing.
“How was work?”
Geoff shrugged with the corner of his mouth. “Boring.” She watched him chew his green beans and waited for him to swallow. “Huh.” He tapped the cover of his book with his finger.
“What are you reading about?” Ellen pushed the question out. She knew the answer wouldn’t interest her.
“Since the Puritans crossed the Atlantic in families, the numbers of men to women were more equal than in other areas of the colonies.”
“Oh.” Ellen remembered when they used to talk about the books they were reading together. That was before he traded historical fiction for actual history. “It’s a book about Puritans?”
“About the correlation between the cultural differences in the U.S. and England. The places different people settled.” He took another bite without his eyes leaving the page. Ellen started eating again, ready to settle into the regular routine.
But then Geoff was speaking again, his words piling in her ears. “The families had to have a good moral character to even cross the Atlantic . . . but when they founded churches, the guidelines for membership were so strict only one person in some households would belong.” He smiled to himself and shook his head.
Ellen couldn’t tell if what he’d said was funny or not. She thought she’d expressed enough interest as could reasonably be expected, and seized the pause before he found something else to share.
“I started dusting today.”
“I also did the laundry and changed the bed sheets. There’s a bunch of junk from your dresser sitting on the bed.”
“Probably I’ll dust the rest of the house tomorrow.” Ellen stared at the high-ruffed Elizabethan women on the cover of his book. Their faces looked back at her with an expression between sternness and amusement. She couldn’t decipher it. “I figure it’s a good use of my time, while I’m waiting.”
He nodded, slowly, his eyes still following the lines on the page. “Waiting for what?”
She set her fork down on her plate and looked at him. He was still reading. She picked up her fork and took a bite, grinding her teeth as she chewed. “Never mind.”
Hearing her tone, Geoff looked up. “What?”
“Just forget it . . . read your book.”
He stared at her a moment, then smoothed the corners of his pages. She could have said much worse. Her tone had communicated more than her words; she knew that. But she’d stopped herself from worse. Now he was acting injured, and it was only making her more angry.
“I know you’re stressed, hon. But I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“Nothing. I don’t want you to do anything. Just pretend that we’re normal.” Ellen hoped he’d stop talking, because she was afraid of what would come out of her mouth next.
But now he was angry. And unlike Ellen, who couldn’t stop saying things when she was mad, Geoff could—and did. “Okay.” He turned back to his book, and she collected the dishes. They avoided each other the rest of the evening.
Before ten a.m. on Wednesday Ellen had dusted the kitchen, done the windowsills that stretched across the front of the living room, and consumed two cups of coffee. By eleven she’d moved on to the end tables and lugged the corrugated lampshades onto the lawn for cleaning. When she brought them back in, she was starting to get hungry, and her fourth coffee was lukewarm. But she didn’t want to lose her momentum. She gave the bookshelf a once-over with her rag. But the dust had settled on the pages of the books themselves. She pulled them out one by one and blew on them, shaking them gently. She put them back, leaving an empty space for The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Reading fell into the category of things she used to do, along with playing the piano regularly and taking walks in the evening, alone or with Geoff. Work left her too tired for those things. The way she read poetry required an active participation, or else it wasn’t worth it.
Ellen stretched to reach all the way across the piano, dusting around its curves and saving the keys for last. Random notes scattered from her fingers as she rubbed, as if they were startled at their own existence after so long a silence. She polished the highest C and sat down on the bench, rubbing the blocky gold Yamaha with her thumb. Then her hand fell and fiddled with the keys. She couldn’t remember how long it had been since she’d last played, although the feel beneath her fingers was still familiar—the resistance and the yielding, the flow of notes like water.
Not quite like water, anymore. It was too long since she was in practice. Ellen stood up and opened the piano bench, pulling out a red music book. She flipped through it, looking at her penciled notes in the margins. One song in particular stuck out to her—the Starlight Waltz. She remembered playing this over and over a couple years ago, until Geoff, for all his patience, had asked if she didn’t know anything else.
Balancing the book in her left hand, Ellen reached for the keys with her right. The melody she picked out was recognizable, if stilted. She set the book on the music stand and opened the back of the piano, propping it up and sitting back down on the bench. She positioned her hands and oriented herself on the page of music. Then she began to play.
That evening Ellen returned to Dickinson. She couldn’t believe she’d forgotten about poetry—how it seemed to take her out of her body and bring her somewhere more real, make her more herself.
Geoff read also, sitting in the kitchen with his history book. But she heard him get up and come into the living room. He wandered, standing first in front of the bookshelf, then moving as though he was heading for the bedroom, then pausing to look out the windows. Finally he came to stand in the corner of her vision, by the piano, unmoving. There he stayed.
She wouldn’t mind this, normally, although it was a little strange. She was pretty good at ignoring distractions that were part of the background. But he was just standing there.
“What are you reading?”
She looked up. “Poetry.”
He nodded, but didn’t have anything to say about this. She didn’t either. She looked back at the page without reading. He didn’t move. When she glanced up he was still looking at her, but looked away and stared at the piano. She returned to her poem.
“The piano’s open.”
Ellen’s jaw tightened. “Yes.”
There was a pause. She didn’t offer any more information. “Why’s it open?”
“Because I was playing it.” She turned the page and started reading the next poem. Beside her, Geoff picked up the music book and flipped through the pages.
“I didn’t know you’d been playing again.”
She looked at him again. “No, Geoff. When would I? Up until last week I had a job. Have you heard me playing?”
His eyebrows arched and he slowly put the book back on the music stand. “Of course. Sorry.” As he turned and crossed the room, Cheerio scrambled out from the kitchen and jumped at him. Ellen watched as Geoff stood and shuffled his feet at him, exciting the dog so much that he began to run back and forth across the room. He smiled and left the room.
Cheerio hadn’t worn off his excitement yet. He dashed to Ellen’s couch and jumped up, then back off and ran away, back and forth until she finally pushed him off and he wandered to another room, feeling sorry for himself.
Ellen turned a page and realized she wasn’t paying attention to her poetry. She was listening for her husband in the kitchen. Now and then he moved in his seat or cleared his throat. It seemed like there was a wall inside of her, dividing the Ellen that wanted to be left alone with her book from the one who wanted to go to the next room and fix things. She got up and walked into the kitchen with no idea of what she was going to say.
“It came back to me more quickly than I thought.”
He lowered his book and looked at her.
The wall was high, too high. She couldn’t see the top. “I’m definitely out of practice. But once I got going, it wasn’t too terrible.”
“Huh.” He went back to reading. Ellen watched as his eyes crossed the page: slowly to the left, a quick dash to the right.
She couldn’t blame him for ignoring her. She couldn’t erase words by pretending she hadn’t said them. One of the things she’d fallen in love with was his patience. But patience was like a rubber band that held and held until it was stretched a fraction too far. Then it had to snap. No; she couldn’t blame him for not responding to her half-hearted gesture, no matter how hard a struggle it was for her to make. Especially when she knew that she wouldn’t have, either. The weight of her own pettiness settled heavily on her chest.
She sat down at the table. “I’m sorry.”
Geoff didn’t look up. “For what?”
“For how I spoke to you.” She pulled the salt shaker towards her on the table, and pushed it between two fingers. “For how . . . I speak. And about the job.” Her voice sounded miserable. That wasn’t what she wanted; she didn’t want sympathy. She wanted to explain it to him. That she couldn’t help it. That a different Ellen saw these words coming, watched them spoken, but did nothing about it, and she didn’t know why. It was like the way he fiddled with his pen when he did the crossword puzzle on Sundays, how he couldn’t stop even when she pointed it out to him.
He laid the book flat on the table and looked at his hands. “Don’t worry about jobs, Ellen. There’s time.”
She stared at his hands, as if she could find a script there, something that made coming up with words unnecessary. But if it was there she couldn’t see it for the familiarity of the black hairs on his fingers, the half-moons of his fingernails. She took one of his hands in both her own. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, hoping that maybe, maybe those two words which she could easily repeat now that they were said would convey something, would release the frustration behind the wall.
He rubbed her hands with his free one, then—impulsively—kissed her temple. They sat together without speaking.
Ellen found a pot of coffee already waiting for her when she got up—a little later than yesterday—and it was as she was pouring herself a cup, mid-yawn, that she noticed the sun shining through a long string that stretched from the corner near the window. Angrily she turned and scanned the ceiling for others, wondering how many she couldn’t see because of the light.
No. She would not think about it before coffee. But she couldn’t help noticing, as she migrated to the living room, the clumps of grey fuzz that hung from the fan. She forced herself to look away, sipping the coffee Geoff had made for her and thinking instead about last night. About the fit of her head into his shoulder as they sat on the couch together and sorted through the pictures of Ireland she’d just dusted, now stacked neatly on the end table. They’d laughed at themselves kissing the Blarney Stone. He’d reminisced about the castles—their history, their architecture—and she’d recalled the sweeping cliffs and the green. He watched her face while she spoke; and when they stopped speaking, he leaned in and brushed her cheek with his lips before kissing her.
“And the Irish coffee!” she added. He had laughed at her, not knowing her joke arose from a need to close the moment before it broke.
Ellen knew she was lucky to have married Geoff. He was more patient than her, more loving, and did his best to understand her fears and insecurities. Early in their marriage, when she’d asked to wait for kids, he accepted it, even though she knew he wanted to start a family right away. They were young—both twenty-two—so they had time. She wanted to settle into the marriage, to build their life and move as one. She remembered that about her parents, how they functioned almost like one person. Geoff seemed to understand, though he didn’t feel the same way. But they waited, and he didn’t bring it up. He wanted her to be ready.
In the end it didn’t matter, because she couldn’t bear children. Ellen was okay at first. She knew she could be happy without kids. It was harder for Geoff. She grieved for his sense of loss; but she hadn’t actually asked him to sacrifice anything. They’d at least had several years of hoping and planning for a family.
Ellen rubbed the handle of her mug with her thumb. It felt like a long time ago when she’d lie awake, listening to her husband’s breathing after he fell asleep and remembering the names they’d agreed on for children. He never brought it up, anymore. That made sense, she supposed. She was glad if he was happy, if it meant he had forgotten, even if she couldn’t. She waited until dark to say their names, to count the years they hadn’t lived, like sheep, until she drifted off.
And it wasn’t so many years. Twelve years was long, but not in a “big picture” way. Not compared to her mother’s forty years and four children. She still called Ellen and Geoff a “baby marriage.” A relationship that hadn’t been tested by teenage kids and bankruptcy and the things her parents had come through, still smiling, still in love.
She heard Cheerio jump off the bed and shake himself. He trotted into the living room and she had to open the door to let him outside. She was wondering how she’d missed the cobwebs on the ceiling, when a thought occurred to her, and she looked at the floor. In the corners and against the walls the carpet was a greyer shade of blue. Setting her coffee on the end table, she got on her knees and looked under the couch. Underneath the dust came together in clumps.
“But who looks under the couch?” she said out loud. “Who looks at the ceiling?” No one. And if they did, maybe they deserved an eyeful of dust.
She stood up. Cheerio was waiting on the other side of the door. Ellen let him in. This was not the simple dusting she’d planned. Her shoulders were already stiff from the unaccustomed movement of the past two days, and she knew that if she started lugging the vacuum cleaner and moving furniture her back would start to hurt.
She took a long sip of coffee and went into the kitchen to rinse her cup.
Ellen heard Geoff come in from the bedroom. She turned off the news and came out to find him standing in the doorway, looking at the couch which was still jutting at an awkward angle into the living room.
“I couldn’t move it back,” she explained. “My back is bothering me.”
“You moved the couch?”
“Cleaning.” She gestured to the vacuum sitting in the corner. Geoff looked from it to the couch, then grinned.
“You moved the couch?” he repeated. “I didn’t realize you were taking this housecleaning thing so seriously!”
“Could you move it back, please?” she answered flatly.
He laughed. “Trust you to bite off more than you can chew.”
He didn’t know she’d taken each and every book off the shelf and dusted it individually. He could have gone on living with dirty blinds and filthy carpets indefinitely, and probably would never have noticed cobwebs on the ceiling.
Well, maybe if she were still employed, she wouldn’t mind living in filth either. She felt the sentence shaping in her head, the contours of tone and volume being shaped for a perfect delivery. She pressed her lips together, and forced the corners upward. It was a small smile—any larger and it would have been obviously fake. She turned and gave it to him. Immediately he smiled back, and lifted the couch to scoot it into place. She ignored the fact he was still chuckling under his breath.
“Thank you for the coffee,” she said.
He stepped away from the couch and squeezed her shoulder. “Alright.”
As he went into the bedroom to change, Ellen contemplated sitting down and playing the Starlight Waltz. She’d practiced more today. But she decided she wasn’t good enough for him to hear her yet.
But the weekend was coming, and she would play then.
As with any Saturday, Geoff was the first one up. Ellen listened to him shuffling around the kitchen in his sock feet. This day would look the same as always, job or no. Except that she would make blueberry pancakes . . . when she got out of bed.
Reluctantly, she got up and got dressed, opening the blinds to let in the morning. She used the mirror above her dresser to pull her hair back into a pony tail. A smudge on the dresser distracted her. Her sense of such things had been sharpened over the past few days; she must have missed it on her first day of cleaning. She rubbed at it with her thumb, and then her fingernail, but it wouldn’t come off.
She realized it wasn’t a stain on the dresser, but a shadow. She turned and looked at the window. A set of fingerprints stood out clearly on the glass. Probably her own.
“Damn it,” she said. “Damn.”
“What’s wrong?” Geoff asked from the living room.
She came close enough to the window that her nostrils fogged the glass. Smudges, dirt, stains from breath and fingers . . . and dust. How had she not seen this? What else was she missing?
Without answering Ellen moved into the living room. The windows here were dirty, too. A row of dog-breath and nose prints lined the window at Cheerio’s spot, where he perched on the couch and looked out. She hadn’t seen it before because of the dust, because everything was dirty. Now she saw the light itself was soiled as it entered the room, marking everything it touched.
She knew Geoff was watching her, but he didn’t say anything. Perhaps he could hear her clock ticking, the countdown to an explosion. She left the room and went into the kitchen to get paper towels and window cleaner from under the sink. The windows here were dirty, too. She cleaned them first, then moved back into the living room.
Geoff watched her as she sprayed and rubbed, then stood up and came over to her. “Everything okay?”
She paused and frowned at the fibers the towel was leaving on the window. “There’s always something else.” For some reason the window wasn’t coming clean. She could still see the tint of dirt on it, even though she felt like she was rubbing a hole in the glass. She moved on to the next one.
Geoff rubbed his chin. “I guess that’s the way it goes, honey.”
As he spoke, Ellen realized the dirt she couldn’t get at was on the outside of the window, streaks left by rain and wind and other weather. She stood up and looked at Geoff, rubbing her forehead the way she had rubbed the glass.
“You know, go ahead and be a lazy shit. I’m trying to keep this place clean.”
She didn’t wait for the aftermath of her words, leaving the room as though she could outpace them. Cheerio followed at her heels, curious because she was moving quickly. She grabbed the stepladder out of the closet, and the wheel caught in the runner on the door. She pulled quickly and it shut with a slam that sent the dog skittering across the laminate floor. Wonderful. Now he’d think she was slamming doors. She hooked the ladder over her shoulder and made her way outside, looking straight ahead.
She started on the bedroom windows. The paper towel came apart in her hands—too much cleaner. She crumpled it up and tore off another sheet and rubbed hard. Layers of dirt came off the window, stuff she couldn’t even see from the inside, leaving the paper towels a dark and dirty brown.
She remembered she hadn’t taken a shower today. She could feel the dust in her hair, her scalp itching. She tossed the paper towel aside and rubbed her hands together, watching the dirt peel off them. She thought about two nights ago and couldn’t reconcile it with the anger she felt now. She had smiled at Geoff yesterday when she was angry. But that was canceled out now.
Ellen picked up the ladder and moved to the front of the house to clean the living room windows. Through the glass she could see Geoff sitting on the couch. He was reading his book, one hand resting on Cheerio. The dog got off and crossed the room, climbing onto the other sofa to watch her through the window. He was puzzled by the occasional squeaking of the paper towel, jumping back, then creeping close again. Before she reached the last window he grew bored and wandered off, leaving behind a row of fresh nose prints on the other side.
The door slammed behind her as she came inside. Too loud. Geoff didn’t look up. Cheerio ran into the room, and she bent automatically to pick him up. He sniffed her face as she looked at her husband, wondering how to start a conversation. She stood and stared at him until he turned a page. The windows were clean now. She could start this day the way it was supposed to go.
“How about some blueberry pancakes?” she asked. It sounded like a line from some cheap commercial, and Geoff’s role was to look up and grin at her.
But Geoff didn’t look up. His index finger slipped behind a page in preparation to turn it. The slow progress of his eyes from line to line remained uninterrupted.
Cheerio was wiggling, asking to be set down. He pulled away from her with a grunt and jumped to the floor, flopping a bit before getting back to his feet and running off. Ellen went to the window he’d left his nose-prints on, ready to spray them off, but paused, one knee on the couch. Her Emily Dickinson lay on the end table. Maybe she would read, too. Maybe, later in the day, they would read on the same couch. And then, after they had read, they could talk about their books. She wasn’t interested in the Puritans, but she could pretend to be.
She set her spray bottle and paper towels aside and picked up her book. And then she saw it. It was hardly perceptible, but it was there: a book-shaped square marking the softly collecting dust.