By Marco Etheridge
The sun is shining brightly on what is normally a quiet street. The neighbors go about their Saturday business. They tend spring flowers and mow overgrown lawns. Everyone is keeping their heads down, eyes on their work. They do not want to see what is happening.
A man is standing at the bottom of a short flight of wooden stairs. The stairs climb to the landing of a small bungalow. His eyes are on the worn treads in front of him. He meant to replace those old boards. That was one of the last tasks on the list. Stainless deck screws, that would be the right way to do it. He tries to order the work in his mind, but the thoughts won’t stay put. They drift off on the morning breeze, no longer anchored to this place.
A woman who is soon not to be his wife is standing at the top of the stairs. The front door of the house is ajar. The door opens onto a living room that will soon not be his. The woman at the top of the stairs is wearing a bathrobe. Her right hand is clutching the bathrobe at her throat, holding it closed. Her voice is ringing out over the quiet street. The man raises his eyes to her face, but he cannot hear her words. There is only the sound of chanting, the volume rising and falling. The chant rides on wings, wings that carry it across the stillness of the morning.
The neighbors do not look toward the bungalow. They are trying very hard not to listen. There is poison in the words of the woman’s chant. The words carry an infection easily caught. The infection could seep into any unguarded crack, prying open what should be left closed.
The man lets his eyes fall away from her chanting mouth. There are brown paper grocery bags on edge of the landing. The bags are misshapen, bulging with possessions packed haphazardly. He sees the woman’s bare foot flash in the sunlight. There is a crunching sound as her foot slams into one of the bags. The bag tumbles down the wooden steps. The paper rips apart on the second bounce.
The contents of the makeshift luggage spill out, cascading down the wooden steps. Books and balled-up socks scatter around his feet. The man bends to gather up the detritus. He cradles it in his arms as best he can.
He turns away from the house, carrying the armload of junk to a pickup truck parked in the driveway below. The sound of the chant rises again, hitting him in the back of the neck. The man drops his clumsy burden atop a growing pile in the bed of the truck.
He hears the dull crunch of a bare foot kicking another bag. He looks out over the street, his back to the house. From the open door behind him comes the sound of a baby crying. The chant rises and falls, cut off by the slamming of a door. The morning is quiet again. The shrill ghost of the woman’s voice fades down the street. The echo of it has chased the neighbors inside their safe havens.
The man nods his head, waiting. When he is sure of the silence, he walks back to the house. Hunting among the flower beds, he picks up the scattered contents of the ruptured paper luggage. Making another trip down the walk, he adds these castoffs to the pile in the truck bed.
There is one surviving bag at the top of the landing. The boards creak under his boots as he climbs the stairs. The man carries the bag, holding it gently against his chest. He places the intact sack on the floorboard inside the truck.
There is a bare mattress leaning against a concrete wall beside the truck. The man heaves the mattress over the pile of junk in the bed of the pickup. He is sweating in the sunshine as he tightens down the ratchet straps.
When the last strap is tightened, he checks his load. The man tugs at the mattress, but it does not move. He nods his head, moves to the driver’s door of the truck. He opens the door, but he does not climb into the truck. Instead, he stands inside the open door, his arms draped over the top edge of it.
He looks out over the street, leaning against the truck door. In that moment, everything is still. The breeze does not blow. No cars roll past. The street holds its breath, waits, then exhales.
Down the block a lawnmower sputters to life. Another answers from a yard across the street. The threat has passed. Life returns to the neighborhood. The man climbs into his truck and drives away.