“Tiny, Meaningless Things,” by Marisa Silver


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Audio: Marisa Silver reads.

Wednesday is ironing day, a day of smoothness, the pleasing, embryonic smell of wet heat, and the satisfactions of erasure. How rewarding it is, Evelyn thinks, to work the tip of the iron into the wrinkled underarms of her favorite blouses and watch their instant transformation into material that is fresh and untried. Now that she is seventy-four, and her skin has lost its elasticity, this trick of reversing time is no longer available to her.

It’s like a head of wilted lettuce, she thinks, as she mists a blouse with water. All you have to do is put it in ice water and it springs back to life. These were lessons she’d tried to impart to her daughters: the proper way to store vegetables, to fold clothing, to wash their faces (never soap, only water). They hadn’t listened, of course. They couldn’t imagine decay. Her daughters’ bored or frankly antagonistic responses to her attempts to make them understand the value of preservation had agitated her, and she’d repeated her warnings two or maybe three times until they screamed or slammed doors. They were young. How could they know the disaster of carelessness? She knew. She’d been at her cousin’s wedding in Tulsa when her husband died so long ago. The doctor had told her that it would be safe to take those days off from her vigil, that Frank had a while yet. Naomi and Ruth were away at school, Naomi in Lincoln, Ruth all the way east at a private college that had given her a scholarship to insure her sharp and critical company. It had been up to Paula to keep tabs on her father that weekend. Evelyn paid for a nurse to come in during the day. All Paula had to do was peek into the bedroom once or twice before she went to bed, just to make sure that her father was sleeping easily. It wasn’t a lot to ask of a sixteen-year-old who stayed awake late into the night, whispering on the phone to boys. Evelyn had been surprised that Paula hadn’t complained. That had touched her, and she’d thought that perhaps now that Paula’s sisters were gone, and she was no longer the youngest, alternately teased or ignored, she was beginning to feel the grownup pleasures of responsibility. Evelyn had left phone numbers for people Paula could call should anything be amiss—Dr. Barnes and Vivian Branch next door. She’d left the number of the house where she’d be staying. But Paula hadn’t called anyone. She hadn’t even checked on her father when she came home from the party she’d promised to forgo. The next morning, when the nurse called Evelyn, she said that Frank had been gone for “some time.” Evelyn hadn’t asked how long. She didn’t want to know if the nurse had found him with his mouth agape, didn’t want to imagine that he’d been that way for hours, his final call unheard. Paula was still asleep, the nurse said. Should she wake her?

Thursday is the day when Evelyn clears the refrigerator of those vegetables that have been in the bins long past cold water’s ability to revive them, when she tosses the slices of turkey that have acquired a slick, iridescent sheen. She eats less now than she used to, but she hasn’t got used to grocery shopping with that in mind. She watches the women who roam the aisles gripping baskets barely weighted with a single chicken breast, two oranges, a child-sized carton of milk meant for lunchboxes. Walking advertisements for precarity. Who wants to die alone in her apartment and be left undiscovered for enough time that the smell of soured milk would be the giveaway? And here was another piece of advice her daughters had ignored: Always wear a good pair of underwear and a matching bra. Which was the opposite kind of warning, she realizes, aimed not at longevity but at the possibility of dying suddenly and violently and being discovered with your skirt up around your ears in a pair of sad panties.

Friday, she vacuums, which, like ironing, is a kind of vanishing, this time accompanied by the obliterating sound of her old Hoover. She sometimes thinks of the machine as sentient, the way the motor excitedly revs up when it encounters a density of crumbs, the greedy crackling as the throat of the hose sucks down a pebble she’s tracked in on the bottom of her awful-looking but, yes, sturdy crêpe soles. The indignities are everywhere.

“How’s the wash going, Mom?” Ruth might ask if she calls on a Tuesday. The familiarity is meant to be a gentle tease, but Evelyn knows that her daughters can’t fathom how their mother can create enough mess to warrant this constant cycle of chores. “It gives her something to do,” she once heard Naomi whisper to Ruth when they were visiting together. She wanted to tell them that jobs, marriage, child rearing—all of it is just something to do. But she kept quiet. No more warnings.

It’s when she’s ironing the collar of her favorite lilac-colored blouse that she senses Scotty outside the apartment door. She’s told him many times that he needs to ring the doorbell, or at least knock, but he never does. It doesn’t matter, really. She always knows when he’s there. She senses a hovering. She lays the iron in its cradle and goes to the door. There he is, swallowed up by his baseball uniform, which is spotless, even though he’s coming from practice. She knows his summer schedule by now. She imagines him on the field, mitt dangling at his side, staring at a bug in the grass or at a cloud, while the other seven-year-olds yell that the ball is heading his way. She’s certain that he doesn’t care if he misses a catch. Scotty seems uninterested in his childhood. He’s marking time, waiting for these years to pass, if possible, without his participation. He’s skinny, and his ears stick out. His bangs fall into his eyes no matter how often he brushes or blows them away. Despite his slightness, there is a weight about him, a sombre gravity. She knows not to greet him enthusiastically or to use those endearments which adults so often bestow on children they barely know. Something about Scotty doesn’t invite intimacy. Better for her to behave as if he were a worker, clocking in for his shift. He stands, as he always does, at the threshold, waiting for her to walk a few steps into the room before he follows. He doesn’t close the door behind him, so she doubles back to do it. This bit of choreography has become so routine that she no longer notices it, although, at first, it irritated her. She assumed that he was one of those children whose parents cut their food or tie their shoelaces well beyond the age when that type of interference is necessary. She once watched a news program about a man who was released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime he didn’t commit. The reporter followed the man around as he tried to get used to the free world. When the man reached a door—the front door of his home, say, or the door of the local bar—he would simply stop and wait for someone else to open it for him. For decades, he had not been allowed to open a door and walk through it on his own. It was this detail that made Evelyn understand that he’d lost something more fundamental than time. No, Scotty isn’t spoiled. He asks for nothing and expects nothing.

He goes into her bedroom, humming quietly to himself. He often sings, narrating his activity as it’s happening in high-pitched, wandering tunes that he makes up as he goes. “We’re folding the sheets,” he might sing. “We’re watering the plants.” He doesn’t seem to be aware of his habit, and she doesn’t point it out. She’s touched by his lack of inhibition. She counts this as a measure of his comfort and, more than that, proof of something about her that is intrinsically good. Children know what’s what. Children and dogs. Now Scotty’s singing about hangers, and when he reappears he’s holding an armload of them. On Wednesdays, it’s his job to put the pressed clothing back in her closet. She’s taught him how to think of the hanger as a pair of shoulders so that he can properly arrange a blouse to hold its shape, how to fix a skirt on clips, or hang a pair of slacks so that the crisply ironed seams match up. He’s too small to reach the hanging rod, so she keeps a step stool next to the closet for him. Forty-five minutes can go by with them barely speaking to each other—an occasional “Here you go” when she hands him a piece of clothing.

They’ve finished their work, and Scotty sits at the kitchen table eating a piece of cinnamon toast. She made it for him once, and now he prepares it himself, getting the loaf from the bread box, toasting a slice, spreading the butter, sprinkling just the right amount of cinnamon and sugar on it so that it tastes sweet rather than bitter. He holds the toast with both hands and takes small bites around each of the four sides before starting the circuit again. Finally, he’s left with the morsel at the center, where the toast is most thoroughly soaked in butter and spice. She admires his patience. Most children would finish off the toast in a few bites. But Scotty is not most children.

She knows almost nothing about him. She doesn’t know when his birthday falls, or the name of his school, his favorite color, or the name of his little brother. She doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. It would embarrass them both for her to ask the condescending questions adults normally come up with to pretend they’re interested in children’s lives. The crudity of superficial intimacy would make what goes on between them inconsequential. No, her relationship with Scotty is something else. It is unencumbered by the baggage of the past or by other attachments. They exist for each other only during the time when Scotty helps her with her chores and eats his toast.

“Ooh, this looks like a cute place to argue.”

Cartoon by E. S. Glenn and Colin Nissan

He finishes the last bite and slides off his chair. She follows him to the door, opens it, and watches him walk to the far end of the hallway, where he disappears into his apartment. She closes her door, feeling a little bit wholesome, a little bereft.

It’s only later, when she’s changing for bed, that she notices that Scotty has rearranged her closet, putting her dresses on the left side, the skirts to their right, then her slacks, and finally the blouses. She had organized her clothes in reverse order, based on use—she almost always wears pants and blouses these days. Skirts are for the infrequent lunch out. Dresses are for funerals. She wonders what compelled Scotty to make the change. Is this the way his mother’s closet is set up? She’s seen the woman only in the hallway or in the garage. She’s always overburdened with children, or grocery bags, or pails and shovels if she’s taken her boys to the park. She dresses in shorts and tennis shoes, heedless of her cellulite. She doesn’t seem like a woman who has time to worry about how her closet looks. Once, earlier in the summer, just after Scotty started coming over, Evelyn shared an elevator with his mother. They acknowledged each other with nods. The woman didn’t mention Scotty’s visits or ask if Evelyn minded the intrusion. Evelyn took this as an insinuation that an old lady should be happy for the company of a small, odd boy. She was about to say something to clarify who was doing a favor for whom, but then she noticed that the woman’s blouse was buttoned wrong, and that her bra showed where the material puckered. Evelyn touched her own blouse the way she might touch her lip to let a friend know about a crumb, but it didn’t work. When they reached the garage and went in separate directions to find their cars, Evelyn felt anxious. The woman was going to go out in public looking like that! Throughout the afternoon, she thought of Scotty’s mother at the market or in line at the bank and her concern for the woman turned to anger. If she’d only noticed Evelyn’s warning, she would have avoided that humiliation.

Evelyn is about to put the clothes back the way she likes them but stops. Scotty, who speaks only when spoken to, who eats his snack with solemn reverence, is communicating something with this rearrangement. Even if she can’t grasp his meaning, she feels the interior charge of a shared secret.

It’s Saturday, and Scotty helps her with the dusting. With his step stool, he can reach the top of the refrigerator and the lintels above the doors with the chamois cloth. He hasn’t yet begun the alternating puff and stretch she noticed in her girls when they were about his age, the way they would amass weight around their middles right before a growth spurt, as if they needed a store of energy in order to blast off. She doesn’t know about boys, though. Their bodies don’t swell and shrink on a monthly schedule. For a boy, growing seems like a less conditional enterprise. There’s a dull honesty to it. The bodies of girls are deceptions that they learn to control so they can use them to their advantage. This was something she never advised her daughters about. She didn’t have to.

As Scotty follows her around the apartment, he hums one of his little tunes. He sings a word or two about a dust bunny he finds under the bed, or about passing the white-glove test, which is something she once told him about. Of course, she doesn’t use a white glove. She doesn’t even own a pair—who would, these days? But he was captivated by the idea, probably because she told him it was a custom at Buckingham Palace, which was something that might not be true but sounded true. She tries always to be straightforward with Scotty, but sometimes she can’t resist the look on his face when he reconsiders her and wonders what further mysteries she might contain.

When they’re done with the living room and the bedroom, they go into the den. It irks her that the grass cloth above the television console is lighter where the portrait of Burl’s racehorse once hung. She didn’t keep her second husband around long enough for him to make much of an impression on other rooms in the apartment, but the den gets direct sunlight, and the reverse stain feels like a rebuke. He was so angry when she said she wanted a divorce. She was surprised by that, somehow having imagined that he’d take it all in the genial manner in which he took most things. He’d done nothing wrong. He hadn’t changed. He hadn’t cheated. He adored her. But she’d never believed in his ardor. Maybe that was the problem. Frank had been gone for nearly three decades, but another man’s professions of love still sounded phony. She’d begun to hope that when she returned home after a day at work Burl wouldn’t be there. She couldn’t bear the triviality of their life together. The fridge is making that sound again meant that he was going to hoist himself out of his chair with his customary grunt, put his shoulder to it, and give it a silencing shove. I sense an eggroll coming on meant that he wanted to go to Golden Palace for dinner. Living with Burl was a daily reminder that most of the ways people invented to fill up time were harrowingly insignificant. That was the explanation, wasn’t it, she thinks now, as Scotty moves things off the television console, dusts the wood, and puts the magazines and the ashtray and the photographs of her grandchildren back exactly as they were. She couldn’t keep up the pretense that any of it mattered.

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