House-cleaning was our holy grail. Every Saturday, without fail, this task took place above all others. Dad was responsible for the garage and basement. I had the feeling he welcomed having a place of peace and understanding all to himself.
I had to first clean the bathroom. When it had been inspected and approved of, I could advance to the living room. Somehow I saw the bathroom as the jungle – damp and filled with creeping crawling things – seen and unseen, while the living room was a desert – dry, sterile with only its covering of dust. The living room was bigger with its mountain range of sofa against the long wall, the other mountain range of piano – which I would never conquer or even lean to play. The sofa mountains had little dust but the piano, and foothills of bench attracted and displayed incredible amounts of it. The desk, too, seemed to actually delight in building up new places to display the dust I could not see, but Mom could.
The big radio which stood opposite the sofa had even more curlicues and dust bowls, but I cleaned it as ‘my’ property so I never had to do it over. No one ever sat in the chairs that flanked the entry door. For me they were the lions on pedestals and lions licked their own coats clean.
This left the sills to the two big windows overlooking the orchard and the road and the smaller one hemmed in by more orchard and neighboring fields. When I was younger I would mess around writing in the steam or frost on these windows but quickly learned that I was the one who also had to clean them afterwards. Still the temptation was always there to drag my finger against the glass – writing and drawing pictures only I could see.
The only real mess in the room was created by the magazine rack. No matter how religiously I replaced the Ladies Home Journal or The Christian Today, by Saturday there was an explosion of paper and glossy covers covering a wide area of rug. At least I could sit on the floor to rearrange these but that comfort was such a temptation to open Life to look at the pictures once more.
I hated the vacuum cleaning with a fear and loathing reserved for heathens and bad people. When I read about dragons in stories I knew that somewhere on their bodies was a metal plate with the words “Hoover” on it in red letters. These feelings were not ungrounded or the fantasy of a child. That thing hated me. It roared and it grabbed up chunks of curtains with great sucking sounds. Any paper I had failed to find before it did would whoosh into the tube and then stop. Stroke by stroke it began refusing to take in the dirt. There was nothing to do but stop, unplug it, and began the process of helping it cough up the dry, dusty gray, glob of vomit along with the missing paper.
I have scars from jousting bouts when I was conked on the head by the gleaming wand, tripped by the snake of a hose wrapping around my feet or fell headlong over the cord. As if this was not dangerous enough, there was the plug that snapped blue flames at me when I tried to unplug the monster without first shutting off its noise.
I took some winner’s satisfaction when I could walk away from it to start in on the dining room. This was the easiest room to clean. The bookcase full of Bibles and very boring ‘Christian Literature.’ The one book I liked was Sinclair Lewis’s Your God is Too Small. I never read any of the books on these shelves, but just his title gave me great hope and encouragement. A shelf full of people and he was my one friend. The book case was easy to clean since it had glass doors so I could clean it by walking by with my hand extended over its top holding the rag wide so all the dust was disturbed – if any was there.
The only other furniture in the room was a dining room table. We never used it for eating so I could get by, if Mom was not looking, with pulling on the edge of the lace to rearrange the exposed areas. The chairs were a pain in the butt with all those surfaces – horizontal and vertical at two levels, but since most of the chair was under the tablecloth, I could when Mom wasn’t looking, get by only dusting the back.
Next week was Christmas so I was warned not to be slack and to pull out each chair to vacuum under it. If I had to vacuum so thoroughly, did I also have to dust at that level of cleaning?
The open stairway was also my job and here again there were shortcuts. If I could sweep the floor and get the vacuum cleaner back in the closet before Mom noticed I could have the guilty pleasure of pushing the dust on the stairs back down on the just-cleaned room.
Today was no time to risk having a do-over. I was leaning already into the afternoon and the ice on the river and that kept me good. I had cheated slightly by clearing my room of its piles of clothes and books the night before, but I still had to dust and mop. I knew that if I got done too soon Mom was suspect, and know, I had skipped some part of the routine and begin checking. Also afternoon in our house was just that –
after noon. I still had to get through lunch.
I was not hungry but if I refused lunch I would deemed too sick to go to town. Lunch meant dishes and another job hurtle to be climbed over before I got my freedom. Instead I planned my outfit. The wool slacks, a hand-me-down from Mom, felt fairly adult. The sweaters were all too thin so that meant that I had to wear several at once. I did not have that many but the endless possibilities that carried me over the food part of the day. It felt great to demand, and to get, two thick pairs of Dad’s socks. Only at the door did I realize I still had to wear the long gray – ugly gray with poison green threads making a false plaid – coat. Maybe I could borrow one of the jackets from Sandra’s brothers?
Because we were so late, Sandra, her mother informed me, had already gone to the river. No chance of her helping me snag a jacket off the boys. I was doomed to the gray coat. I was not surprised.
I was surprised when Dad got out of the car and walked with me to the river. Everyone was there! and I was glad to be walking into this new place with all these people new in their many clothes on surfaces where none of us had every gone. It was as if the river had bloomed to be covered with colors and shapes never seen before. The combination of people was also strange and new. All mixed up were the kids I knew from school, a few people from church, and many people I had only seen on the streets. It was if someone had tipped the town to spill us down on the river without sorting us out by who we were.
There was no order here. People, even in drab clothes were colorful due to the speed which they swirled and swooped. I felt dizzy and realized I had forgotten to breathe. The idea of entering that maelstrom was so daunting I would have fled if Dad had not been there prodding me down the trodden snow path to the river.
It was he who had the courage to commandeer an abandoned sled for me to sit on while I took off my shoes. I knew how to put the skates on, but he acted as if I was a baby or crippled so someone else had to do it for me. Maybe I couldn’t ice skate either. Suddenly roller skates seemed very stable and not an equal accomplishment.
Through my haze of doubts and bewilderment, Dad was encouraging me to stand up. I did and I didn’t. I immediately lost my balance and we both sprawled on the ice. More cautious, and better braced, we tried it again. And again. If I looked up from my feet I only saw kids much younger and smaller than me gaily skimming over the ice. I comforted myself with the thought that they did not have to fall as far down as I did and therefore had more courage.
At some point Dad got tired or felt the lesson was over. I never saw him leave. The only change was that now strangers and other people picked me up off the ice. Sandra and Paul whizzed by many times before something inside of me stiffened enough to keep my ankles from wobbling and my arms from doing the windmill thing. I was determined to do this. I felt I just needed something and I would be all right.
I found it. There was a small strip of ice behind the island. Here no one had swept away the snow so it could help hold my foot upright. The best was being able to fall and not be in anyone’s way or to have to have their help in getting up. True I had to roll over, stick my butt in the air, stick the blade of one skate in the ice to pry myself off the river. The long coat got in the way so I gladly got rid of it. Somehow it was as if all my doubts and fears were gray with green threads and without the coat I could skate!
Back and forth across the small space I cut a pattern in the snow. Each time the trip got easier. Then it got easier to skate a large figure eight so I did not have to turn at the edge. Soothed and comforted, a great feeling of perfection – completeness – wholeness came over me. I wondered if this was what I should do the rest of my life. It had the most pleasure I had enjoyed in a very long time and I began planning on how I could extend it into my old age.
Ice did not last forever and I still had to grow up. I pushed those thoughts away with a couple more figure eights and realized someone was standing by the island watching me. As I did the top of the curve I purposely looked up to let him know I had seen him.
It was David. I knew him from church. He was a senior and I was only in the eighth grade so we never had met at school. He had come to our house once for a Boy Scout meeting with my Dad and I remembered bringing him cookies and pop in bottle. I knew he and Paul – Sandra’s Paul were friends. I never even spoken to him but it seemed that was about to change as he was skating toward me.
He got bigger and bigger and I realized he was as tall and about the same shape as my Dad. He was someone I could lean on. And I had to do so immediately because when I tried to stop I found it was momentum that had kept me upright. Falling into his arms made it easier for him to ask me to skate with him. Skating with his support covered me with feathers so we flew up and down the river’s length.
The younger boys from his Scout troop began to tease him with nah-nah songs of being in love, but that only made him smile more and hold me tighter. We did not have to talk so he was comfortable. I was blissful because someone was holding me and seemed so pleased to be with me. This was as close to dancing we would get in this town.
As the weak winter sun quickly sank into the woods, the cold came back out and people began to leave. I was prepared to skate into the next millennium and never move out David’s arm, but I was getting tired and my right side was freezing.
Only David’s offer that he knew some place we could go that was warmer got me to take off my skates. Walking up the hill toward the school I was a new person. True my feet were lumps of ice but my ankles no longer hurt. And there was David’s smile that I could look at and fall into without falling down on my knees.
At the back of the old auditorium I stared in fascination as he took out his knife and used the blade to move back the bolt and open the door. We dashed inside as if someone might see us and without a word headed to the radiators along the wall. None of them were more than barely warm. No matter how we draped ourselves over them, slipping our cold hand between the coils, we were still cold.
With an ingenuity I found marvelous, David shooed me up on the stage. While I stood before the opened curtains imaging myself bowing after my aria, David was dragging one of the double folding chairs up to the curtain. I wondered how that could get us warm, but laughed in delight as we pulled the dusty velvet curtains around like a huge blanket.
Within minutes we were warm enough to speak. So we talked. Then in a small silence David was pressing his lips against mine. I almost jerked with surprise. His kiss was so very different from the hard jolt from Ron’s mouth. David was kind and tender and gentle and at some time away in memory I realized his kisses were just as he was.
The scratch, scratch of metal against metal separated us as we stiffened to listen. Someone was at the door. Someone else’s knife was doing to the door what David’s knife had done. He relaxed. As the door, out of sight of our red nest, opened, Dave called out, “We are here.” and Paul’s voice answered, “Coming.”