Malena woke up from a dream she couldn’t quite remember, except for a blurry sense that she had been falling. The red numbers on the alarm clock read 5:58. It wouldn’t begin its shrill call until 6:00. She reached across her husband Henry’s chest to turn it off. Still asleep Henry’s arms slipped around her waist and pulled her down to his side. Malena buried her face in his neck and smiled. This was nice. They barely exchanged a quick kiss before bed anymore.
Henry groaned and pulled her on top of him. She let him hold her a moment longer, then sat up to take her nightgown off. Henry opened his eyes and stared at her as though sleep had stolen his memory of her. She smiled at him and leaned forward to kiss him. He grabbed her hips and slid her back to her side of the bed.
“I can’t this morning, Malena. I have to go for a run. By the way, how much weight have you gained?” Henry swung his feet onto the wooden floor and stretched his arms over his head. Slipping off his boxers, he strode naked to the bathroom. The slight pooch of his belly had grown smaller since he’d taken up running again.
Malena lay still, feeling her face flush with heat and shame. She felt her own belly, full and round. Her hips, supported by her prominent backside, stretched wide across the sheets. She sat up and pulled her nightgown back on before Henry could come out of the bathroom. She picked up the clothes he had worn the night before, and placed the pants and socks in the hamper. She started to hang up his jacket, then stopped and held it close to her face. It smelled like him, like his soap, his musky cologne. But there was something else; something sour, something familiar. Her stomach knotted, but she shook her head and hung the coat over the back of the chair at her desk.
Henry walked back into the room, drying his face with a towel.
“Are you going into the bathroom?”
Without waiting for a reply he threw the towel at her. “Here.”
Treading heavily toward the stairs, Malena started turning on lights. The light in the hallway was first, then Sophie’s light in the bedroom across the hall from theirs. When she turned it on, she called to her daughter, “Sophie, wake up, kiddo. You’ve got to get up now.”
Sophie rolled from her side to her back mumbling something about clothes.
“Sophie, if you want pancakes, you have to move.” Another mumbled response.
As Malena continued toward the stairs, she turned the light on in the boys’ room. Gus rolled away from the electric glare with a groan, but Finn sat up and smiled as he did every morning. At six he was still little enough to be undaunted by mornings and school days.
“Morning, sweetie. I guess you get the first hug of the morning.”
“Yes! I win again.” Finn stretched out his arms to Malena; unlike his older siblings, he wasn’t embarrassed by affection from his mother.
“Get up and get dressed, Finn. I promised Sophie I’d make pancakes this morning, but we’ve got to be ready fast. You can help me.”
“Is it a long pants day or a short pants day, Mommy?”
Malena felt the window pane. It was cold. Looking out the pockmarked glass, she saw that the grass was frosted in a shade of delicate white.
“It’s definitely a long pants day, Finn. I don’t think we’re going to have any more short pants days till next spring.” Finn stood up on the bed and bounced a few times, then jumped off, landing on the floor with a thud.
“Spiderman is going to the bathroom!” he shouted, then ran down the hall.
Malena laughed, and walked over to the other bed. Gus had burrowed his head underneath his pillow, but she could still see the curve of his chin and the pink of his lower lip. He was twelve, but Malena thought she saw a trace of the little boy he’d once been. She stroked her hand across his back.
“Gus? Gus. It’s time to get up.”
“I know.” The pillow made his voice sound far away.
“Are you getting up?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, mom, I’m getting up,” Gus said, annoyed. He pushed the covers off, sat up and stretched his arms.
“I’m getting up, Mom. You can leave now.”
Some mornings Malena would have called him on his snotty tone, but she knew he was feeling awkward about his body around her, around anybody, so she decided to let it go. Finn came back in the room, completely naked with his pajama shirt tied like a cape around his neck.
“I’m naked Spiderman,” he proclaimed!
“Oh God, Finn! Stop walking around naked! Mom, please leave, so I can get up.”
“Fine, I’m going. Don’t say ‘Oh God.’ Finn, once you’re dressed, go jump on your sister and wake her up.”
“I heard that!” Sophie called from her room.
Malena went down the back stairs into the kitchen. The stained linoleum was freezing under her feet. She thought about running back upstairs and digging out her grungy slippers from the closet. But it was getting late. She would try to remember them tomorrow. She started the coffee and pulled the box of Bisquick out of the pantry.
It was all normal, ordinary. Henry came downstairs in running tights and a jacket. Malena bit her tongue to keep her comment about his tights to herself. She had laughed when he bought them, teasing him about being desperate to look younger. Henry hadn’t spoken to her for a week.
“There’ll be pancakes when you get back.” She spoke in a light voice, addressing his hamstrings as he stretched in the middle of the kitchen.
“I won’t have time to eat anything. I have a nursing home service this morning, so I’ll shower at the church. Did you iron my dog collar? You know the old people like it when I look like a minister.”
“There are some collars on the ironing board in the dining room.”
Henry looked at her. “Are you sure pancakes are a good idea? It looks like you’re already wearing some on your hips.” Malena’s eyes filled with tears; she tried to hide them by turning back to the griddle.
But Henry noticed. “I’m just trying to offer some constructive criticism, Malena. You’re too sensitive.” He ran out the backdoor. Malena heard Finn hopping down the stairs.
“I’m ready to make pancakes, Mommy.” He pulled the black stool up to the counter, and climbed on it, spatula in hand.
It was so normal, so ordinary. Finn turned the pancakes, accidentally giving one to Maggie, their border collie, when he tried to flip it into the air. Sophie sat at the table and finished the last of her math homework in a panic. Gus was sullen and sleepy when he first came downstairs, complaining that all the guys in his class were taking a weight training class at the community college. Flexing his biceps, he asked if he could take the class too.
There was nothing different about this morning. The chatter, the commotion were the stuff of every breakfast, every day. But Malena didn’t go into the basement every morning. This morning she did. This morning, she ran to the basement to get the old birdcage that Finn wanted to bring to school for show and tell. This morning she saw the bottle of amber liquid, with measuring lines drawn across its circumference from the bottom to the top. She picked it up and saw that the whiskey was down to the one quarter line. She unscrewed the cap and inhaled its sharp aroma. Her stomach twisted just as it did when she’d smelled Henry’s jacket. Malena felt dizzy and sick. Bile rose to the back of her throat, and she leaned over thinking she would throw up. Nothing happened, but sweat beaded on her forehead and upper lip.
“Mom! We have to go!” Sophie yelled to her from the top of the basement stairs.
“I’m coming.” Turning, she wiped her face with her hand. This morning she knew what Henry was doing.
Malena tried to clean, but her thoughts whirled frenetically. She couldn’t concentrate on any one task, so she haphazardly abandoned one chore for another. She would start to wash a dish, put it down and move to the ironing board. Leaning over to plug in the iron, she saw dust along the baseboards, so she pulled out the vacuum. Finally, she gave up and waited for Henry to come home for lunch. Malena waited, sitting on the torn plaid couch that the church council insisted stay in the parsonage because a member, long dead, had donated it to the parsonage rather than the landfill. She waited with the bottle on her knees, spinning it like a top, wondering in which direction the sloshing fluid inside would point. Henry came in through the back door. Malena heard his briefcase land on the floor and his keys slap against the kitchen counter. He called her name. She didn’t answer. He walked into the living room, whistling. Malena knew this meant he was in a good mood. Maybe he’d run faster today. Maybe the nursing home service had gone well or someone had complimented him on Sunday’s sermon. Maybe someone had died and left the church money. Whatever the reason, when he whistled, she knew he’d won somehow. Usually he wanted to celebrate by having sex instead of lunch. He wouldn’t want that today. When Henry turned the corner from the dining room to the living room and saw her holding the bottle, the off-key tune died on his lips.
His face flushed, and his gray eyes looked defiant and hard, like stones. Malena and Henry stared at each other. Neither spoke nor moved. Malena only knew she was breathing by the rise and fall of her chest.
Henry turned away first, picking up the mail from the table next to the front door.
“There’s nothing wrong with me having a drink or two, Malena. I wouldn’t hide it if you weren’t so uptight about it. I wouldn’t do a lot of things if you weren’t so uptight.”
Malena cut off further explanation. “Who is she, Henry?”
“Who is who?” He asked, sounding innocent.
“Who is she, Henry?” Malena asked again, her voice rising with each word.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about Malena. I just drink to relax.” He smiled at his wife, his tone calm and appeasing.
“Bullshit! You drink to cover your guilt. Who is she, Henry? Who is she? Is she a parishioner? Is it Nola Dobbs? Carmen Sweeny? Is it someone in the choir, the council, the women’s Bible study? Who is she?” Malena stood up and walked around the coffee table to face him. He backed a step away.
“You’re imagining things. Again.” But Henry couldn’t look at her. He stared down at the mail in his hands.
“Who is she? When will I start getting phone calls that mysteriously hang up at the sound of my voice? When will people stop talking the minute I walk into a room? When will the synod start getting complaints about you? When will the rumors and the innuendos and the damn whispering start, Henry? When will we have to move again, Henry? When? WHO IS SHE?” Malena screamed, and then she slapped him across the cheek. Her palm and fingers stung. The left side of his face bore the imprint of her hand.
Henry touched his cheek. He raised his fist. Malena put her hands up, protectively, covering her face. But Henry dropped his hand. He looked at her calmly. He smiled at her. He laughed.
“Diana?” Malena stared at him. Her mouth was dry. She couldn’t seem to catch her breath. He didn’t need to punch her with his fists. He had just knocked her windless with two words.
“Diana.” He walked around the table, picked up the bottle and opened it. He lifted it to her in a mocking toast, and then drank, almost emptying it in one swallow.
“She likes it when I drink. She likes a lot of things.” He turned and left the room. Malena heard the tinny jingle of his keys, then the slam of the door. She looked at her hands. She stared at the room around her. Nothing looked familiar. Her hands, her home, her life was foreign and strange. Looking down at the coffee table, she saw the old black covered Bible that belonged to Henry’s great-grandfather. Henry displayed it prominently; a showpiece of the generations of self-righteousness that grew abundantly in his family tree. Its binding was torn in places and the pages were grubby from years of turning. She picked it up and felt its weight press against her palms. With both hands she threw it through the glass top of the coffee table. The sound of the glass shattering gave her no comfort.
Malena washed the hand that had hit his cheek over and over again. It didn’t stop the stinging. She paced back and forth, her hands fluttering in front of her. She couldn’t stop moving. She couldn’t deflect the bombardment of memories. On their first anniversary, she’d walked into the church office to surprise him with a picnic lunch and found him standing at the copier with his secretary. He was behind her, close behind her, stroking her bare arms. The secretary quit soon after. Right after Gus was born she’d seen him slide his hand along the thigh of a college student at the college ministry picnic. The student had blonde hair that fell below her waist. Henry had tangled his fingers in it and they had smiled at each other. In Henry’s last church, two choir members had walked in on him and the choir director kissing by the wooden rack that held sheet music. In less than a month, Henry was moved to a new church.
Each time Malena had threatened to leave, to walk out. She would go back to teaching. She would find a job. She and the kids didn’t need Henry to take care of them. She didn’t need Henry. But he’d always begged her to stay. He’d always promised to stop, to change. They had gone for counseling. He sought out a spiritual director. He had been reprimanded by the synod. Henry told Malena he couldn’t live without her. He couldn’t live without the kids. Henry swore he loved only her, and he pleaded with Malena to keep loving him in return. She did.
But Diana? Diana was her friend. Diana made her laugh. Diana was the only person in this stuffy, self-righteous church that didn’t make her feel inadequate and ill equipped to be a minister’s wife. Diana seemed to know when Malena was discouraged or feeling hemmed in by the house, the church and her life. She took Malena shopping and to the movies. They went to lunch and talked and laughed.
Henry was screwing Diana. She could not comprehend it. She could not bear it. Malena’s stinging hands fluttered. She paced. She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t speak. Henry was screwing Diana? Henry was screwing Diana! She wanted to pray; she wanted, she needed God to help her. Help. Her. She tried to pray, but God was gone.
Malena was never a convincing liar, but she was amazed at how easily she could explain away chaos to the children. The broken coffee table was due to her clumsy vacuuming. Daddy had been called away to visit a family in crisis. It was all right that they were eating without him. He would be home late. The evening looked as normal as the morning. But Malena felt far away, as though she were out-of-step with time. She stood at a distance and watched ordinary Malena do the ordinary things. Ordinary Malena washed dishes, helped with homework, directed showers and read bedtime stories. Ordinary Malena gave kisses and hugs, helped lay out clothes for the next day; picked up toys and checked through backpacks.
When her children were asleep, Malena went back down to the basement. She didn’t find any more bottles, but lined up against the wall were old cans of paint displaying their colors in drips of hue frozen on the sides of the cans. Malena found a can of red, chosen once to renovate some old chairs her grandmother had given her. But the only brush she could find was stiff from too much use and too little cleaning. It would have to do.
She took the paint, the brush and a screwdriver, and went upstairs to her bedroom. The bed was still unmade. Her desk was covered with a swirl of papers, bills, unread magazines. She pulled out a drawer, and reached in with her hand. She felt the cigarette pack taped at the back. Henry wasn’t the only one with secrets. She pulled off her jeans and t-shirt and put on the bathrobe that he had given her last Christmas. Sitting on the bed, she opened the paint can with the screwdriver. She threw the tool onto the wooden floor. It landed hard, gouging a mark in the already scratched wood. Malena didn’t care. She opened the window of their room, the one that faced the church. She climbed out onto the narrow pitch of roof, paint can in her hand, brush in one pocket of her robe, cigarettes and lighter in the other.
It was cold, but Malena didn’t feel it. Instead she felt feverish and the bitter air was like a cool cloth on her skin. She dipped the brush into the paint and tried to form the first letter. The bristles were too old and stiff to cooperate. She hurled the brush to the ground. Dipping her hand into the can, she cupped the paint like Henry cupped water when he baptized a baby. Putting her hand to the shingle, she shaped an S.
Sweat started at the peak of her hairline and slipped down her forehead into her eyes. She swiped at it with her arm and the paint spackled her hair in red. Malena felt the perspiration gather under her breasts and behind her knees. She took the cigarettes and lighter out of the pocket, laying them precariously on the shingles next to her. She pulled off her robe and threw it to the ground to join the brush. Before it could land, it caught on a low branch of the oak tree in the side yard and hung there like a ghost. Malena didn’t notice. A sudden gust of wind chilled her feverish skin, and dried her sweat.
Turning back to the paint, she started the next letter; O. Malena splashed her hand into the paint a final time, kneeling on all fours, intent on her message. The last letter; another S.
Sitting back, Malena lit a cigarette. She sat perched on the roof holding it in her red stained hands like some sort of smoking bird. Blood colored paint covered her. It was smeared across her breasts where they had sagged against the roof as she wrote. She looked down at herself and saw that the paint had tinged her belly, her knees, and the tops of her thighs. She was covered in blood. She was a sacrificial lamb. She exhaled a ring of smoke and watched it climb the air. Maybe its perfume would be pleasing to the God who was supposedly up there somewhere. She looked at the letters again. Here was her prayer. Here was her plea. S.O.S. Save our souls.
This story was written as an assignment for a creative writing class I took with Professor Amy Weldon.