J. Rachel Kelly - September 20, 2020
SIX MINUTE STEEP
I clench my fingers around the mug to stop the shaking.
Window lace softens the morning light spilling across the dinner table, down the faded tablecloth, and training a strip of color along the narrow hall of the old renovated Victorian to the crucifix at its end. An Architect’s dream, he’d said. But his mug is empty. Missing the brew and cream he always returned to… always had time for. Am I alone? You promised…
Another tremor unsettles the mug, and I grip it tighter.
Warmth from the sunlight—warmer than the thick-walled mug of dark brown sludge, cold and bitter—eases the pain. Illuminating it. Blue veins bulge from pale tissue, wrinkled with large brown spots, wrapped over enlarged knuckles no longer elegant and strong. Brittle fingernails painted to hide a yellow stain…
When did we become old?
No, not we.
A headline catches my eye: Death at the Circus
I unfold the paper. The sharp crinkle chases silence from the corners of the house. Three pages turn. I fold them along the creases, taking extra care to straighten the bottom so that no unintended wrinkles deface the pages, and read on about the great clown who offed himself.
My lips purse and I shake my head. What a fool.
Throwing the paper down, I snatch up the heavy mug and stand, holding onto the table for support. Behind me, the sink is empty. I fill it with water, letting the soap pour into the warmth, over the cream ceramic of the mug.
I shove it back into the cupboard and close the door with a gratifying slap. Other ceramic mugs clink in response.
With a satisfying sense of accomplishment, I unplug the coffee maker and sweep the whole mess—filters, beans, powdered cream—into the trash.
His mugs follow, one after the other, leaving my cupboard bare.
Late… ”Always late. I should’ve…”
Movement at his office door pulls my gaze, the crucifix beside it, but the hall is dark, empty—I am alone. Moisture gathers above my mouth, the crease below my temples.
Trembling fingers tuck stray gray hairs. I straighten my blouse.
Mandy will bring the grandkids at nine. Kids like sweets. Children should have cookies while they can.
I retrieve my measuring cups and mixing bowl. Shuffle to the pantry for flour, sugar and little candies, then the milk, butter and eggs.
I fiddle with the pans, clinking the metal sheets together, creating a din of busyness. The mechanical mixer the kids gave me for Christmas whirls to life. She’ll want coffee.
A breath swells my breast and leaves on a sigh.
With the first batch of cookies in the oven, I slap my hands together, dusting off flour over the sink. It feels good. Wholesome.
Mandy will want coffee. I frown, glancing at the naked space under the cupboards. A glimmer of red catches my gaze, coming from back of the breadbox, beside the emptiness. My tea kettle.
Something in my chest eases.
“I know it’s expensive, Mom. Have you spoken with the life insurance group? They cover death from cancer, Peter checked. Should be enough to settle everything. We’d help.” Mandy says, while young Sally pulls her towards the kitchen bar topped with warm cookies.
Mandy’s other hand cradles her cell.
Sammy sits at the kitchen bar on a tall stool, chocolate covering his cherub cheeks, grinning. He sneers at his sister.
“Mommy,” says Sally, tugging at Mandy with greater urgency, before winning her freedom and running to climb up to her spot next to Sammy.
He pulls the heaping platter to himself.
“Share, Samuel,” their mother says with that tone—the same as Mandy’s father.
My hand trembles. I need something to hold on to, but I won’t use that mug, not ever again.
“Well, Mom?” Mandy presses, her eyes crease.
“Yes, Mandy. It’s all taken care of, but I won’t be leaving,” I say, not a little annoyed. I don’t want to talk about that. I want a visit. “Come have a cookie with me, Sweetheart.”
Her eyes brighten at the sight of a small plate of cookies I’d hidden from the kids, as I knew they would. I motion at the dining table where I’ve set out napkins and two dainty tea cups covered in daffodils.
“Okay, but I can’t stay long.” She doesn’t say why, but I know—Peter’s started that new job in New York.
My throat tightens. I clear it with a soft groan.
Mandy takes the cookies to the dining room and I follow her on my slow legs.
“Coffee?” She asks.
“No,” I say much harder than I intend. I soften it with a smile. “How about tea?”
A frown smooths from Mandy’s forehead. “Sounds lovely. Want help?”
“No, Sweetheart. Have a cookie. I’ll be just a minute.”
The water is tepid. I turn on and light the gas to reheat it as I stock the tray with a floral-patterned bowl of sugar cubes, warmed cream in a three-inch pitcher shaped like a cat, and two golden teaspoons.
At the center is my mother’s old porcelain teapot with roses gracefully twining around its base—same chip in the rose paint.
A big box of tea sits on the counter. Its golden foil is smooth and a teal tassel hangs from its top. I scoop a great heap into the bottom.
He always hated my tea.
I gasp and the second scoop scatters into the sink.
The kettle whistles.
I breathe in the fragrant steam as water flows into the elegant porcelain pot and set the tea timer.
“How long does it need to steep?” Mandy asks as I set the tray on the table cloth.
“Six minutes. How are the cookies?”
“Why didn’t Dad like these? They’re wonderful.”
“Good. Has Peter finished clearing the office out? He can keep it all. I’ve no use for an Architect’s tools.”
Mandy nods. “Yes. He donated all of it.”
My fingers clench on my tea cup. “All of it? There wasn’t something Peter wanted?”
Her gaze is one of pity—seeing something that made up so much of our lives as worthless—and I hate it.
“The industry uses computers now, mom. There’s no purpose for that old stuff, except in a museum. Peter knows what’s got value now.”
What has value?
The daffodils decorating my tea cup swirl in a lazy pattern. A bee humming from petal to petal. A low whistle sounds. Maybe I should plant daffodils and roses in the garden.
“Anyway, I’ve got to be going now, mom. Thanks for watching the kids and for the cookies.”
Mandy kisses my cheek and squeezes my shoulders in a hug, then repeats the affectionate embrace with my grandchildren, who, having polished off the plate of cookies, are fighting over the remote in the living room—for the last time.
Am I alone?
The front door opens. “Bye, I love you!” She says, and I know she means it.
“Oh, Deborah. It’s Assisted Living, not a Nursing Home. It’s charming,” says Sharen. “Now that your daughter’s family has moved and Franssen is… Well, you’d enjoy it. It’s very nice.”
My fingers catch the edge of the tablecloth where the seam has come undone. I roll the jagged edge back and forth between my index finger and thumb.
“I’m sure. The Wednesday Pinochle matches won’t be the same without you. We were quite a team.” I swallow. “Do you have to leave so soon?”
“My son wants me to have the treatments started as soon as possible. There’s a group of Bridge players on Wednesdays. It’s just like home,” she says.
Home… hundreds of miles away. Like Mandy, and—The phone trembles against my ear.
A low hum, a worrying sound gaining intensity, breaks into a whistle.
I drop the frayed edge of the material. Did I put the teakettle on? Is that what I was doing when Sharen called?
“That’s wonderful,” I say.
The shrill whistle grows, filling all the shadows in the dining area, and I’m certain I didn’t turn it on.
An icy shiver creeps along my spine.
“I need to run,” says Sharen.
Don’t let her hang up.
My lips move, but the sound of the shrieking kettle is too much. I’ve got to move it off the heat.
My palm presses onto the dining table, but my knees threaten to buckle.
Hurry, old bones! I must tell her… I need to—
“Take care of yourself, Deborah. Goodbye.”
Gripping the arm of the dining chair, I gape at the silent phone. Did that noise make me deaf? The moisture must’ve boiled out of the kettle. I hear nothing, except the creaking of the wood supporting my weight. And Sharen is gone.
A breath fills me and rushes out again. The cellphone hits the table cloth as I fall into the chair and rub the side of my leg.
I should extinguish the fire, but—the ache, growing in my breast since my grandchildren left to meet their parents at the airport, blooms. My breath catches and my fingers reach for the cord around my neck for my panic button, but instead of a crushing strain on my chest, the pain goes deeper.
As though my center is broken.
A hum breaks through the silence and grows into an insistent whine. The teakettle.
How could that be? Cold sweat gathers at my temples. Am I alone?
I grip the table edge as the shriek grows, clouding my head. I strain to hear what might lurk, hidden by its scream. Were those running steps coming from the front door?
A shaking hand covers my mouth.
Horrid fears swarm my thoughts—the darkness under my bed at midnight waiting for me to get a drink of water; the constant worry when he never called to say he’d be late; this empty house of what was once our home.
Movement stirs the hairs on my damp neck.
My breath hitches. Something is behind me.
I turn my head.
The red teakettle sits atop the stove, whistling steam. And the kitchen is empty.
Unsteady fingers brush a wet strand from the corner of my sight. My gaze slips down the hall, to his dark door, skirting the crucifix. Several breaths rush in and out.
With greater care than before, I rise from my chair, cross into the kitchen, and shut off the burner under the kettle. Next to it sits the tray from my visit with Mandy yesterday. Yesterday?
A hum rumbles beside me… the kettle.
But—My heart lodges in my throat.
My cellphone rings from where I left it on the dining table, and I recognize Mandy’s ringtone, competing with the kettle’s hum morphing to a shriek. My feet slide on the kitchen tile towards Mandy’s call.
The kettle screams, jetting steam from its covered nozzle, its heat wetting my blouse. I’ve got to turn it off.
Reaching for the burner’s dial, my fingers slip. Instead of extinguishing, the fire grows. Behind me, the ringing phone falls off the table.
The kettle and Mandy yell together in my ears.
I have got to shut it off! My teeth grit as I grab the dial and pull.
The knob plops into the palm of my hand.
I stare at the hunk of warped plastic and metal. My husband, buried last week, bought me this stove a year ago. Mandy helped him pick it out and Sammy worked with his Pawpaw to install it. Young Sally christened it, attempting her very first spaghetti that night.
I toss the knob into the trash bin and take the kettle from the fire.
The chest of tea leaves slides towards me. The gold foil crinkles under my fingers.
I tug at the foil, pulling it from the side of the box.
The pieces fall into my daffodil tea cup.
The smell of sweet spices warms my skin as I pour the boiling liquid. It steeps for six minutes, six minutes of silence, before the tea timer beeps.
My hands are steady as I raise it to my mouth. Outside my dining-room window, the shadows are growing long as the sun prepares to sleep.
A headline catches my eye: Death at the Circus
I open the paper to the story on the third page, taking extra care to straighten the bottoms so that no unintended crease mars the pages, and read on about the great clown who killed himself—who worked till death.
My lips purse. What a fool.
The warmth of the cup soothes me. Outside the window, the clouds fade to velvet and orange. A deep blue follows.
I take a sip, enjoying the spicy fragrance.
A phone rings.
Following the sound, I bend myself over the arm of a chair, careful not to stretch too far, and spot a cellphone on a wooden floor. A name flashes across the screen, then the ringing ceases.
I straighten in the chair and wrap my fingers around a warm cup of tea.
Outside, night has fallen.
A headline catches my eye: Death at the Circus
Historical Victorian Goes Up in Flames
At 6:35pm, Friday night, the late award-winning Architect Franssen L. Miller’s Victorian home caught fire and was completely destroyed. The fire originated from a gas leak and quickly spread from the kitchen, consuming the historical home by midnight. Authorities claim his widow, Deborah Miller, failed to shut off a gas burner after boiling a kettle for tea. They claim the stove’s burner knob had been removed from the unit and could have been the source of the leak.
Authorities are ruling the incident an accident and do not suspect foul play at this time.
Eyewitnesses claim they saw a bright figure moving among the flames, leading rescue workers to the collapsed widow. Mrs. Miller suffered third–degree burns on her hands and is expected to make a full recovery. Mr. and Mrs. Miller’s daughter, Mandy Miller Jones, wife to up-and-coming Architect Peter Jones, has relocated Mrs. Miller to New York.
J. Rachel Kelly is a writer based in Lafayette, Louisiana. She finds inspiration in the very human plight of pain in all its varied and terrifying forms.