Small Domestic Chore by Diane Bechtler
He pops another pill and asks her to iron his shirt, the new one with the tags attached, the one still pinned to cardboard and he showers while she unfolds the white bundle. She searches for the ironing board in the Motel 6 closet wondering how long it’s been since she ironed a shirt for a man. The silvery cloth on the board wears a history of scorch marks. It screeches when she sets it up.
She unpins the white shirt that will go under his black suit, the suit he’ll wear tomorrow to his father’s funeral. They’ve flown to Missouri this morning. The death was sudden. Aneurism of the aorta. The bleeding of his heart couldn’t be stopped.
She’d pulled out a map to look up Missouri only to learn it was one of the square ones in the middle. Two days later, she stands struggling with a scratchy iron in Vickers, near the Kansas border.
She inspects the shirt. Armani. Good taste. Cause of divorce: Refusal to do laundry.
Her iron sizzles, angry at its coming duty.
First, she presses the collar then stretches out the yoke trying to remember the proper pressing order from Home Economics class in junior high. Gray-haired and prim, well-pressed Miss Willard had taught the best and most efficient way to iron a shirt. She sees herself in the mirror spreading the fabric and catches a glimpse of her own graying hair. There was no time to touch up the roots before they flew. She feels as dingy and drab as the room.
The man who is not her husband cried when he got the death call two nights ago. First time she’d seen him cry. She comforted him.
Her husband cried at the deaths of his parents. She tried to comfort him. Other women comfort better than she does, she learned. They are waiting.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Wrinkles begin yielding under her pressure. The hot cotton smells of clean mid-western air.
The new man’s been snacking on Xanax regularly since he talked with his mother.
Her first tear splashes a pocket. Surprised, she quickly runs the iron over the circular mark. The wedge of metal hisses and dries the mistake. The shirt is perfect again.
The new man made love to her that night, the night of the death. A frantic rocking. She isn’t even sure she likes him but he needs her. She makes herself be there for him.
Her next tear hits the iron’s tip as she aims it at a cuff.
She doesn’t iron. A housekeeper cared for her husband’s shirts, not her. That woman moved the hot iron back and forth. Back and forth. Why didn’t she iron his shirts?
She and her husband were once in Venice dressing for the opera, at a sumptuous five star hotel filled with mahogany, so unlike this tiny veneered room. He had asked her to press the front of his tux shirt to freshen it. It looks good enough, she’d told him. No one will notice under your jacket.
Why didn’t she iron his shirt for him before they went to Carmen Just once. He would have appreciated this small domestic chore so much She pictures the way he stood at the window handsome and tall, a German with thick wavy blonde hair holding his white cloth shirt, a flag of surrender, asking her help.
The next morning he’d walked on to the same balcony a cup of coffee in hand.
“Patricia, come look at this.”
“I’m putting on my makeup. What is it?”
“A parade of boats and gondolas. Come meine Liebchen. They have their sails out. It’s beautiful.”
She glanced toward the canal. “I see them. Grab the camera and take a shot.” She let him stand outside alone. In a country where people hardly bathed, why did grooming matter to her more than walking to his side breathing Ocean air? He knew what she looked like bare-faced.
Cause of divorce? Not drinking Champagne and dancing on the patio at midnight.
Room service cared for her husband’s shirts, not her. The presser moved the iron back and forth. Back and forth. Misjudging the distance to the shirt hem, she runs the iron’s tip to her hand. She doesn’t flinch but accepts her fate watching a small blister rise.
Sometimes as a girl, she watched her mother press clothes. Her mom had a special bottle with a cork stopper topped by a shiny cap punched with little holes, like the ones on garden watering cans to first sprinkle the clothes. Back and forth. Back and forth, the wife ironed her husband’s shirts. Her father liked a lot of starch. He wanted crisp collars.
What made her mother do this work? She could have sent it out. They had the money. She also knotted her man’s ties. Every morning she brushed his lapels, smiled at him, and kissed him goodbye. After he left, she’d sigh, turn on the TV, and sit for an hour or two looking beyond the screen. But by six, she would be cooking. Often she changed from slacks into dresses and swiped on fresh lipstick in front of the gilt mirror near the door before her husband came home.
One day her mother threw her head into a freshly ironed pile of laundry and wept. The girl watched and didn’t understand. I understand now. Mom, can you hear me? I learned.
The new man takes long showers. She didn’t know that. She doesn’t know him very well, really. But here she stands, five months after her marriage has burned to smoke, ironing this stranger’s shirt.
She lengthens a sleeve, no arm inside. Back and forth. The rhythm carries her body forward into the task. She works diligently, the expanse of material filling the board.
Each Friday, her husband appeared with a bouquet of flowers. He treated her as something precious. She cries for the death she’s experienced, the death of his love for her. There was no funeral, no memorial service, nowhere to place the bouquets of flowers, the only grave marker thick divorce papers. She goes to her purse and pulls out the photo of him. Turning it face down, she presses the iron against the photo back. After peeling it off the silvery cloth, his impression marks the board.
Cause of divorce: Reading in bed. A book between her hands, instead of his shoulders. Not holding him. A small intimate thing. No chore.
If you’re aggravated with watering the plants every day, don’t water them for a week. Soon you want have to water them at all.
The shirt is finished, wrinkle free, and hanging.
She downs a Xanax and refills the iron with water. This room is not crisp, not starched. She strips the rumpled sheet from the bed and begins ironing one corner. She stares at wrinkled drapes.
Steam billows from under the bathroom door.