Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Spring Cleaning

By Allison Brown

“Crazy, crazy, crazy,” she sighed. “I swear I’m going crazy.” Marian kept turning around and around, as she forgot what she was looking for. She stood in the hallway, beside the doorway to the living room, where she seldom went; it was reserved for company. The long skinny table along the side of the hallway was scattered with weeks of mail, ripped into and left. Mittens, a few scarves, and an old fashioned muff that smelled like mothballs were laying there along with the mail.

Marian was looking at the floor though, not at the table. She knew she meant to look for something, something on the floor. She had dropped it—no, it had fallen. No, the wind had blown it from the other room. Oh, she couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember what it was, even. A hairpin? She was going out, so that could be it. She was going out wasn’t she? Yes, she was almost sure of that, because she just got off the phone with her son, and she distinctly remembered him saying “ok mum, I’m on my way over.”

It must have been a hairpin, she decided. Then again, there was nothing visible on the floor. She kept the floor so clean usually. That’s why she noticed it there in the first place. Then she was about to pick it up, but, oh after that the phone rang. So it couldn’t have been a hairpin after all—she hadn’t known she was going out when she noticed it. She came back, intending it pick it up, but now there she was, all bent over, giving herself a sore back looking for something that wasn’t there. What was it? What was it? Oh my, she couldn’t even remember where she had seen it. Was it in that corner? Or under the table? She stood up momentarily, exhaling heavily and holding her hands on the small of her back to support it like a very pregnant woman might. She, much too old to be pregnant, carried the figure of a women blessed with five sons and a daughter, and this part of her past weighed noticeably on her legs and weakening back.

She stood, still breathing hard, surveying the hallway. She tightened her pink housecoat around her waist, and smoothed her gray hair behind her ears. The old, dark wood creaked as she shifted her weight, and the cracks in the white paint glared at her, but she could never get up the energy to putty them up. She was trying to sort out in her head what she needed to do. The weather was getting warmer—the storm windows needed to be replaced with screens. Marian sighed, and forgetting about whatever it had been on the floor, turned to go into the kitchen. It was no use thinking about switching the storm windows, no use at all, she said to herself. The screens were stored up in the attic, hidden safe behind a trap door and a shaky old ladder that she had been forbidden to climb up for years now. Her children took good care of her, she would say to herself, when she had to remind herself that they loved her and only wanted to help by keeping her from breaking a hip. She cursed her hip for being more susceptible to breakages than it was twenty years ago.

Oh you poor old house, she thought, as she ran her hand along the white wall. They’d been through a lot together, she and that house. Almost sixty years she had lived there. She prided herself on this consistency. It was only my stubbornness that kept you from being sold long ago, she reminded the house.

A whistle came from the kitchen, low at first, but then raising its pitch and urgency. Surprised to hear that the kettle began to boil, she turned towards the kitchen. She scrunched up her face, confused. When had she put the water on? It was probably tea time, but she couldn’t recall the time exactly. Hadn’t she just looked at the clock? She couldn’t remember. With one last deep, heaving breath, she tiredly moved her body to the kitchen, where she lifted the kettle off the stove, quieting its screams. She reached up above her head to a cupboard, not even having to look where she put her hand to fetch her favorite tea, English breakfast. She hummed to herself—what was that tune called?—as she dipped the tea bag repeatedly to make the water turn a deep brown. She liked her tea strong, strong as death (that was the song, she remembered: set me as a seal upon your heart, was how it started. It was from the Bible; I think, she tacked on. It could have been Coleridge) and she liked it with cream. She had always drunk her tea with cream, except when she was pregnant with her third son. She couldn’t keep any dairy down for much of the nine months—and still cringed at the memory of those stomach aches. Replacing the kettle on the stove, she went to get the cream from the refrigerator. The scream of the kettle once again pierced the silence of the kitchen, and she was so bewildered that she let go of the cream, letting it slip from her hand to the floor and glug its contents around her feet. My slippers, was the first thing she thought, and she watched them soak up the cream like sponges. The kettle was still whistling. She shook her head.

What in the world was going on? The kettle’s scream pitched higher, and as if kicked from behind, Marian stood up straight. She tsked at the cream, stepped out of her slippers, and went to turn off the stove. Of course—she had forgotten to turn off the stove. That was all, nothing to get in a fuss over. She took a dishtowel, wet it, and wrung it firmly in her hands. With much concentration, she got herself on her knees and started to mop up the spilled cream. It reminded her of when Norm, her youngest, was mad at her that one time. He stood in the middle of that very kitchen, with the meanest, most defiant face he could muster, as she told him that, no, he could not spend the night with Tom, he had to go to his sister’s dance recital because that’s what good brothers do. She remembered that he let out a wild, frustrated scream and crashed the milk jug he was holding as hard as he could onto the floor. It splattered everywhere. She chuckled. The cream made a much smaller puddle. With Norm’s spill, she was finding milk splatters on the cupboard doors days later, after she thought she had cleaned it all. Some times she imagined she could still smell the slight scent of sour milk in the kitchen.

But this was much smaller, this she cleaned up in a few swipes of the dishtowel. She never did keep much cream in the house, anyways, now that it was only her. Not many people over for tea, nowadays. And besides, the slippers also soaked up most of the cream. She laughed, using the slippers as sponges to help soak up the rest, and threw them in the sink along with the rag. Now, what was she about to do. She looked around the room. The image of Norm’s seven-year-old face was still stuck in her head. None of the others got mad at her like Norm did, she thought. Norm was just stubborn. The others were lambs like her husband, but Norm was like her, stubborn and strong. “Stubborn and strong,” she repeated out loud to herself.

Now she stood looking from the kitchen into the hallway. She could see clear through to the front door. That doorknob looked dusty. And dull. She wondered if she should shine it up. They replaced that when they moved in. She always wanted to live in a house with doorknobs shaped like roses. Big ornate roses cast in brass that made you want to pause at the door and run your finger over the smooth brass petals. Was that the third anniversary, or fourth, that Paul gave them to her? Anyways, they were looking dull.

Oh there it was! A glint of gold on the floor in the hallway caught her eye. From the kitchen the light hit the object just right, making it glow. She walked towards it, not moving her eyes. She would not forget what she was looking for this time. A she got closer, she saw it was a delicate gold ring, wedged between the floor boards. Marian picked it up, letting it rest in the palm of her hand, and then held it between her index finger and thumb, at arm’s length away from her face. Her eyes were not as good as they used to be. Where were her darned glasses anyways? She could barely make out what design the tiny ring had on it. She strained her eyes and felt the tinge of a headache coming on, but focused her eyes enough to see that it was a small Claddagh. It looked familiar, and felt familiar as she ran her thumb over the surface of it. But she couldn’t place whose it was, or when she had seen it last. It could have been her daughter, Kelly’s. Or one of her friends. How long had it been there? She usually kept the floor so clean, wouldn’t she have noticed it? It couldn’t have been there very long. But then again—didn’t they used to have a carpet in the hallway? One of those long skinny ones. Hadn’t she? She couldn’t remember. If they did used to have one, when did she take it away? Maybe she had spilled something on it. Or maybe they had never had a carpet in this hallway. Marian stood, dazed, still looking intently at the floor, trying to visualize what kind of carpet they would have had there(green, she decided—it was her favorite color), and what had happened to it.

There was the creak of footsteps on the porch. Marian looked up. Who would be coming at this hour, so early in the morning? She hoped it wasn’t a salesman: she was too busy to bother with their long boring stories and descriptions of their merchandise. She walked forward slowly, trying to get a glimpse of the visitor through the slender windows on the front door. She could tell it was a man. She could hear him talking quietly to someone that was with him. Reaching the door, she placed her ear over the crack to hear what they were saying. The sounds were too muffled to make out.

“What are you selling?” She called to the man. “I don’t want any. You better just move on, young man.” She waited to see if he left. He didn’t. Salesmen these days were so pushy. “Didn’t you hear me? Move on!” The floor creaked as the people shifted their weight, and she heard more muffled talking.

“Mother? Mother, it’s me, Norm. Mother, let me in.” Norm? His voice was much too deep.

“Mother, don’t you remember? We just talked on the phone. I have a surprise for you.” She couldn’t remember the phone call. She just wanted to know why Norm had such a deep, old voice. So she opened the door.

A man walked in; he was tall and slender, and moved gracefully, automatically owning the room with his height and knowing expression. Behind him crept in a young woman, wearing baggy slacks and a scarf on her head. She had a bulky bag thrown over her shoulder. Marian had no idea who she was. Was she supposed to know her? Her face didn’t look familiar at all. The tall man looked like he belonged, but she, she looked out of place and bewildered. Both the man and the woman looked behind them out the door. Marian craned her neck to see what they were looking at. A small boy still stood outside on the porch, bouncing a ball on the floor, and catching it as it fell. He looked up and saw Marian.

“Grandma!” He stopped bouncing the ball and came to give her a hug. Ah, this was Norm. This was the right face and voice. The man must have meant that he was bringing Norm. That was right, bringing Norm home. He had run off, she reminded herself, after she punished him for throwing the milk. She hadn’t seen him for several hours and was getting worried.

“What has gotten into you?” She took his face in both her hands. “It’s Ma, not Grandma to you, young man. Now come inside.” She playfully pushed him past the door way, and shut the door behind him. Norm backed away from her as she turned around to face them. He stood partly behind the tall man. His teacher, perhaps, or a neighbor? Oh my, she hoped he wasn’t in trouble again. Norm was always making mischief. “Come back here, Norm. What do you think you’re doing? I was worried when you ran off; I called all the neighbors. Go up to your room right now and get ready for your sister’s recital.” Norm didn’t move, but clung to the tall man’s pant leg.

She moved forward, hand outstretched to shake the man’s hand. “I hope Norm hasn’t been causing any trouble. I know he can be a handful sometimes. Thank you for bringing him home.” The woman looked uncomfortable, and the man took Marian’s hand in both of his. Marian looked at him suspiciously.

“Mother,” he said gently. “Mother, I’m Norm. This is Ben, my son—your grandson.” She looked at him blankly. Norm? How could this be Norm? He was so tall. His eyes, though. Yes, he had Norm’s eyes.

In a flash she recognized him, remembering that her children were grown now; they were all tall, like their father. And Ben! How could she forget him? Her youngest grandchild, who was already seven. “Of course,” she said, “of course,” pretending the mistake had never been made. “And who is this?” She turned towards the woman, whom she still did not recognize.

“Mother, this is Anita. I’ve hired her to help you around the house. You won’t need to worry about cleaning anymore.” Marian suddenly stiffened. Some other woman cleaning her house? Oh, no, no, no.

“I,” she said, standing up a straight as she could, “do not need a maid. I have been taking care of this house for almost sixty years now, and I am just as capable as I was when I was twenty.” They were all silent. The woman—what was her name again?—looked like she wanted desperately to leave. Marian gave her a stern look, hoping she would just run away. But she did not.

“Come on Ma, let’s sit down and talk about this.” Oh, she hated that tone of voice. It sounded like her husband used to when he tried to reason with the children. He always tried to be gentle and persuasive, just like Norm was being now. “Come on, come into the kitchen. We’ll talk about it over tea.”

“No, thank-you,” she replied, throwing the ring she had been holding hard on the floor at the feet of the strange woman, and walked past all of them to the kitchen. How humiliating! Her own son thought she was incapable of taking care of her own house. Oooh, she was mad. She paced around the kitchen, not sure of what to do. Norm followed her in.

“Ma, listen. I know you don’t need someone to do everything for you. I just thought you might need a little help around here, with spring cleaning and all. I mean, now that Kelly’s moved to Wichita she won’t be here to help.” Wichita? What was he talking about? Kelly lived across town, not even ten minutes away. “And I thought you could use some company down here. I mean, you’re alone in the house all day long.” Well, that was true. It did get lonely get here spending all day in this empty house. And she wasn’t supposed to leave.

“Why don’t you move in?” Marian looked at him expectantly. If his family moved in she would never be alone. She had plenty of room.

“Ma, we’ve been over this. I can’t. It’s too far away from my job.” His job? Where did he work again? Maybe it was in Crantson, the next town over. He was looking in the sink. “Ma, why are your slippers in the sink?” Oh, she couldn’t remember. He looked at her, concerned.

“Crantson is not that far away,” She told him. He looked at her, bewildered.

“No, ma, my job’s not in Crantson, it’s in Glibbsville. I live in Glibbsville.” Glibbsville? Why would he live in there? it was much too far away. Norm was looking at her carefully. “How about we all sit down and have some doughnuts together, huh? I brought some doughnuts from the bakery. I’ll go get them out of the car.” Marian calmed down. As long as he stopped talking about living two towns over, slippers in the sink, and Kelly moving to Wichita. She sat down at the table and looked out the window. She heard Norm call to Ben. “Come on, Ben, let’s get the doughnuts out of the car.” The front door opened and then shut behind them, and she was alone. Taking a deep breath, she smelled the spring air. It was getting warmer. She could smell the thawing ground, and the weather change, reminding her that she needed to change the storm windows and put in the screens. Kelly should be coming soon to help her with spring cleaning, but she should get a head start and at least change the windows.

She stood up, determined to get started before it got too late in the day. She turned to walk down the hallway, and jumped back in surprise. There was a woman there, in her house, standing in the hallway.

“What are you doing? Who are you?” Marian demanded to know. “Stay away!” Looking closer, she saw that the woman was holding her mother’s gold Claddagh ring—she had thought she lost it years ago. “Thief! Trespasser!” She picked up a wooden spoon and shook it at her. The women backed away, looking frightened.

“I’m just...I’m here to help. Norm brought me.” She held the ring up to Marian, but kept backing up.

“Liar! Thief!” Marian yelled. “You get out now, or I’m calling the police.” She still didn’t move. Marian kept shaking the wooden spoon towards the woman as she backed up to reach for the phone. She picked it up and dialed 911. There was a click at the other end of the phone. “911 Emergency,” a calm voice answered.

“Hello, hello? There’s a robber in my house, stealing my jewelry!. Maybe a murderer. I don’t know who it is. She broke in. Can you send someone?” Marian was getting more and more frantic.
“Ma’am, calm down. Can you tell me your address?” Her address, yes. It was…oh dear, what were the numbers? “Ma’am, are you there? Hello? Can you see the intruder?”

“Yes, yes, she was standing right there in the hallway.” Marian turned to look down the hallway. The woman was gone. “She’s gone!” she shrieked. She stood there, breathing hard with fear. She could be anywhere. Marian turned around quickly to make sure she wasn’t sneaking up behind her. The woman was nowhere to be seen. She stood silently, listening hard for footsteps somewhere in the house. After a few moments, her breathing slowed.

“Hello? Hello?” The voice in the phone said.

“Hello?” Marian answered. She didn’t even remember the telephone ringing.

“Ma’am, can you see the intruder?” “What?” It must be a wrong number. “You must have the wrong number,” she explained politely.

“Are you alright, ma’am? Are you certain no one is in your house?”

“Someone in my house? No, I don’t think so. You really do have the wrong number, I’m afraid.” Marian hung up the phone as someone began knocking on the front door. Salesmen. She would just pretend that she wasn’t home. The pounding got louder and louder, and someone shouted something. She just wanted to be left alone; she wanted to start on her spring cleaning. Marian left the kitchen cautiously, walking slowly so that the salesman couldn’t hear her as she passed the door. From the hallway, she made her way to the stairs, and started up, just as cautiously. The steps were awfully creaky, and she hoped the salesman couldn’t hear it. She reached the top, finally, and stopped to rest.

She needed a nap, she decided. The house needed to be dusted. She could tell because the railing all the way up the stairs was covered, and now it was on her hand. But she was tired, exhausted really. What had she done to tire herself out so? She couldn’t remember, but she was so tired. She walked into her bedroom, sat down on the bed, and then laid down carefully. There was still pounding on the door, over and over, and she could hear distant shouting. “Go away,” she murmured tiredly. She looked down her body, clad in a pink house coat, at her bare feet, and wondered where her slippers were.