Short Stories

GATHERING WOOL

by Brenda Ethridge Ferguson

A cool breeze whispered across the veranda, lightly lifting the thin, pink scarf from around Carolyn’s neck. Silk felt so pleasant on a warm spring day. She caressed the porcelain cup in her hand and admired her well-appointed table. “More tea, Mrs. Vandenburg?”

“Thank you, dear.” The older woman held out her cup. Carolyn tipped the fragile pot over it. “It’s simply excellent, you know. Wherever did you find such a delicate blend?”

Carolyn smiled and lowered her darkly fringed lids. “There’s a wonderful little tea and coffee boutique over on Eighth Avenue. Very small, but absolutely the last word on superb teas.” She watched as her plump guest lifted the cup and breathed in the aroma.

Oh, my dear,” she sighed, “is there no end to your talents? You always do just the right things.”

Carolyn’s lips turned up modestly, though she was inclined to agree. She leaned against the back of her chair and surveyed the veranda, a picture of cool perfection. Lacy ferns hung above white wicker furniture and rose-colored cushions. With satisfaction, she reached for three-year-old Todd and patted him on his well-groomed head. Her quiet son sat still with hands folded in his lap.

Mrs. Vandenburg smiled at Todd. “And what’s Mommy’s little man going to be when he grows up?” She leaned forward from her chair and peered over the table at the child. “A fireman or maybe a cowboy?”

Todd stared back at her, then cleared his throat. “I shall be a neuro-surgeon,” he replied…

Suddenly, an orange slime hit Carolyn in one eye and oozed down her cheek; its odor was sickeningly sweet. She grabbed a stained tea towel and rubbed it across her face. A little orange would go well with the green and yellow spots already clinging to her cotton pullover. At least the jar of orange goo was empty and old Chubby Cheeks, as she affectionately called her infant daughter, could be scrubbed of again. But the crumbs and splatterings beneath the highchair might remain for a while as Todd would soon be in from the sandpile. Grit definitely took precedence over muck.

In one quick movement, the young woman heaved her baby from behind the wooden tray and lugged her toward the bathroom. Her matted house shoes made suction sounds as they stuck to the floor and then pulled away. Chubby Cheeks, squirming happily, pushed stubby fingers into her mother’s mouth. In the bathroom Army green, same as the kitchen, Carolyn stopped, grabbed her baby’s small, plastic bathtub with one hand and jammed it into the quarters’ larger porcelain fixture. Clouds of steam formed around her as she turned on the tap.

Bending over the bath, she balanced the infant carefully on the tub’s edge with a protective, encircling arm and tested the water’s temperature with her free elbow. Slowly, she grasped the child with both hands and lowered her into the water. As Chubby Cheeks drew her hands into tight fists and raised them above her head, Carolyn twisted the tap shut. In a sudden flash of speed, the two tiny fists hit water. The veteran mother looked up without surprise and smiled at the giggling baby girl; with a damp sleeve, Carolyn wiped moisture from her own eyes and brushed aside a soggy clump of brown hair.

“Mommy!” Carolyn heard the kitchen door bang shut. Todd was in from the sand pile.

“Todd!” she screamed despite her conviction all was lost. “Dust yourself off like Mommy told you.” Thoughts of the spotless living room she’d cleaned half the night raced through her mind. Having one room perfectly clean was a pure pleasure she rarely experienced. Hurriedly, she patted her daughter dry and again cried, “Todd!” Desperation strained her voice.

“What, Mommy?” The bathroom door swung open, and a yellow-brown child looked at her.

“Oh, Todd, I told you to dust yourself off before you came in and to stay in the kitchen until I could clean you up.”

The granular child’s chin quivered between a couple of sniffs. “I did, Mommy.” Looking down at his jeans, he wiggled his feet as grains cascaded to the floor. “But you were calling me.”

At five o’clock, Carolyn heard a car in the driveway. Glad they two weeks of Army field maneuvers were finally over, she rushed about the kitchen with renewed energy. Her husband had been in only briefly that morning for a bath and nap. Another adult would soon be in the house–someone without cracker crumb breath and sticky fingers, someone who knew a world beyond Sesame Street and Crunchy Oats, and someone who just might understand why the washing machine clanged instead of hummed.

Taking David’s cap at the door, Carlolyn hurried him into the dining room. They always had dinner early if possible. She rarely even gave him time to change his camouflage fatigues; but David, usually hungry when he came home, was agreeable to this arrangement which sometimes allowed her to have the meal finished by six o’clock and the kitchen cleaned by six-thirty. This gave Carolyn a few minutes to sit and chat with her husband and his newspaper before the next round of baths and bedtime stories began at seven. Chubby Cheeks was easily asleep by seven-thirty, but Carolyn had never been able to coax, cajole, or threaten Todd to sleep before nine o’clock, a fact she rarely confided to other mothers.

She handed David an iced drink at the table and positioned her daughter’s highchair so that it would be near her own chair. Calling Todd, she retrieved Chubby Cheeks from the kitchen floor where the tot banged on dented pots with wooden spoons. She felt bad about the overdone roast she’d forgotten while lecturing her son on the dangers of the knife drawer. She had decided to place the knives in a box on a high shelf and find an adequate box had taken some time.

“Honey, couldn’t you occasionally be cheerful when I get home?” David was saying mid-meal after she’d brought up the subject of the washing machine. “You always greet me with these little household problems before I can even have dinner. Just once, I’d like to come home from work to peace and quiet and a chance to relax.” He speared a cherry tomato with his fork, then waved it in the air. “Is that too much to ask?”

…Carolyn slowly moved her head from side to side, then gazed across the table at a man bathed in the soft glow of a flickering candle flame. They seemed all alone in the darkened restaurant. “Carolyn,” he whispered, his voice husky, a wave of dark hair falling to his brow. “What would I ever do without you? I could never find anyone else so wonderful.” He faltered for a moment and clasped his hands together, fingers entwined, elbows resting on the table. “Heaven knows how many times you’ve saved my job.”

She smiled at him, hers a look of knowing sympathy.

“You’ll have my job before long or even a vice president’s position.” Reaching across the table, he took her hand. “Oh, Carolyn, I need a woman like you. A woman to share my life. A woman with your abilities and charm.”

“Henry!” Carolyn jerked her hand back, indignation in her voice. “I’m a married woman.”

Her boss breathed a deep and hopeless sigh. “So, you keep telling me. Why didn’t I meet you first? Why has fate dealt with me so cruelly?”

She softened. “I’m very fond of you, Henry. You’re more than merely a boss; you’re a good friend. “She twisted the ring on the finger of her left hand and watched it sparkle in the candlelight. “I don’t mean to be unkind, but that’s all we can ever be. My husband needs me.”

This was not the first time she’d been forced to speak such hard words to men. Henry dropped his face into his hands. How would she be able to tell him she’d soon no longer be his assistant. Already, the board had made her a vice president. Next week she’d be interviewing potential secretaries. The blow would be too much for him right now…

Todd asked you a question, Carolyn,” David broke into her space. “Don’t you ever listen to your children?”

Carolyn jumped slightly then blinked. She turned to the child. “I’m sorry, honey. What was it?”

“Will you read Jack and the Bean Stalk tonight instead of that book about bears? I like the giant.” He raked his fork across the corn, pulling several kernels out onto the table. Carolyn grabbed a napkin and leaned forward, dabbing at the stray food.

“If you want Jack and the Bean Stalk fine, but I’ll tell you right now the giant is not going to smell blood; and he’s certainly not going to be killed at the end.”

“But Mommy.” Todd squirmed, dropping the napkin from his lap onto the floor amid the already spilled crumbs and food bits. “That’s how the story goes. Daddy reads it better than you do.”

“Maybe daddy will start reading you stories every night then.”

“Not tonight.” Her husband looked up from his plate long enough to grunt and shake his head. “Had too rough a day.”

…Carolyn sighed as she glanced at the blond preschooler sitting on the front row. The library reading room was crammed with children today as it had been the Wednesday before. Like a raging prairie fire, word had spread she would be the storyteller this month. Many parents had asked for her secret, wanting to know why their children begged to listen to Carolyn…

Carolyn rose from the table, picking up plates as she made her way toward the kitchen. This was ridiculous. Wool gathering, her mother called it. She simply could not live like this anymore. Who said resolutions had to be made in January and not June? Today, this very minute, she’d resolve to live only in reality.

On Tuesday morning, Carolyn rose at her usual six o’clock. After showering, she woke David. At seven o’clock, she had bacon, eggs, and toast on the table. At seven-thirty, she kissed her husband goodbye, switched on a morning news program, and sat down for a second cup of coffee.

It was seven forty-five when she heard Todd bumping bottom first down the stairs and ran to retrieve him. Then back in the kitchen she stirred oatmeal and mixed orange juice. Though Chubby Cheeks let out a terrible wail upstairs, Carolyn started the baby’s breakfast before going up to get her. She hummed as she brought her daughter down a few minutes later. Today she had great plans. After everyone was fed and bathed, the kitchen cleaned and the stack of folded towels and diapers put away, she would take the kids to the park. The kids loved the park, and she could use the fresh air herself.

By ten o’clock, they were ready. Carolyn loaded the baby bag with plenty of fresh diapers, powder, a bottle of orange juice, and a few toys. Todd insisted on bringing his road grader and a dump truck. A rolled-up blanket lay in the car’s trunk.

Carolyn buckled Chubby Cheeks into her carrier and wrestled Todd into the car seat. Then, taking her place, she wheeled out of the drive and onto the street. The trip was pleasant for the most part. Chubby Cheeks spit up on her new pink blouse with the blue elephants on it, and Todd pulled at his seatbelt, surmising rather loudly that it had caused his stomach to cave in; but only one impatient driver honked at her when she stayed a bit too long at the traffic light. A juice bottle had rolled beneath her feet.

At the park, Carolyn set across the grass toward the swings with bag, blanket, and baby somehow all in tow and Todd trailing behind dragging his toy vehicles. As they walked, she looked with misgivings toward the darkening sky; but it wasn’t until the blanket had been spread across some thick grass, the road grader and truck parked several yards away, and Todd scurried toward a much too tall slide that the rain began to pelt down.

By ten fifty-five, a wet Carolyn, Chubby Cheeks, Todd, blanket, bag, road grader, and dump truck all reentered the Army green kitchen, dripping across it and up the stairs to change clothes. Carolyn gathered the resulting load of laundry. Chubby Cheeks fussed and fretted profusely, and Todd wondered aloud why they couldn’t have stayed anyway.

By noon, Chubby cheeks was taking a nap, and Todd had found his stash of building blocks. He dragged them into the kitchen and sat in one corner involved in producing lopsided edifices and unrecognizable animals. Carolyn poured herself cup of stale coffee and sat down tiredly at the kitchen table while she watched the child work in the corner.

…”Yes, you see,” she was telling the woman who sat across from her with pencil and notebook in hand. “Running a house and taking care of small children are really not difficult if one knows how.” She paused long enough to give the reporter a reassuring smile. It was little wonder the woman was in awe of her. “There are principles one must discover in child rearing. Once they are discovered and practiced religiously, there are no great problems.”

“These are the principles you’ve set forth in your new book?”

“Yes, dear. Carolyn tried not to be condescending. “My latest book is aimed at helping other–shall we say less organized–mothers. It not only covers child rearing but also explains how to combine it with a profession, if one wishes, while still being a marvelous wife, social hostess, club woman, and housekeeper. It goes into more depth than the numerous articles I’ve written on the subject.”

The reporter flipped a page in her book and moistened a pencil lead with her tongue. “don’t you have household help? I mean, maids and babysitters to help you while you do all your writing and entertaining.”

Carolyn’s laugh was understanding. “No, my dear. If one is organized, everything fits into place.”

“What about talk shows?”

“I take the children with me. they’re so perfectly behaved a stagehand is glad to watch them while I’m on the show.” Carolyn rose to get the reporter another cup of coffee–the finest Columbian bought on her own recent trip to that country.

“You certainly are a remarkable person,” the reporter gushed. “Mother, wife, author, hostess, TV personality…”

Carolyn nodded graciously as she crunched across the plastic objects artistically strewn about the floor and noted a plaintive howl from above.