Not everyone lives where they live by choice. Sometimes it’s a question of love, or luck, or circumstance.
Elke liked the yellow brick post office. Its red awnings and blue letter boxes standing on the sidewalk never failed to make her smile. She liked that every house seemed to have a pot of beans or greens simmering on the stove. The phrase most often heard after “Hello” was “Go fix yourself a plate.”
Elke had grown up outside of Antwerp in Belgium. Her early years were mixed up with the hunger and fear of war. It had mangled her stomach. She lived off boiled eggs and toast. She cracked the eggs into starched handkerchiefs, folding up the shells and forgetting about them in her pockets.
She liked her husband, Dixon. Occasionally she loved him, but she found liking him was enough to make a good life.
Dixon drank. Most of the men in town did. Especially on payday.
Once upon a time she would go with him to the club mesmerized by the blues singers getting low in black fringe dresses, too old and too tight to zip up all the way. She loved the young slide guitarists who’d pass through town. Their moans would draw her hips down onto the dance floor. She liked the old musicians too, the ones who cashed their disability checks before coming out to play.
Dixon broke his foot on the job and it never healed good as new. He stopped wanting to dance. Elke’s stomach wouldn’t let her drink. So, she took the early shift at the Donut Shop on Sundays as an excuse for not going out Saturday night. Her boss, Mr. Meyers, taught her to make the apple fritters, crullers, Mae West’s, and loaves of butter crust bread that would sell out to the church crowd. He also bought her a pink blush from the drug store and a white apron and told her to wear them both as her uniform. No matter how much sun she got she always seemed pale.
The first time she watched Dixon go out alone she yelled he better not set foot in her house drunk! He never did. Instead, he’d sleep it off in the bathtub in their front yard. The heavy clawfoot thing had sunk so deep into the ground it had roots. Impossible to move. Elke lined it with potted plants, mini rose bushes, an African violet, all of which Dixon took great drunken care to remove from the tub and put on the ground, though usually on their sides.
One time when she woke to his empty side of the bed, she’d haul out a pitcher of cold water and dump it on him. The shock was so violent he broke a toe on his good foot slamming it against the porcelain. He didn’t speak to her for a week.
Elke had seen how things and people could be taken away without warning, so she tried not to hold on too tightly. Lost house keys didn’t matter, she’d hidden duplicates all around the yard. When the fake blond stole her sweater off the coat rack at the hair salon, Elke simply took a deep breath and started knitting herself another when she got home.
The next time she looked out her window and saw Dixon snoring in the tub she had to smile. The crepe myrtle had shed white and beigey blossoms all over him. He never stayed out all night. He always came home.
She dragged a kitchen stool across the yard, sitting next to him in her apron and pink streaks across her cheekbones. She drank her cup of coffee and ate from a sleeve of Ritz crackers.
She liked Dixon’s hair. Black with the slightest touch of gray at his sideburns. She was grateful that she still liked looking at him. He’d stayed handsome and slim, which was more than most husbands around town.
She liked how his curls hugged her fingers. He smelled of smoke. Over the years he would occasionally smelled of other things but that never lasted long.
Touch is a powerful thing. Its absence can eat away at a soul.
She decided to wash his hair before going to work. She heated water on the stove. Dumped in a tray of ice to settle on the right temperature. She used her apple blossom shampoo. He said he liked it when he smelled of her.
My mother and I would see her on our sleepless walks, crossing the grass in bare feet with a pot of heated water. The first time I thought sure she would drown him. I even yelled for her to stop. My mother pulled me around by the shoulder. Elke looked over and waved.
My mother said can’t ever know exactly what goes on between two people unless you’re one of those two people.
Elke would hold the coffee under his nose and helped pull him up, so his head lay back over the side of the rim. Dixon had come to love this attention. The warm water and his wife’s hands massaging his head felt tender against his thundering hangover. He liked his wife’s voice. She never could sing a song all the way through, she kept losing the English. She made up her own melodies to hum and moan over him. A revival, a ritual, a release. He climbed out and whipped his head around getting her wet. He’d pull off his shoes and pull her close. Their bare feet sinking into the muddy grass as they swayed together.
Dixon was killed quite suddenly. A simple car accident. Nothing fancy.
At the funeral there was no one family to sit next to Elke in the pew. They didn’t have any children, neither had living parents. My mother saw this and pushed me up to the front, taking out seats next to Elke. She didn’t believe in church, my mother, but a death left behind the living and that’s who she cared about.
It was a simple service. He lay in a simple box. We wore black armbands.
Elke pulled a handkerchief edged in blue from her purse and held it up to her face. She blew her nose and eggs shells rained down. Cracked white tears that rustled against the bare floor. She must have been eating boiled eggs all week to make that big a mess.
As we got up to leave, Elke couldn’t move. She didn’t know where to step. My mother changed places with me. She stamped her foot down on the egg shells. Then she twisted her feet and brushed them out of the way. She took Elke’s arm and smiled a big smile at her. Elke started laughing. She laughed, tiny little laughs all the way down the aisle to the door covering her mouth with her handkerchief. Laughter and tears are first cousins.
Later, when anyone asked how she knew my mother, Elke would tell them, “We walked on egg shells together.”