Maybe I should leave, go out tonight. The thought streaked through her mind, comet-like, there and gone before she had barely registered it. She was conscious only of its burning afterimage, tailing away into the numb oblivion of another evening with the basin and the sponge.
“Maaaaartha!” The querulous voice floating on the tide of that smell like some noxious balloon.
“Coming, father. I’m just getting the tea,” she called to him.
She filled the kettle and set it on the hot plate. The book clerk job was quiet but did not pay very well; the stove had long since been sold.
She left the hot plate plugged in all day. The theory being it would already be hot when she got home. The theory being that the tea could be ready faster. The theory being that he wouldn’t complain What took so long? and Why is it cold? in that grating whine that scraped at the bottom of her nerves.
She should have known better.
Instead: It’s too hot, you’ve scalded me! An entire evening of holding an ice cube to his lips, rubbing the pocked and liver-colored tongue that poked from the wrinkled cave of his mouth like some ancient blind sea slug.
She snatched the peppermint oil and rubbed a drop at the base of each nostril. Instantly her sinus passages filled with a smell that was both cold and clean. She filled the chipped porcelain basin with warm water, tucked the towel and sponge and soap under her arms, and staggered to his room.
She pushed the door open with her back. The smell was thicker in here; a living presence, brown and meaty. She breathed in shallow nose sniffs.
“Oh look, here’s the bitch now. ” A tailpipe of a voice dragging on the horizonless highway of his complaint, spitting sparks.
“Good evening father,” she said. As she set the basin down she felt a small bone between her shoulder blades snap. The water sloshed gently.
“We’ve been waiting! Where were you?”
“I’m sorry, father.”
She unwrapped the frayed kimono, eyes carefully averted.
“What are you staring at, nasty girl?”
She squeezed the sponge and lifted it toward him. She felt his eyes on her face, dark and shiny as beetles.
“You haven’t even said hello to Baxter. What is this world coming to, that’s what I’d like to know.”
“Hello, Baxter,” she said.
The old boxer stared at her from his place at the foot of the bed, lower teeth jutting and drooling. Desiccated brown turds surrounded it.
“Baxter is looking well today, father,” she said. She looked out the window as she worked.
“You’re a good one, aren’t oo? Es oo are. Daddy’s little pet.” Loud cackling filled the room.
Sponge and squeeze. Sponge and squeeze. The top of the window was thick with dirt. The last rays of sun seemed to bounce off the haze rather than penetrate the glass. She should clean that.
Sponge, squeeze, sponge, squeeze. The basin water turned gray. Small shreds floated on the surface, ethereal as clouds.
“Are you using the glycerin? You have to use the glycerin because of the chafing. ” His voice buzzed like a horsefly banging behind the window of her eardrum.
“Yes father. It’s scented with rosewater, the doctor says rosewater is a very effective softening agent. Isn’t it lovely?” she said, holding the bar near the purplish tip of his nose.
“We don’t want rosewater! What’s wrong with you? Dumb bitch.”
She sponged and squeezed. Yes, she decided. The smell was definitely less rank today.
“I’m sorry, father.” The leaves of the maple were turning pinkish red, the color of chafed skin.
“Of course you’re right. I should have checked with you, we’ll go back to the old soap next time. Though I think the rosewater is pleasant, don’t you?”
“No, I hate it, it smells like shit. And why do you smell so awful today ? Like cough medicine. Wash it off, whatever it is. It stinks. I can hardly breathe.”
“That’s enough! Baxter’s turn!”
“Yes father.” She lugged the basin to the end of the bed
Sponge and squeeze, sponge and squeeze. The water went quickly from gray to brown, it’s surface dotted with oily black flecks.
When she was finished she carried the basin to the back door. She tossed the water into the blank dark of the yard. The night wind was a cool impersonal caress on her sweaty cheek.
She put two mugs with tea bags on a tray. She lifted the steaming pot from the hotplate and poured the hot water. Then she lay a slice of wheat bread on the hotplate, pressing it hard with the flat of her palm. When the heat became painful she flipped the bread and waited again for the burn.
She’d had to sell the toaster, too.
“Yes, father. Coming, father.”
She buttered the first piece with her right hand and flattened a second piece with her left, repeating the process until she had four pieces in stacks of two, crusts trimmed and cut on the diagonal. She covered the tray with a clean dishtowel – the last one, she’d have to do laundry tonight – and carried it slowly into the hall.
It was then she remembered the peppermint oil. She returned to the kitchen, putting the tray down with a little groan. She wet the hem of her skirt and scrubbed at the base of her nose until traces of blood showed on the thin wool.
Pushing backward through the door. A ghost of rosewater soothed her stinging nose.
“Did you cut the crusts all the way off? Last time you didn’t.” The voice buzzed in the cup of her ear like a wasp.
“Yes, father,” see? she said, holding the plate near his face. He stared past her.
She held the toast for him to bite. The tea for him to drink. He stared past her.
“Not hungry today?” she asked. He stared past her.
Perhaps it was the peppermint oil. She sniffed. Yes, there was still a faint trace. She sighed.
“I’m sorry, father. I’ll do better tomorrow. But you must eat. You must keep your strength” .
Outside, the maple leaves shivered gently. It was getting colder out; she’d had to wear a sweater at work all day.
“Aren’t you forgetting someone? Come on, come on. Get on with it! Dumb bitch.
She carried the tray to Baxter at the foot of the bed, stumbling a little in the dim light, the sound of his titter like a cockroach racing up her spine.
She held the toast for Baxter to bite, the tea for him to drink. Toast then tea, toast then tea.
“Baxter has a good appetite tonight, father,” she said, lugging the tray to the door.
“You’re a good one, aren’t oo? Es oo are. Daddy’s little pet.” The cackling followed her out the door.
At first she thought it was the alarm. She swung her legs to the edge of the bed, blinking and scratching at the dry scales on the backs of her hands.
Then she noticed the light was wrong. Not the pearl gray of morning but the dead no-color of night.
She pulled on her thin robe and walked quickly to the room.
“Here she is, the lazy bitch.”
She knew from long experience to leave the light off (You’re blinding me, you stupid bitch!) The streetlight shone in the top half of the dirty bay window, through the naked arms of the maple. There was just enough light to illuminate his face. His eyes were shiny black marbles, gleaming in the dark.
“Well don’t just stand there, clean me up!”
She returned with the basin and sponge and a towel.
“God you’re slow. What were you doing in there anyway? Masturbating?” Laughter at this, like dead leaves rubbing together.
She opened the kimono; the smell really wasn’t as bad as usual. She squeezed the sponge and lifted it toward him. His eyes glittered with reflected light.
“Not him, stupid. ME!”
She drew in a sharp breath. She looked at his face and he looked back, eyes sparkling, mouth slightly ajar. Tongue tip protruding.
She floated her hand over his mouth. No breath stirred against her fingers.
She leaned down, turning her head so that her ear was next to his mouth.
“Maaaaaaaaaaaaartha!” The voice buzz-sawed her ear. A little shriek ripped from her. She sat up, a hand at her heart.
The old man lay there, eyes shining, mouth slightly ajar. Tongue tip protruding.
“You’re even stupider than I thought.”
She turned her head – she could feel the tendons in her neck creaking – until she was looking at the squatty shape of the dog swaying at the foot of the bed.
“Finally! She gets it!”
The sponge dropped from her fingers into the cooling basin water.
The sound of a fart. “That’s what buts are for, you dumb bitch!” More grating laughter.
“Come on now, enough with the games. I’m a mess down here. Clean me up.
“You’re….you can talk,” she finally said. Her voice was small, a moth fluttering in the dark.
“Duh. So can you,” came the voice from the dog shape.
“Dogs can’t talk,” she said, more certainly.
“And women can’t pretend a rotting corpse is still alive. Or that a shitty father ever loved her.” Now she could hear the slobbery, snoring in-out of the dog’s breath.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“I don’t know what you mean,” the dog-shape mimicked. “Come on, enough with the jabbering. Clean me up. After that we’ll have some tea.”
She hefted the basin, wincing at the hot little flare between her shoulder blades. She sat gingerly at the foot of the bed. Small dark turd shapes skittered across the coverlet toward her weight. She wrung the sponge out. .
“You’re a good one, aren’t oo? Es oo are. Daddy’s little pet.”
Sponge and rinse. Sponge and rinse. Outside, the wind gusted and the maple tapped softly at the window.