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Maggie Nerz Iribarne

THE MELTDOWN

The Lost Felice by Marsden Hartley

At 4 AM, just as the grandfather clock chimed in the hall, Mrs. Starch shrieked from her room. “No! No! Noooooooo!”

One of her nightmares.

Mr. Starch’s painted eyes followed me, his stern brow and navy suit imposing as I stood listening and watching at the door.

Mrs. Starch’s little white head poked from the covers. She  thrashed in the shadowed bed, screaming, yelling.

I honestly felt sorry for her, but I would not enter.

Rule #1 at Mrs. Starch’s house: never ever go into her room at night.

.                                                                                         

In the morning, she complained about the too cold bathing water, her unclean dentures, her incorrectly set table, her wrong-channeled television. I knew better than to mess up her toast.

Apparently, I was the only one who could get it to that perfect almost-burned state. She clenched her fists on the table while silently surveying the breakfast plate. In the Mrs. Starch world, silence  meant you did things right, or you hadn’t screwed things up too much.

I tidied up the kitchen, the news station ratcheted to decibel 5000. My relief, Jasmine, entered through the garage door.

“Hey Becca,” she said.

“Hey.”

“Will you two stop your gabbing and do some work for once?” Mrs. Starch grumbled from the kitchen table.

Jasmine  raised her eyebrows as I patted her shoulder in a “good luck” gesture.

I gathered my things and left with just two hours before my shift at Shop Rite.

Thank God my mother got Tate up and out the door to school each day.

.                                                                                         

Later, the school called to say Tate had an upset stomach. My mother was busy at her own waitressing job, so I rushed from the store to get him, enduring the  scowl of my manager.

“Why don’t you stay in the bathroom until things settle down?” I said to Tate, once we arrived home.

He miserably accepted the blanket and pillow I arranged for him on the tile floor.

“What if I’m sick for the party?”

“You won’t be,” I said, and wanted to believe it.

At five, my mother arrived. I went to my room for a nap but couldn’t sleep.

At seven I headed over to Mrs. Starch’s.

.                                                                                         

I found her hunched figure in the kitchen, ghost-like beneath the pale light. I didn’t say hello, knowing that could invite all kinds of trouble. She sipped on her nightly cocktail-two ounces of whiskey. I refreshed her crushed ice  and went about my business, tidying, dusting, preparing her room for bed, the clothes for the next day. I switched on the lights in the hall, dusted her large collection of bells displayed on the living room shelves. It struck me odd she’d collect something so frivolous. It didn’t track. There were no family photos at all, just the painting of Mr. Starch.

At six I served her meatloaf dinner. At eight she refused her walker, so I rolled her in the wheelchair to the bedroom. As I assisted her on the commode, bathed and dressed her, she continued griping. Her sheets should have been washed and changed, her pajamas itched her neck, the room smelled like urine. I sealed  my lips shut and lifted her into the bed. She was lighter than Tate. Reclined, she surveyed me with narrowed grey eyes and toothless gums. She wore a little nightdress with pink cats all over it. Another thing that didn’t track.

“Which one are you?” she asked.

“Becca.”

“Whatever,” she said, turning on her side.

I left her in the darkness of her room, went to my place in the den.

God, I was so tired. I ignored the textbook gaping from my bag. We weren’t supposed to sleep on the nightshift, but most of us did. All of us were working two or three jobs, had kids, some of us were in school. Some people even brought their own blankets and pillows from home, a big no-no. I sat down on the couch and tilted my head, drifting quickly to sleep.

.                                                                                         

A loud clatter jolted me awake. I approached Mrs. Starch’s doorway. Out of bed, she mumbled, attempting to squat above the garbage pail. I rushed in to stop her from falling. She awoke fully, screamed bloody murder. Her body spasmed in anger, collapsed, her head slammed against the nightstand.

“Oh my God!” I yelled, kneeling next to her.

“What have you done to me? What have you done?”

I ran a hand along her forehead and touched blood. Lots of blood.

I pulled out my phone, dialed  911.

“You, you people. You stupid useless people. You know the rule. Do. Not. Bother. Me. Ever. Do not bother me at night!” she said..

I jumped on board the ambulance,  Mrs. Starch still  shouting her head off.

“Don’t let that woman near me!”

Blood drenched her kitty nighty, my scrubs. Unable to restrain myself, I started to cry.

“Oh for God’s sake,” she said.

At the hospital, we waited until morning in the crowded ER. Mrs. Starch fired insults at me and everyone else. In the hallway, I called her unconcerned niece in California.

“You’ll stay with her?” she asked.

“I will,” I said, Tate’s school party tugging.

My mother called out sick from the restaurant to bring the cupcakes.

She texted a photo.

Sadness overcame, a dark wave pulling me under.

Mrs. Starch turned her bandaged head.

“Now what are you crying about?” she said.

Having had my fill of her, I didn’t answer

Her steady stare weakened me.

“It’s my son’s birthday. I missed his party,” I said, preparing  for her assault,

Well it’s your own damn fault.

She allowed a minute of silence, then slid a withered veiny hand toward mine.

“I had a child once,” she said.

Finally, the angry iron gate of her face broke free of its tight hinges. Her expression dissolved into a wrinkled curtain of loss, loneliness. I held onto her hand lightly, careful not to hurt her fragile bones.

 

About the writer:
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 54, lives in Syracuse, New York, writes about witches, cleaning ladies, struggling teachers, neighborhood ghosts, and other things. She’s won prizes in contests sponsored by The Jane Austen Literacy Society, Defenestrationism, Zizzle, Honeyguide, Books ‘n Pieces, Dead Fern Press, On the Premises, The Scottish Book Trust, and Re:Fiction.

Image: The Lost Felice by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). Oil on canvas. No size specified. 1939. Public domain.

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