Ilona Melton inhaled the last tunnel of smoke deep into her lungs and peeled her swimsuit straps off her shoulders. She propped her feet on the plastic lawn chair opposite her own. Her iced tea was already sweaty with condensation, proof that the summer of 1974 promised to be unusually hot. Northerners up here preferred their tea unsweetened, but Ilona took after her mother and added both honey and mint.
The house waited for Ilona to return to the chores that never relented, even for an hour. A pile of dishes sat in the sink; rumpled beds lay until she finished her folly outside. It is said, wrongly, that there is grace in the details of daily tasks.
The phone rang from inside the house; each new ring seemingly more urgent. She was certain it was Dennis, calling once again. He had been calling frequently, the worry in his voice grating on Ilona. She tried to ignore the phone, wincing while coaxing another Virginia Slims from the pack. She counted five . . . six . . . seven rings . . . he was giving her time to finish folding a shirt or to switch off the vacuum and hear the phone. Finally he gave up.
The dog next door was barking again, bored and lonely for human company while the busy couple were at work. she thought, but no one is coming. It’s just you and me out here, so rage all you want. The smoke curled into her nostrils, negating the suburban scent of honeysuckle vines creeping over the fence, alive with bees. Were it not for those bees, her first childish instinct would be to pick a blossom, and, pinching the end with her fingernail, remove the pistil to lick the drop of delicate nectar inside.
Again the phone rang; the dance would continue until she answered.
“Hi hon, how are you doing?”
“Fine. Just cleaning.”
“Oh. Well, I miss you.”
“The dog next door keeps barking. He’s lonely, I guess.”
“Yeah. I’ll be home at 5:30 tonight.”
“Did you give any thought to what we talked about?” Ilona asked, “About the job?”
Dennis sighed. “Honey, I don’t know, I can’t talk about this now. Can we discuss it later?”
“I’d really like to.”
“Ilona, I love you.”
She noticed a movement within the honeysuckle vines. Bees, beginning to swarm? Maybe. Hopefully. Her ice clinked in her glass as her hand shook. That feeling rose within her again, buzzing around her head. She pressed her fingertips against her ears and smashed her eyelids together, hard. Sometimes that helped. Made it all go away.
The squeak and bang of the screen door resonated from the front porch, followed by the staccato prattle of an unknown number of children. She stood, chair falling backwards, and glanced again at the vines. Gone.
Five children darted about the kitchen like finches; two of them searching the pantry, soon placated by a long sleeve of Pringles and box of Nilla wafers. Her two kids were accompanied by their friends from next door. Amanda, her eldest, distributed the chips and cookies to the group gathering at the table while “Mrs. Melton” retrieved the pitcher of Kool-Aid. Amanda’s knees were dirty, evidence of her tomboy ways, despite most girls in her class having little interest in such masculine games. She was getting lanky, Ilona thought, coltish. This was the beloved part of summer for her children — the elation of liberty from the tidy rows of desks still current in their minds; the boredom from too much unstructured time still several weeks away. Ilona anticipated summer each year almost as much as they did, making big red Xs through the last days of May. Although her own daily routine changed little, she still preferred the summertime, especially the heat of August. When the humidity was high and others were complaining, Ilona lived reminded of the roadside peach stands and Baptist gospels of her youth.
“Mom, we’re going to Kevin’s to swim. Do you know where my suit is?” asked Amanda, stretching her t-shirt over her bent knees as she sat.
“Laundry room, in the pile. It’s still dirty.”
“That’s ok. What are we having for dinner?”
“Haven’t thought about that yet. Chicken, I guess.”
Ilona knew the proper thing was to sit with the children as they finished their snack. Soon enough they were off, eager to spend daylight hours away from adults. Sighing, she resigned to her housework, abandoning the iced tea and cigarettes in the backyard. Her husband would arrive in a few hours, and there was much her family expected her to do.
The following day, Ilona took her children to see the newly completed Sears Tower. The whole of Illinois shared the achievement of having the world’s tallest structure as its own. It dominated the skyline; the sleek sides all pointing upward, demanding onlookers to consider the city’s bright future despite its troubling present. The media had been filled with dour and frightening reports for a number of years, and this was a thrilling defiance to the riots, assassinations, resignations, and poor economy. Its mandate was apparent: triumph, determination, authority.
The elevator to the observation deck was “a mere 45 seconds to the top, Ladies and Gentlemen.” She mistakenly assumed her body would feel leaden riding the small compartment to the pinnacle of Chicago with gravity unwilling to release its hold. Instead she was buoyant, her head even drifting for a few seconds as she wondered if this feeling was anything like the one the astronauts had as they floated above the world.
The elevator came to a stop and she dug her fingernails into her palms to steady her thoughts. Below the air was still, but at this elevation the world dipped and whirled, spreading across Lake Michigan and the level plains. Amanda and Ryan, along with the other visitors, excitedly explored, chattering about the miniature world below. “They look like ants,” she heard a number of people say.
The view was chimerical, as if she could open the glass panes and find merely a photograph of the world outside. A joke played upon the thousands of visitors each year. She saw no flying birds; only the white peaks in Lake Michigan suggested that the scene below was true.
“Wow, just look at that view,” a man next to her said, “What a day for this.”
“Yes. Amazing. I would hate to fall from here.”
Her children had gone, exploring all four sides while they had the chance. Ilona walked to the windows and placed her forehead against the glass, as so many others were doing around her. What a way to die, she thought, no going back. She tried to imagine the plunge to the ground. Would it feel like gliding free? Or would the journey be filled with terror? The descent of a rollercoaster was the closest sensation she could summon. She backed up until her shoulders hit the wall behind her. Her initial sliver of apprehension had become a palatable malaise. Those around her, had they noticed, might have thought it was the altitude. She stared forward, ignoring the other tourists and waiting for her children to finish their sightseeing. Yet when the time came to return to earth, to its vast flatness, she told Amanda and Ryan she wasn’t quite ready to be sent down.
“I’m hungry,” Ryan complained, “you said we could have McDonald’s.”
“Just a couple of minutes.”
“But you aren’t doing anything.”
Amanda pulled her brother away, back to watch departing airplanes and wait for her mother to retrieve them.
Ilona tried retreating back inside her head, but she caught the perfumed scent of fat magnolias. A woman walked past, her lips parted in a laugh at something her friend was saying. She was polished, wearing the tailored clothing of someone who was expected somewhere.
“Are you okay?” she asked Ilona.
“Yes. I’m just overwhelmed, I guess.”
“You will feel better when you get down.” The woman turned back to her colleague.
“Where do you work?” Ilona blurted.
“Me? Oh, Schwartz Cooper. I’m a lawyer.”
“That sounds wonderful.”
“I like it. Well, I should be going.”
Ilona watched as the woman walked away, back to her office, she guessed. Avoiding her reflection in the windows, she searched for her children.
“Where’s my beautiful wife?” Dennis said, every evening when he arrived home at 5:30. Then a kiss. He was taller than most men, much taller than Ilona, and had a stoop to his shoulders. Like living an apology. Today, she had dinner waiting, the housework completed, and kids sitting at the table.
“Hi honey,” she said, “we are having steak tonight.”
“Terrific. I love steak.”
Amanda and Ryan told their father about the Sears Tower, interrupting each other in excitement.
“Wow, sounds great. I’ll have to make it by there. Maybe we can go together if you want to see it again.”
“I made dessert tonight. Brownies,” Ilona cut in.
“Great. Can’t wait.”
“Oh, and I bought some new shirts for you on our way home today.”
“So, honey, can we talk now? About that job?”
Dennis looked up from his plate, catching her eyes, but he did not respond.
He sighed, “After dinner please.”
The family finished the food, talking intermittently of the day’s events. Amanda and Ryan excused themselves and took the brownies into their rooms.
“Ok. I talked to the librarian again last time we were in, and she said that the position was still open. She didn’t think my lack of a degree would be a problem, since it’s just a clerical job. But, if I finished up my B.A., I could even work there full-time someday. If I wanted.”
“Did you tell her you have kids?”
“She knows. She’s met them many times.”
“And a house? And a husband?”
“I think she can infer that.”
Dennis leaned forward in his chair and placed his elbows on the table.
“Honestly, honey, I don’t understand why you want to do this. I make enough money to support us all.”
“It’s not that, Dennis.”
“Then what is it? You’re not happy? I know you have seemed a little distant. But the kids still need you. The house needs you. I need you. I think those things are important. More important than any job. Listen, I’m really uncomfortable with having a wife with a career. Can’t you just be happy here? I want to make you happy.”
Ilona bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood in her mouth. With a controlled movement, she stepped toward Dennis and slapped him, hard. He absorbed the impact with a wince, holding her gaze, before she turned and left the room.
In the morning, Ilona unfurled the vacuum cord, powered the squat body from the room’s outlet and began the repetitive movements back and forth across the floor. The work was banal, but she did derive some satisfaction from creating clean stripes of thick carpet, neatly rowed across the floor. The room’s picture window welcomed the bright rectangle of light in the middle of her work. The house was almost new. The entire development had only recently been cut from the surrounding trees, built on spiraling cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets. The neighborhood was orderly and designed; nothing like the meandering country roads she knew as a child, where farmers in pickups raised three fingers from the steering wheel in hello as they passed.
She moved into the dining area, the vacuum’s high-pitched roar intensifying as the surface changed from carpet to linoleum.
The faces were there again.
This time, sneers rose from the flecked pattern in the floor below her feet. She hadn’t seen the faces in months, but today their threatening eyes emerged from tombs where others might simply see a variation in the floor’s pattern. At times, their expressions were sorrowful, their round mouths stretched into a silent wail that compelled her to acknowledge the regret she carried inside. Or they would hide from her completely, and she would work to unfocus her vision trying to detect their presence.
But they were back, on the floor or in the knotted-pine cabinet that displayed the good china. They looked directly at her. Judging her. Trembling, she called out, “What do you want?” They were laughing at her for ever thinking she would matter in this world. Laughing because her fate would never change, and she would live out the rest of her days as a prisoner. She saw what they thought in their wicked smiles.
Stop it, she thought, as anger and fear pinched her face. Fuck you.
When they first began their visits, not long after Amanda was born, she was certain she was just being silly. Everyone sees this kind of thing, she thought. A knot in a tree stump might resemble an old man with his tongue sticking out, but it’s just a coincidence. They were harmless then, almost clownish. Even now she realized they were not physical beings — they never bothered the rest of her family — but sometimes wondered if they were completely imaginary. They started appearing throughout the house. In her shower. In the folds of the curtain. Faking boldness, she finished the floor, keeping her eyes open this time, before turning to exit the room.
On the breakfast table sat the newspaper, still folded, unread. Up until motherhood, Ilona would finish every article in the front section of the Tribune, outraged at the State and curious of world events. She attended college in the 1960s and, like many of her classmates, chose to be informed and indignant. Ilona had welcomed this lifestyle change, so different from her upbringing in rural Georgia. Girls there, no matter how educated, were expected to grow into dainty belles. Although Ilona feigned the saccharine mannerisms of her peers, she waited for her real life to begin somewhere away from home. Far away. When she was actually accepted to Northwestern University, she had to put up a strong fight with her daddy.
Once there, she promptly found like-minded friends who scoffed at the idea of attending an elite school with the purpose of getting an M.R.S. The term, frequently repeated by parents and students alike, they deemed demeaning to all womankind. Was there any need to educate future housewives? Betty Friedan and those before her presented other opportunities for the middle-class girl. They promised success and domination — who would shun such achievements in order to cook and clean?
She was distressed, then, when she discovered her pregnancy. Still unwilling to compromise her plans, she found a source to help her terminate. She could continue with her life as a bright college co-ed with limitless potential. Dennis knew of several friends who used a local doctor with a real practice when their girlfriends needed an abortion. He said he would support whatever decision she made.
In the end, however, she did not have the mettle for it. A few weeks passed and her choices began to fade. Finally Dennis tired of waiting for her decision and almost insisted on her hand in marriage. He would graduate soon, he said, had decent grades and already several strong job prospects. He professed he was ready to start a family, and promised to be a good father. Now, nine years later, she lived her mother’s life.
The doorbell chimed. She could see Cassandra through the window, giving her curly hair a shake before the door was answered. Her neighbor had a childlike face, heart-shaped and full. She had even retained some of her freckles, dotted across her nose and cheeks like a sprinkling of a spice.
“I brought your double-boiler, it’s clean. Thanks so much for letting me borrow it. I dropped some hints to Paul to get me one for my birthday,” she said, handing Ilona the pots.
“Anytime. Do you have time to come in for a little while? I could use a break.”
In the kitchen, Ilona retrieved glasses and a pitcher of sweet tea while her neighbor lowered herself onto a chair. Her belly was cumbersome, swollen with her third child who was soon to have a summer birthday, just like his mother.
“Ugh. I’m as big as a house now. The other two were such easy pregnancies, but this one is throwing me for a loop.”
“It’s just the heat, darlin’, you’ll be back down to your tiny waist soon. I bet Paul will be all over you in no time.”
Cassandra giggled and sipped tea as Ilona took a glass ashtray from the counter and lit a cigarette, joining her neighbor at the table. The box fan propped in the window droned on in its futile effort to cool the women. Something in the motor was faintly loose, causing an asymmetrical noise difficult to ignore.
“I’m so glad school is finally over. I was getting sick of the same routine,” said Ilona through her smoky exhale.
She held out the pack. “Want one?”
“No, you know I don’t smoke.”
“I talked to Dennis last night about the job at the library. He said he doesn’t want his wife to work.”
“Well, I can see that. Who would be here for the kids? They are still young. You never get this time back, you know.”
“Never mind. Maybe when they are older.”
“I’d want to be there for the teen years, myself. That’s when they get in the most trouble. They still need their moms.”
Cassandra’s maternity dress was a milky yellow, and Ilona thought she resembled an enormous baby chick. She frequently wore pastels, especially when pregnant, as if she herself were the newborn.
The two women had little in common, save for the fact that they had children of similar ages and both lived in the Southern Hills development. Cassandra’s house smelled of bacon in the mornings and cupcakes in the afternoon, just in time for an after-school snack. Despite her gentle complaints to the opposite, Ilona suspected Cassandra enjoyed being pregnant, relishing the tender smiles from strangers and the offers of help with packages. She arched her back just a little too dramatically and rubbed her abdomen as often as she could. Their friendship was by necessity, Ilona thought. In any case, she was amused by the way Cassandra blushed so readily, and she enjoyed peppering her phrases with some cheekiness and an occasional vulgarity. Perhaps, she thought, Cassandra sought out her friendship because she, too, needed something stimulating, and Ilona provided safe entertainment.
After Cassandra left, Ilona capitulated to the demands of the house. She walked through the space, surveying what work was left to be completed. Each room revealed its tasks at the doorway: unkempt beds, sheets needing to be freshened, a sink still full of waiting dishes, untidy bathrooms. She twisted her amber-colored hair into a chignon at the nape of her neck.
The kitchen beckoned first, it was the room in which she spent the majority of her days. She rummaged under the sink and removed the necessary cleansers for the floors, countertops, and basins. Her movements were less costive as she continued with her work, rebuking herself for dithering.
She quickened her pace now, knowing that she alone was culpable for the state of the house, and no one would be happy with it. She started the laundry, whites on hot, and the beds received the attention they wanted, even acquiring a clean set of sheets. Four o’clock. Dennis would be home in an hour and a half, almost to the minute. Although hardly a blue-collar man living by a punch clock, his office had a culture of family men, and most left promptly at five.
He was a good man, and Ilona could not deny that fact. He spent evenings and weekends at home, not expressing desire to be without his family. It was difficult to articulate, even to herself, why she was so often antagonistic with him. When they fought, it was typically over trivialities: his neglecting to make a repair, his overindulging the children, his forgetting to do a task just the way she liked it. Dennis tried to mollify his wife with acquiescence on these small matters, sitting sheepishly as she ranted and fumed. It frightened her, this hostility, this rancorous mood appearing so suddenly. Amanda and Ryan were no less subject to her temper. They were innocent, making only the kind of mistakes children make. She knew that. Still her demeanor would sour, and insults sprang from her mouth, assailing one or both children like a firm slap.
Family dinner was the routine at the Melton household, and Ilona was expected to provide it. She needed to start. Removing a chicken from the refrigerator, she began to cut the flesh into standard pieces. Her mother taught her, when she was just nine years old, how to separate a whole bird into the breasts, thighs and legs that everyone recognizes on the platter. Her butcher knife was beginning to dull from years of use, but it still tore through the pink muscle that held the leg to the torso. Leaning up for leverage, she crunched the bone easily and sawed at the clinging skin.
The gore from the chicken clung to the knife, and Ilona paused to stare. There it is, said the faces, this time whispering from the fan’s blades as they cut the sultry air. That’s what you need. She searched the kitchen, but they were hiding again. She caught a short glimpse of one in the teakettle and it faded quickly. The knife was tarnished and cloudy from the chicken. She could sharpen it, of course, so she could quickly slice each wrist and not have to bear down to reach the artery. She would still have some pain, but it would be tolerable, she thought, for the time it took. It would be messy. She smirked at the thought of someone else cleaning it up. Dennis perhaps. Did he even know where she kept the mop?
She couldn’t hear the faces clearly now. They were murmuring, and she realized, quarreling with each other. She listened intently, trying to ascertain what they were saying, but there were too many of them today. Some of them, she could hear through the din, were urging her hurry up. Others were saying the opposite, but she could not decipher their reasoning.
With a metallic clang, she watched as the knife slipped into the sink, chipping the porcelain before settling beside the drain.
“Coward,” she said aloud, “just like always.”
She leaned against the sink, fingering her hair with greasy hands, letting the remainder of the day happen to her, again.
A green bottle fly faintly tapped the window above the basin; trapped between two panes of glass. To Ilona, the sound was almost imperceptible, a repetitive dt-dt-dt. Inside those panes, she knew, was a deafening howl of helplessness. The late afternoon sun assaulted the fly head on. How easy it would have been to help the creature; the panes were made to slide open with a slight push. She saw her blurry reflection in the glass. Her blank expression was likely one of mockery in the multiple eyes of the fly, just as the faces were to her.
The screen door banged again, alerting Ilona to the arrival of her children. Slowly, she turned from the window and forced a reluctant, motherly smile.