Winter 2019 Fiction

Aiden Baker

Oolong

 

Eileen had been seeing the man who liked feet for a month now. She realized this while she prepped the tea: a full month. Time enough for the moon to fatten and thin. Time enough to admit what it was.

She clicked on the gas. Tiny blue flames licked the kettle and she waited, unthinking, for the whistle.

 

The first time he’d asked he was timid. Couldn’t look at her face. She’d paused a moment and then, without art, slipped out of her shoe.

It didn’t do anything for her to sit there, offering ankles and toes. Didn’t feel naughty or wrong. It just felt like it felt, like she was a married woman with toes inside another man’s mouth.

She’d gotten used to the feeling: warm, fleshy and wet. Like getting sucked back into the womb. She’d recline while he’d kneel, khakis to carpet, a rapt expression on his face.

That was the extent of the affair: him sucking, her reclining, eyes closed.

Calm.

 

As always, she got home before her husband. Eileen liked coming home to quiet, to dark. Liked flicking on the lights. She stood in the kitchen making the tea, steam rising up to fog her eyeglasses, and thought: how odd. A full month.

 

It was just past four when she woke to the heavy walk of her husband, stumbling in after third shift. He undid his belt, let his bulky clothes fall to the floor, and climbed in bed, expecting.

Eileen stirred, murmured, and kept her eyes closed. But he was in the mood. He put a hand to her shoulder, rolled her over, onto her stomach.

Lying like this she could look out the window. The curtains, left open, let in a mixed white-yellow glow, moonlight and streetlamp.

He coughed, grabbed her waist. She bent to accommodate. Glancing out the window as she was, she noticed the woman, a neighbor she had never met, standing just across the way. She seemed to be watching, posed in the window, backlit, an aureole around her.

Eileen wondered who she was, why she was awake just now. She wondered if this woman could see them, the marital motion, in, in, in.

The woman seemed to be looking directly at her. Peaceful. Watching. Slowly, she untied her robe; Eileen saw it fall. Her skin seemed magicly ordinary. Full. Regular folds and lines. Eileen couldn’t look away, moving as she was to her husband’s metronomic push. The woman kept staring. Bare, committed.

With a grunt and release the husband rolled off. Eileen stayed put, heard the bathroom light click, door close. The residue spread, warm, wet, down her thighs but she kept her eyes on the woman, still bare, looking.

 

A while later she crept to the bathroom. The light had a specific hum. She thought about the blinking light in the back of the laundromat, the feel of a mouth. A man who didn’t talk—and still.

Snores and sleepy breath could already be heard from the bed. Eileen exhaled into the mirror, watched fog meet the glass. It didn’t seem like her, the face reflected. More like a thing: not a girl, not a wife. She didn’t recognize the lines, lips, nose, mouth that made her.

She wiped at the fog with the side of her fist. The non-fogged reflection frightened her and she snapped off the light, crawled into bed, not checking to see if the woman was still out there, looking.

 

That next morning, she found an excuse to visit him. An undone thread on her coat. Urgent.

He was there in his shop, thin glasses on thick nose, needle in hand. She watched as he finished up, gently pulling, bringing button to coat. With an elegant, needed flourish he cut and tied the stitch.

“Good morning, Eileen,” he said with a smile. A small one, but she saw it.

“Morning,” she said.

Moments later, they were in the storage closet, peeling off socks.

Her patient’s house was full of radio static. Eileen had, several times, switched off the transmission, but Donna Jean always griped, moaned, demanded the noise. As Donna Jean lay in her electric bed, Eileen bent over the washing machine, working on a stain. She dabbed the cotton sheet, applied the soap—twist and pull, she’d been taught—but the stain stayed there, taunting, tomato soup holding tight to the fibers, not letting go.

“The computer is fritzing,” Donna Jean called with a gurgle.

When Eileen entered the den, her patient had her pale papery legs spread out on the quilt, nightgown riding up. Eileen threw a blanket over the boney old knees.

“Ack, too hot,” Donna Jean spat, kicking it off.

“What’s the issue?” Eileen asked, leaning over to check out the screen. A message flashed.

“Keeps saying I got a virus. Won’t shut the hell up.”

It was a fake alert—all she had to do was click out of the window. Eileen directed the weathered hand and demonstrated, slowly. It reminded Eileen of the early internet days, when she had to guide her father through everything. Ask Jeeves he’d been particularly fond of. How are you, Jeeves, he would ask.

“What about that virus now? How do I get that out of there?”

“There is no virus,” Eileen explained.

“There is—the message said.”

“They were lying. It was bait. A trap.”

“But why would they do that to me?” Donna Jean asked, hurt.

Eileen boiled hot dogs for lunch over the small range stove. A Donna Jean favorite. She liked to watch soccer on her small, dated laptop while she was fed. Sounds of the Brazilian match filled the room as Eileen diced the meat and brought spoonfuls up to her dry, cracked lips.

As she usually did, Donna Jean fell asleep after the feeding. Eileen settled herself into the wicker chair and nestled in for the afternoon. The humidifier hissed, Donna Jean gurgled, and Eileen cracked open her book.

She didn’t notice herself dozing until Corrine was there, gently shaking her arm.

“You can go home now,” Corrine said, softly. “I’ve got her.”

Eileen, embarrassed, rose and checked on Donna Jean, who was snoring, splayed on the mattress, a globule of spit at her mouth’s corner.

Corrine sat down and folded her hands on her lap. Her lipstick was done, scrubs ironed, everything proper. She wasn’t much of a talker, Corrine. The shift changes usually passed in seamless silence. But today, Eileen felt the urge to speak.

“Have you ever been watched?”

Corrine frowned. Eileen regretted the question. She suddenly felt like the whole room, the paintings, the clocks, all things were judging.

What Eileen really wanted was to mention the woman from last night, to talk about the strange effect it had on her—seeing, being seen.

But the words didn’t come. It was too silly, she thought. So it came out as a question, vague.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been observed on the job,” Corrine mused after a pause. “I always did worse with those old nurses hovering, scribbling notes. Why?”

“I was just wondering,” Eileen muttered, blushing, and gathered her things

 

The walk home was pleasant. Less than a mile, in mild air. She noted the leaves, still green and plump from summer sun. As she approached her own duplex, she eyed the window where the woman had been. She caught herself hoping.

But no one was there—the windows were empty, and the emptiness affected her in a way she hadn’t expected.

*

As always, things needed doing at Donna Jean’s house. Laundry to fold, surfaces to wipe, food gunk to scrape from the dishes. Eileen, halfway into her shift, went outside to the yard to start in on the most absurd task on the list: cleaning the pool.

Donna Jean, eighty-six and so weak, on dialysis, never went into the water. Hadn’t in years. Shaped like a kidney, under the ginko, the thing was only good for collecting leaves, beetles, and bugs. It would make more sense to drain rather than maintain. But today, Eileen was grateful for the uselessness, a chance to be out in the fresh, open air, away from the oppressive old lady smell, the constant throat gurgle.

Of course Eileen cared for Donna Jean, in an emotional sense; the two had grown close in the year and a half she’d been caretaking. But the loneliness, the lack of movement, bearing witness to decay—it weighed on Eileen, the constant awareness of what’s to come, the blunt visual of the inevitable.

I will be there.

It will be soon.

Outside, under the sun, by the dirty, unused pool, Eileen was able to pretend, to press mute on those thoughts, to consider her life as it was: outside, cleaning the pool.

As she bent with the net, dredging up muck, she noticed a wasp, not yet dead, drowning, flipping its wings. She watched it struggle, let it struggle, and left it in the water.

As she lifted up leaves and dead things, as she shook out the net, she couldn’t understand what compelled her to leave the wasp there, fluttering, helpless.

Later, days later, she thought it was mercy: his wings would have bloated, he’d die in the air, better to let him lay cool, floating.

But really, she knew it wasn’t mercy. Really, she’d had no reason at all.

*

She felt peaceful when she was there, in the back room, rows of clothes around her, a man on his knees. 

*

The room with Donna Jean was tinted lavender, drooping. The old woman’s haggard breath rippled the walls. Eileen saw all this: her eyes were open and her fingers were tapping, keeping time to radio static.

The cuckoo clock struck the hour and in came the woman. She entered the frame, beautiful, smiling. The woman from the window.

She approached Donna Jean, a thick cloth in her hand. Eileen watched as she placed the cloth to Donna Jean’s lips, as she forced the cloth in, as she smothered.

Donna Jean gagged, eyes pleading for help, her whole body succumbing to spasms, then silence.

 

Eileen awoke suddenly. First cold, then hot. She kicked off the sheets, her mind stuck on that limp, lifeless body, eyes wide in horror. She couldn’t fall back asleep, the image fixed in her mind until morning.

She rose with her husband. In the kitchen, he leaned against the counter, drinking his coffee, while she prepped his eggs. He said something about the price of tomatoes. Her thoughts were faraway, with Donna Jean. There was no reason to think the worst. No phone call. The whole thing was unlikely. And yet.

He scraped his plate clean, complimented her scramble. She offered him the rest of her share. Too salty. She didn’t have much of an appetite anyway, still thinking about the corpse, that last moment of terror.

Her anxiety didn’t calm until she got in the house and saw for herself. Donna Jean was fine. Breathing freely. No woman with a cloth.

“Turn the damn air off,” she cawed, then coughed. “It’s the arctic in here.”

A good sound, her voice. The radio static, the ticking clocks—coming off that dream made the abrasive things significant, lovely.

She felt grateful for the simple tasks, grateful her patient wasn’t lying, eyes open, murdered. Eileen got things done quickly, the laundry, the folding. She stood in the kitchen, scrubbing crusted mustard from a plate Corrine had left, keeping her ear out for throat clearing, for the sure sound of the woman, living.

She wiped fingerprints from water glasses. She wiped down the counters, grateful for the menial.

The cuckoo clock clucked three, and Eileen felt the breath of superstition cold on her neck. She ran to check on Donna Jean and found her, found the pulse. All was well. Eileen sighed and squeezed the rough, wrinkled hand.

“What? What’s wrong?” Donna Jean jerked awake from her slumber.

“Nothing,” Eileen said. “Nothing is wrong. I’m going out to clean the pool.”

“Good, good. Clean the pool. I want to swim.”

Before the screen door shut, Donna Jean was snoring again.

 

She didn’t notice right away. Grabbed the net instinctively, bent to scoop, still in that meditative state of cleaning. And then she saw.

The surface of the pool wasn’t blue, wasn’t water, was full, instead, of wasps—hundreds and hundreds of them, floating in an insect sea.

A nest had fallen in the water, was bobbing, an island among dead.

*

She made her way to the laundromat, determined to tell him about the wasps and the dream. About that woman. That day the clouds made soft, white trails in the blue, letting in light. A picturesque sky, practically painted. Eileen felt new air in her chest, felt in her core a physical seed.

When she got to the laundromat he was pacing, distraught, not at all how she knew him to be. The small shop looked the same, had the same smell of detergent and pine trees. But he was pacing, back and forth, even after the bell tolled and she walked in the shop. She asked him if he was alright.

He didn’t respond. Just covered his mouth with his palm, pulled on his skin. “Are you okay?” she asked again.

“No,” he said.

“No,” he said, pacing. “I have to go home.”

She didn’t know where home was, for him, or where this had come from. This anxious neurosis didn’t fit the parameters of the person she knew.

“There’s a financial pickle, back home,” he said. This was verbose, for him. “I have to go.”

A ticking sound came from somewhere. Eileen focused on the pulse.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“I don’t mind,” Eileen responded. “Do you still have my blouse?”

There was an exchange and that was it, an end to the affair.

 

She wasn’t one to ask questions or fall to despair. She went back to her bed, her husband. Routine. Knowing that later, years later, with a failing body and an electric bed, with the clocks and caretaker and old lady musk, she’d be thinking about that back room. About feet, about wasps, about the woman, in the window.

 

 
 

 


Aiden Baker currently lives in Boca Raton, where she is an MFA candidate at Florida-Atlantic University. She graduated from the University of Illinois in 2018 with her Bachelors' in English and Creative Writing.

 

 


 

Lovers Tarot Card

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.