E
Aug/Sep 1998 Fiction

Hope Chest

by D. L. Olson


Have a little more, Lisa, Mom says. You're much too thin. And listen to the rest of the French tape. Finish what you start. Only take something out to use. Follow through to the end. Anything worth doing at all is worth doing well. Put things back when you're done. And change to a blouse that's been pressed. Dear, aren't those jeans duly?

Sort of.

Sort of's not a choice, Dear. Exactly, invariably, evidently, absolutely, of course, of course not-now those are choices. But not sort of.

Whatever.

Whatever is not a choice either, Dear. Dirty clothes go in the hamper, not back on your body. Why don't you hurry and take another shower before we go do our shopping? If there's a sale, you might want to try something on. A person can never be too clean.

Mom, do I have to?

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

Can't I go out like this?

Dear, you could if we were going out to sweep the sidewalk or to wash the windows, but not to the mall. Besides, it's not a question of can, but of may. Everything has its place. Have you found the key to your hope chest yet?

Not yet, I say.

Don't forget to scrub the stall when you're done, Dear. And if you use the toilet, scrub that too. Put the Ajax back under the sink. And don't forget to wash your hands.

Whatever, I mumble.

I beg your pardon, Dear.

Yes, Mam.

I'm the only girl I know who likes school better than Saturdays. Sure, the teachers are like guards and the principal a warden, but nobody tells me what to do there half as much as at home, where it's just Mom and Dad and me. Me, I'm Lisa Blunt. I'm a junior in high school and Dad teaches French at the college and smokes a pipe, but only outside of course, even when it's freezing. A house is no place to smoke a pipe. Everything has its place.

As for Mom, well, where should I start? Mom's as smart as Dad, or probably smarter. And she's a professor too, but of library science. A library is made up of Public and Technical Services. Public Services is divided into Reference, Circulation, Reserve, and Interlibrary Loan. Technical Services is divided into Acquisitions and Cataloging. Cataloging consists of description and access. Access consists of main and added entries. The Anglo-American Cataloging Rules are rules, not recommendations or guidelines. And a rule is a rule. A period is never to be confused with a colon, or a semi-colon with a comma, or a bracket with a parenthesis, or a dash with an ellipsis. Absolutely. Morn never tires of teaching me things.

Mom is what you might call organized. So is Dad for that matter. Finish what you start. Only take something out to use. Follow through to the end. Anything worth doing at all is worth doing well. Put things back when you're done. No if's, and's, or but's. Exactly, invariably, evidently, absolutely, of course, of course not-now those are choices. But not sort of. And not whatever.

Saturdays begin when our two alarms go off at seven a.m. On the dot. We get up, we brush our teeth, we take our showers, we turn on a Mozart CD, we fix yolkless omelettes, find whole-wheat toast and squeeze fresh orange juice. Invariably. And we make cafe au lait for Mom and Dad and pour milk for me. I'm not old enough yet for coffee. Of course not. Me, I'm in charge of the bread and fruit, Mom the eggs and coffee, and Dad the morning paper.

Has the key turned up yet, Dear?

Not yet, I say.

We finish eating at eight on the dot and I turn off the Mozart CD. Music is out of place when Mom needs to think clearly. She gets out a fresh sheet of paper and rewrites the shopping list in columns like the supermarket's aisles. Exactly. I get going on the dishes. Dad finishes up the paper and heads off to his college office to word-process more of his latest monograph. Which is like a book, only a lot shorter. Pretty soon he'll be done with his fourth, about some playwright named Molly Eyre. Only it's a guy.

Once I finish up the washing, I move on to drying. The spoons all go in the spoon drawer. The serving spoons go on the left, the soup spoons in the middle, the dessert spoons on the right. The scuffed combat boots go on the hope chest bottom.

The forks all go in the fork drawer. The serving forks go on the left, the entree forks in the middle, the salad forks on the right. The torn plaid shirt goes on top of the combat boots.

The knives all go in the knife drawer. The cutting knives go on the left, the entree knives in the middle, the butter knives on the right. The striped mini-skirt goes on top of the plaid shin.

I excuse myself to clean up. I take another shower in the downstairs bathroom. Where I comb my hair. Where I'd put on my face if I was allowed to have a face. I put on a pressed Madras blouse, white cardigan, pleated khakis, and penny loafers. Without socks. And I wash my hands. Again. A person can never be too clean.

Can I drive this time, Mom? I say.

That's not funny, Dear, she says.

What else is new? Nothing I ever say is funny. I got my license now but Mom and Dad don't let me drive either of our cars, though hers is only a Toyota Celica and Dad's a Mitsubishi. A person can never be too careful.

When you're out on your own and paying your own insurance, Mom says, will be plenty soon enough for you to be driving. Has the key turned up yet, Dear?

Not yet, I say.

It'd be easier to go just down the road to Easttowne because the other mall is clear across town. But Mom figures Westtowne is on the average one percent cheaper. Not that we have to pinch pennies. But a penny saved is a penny earned. A stitch in time saves nine. The early bird catches the worm. Put things back when you're done. Everything has its place.

My job at Kroger's is to push the cart and cheek off the list and listen to Mom's instruction. On sniffing cantaloupe. On squeezing tomatoes. On hefting head lettuce. On comparing prices per ounce. On counting sodium milligrams. Mom never tires of teaching me things.

When I go to college, if I ever go to college, I have no idea what I'll major in. Shopping, cooking, and cleaning are what I'm best at, but they're not choices. Of course not.

By eleven twenty I wheel our heaping cart out to the ear, which is parked in the lot's far left corner. Invariably. Because that way there's less chance of scratching a door. Absolutely.

Mom always takes the shortest route home through the residential near west side despite all the stops and turns. Three tenths of a mile times two per trip times fifty two Saturdays per year adds up to a lot of gas. Of course.

Mom backs up our driveway and into our double garage. Invariably. We carry the bags into the kitchen, where Mom takes charge of the perishables and me the rest. Everything has its place.

At noon on the dot I put the Mozart CD back on and start warming up the soup. Mom gets out the Gruyere and whole wheat bread for the toasted cheese sandwiches. Since it's Saturday.

The moment we're done with lunch, I turn off the Mozart CD and get going on the dishes. Music is out of place when Mom needs to think clearly. She begins writing out the new grocery list. The earlier the start, the better the result. Work fast and steady. Never hurry. Check your work. A person can never be too careful.

The small water tumblers go along the left front of the cupboard. The big tumblers go lie-hind them. The teacups go on the right front. The coffee cups go behind them. The saucers go in the middle. The black nylons go on top of the mini-skirt.

The tumblers go upside down so the dust collects on the outside. The cups and saucers go upside down too. Dust them off before using them anyway. A person can never be too clean-

You know, Mom, I say, this wouldn't be necessary if the dust only stayed in its place.

That's not funny, Dear.

What else is new? Nothing I ever say is funny. Dad is sometimes funny though. If he's had enough wine. Mom doesn't want to be funny. It doesn't matter what I want.

Don't let a wet plate slip out of your grip, Dear. A person can never be too careful.

The Chinese china goes on the bottom shelf of the buffet. The Finnish china goes in the middle. The Wedgewood goes on top. The floppy-eared hunting cap goes alongside the black nylons.

At one thirty on the dot Mom shoves in the first load of laundry, the colors. Invariably. I get down on my hands and knees and scrub the kitchen floor, starting with tile number one in the back left corner. Ninety five tiles to go. You can never see germs. You can sometimes see dirt. You can always see grunge. None are welcome in our house.

Change the water after tile number forty eight, Dear. Wring out the mop. The Ajax goes back under the sink when you're done. The broom goes on the basement landing. The mop goes in the plastic pail.

As soon as I finish the kitchen, I get going on the two bathrooms. Fifty six and forty eight tiles. Between the loads of laundry, Mom picks up and vacuums. Not that there ever is anything to pick up or vacuum.

Did you lose the key at school, Dear?

Mom, I never took it to school.

The scuffed combat boots go on the hope chest bottom. 'I'he torn plaid shirt goes on top of the combat boots. The striped mini-skirt goes on top of the plaid shirt. The black nylons go on top of the mini-skirt. The floppy-eared hunting cap goes right next to the black nylons. The little shiney key goes inside the left Nike sneaker.

If I hurry, I can finish lily chores by four, so by all means I hurry. Because from whenever I finish till five on the dot I'm free. That's when Mom and I start dinner. Invariably. My room I leave till last because I never let it get dirty. Which makes cleaning it easy. I never wear any shoes or comb my hair in there and I always shut the door to keep out dust. I only go in my room to change clothes or to pretend to study or to stuff more things into my hope chest. It's getting way too full.

The sweaters go in the bottom dresser drawer. The socks go in the top drawer. The blouses go on hangers. The Raggedy Ann doll goes on my bed propped against the two fluffed pillows. The Nikes go against the back wall of the closet. The bag of marshmallows goes in the hope chest on top of the hunting cap.

When was the last time you saw your key, Dear?

Whenever. It's around here someplace.

Whenever is not a choice, Dear. You need to look harder. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Hope chest is what Mom calls it anyway, because gids don't have hope chests ailymore. They haven't for about a zillion years. It's just this old varnished wooden tnink that used to belong to my grandmother and then Mom when she was my age and now me. Its shiney little key goes inside the left Nike sneaker.

Where could the key be then, Dear?

Mom, why do you keep asking? It feels like you're prying.

I never pry, Dear. I show concern.

Whatever.

Whatever is not a choice, Dear.

Yes, Mam.

Mom is real big on showing concern. Like on the phone with her best friend. Now wait a minute, Jeannette, she shouts, not that either is hard of hearing. Are you saying Bill McMichael's latest is the Joan Davis who was married to Tony Paniglia or do you mean the Joan Davis in the Development Office? Neither? You mean there's a third Joan Davis? By all means fill me in. Now you're talking about Tony Paniglia's ex, aren't you? The one who used to run the sewing shop on Court Street with her sister. No, not that sister. Angie is Joan's younger sister. That's right. It was Debby, her older sister that Joan went into business with. Yes, Debby Entwhistle! She's a Davis too. The woman whose husband had an affair with Judge Lawton's wife. Exactly.

Not that Mom actually knows anybody named Joan Davis or Debby Entwhistle or Bill McMichael or Tony Paniglia. Of course not. She's never met a one of them. But given enough time, she'll have every important detail of their lives in its place.

I finish my chores by four because from whenever I finish till five on the dot I'm free. Free to make phone calls. Only at that hour my girlfriends are still at the mall. Who else can I call?

The first time nobody answers.

The second time no answer either.

Crabtree residence, an older woman says the third try. Oh my God, his mother! I slam down the phone. The marshmallows go in the hope chest. The empty marshmallow bags go in the bottom of my purse. My purse goes to school, where I dig out the wrappers and throw them in the trash.

It's almost five before I get up enough courage to try again.

Yeah, Rocky answers.

Awesome! He's at home!

Rocky, this is Lisa Blunt.

What?

Lisa Blunt. We're in the same American Problems class.

Sure. What's up, Lisa?

Well, I was just wondering what you were doing. You know, tonight. Later.

Whatever.

Right. Well, anyway, Rocky, I was just thinking that it might be fun if you and I got together.

Is this the Lisa whose dad teaches at the college?

Yeah, that's right. But Dad's o.k. Honestly. Like, he doesn't mean anything by the way he is. Mom neither.

Uh-huh. Well, I'm going to a party tonight, hut what if I come by and pick you up at ten? Would that work out?

Work out? Would it ever! Rocky, I gotta go now. See you later. I mean, tonight. I'll be there. I mean, here. Bye!

I hang up and pogo around the room.

What's going on in there, Dear?

Oh, nothing, Mom. I'll be right out.

I reach inside the Nike shoe and stop mid-way and pull my hand back out. I'm coming, Mom, I say.

At five on the dot Mom and I begin preparing dinner, which is vegetarian pasta Since it's Saturday. Mom begins by telling me again that it'd taste better if we made it from scratch, but we don't have the time to do that every week. Or actually any week that I remember.

Have a little more, Dear. You're much too thin.

Mom, I'm saving room for dessert.

Have a little more pasta, Dear.

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

But, Mom, if I have seconds I'll have to skip dessert

Dear, we never skip dessert and we never have seconds. We just have a little more.

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

Whatever.

How do you like the pasta, Dear?

The same as ever.

Does that mean it's good, Dear? The same as ever is not a choice.

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

Don't interrupt, James. It sets a bad example. Does the same as ever mean it's good, Dear?

Absolutely, I say.

Mom smiles.

Mom, ah, Dad, like, you both work full time and we're not hurting for money, so I was just wondering if maybe we could afford a cleaning service.

We don't need a cleaning service, Dear. What brings on this strange question?

Oh, I don't know. Just sometimes I'd like to join the other kids at the mall. You know, like on Saturdays.

No, I don't know. And do what?

Whatever. Hang out.

I beg your pardon, Dear.

I shrug. I blush. I get hot. How can I explain hanging out to Mom? She's never wasted a minute in her life.

Did you say hang out, Dear?

Yeah.

Don't slur your words, Dear. Say yes if you mean yes, and no if you mean no. But yeah is not a choice, and nah isn't either.

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

I'm still waiting to hear what hanging out means, Dear.

I get hotter I guess I don't know, I say.

But you do know, Dear, or you wouldn't have said it. I'm still waiting for you to explain yourself.

Hanging out means, ah, like, to just stand or sit around with your friends, and, well, I don't know.

With what eventual goal, Dear?

I stammer.

Don't just make noises, Dear. And please refrain from using like except as a preposition or verb. If you need time to think, then think, but to yourself of course. And then after you've decided what you want to say, say it.

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

Well, like, there is no goal, I guess.

You mean hanging out is pointless?

No.

If there's no goal, then hanging out is definitely pointless.

Well, I guess the point is to have fun.

Doing what?

Hanging out.

You're being redundant, Dear. It sounds. like a waste of time.

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

I nod. I give up. Nodding is the same as giving up. Hanging out is like hiring a cleaning service, which is like trying to get a cat. Which would be fine if we lived out in the country, but not in a house like ours in the city. Here a cat would be out of place.

Dear, is it my imagination or are your teeth getting discolored?

I nod. I give up. Nodding is the same as giving up.

As soon as we're done eating, I brush them again. And again. They4re still the same color as before, a dirty white, a dull gray. I guess I'm losing enamel. Like Mom did a long time ago.

I help Mom do dishes. She washes, I dry, Dad attacks the New York Times.

When Mom and I are done we join Dad in the living room, where he's sitting in his easy chair. I take my place against the left arm of the couch and Mom hers against the right arm. Everything has its place. It's time to watch a videotape. A French movie with English subtitles of course. The subtitles are for my benefit. Morn and Dad don't need them.

French movies are always awful and not because I can't understand them. They just don't have any plot or anything else interesting. This one is even worse. This mother and father and their two little boys go on an endless family vacation to a sunny pile of rocks. Nothing bad ever happens, nothing good ever happens, nothing much happens at all. But they're all really happy anyway. it's enough to make me want to throw up.

The Hershey bars go in the hope chest alongside the marshmallows. The empty wrappers go in the bottom of my purse. My purse goes to school where I dig out the wrappers and throw them in the trash.

This French film is even too much for Dad. Once he even yawns but with his mouth shut. Of course. Because visible yawning is rude. I yawn with my mouth shut too. Over and over. We watch the film all the way to the end anyway. Of course. Don't start a book you don't finish. The same goes for films. Follow through to the end. Anything worth doing at all is worth doing well. Put it back when you're done. Everything has its place. Exactly, invariably, evidently, absolutely, of course, of course not—it's enough to make me want to throw up.

The Milky Ways go in the hope chest alongside the Hershey bars. The empty wrappers go in the bottom of my purse. My purse goes to school where I dig out the wrappers and throw them in the trash.

The movie mercifully comes to an end and Dad yawns again with his mouth shut. I keep my fingers crossed. Maybe I'm going to get my chance. Finally

But first Mom has to discuss one tiny scene that doesn't make any sense. She doesn't a'-low anything not to make any sense. Dad offers some explanation I don't follow, but it makes Mom happy. Mom and Dad get up, while I stay put on the couch.

Aren't you going to bed, Dear? Mom says.

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

It's still early, Mom.

Early for what?

It's Saturday night. I don't have school tomorrow. Kids in my class stay up later Saturday nights. And they go out.

Dear, who says they go out?

I do, Mom.

What?

Mom, ah, Dad, I talked to a classmate on the phone and I'm getting picked up tonight at ten. We won't be out long.

Out?

Yeah, out. We watched all of the movie so the evening is over. I mean it's over for us together as a family.

When did your classmate call, Dear? I don't recall the phone ringing today.

Well, actually I called him.

Him?

Yeah. It's a new boy. New to our school this year anyway.

Young woman, don't you think such behavior on your part is out of place? First of all, we haven't met this boy. Second, we don't know his parents. Third, we haven't decided whether he's suitable for you. Fourth, he didn't call you-

-Mom, I didn't see what harm it'd do for me to call him first.

Please don't interrupt, Dear. Call him back and tell him you're not going.

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

It's too late. He's already out somewhere.

This story gets worse as it goes along. Young woman, go directly to your room and get ready for bed. Your evening is over as of this very minute.

Absolutely, Dad pipes up.

I stand up.

Good night, Dear.

Good night, Dear, Dad pipes up.

I nod. Nodding is the same as giving up. But not always.

Good night, Mom, Dad, I say. I go to my room. I take off my penny loafers, pleated khakis, white cardigan, and pressed Madras blouse. No need to take off any socks. I get down on my knees and crawl to the back of the closet and reach deep inside my left Nike sneaker and grab the shiny little key. I unlock my hope chest.

I eat the bag of marshmallows. I eat the bag of Hershey bars. I eat the bag of Milky Ways. I smile.

I fold the marshmallow wrapper into one pile. I fold the Milky Way wrappers into a second pile. I fold the Hershey bars into a third pile. I neatly tie the piles with rubber bands and stuff them into the bottom of my purse. I lock my hope chest. I pull the key back in the sneaker. Put things back when you're done.

I tip-toe into the bathroom. I kneel in front of the bowl. I stick a finger down my throat. I throw up. Vomit goes in the toilet. Everything has its place. I smile.

I brush my teeth. They're still gray. I smile anyway.

I flush the toilet. I get the Ajax out. I scrub the bowl. The Ajax goes back under the sink. Put things back when you're done. Finish what you start. Follow through to the end. Anything worth doing at all is worth doing well. A person can never be too careful. A person can never be too clean. Exactly, invariably, evidently, absolutely, of course, of course not.

I return to my bedroom. I climb into bed. I chuckle. I wait.

I hear Mom and Dad going to bed.

I chuckle. I wait some more.

The house gets quiet. I get back out of bed.

I reach my hand deep inside my Nike sneaker. I grab the shiny little key. I unlock my hope chest. I put on the black nylons. I put on the striped mini-skirt. I put on the torn plaid shin. I put on the scuffed combat boots. I pull the floppy-eared cap over my head. I listen. Mom and Dad are asleep. I put a hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

I sneak out the front door. I climb into the front seat of the waiting Chevy beater. Rocky looks me over good and shakes his head and laughs and says, Do you ever look grungy!

Thanks, I say and laugh too.

How's Cleveland sound? he says.

Whatever, I say. Actually I've never been there. Or anywhere else in Ohio.

I got a friend we can stay with, he says.

Whatever.

 

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