Shelter by Mary J. Breen

I pulled into the parking lot and chose a spot near the rear door where a stencilled sign on the window read Eee-Zee-Sudz-It 24 ho rs. Very funny. Not.

Only one other car was parked there, an open hatchback near the front where a man was loading several overstuffed bags. I took a deep breath and got out. Before I managed to get my hood up, my glasses were streaming with rain. I grabbed one of the heavy bags from the backseat and the plastic tore, spilling the already-soaked towels onto my shoes. Before I had a chance to retrieve them, I heard, above the sound of rain and traffic, regular splashing footsteps. I looked back to see a man, his anorak hood pulled down low, moving towards me much too fast.

I let the rest of the bag drop, and pressed back against the car very aware that there was no one nearby to help me.

“Lovely night for a murder,” the Vincent Price voice called out. Then it became normal again. “Jo! It is you, isn’t it? I thought I recognized you when you drove in.”

“Terry! Oh, you scared me!”

“Sorry, Jo. Sorry, sorry!”

I took a couple deep breaths, my hand on my chest, and then stepped aside to get out from under the wet towels. Terry immediately offered to help, so I plopped several towels into his arms, picked up the rest, grabbed the other bag, and ran after him, trying to dodge the puddles. Terry braced the door against the wind, and I rushed into a bright, steamy world thick with the cloying perfume of detergent and dryer sheets.

“These ones over here, they’re the best.” Terry was calling over his shoulder as he headed for the far wall. I stopped and wiped my glasses on my sweater before stumbling over to a sink with my dripping bundle. “I should know,” he said. “I come here Thursdays after class.”

If Terry was doing his laundry here, then that meant that he and Phyllis had split up. Again. Episode 48 of Terry and Phyllis: The Neverending Story. Why couldn’t Terry just be done with her? She’d been throwing him out a couple times a year for ages, and the last gossip I’d heard was that at Christmas she’d chased him down the road wielding a snow shovel! Perhaps he’d stopped broadcasting his troubles because he knew it was starting to look like he was the crazier of the two. Or perhaps he’d discovered that most people have a pretty limited supply of love and understanding before they start blaming you for your misery. When Bruce left me, my friends’ quality of mercy was indeed strained. Of course that’s partly because everybody loves Bruce. Such a really great guy! Do you know he wouldn’t take me to Psychology Department parties even though I really wanted to go? I found out later that he told some people I thought myself above such things, and he told others I was too sickly. What he told me was that he’d never get appointed to chair with such a dull-as-dishwater wife.

I realized Terry was still talking, explaining that his new therapist was helping him find himself, helping him find his strength. I don’t think Terry will ever feel much strength near Phyllis, but I didn’t say anything. I’m starting to think our mothers were partially right—we do make our own beds. They just neglected to tell us that we don’t need to sleep in them forever. At some point we might have to get up, put two feet on the floor, and walk.

Terry continued with his advice, showing me the change machines, pointing me to the best washers, telling me which flavoured soap would work best on those towels that had ended up in the mud. Finally he asked me what I was doing there, and I explained that I’d got home from class to discover my brand-new expensive washer had died in mid-cycle packed full of these wretched towels and fleece blankets that I’d promised to take down to my mother on Saturday.

“Your mother?” he said. “Is she not—”

“No, she’s in a retirement home in Kingston now, and not one thing is suiting her one little bit, not even the towels! And I have to teach again tomorrow, and I’m starving and I have a headache. So here I am. Not Best Pleased.”

“Poor Jo,” he said.

“Did you know I’ve moved, Terry? Now that the twins are off at university, I sold the house and bought a condo. I’m very happy there. So much better all around.”

“Good for you!” he said, and he gave me a little hug. “Look, before I go, I’ll run over to Ellie’s and get you a cappuccino and a muffin, OK?” He was pointing to the student coffee shop just across the street. “Bruce swears by the coffee from that place. Oh, sorry. Sorry. Stupid of me. Don’t know what I was thinking.”

I smiled the rueful smile I’d learned to use. I knew Bruce had not only liked the coffee at Ellie’s; he’d also liked the young engineering students who hang out there. The twins tell me their father is planning to marry one of them, not the one he left us for but another one. I’ve thought of warning her, but with Bruce’s charm, she probably wouldn’t listen anyway. That’s what I tell myself.

Terry rushed on. “So, want that coffee? It’s no trouble.”

“Nah, too late, Terry. I’m OK. I’ve got some water and an apple. But thanks.” He gave me another hug, and shuffled off, turning to wave one more time.

I had my choice of at least twenty hard, orange, plastic chairs where I could feel even more out of sorts. I picked one, hung my wet coat on the back of another, and looked around. There wasn’t much to see. The windows were completely fogged over as if we were in a world by ourselves. Two fluorescent bulbs overhead pulsed and buzzed.

There were only four other people. Near the back, a big guy in a university jacket and sleek jogging pants was tipped back in his chair, feet up on the wall, talking on his cell phone. A pile of magazines was scattered on the floor around him. At the centre table, a very young-looking student was punching numbers into a calculator and recording the results in a thick binder. She hadn’t looked up since I arrived. The only others were a young woman and a boy of about five huddled on a bench near the front window. The woman was flipping through a torn magazine, bent far over as if she were in pain. Long blond hair, tight black pants, high-heeled boots, and a low-cut sparkly top.

I retrieved my bruised apple from the depths of my purse, and went over to check out a bulletin board on the wall. I wondered what my ESL students would make of it, whether they could figure out the messages behind the messages. In the centre was a huge No Smoking sign. Someone had written, Don’t tell me what to do! across it, and below that, Doh! and Smoke Me! The remaining space held a couple of hand-written notices: stereo equipment for sale, and an open-mike poetry reading given by the campus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Society. A piece of plastic holly was holding up a big pink notice about the local women’s shelter with their motto blazened across it: Remember; it’s not your fault! I don’t know how a woman can publicly admit to what she’s allowed to happen for God-knows how long. Surely that would make her feel like even more of an idiot. I suppose that’s the worst thing these men do to us: if they don’t kill us first, they take our pride. Maybe I’d feel differently if Bruce had hit me all the time, or if he’d really done me more physical harm. The threat was always there, but he actually only struck me once. Maybe I was one of the lucky ones.

I wonder if I’d ever have left him. Eight years ago when he announced he was going to live with the young and lovely Gretchen, I certainly didn’t feel the strength to stand up to him, Bruce, the sensitive psychology prof, the specialist in gender issues. I just remembered something else he used to tell me: that I was too weak to be a feminist. One thing he is not is dumb.

The wall clock read 8:05. I went back to my chair, and thought about propping my wet feet on one of the dryers. I was about to pick up a People magazine from a nearby chair when I heard a growling sound. The child was heading for me, driving his little car along the top of the washers. His mother said, “Shaun, come back here.” She sounded like a robot, her voice lacking all the intonation I try so hard to teach my students. If little Shaun heard her, he didn’t let on. I smiled at him to tell him it was OK, but he wasn’t looking at anyone.

The place was very warm, and with the rhythmical sloshing of the machines, I gave up trying to read. I let my head fall back on the wall behind me, and I was nearly asleep when the buzzers rang on the washers. I threw everything into a gigantic dryer and sat down ready to doze again when I felt a rush of cold air. The front door was being held open, and a woman about my age was backing in, pulling a grocery cart piled with bulging plastic bags. Her dark hair was slick to her head, and her thin black rain jacket clung to her back and arms. Water poured off the bags making a growing puddle at her feet.

“Get out of my bloody way!” A loud, hoarse voice was coming from the doorway. All I could see of him was a red ball cap. She yanked the cart back, and a skinny man of about sixty stepped inside. He immediately gave the cart a sharp push, shoving her back hard against the row of machines.

I sat up very straight.

The young mother’s head snapped up and she called, “Shaun, get over here!” This time she added lots of intonation, and this time he obeyed, running straight over and climbing up beside her. His dark eyes whipped back and forth. I noticed that his mother seemed to have a fading bruise above one eye, but perhaps it was just makeup. Why do some women like eye shadow and blush that makes them look like they’ve been beaten? Of course maybe it’s their men who like it.

The rain-drenched woman began moving her cart towards the central table when suddenly the man grabbed her under the jaw the way police do on TV. It looked like he might lift her right off her feet. I sat there frozen, telling myself that she wouldn’t want me to interfere. When I noticed her eyes were starting to bulge, I got to my feet. Then I heard a chair scrape behind me, and the young guy was past me in a second. He was well over six feet, wide shoulders and strong legs. His jacket said Varsity Football. With one smooth chopping motion, he knocked the man’s hand down and away. Then he grabbed his wrist and twisted it up behind him as he marched him over to the far wall and pushed him flat against it. The red ball cap lifted up and fell at their feet. The woman stumbled, gasping, her hand at her throat as she bent over double. No one said a word.

Finally, the football guy said, “What do you think you’re doing?” His voice was very slow and calm and sure. It was so like Bruce’s voice, that awful stillness that made me believe that I’d never survive if he were to get really angry.

“Take your bloody hands off me!” I think that’s what the man said; his face was still pressed against the wall. The only other sounds were the woman’s laboured breathing, the gurgling of the washing machines, and a burst of rain hitting the windows. Finally, the man spat out, “Alright! Have it your way.”

My hands started to shake, and I realized my heart was pounding.

The football player slowly released the man’s arm, and as he did, moved so he was between him and the woman. The man swore as he reached up to rub his shoulder. Then he half-turned towards the woman, and spat out, “I’ll see you later, bitch!” He picked up his cap and headed for the door, hitting it so hard that it sprang back and almost knocked him off his feet. He swore again, pushed the door open more slowly this time, and was gone. The wind slammed it shut behind him. The woman whispered, “Asshole,” and then, head down, began removing clothes from her bags. The young man looked over at her, and then shuffled back to his chair. The little boy started running his car along the windowsill, and his mother went back to her magazine. The student went on calculating. Then a cell phone rang, and the woman stopped sorting and reached into her jacket pocket. After a few whispered words, she clicked it shut, and began stuffing the clothes back into their bags, and the bags back into the shopping cart. Within a minute, she’d made her way out the rear door and into the dark.

I was still shaking.

I checked my dryer and saw that it had twenty minutes more to go. I sat down again, and closed my eyes. I would have said my life with Bruce was all behind me, but hearing that man’s voice and the threat behind it put me right back there all over again—scared and confused and unable to hold a thought for more than two seconds. And guilty too, always strangely guilty.

I tried doing my yoga breathing but it didn’t help at all, so I got up and started pacing, trying to picture my condo with the double windows and the double locks and the security system, but more and more it seemed that, like so many women, I still lived in a house of straw.

Rain was still lashing the windows. The wind had grown stronger now, and the back door banged every few minutes, startling me each time. I continued to pace, keeping watch on both doors, and trying hard not to think about the look in the man’s eyes, the one that said, “You know what I can do, and you know you can’t stop me.”

Anyone could see this guy was a bad one, but no one ever suspected Professor Bruce Kershaw, everyone’s idea of a beloved teacher, wonderful father, and devoted husband. People are probably still talking about how wonderful he was when I had breast cancer ages ago when the kids were small, how he took time off after I got home from the hospital, and kept things running until my mother was free to come and stay with us. This was back in the days of yore when a man never entered a kitchen unless he wanted something to eat. Soon my mother as well as our friends and neighbours were saying what a veritable saint Bruce was. They didn’t know that Bruce never missed a chance to point out that he was doing twice the work for only half a woman.

The front door of the laundromat burst open with a bang, and I wheeled around in fright. It was only two young people, students probably. They scanned the room, shrugged, giggled, and left, arm-in-arm, smiling as if between them they carried some secret that made everything turn out perfectly.

Finally the dryer buzzer went off. I bought a couple of clean bags from another dispenser and was ready to go. The place was still almost empty. The football player had gone. The student was still calculating. At the front, the young mother was piling her bags into a folding cart. The little boy was sitting upright on the bench, his head fallen backward, eyes closed. She shook him a little to wake him, and whispered something. He opened his eyes and started to cry. “I don’t want to,” he sobbed. “I can’t!” She whispered something else, and he blinked and looked up at her. “Daddy? Tonight? He’s coming back?” She nodded. I wanted to know what she thought about that, but I couldn’t see her face as she was bent over doing up his jacket. I picked up my bags and hurried out the back door. I didn’t want to get closer to them and be tempted to offer them a ride even though I knew I should. All I could think was to get into the car, lock all the doors, and drive far away from all of this.

 

Mary J Breen

Originally published in Menopause Press. Oct 2011.

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

5 thoughts on “Shelter by Mary J. Breen

  1. It’s a good idea to really know the man before you marry him. The failure to do so inevitably results in grief, although occasionally, a fine, engrossing story comes out of it.

    Like

  2. I felt her fear….it was palpable….opened up paths of thought in many directions. Each person in the story was believable and added tension to the whole picture.

    Like

  3. Hi Mary,
    You handled the characterisation very well.
    The story was superbly written and I felt more of a voyeur than a reader.
    All the very best.
    Hugh

    Like

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