Hazel helped her husband Bill into his suit coat, leveling the shoulders with heavy hands. With her face turned from him, she slid his silver cigarette case into the breast pocket. Her eyes, the color of fresh mud he’d once told her, were weak. She feared they’d tear up or glaze over—they’d expose her.
“Now don’t you spend all day fiddling around with those snowball bushes,” Bill said. “I need you to have the basement ready for the O’Dells to come by and look at. They’re coming first thing tomorrow morning. Remember, I have to visit the bank to sign the rest of the papers for the house, then the insurance agency, and then back to the office.”
Hazel nodded and offered her right cheek to Bill for a kiss, which he failed to notice. He’d occupied himself with verifying the location of his cigarette case, wallet, and car key. The screen squealed as it opened to release Bill and again as it returned to its place. Hazel shut the oak door and made her way to the kitchen to clean up the breakfast dishes.
It was day three in the new house. After five years of living in White’s boarding house, Bill had saved enough money to put a down payment on a two-story home. He had a nice office job at the furniture company that had opened several years ago, and Hazel had contributed a little money to their cause by selling her needlepoint pillows at church bazaars. She was quite talented at stitching birds. She blushed when the ladies told her they could hear sad coos released from her mourning doves.
Bill had decided to take in boarders since the new house had a full basement. With the added income, he could pay off the mortgage earlier. Hazel liked the idea of giving a young couple the option of living somewhere besides Mrs. White’s boarding house, which really was just a single-story box filled to the brim with whining cats. Earlier that morning while preparing the coffee, Hazel believed she’d seen the fat calico jump from the potato bin onto the kitchen counter, yet when she turned around, the cat was not there.
The basement was large enough for a kitchenette and a bathroom, and Bill had a plumber coming next week to help set everything up. In the meantime, he’d instructed Hazel to tidy things downstairs as best as she could. There was a wrought-iron bed already in place. All Hazel needed to do was wipe the dust off of it and put on a set of sheets and a quilt. She was supposed to move their night table downstairs, too, since Bill was getting a new one for them at a good price through his company. She was to wash the basement’s windows, both inside and outside, as well. The window washing had been her idea. She wanted the O’Dells to notice how the sunlight would brighten up the whole basement. Somehow, it made the concrete walls look pretty.
Hazel placed her dishtowel over the sink and walked into the living room. It was almost time for her favorite soap opera, “Our Gal Sunday.” If she turned the volume all the way to the right, she would just be able to hear it while she worked in the basement.
Yes, folks I said Anacin. That is spelled A-N-A-C-I-N. You will be delighted with the results.
The radio had been a wedding gift from her brothers and sisters. All eight had chipped in, some more than others she was certain, to buy the newlyweds the radio. When it was delivered to the boarding house, Mrs. White allowed the men to set it in her kitchen. The noise would be a bother, she said, but she would just suffer it so the couple wouldn’t find themselves even more cramped in their bedroom. After about a month, Hazel told Bill the only time she got to choose a radio program was when Mrs. White took her bath on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Bill didn’t seem to care. He’d said the radio was a nuisance and an impractical gift for a young couple with no home of their own and no money to speak of.
Practicality all the way. That was Bill Morris. Nothing was ever bought on time payments, except for the new house, the realization of which was wearing him thin, home from the office for dinner at noon, and supper, always with cornbread on the side, at six-thirty. Everything he did at every moment had to have a reason behind it, some purpose to be done, or it wasn’t worth his while. There’d been a peak of this practicality in the last few months, and especially the last few days. He’d taken on a mortgage and much of the renovations for the basement apartment, combined with his regular work at the office, so there never seemed to be just the right time for Hazel to tell Bill the news—she was expecting.
Hazel was clearing the photograph frames from her night table when the doorbell rang. She evaluated herself in the mirror. Dressed only in a striped housecoat with a slip underneath, but her hair was washed and pinned and her face was clean. Her brown eyes, bright and wide. She was presentable, enough, for whomever was at the door, probably a salesman pledging to make her life easier with the touch of one button.
The doorbell chimed through the house, again. Hazel walked faster. “Coming, coming,” she called. As she made a detour into the living room to turn off the radio, she heard the announcer:
Can this girl from the little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?
Somehow, she always does, Hazel thought before rotating the dial.
“I could hear the radio on the porch,” Iris said as she stepped into the house. Iris was married to James, Hazel’s brother. She was a petite woman with fine clothes, but her presence was sour and her voice curt.
“I like having it on, and I like it loud. It drowns out everything else,” Hazel said, ushering Iris into the living room.
“No doubt you were listening to those absurd soap operas with their fickle men and moaning women.”
“Never mind them,” Hazel said, offering Iris a chocolate from the candy dish. “What brings you by?”
“James. It was his idea I drop in to see how you were feeling,” Iris said, declining the treat with a wave of her hand. “You were looking worse for wear the other day, but you seem all well now. Not a trace of a cold.” Iris lowered her thin eyebrows, glaring at Hazel.
Hazel had asked Iris to drive her to Dr. Price’s office the day before yesterday. Bill had told her she looked a bit peaked, and she’d better get to the doctor’s before she got worse. They had too much to get done this week. Besides, he couldn’t afford to get sick and have to stay home from work.
Iris pulled into the driveway promptly at 9:30 AM. Hazel’s appointment wasn’t scheduled for another hour, and it only took about twenty minutes to drive into town, but Iris was a cautious driver to say the least. Every now and again Hazel would accompany Iris to purchase weekly groceries, and while Hazel was certainly thankful for the ride, she did wish Iris would drive a bit faster. When Hazel dared ask her about her driving style once, Iris replied, “Well, at least I know how to drive,” and then she added her customary statement, “When you rush, you risk.”
When they arrived at Dr. Price’s office, Iris said she would be quite comfortable waiting in the car while Hazel received her diagnosis. She didn’t want to catch anything that was catching. She’d driven the entire time with her scarf draped over her mouth and nose.
No, it wasn’t a cold or the beginning of a bout with pneumonia. Hazel, at thirty-five, was expecting her first child. Dr. Price had just lit his second cigarette when he delivered the news. He determined she was a couple of months along. She was an otherwise healthy gal, and she should have Bill lower the clothesline for her before the next load was hung. Hazel tried to listen to his instructions, but her mind was elsewhere. How had she missed it? Well, her cycles were often irregular. With five years of marriage and no children to speak of, she’d thought having children to be impossible. Now, with the move and the new house and preparing for live-ins, she just failed to notice. Bill wouldn’t be satisfied this was the best time, especially since they’d gone so long without children.
It would’ve been natural for Hazel to begin thinking about her own mother at this moment, but she didn’t. Her mother had nine children and no husband to speak of, not the traditional kind. He provided only sadness and aggravation for his wife and children. He dropped in and out of all of their lives as it suited him. Sometimes he’d stay for two days, other times a week or so. It seemed like as soon as he left another child came along. They came one after the other. Her mother even had a set of twins—a pair of boiling pink boys Hazel bottle-fed while her mother healed. To this day, Hazel couldn’t be certain what happened to her father. Only flashes of a dark, lanky image existed in her memory. It was her mother who’d raised them, and they helped raise each other.
As Hazel walked out of the office, she decided there was no need to tell Iris. She’d be disturbed by the news in one way or another, or she’d offer nothing but advice for the entire ride home. It’d be better just to let her think she had a cold. Besides, Hazel needed the time to herself to plan how she was going to present Bill with the news.
Now Hazel had known about her condition for almost two full days. With Iris across from her, Hazel’s face flushed a convicted red. “I really do need to get back to the housework,” she said, standing, her eyes concentrated on the front door.
“Fine. Like I told you, it was James’s idea for me to come,” Iris said, brushing a piece of lint from her lap. “He’ll be relieved to see you’re recovered so quickly.”
“I’ll tell Bill you said hello,” Hazel said, half-waving to Iris in her car. As she watched Iris’s gradual turn onto the main road, she thought of Bill. When he’d gotten home from work on the day she visited the doctor, he was in a terrible mood. Something had happened to a number of important invoices at the office, and then when he stopped by the bank to sign the rest of the paperwork on the house, the bank officer had already left for the day. He stomped through the living room and turned off the radio, yelling, “You could get a lot more done if you didn’t pay so much attention to that nonsense.” He’d been so worked up he even forgot to ask her about her appointment with Dr. Price. He wasn’t himself, and she just couldn’t tell him. She’d planned to tell him last night after supper. She’d prepared some of his favorites, cubed steak with gravy, green peas, and cornbread, of course. He never tasted much of it, though, saying he had brought home some work from the office, and he wanted to work on the cabinets for the kitchen in the basement while there was still daylight left.
Tonight for sure, she thought. He’d been in an almost pleasant mood at breakfast, she’d have the basement looking nice and tidy for the O’Dells to see, and she’d tell him with a grand smile on her face. She refused to allow her own anxiety to show. She’d explain now was a good time for them to have a child because of the extra income from the boarders. Their child would also have his choice of second-hand clothing from all his cousins.
On her way back to the bedroom, Hazel switched on the radio in time to catch Sunday’s husband, Lord Henry, tell her:
You, my dear, are a caged lioness.
Indeed she is, Hazel thought. We all have that in common.
In the bedroom, she retrieved a new package of white bed linens from the closet. She placed it on top of the cleared night table, lifted the table on each side, and headed for the basement. Stopping to listen for a moment, she heard only a commercial, so she made her way down the steps.
The sheets hadn’t been pinned properly, and they unfolded into a large bulging bundle in her arms. As she began to fold them, she felt a stinging pain in her stomach; a loose pin or two must’ve caught her skin through her dress. She found the two pillowcases and began stuffing them when she felt hot liquid trickle down her inner thigh. She lifted the edge of her slip, discovering blood. She saw no sign of stains on the sheets, so she left them as they lay on the bed. With one hand, she held the bottom of her housecoat between her legs as she climbed each step with determination. She must be careful to avoid making a mess.
Hazel shuffled down the hallway into the bathroom and climbed into the empty tub. After half an hour, there were no more stomach pains, no more blood, no more anything. She took a rough washcloth to every inch of skin, scouring between her fingers. She washed her hair again, digging her fingernails into her scalp. Out of the tub, she perfumed and powdered and extracted too many eyebrows. She opened her eyes wide, gazing in the mirror as she applied a thick layer of mascara to her dry eyelashes. She pulled on a tattered bathrobe, one she kept hanging on the back of the bathroom door, and gathered her clothes, compressing the garments into a mound barely visible in her hands. With the afternoon passing and her emotions and womb dried, she needed to do the wash and get back to work in the basement. There was supper to prepare before Bill got home.
Hazel hung her clothes out on the line although it was more difficult to open the pins this time. No need to ask Bill to lower it now, she thought. When she threw her slip over, it didn’t catch but fell onto the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. She figured on throwing it out. Though she had scrubbed it over the sink with soap and cold water until her fingers burned, the stain only spread. It didn’t disappear. She had hoped she could save it. Bill’s mother had given it to her as a wedding present. It had yellowed only slightly; otherwise, it was smooth and shiny. That slip was the final garment Bill had removed on their wedding night.
She remembered how warm and ready she was when he placed his finger under the strap and slid it off of her shoulder. It had ended up on the floor that night, but now it was on the ground, stained, ruined, and waiting to be thrown away. She dropped it in the burn barrel with the coffee grounds and yesterday’s newspaper.
When Hazel heard the shrill bursts from Bill’s car horn that evening, she knew he was playing with her. She joined him by the door, her heavy chest bumping into him.
Bill stepped to the side. “Everything has been taken care of,” he said. “We’re all set for the house.” He handed her a pack of chewing gum. “Heard the jingle for it on your radio the other day,” he said. “I’m trying to woo my girl like it says.” Hazel returned his foolish grin with a half-smile and shoved the small package into her apron pocket and returned to the kitchen.
Now he was in a good mood. He whistled while he hung his coat on the rack and stumbled while removing his loafers. Hazel listened as he walked down the hall and stopped at the basement door. His sock feet thumped on the steps.
“This looks nice,” he yelled from the basement. Hazel continued peeling carrots over the sink, wiping leftover skin caught in the grater on her apron. She heard the basement door close, and Bill entered the kitchen. He moved close to her side and this time she backed away.
“I think the O’dells will like the room,” he said, snatching a peeled carrot. “They’ll like it ever better when the kitchen and bathroom are set up, but they’ll just have to use their imaginations for a while. They’re still young enough to do that.” He split the carrot with his front teeth. “I’m going to work down there this evening after supper,” he said, grinding what was left. He then took a slice of cornbread from the tin by the counter. “What are we having, tonight?” he asked between bites. “Hey, this cornbread from last night is even better today. Do we have anymore?” He turned to evaluate the contents of the tin, hoping there may be another piece, but found it empty. Hazel placed the grater in the sink, wiped her hands on her apron, and walked out of the kitchen. She sat down in the chair by the radio, which she’d turned off some time ago. She slid her feet from her slippers and stared at her toes.
“That’s all there is. There isn’t any more,” she called to him.
Kim Shegog has an MFA from Converse College and an MA in English from The College of Charleston. Her work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, The Sun, OWL, and The Compassion Anthology. She received the 2019 Judith Siegel Pearson Fiction Award from Wayne State University. She has taught creative writing and composition courses at Coastal Carolina University. She lives in Ohio.