Oven of Dreams
When guests were coming and the house had to be perfect, Starla cleaned it by standing in her negligee, opening a cleaning bottle, and releasing cartoon scrubbing bubbles to WHOOSH over everything and leave it sparkling clean. At least, that’s the way her husband thought of it. When he came home, the fairy cleaning bubbles had washed over the house, leaving it pristine, and they had washed over Starla, leaving her pert and prim in lipstick and pumps.
“Looks good,” he always said, smiling. And Starla knew that in general, the inside of his brain mirrored his words perfectly and without complication. If she stood behind him and could look into his brain, she would see “doog skool” and a little dialogue bubble in front of his lips with the words: “Looks good.” Word matched to thought exactly.
In reality, Starla cleaned with her hair up, in her cotton housedress (no, not sweats, she would not stoop to that!), and now in the kitchen, with rubber gloves, sweating, getting every little last piece of dried cheese up, finally up off of the counter. And who could tell a dried piece of cheese from the rest of the calico marbling on the marble countertops? The Junior League women of Atlanta, the women who were coming over tonight, that’s who! And should her husband have ever known the toil that it took to clean up his exploding nachos, he would have fallen to his knees in the doorway. “Oh, thank God, Starla, THANK you.” And again, thought matched to speech perfectly, as if the words had formed and then scrolled out of his mouth precisely intact.
But it was Starla’s intention never to let on how much work she did, and keep these things like prized secret treasures in her heart. Such matters, in Starla’s view, were not in the purview of men, who kept atrocities in plain view even after they grew mold, and who would happily ignore mold-growth altogether, but the women—Starla would receive silent nods of approval from the women tonight, and they would say, “You look beautiful,” and their thoughts would be of such multitude:
“I’ve been looking forward to this.” (That dress! So cute! And they still hold hands—how cute!)
“What a gorgeous place.” (Those flowers suit her style. I always did think flowers had personality if they were done right.)
“Oh, you do look beautiful! And oh, my goodness, Cheryl, is that you? It’s so good to see you again.” (It’s good to finally see Cheryl and Tim coming to one of these. Thank heavens Starla invited them. Cheryl fell off the face of the earth after her baby.)
“Cheryl, I know you’ve been busy, busy with the baby!” (Yes, I do understand the bags under your eyes. It’s depressing when you realize that everyone thinks the baby is far more important than you will ever be. You’re just a mom now.)
And the men:
“Did you see that fan catch the foul in the Braves game the other night?” (Did you see that fan catch the foul in the Braves game the other night?)
“Yeah, that was some catch, heh, heh.” (Yeah, that was some catch, heh, heh.)
Yes, the women’s thoughts would be of such multitude, growing and interweaving and multiplying beyond what they said, that their thoughts and their approval would swirl around the room and cover up the food, the wine, the men, and everything. After everyone left, Starla would be exhausted. All of those voices, all of that noise.
But first, Starla had to clean the house herself, and so she was in the kitchen, in her scrub gloves. She usually had a maid come every third week and Starla would merely polish up in between, but she had been secretly saving the money her husband gave her every week for almost an entire year (year) to surprise her husband with a deluxe cruise for his birthday, and she hadn’t made enough in the yard sale or on eBay to cover the expenses. She had to give herself a manicure before tonight as well—no special occasion salon trip, thanks—she was saving every little bit of her budget. She’d also saved some by spending less on food, she’d skipped a few haircuts, and she hadn’t bought any new clothes. Anything she didn’t absolutely need had been eliminated. One by one, she’d snipped dozens of tiny threads tying her to things. She found it amazing what she could easily do without.
Starla wiped the warming drawer and was wiping the front of the oven when she stopped and squinted beyond her own reflection to the blackness inside. Had the inside of the oven gotten bigger? She turned on the oven light. No, still the same in there. But when she turned it off again, she thought she saw the back of the oven push back into darkness.
Keeping the oven light off, she pulled the oven door down again. This time, she couldn’t see the back of the oven. She stuck her arm inside moved it in circles, wiggling her fingers in the empty space. Odd. She peered in, but still couldn’t see anything. How had the back and sides of a large stainless steel oven disappeared? She grabbed a broom and slowly pushed it down into the oven. It hit bottom just before she reached the full length of the broom. The bottom of her oven was below her kitchen floor!
Starla stuck her head in. She thought she smelled lilacs. As she pushed her neck and shoulders into the darkness, the lilac smell grew strong and blended with magnolia, the same smells of her childhood backyard. She backed out of the oven and hesitated only a moment before climbing all the way in the oven, feet first, until she was standing slightly stooped in her oven.
Starla reached out and closed the oven door. She sat down in the darkness. All around her, she heard the faahhhhhh-tap-tap-tap of the wind moving through the leaves of trees. When she was little, she would lie on a blanket in the backyard listening to the wind move through the trees. When the rain fell, she would listen to shhhh-pat-pat-patter all around. She could listen for hours, absorbed completely.
Starla hugged her knees in the dark. As the wind blew her housedress around softly, multitudinous voices and great tides of approval faded away from her ears, as if the great ocean of others had taken wing and flown away, been carried away by the next breeze. How wondrous it was to listen to nothing but the wind.
Lydia Ship's (formerly Lydia Williams) fiction has appeared in Night Train, Neon, New South, The Pedestal, The Dead Mule, The Rose and Thorn, The Apple Valley Review, The Armchair Aesthete, and Fresh Boiled Peanuts, among others. She's a Contributing Editor at The Chattahoochee Review.