The following is from Helen Ellis’s collection, American Housewife. Ellis is the author of Eating the Cheshire Cat. She is a poker player who competes on the national tournament circuit. Raised in Alabama, she lives with her husband in New York City.
Being a wife is a commitment.
I get up before my husband. I pour coffee from the coffee maker and pull sliced melon from the fridge. I place the melon on family china. I place the plate on an antique tray. I serve my husband breakfast in bed. Well, maybe “serve” isn’t the word I’m supposed to use in this day and age, but I don’t know what else I would call it. Bring? I bring my husband coffee, melon, and toast.
When the tray touches his lap, my husband winds my bathrobe tie around his hand and kisses me for as long as he likes. My husband is groggy and grateful. It is my only kiss of the day.
When my husband’s at work, I don’t get lonely. I have plenty to do. There’s the dusting. And in the city, the dust never stops. To mop, polish or disinfect, the dust has to go first. To have anyone into this apartment, the apartment has to be clean.
John, the Irish doorman says, “It’s amazing you’re able to keep this place up by yourself. Your husband’s mother had staff—a laundress and a cook—although she never could keep a maid. All the girls quit because they were expected to keep this place like a museum.”
I say, “There’s nothing wrong with having nice things.”
When I met my husband’s mother, she spilled red wine on her cream colored rug. Before she rang a service bell, I was on my knees with a bottle of cleanser I kept in my purse. My husband protested. Staff hurried in at the sound of his voice, but my husband’s mother waved them off. She bent forward, clutched her two-toned cardigan, and marveled at how the stain dabbed up on my napkin.
She said to my husband, “This one’s quick. Prepared. Appreciative. Thorough. She’ll get rid of a mess before you can make it.”
She asked me: “How are old are you? Are you parents still with you? Are you good in the kitchen? Do you have a career?”
I did, too.
The next day, her five-carat engagement ring appeared on my finger.
A year later, she was dead, her domestics fired, and I was the lady of my husband’s mother’s prewar penthouse.
I can clean, but I can’t fix things. That’s the beauty of a co-op. We have eighteen doormen, a handyman, and a super. I don’t like to bother the handyman for small jobs, so when something like my radio goes on the fritz, John the doorman appears.
John’s been with the building since my husband was a boy. He’s a permanent fixture; like the gargoyle that juts out under our living room window. The thing’s cement head is as cool as John’s temperament. The man never gets rattled. He never ages. My husband has a black and white photo of John teaching him to ride a bike under our awning’s TAXI light. John looks 60 in that photo and he looks 60 today.
The broken radio is in my kitchen, which is the only room in this four-bedroom apartment that for now I call my own. It’s been modernized because appliances die and must be replaced. I replace them—the blender, the mixer—with what I can afford off the Internet with my debit card allowance.
I saved eight years for a commercial chest freezer.
I have an unpainted wooden stool that John gave me after I moved in because he knew that, like my husband’s mother’s cook, I’d have no place to sit. The kitchen stool is plain compared to every other Victorian piece of furniture that resides in our house, but I like it because John gave it to me and it keeps my weight off my feet.
My husband’s mother didn’t like anyone in her home getting too comfortable. Well, maybe “comfortable” isn’t the word I should use to reveal her true nature. She meant lazy.
She told me, “Lazy people cut corners. They slack. They infringe.”
When her six year-old son, my husband, ate cookies in bed, she shipped him off to boarding school. He spent summers at sleep away camp. He went to college and wasn’t allowed to move back into this apartment until he got engaged. I don’t think either one of them thought it would take as long as it did to find me: a wife who could and would take care of her things.
My husband’s a slob.
Every morning he ignores the saucer on his breakfast tray and places his coffee cup on the oak bedside table. He wipes his jelly knife on the edge of the tray. He shakes his napkin over the sheets. He’s wiped his mouth on the coverlet monogram.
And so, after he goes to work, the tray and the sheet go to soak in the side-by-side kitchen sinks.
The kitchen is my office, like my husband’s midtown floor of suites is his. In all these years of marriage, I have never laid eyes on one of his secretaries. He’s never poured himself a glass of milk. I couldn’t tell you the color of his desk blotter. He doesn’t know that I have a stool or a radio or that I have John.
The radio in John’s hands blares HOT 97 FM and I jump.
John smiles as if he meant to goose me. He says, “Your problem is your thingamajig. Your thingamajig’s loose and needs to be tighter in your whatchamacallit.”
I offer John my wooden stool.
He doesn’t take it. He’d never sit while on the clock.
He holds my radio to his ear and twists the dial. Static hums like the party an apartment like this expects.
We only host co-op board meetings. Hosting anything bigger would be too much of a mess.
My husband is the co-op board president like my husband’s mother was the co-op board president before him. Every three months, members gather around our cocktail table and whisper as if the wall sconces are bugged. A co-op is managed by money, but more so by gossip. Divorce, senility, bed bugs, leaks. The board knows all. And its president must decide what to do and then do it.
My husband’s mother took every step to ensure that her rule would continue. She made her son, my husband, balance the building’s books. She made him fire the building’s most beloved and senior employee. She made me aware of what part I should play.
She told me, “The board trusts a rich widow, but they won’t trust a middle-aged trust fund baby who’s never married; or a man who married a woman too young for him or too beautiful or too overtly smart. The board trusts a man who’s wife looks and acts trustworthy.”
I’m such a good actress, my husband’s reelected without contest every term.
Tonight, my husband will fine 12A $100,000 because their renovation has run six months past its end date. 6D won’t be sold as an expansion to 6E because the mother in 6E scrapes the mahogany elevator with her double stroller. The more delicate matter at hand is whether Eddie Chang, a doorman accused of seducing 10B’s wife, will be fired.
The only thing more unpredictable than a housewife alone in her apartment is a man who loses his job.
When my husband forced John into early retirement, he blamed it on budget cuts. When John committed suicide, my husband blamed me. When John came back, I felt forgiven. Every time John visits, I feel more alive.
* * * *
I eat lunch on the terrace because the garden is always in bloom. My husband’s mother was a horticulturist, which is fancy talk for she had a green thumb. A canopy protects her plants from too much sun. Heat lamps melt ice. Plastic owls shoo pigeons. A mint bush repels rats. There is a library of enormous gardening books with her ballpoint notes in the margins.
She wrote: Don’t use Folgers in rose soil, use Chock full o’Nuts! She wrote: Ferns pout if you don’t treat them right – just like babies!
As with the coffee grounds, I take her word for that. She didn’t want her son, my husband to have children.
She said to him, “This building’s your baby.”
She asked me: “You won’t go to a fertility clinic? If something miraculous happens, you’ll have it taken care of?”
I did, too.
The next day, she gave me her gardening gloves. She confessed to me that if given the choice, she would have been grateful to be just a wife, then a widow.
She said, “Homemaking is so much easier when it’s only you and your home. Take care of my home and—unlike my son—my home will take care of you.”
My husband is cheap. He shouts. He doesn’t like me to go out.
And so, I honor and obey. But I treat myself to lunch on the terrace.
Today’s lunch is gyros and oregano fries. I always have something delivered that I’m not allowed to cook. Tacos, eggrolls, fried chicken, fried fish. Stinky foods. Greasy foods. Foods I eat with my hands straight out of the bag.
Tony, the youngest of the doormen, says, “You eat like a bird.”
“I eat plenty.”
“No, not like that. I mean you eat like you’re freakin’ perched on a finger.”
Tony sits on an upside down water bucket and smokes. Doormen aren’t allowed to smoke within sight of building, so I let Tony do it up here on the terrace. I feel bad for the kid. He used to be what you’d call “fresh-faced.” First-generation Hispanic American, he had teeth like a toothpaste ad. Looking out my window, down over my gargoyle, I used to see him run up the block to help ladies with their shopping bags. When it rained, he’d run with an umbrella. When it snowed, he’d shovel. When the twin towers were hit, Tony enlisted. The war ruined his smile. He came back from Afghanistan a hollow, shifty smoker.
Then there were drugs: marijuana and heroin made him fall asleep at his post. PTSD gave him that thousand-yard stare. Then he stole: he told wives our husbands forgot to put cash in his Christmas tip envelopes, so we tipped him again.
The board knew we all couldn’t have been so careless, but there was no proof. They wanted Tony let go and they wanted my husband, their president to get rid of him. But it’s hard to turn a veteran out onto the street.
Tony flicks his cigarette butt over the terrace wall and watches it fall fifteen floors to land in the private courtyard, where John landed it seems like yesterday.
“Heights.” Tony shudders. “I don’t know how the old dude did it.”
“He did it quickly,” I say. “My husband offered him a retirement package and John walked towards the terrace like he was going for a cab.”
“Because you held the terrace door open for him?”
“You should have seen him, Tony. His face was so sad—sadder than yours ever was. He’d never married. He was married to his job. When he lost that, he lost his reason to get up in the morning. He was devastated. What he did, he would have done eventually.”
“Except no one would have found him until he stank like an old peach.”
I say, “It was cleaner for him to jump. Quicker. Quicker to clean.”
“John’s happy now. Everybody’s happy.”
“Yeah,” says Tony, “I’m a regular laugh riot.”
He picks up my lunch bag. He always takes it when he leaves. I don’t know where he takes it, but he takes it because it’s part of our deal.
He says, “When you’re alone around here, you’d be smart to bolt your front door. Stick a chair under the knob. That dude your husband’s got on the agenda for the meeting tonight, that Eddie Chang, can get through your locks with the building’s set of keys.”
I say, “I’m the last woman Eddie Chang wants to seduce.”
Tony says, “Seduce is a nice word for what he did.”
“If he did something so bad, wouldn’t he be fired by now?”
Tony says, “Thank the doormen’s union for that. Before a guy’s canned, he’s got to be suspended, then put on a different shift, then switched to your side of the building so he won’t bump into 10B no more.”
“My husband’s done all that.”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Tony, “but you and me both know how it works around here.” He pats the cigarette pack in his shirt pocket. Winks. He says, “You make us too comfortable.”
Years ago—when my husband found out from the super that Tony spent lunch breaks on our terrace—he questioned me. When I told him that given the space and opportunity, Tony—depressed and unable to be rehabilitated—would finish himself off, my husband got out of my way and let me do the board’s dirty work.
I helped Tony overdose and held his hand until he died.
When Tony came back, I felt relieved. Every time Tony visits, I know I did the right thing.
* * * *
For a week I’ve watched Eddie through my peephole when he delivers our mail. He steps off the elevator and stands in the foyer that services only our apartment. Our door is to the right of the elevator, and opposite it are a mail table and mirror. Eddie studies his reflection and mumbles. He points at himself. He makes a fist. He pouts like a fern. He holds envelopes addressed Mr. & Mrs. up to the light. Today, he turns and stares at my door.
He says, “Hello?”
Eddie is slight with a bowl cut. He looks as sexual as my wooden stool. I can’t believe he had his way the woman in 10B, but when he drops to his knees, crawls forward and peers under the crack of my door, I do.
John says, “Would you like I should put a rubber whozeewhatzit on the threshold so he can’t see your shoes?”
“He can see my shoes?”
Eddie lifts his head and presses his ear to the bottom of the door.
Through the peephole, I see his legs stretched out behind him.
His ankles tick right, tick left. He drums his nails (too long for any decent man) against my marble threshold. He taps my door.
And then again, there’s his: “Hello?”
John says, “Your husband’s mother would never abide such tomfoolery. Five minutes ago she’d be out in that hallway beating his ears with a rolled up newspaper.”
My husband’s mother was a sadist. Well, maybe “sadist” isn’t the word I’m supposed to use in this day and age, but I don’t know what else I would call her. Control freak? My husband’s mother was a control freak who wouldn’t let her cook have a stool, her maid leave a speck of dust, her doormen forget their place, her son eat cookies in bed or marry a woman who couldn’t pass her spot test.
She said to him, “Your wife will protect what’s mine.”
She asked me: “You don’t scare easily?”
I do not.
I unlock the front door.
I run to my kitchen and wait.
I hear Eddie come in. I hear his faint, “Hello.” I hear his footsteps in the foyer, through the living room, through the dining room. I calculate the time I’ll have to remove his scuffmarks before my husband gets home.
The kitchen door opens and Eddie sticks his head in.
One whack of my wooden stool makes Eddie go down. I whack him again before he gets up. And then whack him a few more times to make sure he’s dead.
I have to bake cookies for the board, so I’ll leave the blood for later. I’m careful not to step in it as I move from my fridge to my cabinets to my counter canisters to the mixer. Eggs, butter, Quaker Oats, vanilla. The secret to keeping brown sugar from getting hard is storing it with a marshmallow. I put the first batch of oatmeal raisin in the oven and then return my attention to Eddie. I turn on my radio. Dismemberment and freezing are the priorities.
John fixes the doohickey on my jammed electric carving knife.
I work from Eddie’s feet up and bag each little bit. Tomorrow I’ll give Tony the head to take away with my lunch. The next day: a shoulder. Until evidence of Eddie, puzzled in my freezer, is gone.
When my husband tells the board that Eddie is missing, he’ll be happy to report that another doorman problem has solved itself. When Eddie comes back, I’ll tell him that my husband gave him to me to murder. When Eddie haunts my husband, he won’t do it with repairs or errands. He’ll scare him to death. And then I will claim this whole apartment for myself.
From AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE. Used with permission of Doubleday. Copyright © 2016 by Helen Ellis.