A Slow Dance in the Afternoon  |  Mia Eaker

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             Charles Hostettler arrived home early. His truck shrieked to a halt in the driveway of a small brick house nestled in the cul-de-sac on Laurel Avenue. His wife, Helene, wasn’t expecting him home from work for another three hours. She heard his boots, first, pounding up the front steps. Then, he barreled through the front door, slamming it behind him. He paused in the doorway. His eyes, wild and hazy, darted around the room.
             The four women assembled in his living room, dressed primly in their Sunday best, sat frozen, eyes glued to the looming figure in the doorway. A young blonde, dressed in a pale pink sweater and beige slacks, was still leaning in, one elbow propped on her knee, gesturing with a pointed finger toward the woman sitting across from her. The other woman, who appeared much older, wore a honey-colored blouse with large pearl buttons. She sat straight, with deliberate posture; one knee was crossed carefully over the other. Her hands still held a slightly tilted pitcher and a half-full glass of iced tea.
             In fact, the only pair of eyes not fixed on Charles belonged to Helene Hostettler. Her eyes, instead, stared straight down, right through the bottom of the empty glass in her hand and into the carpet below, as if the mingled heat and force from her gaze were strong enough to burn an escape route right through the floor. Beside Helene sat a young woman who could not have been more than 25. Helene had determined this when she met her, although never asked. Helene had wondered whether the woman appeared so young to her because of her age or because of the way she dressed. Today, Meredith, the wife of the new pastor at their church, wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail with long curls that bounced when she walked. The dress was bright yellow from top to bottom, except for the white buttons. The color reminded Helene of warm sunshine on her face in the summer. The sleeves were cut off at the shoulders, exposing Meredith’s long, slender arms.
             Charles grunted in their direction and continued his rampage across the room and into the kitchen. Only a thin wall separated the four startled ladies from the heavy pounding of his boots back and forth on the tile floor. In the living room, the women sat in silence while the tension thickened in the air around them. The TV still played softly in the background. They’d been watching a ballroom-dance competition. Well, not really watching. Helene had turned it on and let it play quietly during the meeting because she liked to have background noise in the room. She was thankful for that noise now.
             Above the quickening tempo of the music, the women tuned in to the excited clamor of cabinet doors opening and slamming shut, then jars and glasses clinking together. There was a brief silence. A hard thump against the refrigerator door. One by one, each lady began shifting her concentration to missing items from purses, minutely crooked skirt seams that needed immediate attention, and imaginary last sips of coffee and tea from dry cup beds. On the other side of the wall, Charles finally collapsed into a chair, and a swift, sharp silence invaded the room and jolted the fidgety group to a halt.
             Helene Hostettler relaxed the clenched lines in her brow. Her hands remained calmly folded in her lap, the corners of her mouth tilted upward in a calculated and confident smile. After glancing toward the kitchen, she rolled her eyes and released a light-hearted chuckle. “Men,” she sighed. “And they say women are emotional.” Helene waved her hand through the air with a gesture intended to erase her husband’s shocking tirade through the house just moments before.
             Inside, even her bones were shaking. Her last sip of tea turned on her stomach. Cool beads of sweat seeped through her freshly ironed blouse. The ladies sitting around her smiled back, cautiously, wearing strained looks of understanding.
             Finally, Meredith leaned over and patted Helene’s hands gently. “Of course, Sweetie. We all have one at home,” she whispered, and added a wink for good measure.
             Helene never met her eyes. Instead, she stared expressionless at Meredith’s hopeful yellow dress. The dress annoyed her now because Meredith had worn it despite the growing cold outside and the winter season rolling in. Although she had worn a heavy coat, Helene decided the dress was out of season and returned her attention to the other women.
             “Maybe it’s best to take a rain check on the rest of the meeting. I should really check on him,” Helene noted and rose to her feet. “We’ve covered a lot. We could certainly talk after the service on Sunday about the last of the fundraiser plans,” she added reassuringly.
             The three other women promptly began to clamber with purses, cell phones, and jackets. As they herded toward the door, Charles emerged from the kitchen. His movements had been silent and calm. He appeared without warning, without so much as the scuff of his feet on floor. He wore a smile now, a smile that was new and warm.
             “My apologies, ladies, for the outburst,” he began. “I had forgotten that Helene was having company today. Work was quite a mess,” he chuckled. “Too much excitement, but it’s no excuse. Helene and I are happy to have you.” He spoke with a chilling calm, his words lyrical and soothing. Charles looked head-on at each of the bewildered faces in front of him. “It’s too bad that we have plans for dinner with my boss, or I’d ask if you’d like to stay for supper,” he noted matter-of-factly, yet at the same time, pleasantly and with an air of sincere regret.
             When his transformed gaze met Helene’s, he extended his arm toward her, and she folded into his embrace without so much as a pause. Their eyes locked for a moment before Helene turned to face the other women. “Ah, how silly of me. I completely forgot about that. I guess it’s just as well,” she said, and gestured to the front door.
             The women glided to the door and filed into an obedient line. Helene smiled and hugged each of her friends, thanking them for coming. In turn, each of Helene’s friends left her with a sincere “thank you” for the refreshments and an assurance that, like her forgotten dinner plans, there was a necessary engagement or to-do list waiting to be taken care of just as soon as they left.
             Meredith gave Helene’s hand a gentle squeeze and peered over her shoulder toward the kitchen. She started to speak, but hesitated. Instead, she looked down at Helene’s hand laying in her hers and scuffed her foot on the brick step where she stood.
             Finally, Meredith looked back toward the kitchen, where Charles had retired, with a determined gaze and stammered loudly, “I’ll see you both at church on Sund—”
             “You better get going,” Helene cut in. “A pastor’s wife has lots to do.” She smiled at Meredith reassuringly and released her hand.
             Meredith responded with an uncertain grin, her cheeks quivering slightly. Then, she nodded, turned, and went to her car, the hem of her sunshine-colored dress still peering out from under her winter coat. Helene twisted her mouth into a subtle scowl as she watched Meredith shut the car door and slip her keys into the ignition. Helene’s feet remained glued to the front steps while Meredith’s car eased down the road and disappeared onto the highway. Helene stood for a moment in the doorway, breathing in the calm, crisp air outside and letting it linger around her a little longer. Then, she closed the front door and walked over to the window and quietly pulled the blinds.
             She turned to face the kitchen and found Charles already in the doorway.
             “Why were they here, Helene?” He was leaning against the doorframe, hands shoved in his pockets.
             She didn’t jump when he appeared there suddenly. She had learned to turn every corner with the expectation that he’d be standing there. He often appeared from other rooms, from around nearby corners, or even from behind her.
             “Church meeting. We have a fundraiser to plan,” Helene replied, quick and confident with her words. “We decided on a bake sale and raffle,” she added with a cheerful grin that nearly cramped her cheeks. “Did you know the rain flooded the park? That’s where we planned to have the meeting. Meredith called this morning and asked if they could swing by here, instead.”
             Although Helene was careful to hold his gaze, she now noted that his hands were no longer in his pockets. One fist was clenched. She knew better than to look directly at anything except his eyes when he was angry.
             Helene had been in love with Charles when she married him five years before, when everything was peaceful. The yelling hadn’t started until nearly a year ago, just after his father, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years, died suddenly in a car accident. Charles hadn’t hit her until a few months ago. The bruise on her arm was easy enough to cover up. She’d had to become more creative since then—makeup tricks, jackets, accessories, illness, whatever she could think of that she was pretty sure she hadn’t used more than once before. Over the last few months, she’d also developed an ability of nearly superhero proportion to take in every movement of his body, every expression change, even the scope of the room, without averting her eyes or losing the casual, singsong flow of her voice.
             “It was after you left for work, and I didn’t want to bother you,” she explained, feeling a quiver in her throat. “I didn’t think you’d be—”
             “—home so early,” he cut in sharply, sliding a foot in her direction.
             Helene took a step away from him, gliding her feet toward the coffee table and lifting the silver tray gingerly from the end table. She began to clear away the glasses and coffee cups, stacking them on the tray with careful attention.
             “I see that, Sweetie. What happened at work?” In truth, she already knew. Layoffs had been happening at the factory for weeks, causing Charles to be increasingly stressed, and increasingly angry.
             From the doorway, Charles only continued to stare, clenching his fist tighter.
             “It came today, didn’t it? The notice?” She let the words drag slowly and sweetly from her lips, tilting her face slightly so he could see it and pinching her eyebrows together to mark her concern. She stood carefully and continued to tiptoe backward, holding a tray of empty coffee cups and glasses. With her right hand, she slipped a large glass off of the tray and behind her back. The glass, embellished with yellow flower petals, had a subtle crack etched in its side.
             “Why do you think it came?” Charles stuttered. His eyes darkened. “You assume that I got fired. I’m not a lazy-ass like some of the other guys there. I work hard, and I’ve been there for more years than most. I deserve to be there!” He paused, still glaring at her. “But, of course, you don’t think so.” His voice shook. His eyes, already red and swollen, widened in fury. “It’s just like you to assume the worst of me!” His words struggled to find air through a barrage of powerful, desperate sobs. He reached for the lamp on the table next to him and ripped its cord from the wall. Then, in one massive, thunderous swoop, he buried the bottom edge in the living room wall.
             Helene screamed, dropping the tray to the floor and ducking behind the recliner on the far end of the room. Shards of bright yellow flower-printed glass decorated the floor all around her. She sat, crouching behind the chair, listening to Charles grunt and curse as he stood wrestling the lamp out of the wall.
             Charles kicked the wall with the steel toe of his boot and then started pounding it with his fists.
             Somewhere in the background, subtle and indistinct, Helene heard the rising echo of clapping and cheering. The dancers on TV leapt back into her mind. The music. The clapping. She couldn’t see the screen from her hiding place, only the walls blocking her in from every side. She strained to focus her ears on anything other than the sound of Charles, ten feet away, now tugging violently at the lamp lodged in the wall and shouting obscenities that sent shivers rushing down her spine.
             On the TV, a new couple sauntered onto the floor to the sound of cheering. The applause stopped. The couple was ready. As the music started up softly, Helene began to rock back and forth. She wrapped her arms around her knees and closed her eyes. Huddled over, Helene was more than afraid. She was ashamed. Ashamed that she’d taken a chance. Ashamed that she believed him a week ago when he said things were going to be different.
             With her eyes closed tight, she saw herself floating right through the wall and stepping into the grass where she’d be out of his reach. Slipping into woods where he couldn’t find her. She pictured wings blooming right from her shoulders and carrying her up into clouds where she’d be free. She felt herself slowly dissolving right into the air until she could imagine being invisible to him.
             She felt her breath start to come a little easier, less shaky and deeper. It slowed in tune to music that now seemed to fill the room. A calm acceptance flooded over and through her, and her shaking bones began to still. She opened her eyes and reached for the remaining bottom half of the glass she had been holding behind her back. Her finger traced the lines along the yellow flower petals and the sparkling jagged spikes that wrapped around the top like a holiday wreath.
             Suddenly, the lamp exploded from the wall. Her fingers clutched the base of the glass. Her eyes stared straight into the pile of broken glass in front of her. Charles began to move in her direction. Helene listened to his every movement. The slow, controlled shuffle of his boots as they neared her. The smell of his cologne and sweat. The chuckling in his belly. The rhythmic tap of his finger against the metal base of the lamp. The familiar pulse of his anger when it began to rise. The quickening thump in her chest. The music. Helene drifted away, dissolved right into the air.
             The broken glass crunched on the other side of the chair, and Helene thought she glimpsed the toe of a boot. She shivered, clutching the base of the ruined, cracked glass even tighter in her palm. She squeezed it between her fingers until her anger matched his, until she leapt to her feet and stood with her eyes staring straight into his.
             Her rage clashed with his, and it merged in the air between them. She felt it. Heard it. It crackled like twisted flames rising from a campfire. His arm shot into the air; the base of the lamp flashed as it peaked above her head.
             Helene swung. The broken glass struck Charles at the base of his neck. His eyes widened and locked with hers, and Helene released a desperate cry into the room. Charles shrieked in pain and surprise as he crumpled to the floor. Helene followed him, dropping to her knees beside him and pressing her hands over the wound in his neck.
             “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.” She moved one hand from the wound to reach for the phone on the end table. “I’m calling an ambulance. You’re gonna be fine,” she sobbed, barely able to get the words out. Tears gathered on her husband’s cheeks. With one hand he held her arm, and with the other, gripped the hem of her skirt. Helene and Charles locked their eyes as if they were in an embrace, an embrace that held fast while Helene called for the ambulance, while she removed her blouse and pressed it against his wound, while they waited. Neither of them looked away.

♥ End ♥

Mia Eaker currently lives and writes in Charlotte, North Carolina. She received her MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she now teaches composition. She also teaches composition at Central Piedmont Community College and works as a cognitive skills trainer at The Brain Trainer in Charlotte.

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