By Marietta Calvanico

It seemed I always walked in just as he was squeezing his coffee sock. I don’t feel like explaining what that means; it’s enough to say that the inmate method of coffee brewing utilizes a microwave and a sock. I guess even a drip coffee machine could somehow be used as a weapon, so they’re not allowed. But it was disconcerting to me when I would walk into the kitchen at three AM and find him squeezing his sock. He’d been free (except for his reporting to parole) for three months and he was still squeezing his sock.

Neither one of us had been sleeping very well, but for entirely different reasons. Jerry and I have been friends since high school, but in the last dozen years or so we haven’t really seen each other very much, except at tax time because he has always done my returns. He got sent up for a white-collar crime that he never one hundred percent explained to me, but I felt sorry for him because that’s the way I am. When all of his fat cat clients, friends, and acquaintances forgot they ever knew him, I sent letters to him while he was in prison and sent him bags of M&M’s, tuna fish in pouches, and stuff like that. When he was eligible to be considered for parole, I wrote the best letter vouching for his character that I could muster, even though I was already suspicious about the circumstances of his incarceration. So he got sprung, but he was mandated to stay within the five boroughs of NYC for a period, and that is why he was squeezing his coffee sock in my kitchen at three AM. I am a sap.

I had been trying to give up feeling sorry for myself because I know how unattractive that can be, but ever since Maggie left, I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. Sometimes I would walk around the house and marvel at how dirty everything looked. It never seemed like Maggie cleaned excessively, but I guess all those little things she was constantly doing added up. Jerry didn’t care one iota about the domestic state of things.

Last night, my sister, Daphne, came by in an effort to drag me out for a while. It has been over six months since my marriage blew apart, and just a few days earlier, the divorce became final.

“Rob, why don’t you join a gym or something?” Daphne was handing out random advice as she poked around in my refrigerator.

“Isn’t that one of those things people always say when they think you have nothing better to do with your life? I work long hours, you know, and I don’t exactly have tons of energy when I get home.”

Daphne took a long look around the dirty kitchen. “Yeah, I can tell. Why don’t you get the ex-con to do some chores around here?”

Now we were moving on to the real order of business: Jerry.

“I would think you might be glad that I’m not alone. I miss Maggie like mad. Jerry is a good guy. You just don’t give yourself a chance to get to know him.”

“I have no interest in knowing anything about him, except when he’s going to move so that, maybe, you would start living a sort of normal life, if that’s even possible for you. Even when you had Maggie keeping everything glued together, you still seemed like a mess most of the time. It’s no mystery why she couldn’t take it anymore.”

I let out a long sigh. It was true; I was always on overload, especially because of work, where I typically put in sixty or more hours a week. Even doing my own laundry was a monumental thing for me; in all these months, I couldn’t quite figure out how to operate the washer or dryer, both of which had control panels that looked like they were meant to launch rockets at NASA. I usually just dropped my dirty clothes off at the wash-and-fold a few blocks away even though I didn’t like the way they did it. My mind wandered from whatever Daphne was saying—not that it mattered; it was her usual pitch to try to get me out of the house on a Saturday night. I knew she was winding down and finally getting ready to move on to whatever else was on her agenda.

“Alright, I’m leaving, but think about tomorrow because the party is a good opportunity for you to get out and socialize with some normal people.” Daphne took a bottle of water from the fridge and headed towards the front door. “Seven o’clock, Rich and Jenny’s house.”

I found it remarkable that Jerry could drink a cup of coffee in the middle of the night and go back to bed. He held on to other prison behavior as well, like wearing flip-flops in the shower even though I had assured him that I have no foot fungus. I thought briefly about asking Jerry if he wanted to go to Rich and Jenny’s party, but that would aggravate Daphne mightily.

Jerry’s a chit-chatty kind of person, and I am not. Remarkably, ‌no fellow inmate had taken any measures to break him of the habit; maybe they even welcomed his constant babble as a way to pass some time. Mostly, I found it exhausting. By this time, I had gotten pretty good at letting the sound of his voice turn into a bland white noise, and instead of listening to him I would daydream about Sunday morning coffee with Maggie, sitting together without saying a word.

I got up early Saturday morning with all intentions of doing a thorough cleaning job. I walked through the living room to the small, enclosed porch on the side of the house that Jerry preferred over the attic room I had offered to him when he first arrived. He was already out, and I was relieved to find myself alone.

The floors were filthy, and cobwebs hung from the corners of the ceilings in every room. The kitchen was the worst because I mostly made things like hamburgers and eggs over easy in the big cast iron skillet that stayed on top of the stove; everything was covered with a thin film of grease. I was glad the skillet was an item you were never supposed to wash, but I suspected that there was some other way it should be cleaned. Fortunately, I didn’t know what that was, so I felt free to use it, sort of wipe it with a paper towel, and forget about it. The bathroom had a funky smell.

I put a pot of coffee on and started to wash the dishes that had accumulated in the sink over the last few days. Everything in the kitchen had been left behind by Maggie. Even though it had always been her domain and I felt it all belonged to her, she took nothing with her when she moved out. I scrubbed a pot that I had been using habitually to boil vegetables and thought about how many times amazing things Maggie had prepared came out of it. I finished washing the last couple of forks in the sink and poured myself a cup of coffee.

It was nearly April and starting to feel like spring, so I opened the back door to let some fresh air in. In the neighbors’ yard, I could see the youngest of the three children who lived there trying to pump himself on a swing. His legs were flailing back and forth, and he couldn’t seem to sync them up enough to get the swing going. I could see how frustrated he was getting, and I was thinking about helping him out, when one of his siblings ran over to him and gave him a good hard push. That one push was all he needed; now he was flying back and forth happily, so I went inside.

In the spring, Maggie would take down the heavy drapes in the living room and clean the windows before hanging lighter, wispy panels that let the sun in. She washed the wood floors with an orangey oil detergent, and afterwards everything smelled almost new. It all seemed like too much work. A pile of magazines and pieces of newspapers were piled next to the chair I sat in most often, so I decided to sort through them and warm up to the more ambitious tasks.

I was almost through the pile when I heard Jerry’s car out front. He took the steps two at a time and burst into the house.

“Hey, glad you’re here; good news—I found a great studio apartment for not too much money, pal, so I’m moving on.”

It took a minute for the words to register; Jerry hadn’t said anything about moving out. He went to his porch-room.

“Do you have a couple of boxes? I don’t have that much to take with me; two will probably do it.” He came back into the living room with his duffle bag, stuffed with his clothes.

I went down to the basement and found a couple of old milk crates. An hour later I was alone. The house seemed dirtier somehow, and a renewed determination to clean everything welled up inside of me. I was just about to get the vacuum cleaner when the doorbell rang. It was Maggie.

“Hi, I’m sorry not to have called you first, but I was in the neighborhood, and I keep forgetting that I left a couple of spring jackets in the closet upstairs. Do you mind if I get them?”

The condition of the house was suddenly unbearable to me, but there was nothing I could do. I opened the door wider and beckoned her to come in. She was so perfect and beautiful standing there; it was almost painful to me that she would be surrounded by this filth, even for a few minutes. If she was half as appalled as I was, she didn’t let it show; a small friendly smile seemed to forgive me for being such a slob.

I watched her as she went up the stairs, not so quickly as to make me feel she couldn’t wait to get away but with enough efficient speed to remind me that she was here for a singular purpose.

She paused briefly at the door, jackets draped over her arm, and looked around the living room. I wanted to offer up some kind of excuse, why I had let things deteriorate to this point, but I couldn’t come up with anything. She touched my arm for a moment and left.

Alone, once more, the sound of nothingness filled my ears. I shut the door and turned to face the now seemingly filthier room. With my sense of purpose derailed, I decided to go to Happy’s to pick up my laundry. I checked my wallet for the claim stub; there it was, with a charge of $22.05 indicated. $22.05! It felt like a down payment to buy back my own clothes.

On the way to the wash-and-fold, I tried to make a case for them. It was my own fault; every week there was a pile of damp towels on the floor by the shower stall, and this made my laundry load unduly heavy. I was paying by the pound to have all these towels laundered along with a normal amount of underwear, t-shirts, and anything else that didn’t go to the cleaners. Maggie always hoped I would eliminate this bad habit, but I persistently dropped whatever towel I used on the floor after my morning shower. Sometimes when I came home at night, I would pick up a damp towel, think about hanging it on the rack, then drop it on the floor again because it was just too late for corrective action.

I pulled up in front of Happy’s. Once inside, I took out my claim ticket, and the small woman with shiny blond hair went to the back to locate my laundry. It’s kind of fuzzy, everything that happened next, but I do remember thinking how angry I suddenly felt about Maggie showing up unannounced and all. If she hadn’t left me, I wouldn’t even be standing here right now. There wouldn’t be an ex-con living in my house (because Maggie simply wouldn’t have allowed it) squeezing coffee out of his sock at three AM!

The blonde returned with my laundry and said, “$22.05, please.” I reached into my pocket, but instead of taking out my wallet, I grabbed the bag of clean laundry off the counter and quickly headed to the door. Smiling, I yelled over my shoulder, “You have a good day, now!”

I turned left out of the parking lot instead of heading home and cruised onto the highway. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I could see my laundry bag on the seat behind me. I drove on steadily, thinking about my failed marriage, my annoying sister, and, most of all, the fact that even Jerry was leaving me.

Too much seemed to have gone wrong, but I had to start somewhere. I walked into the police station, laundry bag slung over my shoulder, and said to the cop at the desk, “I’m here to confess.”

Marietta Calvanico has lived a rich and varied life. She built a career in advertising/marketing, worked with her architect husband in client relations and doing agency work, raised a daughter who is a teacher, and played bass in dive bars. She has shared her homes with many cats. From her Staten Island condo’s balcony, she can see New Jersey. From the porch of her house on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, she can see New Jersey. Both homes are excellent places to write. Her poetry, fiction and memoir pieces have appeared online and in print. Her most recent publication is a double broadside entitled Requiem, published by Ink Publications.


Anantha said…
A small gathering storm, that pauses for only for life's strange funnies. Loved it. A sock barista sounds full of possibilities- I might just try it.

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