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Cleanse / Patrick Trotti

The rancid smell of dirty diapers filled her lungs as soon as she stepped into the house. It was a welcome change from the cloud of smoke she’d been under for the past few days. She closed the door as quietly as possible. She didn’t want to disturb her baby. She tiptoed across the living room floor, careful not to hit any of the creaky floorboards along the way. She ducked her head into the hallway and listened for Lil, but didn’t hear anything. She went down the hall and stopped at the precipice of her room. She was asleep inside, comfortably oblivious to the hell her ma had just created out there for the past seventy-two hours. There was no sign of Nicholas. His truck wasn’t in the driveway but that didn’t mean anything. He might’ve been slouched on the couch, beer in hand, waiting up for her to come sulking home finally. It could’ve been a trap. He’d been known to ambush her before when this happened in the past. Last time he hid under Lil’s crib when she came home, knowing that was the only person in the house she really cared about, to surprise her.

Emma decided to start cleaning up. She needed to make something sparkle, at least one little corner, in this wretched house before he showed up and it all came crashing down. There was so much to do and so little time. He could be home any moment. The body shop wasn’t getting any regular business like they used to when they first began dating. It seemed like the whole town had taken an irreversible turn for the worse in the years since they’d been together. It had gotten to the point where he even, somehow, blamed their relationship while she had long since found their union to be emblematic of larger stark, sad truths about this area and its people and their misfortunes.

She started in the kitchen, furthest away from the baby’s room. The small room seemed even more cramped, more claustrophobic, since it was cluttered with remnants from past nights. It had been weeks since she’d cleaned up the place herself. Nicholas had never dared clean the house himself, thinking his status as head of the household put him above such trivial duties. Days since she even touched anything. She didn’t want to think about that, though. With the house quiet, she busied herself, trying desperately to wash away what she'd done yet again.

Lil woke up and started to scream as she loaded up the dishwasher. She turned on the machine and started on the counters with a rag. A few minutes later, the floor behind her started to glisten with water. It was coming from the machine. It was busted. She’d forgotten, or maybe Nicholas had tried to fix it again, and she’d broken it once more. It had been impossible to keep track of these things lately. She turned the machine off and searched for a towel but couldn’t find a clean one. The hall closet was barren. The hamper was overflowing. She took off her hoodie and dropped it lightly on the floor, the smelly fabric light as a feather as it hit the wet surface like a cotton parachute blanketing a miniature lake. The tepid water leaking from the machine was pooling at a rate that made her rip off her t-shirt as well. It did little, but every bit counted, she thought to herself. She dabbed at the water feverishly, momentarily sobered by her most recent addition to this mess.

The wire lining to her bra was scratching into her back. She dropped down on all fours and began to wipe up the water in zamboni like circular motions. She rubbed harder as she went, more out of frustration for what she’d done over the past few days than anything else. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the big metallic silver tea kettle that, for some reason, was on the floor beside her. There was a large dent in it. It was a horrific sight staring back at her. She looked like one of those neglected animals on the commercials where they asked for a donation. Forgotten and abused, self-inflicted or not wasn’t important now. She had bags under her eyes large enough to not be considered carry-on eligible. They were dark, purple-ing and only getting darker by the minute. She’d actually fell down a flight of steps at the motel down the road in the next town over while high. This time the shiner was her fault, but an accident nonetheless. Her belly hung over her low-cut denim waistline like some sort of beer-bellied glutton. It didn’t matter that she was skin and bones. She tried sucking it in momentarily but caught herself. She didn’t have time for superficialities. She sopped up the rest of the water and wrung out her clothes in the sink before she very carefully unloaded the machine and began to do the dishes by hand.

She was down to her last five dollars in cash in one pocket and a burner flip phone paid for by her drug dealer turned side piece in the other. It was currently turned off because it hadn’t been charged since before she’d left. Everything else she owned was scattered about the rented two-bedroom flop of a house.

Her smoke-stained fingers, cracked and weathered from a few days of hard partying, quickly grew sore under the stream of warm water. When she finished with the dishes, she made her way into the living room, gathering dirty clothes strewn about along the way. She slowly cleared a path connecting the kitchen to the living room. The stackable washer-dryer was in the corner of the living room. Another DIY project that Nicholas had promised when they first moved in and finally, drunkenly, completed. It was a used machine that he got from one of his clients at the garage instead of cash payment.

She found a big trash bag, half full with clothes. She dug through them quickly, like a raccoon in an alley dumpster. They were her clothes. She’d been meaning to swap them at the nearby Salvation Army for store credit to get some additional baby clothes. She hadn’t been eating recently. She couldn’t keep anything down but cheap booze and the occasional candy bar. She’d lost fifteen pounds in the past four weeks. She could always wear his old clothes. He was ballooning up again himself. Anxiety and a fiance that was prone to go missing for days at a time caused him to binge eat. The house was full of the wrong sized clothing. She widened the opening of the trash bag and began picking up the garbage and empty bottles around the house, like a con out on work release on the side of the road. If she had one of those sticks that picked everything up she might’ve been tempted to spear her jugular just to put herself out of her misery. The only thing keeping her from going through with that, from turning that idle thought into action, were the not so quiet whispers of mid day sleep coming from the other room.

The bag rattled with bottles and cans quickly plentiful enough to garner a small fortune if taken in for recycling like they usually did. Things had gotten so bad with their collective drinking that neither of them were sober long enough without a hangover to do much of anything like that anymore.

Anything that could make it seem as though she wasn’t a responsible mother had to be thrown out. It all made sense in her mind. The guilt she felt from her latest foray with her side piece caused this flurry of action. It was difficult to hear any sounds from Lil’s room or for the jingle of keys in the door handle over the pulsating thump of her growing headache, but she tried her best to remain alert.

As the washer ran, she rummaged through the cupboards for a snack. She hadn’t eaten anything but a king-sized Charleston Chew during her recent bender. That word still sounded more charitable than what it really was. A three day getaway to a seedy motel to drink cheap booze and smoke strong crack with her low-level pusher boyfriend and three out of towners equally eager for a taste of all he was selling.

Lil’s wailing from the other room snapped her back to the present moment. The little one was awake again. She still had yet to sleep through the night, again, much like her mama. She jerked her head in her baby’s direction, reminding herself that the kid was much too young to walk in on her, let alone understand what her mother was up to. On the top shelf of the pantry was a can of soup. Chunky tomato. She hated the taste but her stomach was growling. Now she had to find the can opener. As she slid open the various drawers looking for the instrument, she no longer cared about the noise she was making. Lil’s cries quickly turned to screams. She wanted to ignore it until she got something herself quickly but she was coming up empty. The damn can opener was nowhere to be found. After emptying out every drawer in the kitchen, she finally gave in and went to Lil's room. She had her precious baby food in hand. It was the only edible thing in the house.

Her room was small, barely big enough to fit a double bed and small dresser. The crib took up most of the space. She bought it at a yard sale when she was four months pregnant. Lil finally stopped crying as Emma loomed over her with a spoon full of apple-flavored mush. One scoop of that stuff and the baby was instantly happy.

She spoke softly to her baby because she was scared that Nicholas would come barging through the front door and overhear her words. Lil was the only one in the house that wouldn’t judge Emma’s actions. She was the closest thing to a priest she had. This was the hour of her makeshift confessional. It was up to her to make the most of the opportunity. The hope was that in speaking her behaviors over the past few days out loud she could lessen their importance and start to find the forgiveness from the one person that was hardest to come by: herself.

She spoke of many things, all of them dispationately, like she was just reporting on what had happened to someone else. Halfway through, somewhere around the time in the story when the first strange man unclothed and mounted her, Emma started to break down and cry. The gleam in Lil’s eye suddenly evaporated. She was no longer concerned with just receiving more food from her mama. She felt many things, some of them conflicting. It was very confusing for such a young child. Emma continued despite the crude details. She said out loud what she did, which was too little and what they did, which was way too much. She told her only child all the ways which she gave up, hoping beyond hope that she would never have to tell her own daughter a similar story one day when she was grown up. She’d said enough, too much, but all of it would go unjudged and unscrutinized because of the audience. She felt a little sense of immediate relief over having just mouthed the words out loud.

The washer finished up and clicked off in the other room. The buzzing snapped Emma from her recounting her time at the hotel. Lil now had that glimmer back in her eyes just like her mama did when she was being fed her special sauce. She was hungry again, waiting not so patiently for her to resume feeding her. Emma didn’t even have time to play her usual airplane game with the spoon going to her little mouth. The plump pumpkin was so hungry that she’d begin to cry all over again whenever she took an extra moment between feedings. The jar was quickly emptied. Lil let out a series of burps that reminded Emma of herself after one too many drinks. Satiated, she turned her attention to her binky blanket beside her and pawed at it intently like her ma searching the motel carpet for a discarded piece of rock the night before.

She left the room and put the clothes in the dryer. She still had to find the can opener. Now the kitchen table was piled high with the contents of the drawers. The dishes were drying in the rack on the countertop. She took a mid-sized serrated knife and began to stab at the can out of an ignorant hope that it would create an opening. It quickly turned into a demented rage of frustration. She was now wailing away at the can like a cavewoman. She was seated on the dirty floor and had the can in front of her between her legs. With her final attempt, she wound up and brought the knife above her head and hesitated for a moment before she let it thunder down. As she did this, she thought she heard the door handle wiggle and turned her attention away from her hand. The knife came down and stabbed her in the right calf.

The knife had gone only an inch deep but it hurt regardless. She yelled out in pain and soon Lil matched her mama’s sounds with her own tears from the other room. She slowly slid the knife out of her leg and dropped it on the floor beside her. The can was still unopened. She was hungry and bleeding. She lay down, fully on her back, and rifled through her back pocket to retrieve a cigarette. All she had was a half-smoked, crooked stub, but, at the moment, it was good enough. She pulled from it long and deep before she finally exhaled. Her leg was now throbbing much like her head. She rolled over on her side and put the cigarette out in what was left of the pool of dish water beside her before she slowly got to her feet.

She found a box of tissues and gently dabbed at the wound. She hadn’t showered in almost a week. She didn’t count what those strangers did to her in the shower as getting clean at all. She smelled ripe. She’d been home for a few hours and the place looked worse than when she arrived. She tossed the can of soup into the sink like a veteran shooting guard. She rushed to refill the drawers and tidy up the kitchen further.

She took a clean set of towels from the dryer and dried the kitchen floor completely. Then she attacked the counters and put away the plates. She scrubbed down the surface of the appliances until she could see the original color of them glistening back at her. She dropped into the chair in the middle of the room and surveyed her progress. It was substantial, but, she feared, not enough. She was tired and aching all over. What she really wanted, what she needed, was a long nap, a slumber, really. Instead, she forced herself to her feet again and swept the floor.

As she began to fold laundry in the living room, she began to feel a tinge of satisfaction. After every piece of clothing she folded, she’d look to the kitchen, cleaner than it had been in months, than it ever had been, and took a small kernel of joy in the fact that she’d done something good, something tangible and beneficial for herself and her family. It was, much like her drinking, too much and not nearly enough. Her hands were reddened and bruised from exertion. Her fingertips burnt from holding the pipe too long. Her leg was still sore and had finally stopped bleeding since she took off her pants and tied off a hand towel just below her wound.

Clad in just her underwear, she was transfixed by the clean kitchen. The rest of the place was a hell zone. It looked like a bomb had gone off but that wasn’t important. If she could just stay positive and focus on what she’d done, maybe Nicholas would do the same when he got back. She felt, however briefly, like one of those suburban trophy wives waiting for her husband to come home from a hard day of work.

Just as she snapped free from her delusion, she noticed a pair of headlights flashing through the living room windows. It was Nicholas. He was home early for once. He flung the front door open and entered the living room. He was equal parts shocked, relieved, and angered to see her standing in the middle of the room.

“Hey,” she muttered.

Her head was down, her eyes not able to focus on him.

“If this is your way of trying to make it up to me, quit it,” he said. “You look like shit.”

“Thanks,” she said, feeling even more self-conscious.

She folded her arms across her chest, more so to cover up.

“What happened to your leg?”

“Cleaning accident.”

“Put some clothes on, will ya?” he snorted.

She walked past him down the hallway to their bedroom. He followed behind her. He wasn’t sure if she was staying or just passing through on her way back out the door again. She wasn’t sure if he wanted to take out his anger on her with his fists or in the bedroom. Sometimes, when it got really bad, he mixed the two.

“You coming or going?”

“What do you mean?” she responded, making him spell out exactly what he was getting at.

“I mean, are you just making a pit stop or are you back to play mommy again?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Then you wouldn’t have to leave her at home by herself all day!”

“I was only gone a few hours. I got home as fast as I could. Besides…,” he caught himself mid sentence.

“What is it?” she asked as she put on new clothes.

“Well, it’s just rich coming from you.”

“So I can’t have an opinion about things around here?”

“Not when you’re a part time resident, no,” he said.

She brushed past him once more. She went back down the hallway and ducked into Lil’s room. He followed along a moment later.

“I’m sorry, you know. Isn’t that worth something?”

“Sorry for getting caught or sorry you did it in the first place?” he said.

“Oh come off it. I feel guilty enough as is.”

“Then why’d you do it?” he asked.

She changed her baby’s diaper as she thought about her answer. Instead of fumbling for a response, she kept quiet. He didn’t need to hear all the sordid details. They both secretly knew the answer. She led him out of the room and back to the kitchen. She wanted to get him to focus on the kitchen, hoping to salvage something from all this.

“You know the social worker is coming tomorrow?”

“Why do you think I’m back so soon?” she chuckled slightly.

“That’s the reason you came back?” he stepped to her with his fist clenched at his side.

He stopped halfway across the room. Once he saw the kitchen behind her his thoughts were interrupted. She cowered in front of him. She’d caught plenty from him before and knew he really meant it when he closed his fist before the first swing. After a moment, she finally stood up straight and put her hands down and faced him.

“Last time was a week and half,” she said looking down at her bare feet. “Guess I’m making progress after all.”

“You’re really pushing it, you know that?”

A part of her, increasing by the minute, was hoping he’d lose his temper, that he’d hit her a bit, but not too much. Just enough so that she could flip the switch on him and play the role of the victim. If she could provoke him and turn him into the clear bad guy, she could work out some of that grief and guilt. It was a lousy, half-baked plan, but it was all she could come up with on such short notice.

“Did you notice the kitchen?” she asked with a gleam of hope in her eye.


“That’s it? It took me two hours.”

“What about the rest of this place?” he asked as he kicked the full trash bag at his feet in between them.

“I’m trying my best. I ain’t a miracle worker, you know,” she groaned.

“You fixing to just throw these out?” he said.

“As opposed to what?”

“Take it to the bottle machine and get the money back, that’s what! And what about these clothes? I thought you were gonna sell them.”

“What’s the point?”

“Huh?” he looked confused.

“You heard me. There ain’t no point in any of this,” she trailed off for a moment. “If it wasn’t for her,” she pointed at Lil’s room. “I’d just as well see this place demolished to the ground and start all over.”

“What about me? Us?” His question hung low in the air between them, unanswered.

She didn’t respond. The silence engulfed them. He finally spoke up.

“Who were you with? Where were you this time?”

“Not important. Doesn’t matter much, either,” she said.

“Is he special? I mean, is he the same guy as the other times?”

“I’m not having this conversation. Not now. Not here,” she finished by looking around the kitchen like one of those game show models showcasing a brand new prize.

She had to keep things light, to make a joke out of it all, or risk crying instead. She feared that if she started to take things seriously she’d break down completely.

“What’s gotten into you? You still drunk or something?”

“You’re not guilting me. Not in here especially and not now!”

She wasn’t going to stand for him sassing her in the same room where she’d just labored over cleaning up all morning. It was her best attempt at an apology and there he was not even grateful. She just as quickly switched to anger.

“Listen to you. The lady of the house has spoken!”

“I’m serious. I did good this time. You’re not taking that from me. No sir.”

“I’m sorry, your majesty,” he tipped his cap and bowed down to her at the waist.

“Fine, you think it’s a joke. You wanna hear something real funny? Here, what about this?”

She began emptying the drawers, tossing the contents all over the room.

“What is wrong with you?” he yelled out, but it was too late.

“All hail Nicholas, the King of nothing,” her rage had now boiled over.

“I’m warning you!”

He took another step forward, into the kitchen. She scanned the room one last time, in anticipation of the onslaught that was about to come. She thought she deserved as much, and maybe even more. Much more, she feared, than he was willing or even capable of dishing out. She didn’t know which was worse, what she thought she deserved and, in a twisted way, wanted, or what he couldn’t provide.

He lifted his fist again and hung it in the air, waiting for her response.

“Is this what you want? Will this make it better?” He finally screamed at her.

She didn’t answer right away, not out of a loss for words, but because she feared what her response really meant for both of them.

Lil screamed out from the other room, breaking through the silence in the kitchen. She needed her mother. She needed her more than Emma could possibly know. She needed her even more than Emma could possibly need anything herself. That fact was enough to momentarily comfort her in a way nothing else outside of the house could, which would serve to keep her inside, with her family, for the foreseeable future.

Patrick Trotti is perpetually at work on another book.

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