Volume 29, Number 3

The Closet

Ron Hartley

I sat cross-legged on the floor of my deceased wife’s closet, inhaling the nearness of her clothing draped about my head and shoulders. Comfort radiated from the fabrics, colors and patterns that had adorned the years of our life together, and soon the modest square footage of my enclosure began to expand into the space and time of decades. It was the summer of ’64.

“Baba’s my grandmother,” Elena had said. “She won’t like you.”

The three of us sat on the couch together watching television. Baba spoke Ukrainian, Slovakian and Moldovian but very little English, so it was hard to tell what she got out of American sitcoms. She was the oldest-looking person I had ever seen, with threadbare strands of silver hair and a face that reminded me of gnarled oak. She looked at me once with squinted eyes that divined I wasn’t Ukrainian Orthodox or anything even close, so she never looked at me again. The old woman’s dourness was counterbalanced by my aggressively affectionate girlfriend who had a face out of the Renaissance pages of my art history book and a body that, in my estimation, was perfectly proportioned to fit my body.

Vremya lozhit sya spat,” Elena said, and Baba roused herself and looked at the clock.

She took up her cane and, leaning heavily on it, hobbled about the room, looking here and there and touching this and that, as if bestowing her blessing on things in preparation for their long vigil through the night. When she got to the stairs leading to the second floor she hooked the cane around the back of her neck and began crawling up the carpeted steps on her hands and knees with the speed of a mountain climber scaling a great height.

“Maybe I can…”

“Sit still,” Elena said. “She won’t let anyone help her.”

Every time Baba lifted her head the illumination from the ceiling light on the second-floor landing shone on her face in such a theatrical way it was an image worthy of Goya, while Elena and I sat there lust-bitten and waiting. As soon as Baba vanished from sight, buttons got unbuttoned and zippers unzipped as our hands roamed wondrously over each other. Every night we waited for that interlude between Baba’s crawl up the stairs and the return of Elena’s parents from the second shift of their jobs at a textile mill on the other side of town.

Neither Elena nor I had ever gone all the way, but we were both ready, and soon the couch gave way to the lure of her bedroom upstairs. We hesitated at the top of the staircase near the bathroom and then crept past Baba’s room. The door was shut, and by then her hearing aid would be in its case on her bureau. Next to Baba was the master bedroom where Elena had been born and cradled until her parents put her in the designated children’s room at the end of the hall. She would be their only child.

The gentle fumbling of carnal love seemed permissible under the lavender-scented sheet we pulled over our heads, embarrassed to look at each other or speak while emitting only the softest of murmurs. On the third night in bed we drifted into a light sleep and lost track of the time. A faint sound of the front door opening downstairs woke us both simultaneously, and we jumped out of the bed with faces locked on each other like Bonnie and Clyde before they got riddled with machine-gun bullets. Elena’s left arm sprang up so fast she almost stuck her pointing finger in my eye as she directed me to the closet in the wall adjacent to the bed. Without thinking I took three running steps through the open closet door, pulling it shut behind me. She was into her shorts, top and sandals in seconds, grabbing my clothes and shoes off the floor just as her mother’s voice boomed up from the kitchen.

“Elena, ya vdoma.

“I’m coming, maty,” Elena answered and, in her panic, shoved everything down between her bed and the wall, leaving me naked in the cluttered dark as she hurried downstairs to scare up some supper for her mother. I waited a minute to crack the closet door open and look for my clothes, but they were gone.

The Stepaniaks worked the same second shift but came home at different times. Fedya was a man who stopped, as they say, at Salenko’s Bar for a couple quick shots of 140-proof horilka. Ruslana hated the idea of her husband sitting at a bar with the kind of men who stopped, but Fedya needed to fortify himself against a wife he got on the rebound.

Ruslana once fell for a charismatic Presbyterian hunk twelve years her senior, a bachelor brother in one of the households she had cleaned when she was in her late teens. She was forty pounds slimmer then and had the semblance of a Ukrainian Cinderella, but the Presbyterians didn’t see her that way, and the dude turned out to be more head over heels into sex than in love or permanency.

Ruslana had to settle for Fedya instead—a good man, but a man whose exotic, well-sculpted face belied a self-effacing personality that was as much fun as a coal furnace in winter with the fire out. They both applied for jobs at the mill, where the combination of two factory paychecks deposited each week into the Ukrainian National Credit Union seemed like the only way forward in an Anglo-American forest of Protestant church towers sticking into the sky like nails into their ethnic coffins if they didn’t watch out. Bitterness marked her words, and an unrelenting shrillness resonated in a voice that was in the habit of yelling all day over the noise of thirty-eight high-speed power looms.

Ruslana and Elena rattled on downstairs in two languages, and when Fedya finally got home his halting, deep voice joined the mix, filling the house to capacity with impending disaster. Footsteps started up the stairs with the slow gravity of tiredness and ill humor. I somehow knew it was Ruslana, suspecting, in my paranoid circumstance, the worst of all possible worsts. When she reached the second floor I could hear doors squeaking and floorboards complaining as she did her nightly walkabout, like a captain inspecting her ship. The house was her tsentral’ne—the centerpiece of her life. She and Fedya had delayed having a child and sacrificed every survivable do-without from movies to meat to qualify for a mortgage with the credit union’s low interest rate.

Tsey poverkh hryaznyy,” Ruslana screamed from the next room.

“I’ll clean the bedrooms tomorrow,” Elena screamed back.

They were a family of screamers, unlike my folks who were of the more reserved Lutheran variety. Meanwhile, I poked around in the dark for something to put on, a robe or a pair of jeans or shorts—anything shy of a dress. All I could find was a pair of pale pink pedal-pushers hanging on a hook, but they were so tight I was only able to pull them up half way. I froze for a moment, listening hard and sensing that Ruslana had entered Elena’s room.

Chomo ne zrobleno lizhko,” she mumbled in a tone that suggested pain in her lower back, or maybe annoyance at the unmade bed.

I was balancing on one foot at a time, struggling to pull each leg out of the damn pedal-pushers while bumping into the door and hoping that twenty years at the mill had deadened Ruslana’s eardrums enough that she couldn’t hear me wriggling around. When the pedal-pushers were finally off I thought I heard a faint creak in the floor almost next to me. I gripped both hands tightly around the inside doorknob, spread my feet apart and bent my knees in readiness. The doorknob tried to turn and there was a pull from the other side as I held on. Ruslana pulled hard again and again, but I held on tight. The confused door, not knowing what else to do, remained in place.

“ELENA,” she screamed, “what’s with closet door?” There was no response.

“ELENA,” she screamed again, and her daughter screamed back with barely concealed hysteria, “Let go, maty. I know how to open it.”

Ruslana tried to wriggle the doorknob and then yanked at it once more. “Chto za fuck. You got boyfriend hiding in there, Elena?”

“Yeah right, maty, and he’s a Protestant.”

There was a pause while the Protestant reference established itself as a joke in Ruslana’s tired head. Her footsteps walked away, and I could hear her voice trailing down the hallway like rolling thunder. “There’s some left-over holusky for Fedya in back of fridge,” she yelled down to Elena as if Fedya wasn’t there. “Tell him look at that door and then tell him go back to Salenko’s and hang himself. I gotta lay down.”

I ventured out into the room to find my clothes. I fell flat on the floor and looked under the bed and then jumped back up and darted about like a bird without feathers looking for breadcrumbs. I remained unclothed and went back into the closet. I shut myself into hiding again while trying to cope with an urge to urinate that was building into a monstrous discomfort.

Minutes were like hours in kidney time as Elena tended to Fedya’s needs. I opened the closet door briefly and scanned the room for a vase or something hollow to piss in but there was nothing of the sort. I would have to make a catlike run to the bathroom. If Ruslana’s bedroom door was open too much and she saw me naked in the hallway or if Fedya was coming up the stairs or if Baba suddenly appeared on the toilet behind an unlocked bathroom door, it would be my head in the boiling pot instead of the holusky. The life Elena and I might have together would never happen. The kids and grandkids that might be born would never be conceived.

I was about to make my move when I heard someone calling from far away, “Elena, where are you?” The bathroom in question began to recede into the curve of the Universe, and light from future time seeped through a rectangular configuration of hairline cracks.

“Elena, come back down here,” the same voice called out again with gathering clarity, and there was the patter of little feet coming up close to the closet door, along with the enquiring voice of a child.