I could tell that she was angry by the way that she did the dishes

A young boy in the nineteen sixties helps his mom wash the dishes.  But he feels guilty about something…

I could tell that she was angry by the way that she did the dishes.

Spoons and forks clattered against the porcelain sink. Dishwater splashed everywhere. The front of my shirt was soaked. Her yellow rubber gloves blurred in the water, turning suds into soap bubbles. She scrubbed the dishes as if to punish them.

She handed me a messy clump of silverware. I dunked them in the scalding water—which burned my fingers hot pink—dried them on a dish towel, and placed them carefully but quietly in the dish drainer so as not to add to her irritation.

“So…,” she said.

“So…,” I waited.

Cheese from leftover lasagna clung for dear life to one of the pans.

“How was your day?”

I looked at her sideways. Was she kidding?

“Well…,” I began, then paused. What was I going to say? I skipped school, smoked cigarettes, sneaked into a movie theater, talked to a stranger. A stranger who happen to be a ruthless killer. Really. Could I blame it on the simple stupidity of being a twelve-year-old kid?

Boy Washing Dishes

ca. 1940-1959 — 12-year-old Bob Hedger washing dishes and saying “What a break!” Undated photograph. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

She stopped torturing the dishes and turned to me, resting her elbow on the sink. Water dripped from her gloves

“I’m sorry,” I said simply. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I shouldn’t have followed Joe. I shouldn’t have skip school. It was just dumb. I just–. I’m really sorry.” I wrung the dishrag in my hands. “It won’t happen again.”

Her eyes looked me up and down, then she sighed. Something between aggravation and forgiveness. She went back to cleaning the dishes more slowly this time.

“You’re damn right it won’t,” she said, picking at something on a plate. “You could’ve been hurt or… worse.” Something sparkled near the corner of her eye. Was it a soap bubble?  She used the surface of the dish as a mirror. “If your father was here, boy….”

I finished the thought. “He would call me a ‘man-child,’“ I said. “Somebody who hadn’t grown up.”

“Yeah,” she smiled. “Like Peter Pan.”

I lowered my voice, remembering how my father talked. “You need to grow the fuck up, boy!  Grow a pair!”

Shocked, she almost dropped the dish despite her textured gloves. “Jesus! William Joseph–!”  She looked at me and saw my father’s face, or at least my best imitation of him. Her surprise quickly turned to laughter, something she desperately needed. Still annoyed but relieved, she let the stress of the day wash over her. “You–!”  She flipped water at me with a wet finger.

“Hey–!”  I splashed back with a spoon.

The ensuing water fight made us both feel better. Wetter but better.


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