The Pink Bathrobe Escapade
At 7:34 in the morning, Mrs. Pierce was standing, fully dressed, at her kitchen sink wiping down her coffee mug with today’s clean rag. Her fingers swept through the thin fabric across the familiar scalloping of the cup and its saucer. It had been her mother’s. Or was it her grandmother’s? She scrunched her face thinking about it and stared blankly out the kitchen window. She couldn’t remember anymore. It was old. Older than Mrs. Pierce herself, whose wiry gray hair, combed back into a tight bun, had lost its dark pigment years ago. There had been some gray, certainly, when Mr. Pierce had died, but not like this. She placed the cup in the drying rack, carefully wiped her hands on the dishtowel, faded blue today, and tucked an imaginary escaped tendril of hair behind her ear. She wondered if Mr. Pierce would have minded the grayness. She still wore his favorite pink lipstick, brushed across her wrinkled and diminished lips, but she wasn’t sure how he would have felt about the hair.
She lingered at the kitchen sink a moment longer, hands resting on the edge of the counter, fingers dangling into the silver basin. Her eyes glided across her dominion, visible outside between faded lace curtains. Some afternoons, when the monotony settled in, she would lift the fabric, first on the right side, then on the left, and extend her gaze, world growing to include slightly more of her neighbors’ front yards. And on very nice days, when Annie wasn’t driving her to town, Mrs. Pierce would even take a walk. Just a little one, to the end of the court and back. But Mrs. Pierce walked slowly and had plenty of time to gaze up the grassy green slopes towards the varied homes of an old neighborhood. She would cluck quietly to herself at children’s toys scattered across lawns or another broken-down Mercedes tucked into that family’s driveway. Soon they would have to gravel in the whole of the front yard. She tsked.
This morning was gray and cold, a taste of the winter to come. Her bird feeder hung empty against the backdrop of faded grass, inviting her feathered friends, who must still be tucked into warm little nests. She wrapped her arms around herself briefly. It was too chilly for a walk, and Annie didn’t come either. Not till tomorrow afternoon. She rubbed at her kitchen counter with the rag from the sink and frowned when the spot didn’t come off. One from age and not from dirt. She let out a little sigh and could imagine Mr. Pierce frowning at her from over his newspaper sitting at the kitchen table. The light over the table would be shining down on him as he nibbled at the remains of his toast and drank his coffee, black, and rifled through today’s news. “Another accident on the highway yesterday. Three people dead,” he might say, or “Timing is bad for Mr. President to bring that up again.” Mr. Pierce might even slap his hand against the section he was reading and inform her of war brewing in the east, rising gas prices, or whatever these damn kids were doing to ruin Social Security.
And then at 7:55, Mr. Pierce would make one final trip to the bathroom, grab his hat and coat, kiss her on the cheek, and be out the door no later than 8:02 every morning.
The house would be empty after that, just as it was now.
It hadn’t been Annie back then who’d taken her to town; it had been Mrs. Wallace, and they went almost every day, sometimes even to the city when the weather was nice. The city felt exciting with its shiny buildings and rush of cars and people. They would park and get ice cream no matter the season. Mrs. Wallace got a different flavor every time, but Mrs. Pierce would always associate the cold taste of butter pecan with the walk to Hutzler’s, cream curdling in the back of her mouth as she picked out dresses and coats for Mrs. Wallace to try. Then Mrs. Wallace had gotten sick, followed shortly by the death of Mr. Pierce. It had been a long time since she’d been far from home. She thought back, counting. Maybe twelve years. She’d heard the city had changed and didn’t want to return even though Annie had offered.
She glanced behind her through the open doorway into the waiting darkness and quietness of the living room where she would spend her day, had always spent her days. She took a step forward, already lifting her arm to flip on the lamp switch, but stole one last, furtive glance at the bird feeder, hoping a winged companion would join her. Her gaze slid past the little house, full of only birdseed, into her neighbor’s yard across the street. Someone was down the hill, in the far corner of their property among the junked cars and woodpile. He or she was walking about in an old pink bathrobe. Mrs. Pierce narrowed her eyes trying to see better, debating briefly about whether she should put on her reading glasses, but those silly things barely helped her make out Reader’s Digest and wouldn’t help her see across the street. From the kitchen window, she couldn’t determine who the terry cloth wanderer was, but it probably didn’t matter anyway. Her neighbors always had people over, coming and going. They were nice enough, besides the sad yard ornaments of broken down and rusty cars in yellows and browns, stashed here and there among neglected and overgrown oak trees like giant, forgotten easter eggs.
The pink bathrobe had initially made Mrs. Pierce think the person was a woman, but the dark hair was on the short side, and she was now wondering if it could be a man. Not that hair length meant anything anymore. She tsked and wondered if the person could be Bobby’s son? The one who worked at the chicken place. Or just some girlfriend with a bad haircut?
Mrs. Pierce stood at her kitchen sink, fingers resting on the worn counter, trying to work out this series of questions, gazing intently across the street into the back corner of her neighbor’s yard. Robert E. Lee III was his full name. Mrs. Pierce shook her head. She came from another time and even she knew that was a terrible name and growing worse. General Lee would have found it difficult to comprehend this redneck namesake. Mrs. Pierce shook her head and wondered briefly if Confederate Lee’s friends had called him Bobby, too.
Whatever her neighbors were, they weren’t usually bumbling about their yard in ugly pink bathrobes early in the morning. They might be out like this on a Saturday or Sunday in the summer, scraping drunk friends off their lawn after a party that had gone on way past Mrs. Pierce’s bedtime. She squinted trying to see better.
One of the figure’s hands dipped into the bathrobe pocket and withdrew something small and dark. Her fingers no longer dangled into the sink but gripped the edge of the counter tightly. She stared, understanding crashing down upon her like the waves in San Diego when Mr. Pierce had lured her into the ocean on that trip so long ago.
The person in the bathrobe had a gun. Why could Mrs. Pierce make out the frayed fabric along the cuff when she couldn’t clearly see the face of the individual? Heart thumping, Mrs. Pierce wondered what this person was doing with a gun. Not hunting, no, not with a little pistol that fit in the pocket of a pink bathrobe. Target practice? That would certainly put the junked cars to good use, but no, even in this old, blue-collar neighborhood no one would be out shooting tin cans before 10:30 a.m. There were some rules everyone just followed. No, there was only one reason why someone would be out, alone, enrobed in faded pink with a gun: he or she was going to kill him- or herself in the corner of Robert E. Lee III’s yard with an audience of abandoned cars and tractors. And old, nosy Mrs. Pierce.
Mrs. Pierce’s heart beat faster than it had in years. She could stand in her kitchen, bathed in fluorescent light, staring past the birdless feeder, as whoever it was at her neighbor’s house lifted the gun to his or her head and fired. Or Mrs. Pierce could yank open the side door, sprint down her driveway, screaming, and try to intervene.
What would Mr. Pierce have said from his seat at the kitchen table? He’d glance at her over the edge of his newspaper observing her agitation, mutter, “Ruffians,” and return to the news. Or perhaps he’d join her at the window, watching: “Fat coward won’t shoot, just wait.”
But Mr. Pierce was dead and the person in the pink bathrobe was not.
Her hand was on the doorknob, and she forced her body to follow, trundling down the carport stairs but picking up speed as once her slippers were on the gently sloping driveway. She managed to scream, too, and a noise louder than any she had made since long before marrying Mr. Pierce escaped her lips.
It was her own life that flashed before her eyes as she ran, fuzzy gray house shoes slapping at the cracked asphalt, eyes on the enrobed figure turning toward his or her death. Mrs. Pierce’s father, gray and stern, chiding her for running, for yelling. Her mother, always in the kitchen, perfectly composed, never smiling. The bleak sadness of her childhood spent wishing always for a sibling, followed by the barrenness of her own marriage. Mr. Pierce had still loved her, in his own way, but she had been lonely, had grown into her mother’s frown though she was much better at applying her pink lipstick and pretending to smile.
She stumble-sprinted into Robert E. Lee’s yard. Every millisecond stretched painfully, more so than her legs, which hadn’t worked so hard since high school. Her ears strained, waiting for the shot to shatter the silence. She was too slow, too fat, and too old to act to save this redneck neighbor in a faded pink bathrobe, that should have been cut up into rags ten years ago.
But the morning stayed silent aside from whatever strange sounds that were issued by her mouth as she struggled to both breathe and call out, at last managing a strangled but loud, “Stop!” as her own body skidded to a halt.
The man—it had been a man all along, wearing a silly pink bathrobe—stared at Mrs. Pierce. Bobby’s son. It was Bobby’s son. What was his name? Billy? Bill? She couldn’t remember.
“Put it down!” Mrs. Pierce screamed.
His fleshy mouth hung slightly open, and his hair told a story of missed showers. He dropped his hand from his face automatically.
Mrs. Pierce saw that it was not a gun.
“I’m really sorry, Mrs. Pierce!” he cried, the big black thing, a phone, slipping back into the fluffy expanse of a robe pocket.
Mrs. Pierce stared and could comprehend nothing beyond frayed pink terrycloth.
“Are you okay, Mrs. Pierce?” the young man asked. “I know I was yelling, but I didn’t mean to bother you. My girlfriend cheated on me last night, so I came out here to yell at her. I didn’t want to wake my folks. I’m really sorry for bothering you!” His round face contorted, eyes wide, lips drawing down. Mrs. Pierce had seen the look on much younger boys, expressing both guilt and a hope for forgiveness. She’d seen it on a dog, too, not that she’d ever been allowed to own one.
All Mrs. Pierce could do was let out a little gasp as she found the world suddenly spinning around her much faster than it should.
Bobby’s son rushed to her side. “Mrs. Pierce! Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”
She clutched his arm and managed to murmur, “No, no, I’m fine, just hold onto me a minute.” The movement of the earth slowed at last to normal.
They stood like that for a moment, her, the knight, desperately clutching her damsel for support. The chill of the morning seeped into her slippers. The sun made a weak attempt to light the day even as it filled another hemisphere with warmth. A bird trilled. Mrs. Pierce let out a long breath.
“I’m sorry for running over here like that,” she said softly, the lowness of her voice hopefully veiling her brief insanity. “I thought I saw—” She opened her eyes and looked at an old Ford truck. Someone’s dream from the mid-60s, and then someone’s dream from the mid-90s, now a sad pile of rust, aspiration chipped away like the paint she could no longer even guess the color of. She shook her head and took a deep breath. Her heart eased into its normal beat. She was old. She was lucky she hadn’t killed herself this morning on this wild run. The thought made her smile, almost laugh. The irony of the end that only she could appreciate. “Never mind,” she said.
The young man, whose name she still could not remember, continued to support her. He made no movement to express impatience.
“I’m okay,” she said at last and withdrew her arm from him.
They looked at each other. Mrs. Pierce was surprised to see the same shameful embarrassment that she felt written on his face, in eyes sliding away from hers and the corners of lips tucked down in an almost frown. He shifted from foot to foot.
“Can I walk you home?” he said.
She nodded. “That would be very nice of you.”
He slipped his arm under hers. Mrs. Pierce tried not to grimace at the contact of the dirty, faded pink bathrobe with her sweater. Oh well, she could wash it later.
He walked her up her driveway to the bottom of the carport stairs and watched her ascend in the slow, patient way that characterized all her movements except for the madness of this morning. Mrs. Pierce turned at the top of the stairs, one hand curled into the handle on the storm door. “I hope your day gets better!” she said.
The young man smiled and clasped his hands in front of his belly, large pink sleeves sliding down and hiding his fingers. “You too, Mrs. Pierce!” He smiled, dimples showing on his cheeks.
Mrs. Pierce allowed her lips to turn up as she reentered the house. The glass door had fogged because she hadn’t closed the wood door behind herself earlier. Maybe she would clean that today, she thought absently as she moved to stand just off to the edge of her kitchen window where she could watch the man cross the road and return to his own house.
The doorbell rang and Mrs. Pierce jumped, an unread magazine slipping from her lap. It was 6:34 in the evening. Once, she and Mr. Pierce would have been sitting down to a dinner that took much longer than two minutes in the microwave to prepare. Mrs. Pierce put down her magazine and pushed out of Mr. Pierce’s recliner. Her legs were sore from her little jog earlier. It felt miraculous that she could get up at all.
She flicked on the porch light and hauled open the heavy door. It had been over a month, maybe two since the last time her doorbell had rung. Annie always came right in, and Mrs. Pierce didn’t have too many other visitors anymore. The strangers would offer her a good deal on a new roof, or repaving the driveway, or ask for a donation to the fire department, which she always dutifully gave.
Her young neighbor was standing on the porch, bathed in white light from the lamp overhead, washing out the darkness of the chilly night behind. He was no longer wearing a pink bathrobe but an even dirtier t-shirt. Mrs. Pierce tried not to frown. She could just make out the logo for the chicken place on his breast and could more clearly see the outline of the apron he’d worn all day, a clean patch in the middle of his body. His greasy hair was slicked back in a style from her youth. Mr. Pierce had never worn it like that.
Robert E. Lee III’s son smiled and held out his arms before him with a great bucket of chicken. “I brought you something, Mrs. Pierce. Have you had dinner?”
Mrs. Pierce found herself smiling. She could even feel it pulling at the wrinkles around her eyes. “No, I was just about to fix myself something. Do you want to come in?”
The young man nodded and followed Mrs. Pierce inside. They passed into the kitchen where Mrs. Pierce glanced up out of habit into the dark window and was almost surprised to see her usual reflection accompanied by the young man from across the street, whose name she still could not remember. He sat in Mr. Pierce’s seat at the kitchen table as she collected plates and napkins.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked, mind racing through the options she had in her refrigerator. Did young people still drink milk? In her pantry was that dusty bottle of orange Gatorade she kept on hand for if she fell ill. She wasn’t sure and couldn’t tell if Bobby’s son was old enough to drink beer, but Mr. Pierce didn’t drink and she hadn’t started, aside from a glass of white zinfandel with Mrs. Wallace or Annie when they went out.
Her guest asked for water, and Mrs. Pierce hoped her sigh of relief was quieter than it felt. She set a tall glass of ice water before the young man and sat in her usual chair across from him. As he passed her the chicken bucket, her mind continued to race wondering how to make conversation with a neighbor whose name she couldn’t remember. Though the confusion and embarrassment of the morning had faded, Mrs. Pierce did not know where to begin. She smiled at Bobby’s son and ignored all the rude things Mr. Pierce would have said about the guest seated in his chair—“That boy needs to take his hat off; he doesn’t have any manners,” or “What kind of hooligan brings over dinner that’s just chicken?”—though she had thought of asking him to wash up, but instead she began as she had every dinner before Mr. Pierce passed away, “Did anything interesting happen at work today?”
“Well,” Bobby’s son began with a mouth still full of half-chewed chicken.
© Marissa Dalgetty Wood
Marissa Dalgetty Wood loves maps almost as much as books and spends her days unraveling the mysteries of international boundaries as a cartographer specializing in questions of sovereignty. If she’s not found buried in a book, she’s either covered in flour or soil, baking sourdough or working in her garden.