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Steel Wool

For the third round of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction inspired by this photograph.

Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo
An open newspaper on a cafe table
Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo

The season of cleaning, the wife observes, comes directly after the season of closeness — of holding hands, of curling around each other like sleeping cats. Her mother taught her how to clean and wash and fold towels into thirds lengthwise, but she didn't tell her about the season of cleaning or how it comes; how one minute she'd be laughing and dancing with her husband in the kitchen, and the next minute the phone would ring and he'd leave her there, holding the spatula high in the air, looking at the burners and thinking about steel wool.

Usually it's the phone, she'll muse, but anything can trigger it, anything at all. She recalls the chess pieces that sometimes move about the board while she's out of the house. And those tulips, dark and shiny as eggplants, that were left at the door with no note. One day she saw a barista's glittery eye burn a hole through the daily news.

Whatever the reason — a broken glass or a rock in his shoe — the iris narrows, the dancing stops and the season of cleaning begins. The husband builds a wall of newspaper, and she washes the windows. He tiptoes to bed after midnight, and she rises to polish the silver. He moans in his sleep and she beats the rugs.

In bed they become flannelled grandparents, patting each other goodnight. He might crane his neck to give her a dry peck, like an old turtle at high noon. Their heels might touch, a rump might wander over the line, but not for very long. When morning comes, they pass each other in the hall with separate, silent missions, and all the while her list grows shorter: baseboards, draperies, cupboards and grout.

Now, at last, the wife finds herself sitting alone in the clean dark house, wrapped in a blanket, watching the first shaft of pale blue light move over the waxed floor, the immaculate sill. The room brightens and warms, and now the husband comes with a tray of tea and milk — to kneel at her feet, to hold her face in his hands, to give her kisses that are at first like apricots, then cherries, then plums.