HomeSouthern VoiceThe Widow’s Ox

The Widow’s Ox

by T.K. Lee

The window above the kitchen sink was open because of Wayne; he liked having it open. The soft whistle spitting through it though made a pitiful excuse for a breeze. Her focus was mostly on the glass of sweet tea in her hand, her back, its spray of garden sweat drying, against the cloth recliner, and the bucket of purple hull at her feet left to do.

“Mama.”

Dorabell turned and looked at her son.

“Yes.”

“I could help, could I? With them beans.”

“Peas, Wayne. They’re peas.” Wayne nodded.

“Yeah, I could help with them beans, could I, Mama?”

A sigh. “You can, baby. Go get a paper sack or two.”

“I can, Mama.”

She watched him from the recliner, to make sure. It was years before she wouldn’t cry every time he spoke. He’d be sweet, the doctor’d told her. Most mongoloids were kind and sweet, and that’d be a comfort, he’d said to her, in the years to come.

Then, Harold died, soon after. It’d been Wayne and Dorabell alone ever since. And Wayne had been a kind of comfort. The first real hug he’d given her had been standing graveside, ten years old, after the church folk had left, and her sister, and the two of them watched the men from Norte’s Funeral Home lower Harold into the ground. She’d insisted on staying and watching. When Wayne turned and hugged her she thought he’d learned a real lesson and that had been a real comfort indeed. That been nearly thirty years ago; dust had gathered in the corners of those days.

“Mama,n I have a popsicle?”

“If you’ll come get me some more tea.” Wayne obliged, was obliging, when Dorabell said, “Pick up your feet, Wayne, stop dragging your feet.” And Wayne did that, too.

“On that hard wood, I can’t. I don’t know why, but my nerves with that squeaking.”

“Sorry, Mama. I know better.”

“You do, Wayne.” She leaned up from the recliner to give her glass to him — he was reaching out to take it — when a car door slammed and she almost dropped the glass. She saw then that the kitchen window wasn’t the only thing open. Her front door hadn’t closed all the way behind her.

A large woman with a bad knee, Dorabell was spent enough from the day. Aggravation, and perhaps a nerve or two, pulled her to her feet, but not quickly enough. He would already be there, she knew, at the door, the visitor, before she would get to it to close it without notice. His heels clacked on her carport, she saw him reaching up to knock, but still, she stood there, behind the door and its obvious crack, a moment or two, looking past him at what she thought was a silver Buick. A beige truck meant the Pransee chicken man; a white sedan was the preacher, but a silver Buick was new.

“Mama.”

“Go on and get me some tea.” This time, you could hardly hear Wayne walk.

Turning back, Dorabell could plainly see the young man staring her straight in the face through the door’s crack. Damn it. Between her and this stranger was nothing but the screen door — was it latched? He must have heard her and Wayne talking; they surely hadn’t heard him drive up the gravel. She threw a smile on her lips, pulled the front door back, and stepped toward the screen door.

“Evening, ma’am,” He said.

Slowly, she offered her excuse. “You, you just, around here, can’t be too careful.” Dorabell said, and then, “Evening. Don’t mean to seem rude.”

“I’d want my own Mama to do the same thing. My name’s Jacob and I don’t want but a minute of your time.” Dorabell eyed him up and down. He was attractive, clean-shaven, had on a tie, and in his right hand, he carried a —

“What’s that?”

“This here is what’s gonna change your life, ma’am. I’d be happy to show you how it works.”

A salesman.

Wayne, at that moment, appeared with her glass of tea. Jacob stared at him, at Wayne. Wayne with his almond eyes; they seemed lidless. Wayne and his wide face, like a brand-new frying pan.

“This. Is my son Wayne. Wayne, this is Jacob, you said?”

“Nice to meet you, Wayne. Yes, ma’am, Jacob.”

“You want some sweet tea?” Wayne asked.

“Wayne — ” But it was too late, then.

“Don’t mind if I do. Thank you. If I can come in?”

What could she say now? Now that he was getting tea. She unlatched the screen door. It was a nice inconvenience seeing as how she wasn’t that eager to get to the purple hull and stained thumbs. She hated that for church, purple thumbs.

It was about to rain. Let him come in.

Jacob seemed to get taller when he did. He crossed to the couch and sat down. Dorabell, that bothered her a little. She didn’t sit all the way back in her recliner; instead, she perched.

“Kinda late on a Saturday for this.”

“Not for a working man.” He smiled and that eased her nerves, a little.

“Your mama must be proud.”

“I hope she is.”

“So, you was gonna tell me what that is.”

“A vacuum cleaner, ma’am.”

“It’s,” she let her name — suddenly it seemed the most private word in the world — stand a second on the tip of her tongue, and then, “Dorabell.”

That smile again. “Dorabell. Lovely. This is the latest in vacuum technology. The Spectra 500.”

“Looks a little like a trash can.”

“And why shouldn’t it, Dorabell? That’s a fitting image for what it does. It takes out the trash in your carp — ” Quick, this Jacob.

In the silent and awkward moment when Jacob realized that she didn’t have carpet, Wayne returned with Jacob’s glass of tea. And his mother’s, as he’d forgotten to give her hers.

“It’s even better for hardwood floors.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, ma’am, Miss Dorabell. The Spectra 500 is perfect for any surface. That’s what gives it an edge over the competition.”

“What’s that on the top of it,” Dorabell pointed. Wayne bent down to touch the vacuum cleaner.

“Wayne. Don’t touch it.”

“It’s fine if he wants to. Not a problem. Maybe actually — ” Jacob turned to Wayne, then, “Think you can help me with the demonstration?”

“No, now, he can’t — ”

“Mama, I can. I can.”

Jacob unlatched the top of the vacuum revealing a wheel attached to a small rod. He pressed a button and the wheel popped up, released from a hook inside the small rod. He lifted the wheel out of the vacuum and slowly, that’s how it felt to Dorabell, raised it and his arm toward the naked bulb hanging beneath the ceiling fan. Wayne was mesmerized. Especially when the light hit the cartridges hidden inside the wheel. Against the wall behind Dorabell’s recliner, even across her face, a strip of colors was displayed.

A bit of drool escaped Wayne’s open mouth. Dorabell too was more than taken with the colors. Twisting her neck, she saw the wall behind her cut into an array of vivid colors: a blue, but nothing special; a yellow like any yellow. But then there was a green, and it was a soft, kind green. She loved that.

“These colors, Dorabell, each one is a different scent. Imagine that. Each room of your house can have its own unique aroma.”

“Mama…” Wayne was mesmerized, “He brought us a rainbow.”

“What’s the green one?” Dorabell teased.

“Pine and Lime. I have a brochure here, and you can keep it, that lists each of the colors and the scents they represent.” Jacob, and Dorabell couldn’t believe it, then turned and gave the wheel to Wayne.

“Be careful.”

“He can’t hurt it.” Jacob reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a thin brochure, glossy. It must have been expensive, and handed it to Dorabell. She then leaned back in the recliner to look it over. Jacob sat back down and finally took a sip of his tea.

A crack of plastic. Dorabell ripped the bottom corner of the brochure at the sound. Wayne had removed a cartridge.

“Wayne!”

“No, no that’s ok. That’s supposed to happen. How’d you figure that out, buddy? Each cartridge, naturally, it’ll run out and have to be replaced.”

“Sounds like it costs more than I got.” Dorabell had forgotten herself and as soon as she remembered, she abruptly decided she had better things to do than entertain a handsome stranger, even a good looking Mama’s Boy. The purple hull, for instance. Maybe he should get on before the rain. She’d been kind long enough. It felt uncomfortable to her to have him in the house, now, the way he’d taken to the couch.

“Wayne, put back, please. Jacob, thank you but I’m afraid I can’t.”

Jacob didn’t get up, though. Jacob didn’t even seem bothered by her in the slightest. What he said was, “But, Miss Dorabell, you haven’t even let me show you what it can do.”

“Wayne. Put it back. Jacob, I’m sorry, but I still have a lot to do this evening, if you don’t mind. Church in the morning, clothes to iron.”

“You and me both.” Oh, a church man, that’s good. “It won’t take but minute. It’ll make the house smell better. For free.”

Dorabell’s mouth circled in but before she could say no, Jacob winked, “Dirt’s everywhere.”

“We got a rug,” Wayne said.

“We’re not using that rug.”

“That’s all right. I can do it right here on the hardwood floor. Just as good. Let me plug it in. You want the Pine and Lime, I bet.”

Dorabell was stunned. He was so calm, so unshaken, so sure.

“The brochure there will tell you we have twenty-six signature scents. A whole alphabet of aromas.”

He’d found an electrical outlet.

“Each letter its own distinct one. You order seven at a time on our installation plan, which is what most people do. And by the time G runs out, H is already on its way, and so on, to keep you in freshness all the way to Z, should you want the whole spectrum. But plenty of living rooms do fine stopping at G.” He leaned down and took the wheel from Wayne.

He pressed it back into place, on the hook, and adjusted it. One click to the left.

“Pine and Lime, right? You’ll love it.”

Dorabell nodded, before she could help herself. Another two clicks to the left.

“Watch your feet, there.” Then, more familiarly, “You have short toes. But they’re pretty.” He cocked a grin at her. “Means you got a short temper, you know.”

She was smitten, then; he sounded so much like Harold, so wide in his conversation, as if there really was only one subject and one verb. Just the one question, and the one answer. So easy in his tone, so clear on where the talk would go. Like Harold.

“No, I don’t,” She half-laughed. “Wayne, Wayne, get up, honey, let Jacob vacuum — real quick — he’ll have other houses, I’m sure, to get to.”

“As long as it takes” is all Jacob said to that.

He flipped the switch. They didn’t have to raise their voices an inch.

“It’s awful quiet, isn’t it?”

“State-of-the-art technology, Dorabell. Impressive times we live in. The things machines can do for us.” He nodded toward her bucket of purple hull.

“My thumbs I can trust, though.”

He laughed at that. “Funny you should mention that. Look here. We’ve put a new switch right here on the handle. You can turn this thing on or off with your thumb.”

“Y’all just think of everything.”

“Usually.” He said and winked. He turned off the vacuum. Dorabell was as impressed with him — it was a good fit, the suit he had on — as she was with herself for carrying on with him like this. She’d pretended for so long that she wasn’t lonely.

“Well so how much is it.”

“This model here is $200.”

Dorabell sucked in a breath. “And them cartridges, too, not included, I bet.”

“The first five are.”

“Don’t I need seven, you said?”

“Just if you want the Pine and Lime. Can you smell it in the air?”

She could, she thought.

“I can’t afford any of this, Jacob.”

“I’m prepared to give you a discount, since you’re a new customer.”

“No, I can’t.”

“Fifteen percent.”

“Not enough.”

“Twenty’s as far as I can go.”

“I can’t. I’m sorry.”

Jacob didn’t stop grinning. “That’s all right. I understand. This tea’s gone right through me. Do you mind if I use the bathroom before I leave?”

“No. Wayne, show him where the bathroom is.” Wayne didn’t move.

“Wayne, stop staring at the vacuum and take Mr. Jacob to the bathroom.” Wayne, like they’d taught him at the center, took Jacob’s hand and led him down the hall. Jacob let him.

Dorabell was left alone in the living room with the vacuum. There it sat in the middle of her living room. Black, round, not quite knee-high. Knobs of several sizes, a glassy sheen to the tops of them, eyeballs. She was surpised it didn’t blink. And if it had…

She was a little afraid of it. She took a few cautious steps toward it, convinced herself to bend down and touch it.

That was a mistake. Her back made a small but significant popping sound.

She fell to a knee and thought she might pass out, but after a few heaving breaths, she grabbed the hearth and managed to get to her feet and to the recliner. Damn it. She should have left that last row of purple hull alone.

She looked up and there was Wayne standing behind the couch.

“Everything ok?”

He nodded.

“Take these glasses back to the kitchen, put them in the sink.”

“He is nice,” Wayne said as he collected the glasses.

“He is nice, baby. But that’s not a toy, and we can’t buy it.”

“Ok, Mama.” Wayne took the glasses and left. She heard Jacob in the hallway, walking like a man, heavy on the heel, and she clutched at her chest as a thread of heartburn appeared first, deep in her throat. Then, there was Jacob, in the hall, a bit too casual now, a bit too comfortable, a bit like could go on standing there all day if he felt like it.

“Well, Miss Dorabell, I appreciate the kindnesses. Thank you for listening to me.” Jacob packed up his vacuum. “Maybe another time.”

A swallow. “You want any purple hull? There’s plenty here.”

“No, thank you. Never liked beans.”

“These are peas.” But he wasn’t listening. “Thank you, though. Got one more house on my list, better get to it.”

“Oh. Miss Jacquie, is it?”

Jacob pulled out a folded piece of notebook paper.

“It sure is.”

“She’s been in the hospital. She may be in bed already, but you want me to call her up first? She’s had a urinary tract infection.”

“That’d be nice of you, Miss Dorabell. I appreciate that.” Jacob’s hand was on the latch. “It’s been a good visit, if nothing else. Y’all take care.” Crickets had started, frogs had started, the cicadas were back.

“You too. And I’ll call her right now. Let her know.” She nevertheless pushed the front door closed and locked it after he left. Crossing to the phone extension in the kitchen, she said to Wayne, “Wayne, run get my back pills, baby, in the bathroom. I’ve pulled something again.”

Wayne shot down the hall.

Dorabell called Miss Jacquie and Miss Jacquie didn’t answer. It was almost six. Still, she’d tried. She hung up the phone and untangled the cord, a necessary habit, when Wayne returned, shaking his head.

“Wayne. Where are my pills?”

“They’re gone, Mama.”

“What you mean gone?”

“I can’t find them, Mama.” And then Dorabell got nervous.

She lugged herself down the hall and to the bathroom, to double-check. Wayne was right. The pills were gone. Twenty-five dollars for that prescription. She nibbled her lip, her nerves seizing her back again. She knew, she just knew, Jacob had took too long in the bathroom and that face, he’d looked kind, but the oily-kind. She saw what he was about now, what she’d paid for the price of his company, a swindler in her house, preying on lonely women and women with certain children and — then she saw them, on the edge of the bathtub.

That’s right, Dorabell remembered. She’d had a couple to three last night in the bath, to help her sink down in it. Outside her bedroom, she stood in the hall, the pill bottle in her hand, for a long minute before she took herself back to her recliner and that bucket of purple hull.

Her palm was sweaty because of how tightly she held onto those pills.

T.K. Lee is an award-winning member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Society for Stage Directors and Choreographers. A published writer of fiction and poetry as well, he is also a Pushcart nominee. He is currently a Visiting Professor in Playwriting in the MFA program at the Mississippi University for Women.

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