EMPTY HANGERS • by Joanne R. Fritz

“This house is too big,” Nora said at breakfast.

Craig turned away from the TV, puffy eyes magnified by his bifocals. “Those retirement communities are maintenance-free. We should think about moving.”

Moving? She meant hiring a cleaning service. “Oh, please, Craig. You just don’t want to mow the lawn this summer.”

He studied the dregs in his coffee cup. “Well, you don’t like to clean anymore. I’d say we’re even.”

She slid her hand over the largest stain on the tablecloth.

“Nora, we’ve talked about this before.” Craig stood up, groaning, and turned off the TV. “We really should get serious about the idea. In fact, we could start weeding out right now. We have far too much junk in this house.”

“It’s not junk.” She waved at the dusty knickknacks covering the counter, as jumbled as an indoor flea market.

If the girls were here, they would defend her. Maybe. Although they rarely called anymore. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Everything has a use.”

Craig snorted and set his cup in the sink. Nora lingered at the table, staring at an empty vase that said, “World’s Best Mom”. The kitchen smelled of overripe bananas. A sickly sweet odor that brought a sour taste crawling up her throat. She swallowed hard.

“Come on, Nora, let’s do this. Let’s make a start, at least.”

The tea kettle seemed to wink at her, and the wicker chair in the sunroom beckoned, along with the paperback she’d been reading yesterday. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to have another cup of tea and a ginger cookie first. And read ten pages. Her favorite part was coming up, the part where the Elizabethan heroine realizes she’s falling in love with the knight.

But Craig was still talking. “We should each try to tackle one room today. In fact,” — he pulled some black trash bags from the closet — “I’ll start with my workshop.” He hurried down to the basement.

“What’s to clean?” she called after him. “You haven’t built anything in years.” Not since the playhouse. She rinsed both of their cups and wedged them into the dishwasher, then glanced out the window at the backyard. The long-abandoned playhouse, faded gray and leaning, stood surrounded by tall grass. It reminded her of something but she couldn’t think what.

Nora gulped. Perhaps she could start with an easy task, like the guest room. She headed upstairs, trying to ignore the twinge in her right hip, and burrowed into the closet. All the old clothes that didn’t fit in their bedroom closet ended up here. Her oversize tops and shoulder-padded suits, his scratchy tweed sport coats, reeking of moth balls.

She could do this, even if every hanger held a story. As long as she didn’t really focus on the item while she folded it, she’d be okay.

Humming to herself, she filled two bags for the Goodwill. She didn’t hear a sound through the vent. Craig was probably sitting down, sorting through stacks of old hunting calendars. Talk about junk.

She sighed. This would be more fun if the girls were here to help. But Nora hated to bother them. They both had such stressful jobs. What was that field called again? Oh, right. Nanotechnology.

Halfway through the task, she pulled a blouse off the white plastic hanger, letting the hanger swing and clack against the other empties, like tsking ghosts. She started to fold the blouse, but the softness of the plaid material stopped her.

Memories trickled like clear baptismal waters. This had been her favorite maternity top. She stroked the worn cotton weave, the muted blues and purples smooth as baby powder, and remembered the middle months of pregnancy. The best part. After she’d outgrown the morning and evening sickness, but before she grew too massive to jump up from a chair, before her skin stretched to tautness and her navel popped out.

Those glorious middle months when the kicking started.

Nora loved the kicking. The twinge of a growing foot or knee or elbow demanding more room. Sometimes it nudged more than kicked and she could actually trace it with a finger, rub the knobby protrusion. It always made her laugh. And she’d grab Craig’s hand and say, “Feel this. It’s a knee, right?”

And then there was the precarious moment when, with an audible whoosh, the baby turned over inside her and settled into a more comfortable position. Giving them both a little relief.

Two healthy baby girls in two years, followed seven years later by the only boy. A stillbirth.

But that was a long time ago. The girls had grown up and fled. Nora gripped the blouse in one hand, crushing the gathers, and gazed at the phone on the nightstand. She should call. Even if she had to call them at work. She had a right to talk to her own daughters, didn’t she? Nudge them a little. Remind them they were nearing thirty. Those girls couldn’t read an analog clock, let alone a biological one.

In fact, she’d call right now. And after that, she’d go outside and mow the lawn.

She smoothed out the gathers and stroked the sleeves. Then she turned and hung the maternity blouse back on the white plastic hanger.

Joanne R. Fritz realized it was time to get serious about writing after she survived a ruptured brain aneurysm in 2005. Since then, she has written numerous picture books and two novels. She discovered flash fiction while participating in D.L. Hammons’s Write Club 2012. Joanne and her husband have two grown sons and live in West Chester, PA. A former bookseller, Joanne now spends her time writing, reading, or blogging, all while drinking far too much tea.

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 average 5 stars • 2 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Very atmospheric and memorable, especially the latter half of the story.

  • Doug Elwell

    I feel Craig’s pain! Every closet and drawer and cabinet in our oversized house is loaded with stuff that has long since outlived it’s usefulness. You have a gift for small details—the kitchen smelled of over ripe bananas, etc. that give texture and depth to the piece. This is also a well crafted comment on the masculine/feminine dichotomy. You say a lot in a small space. Nice work!

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    It’s hard for me to feel for Nora, who seems to need a good hard kick. The descriptions of her feelings about pregnancy are lovely and genuine. But what I took away from this is that the loss of the stillborn child caused her to retreat from life (fantasy life through reading, her daughters “fleeing” as soon as they could), and the morbidness of keeping maternity clothes on hangers instead of nicely tucked away in a box along with baby clothes (keep ’em, I say–but not hanging up for 25 years.

    I think there’s a perilous line between emotion and sentimentality in writing. I think this writer has great gifts for imagery and a strong talent, but I feel that Nora’s loneliness is of her own creating. It’s true that no one “gets over” the loss of a child–but it seems to me that Nora has created an environment where her two living, adult, successful children don’t want to be around her–and that’s the avoidable tragedy.

  • I agree with Sarah. I don’t feel for Nora–I think she needs counseling. And I absolutely cringed at the idea that she was going to call her daughters and prod them to have children. But maybe I wasn’t supposed to like Nora. She certainly seemed real; we all know people like that who are stuck in the past.

  • Michael Stang

    The two parts of this story do not connect enough for me. We see Craig go to the basement and that is the last we see of him. Him being the one who wanted to start the transition. I felt I was reading in the middle of a novel where the woods on fire have gone out.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    I like the way Nora settles the issue of moving by going outside and mowing the lawn herself. Too bad her naivety causes her to keep the maternity clothes hanging in the guest room but she and her daughters will probably have a laugh over it later when they learn to “read” the writing on the wall.

  • JenM

    A beautiful look into the world of memories.

  • John Brooke

    Beautifully told story of a mothers’ nostalgic memories. Memories that most mothers relive untold. That’s the sad reality of our contempoarary helter-skelter world. Past memories glued to mother’s mind, swiming in collections of material stuff. A damn sad story in my mind, where is humanity in this well writen pathos of a modern reality? Just go out and mow the stupid lawn. So disarminly true of many modern older mothers. Suble but I certainly got the message by this author. Good work Joanne, at the very least 4 stars for raising the consciousness of this reader.

  • Joanne

    I found this story very sad. Nicely done overall, but just sad, that these two people didn’t seem able to communicate at all, and that instead of living her own life, she saw herself only as a mom and potential grandmother. I think this is a very real situation that a lot of people fall into, and the story does a nice job of showing that.

  • Tina Wayland

    I understood Nora. She’s at a turning point–where she has to give up the mothering part of her and downsize. She’s getting rid of the maternity stuff and putting off calling her adult girls–the girls who don’t seem to need mothering anymore. Nora is putting off getting old. Aren’t we all?

    I did find some of the descriptions a bit unnecessary; now and then the sentences distracted from the plot.

  • Thanks, everyone, for all the comments. This is my first published piece, so I appreciate all the feedback I can get.

  • I agree with what Paul (#1) and Doug (#2) said about the atmosphere and the little details of the piece. The description of hangers clacking against one another “like tsking ghosts” is very original and one that will stay with me.

  • Mariev Finnegan

    Hangers clacking against one another “like tsking ghosts” is one of the best lines I’ve ever read. I identify. My kids don’t call me. I have friends in the same situation. Kids gone, could care less about Mom. This story achieved giving meaning to memories, such as being pregnant with the little bastards, who are too busy to call. And I loved it.

  • hermes ???

  • I call my mother at least once a month but after reading this I think I should call her more often than that.

  • Great piece, Joanne. I love the memories that come with clothes and the objects we own. I can see why Nora is holding on to her home.

  • As a newly empty nester, I totally identified with Nora. I don’t think the memory of the lost baby was the main issue. It was a bitter memory but only part of the transition that Fitz so eloquently portrayed. The disconnect between Nora and Craig highlighted this strange new world they are both trying to figure out how to navigate. Welldone!

  • Deb

    The ending still has me thinking…I can see that maternity blouse hanging there and feel Nora’s determination to move forward witht eh realization that it really is in her hands

  • Thanks, everyone, for all the feedback. Gretchen and Mariev, I’m so happy to hear your reaction to the “tsking ghosts.” Akoss, if you call your mother more often, then I think I’ve accomplished something with this piece! Pam, that’s a thoughtful analysis.