By 8.30 am Carmen was at her kitchen window, binoculars focused on her neighbor’s clothesline, decoding the line of colored plastic pegs from three house blocks away.
At first they thought to use tea towels; one red tea towel to warn it wasn’t safe to come over, one white tea towel to indicate Fern was free. But Russell was inherently suspicious and paranoid; anything out of the ordinary, any new pattern of behavior and he’d be questioning, threatening. And then he’d turn.
So tea towels were out; too obvious, too risky. It had to be something subtle, intricate.
Color coding the pegs was Carmen’s idea. She loved deliberating. Planning. She didn’t believe in fate or in accidents. Not entirely.
A single line of three red pegs followed by one blue, one yellow and two blue meant Russell was working at home that day. One white peg among a myriad of other randomly combined colors and he had left for the office.
The women would sit at the linoleum table drinking tea until the yardarm when they switched to the bottle of white wine Carmen always brought over.
They talked about fashion, dieting, the seductive world of soap opera. Sometimes they would read to each other from a book about Nu Shu — a secret language used by women in ancient China. They laughed at good bad puns and sometimes Fern would let Carmen give her a shampoo and massage. Allow herself to believe, momentarily, in the gentleness of another’s hands.
Eventually they talked about how things were for Fern. How things really were. Owning nothing of her own. No phone. No car. Never socializing without Russell’s arm about her, his fingers flexing, opening and closing over his property. Tugging a strand of hair now and then in an action that appeared fond but one that Fern knew as a horse knows the directional tug of its mane.
They talked about the anger management classes and the counseling sessions. He hadn’t raised his fist in a month, his voice in two weeks. Things were looking up said Fern. Up and up. Hunky dory. Peachy keen. But her makeup was too heavy, her reach for the wine bottle too labored. And something in the lilt of her voice begged to be heard beyond words.
That was the day Carmen forgot to take the empty wine bottle with her, left it carelessly on the porch. Why would she do that? How could she do that? Fern’s heart raced as she picked up the bottle. If Russell found it all hell would break loose. But as her grip tightened and Fern reminded herself that Carmen never did anything carelessly. She remembered that first clandestine meeting. Carmen’s toast — ‘To risk.’ The way she looked at Fern like she was worth it. Really worth it.
As she walked back into the kitchen, an unfamiliar feeling began to form, to gather in momentum and rise alongside the fear.
Russell sensed the change the moment he pulled into the driveway that evening. The newspaper was still on the porch. When he opened the front door she wasn’t walking toward him ready to take his briefcase, his coat. Ready to plant a loyal kiss on his cheek.
In the kitchen an empty wine bottle in the middle of an empty table.
Outside a breeze picked up, morphing into forecast hurricane winds. The Hills Hoist began turning, gathering speed. And there must have been a hundred white tea towels flapping from the wires. Like prayer flags. Like so many fledgling wings.