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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