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Lesley Bowne

Margaret was dusting. Dusting was by far the most absurd method of cleaning, she had decided. The old rags that she used were torn up pieces of a pair of Black Watch flannel pajamas that she had worn and worn and eventually worn out when she used to live in this house. They just pushed the dust around, shoved it off of the tables and knickknacks and onto the floor. Later, she would vacuum, and the dust would get agitated and rustle up into the air, where it would float around listlessly for a while, until it eventually settled itself back on the knickknacks. It was a vicious cycle, Margaret decided. The dust was taunting her, she could tell.

Margaret's girlfriend, her lover, roommate, partner, spouse, wife, someday co-collector of domestic partner benefits, someday -- well, this woman, she and Margaret lived and loved and brushed their teeth and burned their toast and paid their bills together, and still had no title for each other. But her name was Lee. Lee was Japanese, had hair down to her waist, and had taught Margaret the most important thing that she had ever learned: how not to clean. The first time that Margaret had shyly followed Lee through the dingy door of her apartment, she had been both mortified and fascinated. The once-white door had a line of black kick marks about a foot and a half up from the ground, from times when Lee had her hands too full, which was most all of the time. The inside of the apartment was painted bright red, which made it seem smaller than it actually was and strangely alive in a pulsing, interior way. It smelled too strongly like kimchee, hot and spicy and heavy. There was also a dimming miasma of cheap vanilla incense, the kind that you buy at the supermarket when you are trying to cover up an overwhelming odor, like kimchee.

Lee wore exquisite clothes, silk shirts and rayon pants like paper crushed into softness, suede and satin, fabrics that flowed over her pale, pale skin. These clothes were piled and scattered on the floor, the coffee table, the television. The television was never turned off, and Margaret found herself mesmerized by a Dentyne commercial seen through the veil of an embroidered chiffon blouse, with a bright purple bra slung across the screen, dividing the picture into two halves that seemed to have nothing to do with each other. There were half-full coffee cups and the rings left from their predecessors, TV Guides that were months out of date and various other debris of life stacked on every available surface. Margaret was disgusted. She was amazed. She was in awe. She was in love.

But that was another world entirely, and now Margaret moved over to the glass- topped coffee table and began to scrub off fingerprints with all the vigor of a woman imitating her mother imitating Mrs. Cleaver. Her mother loved this coffee table, and had told Margaret especially to dust it off when she came to look after the house. This was her parents' house, and they were on vacation, so Margaret, being the only one of their children who still lived close enough to drive over, had agreed to water the plants and feed the cat and do a little cleaning while they were gone. Actually, she hadn't agreed, but she hadn't said no when her mother called to tell her where the extra key was. Lee had rolled her eyes and told Margaret to tell her mother that she should hire a maid if she couldn't stand to let a whole three weeks worth of dust accumulate on her prized possessions. But of course Margaret hadn't said that.

She looked down toward the now dusty floor. The cat was watching her through the glass of the table. His orange and white face was distorted by the fingerprints still left on the glass. He knew. They always know. Margaret was the only one in the entire family that was allergic, and, just for that, the cat had chosen her as his favorite. She walked around the house with swollen eyes and a pocketful of tissues, like some washed-up actress trying to make an impact as "The Widow," and managing only to make the latest young beauty seem even more so. She glared at him, pompously sitting there, no doubt ejecting his fur on purpose, just to thwart her, surrounded by a golden cloud of kicked-up dust reflecting the brilliance of his own personal sunbeam.

Margaret reached down and distractedly scratched the cat behind his ears, one hand on the dust rag and one on the cat, her head turned towards the television, which she had not even realized was on. It was always on in this house, just like at Lee's, providing a comfortable, lulling background noise. She thought of Lee at home waiting for her, no doubt cooking something, and talking on the telephone to her office, and getting tangled up in the cord like she always did, and typing on her laptop, and watching television, all at the same time.

The TV was on one of those thirty-second news channels, where the same stories play incompletely but efficiently over and over again, all day long, so that you can tune in any time and not get the whole story ever, just the shocking bits. This one was about a freak tornado that had touched down in Kentucky. It seemed to Margaret that there were always freak tornadoes touching down in that part of the country. You would think that after a while the news people would stop calling them "freak" tornadoes. You would think that eventually these people in Kentucky would get used to the tornadoes and be ready for them when they hit. But they never were ready.

There was a woman on the television, in a white housedress with blue flowers on it and some too hastily applied fuchsia lipstick. This woman looked just right for a freak tornado in Kentucky, Margaret decided. She was just white-trash enough that no one would associate themselves too much with her, avoiding that whole "this could be you" panic, but pretty and soft, with her bra showing through the too-thin white fabric and her permanent wave gone loose and crinkly, so that everyone would feel sorry for her and want to fuck her to make her feel better about her house. Because her house was there on the screen with her, except it was lying sideways on the ground. The woman was saying over and over again, almost whispering it to herself, but into the thirty-second news channel microphone, ". . . there just wasn't no warning, one minute we were sitting there eating supper, and then it happened." She was being interviewed in her own front yard, and there it was, her house, white with red shutters that clashed horribly with her lipstick, lying on its side. It looked like a perfectly good house -- Margaret couldn't see that there was much damage, except that it was tipped over, of course. It was sunny on the television, not looking stormy or tornado-ish at all, just a nice day in the country with a house on its side and a big hole in the ground, filled with bicycles and plastic bags and other collected relics, that had formerly been the woman's basement. The reporter was using her thirty seconds to try and make it seem like a dramatic and terrible calamity, but the sky was blue and the grass was green, and the reporter's voice rising melodramatically as the woman in the white dress with blue flowers kept whispering, " . . . there just wasn't no warning," just made it all seem unreal and comical. Margaret put down her dust rag and started to laugh.

"What would happen if this house just up and tipped over in a tornado?" Margaret asked the cat. "I guess you would finally get your wish and get to go outside, huh? I'd bet that this coffee table would never survive the shock; probably neither would Mom."

She laughed some more and picked up the plaid pajama-rag to dust again. Margaret walked over to the fireplace to dust the family pictures that were arranged neatly on the mantle for display. She went through the whole family, her brothers and sisters and then her parents. The cat followed her. Her parents had had that cat, or a cat anyway, since Margaret was a little girl. They would never get rid of it, no matter how much Margaret wheezed and coughed.

"She's just a frail child," her parents would tell the school nurse when she missed too many days, or else, "she must have asthma, and there's nothing you can do about that." Once she had moved out, Margaret had stopped being sick all of the time. But it wasn't their fault, they didn't know it was the cat. Margaret had told them, of course, but they never could seem to remember, and besides, she was the only one who lived close enough, and her mother always said she would never let a perfect stranger into her house to clean.

Margaret looked at the pictures as she dusted and saw her whole family. They all looked pretty much the same. Her sister had lightened her hair, her brother had a beard now and was no longer married to the woman in the white dress who stood smiling beside him, but they all still looked like themselves. Margaret dusted each one and then placed them back on the mantle where they had been before. Then she picked up the one of herself, taken when she was in high school. It was one of those annually contrived school yearbook pictures, taken her last year in high school, her last year at home. In it, Margaret's light brown hair was curling ironed and she was smiling tightly, no doubt thinking of getting this ordeal over with so that she could take off the awful jumper her mother had presented to her that morning, when she came in to wake Margaret up, sing-songing "Wake up, honey, it's picture day!"

"This is the most recent photo they have of me?" Margaret asked aloud. The cat jumped up on the couch and started sharpening his claws. There was no picture of Margaret with Lee, just like there was never any mention of Lee in this house, not since the Thanksgiving that Margaret had come home with the news, anyway. Margaret's mother had said it best, on the day of that first and only utterance of Lee's name, putting out her hand and shushing her daughter mid-way through her surge of confession. "We don't talk about things like that in this house, Margaret." But it wasn't that Lee's presence wasn't felt -- her absence loomed over the dinner table on holidays like a silent ghost, hovering above the antique silver platter of turkey and stuffing as if it were some kind of a Ouija board that nobody wanted to believe in. Margaret's mother presided from the foot of the table, laughing nervously and trying to steer the conversation towards Margaret's sister and her career or the antics of her brother's two kids, while her father silently carved the bird at the other end. The fight that Margaret had anticipated, that she had braced herself for, never came. And she never demanded it; she just ate her turkey and waited to go home.

Margaret looked at the picture of herself for a few seconds before she ran the rag over her face, wiping away all of the dust that had collected on her since the last time that someone had looked at this picture. She walked over to the mirror that was hanging on the wall near the television set and held the picture up next to her face. "I don't even look like this anymore," she said. Margaret looked down at the cat, who was doing figure eights around her shins, and said it again, almost whispering, but her voice seemed to echo through the empty house, "I don't even look like this anymore." Then she put the picture down and lowered herself onto the sofa, stroking the cat, who had climbed onto her lap and started to purr. As she sat there, petting the cat, her eyes starting to swell up, the news had gone all the way around, past the weather and the sports and had gotten back to the top stories again. The woman in the white dress with the blue flowers was saying, " . . . there just wasn't no warning, we were just sitting there and the whole house tipped over."

The woman's soft, thick voice mingled with Margaret's laugh, honest like a child's, and filled the air in the house, hanging on it like dust in a sunbeam, like the heavy, heady scent of kimchee.

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