Issue #17 |

Woman of the House

Donna’s husband had been underground for twenty-one hours, and she missed many things about him. She missed the sound of him humming in the bathroom; how when she said, “What are you humming?” he’d yell, “I’m not humming!” and then start doing it again. She missed his short-sleeved shirts against his hairy upper arms. She missed his breath in the morning, freshly Scoped. His sputtering snores just before she shoved him. His weight on her in the middle of the night. Sounds and smells and touches and glimpses: that’s what living with another person was like, and it was never enough until it was gone, and you realized it was everything.

It was June 1970. The sunlight through the kitchen window was so sharp it almost made a sound, a high clang beneath the children’s crying. From the window she could see trees and sky and other tiny beige houses, their curtains drawn. She and Bill had gone into town when they first arrived in Rapid City and saw a buffalo tied up outside a hardware store. You didn’t see a thing like that back in Florida.

Stephanie was wailing in her crib; Jennifer was shrieking into her cereal bowl.

“What?” said Donna. “What’s wrong with your Cheerios?”

“They’re too wet,” said Jennifer. She threw her spoon on the linoleum; it bounced and slid under the stove—which was, like all the furniture in this rented house, cheap, dirty, too small.

“That’s just milk,” Donna said. “Cheerios have milk in them.” But the spoon was gone and she couldn’t risk losing another, so she poured dry cereal into a bowl.

Sometimes Donna wondered if the sound of her screaming daughters traveled down the sidewalk to houses where other women were making breakfast for their well-behaved children, for their husbands who were walking around on the surface of the earth. These townswomen stared at her without speaking. They didn’t wave or smile.

Back home in Orlando, Donna talked to everyone, and everyone told her what a delight she was. She tamed feral cats. She made peach pies for the angry neighbor lady, who hugged her and said, “I’m trying to be a better person.”

Stephanie finally whimpered herself to sleep. Donna pulled Jennifer into her arms, cradled her chubby kicking legs, buried her face in the child’s wispy hair, mouth close to the tear-streaked ears, and whispered, Shut up or I’ll run away from home, is that what you want? She received no answer except more crying.


To read the rest of this story, please subscribe to the print edition of the magazine.

author Becky Hagenston

Becky Hagenston is the author of four collections of short fiction, most recently The Age of Discovery and Other Stories, which won the Journal’s Non/Fiction Book Prize. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Mississippi.

Learn More