“Clean Kitchen” addresses the issues of elder abuse and the devastating effects dementia has on relationships.
On the day Francine planned to clean the kitchen, the sky was so colorless that all she registered when she opened her eyes and looked toward the window was that it was bright outside. At 7 a.m., the birds were already well into their business of tweeting and hopping between branches. She could see the little brown ones diligently flitting in the trees on the south side of the house.
Stuart was already out of bed, unless he had spent the night in his plaid recliner, as he was doing more often these days. She could hear the faint sound of talking. He must have had the TV on CNN all night.
Once on her feet, she put on her red terrycloth robe. It was decades old, and the tie was fraying. But she wouldn’t part with it. It had a satisfying heft that wouldn’t be duplicated if she bought a new one. Things weren’t made as well as they used to be. It reached down to the bottom of her shins, now that she had shrunk two inches and her back was rounding from bone loss.
She went downstairs, avoiding the den. Stuart might still be asleep. In any case, she wanted coffee before talking to him. It was best to be fully alert. She’d make instant so the grinder wouldn’t arouse her husband just yet.
Sitting at the table and stirring the hot drink, she scanned the kitchen, planning the job ahead. She could take everything out of the cabinets, load them all on the table, then wash all the cabinet insides at once. Or she could unload and wash one cabinet at a time. The upper cabinets could be tackled before the lower ones, or the other way around. Another method would be to start with the refrigerator, saving the cabinets until later.
In the end, she would just start without much thought. There was no right way or wrong way.
There was a shuffling sound in the den. Stuart must have limped into the bathroom. He had knee replacement surgery three years earlier. It didn’t work out the way he hoped. That was because he refused to do the physical therapy. The toilet flushed, then he could be heard dragging himself back to the recliner.
Francine got up and went to the den. It wouldn’t be a good idea for Stuart to think she was avoiding him.
“Good morning, dear. Did you have a problem falling asleep again?”
He had a fit of coughing, a usual occurrence soon after he awoke. Francine handed him a box of Kleenex.
“Can you get me a beer?” He managed to choke out the words as his coughing subsided, while wiping his eyes with a tissue.
“How about I make you a cup of tea, since it’s too early for beer. Would you like the newspaper with it?”
That went well, she thought, returning to the kitchen. It was always a good sign when Stuart was in a reasonable mood after a night in the recliner. She put the kettle on the stove and a mint tea bag in her husband’s mug, the one imprinted with the humorous slogan, “I have all my faculties.”
It was a retirement gift from his secretary at the university, where he had been a dean. Sadly, the joke had soured. Stuart no longer had either his faculties or his faculties. At eighty-two, seventeen years into retirement, he was losing ground. At least he wasn’t losing hair. He still had the same thick strands covering his head he had in youth, although they had turned from dark brown to the color of pavement. He was still handsome. She had lost too much weight to maintain her looks, even though she dyed her hair back to the muted blond it had been.
She unloaded the spice rack, putting each of the little jars on the table. She opened all the lids and sniffed, saving the fresh ones and dumping the stale ones into the trash. The empty jars went to the recycling bin. An aroma of cinnamon and basil drifted through the kitchen.
When the tea had brewed, she paused to bring it to Stuart with two slices of buttered toast on a tray. After setting it down on the side table, she opened the newspaper, handing it to him so it would be right-side up. There had been times when he sat with it upside down. CNN was still on the TV. Francine often wondered how much of the news Stuart understood. He never commented on any of it.
“Thank you,” he said.
That was another good sign.
Returning to the kitchen, she dipped a dish towel into a vinegar and water solution and wiped down the spice rack. After working for about an hour, the doorbell rang. From the front of the house, she could see the Amazon truck. The driver retreated from the porch at a fast clip. With a sigh, she brought the package and a scissors to Stuart. He smiled. Mail and packages were the highlights of his day. It was a book.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sherlock Holmes. My favorite novel when I was a boy.” He beamed.
A colorful illustration, familiar to Francine, of the detective with his pipe and deerstalker hat, while a wolf-like dog howled in the background, flashed by on the jacket as Stuart turned the book over.
She sat on the desk chair, pursing her lips. She would try to be gentle.
“Stuart. Dear. You’ve ordered the same book a dozen times.”
He stared at her. Not only had he apparently forgotten the previous orders of the same edition, but the print was too small, even with his progressive lenses. He would need a large print copy, if he could concentrate enough to get through the first few pages.
“Look.” She pointed to the bookcase, where twelve identical books sat in a row.
He gazed vaguely in the direction she indicated.
Taking a deep breath, she decided to take the risk.
“Let’s return this copy.”
“Stuart, each book costs $25. You’ve already spent $300 on duplicates. We can’t afford to waste money like that.”
“It’s my favorite book.”
His color was reddening. Francine knew she should stop, walk away, let it go. An alarm was going off in her head — or was it a distant siren? But the situation couldn’t continue. Stuart was capable of re-ordering “The Hound of the Baskervilles” until the Amazon warehouse was emptied.
“If you don’t stop buying things on Amazon, I’ll have to close our account.”
She realized she should have just closed it without telling him, although she might need his permission, since his name was on it.
Stuart erupted. He pounded the side table with his fist. The tray flew off, scattering the uneaten toast and flinging the remains of the tea onto the rug.
“You want to spoil the only remaining pleasure I have. You’re trying to destroy me!” He spat the words at her, eyes bulging.
Things were getting critical. Francine pulled back.
“Okay. You can keep the book. Please don’t order the same one again.”
She left him smoldering and returned to the kitchen. Soon, he would forget what enraged him and doze off with CNN in the background, his energy used up by his outburst. She would clean up the floor of the den later, when he was calm.
It had been a close call. She began emptying the pots and pans from the lower cabinets to prevent her trembling hands from dropping the breakable dishes or glassware stored in the upper ones.
She was interrupted by a knock on the front door. This time it was Stuart’s brother, Alex. He lived close by and had been in the habit of dropping by for morning coffee ever since the change in Stuart’s personality became obvious. Francine tried to recall when it had first become obvious to her. Was it soon after he retired, when he couldn’t master a flip phone? The green button twice for answering calls and the red one when hanging up? Or was it the time he lost the car in the supermarket parking lot without being able to recall the make, model, or even the color of the vehicle?
“How are things today,” Alex barked, while taking off his jacket. What he meant was “What kind of mood is Stuart in today?” He and Stuart spoke in the same staccato manner. He looked like his brother, too. Same paunchiness. Same unblinking stare. Same way of thrusting his head forward when speaking, as if throwing words at a target.
“He lost his temper when I suggested returning the latest ‘Hound of the Baskervilles.’ Coffee?”
He followed her into the kitchen.
“What’s all this?” He stabbed a finger at the table piled with items from the cabinets.
“I’m cleaning the kitchen.”
This didn’t interest Alex. His head was cocked, already listening for sounds coming from the den, fixated on his brother. Francine felt herself dwindled by the force of the insistent male current traversing the walls between kitchen and den.
“I’ll go say hello to Stuart.”
“Ask him if he wants coffee.”
The coffee grinder, followed by the hiss and dripping of the ancient percolator, drowned out whatever the brothers were saying. Francine was both pleased and frustrated. She liked to know where things were headed.
By the time she reached the den carrying two mugs of black coffee, they were clearly heading downhill.
“Are you deliberately trying to insult me, Alex?”
Stuart was standing with his fingers dug into the back of the recliner, steadying himself. Alex was in the doorway. Francine eased herself around him. She put the mugs on the side table and stepped backward to a closet door.
“Insult you? All I asked was ‘Just when are you going to stop buying the same book?’”
“No. You said ‘Jealous for going for the same boob.’ There’s nothing wrong with my hearing.”
“What?” Alex moved a step closer, one eyebrow raised.
“You meant I was jealous over Claire.” Stuart’s breath sawed through the air.
“He didn’t say that, Stuart.” Francine was ignored by both men. Her hand reached back for the closet doorknob. The spark between the two men had been ignited.
“Claire!” Alex thundered. “That was in high school. You were fifteen. I was sixteen. You keep bringing her up.”
“You fucking stole her from me.”
“I did not!” Alex squeaked, his voice up an octave.
“That’s exactly what you did. I haven’t forgotten, you fucking pig.”
“You didn’t own her after one date. You dated her once, then I dated her once. It was almost seventy years ago. Who remembers what she even looked like?”
“I remember. And now you dare call me jealous.” He snapped out each word individually.
With unexpected ferocity, Stuart lowered his head and propelled himself toward his brother.
“Ooof!” Alex buckled, then righted and shot forward.
Francine slipped into the closet, finding a space among the mess of files, loose papers, tax returns, bills paid and unpaid, and unraveling cardigans with university letters. She heard the sounds of battle, and not for the first time. Bellows, curses, crashes and slams assaulted her, as if she were the one being beaten. She crouched down, holding her hands over her ears, shutting her eyes tight. Her body reacted to each noise, startling. Something drained out of her. She had urinated a bit, wetting her pants. The fight seemed to carry on for a long time. Later, when she looked at the kitchen clock, she realized it could only have been a few seconds. It ended with Stuart shouting “Get out!” followed by the thudding of determined footsteps.
Francine put her hands down and opened her eyes. She strained to hear what Stuart was doing, whether he was going to open the closet door and attack her for interfering. There was coughing, muttering, and the groan of the recliner. He must have sat down. It seemed safe for her to come out. She opened the door an inch at a time. He was in the chair, heaving. Blood ran from both nostrils, dripping onto his pajama top.
“Let me help you, dear. You’re having a nosebleed.”
He allowed her to wipe his nose with tissues.
“I’ll just pinch it here at the bridge to stop the bleeding.”
He didn’t object. As if oblivious to his condition or her ministrations, he spoke nasally about his brother.
“He insulted me. I never want to see him again.”
“Stuart. He’s your brother.”
“Not unless he apologizes. Otherwise, I’m finished with him.”
She knew it was foolish to try to change his mind. Yet, she couldn’t stop herself from correcting his errors of logic, his misinterpretations, and his outright delusions, as if saying the right, convincing words could bring back the old Stuart, the professor who didn’t need to twist reality to justify what he no longer understood.
“Alex was talking about the book from Amazon, not about Claire.”
“She was the love of my life. He took her from me, then tossed her aside. To hurt me.”
Francine was still clutching the bloody tissues. She bent down and looked him in the eyes.
“Do you know who I am, Stuart?”
“Of course. You’re my wife.”
“It’s not nice to tell your wife that another girl was the love of your life. I’m supposed to be the love of your life.”
“No. That was Claire.”
“But you only had one date with her. When you were fifteen.”
“She was the love of my life.”
After changing her underwear, she returned to the kitchen. Alex was sitting at the table. The right side of his face was swollen.
“I’ll get you some ice,” she said.
After wrapping ice cubes in a towel, she gave it to her brother-in-law and sat opposite him.
“He said Claire was the love of his life.”
“That’s nonsense.” He winced when the ice touched his cheek.
“The thing is…I think he may be telling the truth. He may not be capable of not telling the truth anymore. I’m not sure he ever really loved me. Imagine that. I’m seventy-eight, and I’m just figuring out my husband never loved me.”
“Of course he loved you, Francine. He still does.”
“It’s like when people get drunk and tell you what they think. Is it what they really think or is it the alcohol talking?”
He grabbed her hand with the one not holding the towel full of ice.
“Don’t do this to yourself. Stuart doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
“It’s like his jealousy of you. He never showed anything like that before. But maybe its been there all along. And now he can’t hide it anymore.”
“There was never any reason for him to be jealous of me. He’s the more successful one.”
She stood up, opened a cabinet, and began washing.
“It’s not about a reason. It’s about the truth being exposed when people lose the ability to cover it up. Stuart knows exactly what he’s saying. What he doesn’t know anymore is that he shouldn’t say it.”
“I’m not up to this discussion. I’m an eighty-three-year-old man who’s just been in a fist fight with his demented eighty-two-year-old brother. I’ve got a splitting headache and lord knows what my blood pressure is. I’m going home, Francine.”
Before he reached the door, he turned and said, “You know this can’t go on.”
“One day he’ll hurt you.”
She heard the front door close. There was no sound coming from the den. Stuart was probably asleep. Not caring if the clatter would wake him up, she dumped the contents of the silverware drawer into the sink.
Another truth came to her. The time was close for Stuart to be institutionalized. He was capable of violence. She had trusted him not to hurt her because she thought he loved her. But she couldn’t live with someone she couldn’t trust.
There was a shattering. A glass tumbler had slipped out of her hand. She hadn’t realized she had been holding it. She would have to sweep up the shards. But there was Stuart, standing in the doorway in his Gold Toe socks, squinting at her as if she were someone he was trying to make out on a distant shore.
“Don’t come in. There’s glass on the floor.”
They starred at each other across the room, now a hazardous trespass. Then Stuart’s eyes brightened with recognition and eagerness.
“Is lunch ready?”
He called this out to the provider of his midday meal — a cheese sandwich, an apple, and three Oreo cookies, then cupped his ear to hear her yell over an answer.
Carolyn Geduld is a mental health professional in Bloomington, Indiana. Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Her novel “Take Me Out The Back” has been published by Black Rose Writers in August, 2020.