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Shirley pulled herself up the stairs by the handrail. Time to get ready for work. Stepping into the shower, she turned on the water and covered her eyes with her hands. The water coming from the showerhead -- it was stuck on the Massage Jet setting -- pounded her naked body. She couldn't get her thoughts to slow down.

"No Hiding Place"
by Patse Hemsley

Her hands worked together to soap up the wash cloth. It had been forever, if ever, since she had given herself so much thought. She knew she was no different from every other woman. She knew she was participating in the existence, as was the standard for the times. She worked, had children, did the wifething, volunteered for all the right committees, manipulated, managed and maintained. Nothing more. That's what scared her.... The room for nothing more and yet, the totality of the emptiness that hollowed her out. She was exhausted.

As her right hand, holding the soapy washcloth, slowly proceeded up her left arm, around the elbow, and under the armpit, Shirley knew her sudden need for self-justification had nothing to do with the stories in the news, or what was going on at work, or her husband's sudden preoccupation with his new little British sports car. Nothing was solid for her anymore; nothing seemed real. She found herself wishing she could take photographs of the shadows as they fell on the buildings she walked past as she went to workin the morning. The shadows helped assure her of the building's substance.

She wanted to capture, somehow, the surreal way these buildings opened up and swallowed the legions of women in sneakers who trekked there. Every morning they marched past her, swarmed around her, in front of her, like lemmings. Lemmings in sneakers. Driven by the big clock tower in the middle of town. The big hand on twelve, the little hand on eight. If Shirley listened closely enough, she swore she could hear it tick, tick, tick. Routine. Ritual. Sacrifice. She sensed something monstrous about this particular type of disappearance.

As the washcloth continued its mission up over her shoulder, around to the back of her neck and under her chin, she tried to pin down exactly when it started, the way everything she witnessed became symbolic. She remembered specifically one night, on her way home from work, seeing a man in blue-gray work coveralls struggling to cross Summit Street directly in front of the Bishop Heelan Catholic High School.

He was struggling because he was carrying a delicately painted statue of a saint that was nearly as tall as he was, his arms wrapped tightly around the saint's waist. The man was staggering under the weight of the saint, moving away from the school, across the street, towards an empty parking lot.

Shirley had worried all night about the fate of that saint. Spent the evening angry with herself for not going around the block and finding out what that guy was doing. She found nothing about an incident in the newspaper the next morning, nothing on the news. She made a point to drive slowly through the now-full parking lot on her way to work but didn't find any telltale remains of a thousand shattered pieces. And she did not call the school, even though she knew the Sister in charge. She couldn't shake the feeling she had failed some sort of test.

Soaping her chest, running the washcloth under and around her left breast then her right, ignoring the lump that she told herself couldn't be a lump. Her right hand placed the washcloth into her left hand, and as the left hand carried on the mission up to her right shoulder, she thought about having lived, having been in existence, for forty-five years.

Everything now, even just a glance up at the clouds, seemed to scream at her about intimidation and ignorance and how she didn't have the time to stop and figure out why. The weight of her watch on her wrist was enough to remind her. How she was late, she was always late; she had to hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up....

It wasn't like she had had big plans when she was growing up. Wasn't like she had dreamed of becoming a nuclear scientist, uncovering secrets the universe held, and then woke up one morning years later and found herself working for the City in a bum middle management position, in Pumping and Purification, with the mission of making sure the water was safe to drink.

Not a shabby mission, necessarily. Could've been worse, right? She had always just floated this way and that way. Not a whole lot of thought spent on any decision, no great passions, no beliefs. She doesn't even remember why she got into science in the first place, all those formulas, when what she loved to do was read. She should have been an English major. Could have ended up marrying that Kurt Palmer guy who had asked her out for a drink that one time right after their Shakespeare class...

She remembered that autumn afternoon, the sun blinking through the leaves, so beautiful, Kurt Palmer, so brilliant, when her whole body was screaming Yes and her mouth opened up and out dropped No.

For a woman who had made no plans, took no action to be anything -- why the staggering disappointment at waking up and finding she was nothing? What did she expect?

Quickly the rest of her body was soaped up and rinsed off. Her forty-five-year existence had reached a saturation point. As she shampooed her hair, she wondered why this fact didn't offer her some satisfaction. Instead, she continued to be haunted by dislocated thoughts about how certain buildings might have disrupted the space in which they had been created. What in the hell was she searching for? Her galloping thoughts returned to nothing, to the routine, ready for work. She stepped out of the shower feeling beaten and bruised, courtesy of the massage jets.

Gwendolyn Garr lives in Iowa and is a devoted reader and huge fan of Moondance. She's a great believer in the healing power of creativity, especially for women.

Also in Song and Story:
The Numbered Child    Mahalia's Children

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