Sweetie vacuums at 4 a.m. because she’s up and she’s not going back to sleep and the carpet cost a fortune and you’ve got to keep it clean to make it last. And when your husband is dead and the kids have flown the coop, who are you bothering anyway? She vacuums at 4 a.m. because at 4 p.m. she won’t be up to vacuuming, only sitting in the swivel-rocker watching the first round of evening news, that daily she vows to stop watching. Because there’s nothing but fires and crime and gang-bangers shooting each other in the head. Because their parents are absentee, probably. Probably latchkey, so they set things on fire and shoot each other in the head. The child of orphans, she knows a thing or two about parents. The child of orphans and the Depression, she knows what it’s like to never hear the words “I love you.” Who’d have taught them to say it to her? Sometimes you have to sleuth out love. The food on the table, a new pair of shoes. Or sometimes it’s the new fridge and range-top after you find a letter from a girl in the office, and he says, She’s just being funny. And you say, Well, I don’t think it’s funny. But you don’t push it, don’t make a point, because maybe you don’t want to make a point. Maybe you don’t want to make that point. Maybe just be glad you got the fridge and the range-top. And the first microwave on the block. Same exact model that’s at Graceland. Except Sweetie didn’t know that when they bought it. She only saw it like a revelation years later, just off the tour bus, in the house of the King who loved his mama too much and cheated on his wife. So that was something. Alice Hult, Sweetie’s new neighbor of 50 years, never got that new range or microwave, and she’d had a drinker on her hands, too. Just like Ida Small, the neighbor from when Sweetie was still the child that she’d once been. With her home-cut hair, Sweetie would watch Ida march up the street, boots untied, fetch her husband and drag him home, while he chanted, Going to hell in a hand-basket! Sometimes Ida marched back alone. Sometimes Ida stopped at Sweetie’s porch with a box of chocolates for Sweetie and her barefoot siblings, saving their Sunday shoes. Not fudge like at Christmas, but caramels and creams coated in chocolate, candy that only comes in a box. Until Sweetie’s orphan dad caught sight of Ida in the dumpster behind the chocolate shop. That was the end of that. Say thank you and dump it in the trash. That was mean, but it was love. Because that alley is crawling with rats. Candy crawled on by rats, but you can’t taste that. Sweetie didn’t have candy like that again until he arrived with a curl on his forehead and a trumpet under his arm. Playing in a jazz band, he named her Sweetie and married her on her eighteenth birthday in the living room of her parents’ Chicago attic flat. Played jazz until they moved to the 1950s, with two bedrooms and a baby. A job at Motorola for him, and a trip to Hollywood for her. Three fingers of vodka for him, and wall-to-wall carpet for her. One day he retired, and they got the swivel-rocker for her and that empty recliner for him. He sat and played trumpet at the TV, and Sweetie got a job at Fannie May, where she could eat all the caramels and creams she wanted. But she never got fat. She ate creams and caramels and dusted all hours of the night. Keeping everything new and nice. She quit that job and cut a curl from his forehead before they put him in the ground. She cuts up her junk mail, too, so that no one can steal her identity, which the news has told her is a danger, just like gang-bangers and latchkey kids. Sometimes she gets a little disgusted, because new things don’t stay new, and the news only wants to make you mad. New shoes, new husband, new job, new house, new neighbor, new baby, new widow. Like this vacuum that was top of the line when Sweetie got it, but now smells like unwashed hair when she runs it around shag carpet that is bicentennial blue. Her daughter, older than that carpet, says Sweetie better get a new rug. Can’t sell a house with blue shag vacuumed to nubs. But maybe Sweetie doesn’t want to sell the house and get a new rug. Maybe she remembers the day it was installed in her sunken living room, unrolling California in Niles, Illinois, the wall-to-wall ocean of the next new thing, fibrous and thick, like possibility and love, between your fingers and your toes.
Photograph by Stacy Guinn