by Carmel Ohman
Lucille was an odd one. People were always looking at her sideways. Mrs. Drescher, two houses down, would stop and stare as Lucille walked by, a garden hose hanging limply in her hand and raining cold clear water down on her feet. Mr. Field would pull his fedora down past his eyebrows when he passed her in the supermarket. Even Douglas Parks, the town sheriff who felt he was duty-bound to be respectful to everyone, was nervous and insincere in his acknowledgements of Lucille.
It wasn't that she'd been a bother - on the contrary, she moved through town like a ghost when she ventured out of her yard. She had a firmly established routine for those who cared to notice - and many did. She woke up around 7am and did the laundry before anything else. On sunny days she would lug the washbasin out the back door and plunk it in the middle of the yard, well away from the giant deciduous trees that peppered her rooftop with tiny fiddlehead-shaped seeds. She took great care in washing the clothing and pinning it up to dry, and anyone who happened to glance over would see a look of intense concentration on her face as she practiced her laundry ritual. She looked as if she was handling test tubes of corrosive liquid rather than inconsequential pieces of cloth. As if she was engaged in an activity that would tip the balance of life on earth.
The boys next door, Robert and Tommy Grayson, would spend hours at a time peeking through the sun-bleached foliage on their side of the fence at Lucille. They would lay their lanky pre-teen bodies flat on the ground and sometimes prop their heads up on their elbows for a better view. Robert, who was a year older than Tommy, had begun to think in his most secret heart that Lucille was strangely pretty. After all, she wasn't very old - maybe twenty five at most. She was still awfully weird though.
The funny thing about Lucille's laundry was that it consisted mostly of men's clothing. Big shapeless shirts caught the breeze like ship sails. They were flags attesting to Lucille's peculiarity. But the men's clothing was one thing that neither the snooping boys next door nor the rest of the community could quite figure out. Theories ran wild.
"Who's she hiding in that house of hers?" Mrs. Drescher would whisper when she had some of the neighbourhood ladies over for tea and pastries. "That is, if she's got a man in there at all."
"Well if she does, she must've smuggled him in at night," Mrs. Smith added.
Mrs. Ludnum nodded as she swallowed and placed her porcelain cup back in its saucer. "You've got that right, Lorene. Someone would have seen him otherwise."
They all used hushed voices whenever they spoke of Lucille, as if she might drift out from behind the living room furnishings and catch them unawares. You never know with a sneaky, secretive woman like that.
While the laundry was drying, Lucille would step back inside and fix breakfast. Breakfast was another serious endeavor - you could tell, once more, by the intensity on her face. Her eyes bugged out a little at the spatter of oil on the skillet - her lips fell into a hard line as she waited for the perfect moment to flip the eggs.
After breakfast, she would put on a wide-brimmed hat and walk to the market. Maybe it was the severity of her face, or the fact that she didn't indulge in fluffy conversation, but with the passing of the months since she'd moved in, nods and smiles of recognition from her neighbours had dwindled and all but died. She'd remarked this slow change and accepted it with a grim heart. She accepted most things in life this way.
After supper, Lucille would drag a gray plastic lawn chair into the backyard and sit silently for awhile, her hands in her lap. She would lean her head back and stare at the bare clothesline, free of laundry since she'd folded it all in mid-afternoon. She'd sit out there even when the sky was thundering above her and pelting the earth with half-frozen raindrops. She didn't seem to care if her hair or clothes got wet.
One rainy evening Robert and Tommy Grayson were at their post behind the fence, waiting for Lucille to appear. Their stomachs were resting in muddy grass and raindrops were tickling their foreheads, but that made them feel all the more adventurous.
Tommy went to speak, a childish grin on his face.
"Sshh!" Robert covered his little brother's mouth with his rain-soaked hand. "She's coming out."
They fixed their eyes on the back door and saw something strange.
Tommy whispered, "She's got an umbrella, Bobby, I've never seen her with an umbrella."
Robert looked hard. Lucille was struggling to fit an open umbrella through the back door frame. And she was hanging on to someone. Or rather, someone was hanging on to her. Lucille emerged from the doorway and it became obvious that the "someone" was a man, hunched over and very thin. The clouds hung low and thick and Robert strained to see the man's face, but couldn't. The boys watched, transfixed, as Lucille helped the man into the gray plastic lawn chair, all the while holding the umbrella to shield him from the rain. They watched as she dragged over a small stool for herself.
"I wonder who that man is," Robert whispered, his face twisting into something like jealousy.
Carmel Ohman is a singer/songwriter and perpetual student who has only recently begun her foray into the wild world of flash fiction.
Pieces Inspired by this Image
'Hung Out To Dry'
'Tears Fall Like Rain'