Gary Fincke, from "What Was Good for You"
From November to March, as soon as you and your older sister Vanessa climbed the stairs and entered your Grandma Ruth’s bedroom, you could always see your breath. Through the next door was Aunt Sophia’s bedroom, where it was even colder. That’s where the two of you slept every other Friday night while your mother took what she called her holiday, gradually getting warm in Aunt Sophia’s bed under a thick down comforter.
Years and years ago now, and you both put your pajamas on downstairs where the ancient furnace heated the three high-ceilinged rooms. Your clothes were stacked by the living room door, Vanessa’s on one side, yours on the other. In the morning you’d dress right there in the clothes you’d worn the day before, handing your pajamas to Grandma Ruth, who put them in a shopping bag from the A&P “for next time.”
“Your mother loves you,” Grandma Ruth would say every time your mother drove up after breakfast. “She’s always here at nine on the dot.”
You were ten years old, and on those Saturdays your mother always had laundry in three baskets on the back seat, sheets and towels and a week of clothes folded and stacked in each because, she said, “It needed to be done first thing before the Laundromat got crowded.” On the other Saturdays you had hot dogs or a hamburger at the diner next door to the Laundromat while everything tumbled in the dryer.
Six months ago, when you’d found a comb under a chair, your mother had said, “Where did that come from?” and thrown it into a wastebasket. Three months ago, when you’d discovered a pair of dark socks under your mother’s bed, Vanessa had said, “Put those back and shut up about it” when you showed her.
Your mother had two jobs because your father, according to Aunt Sophia, was “wherever the grass is greener.” She sat in the kitchen and drank coffee for an hour with Grandma Ruth while Aunt Sophia kept busy in the house, running the vacuum, dusting the furniture, shooing you ahead of her work if you weren’t in a chair reading a book.
When it came time to tend the furnace, she had you gather up the three waste baskets and dump all the paper and wrappers and tissues into one to throw into the fire. While you waited with the empty basket, she shoveled coal inside the furnace, sometimes hauling buckets of ashes away, her thick arms straining. The coal was shiny but dusty, so strange that you still loved to touch it, turning your fingers black. Nobody you knew had a coal furnace.