Raggedy Slipper by Cathy Eaton

nominated for 2012 Pushcart Prize

On the day she buried her husband, she woke before dawn with no chores to do. Roger Wilson had insisted he come by to milk and feed the cows. She heard his truck crunching on the gravel. A mocking bird trilled and whistled. Samson crowed. Nature performed as usual, oblivious that this day was like no other. Becca untangled herself from the sheets, her feet thudded to the floor, and she faced the door. She couldn't bring herself to pass through it, to descend the stairs where in a few hours neighbors would gather, clutching casseroles and pasta salads as they mourned Henry's death. But she couldn't lie in bed either.

      Henry's buzz saw snoring used to wake her, but now its absence kept her from sleeping. She knelt beside the bed and lifted the blue dust ruffle. Inhaling the odors of sweaty feet and tired leather, she tugged out a large slipper and cradled it to her chest. She poked her finger through the hole in the toe and caressed the matted lining.

      “No point springing for a new pair when these are so comfy,” Henry had told her the week before. “These will last me another few years.” 

    The raggedy slipper, which she had threatened to dump in the trash, outlasted him. She slid her bare feet across the worn oak flooring. From the peg on the door, she unhooked his overalls, the hems still crusted with mud. Cold rain had rattled the tin roof the day she helped him mend the gap in the henhouse where the coyote had squeezed through and killed Aristotle, forever silencing the rooster. Becca rolled up the mud-splattered pants and cocooned Henry's slipper inside. She opened the cedar chest and inhaled the pungent mothball odor before she slipped the bundle beneath the wool blankets. The lid thumped shut, catching the lacy cuff of her nightgown sleeve and ripping it.

      Roger slammed his truck door, drawing her to the window. He grabbed a pitchfork as the Jerseys, their gorged udders swinging and their plaintive voices mooing, lumbered from the pasture toward the barn. Their long time neighbor stooped to pet the ginger cat before he spanked the rump of the lead cow. He wore his Steelers hat backward, and his ears stuck out. He swiped his hand across his eyes. How could he bear the loss of his childhood friend? How could she bear the years ahead without hearing Henry's contagious chuckle, feeling his rough beard against her face, or strolling in the apple orchard, his arm draped over her shoulder?

      A toilet flushed and water gurgled through the pipes. She hoped her son, who had flown in from Spain, would remember to jiggle the handle. Repairing the toilet had been on Henry's to-do list. Unlike his father, Seth wasn’t handy. As a child he had preferred swim team to 4-H. As a teen, math club and track made him late for chores. Henry, swallowing his disappointment, had supported Seth’s move from Pennsylvania to California to study finance.

     In the early afternoon, Seth and she drove to the service at St. Christopher’s. The minister, whom Henry had referred to as cheerleader for the goodness of God, sang Henry’s praises. At the gravesite, mourners tossed dirt on the coffin, each clump seeming to plug Becca’s eyes, her throat, her heart until she felt like she might sink into the ground beside her husband. After the service, friends swarmed into the farmhouse and smothered her with affection. They recounted stories about Henry as a gutsy teen who jumped from sixty feet into the ravine, as a young man who fell off a bucking bull machine and broke his nose, and as a Boy Scout leader who snuck out to Mcdonald’s when it was his troop’s turn to cook.

After platters of food were consumed by their friends who had come to pay their last respects, Seth plucked out a tune on Henry’s banjo, and Roger sang “Cripple Creek.”

      When the last neighbor finally departed, mother and son collapsed at the kitchen table, too tired to tackle the mounds of dishes and leftovers. Becca’s unmanicured hands cupped a chipped mug of tea. A thick braid hung down her back. Her black suit lay crumpled on the closet floor, and she had slipped on jeans and a flannel shirt that Henry had stuffed in the laundry basket.

      “I could move back,” Seth said, “to help run the dairy.”

      “No,” Becca answered.

      “Maybe we could hire someone.”

      Becca nibbled on a Ritz cracker smeared with Velveeta. “We have to sell the dairy. It’s our only option. Then I’m moving to Clairton, a stone’s throw from Pittsburg.”

      Seth overfilled his wine glass, splashing the Chardonnay onto the tablecloth. He grabbed a linen napkin to blot the stain. 

Becca set her hand over his fingers to stop his frantic scrubbing. “It’s all right. There’s an apartment I can rent as soon as we find buyers. Rita’s boy is being transferred to Chicago in a few months, and he’s offered to sublet to me.”

      “This is a big step. You don’t want to rush into anything.” He tugged at the knot of his tie and said they’d talk some more in the morning. “Wake me for milking,” he said as he wrapped his arms around her and bid her good night. 

On the morning after she buried her husband, Becca woke before dawn. She didn’t knock at her son’s door as she headed down to the barn. Instead of herding the lowing Jerseys to their slots and attaching the metal cups to their teats, she haltered Millie, tied her to a stall, and washed her teats with warm water.

Rain had pattered on the roof the night she and Henry had watched Millie take her first wobbly steps and start suckling from her mother. Now she sat on a low stool and pressed her forehead against Millie’s flank. She pulled the teats and warm streams of milk pinged against the pail.