09/09/2013 08:13 am ET

The Clothesline

The mound of brown soil and black clothes of the small assemblage stood in sharp contrast to the brilliance of the surrounding fall colors. Bill stood across from her, preferring the company of his fellow former soldiers to being at her side. Arms folded, defiant, he shed not a single tear. Abby held the perfectly folded flag in her lap and felt strangely sorry for the lieutenant whose duty it was to present such flags to mothers, widows, sisters and daughters as a daily routine. The blue field absorbed the warmth of the mid-day sun and brought her the intended comfort as she later clutched it to her chest during taps.

Abby was led away by her friends to an awaiting black Buick Special. Bill would stay behind smoking a cigarette with his comrades and later retire to the VFW hall for a few drinks. It was just as well, he would be no comfort to her. Loss of his only son would only add to his anger, and she did not want to bear his wrath today.

Isolated along a non-descript country road, surrounded by farms, their home was something of an embarrassment to her as she was dropped off by her wealthier neighbors. Cards and flowers littered every horizontal surface. No more Shawn, ever. Blond and carefree, always a smile, always a joke, always an angel, now absent. There was a vacuum, a palpable emptiness as the long-light of late afternoon streamed through the lace curtains. It was a beautiful day, and Abby was thankful for that.

She changed from her black dress and hat into a white blouse and peddle pushers, and walked through the kitchen to sit on the small landing outside the back door. The screen door slammed shut behind her as she positioned herself on the small platform that topped the single step leading to the back yard. A small puddle was present at the base of the step reflecting the recent rain.

The clothesline now had a broken span. Formed from a single length of rope this rendered the other cross-links equally worthless as they sagged nearly to the ground. Abby knew she would need to fix this, and soon; Bill would not stand for his clothes to be dried any other way. She remembered when they first moved in, how the line used to be taut and how the now rusting poles stood erect and gleaming with a new coat of paint.

Beyond the clothesline lay the sandbox that Bill had constructed for Shawn, though they never played in it together. She remembered the strength of Bill's arms and the muscles in his back and shoulders as he labored shirtless in the summer heat. He was a beautiful physical specimen. She had wondered, even then, what possessed her to marry such a seemingly unremarkable man. Abby had never really loved him as she had come to know love to be. She wanted desperately to ache in his absence, feel pain at the very thought of his leaving her side, to meld with him into a single being. She desired nothing less for him. Abby yearned for him to worship her as his princess, to be his angel, for him to be lost without her. She had witnessed others in love, elderly couples seated at the movie theater for whom holding a single hand brought them not nearly close enough. Watching a woman put her arm within that of her spouse, unbutton his shirt cuff and caress his forearm as they sat side by side.

Instead, their relationship was a functional one, an economic union where one traded economic security for domestic labor. Sex with Bill made her feel lonely, and served to drive her further away from him. Soon after Shawn was conceived contact between them ceased all together. As she would lie next to him she would note the irony of being so close and yet so far away. Bill was cruel in his neglect of her and his indifference towards her very existence. He considered Abby as beneath him, and treated her fittingly.

Having Shawn gave Abby new focus, someone to love unconditionally. Bill exhibited little interest in his son. Shawn was a shy boy often lost in his own thoughts, but he loved his mother and she loved him. He grew up quickly, a mediocre student and athlete, but loved by all who took the time to know him. Bill paid him little mind, preferring company of his male friends and the athletic achievements of their offspring.

During his senior year in high school Abby remembers coming in from hanging up the laundry to witness Bill storming out of Shawn's room leaving him crying. She went to comfort him, but he pushed her away, ran out the back door, hopped on his bicycle and rode swiftly away, seeking the comfort of his best friend. Shawn never told her what happened, and she knew better than to ask Bill. Though they had never had much to do with each other, now it was even less. They would rarely speak to one another preferring instead to communicate through Abby and keep their separate space. Days later, Abby would notice a blood stain on Shawn's sheets as she hung them out to dry and that several pairs of his shorts appeared to be missing.

Soon after graduation, Shawn joined the Army. This, too, disappointed his father. Bill had been a Marine, the 'Tip of the Spear.' They had always looked down upon the Army as soft troops sent in to secure and occupy what the Marines had won. Shawn was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division and sent to Korea. He was killed on September 22, 1951 in the battle for Heartbreak Ridge. The opposing forces were entrenched in what was to become known as the 'Punchbowl.' Shawn's battalion was walking the high ridge when ambushed by communist forces. During the assault, witnesses say Shawn stood perfectly still, didn't take cover or draw his weapon. He was killed almost instantly, his weapon had never been fired. Together with a note to Abby was a picture of his best friend in high school, standing together in their graduation robes, smiling as young men ready to take on the world. Abby recalled a similar pose in their tuxedos on prom night. Both boys felt obligated to take dates, but Abby was certain they would have gone with each other if they felt they could.

The last few days had brought with them a continuous stream of visitors, all bearing food, friends, neighbors, the pastor, the doctor. Dr. Decedere had left behind a small bottle of morphine to help Abby sleep. He knew she didn't drink, but felt obligated to remind her not to, as the combination could prove fatal. The visits grew fewer in the coming days and ceased altogether by the weekend. Life began to take on what would have to pass for normal without Shawn. Bill returned to work and nights at the VFW, Abby returned to preparing meals and doing laundry.

It was late Saturday afternoon; Bill had slept off Friday's binge, arose and planted himself in his lounge chair and ordered Abby to fix him lunch. The Yankees were playing the Giants in the World Series and Bill planned not to move for the afternoon. Bill fell asleep in front of the television as Abby dutifully vacuumed around him and did laundry, using the dryer, as the clothesline remained in disrepair. She knew this would provoke an outburst of anger over and above the almost constant state of silent rage that Bill exhibited towards her. Their relationship was one where they no longer laughed or cried, but coexisted in a state of shared indifference. Abby had become almost numb to his neglect and verbal abuse. She did not fear for her personal safety. Bill had only struck her once and she was confident he would never strike her again. Abby used to cry when he attacked her, feeling she was somehow responsible for his anger, but no more. Bill was seemingly no longer worth the effort. She was tired, very tired, without the strength to hate him anymore. Abby had developed an ability to close herself off, to shut herself down emotionally, to no longer feel. This facility worried Abby; what had happened to her humanity that she was capable of tuning it on or off? What would this enable her to do, what had she become? She thought this is what soldiers must be able to do, to compartmentalize their humanity long enough to kill.

Afternoon slipped into evening. The Yankees had been victorious over the Giants and Bill was busy making grand plans to celebrate this evening with his almost constant companions down at the lodge. Abby obediently prepared dinner. She was finally seeing the bottom of the offerings brought by friends and neighbors. Abby would dress them up each night by adding a novel ingredient or two to disguise their leftover status. Tonight would be no different. Bill had a particular fondness for a certain potato salad contributed by the pastor's wife. Abby would doctor it up for Bill to finish off while she consumed the remaining green beans and macaroni dishes. Abby was hopeful a full belly of potato salad and a night of celebration at the VFW would finally bring her the peace she so often longed for.

Bill lumbered into bed that night as Abby foresaw their time together would soon pass. She awoke to a surprising calm. Bill's snoring had diminished in the pre-dawn hours as his breathing grew shallow, then ceased as he drew his last breath. Abby arose, put on her robe and walked through the living room, the kitchen, and out the back door to sit once again on the small platform overlooking the backyard. She could see the faint outline of her breath in the crisp morning air as the long light of a not too distant dawn warmed her face. She was alone, but not lonely, feeling she had performed the first altruistic act of her life.

Today she would fix the clothesline. The day would later warm, and a gentle breeze would dry the clothes quickly, very much to Abby's satisfaction.