The Nicotine Nightgown

We all know her. She could be a coworker, an ex-wife, a mother. Coffee stained paperwork covers her desk while she quietly swears under her breath “Can you believe this shit?” Another day, another problem in the office. Neither tears, nor complaining are ever far away. She always approaches silently. Like a ghost. Her raspy voice croaks “Can I bother you for a second?” and you agree because you think she is trying to solve an issue you might be having in the office, but then somehow, you are hearing about her life. The words pour out like the coffee from her stained and battered Mr. Coffee. The same Mr. Coffee which has been on for 30 years. Once it was a gleaming bright white, now its a dark cream color, slicked and stained with years of coffee steam and cigarette smoke. It resides on the tan counter, atop brown cabinets, carefully glazed with smoke, soot, and dust. A tiny television in the background sits on a wheeled cart that’s never moved, its volume blaring. Her leathery feet with their yellow toe nails are tucked into small, pink supermarket slippers. She bought them years ago on the same night she got a magazine about Princess Diana’s death and a lottery ticket that will never win. She shuffles across the yellow linoleum floor. Worn so thin by her years of pacing that its begun taking on the features of the plywood below. She hefts the glass pot off the hot plate, sloshing the boiling brown liquid around and fills her mug, yet again. Some of it spills, some of it always spills. The little brown bubbles streak down the side of her ancient mug. They fall onto a greater stain, a stain years in the making, a stain so deep that all of the Comet in all of the world can’t clean it. The ancient mug says something on it like “#1 Mom” or “I may not always be right, but I am never wrong” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, or has a faded picture of a long deceased poodle named Princess. A mug that’s older than kid who sends her repeated nightly calls to voicemail.

“Tommy, Tommy, its Mommy. I think someone is in the house. I heard a noise. Please call me back…Please. I love you. It’s Mommy. Call me back.” she says in a panic. There’s never anyone in the house. It’s the cat, it’s always the cat. Probably named Whiskers. Probably trying escape the house and get away from the ghost that haunts the kitchen, the one in the nicotine nightgown and the caffeine house coat. “Hello…Who’s there?” she calls into the darkness of the living room. No ones there. No one is ever there. No one has been there for years. It’s only her. Her and the cat. She never leaves the doorway, never investigates the sound. She just listens. Nothing. It’s always nothing. In the background, a late-night television host performs his nightly monologue to an empty kitchen the same way she performs her’s to the living room.

She hangs the phone up and returns to her place at the table. Her clicker in hand, bouncing from channel to channel. A slice of half-eaten lemon pound cake sits on a plate. Next to it, a cigarette burns in the ashtray. An ashtray that was probably a gift from an old boss or co-worker returning from vacation when she was a sectary in some plumbing company in a different lifetime. It would have two painted palm trees in the center, saying something clever like “Life’s A Beach”. Caked with ash and crumbs from last night’s cake, the palms are never seen in the ashtray and certainly never in person.

Alerted now by the sensitive sensor light on the back of the house, shes at the window over the sink looking out. One, lone leafless tree bathed in the bright white light looks back at her. “Is someone in the yard?” she mutters. The refrigerator begins to hum and she jumps. “What was that?” She turns to face it. A magnetic picture frame holding her little Tommy on his first day of school, 40-something years ago. The photo, like her, is worn and faded. That’s when the worry beings. “I wonder why he didn’t answer when I called?” she says to the empty room. “Oh God. I hope he’s ok.” Right on schedule, the panic takes hold and she goes to the phone. Calling his work now, she punches in the numbers, which are etched into her mind, but worn off the phone. It rings. That familiar electronic ring of her nightly worried call. Ring. Ring. Ring. Around she goes.

“Oh God..” she groans “Where is he?”

Someone finally picks up. Yes, Tommy is here. Yes, he is fine. Yes, he will tell him she called. Yes, he knows its his mother. Yes, he is sure he is ok. Yes, he understands she had a bad feeling. He always understands her bad feelings because she always calls. With her frayed nerves calmed for the moment, she goes back to the table to wait for his call. He won’t call back tonight, he never does. If he did, she would tell him she was worried sick about him. She would ask him if he ate. She would ask when he could come by. This was their usual dance and they both know all the steps. She gives herself a moments rest before she does another lap on the nervous track. Somewhere in the house, there’s a thud. She bolts up and calls out “Hello. Who’s there?” Of course its just Whiskers. Whiskers the god damn cat. And somewhere he is laughing in his little cat heart.

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