Swelter

By: Nina G. Jones

Summer 1957



The shadows of an oak tree swayed along the ceiling as the grandfather clock ticked down the hall.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

My nightgown gripped at me, adhered to my skin by a layer of sweat. The occasional snort from Rory, dozing beside me, punctuated the rhythmic sound of the clock. On a night like this, when the heat was so stifling that I couldn't escape it through sleep, I welcomed anything to break my attention from the counting of the clock. It didn't feel like the tracking of time. It felt like a countdown to the inevitable. To a fate I couldn't escape. But every morning when I rose out of bed, there was no catastrophe, no earth-shattering revelation. No, what I faced almost seemed worse: a nothingness that could be neither quantified nor identified. A sadness I could not trace back to one single thing, but a series of choices. A life that had everything, but nothing.

The midnight blue sky began to give way to shades of indigo. Rory huffed in his sleep as he turned, exhaling the stench of alcohol from the night before. I couldn't help but cringe. He had been doing this more lately. Not every night. But a few nights a week he would stay out late after work and come home drunk. Sometimes he would go to bed, but other times, he would demand his desires be met. Sometimes I gave in. It was easier to do that than have the inevitable argument and tension that ensued if I denied him. I could just lie there and let him pump into me until he was finished. Then Rory would roll over and sleep. No matter how hot the temperature, the alcohol allowed him to sleep peacefully. It was I who stayed awake wrestling with the shadows on the ceiling and the taunting of the grandfather clock his mother had given us.

Last night was one of those nights I felt was worth the fight. He was too sweaty. Too hot. Too pathetic. And he told me how cold I was, and I told him he needed to stop drinking, and he told me he only drinks because he can't bear to come home to a wife who's such a drag, and I told him I was a drag because I had a husband who had a life out in the world while I stayed here to cook and clean and repeat. Repeat. That's why it was sometimes easier to offer my body than to have the same argument over and over. The monotonous cycle of the things that never changed was more torturous than the discomfort of letting my husband push his way inside of me.

Feeling Rory beginning to stir, I sensed he might want to make up like he often did. He'd roll over and kiss me. Tell me how he was sorry and how he loved me. Then he'd offer a concession—his morning erection—and I would relent, because I wanted things to be better. I really did.

But this morning I didn't want to relent. I didn't want the smell of sweat and musty alcohol hovering over me. So, I silently rose and tiptoed out of the bedroom.

A dull thud at the front door alerted me to the delivery of the newspaper. I opened the front door to find that the normally accurate paperboy had missed his target, leaving it sitting on the dewy grass. I rolled my eyes, annoyed by the slight inconvenience as I walked out barefoot onto the prickly, yet moist, lawn. I hadn’t done that in a while—walked barefoot outside. It was something I used to enjoy, a feeling I associated with carefree summers with my family. But now, I had become accustomed to artifice. My skin touching the bare earth in that way had reminded me of how much my life, and I, had changed.

I unrolled the paper. The top headline read:



MERCURY HITS 95.9 TO TIE 7 YEAR RECORD



That wasn’t really news to me. I scanned the smaller front page articles as I roved towards the kitchen. The senate was set to vote on putting the Civil Rights Act on their calendar. I skimmed the article, something about this vote being used to bypass the senate committee. While the topic was important, the political minutiae lost my attention quickly.

Another feature caught my eye: An accomplished academic had committed suicide rather than be publicly questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I was surprised to see that he too, was born and raised in the Milwaukee area, and that sparked my interest to read on. I shook my head with pity as I read that his wife blamed his suicide on the persecution of her husband by this committee. He seemed like a harmless man, and I already had a distaste for these all too common public witch hunts.

I sighed, placing the paper on the kitchen table for Rory’s consumption. The problems society faced were too overwhelming for someone who couldn’t even face her own. These were tough times: war after war, fear of communists, violence towards black people for wanting equal rights. It seemed change always required violence of some sort. Maybe that’s why I found it easier to stay here.

Eggs, bacon, pancakes and fresh coffee—Rory's favorite breakfast. I knew the scents wafting into the bedroom would wake him up when he was ready. And that this hunger for food might override the hunger for make-up sex.

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