“Life in a Vacuum”–Gretchen Johnson

Paul reluctantly slid out of the full-sized bed quietly so as not to wake his wife, Stacy. It was another Tuesday morning just like the one last week and the one before that and actually a lot like the rest of the days of the week. Paul felt the weight of his life and all the mundane responsibilities pushing him down, but he somehow always managed to move forward.

Upon reaching the bathroom and looking into the blurry mirror that should have been cleaned months ago, he tucked the loose hairs behind his ears and ran the water to brush his teeth. Stacy was constantly talking about saving money by conserving the use of water and electricity, so Paul agreed that he would only shower once every three days. This was not one of those fortunate days. He wet down his old toothbrush quickly, turned the water off, applied a small amount of generic toothpaste, brushed, and rinsed off the frazzled toothbrush.

“Didn’t I tell you to wake me up before you leave for work?” Stacy said. He hadn’t heard her footsteps, but suddenly she was standing in the bathroom doorway, looking awful in her old yellow nightshirt.

“I haven’t left yet,” he said.

“Don’t you be sarcastic to me,” she said.

“I was only . . .”

“Don’t talk back,” she said and poked her head into the bathroom, inspecting the space and searching for a mistake. “I told you not to let our toothbrushes touch. My God! How many times do I have to repeat the same damn things before you hear them? It’s completely unsanitary for something that you scrub your mouth with to touch my toothbrush.” Paul quickly moved his toothbrush to the other side of the glass and made sure the bristles were facing away from Stacy’s. “And when I said to wake me up before you leave I wasn’t talking about the second before you walk out the door. Don’t you want to spend some time with your wife and talk in the morning before going to work all day?”

He stood there looking at the old tile floor and said, “I was only trying to let you sleep a little more.”

“Sleep is a waste of time,” she said and headed to the closet to pick out her work clothes.

Paul turned the water on and let it run while he combed his hair. He knew it would irritate her, and this thrilled him a little. Stacy dressed quickly, and he heard the closet door close, a warning that she was coming. He turned the water off.

Stacy appeared again, this time wearing a blue dress with huge white and pink flowers stretched across the fabric that made her body even larger and lumpier than it normally appeared. “Where are you working today?” she asked.

“Georgia’s Diner,” he said.

“Make sure you come home right after work.”

“I will.”

“And don’t buy anything today. With all the damn gum you buy we could be saving that money for retirement. You’re chewing us into poverty.”

Stacy accounted for every penny Paul spent. He had to provide receipts for every purchase, and even taking cash out of the account didn’t give him any freedom because she even demanded to know how that was spent, and she meticulously kept records to make sure that no money was missing. Paul started to wonder how much trouble a person would get into for stealing a pack of gum.

“Are you listening?” she said.

“Yes. I got it. Spend no money,” he said.

Paul’s life had inevitable become exactly what everyone predicted it would be, a chore barely worth doing. He had never been an attractive guy with his awkward features and short, stout body, so people tended to expect little from him, and he became that expectation. He had married Stacy because she was the first girl who ever took the time to talk to him, and he feared she would be the last. He didn’t want to give up his one chance if that’s what it turned out to be. She was never a pretty thing to look at. Plain would be a complimentary word to describe her appearance. She didn’t even look good on their wedding day, and he hated her for that. He had thought any girl could be marginally pretty in a wedding dress, but with her tired-looking and uneven eyes, low cheekbones, and severe under-bite, Stacy was only herself with a fancy dress escorting her.

“I’m taking off. See you tonight,” he said while grabbing a tattered leather jacket.

“Okay then,” she half yelled with the usual whiny voice.

Paul and Stacy never kissed, not to say goodbye or for any other reason. It seemed like too much effort to put into such an uninteresting scenario.

Paul got into his old green truck and drove to the diner four miles out of town to do what he always did, clean the carpet. He had taken the job when he moved to Deer Park because it was the only one available that required no previous experience. That was twelve years ago. Every day he drove to his assigned location and cleaned the carpet. Sometimes it was a private residence, but more often he cleaned for businesses.

The diner was basically empty since it was only six in the morning. He greeted the waitress, explained what he was there for, and got to work. A young girl and boy sat at a table drinking orange juice and eating pancakes, probably a high school couple getting breakfast before school. They were holding hands while they ate and making do with their spare hand. It annoyed Paul.

He focused his attention on the machine and watched as the dark blue carpet slowly turned to its intended shade of a lighter hue while the machine pulled out the dirt. This was the sole achievement he could claim, the transformation of dirty to clean in something as trivial as carpet, but he accepted this because he realized it was the best he could have. Things weren’t going to get any better. Sometimes, when his wife was yelling at him in public, he stared hard at the carpet and imagined himself making it better. His mind removed the filth of life, and, for a moment, he couldn’t hear her.

GRETCHEN JOHNSON currently lives in Beaumont, Texas, and works as an English Instructor at Lamar University.  She completed her undergraduate degree at Southwest Minnesota State University and her MFA at Texas State University. In her free time she enjoys bowling, playing tennis, singing, and traveling.

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