“They’ll cancel school for sure!” said Esther’s mom, her voice shrill.
Esther couldn’t hear what her dad said in response.
“But the kids’ll be here when he comes!” said Esther’s mom. “Where else can they go?”
Esther heard her dad’s low voice, but she couldn’t make out the words.
“You must be joking,” said Esther’s mom. “You know - you know - he’ll be here right on time. You think the weather makes a difference to him?”
Esther didn’t know who or what her parents were talking about, but she was happy to hear that school would probably be canceled. She rolled over and pulled all of her covers up over her head, enjoying the feeling of easing back into sleep with the knowledge that there was a blank day full of possibility waiting for her on the other side.
Esther’s mom woke her up at 8 in the morning, which was only an hour later than Esther usually got to sleep on a school day.
“Good morning!” said Esther’s mom. Even in her confused and irritable state, Esther saw right through her mother’s affected cheer.
“Why are you waking me up?” asked Esther. “I want to sleep in some more.”
“You want to spend your day off sleeping?” Esther’s mom made a face to show that she and Esther both knew that wasn’t true. “No, no, you and your sister are going over to the Avingtin’s house to spend the day playing with Portia and Heather. It’ll be fun. I already called Mrs. Avingtin and it’s all arranged.”
“What?” Esther was outraged. “Portia and Heather are little. Me and Evie don’t want to spend all day playing with them. You’re just trying to get us out of the house! I heard you and dad talking last night. Somebody’s coming over and you don’t want me and Evie to be here so you just called neighbors until someone agreed to watch us all day, right? Right?”
“Portia’s in second grade and Heather’s in third,” said Esther’s mom, somehow keeping her smile propped up on her face. “So they’re almost your age. It’s not that big of a difference.”
“I’m in fifth, mom! Evie’s in seventh! What are we going to do with them? Watch cartoons? Play with dolls?” Esther still enjoyed both watching cartoons and playing with dolls and she certainly didn’t have other plans for her day, but all of that was beside the point. She knew Evie would be completely against the idea of going to the Avingtin’s and Esther didn’t want to end up on their mom’s side of the argument.
“Just get dressed,” said Esther’s mom, her smile finally fading to nothing. And when the smile was gone, Esther saw what the smile had been concealing. Her mom was afraid.
Evie’s huge fight with her and Esther’s mom turned out to be pointless because forty-five minutes after the girls trudged across the street to the Avingtin’s in all of their winter gear, Evie said a bad word when Portia asked her if she wanted a makeover, Portia told on her, and Mrs. Avingtin sent Esther and Evie straight home.
When the girls got back to their house, everything was oddly quiet. The only thing they heard was the sound of the washing machine running in the basement laundry room. “Mom?” called Evie as she and Esther struggled out of their coats and boots. “Mom? Dad? Where are you guys?”
Esther was about to suggest that maybe they were napping when her mom suddenly appeared in the doorway leading to the hall with a wild look on her face and said, “What are you doing here?”
Both Esther and Evie screamed in surprise, then burst out laughing.
“Stop!” Said their mom in a furious whisper. “Shh! Shut up!”
Esther clamped her hand over her mouth, but Evie, as usual, felt the need to talk back. “Whoa, mom, what’s your problem? We can’t even laugh now? What’s going on?”
“You’re supposed to be at the Avingtin’s,” said their mom. “Why are you home? Get your coats and boots back on and go back.”
“We can’t,” said Esther.
“Why not?” asked her mom.
Esther said nothing, leaving Evie enough room to lie if she wanted to. She didn’t.
“I said a ‘bad word’ and those little babies told on me and Mrs. Avingtin sent us home,” said Evie. “It was stupid.”
Esther expected her mother to blow up at Evie, but instead she covered her face with her hands and said, “OK, OK, OK, think, think.”
“Why are you acting so weird?” asked Evie. “Where’s dad?”
“Your dad’s fine!” said their mom. The anguish in her voice surprised and alarmed both girls and they stood mute while their mom covered her mouth and nose with her cupped hands and looked up at the ceiling.
“OK,” she finally said. “You can either both go to your separate rooms or you can both go to one of your rooms together, but once you’re in that room you have to stay there until I come and tell you to come out. Understand? I’ll bring you meals at lunch time and supper time.”
“Lunch and supper time?” said Evie. “We’re going to be stuck in one room all day?”
“I don’t know!” said the girls’ mom, on the verge of tears. “I don’t know how long it will be!”
Esther expected Evie to argue, but she didn’t say anything. The washing machine rumbled in the basement and Esther heard the dryer door slam. Then the dryer added its low hum to the washing machine’s churning and swishing.
“Mom,” said Esther. “Is there somebody else here?”
“Your dad’s in the basement,” said her mom.
“But who else is here?” asked Esther.
“Just go to your room,” said her mom. “And do not leave until I say you can.”
The girls went to Evie’s room together. Their mom followed them as far as the door, warned them again about leaving the room without permission, told them to keep quiet, repeated the command to keep quiet with added emphasis, and closed the door firmly behind her when she left.
Evie sprawled out on her bed with just her eyes looking down over the edge at her peach-colored carpet. Across the room, Esther sat backwards on Evie’s white desk chair.
“Why is this day so weird?” asked Evie. It was hard to understand her with her mouth pressed into her comforter.
“It’s the visitor,” said Esther. “That’s why mom’s so stressed.”
“I told you already,” said Esther. “I woke up last night and heard mom and dad talking and mom was freaking out because some guy was coming to visit today and she didn’t want you and me in the house.”
“You think he’s here already?” asked Evie, rolling onto her back and looking at Esther upside down.
Esther nodded. She wasn’t used to Evie being this interested in what she had to say. It felt nice.
“There wasn’t anybody in the kitchen or the living room,” said Evie. “There was no car in the driveway. How could someone get here? Our road isn’t even plowed yet.”
“He’s here,” said Esther. “I can tell. Can’t you? Doesn’t it feel weird in the house? Why else would mom be acting so weird?”
“‘Cause she’s crazy,” said Evie. “I dunno. If the visitor’s already here, where is he? In the basement with dad?”
“Maybe,” said Esther. “But I doubt it. It sounded like dad was just doing laundry down there.” It wasn’t uncommon for Esther and Evie’s dad to do household chores. He worked from home as a film critic for an art and culture website that Esther’s parents had told her not to visit because it was “too adult” for her. Esther had visited the website once or twice anyway, but had not found it shocking. She’d found it boring. When Esther’s dad was having trouble writing or grew tired of sitting at the computer in his office, he would clean compulsively, dusting, running the vacuum, washing windows and dishes, whatever needed doing. In fact, Esther had never seen her mom, who didn’t have a job, do much housekeeping at all. She cooked and did the shopping. Other than that, when she wasn’t at a meeting of one of the many clubs to which she belonged, she sat on the couch in the living room with her laptop on her lap and did whatever she did on the internet while the TV pleaded hopelessly for her full attention.
Evie rolled over again and sat up on her bed, an ominous smile on her lips. “Let’s try and see who the visitor is.”
“I don’t know,” said Esther. “Mom’ll be mad.”
“Only if she catches us,” said Evie. “We’ll have to sneak around, use hand signals to communicate, look for clues. It’ll be so fun.”
Esther was always more afraid of getting in trouble than Evie was, but she knew that if their mom caught them sneaking around the house looking for the visitor, Evie would bear the brunt of the punishment. And it was hard for Esther to resist an opportunity to team up with her older sister, especially after an explicit invitation. And Esther was curious about who the visitor was. Her mom clearly wasn’t going to share any information about him, so if Esther wanted to satisfy even a part of her curiosity, she and Evie were going to have to do some detective work.
After slipping out of Evie’s room in their bare feet, the girls crept down the hall to the living room where, crouching and peering around the corner, they saw their mom sitting on the couch and watching a daytime talk show on TV. Her laptop was nowhere to be seen. She was zeroed in on the TV. Her face, visible only in profile from where Esther crouched, was a picture of willful concentration. On the talk show, a bullied teen burst into tears of what must have been joy at being told that the show was going to pay for him to attend a six day all-inclusive Bully Avoidance & Management seminar. Then the show went to a commercial. Esther’s mom’s eyes stayed fixed to the screen. Her expression didn’t change.
“Come on,” mouthed Evie, and she motioned for Esther to follow her back down the hall. The girls reconvened in Evie’s room.
“Mom’s totally out of it,” said Evie. “I didn’t see any clues about the visitor’s identity. Did you see any clues about his identity?” She clearly enjoyed saying the word “identity.”
“No, I didn’t see any clues,” said Esther. “But if he’s not in the living room or the kitchen and he’s not in one of our rooms and he’s not in the basement, then he’d have to be upstairs, right? Probably in the guest room?”
“We could go see if the guest room door is closed,” said Evie. “If it is, then we at least know where he is. And if that’s where he is, maybe there’ll be more clues upstairs about who he is. Clues about his identity.”
The girls tip-toed back down the hall, crawled on their hands and knees past the living room doorway even though their mom was still completely absorbed in whatever the TV chose to show her, and then climbed the steps to the second floor, placing their feet with careful deliberation on each carpeted stair, stepping as lightly as they could.
When they reached the top of the stairs, the girls saw that the door to the guest room at the end of the hall was indeed closed. Moreover, a pair of black tennis shoes rested on the carpet just outside the door, their heels pressed up against the baseboard.
“A clue!” mouthed Evie. She looked delighted.
For some reason that neither girl bothered to question, they both dropped to their hands and knees and crawled down the hall toward the visitor’s shoes. Evie led the way. Esther tried to breathe quietly, the effort of which actually made her breathing louder than normal. Esther watched her hands push down into the soft white carpet as she crawled.
The girls arrived at the shoes. Evie looked at the shoes so closely that her nose almost touched them. Esther wanted to ask Evie what she was looking for, but she was afraid to even so much as mouth anything to her sister for fear that the visitor would somehow hear her through the door.
Evie sniffed the shoes. Esther admired her sister’s commitment to her detective work, but the sniffing was a little noisy for her taste. Her pulse pumped in her neck. She kept looking at the doorknob and imagining it was turning too slowly to notice with the naked eye, like the minute hand on a clock except even slower.
Now that they knew the visitor was in the guest room and that he owned a pair of unremarkable black shoes, Esther felt they’d gathered enough clues to justify returning to Evie’s room for another discussion. In an attempt to silently get her sister’s attention so she could gesture her back downstairs, Esther reached out and placed her hand on Evie’s shoulder. As soon as Esther touched her, Evie screamed, both girls jumped to their feet, and the door to the guest room swung open.
There, standing in the doorway, was the visitor. He was old and bald and he wore an elaborate purple and red bath robe hanging open over an all-gray sweat suit. He smiled at the girls with big, rectangular teeth. By all appearances, he couldn’t have been more thrilled to find them skulking around outside of his door. “You must be the daughters,” said the visitor. “How happy I am to meet you. I had heard that your mother was intent on ensuring that I would never have this pleasure, but now we are meeting after all.”
Esther didn’t know what to say. She preferred to defer to Evie in situations like this, but Evie didn’t say anything either. Esther looked down the hall behind her, expecting her mother, surely having heard Evie’s scream, to appear at the top of the stairs at any moment. But she didn’t.
“Tell me,” said the visitor. “Both of you. How much do you enjoy your private school? How much do you enjoy your extracurricular activities? How much do you enjoy your nice clothes and vacations? Will you tell me?”
“We…like them,” said Evie.
The visitor looked at Esther. “And you? How much do you like the many things your parents provide for you?”
“I like them a lot,” said Esther. “Very much.” She didn’t understand the visitor’s line of questioning, but she felt it was essential that she be polite.
“Oh good,” said the visitor. “It’s good to be appreciative. It’s good to be grateful. You do often show your gratitude to your parents, don’t you? Don’t you?”
The girls nodded.
The visitor used his right hand to scratch his left forearm and his left hand to scratch his right forearm simultaneously. His two hands scratched at different speeds. “How do you show your gratitude to your parents?” asked the visitor. “Please be specific.”
“We say ‘thank you,’” said Esther. “And we’re not wasteful.”
The visitor nodded. “Those are nice things to do, to be sure. Perhaps for an average set of parents, that would suffice. But your parents, girls, have sacrificed so much more than the average set of parents has. Did you know?” The visitor’s smile began to take on qualities incongruous with his words.
Esther didn’t know what to say. She looked to Evie for help and saw that Evie was looking to her for help.
“I make you uneasy,” said the visitor. “I see that. But why?”
“We just…don’t know who you are,” said Esther. She wasn’t sure how it had happened, but somehow she had become the mouthpiece for her and her sister.
“Of course you don’t,” said the visitor. “But who would you be without me? It’s impossible to say.” He paused, making a big production of thinking, or pretending to think. “Well, come on, then. Let’s go see your sacrificial parents together. You will see them with new eyes, I promise, I promise. You will want to fall down and kiss their feet for all they’ve given up and abandoned and forsaken and forfeited for you. Let’s go! Let’s go!” The visitor came out into the hall, closed the guest room door behind him, and then without turning to see if Esther and Evie were following, he moved down the hall to the stairs with a tiny marching gait.
Evie turned to Esther as if to whisper something to her while the visitor’s back was turned, but when she opened her mouth, she appeared to realize that she either had nothing to say or too much to say. She shrugged an apology and followed the visitor down the hall and down the stairs. Esther followed Evie.
The visitor stopped in the living room and stamped his right foot in satisfaction at finding Esther and Evie’s mother there on the couch. She did not take her eyes from the TV. Her expression did not change.
The visitor pointed at her with the crooked ring finger on his left hand and said, “You see? You see?”
Esther wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be seeing. “Mom?” she said. “Mom? Mom!”
The visitor beamed. “You see what’s become of her? Look how sad she is. Look how dissatisfied. How disillusioned. And all for you, her daughters.”
“Mom!” said Evie, her voice cracking. “What’s going on? Why won’t she answer?” She looked at the visitor and took two steps back, wringing her hands. “I’m confused,” she said. “I’m scared.” The look on her face made her words redundant.
“Sir,” said Esther. “Are you…? How come our mom can’t see us or hear us?”
The visitor laughed. “But she can see you and hear you just fine, girl! It’s only that your mother refuses to acknowledge my presence so as long as you’re with me, and thus, at the moment, she won’t acknowledge you either. It’s how she copes, girls, and believe me, it’s killing her right now. Look at her eyes. See? Do you see? Oh, she hides it so well, but if you knew her like I know her, you’d see it. Even now that we’ve met, your mother seeks to protect you from me by pretending I don’t exist. You just wait, girls. Once I’ve gone on my way, if you try to speak of me, if you try to speak of this moment with all of us here together to her, she will laugh and say she has no notion of what you’re talking about and that she spent all afternoon quietly watching television by herself. In this way, she will also be giving you the option to cope with my existence in the same way that she has chosen to cope with it. By denying it! Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that wonderful? Do you see how she seeks to protect you?”
Evie cried softly and noncommittally, as if she wasn’t sure crying was an appropriate response but didn’t know what else to do. She had her arms crossed across her chest with her hands resting on her shoulders. She looked at the floor.
“But what’s she trying to protect us from?” asked Esther.
“Excellent question!” said the visitor. He had moved beyond jolly and was now nearly giddy. “To the basement!”
The basement was unrecognizable. There were enormous heaps of rumpled, musty clothing all over the furniture and the floor. The entertainment center, the ping pong table, the crates that contained Esther’s dad’s record collection: they were all buried under drifts of dirty clothes. The air was thick and stale and Esther was amazed that she hadn’t been able to smell it upstairs.
“This way,” said the visitor, raising his voice to be heard over the noise of the washer and dryer. He pointed to the far end of the basement and began to wind a path through the piles of clothes. “Your wonderful father is in the laundry room. Let us look upon his labor and learn the depths of his love.”
Esther hadn’t expected Evie to follow her and the visitor into the basement, but she had, still sniffling. Esther looked over her shoulder and saw that Evie’s fear had turned to horrified awe at the state of the basement. It was a staggering amount of laundry. Esther had no idea how it could have gotten there, but she doubted the visitor would give her a straight answer. The only subjects he seemed willing to talk about were the great sacrifices made by Esther’s parents and how grateful she and Evie should be.
As Esther picked her way through the laundry, following the trail blazed by the visitor, she began to notice specific characteristics of the individual articles of clothing. For example, she saw several gowns like she had only ever seen in historical costume dramas. There were also military uniforms from several different countries. There were baby clothes and damp basketball jerseys and there was a pair of pants large enough that both she and Evie could have gotten into them with room to spare. Some of the clothes were filthy, caked in mud. Some of them had huge stains on them. Some of those stains were definitely blood.
The visitor reached the doorway leading into the laundry room and, panting, he stopped and waited for Esther and Evie. When the girls stepped over the last ridge comprised primarily of waterlogged jeans, the visitor said, “Behold, girls, your father the provider, the breadwinner, doing what he must to ‘bring home the bacon’ so that you girls, so that you can live the lives you live. Look, look, look at love in action!”
Esther stepped past the visitor and into the dim, cramped laundry room. For all the chaotic mess of the rest of the basement, the laundry room was in good order. A laundry basket full of dirty clothes sat on top of the running washing machine. The dryer sat waiting for the washing machine’s current load to finish, its door ajar. A second laundry basket half full of clothes fresh from the dryer sat on the folding table, and standing at the folding table folding the freshly-dried clothes stood a tall man in a ridiculous outfit.
He wore a grotesque fuzzy yellow sleeveless shirt and a small blue cape that hung down to the middle of his back. His shorts were also blue and far too short for a man with such unappealing legs. He wore floppy black boots that rose to the middle of his shins and long argyle socks that rose to just below his knobby knees. When Esther stepped into the room, the man turned to face her and she saw that someone had painted cat whiskers on his cheeks, pale blue tears at the outside corners of his eyes, and a round, black hole of the approximate circumference of a low-caliber bullet in the middle of his forehead. His hair was combed how it always was.
“Dad?” said Esther, and the man groaned, fell to his knees and, unable to look at his daughter, said, “Don’t look, no, no, don’t look, Esther.” His real tears made his painted-on cartoon tears streak and run into the painted-on cat whiskers.
Esther heard Evie shriek behind her. “Shut up, Evie,” said Esther. She’d heard enough of Evie’s screams for one day.
“Now you see!” said the visitor. He stood outside the laundry room looking in at the broken father, the sobbing eldest daughter, and the younger daughter who was still trying to figure it all out.
“What do I see?” asked Esther. “Dad, stop talking. Evie, shut up.”
“The sacrifice of your parents! The indignity, the shame, the debasement!” The visitor clapped his hands. He was well past giddy now. He was rapidly closing in on ecstatic. “Did you really think your wonderful father could afford this house, these cars, those vacations, your schooling, your birthday gifts, your clarinet, your clarinet lessons, your myriad migraine medicines, your anti-acne treatments, your ill-fated pets and ill-fated replacement pets, did you really think he could afford to give you this life on the meager salary of a film critic for an arts and culture website? He writes two reviews a week and they rarely exceed 500 words! He likes what everyone else likes and pans what everyone else pans! No, girl, no, no, no! He sacrifices for you to have this life, girl! He does my laundry for me once a year and for that, girl, I pay him and he earns the ability to give you the life you have taken for granted!”
“Esther,” said her dad, his voice choked with humiliation. “Evie. I wanted you to take it all for granted. All of it. Don’t feel guilty. Please, please, don’t feel guilty. I didn’t want you to know the sacrifice. I didn’t want you to see me how your mom sees me. He makes me wear this. He calls it my ‘Laundry Regalia.’ I don’t-” He broke down again and couldn’t say anymore.
Evie was on her knees now too, rocking back and forth and weeping piteously. The visitor looked as if he might break into a celebratory dance at any moment.
“Sir?” said Esther.
“Yes?” said the visitor, his smile threatening to lift his face right off of his skull.
Esther smiled back. Polite and demure. “Do you have any Laundry Regalia in my size?”
The visitor’s smile dimmed dramatically. He seemed to shrink before Esther’s eyes. “What?”
Esther’s smile broadened, overpowering the visitor’s, beating it back, pursuing it as it fled. “Do you prefer dry or liquid fabric softener?” she asked.
The visitor could not or would not answer.
“Well then,” said Esther, turning to the work. “I’ll guess you’ll just take what we give you.”