a short story by Nancy Whitley
About the Author
Nancy J. Whitley lives in Berkeley, California. “Doreen’s Curse” is her first published story. She is an information systems consultant on contract with an insurance company and has a novel-in-progress.
Ed Shaffer laid the little news-wrapped bundle of a wine glass in the cardboard box marked “fragile glasses — kitchen.” He paused mid-reach to the next glass, to watch Doreen Mosely spread open the cupboard doors on the other side of the sink.
“How many times do I have to tell you, Eddie? I want you to take some of these dishes,” she said of the twenty sets of plates and saucers stacked ten each, bowls divided in groups of five, cups in quartets.
“I don’t know why,” Ed said, “I’m not exactly throwing big, formal dinner parties, you know.”
They’d joked about their back-to-back kitchen cupboards over the six years they’d been neighbors, hers loaded with white ironstone specials picked up at Macys every year or so, and his nearly bare, stocked from the Salvation Army Thrift Store.
“Think about it, Doreen, have you ever seen me cook dinner for a date even once? Breakfast, yes. But what’s that take? A couple plates, cups…” His rhythm broken, he picked the next sheet of newspaper off the stack instead of the next glass off the shelf.
“You never know, Eddie, maybe these dishes will change your life.”
“Oh sure, like women will fall all over me once they find out I serve coffee in matching cups and saucers.” Ed’s hands fell together, playing the spread of newsprint like an accordion.
“Tell me you fell for Neil because of his hand-thrown pottery. Anyway, don’t you think you’d better keep them, just in case it doesn’t work out with the guy?” He smoothed the crumpled page against his chest, unaware of the smudge left on his tee shirt. “Why not box them up and store them in his basement?”
Doreen dropped her hands to her hips and pivoted to face Ed. “And thank you for your supreme confidence in the future of my marriage.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he backtracked. “It’s just a matter of statistics.” As he reached for one of the long-stemmed champagne flutes at the back of the cupboard, a wine glass tumbled onto the counter and crashed to the floor. “Where’d that come from?” he said, squatting down to pick up the scattering of shards.
“It’s okay, Ed,” Doreen said. “Besides, Neil doesn’t have a basement. Nobody has a basement in Malibu.”
Ed swiveled on his haunches and watched her get the broom from the skinny closet next to the refrigerator. “Can’t you give the dishes to one of those families who’ve adopted a dozen or twenty kids?” he said, noticing a little callus on the back of her heel where she’d complained about a blister the last time they’d been out hiking.
“I wasn’t really suggesting you take the whole lot. But if you want them all, take them. Think of how long you could go without washing dishes.”
“Hmm,” he said, and brought himself upright again, “I’ve always said you’d be good at selling used cars. But then I’ve always said that most attorneys should be selling used cars.”
“My last day as your neighbor, and you’re still insulting me and my husband-to-be.” Doreen swatted at his arm, and even though she barely brushed his sleeve, Ed toppled against the counter as if she’d lobbed a football at his solar plexus.
“Seriously though, take them all, and if by some impossible quirk of fate this marriage doesn’t work out, I promise I’ll come back to San Francisco and reclaim half of the dishes. Even if it’s twenty years from now.”
“Like I believe that,” he said of the latest addition to the long list of promises he’d extracted from Doreen since she’d set her wedding date and given the landlord notice. The only promise Ed had any hope of her actually keeping was to call every Monday night during football season so they could assess the 49ers’ weekend, settle up bets, and speculate on the league standings. The season was still four months off, though, so who knew how marriage and Malibu might dull the edge of the 49ers fanaticism the two of them shared. “But I’ll take the dishes anyway.”
At first, the extravagance of picking out a clean bowl for cereal every morning and the luxury of not having to wash a plate at the last minute when his dinner was already hot (or even worse, eating out of the microwave package) soothed the ping which aimed for the center of his chest whenever he opened the cabinet door. Every couple of days he washed the dirty dishes, placed them in the rack to drain, and later loaded them back onto their stacks, pleased with the mirror image of their former life on the other side of the wall.
Things didn’t get out of hand until after the wedding.
The wedding afternoon was hot and muggy, unusually so for early June in Malibu, according to Neil. Ed twisted through the crowd, aiming for the deck off the dining room, thinking that if they’d had the wedding in San Francisco, the fog would have rolled in by now, and he wouldn’t be sweating. He wondered if Doreen would end up with a perpetual tan like all the women in Los Angeles, including the one sidling up to him now saying, “You have to be related to Doreen. Are you her brother?”
Because the air was thick and this was the third person in the last hour to ask the same question, because he’d watched the little mole to the left side of Doreen’s lips quiver right before she kissed Neil at the end of the ceremony, because “ex-neighbor” sounded so final, and because it was true — they did look like they could be related, both tall and slender with curly brown hair and blue eyes which sometimes turned green — and maybe because this was his fourth (or fifth?) glass of champagne, Ed said, “Yes, actually, I’m Doreen’s twin brother. We were separated at birth and only found each other six years ago.”
“Amazing,” the woman said, swiveling her glass between her thumb and index finger. “How’d that happen?”
“She was studying for the bar at the nude beach outside Half Moon Bay. We compared birth marks and discovered they’re identical amoebic blobs, so we must have bumped into each other all the time while we were . . . “
“You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?”
Later, Doreen clasped Ed’s forearm, her hand ironing wrinkles into his shirt sleeve. “Did you really tell someone you were my dog?”
“Golden Retriever. Faithful, do anything for you.”
“Oh, Eddie, you’re not having a good time, are you?”
A month passed before the night in which Ed couldn’t find a place to park his dinner plate. The sink was full, and the counter was overflowing with dirty dishes. “Better get this mess cleared up,” he said, suddenly chagrined at the sound of his voice melding into the cupboard doors. I need company, he thought, longing for the old days when he’d just pop next door and hang out. He wished the landlord had replaced Doreen with someone he could at least talk to, maybe watch a game with now and then. But no, the landlord had stuck him with Jonathan Kraft, Mr. Verifiable Computer Geek.
One night a couple weeks after Kraft moved in, Ed had knocked on his neighbor’s door, bearing mail, which had ended up in the wrong box. “Looks like you’re seriously into computers,” Ed said, eyeing the long chipboard table covered with computer gear where Doreen’s couch had been.
“Yeah, well, I guess so. Pretty interesting stuff on the net,” said Kraft, his hands pressing down the sides of his brown twill pants.
And when Doreen asked who had moved into her place, Ed didn’t tell her that Kraft’s eyes looked squinty, like he spent too much time in the blue cast of his monitor. “Some geek who probably doesn’t like football,” he told her instead.
Ed went out for a run instead of cleaning the kitchen on that first night of counter overflow, and the next night he glued himself to the TV, and the following night there weren’t any clean plates, so he ate out and went to the movies. He started out with an action thriller, but after twenty minutes of watching a bunch of dorks run from one set up to another, he slipped into a romantic comedy which wasn’t funny, so he left. Since the ushers were in a huddle at the other end of the theater, he walked in on a sensitive drama taking place in Northern Ireland, but he couldn’t latch onto the dialect, so he moved to a suspense thriller, but the actress was tall like Doreen, and he couldn’t sit there watching her crazy ex-husband stalk. Ed went home and called Malibu.
“All right? Of course I’m all right. I’m more than all right,” Doreen said. “What makes you think any different? Actually, we were talking about you earlier. When are you coming down to visit? We’ve found a hiking trail with views of the ocean to die for; you’ll love it.”
“Oh,” Ed said, feeling like he’d caught the ball on a wide pass, but then run full-tilt toward the wrong goal.
The first cleanup took two hours. The second and third at least as long. And now, after as many vows to change his ways, Ed faced his fourth event. He pushed his sleeves up, pulled the back of his turtleneck shirt down, and plunged his hands into the sink, hauling out plates and bowls from the cold, murky water. Wormy noodles slid out of a soup bowl and over his left wrist, one catching on the sleeve working its way down his arm. Ed flicked the noodle and it landed on the faucet neck. He wrenched his sleeve back up, the damp ribbing clammy against his elbow.
An old Rolling Stones tape was cranked up loud, and just as Shaffer and Jagger were lamenting their lack of satisfaction, a fetid stench bloomed from the water. “Fish,” Ed moaned, and dug for the drain. “Damned Doreen. How could I have fallen for that crap about not having to wash dishes?” he muttered. Why couldn’t she have given him something less labor-intensive? Maybe something personal, like her sheets and towels, or her old white comforter. Ah, the comforter.
They’d been neighbors for seven months by the Saturday night Ed’s video rental skipped and wobbled, and because she’d given him a key so he could water her plants while she was away for the week, he’d decided he might as well try the video out on Doreen’s VCR. After all, if she were home, they’d probably be watching the movie together anyway. The tape was just as bad on her machine, but since her couch was more comfortable than his was he sprawled out and dropped in on an all-night Perry Mason marathon.
Ed woke to Perry in the courtroom badgering an old lady with her purse held firmly on her lap, about to confess to a different crime than the one in the last episode he’d been watching. He used the bathroom and snooped around the apartment. When he discovered the nine pairs of shoes hung by their toes on a rack in her closet, the outside edge of each little stacked heel slightly dipped from wear, he pictured Doreen sitting across from a client with her legs stretched out under the boardroom table, applying pressure to her heels as she explained some obscure point of tort.
Ed didn’t open any of Doreen’s dresser drawers that night, but on an impulse he did lay down on her bed. Floating into the thick, white comforter, he closed his eyes, and for a couple of minutes he pretended she was in the kitchen pouring champagne into the two long-stemmed flutes he’d noticed at the back of the shelf with all the wine glasses. One time when Doreen was in Tahoe for the weekend, he took off all his clothes and crawled under the comforter. The sheets were cool and silky, like he imagined the underside of her arm would feel.
His back ached from leaning over the sink so long. Stretched out on the living room carpet easing his knotted muscles, Ed saw himself bound to a constant proliferation of dirty dishes. “She’s tricked me,” he fumed, “left me with this curse of rot and slime buried under a mountain of ironstone while she’s gone south to live happily ever after. And besides, twenty of anything is too much. “
He needed a system, a dishwasher, but not in this old apartment; the landlord would never go for that. A maid. “Oh, sure,” he said, not letting himself seriously consider someone coming into his life who might already have a system for keeping the kitchen in order. Ed turned over onto his hands and knees, arching into a rangy cat to stretch his upper back. I don’t need a system, he thought, I need fewer dishes. He collapsed the cat and set about the mathematics of how many sets he really wanted–no, how many sets he could realistically expect to ever need–and finally arrived at four. Yes, four manageable sets.
So at half-time Monday night, with the 49ers playing and ahead by ten, Ed piled his oil-slicked salad plate onto the dinner plate strewn with half a roast chicken’s worth of bones and a few grains of rice, added a cereal bowl with its coagulated remains of corn flakes and milk, and topped the stack with the morning’s coffee cup with its useless little saucer. Marching out the door with the ironstone mound, he turned left and walked the length of the corridor, then down the stairs to the utility room. He shifted the load to his left hand, lifted the garbage bin lid, and dropped the dishes onto full lumps of supermarket bags. “There,” Ed said as he clamped the lid down on the bin, wishing he knew some Latin invocation to recite. “One set down, fifteen to go.”
The little ceremony was interrupted by the creak of the utility room door. Jonathan Kraft walked in, carrying a sack of garbage under each arm, the brown of the bags a shade off the brown of his twill pants. The two men grunted a sort of greeting as they passed in the middle of the room.
The game had been over for more than an hour, and Ed was sitting in bed with a bowl of rocky road, worrying over the 49er’s last-minute loss, when Doreen finally called. “Hope it’s not too late, Eddie,” she said, “but we had some errands to run that took longer than we thought they would, and we missed the whole game. How was it?”
The “we’s”, he thought after they’d hung up. We, we, we. Doesn’t she ever do anything on her own anymore? And what errands could have been that important? If she still lived next door, they’d be hashing over the 49ers’ defensive maneuvers and offensive tactics. And he wouldn’t be sitting alone now, swirling his spoon through the rocky road soup.
The next night Ed gathered up the day’s plates and bowls (toasted cheese sandwich and chili for dinner, waffle and coffee for breakfast) and marched them out the door. Later, he discovered last night’s ice cream bowl still sitting on the nightstand next to the bed, and trouped back to the utility room. When he opened the garbage bin this time, he found himself staring at a smudge of chili where earlier he’d left the day’s load, and for one irrational moment he thought, she’s back! And she’s taken her dishes. But then the caked residue of rocky road at the bottom of the bowl he held in his hand reminded him of all the “we’s” peppering her end of the conversation last night. Someone had taken the dishes, but, of course, it couldn’t have been Doreen because “we” were so busy in Malibu.
Questions of who would have taken the dishes, and why, kept drifting through his mind once he’d stretched out on the sofa to watch the news. He vaguely remembered hearing footsteps pass by his door about half an hour after he’d made his after-dinner drop, and on the backside of his eyelids he replayed the scene of Jonathan Kraft following him to the utility room the night before. Ed must have dozed off then, because he thought he’d been watching Kraft paw through mountains of bulging garbage bags when his eyes snapped opened to a bunch of letters–leading with those three stupid w’s and strung together with dots–blipping across the bottom of the TV screen.
He was getting tired of all the recent hype about the Internet. He certainly wasn’t going to get himself a computer so he could talk to a bunch of strangers about the news–as if tapping away on a keyboard could be considered talking anyway–even though Doreen had tried to convince him otherwise. “Once I’m in Malibu we could send each other messages any time we wanted,” she had said.
“I don’t want a computer. I hate computer games, write six checks a month, and haven’t sent a letter since I was forced to write thank-you notes for my high school graduation presents more than a decade ago,” he told her. “Anyway, I’d rather hear your voice.”
On a hunch after dinner on the third night, Ed made a loud run to the utility room and back, whistling down the hall, opening and closing doors noisily. Five minutes passed before he heard his neighbor’s door open and shut. After hearing the next series of door clicks and swishes, he moved to the kitchen and opened his cupboard to the faint gurgle of running water and the clink of dishes being added to the shelves on the other side of the wall. More than once he’d listened to Doreen through the cupboard, and when he heard the low rumble of a male voice, he’d drummed up some excuse to knock on her door and invite himself in.
Usually the unsuspecting suitor left first, and as soon as the door was shut behind him, Doreen would roll her eyes and announce, “dud,” triggering a lengthy discussion regarding the hits and misses of dating. Often during those discussions– and other times, too, like when they’d be hiking in the early spring, and he’d name every wild flower in bloom, or when, in middle of the night once, he had changed her tire in front of a restaurant, or when he’d help prep her dinner parties with his eyes streaming from onion gas so badly that he couldn’t tell whether he was chopping the onions or his fingers — she’d told him he’d have made the perfect brother. And each time she did, Ed secretly hoped she would eventually substitute the word lover for brother, make the statement present tense, and never pitch him onto the pile of castoff duds.
But then Neil Chandler came along, and one night Doreen threw her arms around Ed saying, “I’ve met my man, Eddie. This is the real thing. He’s perfect.” And after that he stopped sneaking into her apartment when she was gone.
It was quiet on the other side of the cupboard. Kraft’s probably gone back to his computer, Ed thought. What’s he wanted with all these dishes, anyway? As he imagined his neighbor sending out invitations for Thanksgiving dinner to all his net buddies, and the pathetic gaggle of nerds gathering around the monitor with Doreen’s plates on their laps, the thought crept into Ed’s mind that maybe Kraft was collecting the dishes to hold for Doreen. “Cut it out, Shaffer,” he said, “they’ve never even met.” Laying out his private eating habits on the dirty dishes seemed a little like letting a stranger watch him cut his toenails, but Ed wasn’t going to let Kraft get in the way of ridding himself of the remaining sixteen sets, so every night he took the day’s haul to the bin.
On the seventh night, a headline on one of the news rags next to the checkout stand at the supermarket caught Ed’s eye: “I Was a Net Sex Slave.” In it, a woman — not bad looking, if you could tell anything from the grainy picture above the caption — described how she’d spent every night for three months diddling in a chat room with other regulars, knowing nothing about any of them except the phony names they used to identify themselves.
Ed pondered the logistics of net sex and tried to imagine the furnishings in a chat room, but he wasn’t curious enough to buy the magazine so he could read beyond the article’s first two sentences. While he measured out exact change for the cashier, though, it dawned on him that Doreen and Kraft could have met on the net. Maybe she was covering up when she kept telling him she was more than all right. Maybe the perfect Mr. Neil Hotshot Attorney Chandler, newly appointed partner in his big flashy LA firm when she fell for him, had turned out to be not so perfect, and she hadn’t been calling as much because she was too busy lounging in a chat room with Kraft. Of course, Kraft would have told her about the dishes.
Net sex. He churned the phrase over and over as his car sputtered and the lights dimmed on the way up the hill. He’d suspected for a week or two that his battery was on the blink. Ed hoped it wasn’t something more serious, like a magnetic relay or piece of solid state circuitry going haywire. He’d scrape the connections in the morning. He called Doreen. “Sure, I still send e-mail to a couple people up there,” she said. “As a matter of fact, we’ve just set up a Web site.”
“So that must be where the net sex takes place,” Ed said, his voice landing a little higher than he’d aimed. “Net sex? No, no, I mean the firm. The firm has a Web site.” The connection crackled and spit, like she’d moved out of the range of her phone’s antenna. “Why do you want to know about net sex?”
How could she ever fall for a geek like Kraft? Maybe he taps out a smooth line on his keyboard, but the guy is way beyond dud. Wait until she sees him. He’s at least three inches shorter than she is, would never go hiking because he’d be out in the woods cut off from his precious net, and probably doesn’t even know how to do real, face-to-face sex. And he would never fit in at any of her parties. “At least when you invited me to your dinner parties, I knew which fork to use.”
“Is everything okay, Eddie?”
Ed brewed a pot of coffee and sat on the couch drinking from one of the dinky ironstone cups, its saucer pinched between the thumb and fingers of his left hand, thinking thank God they aren’t lounging around next door, eating one of her fancy candle-lit dinners of chicken-breasts-stuffed-with-this or scallops-on-a-bed-of-julienne-that. At least, not yet. By the time he was swirling the dregs of his fourth cup, he found himself contemplating the notion of pounding on the door and demanding to know what Kraft’s intentions were. And later, mining the last bits from the carton of rocky road, he wondered if poor Neil even had a clue. And in the middle of the night, after the caffeine woke him with the jittery sensation of mice skittering across his skin, he asked himself again how could she fall for Kraft? How could she? Of course she couldn’t. “Shaffer, that’s as harebrained as sneaking into her bedroom when she was out of town and pretending she was in the kitchen pouring champagne.”
But then, for a moment the next morning, as he stooped under the hood filing a chalky residue off the battery connections, Ed considered how gratifying it would be to gather up a load after a big Italian dinner, crash through Kraft’s door, and hurl the damned dishes at his computer, shattering his monitor and drowning his mouse in a slurry of minestrone. No, Ed thought, then they’d know that I know. “And anyway, I want my four sets.” The words bellowed against the concrete floor.
As he finished scraping the faulty connections, though, he began to suspect that maybe he’d led himself a little astray over the net sex presumption, and thinking about his nightly pilgrimages to the utility room made him feel like an old dog burying the same old tasteless bone. Why not just dump the rest of the excess? Clean, right off the shelf.
So that night, a few minutes after the two trips it took to unload the remaining ten large plates, nine small plates, six bowls, eight cups, and twelve saucers, Ed turned the volume up on his stereo to wipe out the sounds of Kraft loading the shelves on the other side of the wall. He stretched out on the couch, thinking of his own cupboard with its friendly little stacks of plates and saucers and bowls, its single line of cups. He could handle four sets. Four neat sets–probably what Doreen had been offering in the first place. What had he been thinking when he’d taken them all?
It was almost eleven, and the music had turned itself off hours ago. He might as well go to bed. As Ed clicked off the light and drew the top sheet over his shoulder, he remembered it was Monday night. He’d forgotten to turn on the game. And Doreen hadn’t called. Maybe she’ll call next week he thought, as his eyes grew accustomed to the dark.
“Doreen’s Curse” Copyright ©2001 by Nancy Whitley.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.