Story: Mrs. Chandler Can Sing

Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85 is the founder and Managing Editor of The Lyon Review.  Her short stories, essays and journalism pieces have been published in more than 30 literary magazines, including Sojourner, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Mr. Bellers’ Neighborhood, The Storyteller, and Perigee.  She is also the author of a memoir, This Is How I Speak, for which she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.  After graduating from MHC, Sandi received an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she studied under National Book Award Winner Charles Johnson.

Mrs. Chandler drives her station wagon down the same street every day. It is a nice street, with wide, neatly marked lanes, and two straight rows of leafy trees that line either side. Mrs. Chandler notes how the branches of the trees bow towards each other like pairs of giant lovers joined together in a permanent embrace.

Mrs. Chandler thinks the trees remind her of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, which she read during her first and only year of college before Joey Chandler came home from Korea. They got married right away in a small Catholic church in Brooklyn, just a few blocks from where the two of them had gone to high school. Two years later, they moved to a three-bedroom home on the south shore of Long Island.

Now, Mrs. Chandler makes sure that her four children get safely on the school bus every morning. Then she goes to the supermarket to do the family shopping. She goes every day because her husband likes to have only the freshest vegetables in his nightly salad. Max, the grocery clerk, waves to Mrs. Chandler from among the radishes. He tells her that cantaloupes are on special today.

It’s early in the season and the melons are small. She holds the rinds up under her nose, smelling their flesh. Mrs. Chandler raises one to her ear and gives it a good thump. She listens to the sound it makes, checking for ripeness. Her husband is very proud of her ability to always pick the right melon.

Mrs. Chandler knows that her husband is very proud of her.

Three times a week in the afternoon, Mrs. Chandler teaches her children to play the piano. She starts with easy tunes, placing her fingers over the smaller ones of her children, showing them how to press down on the appropriate keys. She tells them that when she was a little girl, notes on a scale looked like little bugs trying to wriggle off the page. She asks them to wriggle their fingers as fast as they can, so they can keep up with all the bugs, especially the spiders, which are called sixteenth notes. Mrs. Chandler’s third child, Jenny, is afraid of bugs and starts to cry.

Jenny cries far too often, and Mrs. Chandler worries about her. She also worries about her eldest, her Danny, because at thirteen he disappears up into his bedroom for hours on end and when she walks by his door all she hears is silence.

The silence frightens her–when she was growing up, the kids played stickball and tag in the dirty Brooklyn streets. There were always shouts and mild oaths, the sounds of competition and loss and victory.

Here on Long Island, there are tree-lined avenues and well-kept lawns to play on. She often tries to make Danny go outside to play with some of the neighborhood kids, but he rarely does what she asks.

Danny says that the games are dumb.

Dumb is better than silent, Mrs. Chandler thinks, but does not say so out loud.

Mrs. Chandler’s skin is going slack. When she does the dinner dishes, moving the bright orange scrub brush in circles over her china patterns, she notices the fleshy underside of her arms wobble. The more vigorously she scrubs, sanitizing each plate and leaving it free of food scraps, debris and germs, the more her flesh wobbles. Mrs. Chandler pictures the flesh of the turkey that they had for supper wobbling in just the same way before the axe fell on its dumb, unsuspecting head.

When the children come home from school, Mrs. Chandler doles out peanut butter cookies.

“How was your day?” she asks each one, handing out the cookies in exchange for a detailed answer. Mrs. Chandler does not make the peanut butter cookies herself. She buys them at the store, the same place where she buys her husband’s vegetables. All the cookies are uniform, with a hard floury crust and a smear of peanut butter cream. All the answers the children give Mrs. Chandler are uniform too.

“Fine,” the children say. “School was fine.” And off they go to do their homework.

Mrs. Chandler has very fine children. Everyone always says so. Teachers, aunts and uncles, the priest to whom Mrs. Chandler confesses twice a week at St. Agnes, always comment on what fine children Mr. and Mrs. Chandler are raising.

Mrs. Chandler worries that some day one of her fine children will take a bludgeon and hit someone over the head. She doesn’t know why she worries that might occur, except that she sees similar situations plastered across the pages of the tabloids while waiting in line at the check out counter in the grocery store.

“I should have made him homemade cookies,” the mother always says in the news story. “That’s where I went wrong. He was always such a fine boy. A good boy. I wish I had made him more cookies.”

On television, Jack LaLanne does exercises dressed in a clinging red shirt and tights. Mrs. Chandler doesn’t quite trust him because he slicks his hair back with Vitalis; it reminds her too much of the tougher boys in her old neighborhood who might approach you with a line. But she does the exercises anyway, feeling ill and worn down.

Sometimes when Mrs. Chandler drives down the street, she doesn’t feel as though she is moving at all. Sometimes she has no idea where she is going.

Mrs. Chandler goes to the local music store to buy some records. While she browses through the selections, a red voice in her head goes off whenever she sees an album that either her husband or one of her children may like. She wonders what it must be like to be disentangled from her children and her husband’s thoughts, but can’t help being caught up in them.

Once she ignored the voice and picked out a record that only she was interested in, but when she brought it home, she didn’t enjoy it as much as she thought she would. She was too consciously aware that her husband had fallen asleep shortly after the opening bars of the opera. It bothered her that what held her interest did not hold her husband’s. Mrs. Chandler wished it did not bother her.

Mrs. Chandler has discovered a lump on her breast. She discovers it while showering, checking to see if the exercises she has been doing has made her flesh more taut.

Her hands are wet and slippery from soap, and at first she thinks she just imagines the lump is there. In fact, she immediately drops her hand from her breast and shampoos her hair, letting the water pour down on her. She wonders why in the Bible and in Lives of the Saints none of the women ever died of breast cancer. Instead, they were burned at the stake, got stoned to death, or turned into pillars of salt.

Mrs. Chandler thinks about the silver salt and pepper shakers that her grandmother gave her on the day of her wedding.

“A matched set,” her grandmother told her. “Too much salt without pepper ruins a stew.”

But before she handed the set over to Mrs. Chandler, her grandmother took the filled saltshaker and sprinkled a few grains over her right shoulder.

“The tears of marriage,” her grandmother had said. “I’ve spilt them all for you now. No more will fall.”

The bathroom is hot and foggy, the steam clinging to the walls and mirrors like billowy clouds of angels. Mrs. Chandler feels a thin trickle of cold air creep through the fog, as though someone has disturbed the pattern flow by opening the bathroom door. It sends a chill down her spine.

“Joey?” Mrs. Chandler calls out from behind the shower curtain. “Joey, is that you?”

The water pours down upon her head, muffling all sound.

In bed at night, Mrs. Chandler is awakened by a noise. The wind howling, she thinks, a low moan, cold and breathy against the side of the house. She listens for a few moments, wrapping the coverlet more tightly about her. Now she hears a rustle, a slight scratching at the bedroom window. Her eyes strain to make sense of the sound in the dark room, her face quiet, stiff, pointedly staring at the window across from the bed. Thick, cream-colored curtains hide the glass, a passive empty wall against the outside elements.

Mrs. Chandler waits in bed, trying to get up the courage to pull the curtains away. Her senses are alert and poised for the confrontation. She can hear her heart beating in her chest; she can hear–yes, wait–if she listens carefully, her own blood as it thickly courses through her veins. The transport slows down as it nears her brain, like a train nearing a station, putting on its brakes so not to overshoot its destination. She feels the vibration echo in her head.

Joey lies next to her, his buttocks pressed against her right thigh. Now that her eyes have adjusted somewhat to the darkness, she can make out the even rise and fall of her husband’s chest as he sleeps. Each time he takes a breath, he emits a long whistle that rattles through his nostrils.

She hates him suddenly–a pure liquid emotion that comes from nowhere. Then just as suddenly she crosses herself in the dark, asking God’s forgiveness for having such a feeling.

Too late, though. The sound is in the house. He, it, is upstairs in the attic–the old wooden floorboards creaking with each step.

Mrs. Chandler feels the bitterness in her throat, and with self-loathing pulls the covers back over her head to drown out the sound.

Fear has taken up residence in her attic.

Mrs. Chandler takes her breast to the doctor to have it examined. She tells her husband and her children that she is going to the city to see a matinee concert by the Philharmonic. Alice, who is married to Max the grocery clerk, will sit for the kids when they get home from school.

Mrs. Chandler waits for Danny to say he is too old for a babysitter.

He simply shrugs, stands up from the breakfast table, slings his book bag over his shoulder, and reaches for the last slice of toast.

“Bus is coming,” he says. And the rest of the children trail after him.

Joey takes a final sip from his coffee. He leans across the table and kisses Mrs. Chandler on the cheek.

“Gotta catch the 7:40 train,” he says. “Enjoy your day. A change of scenery will do you some good.”

Mrs. Chandler tries to catch onto his arm as he stands up. But her hand only touches the cloth of his gray pinstripe suit.

“Hey,” he says. “You’ll get it dirty.”

Mrs. Chandler pulls her hand away.

After he leaves, she does the dishes and gets ready for her journey. She goes to her double-length closet and looks at her clothes. The shoes are vertically stacked in neat plastic tubs. She used to have a matching handbag and gloves for each set of shoes, but nobody wears gloves anymore, except if it snows, so she has given them to Jenny and Mary to play with. Mary puts them on her tiny hands very carefully, then holds them up vertically into the air.

“Nurse, I’m ready to operate now,” Mary says to Jenny and bends down low over the burst appendicitis of her Chatty Cathy doll. Jenny covers her mouth with her hands at the thought of an exposed doll stomach and bursts into tears.

It is partly because she fears Jenny’s outbursts that Mrs. Chandler did not tell anyone of her appointment this afternoon.

Mrs. Chandler quietly goes through each dress that hangs on the rack. Just for a second she thinks about wearing a bright red dress, the one Joey bought her for her birthday five years back. The dress is sleeveless with a v-neck bodice, flared skirt and a linen belt that cinches her waist. Even though it is old, the dress is the most stylish that she owns, coming straight from the downtown Lord & Taylor’s.

Mrs. Chandler pictures her breast in such a dress and decides it is inappropriate. Gray linen will be more suitable. She dresses in the semi-darkness–wriggling into her one silk pair of pantyhose. The doctor she is going to see is a specialist; she wants to be sure that he treat her correctly.

Mrs. Chandler has heard horror stories about acts of butchery done to women in the name of keeping them alive–at the PTA, she heard of a hysterectomy that went wrong, the doctor’s scalpel slipping and nicking away part of the intestine. The woman said she wound up in the hospital for eight weeks, and when she got home she found out that her husband had taken the kids (and himself) to his secretary’s house for safekeeping.

Mrs. Chandler pours herself into a bra and slip, careful not to touch the round swelling that just a few weeks before didn’t exist.

She transfers her wallet, keys and address book (with the doctor’s name written in pencil–why make such a thing permanent?) into her good leather purse and slips on a pair of gray low-heeled pumps.

She looks at herself in the mirror. Mrs. Chandler is still a fairly good-looking woman. Her brown, slightly wavy hair is middle-length and clipped back neatly with a large mother-of-pearl barrette. Every night, just as her mother had done before her, Mrs. Chandler rubs cocoa butter lotion on her face, neck and elbows to keep them soft and wrinkle free. Dressed, no one can see the stretch marks on her stomach that heralded Lindsay, her final child’s birth. No one but her notices the brown mottled pigmentation starting to form on her once creamy white thighs. She feels a sudden, insistent stab of despair.

The commuter train is crowded and noisy, filled with women on their way to the city to see a Broadway matinee or a gallery opening. They sit opposite each other in mushy, vinyl-upholstered seats, their legs neatly crossed in front of them. The women talk about their children, how dress hemlines are so short these days, about the benefits of living in the suburbs.

Mrs. Chandler feels sure that the look the women give her periodically means they are speculating about why she’s alone and staring out the dirty train window instead of flipping through the still crisp pages of the magazine on her lap.

A straying husband?

Economic woes?

An overbearing mother-in-law?

Whatever it is, Mrs. Chandler thinks the women are probably glad that such a thing has happened to her and not to them. Her troubled face frees them somewhat, for if Mrs. Chandler’s husband is straying with the office secretary, then statistically speaking their own husbands are not. Mrs. Chandler’s problem, whatever it is, has let these women off the hook. In gratitude, one of the women offers Mrs. Chandler a stick of Juicy Fruit.

Mrs. Chandler gives a brief smile, politely shakes her head, and then resumes her watch at the window. The landscape whizzes by, all of Long Island, nearly all that Mrs. Chandler has known for the past fifteen years passes by in a gray-greenish blur.

The lights go off as the train enters the tunnel to Penn Station. Temporarily disoriented, Mrs. Chandler clutches tightly to her purse as her body absorbs the train movements as her own.

“Shake, rattle and roll…shake, rattle and roll…”

Unsummoned, the words play inside her head. When she was in high school, she and her girl friends used to dance to that song at the gym sock hops. They would dance with each other, calling out the words just seconds before the singer did. Mrs. Chandler tries to remember the name of the group that sang it. Bill Haley? James Brown? Chubby Checker?

Mrs. Chandler used to know things like that.

“You should be on Name that Tune,” Joey used to say to her. “We could really clean up.”

Mrs. Chandler would blush then and stroke her husband’s hair.

The train huffs its way into the station, gives a single shutter, and then stops.

Mrs. Chandler throws her raincoat over her arm and follows the rest of the passengers out through the automatic doors.

The station is cloudy and dank. After all these years, Mrs. Chandler still marvels that Manhattan sits on top of this huge network of train stations and subway stops. Fifty feet above her is the street.

One hundred feet above that is the doctor’s office on the tenth floor of a Park Avenue high rise.

She takes a cab, telling herself not to worry. She remembers the time a few months after Lindsay was born when her Pap smears came back a little strange. Dr. Toby, her trusted ob/gyn, had patted her on the back and said that sometimes pregnancy could change things.

They would watch it carefully together, Dr. Toby said. Four months later her Pap smears went back to normal.

But Dr. Toby has retired, so now she is seeing a doctor she has never met.

Mrs. Chandler lies on the white table, a cold sheet over her naked torso and legs. Her neatly pressed dress hangs on a wooden peg, her stockings, bra and panties are modestly hidden away in her purse, which she zips up carefully.

The doctor is dark and balding with warm fleshly hands that feel too human for Mrs. Chandler’s comfort. Dr. Toby’s hands had been small, cool, and precise as the silver instruments that he wielded to do the examination.

“Dr. Toby sent me your records,” the doctor tells her, his hands circling her right breast checking for the lump. “Your history indicates that you are at low-risk for this type of cancer.”

He squeezes her nipple hard to see if any fluid comes out.

“I wouldn’t worry,” he says.

Shake, rattle and roll. The pain floods through her body.

“I mean I wouldn’t worry about it unnecessarily,” the doctor says. “But there is something there. Have my nurse schedule an appointment for next week so we can do a biopsy. A minor procedure–you won’t even have to stay in overnight.”

“Stay in? The hospital? I have to go to the hospital?”

“It’s perfectly routine. You get your husband to drive you,” he says, patting her hand.

Suddenly, Mrs. Chandler is dressed and out of his office on the elevator. She feels chastened somehow, like when the nuns at school would send her into the hallway to think over what she had done wrong. Then, like now, Mrs. Chandler felt genuinely sorry for causing trouble, but still uncertain about what sin she had committed.

The elevator door dings open. She is there at the bottom, back on the street. The doorman offers to get her a cab.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Chandler says. “But I think I’ll walk.”

The doorman looks skeptically at Mrs. Chandler’s pumps, and then shakes his head.

“You sure, lady?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

She is off, launched into the sea of people on the sidewalks. It is nearly four and the first stirring of rush hour pushes itself onto the busy streets. Like a giant amoeba, it engulfs her in its gooey membrane. All the people feel they move independently, the freedom to window shop or meet a friend for dinner, or run to catch a train. They feel they move independently, but Mrs. Chandler knows they do not, for here she is covering block after block, her gray heels clicking along the pavement, and though she is getting tired, can already feel a red-hot blister forming on her instep of her arch where her stocking rubs against the leather of her shoe, she keeps moving. The sounds of the city grow around her.

“Papers! Get your evening paper right heah,” the hawkers sing out on every street corner. “Don’t miss all the news. No waiting. Buy your paper heah!”

“Shoe shine, shoe shine. Fifty cents a shoe. I do one pair, two pair, three pair–how many shoes you got, I can do. Right here. Sit yourself down and I make you look good for that evening date. Shoe shine.”

Mrs. Chandler smells the noxious fumes of the diesel engines as the buses make their runs down Park Avenue. She draws in a deeper breath to find some fresher air–the smell of damp cardboard and stale urine fill her nose. Just behind her, a taxi beeps its horn at a group of pedestrians who cross against the light.

The pedestrians laugh defiantly, their arms laden with leather briefcases or neatly wrapped store packages from Saks or Bonwits.

Mrs. Chandler counts the avenues as she completes them. Fifth. Sixth. Seventh. The station is just three blocks away now. She checks her watch to ensure she will make an earlier train than her husband.

She cannot bear the thought of their meeting just now. His questions about the Philharmonic, his surprise that she didn’t keep a copy of the program, sitting across from each other on the crowded train making polite, unbearable conversation–because how in front of all these people can she say to Joey what she needs to say?

She takes the stairs two at a time, climbing back down into the bowels of the city. A hot gust of air meets her when she gets to the gate, the view obstructed by hundreds of commuters awaiting the train’s arrival. They swarm around the small entranceway like angry bees, each wanting to be the first to crawl inside that square, honeyless hive.

Then it happens. Right there with all the people, the din of voices on the public phones as they scream into the receivers trying to be heard, the announcements from the station information booth as it calls out the departing times of one train after another. It happens.

Mrs. Chandler begins to sing.

“Mich-ael ro–ow your bo-at a-shore, hal-le-lu-jah! Mich-ael row your boat a-shore, halle-lujah!”

It comes unbidden. Even Mrs. Chandler herself is surprised to hear the melody come from inside her head. Mrs. Chandler’s mouth is round, her chin dropped, her breath easy. The notes come from deep within her belly and move outward, ever outward, echoing through the immense cavernous space, echoing upward, back towards that strange, gorgeous, dangerous world above the station.

“Sist-er help to trim the sails, hal-le-lu-jah…”

A few commuters slow their pace somewhat as they pass by Mrs. Chandler, listening to her words. One even puts his hand into his pocket to draw out a little change to show the concert pleases him, but when he sees no hat on the floor, no place to deposit the coins, his face turns red with embarrassment.

Mrs. Chandler does not notice–she only knows that her brain is filling up with notes, her body being replaced with music, filling up those empty, silent spaces inside her, filling them up so quickly that it pains her, the same way that eyes ache for a moment when a light is instantly turned on in a very dark room. First shock, then clarity, and finally adjustment.

The song echoes inside her a long time, so long that only when a smattering of applause reaches her subconscious does she realize that she had sung this song, this small song which she used to sing at bedtime when her children were babies, in front of all these strangers. Her body feels warm and thick.

Then the green sign flashes that Mrs. Chandler’s train has finally arrived, and once again the amoeba resumes its fluid movements, pushing her along in the crowd down the final set of stairs and on to the train. But just for a moment, just before she feels her body lifted up and carried away, Mrs. Chandler hears someone quietly humming the notes of her song.

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About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in New York's glorious Hudson Valley with her husband and the two of the world's most playful cats.

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