The Ironer

by Mark L. Keats

“A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light.” Franz Kafka


Mom’s ironing the future. It’s by no means an easy job or even one she wanted. But genetic necessity and proclivity, tradition, led her to take over Grandma’s role. She grips part of it like one of Dad’s work shirts, though he’s been unemployed for what feels like forever. He’s asleep on the burgundy couch, static, an image I’ve always had of him; my sister is next to him. The TV’s on, but there’s nothing new to watch, so Cara goes outside to play, sticking her tongue out at me as she leaves. It’s just voices in the background and the hissing of Mom’s iron. I play on the floor in between them in the living room. 

Mom situates what she can of the future on her board; it’s all wrinkled and creased, heavily layered and thick, surprisingly colored in places even. “This,” she says, pulling at the never-ending substance. “This is your future.” Then she gives it a good whack with her free hand and laughs a little. 

“What?” I utter, and put the past down, at least the part I’m allowed to play with. 

“Your future,” she repeats rather shakily, as if to mimic a ghost. She laughs, then wipes

her forehead.

She sounds like Grandma now, who’s retired to the Pacific Northwest and who tries not to reveal too much when she calls or visits. A lifetime of ironing has caused her to see too many fragments, glimpses, too much potential. “A kaleidoscope of possibility,” she said once to Mom. And because she’s naturally a talker, we don’t hear or see her very often. Sometimes she sends chocolate-covered cherries and occasionally she sends postcards with pictures of the coast and aphorisms. The last one had a picture of Cannon Beach and an aphorism that read: “Do not seek wisdom; unpack and unfurl it.” I asked Mom what it meant, but she only smiled and nodded as she kept ironing. 

Mom takes a sip of her bullet coffee and laughs again. And her laugh will reverberate in my head my entire life.


At first Mom was okay with the blocks because they were free and kept me occupied. They were seemingly safe. Though her job is important, it didn’t pay well. “The only luxury in our profession,” she’d often tell me, “is that everyone has a future and they’re always wrinkling it.” And because ironing the future meant she could also sometimes experience it, though merely fragmentary, she’d never let me have toys that those glimpses suggested I’d inevitably hurt myself with: so no Legos—too small and choke worthy; no baseballs—too hard; no tire swing or climbing the tree—too many sprains and broken bones; no team sports; and definitely no bike or scooter or skateboard. No running around the neighborhood with all the other children.

So the blocks became my toy. And I’d stack them as high as I could, then knock them over. Stack and knock. Stack and knock. But soon, they piled up and were strewn about everywhere. Little piles in the living room and the bedroom, boxes overflowing on the porch and in the garage, even the occasional misplaced ones in the bathroom and kitchen. It seemed as if Dad brought blocks home every day—that that was really his only job until it wasn’t. Then, his job seemed to be to maintain a bodily presence on the sofa, to be a witness to Mom’s ironing. 

Not surprisingly after playing with the blocks, I’d leave them all over the floor when something else grabbed my attention, like my sister’s bike or softball bat, even children’s voices and laughter softening outside. And Mom would step on one, then another, and curse. “Prescience only tells us so much,” another aphorism from Grandma.

It was always then that Mom revealed her unhappiness with the blocks, stepping on one in the middle of the night on her way to the bathroom or early in the morning before her coffee. 

“They’re just spent capsules. There’s no future possibility with those things. Just depression, what ifs. And if I step on another one of these,” she said, then sent one flying down the hallway with a swift kick. If we’d had a dog, she would have surely hit it. 

“The child can have some blocks,” Dad said, walking over to find the one she’d kicked. “We can’t even play catch. Besides, isn’t this practice? Isn’t the future about building?” 

“Is our son going to be an architect now?” she asked. “I think you know how tradition works around here. If Cara had the ability, then we’d be making her prepare. You know how this works.”

“Those ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it, right?” he said, and handed me the block. It was one of my favorites: covered full of images of people playing sports. 

“You’re quoting Churchill now? Okay,” she said. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I looked up, said, “Spiderman.”

“I quote a legitimate historical figure,” Dad said, “And you—”

“Also quote a legitimate historical figure,” she said, then smoothed out a piece of the future repeatedly, her brow furrowed. 

Dad looked at her, put his hands on his hips. Then he looked at me and said, “Yeah, Spiderman.” Then he started laughing, and then Mom started laughing. 


Mom points her iron at me and laughs again loudly. “One more and you’re done.”

“What?” I say, again, block in midair. I’m at eleven now. I’ve never gotten them this high. These blocks aren’t easy to stack because they’re not smooth all over. 

“That tower. One more and it’s over. You and I both know it. Tower of Babel. Caput.”

“What do you—But I’ve never stacked twelve before.”

“I know,” she says. “And it’s not happening today, kiddo. Your future’s here,” she says, pointing at the ironing board with the iron. “Not there with those blocks.”

Before I can respond, the stack falls.  

“Your future, if you don’t listen to me,” she says, then picks up another large part of the future and wrestles it onto the ironing board. She wipes her forehead with the back of her free hand. She’s really working now. She’s got the iron really hissing good. And I can see the sweat beads already forming again. She looks under the board to see if any of the future happened to tear off. She wipes her brow with her hand again, then glances over at Dad. He’s still asleep, though I swear I saw him just barely open his left eye and look around. His hands rest softly on his stomach, which, when I look closely, rises and falls, rises and falls.

Mom says, “Your father, he looks like your Grandfather when everyone thought he’d died. Peaceful, of another world. But grandma knew. It would be another ten years before he’d finally leave us.”

“Oh?” I say to her, restacking the blocks. I suddenly see an image of dad opening a door, then leaving.

  “Wake up. I know you’re faking it, Grandma said. And up he got. Besides, kiddo,” she says. “Can’t do this forever. Even ironers need a vacation, retirement, a chance just to live in the moment. To rest. Your sister passed the test. She never got hurt, wasn’t susceptible like us. Besides, she’s got other things to do, other responsibilities. A different life to live.”

“But I don’t want to iron. I want to play with blocks. I want to play catch with Dad and Cara. I want to ride my bike with the other kids, I want to—”

“I didn’t want to do it either, really. But here I am. Besides, you and I both know your sister’s not the one. She doesn’t feel the world like you and me.” When she says this, I suddenly see an older woman who looks like Cara sitting with another woman on a porch; I hear the faintest rocking of chairs. All new fragments, glimpses. 

She pulls a corner of the future, a small bluish piece, and throws it at Dad, who squints his eyes after it hits his cheek. The piece falls onto the sofa and dissipates. Then he turns and looks at her. 

“Okay, okay, I’m going.” He winks at me as he walks past, then turns the TV off. In the kitchen, I hear the door open, then close, the car starting up. 

“See,” she says. “Faking it.”


The way Dad tells it is that in his previous job as a trashman, though he prefers “tinker,” it was his job to collect various pasts and crush them down. 

“You know,” Dad said, “People just disregard their pasts so easily. They always want to try on the future. It’s a freakin’ mess. But they never realize someone has to pick it up, take it somewhere far away. I mean pasts aren’t clean and smooth; pasts can’t be ironed out like the future.” 

“Ha,” Mom said. “The last I heard, they’d begun a recycling program.”

“Won’t last,” Dad said. “Nobody wants a weaker future, even if it’s better for the environment.”

“You really believe that?” Mom asked.

“As much as you believe in that ironing tradition.”

She stopped and pointed the iron at him. “We both know this job is critical. Besides,” she said. “It’s in our bones and someone has to do it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dad said. “Someone has to do it.” Another of Grandma’s aphorisms. 


I hear the car outside, then the door opening. Dad and Cara enter. She kisses Mom on the cheek and sticks her tongue out at me, before swiping at my blocks and running upstairs to change. I’m jealous because I’ve never been allowed to play sports, never even felt the softness of the leather on my hand, the supposed sting of the ball hitting it from it being thrown. Once, I tried to put on my sister’s glove but Dad caught me and said, “You’d better not, kiddo.” 

“Five minutes,” Dad yells. “Five minutes!” 

“Mom!” Cara yells back.

“More like fifteen or twenty,” she says, then looks at me. “Right?”

“What?” I utter, upset that my blocks have been knocked down yet again.

“Thanks!” she yells down. 

I tilt my head at her, unsure of what she means, though I can sort of see Cara late for practice, her coach yelling at the team to run yet another lap, her teammates looking at each other and laughing, before running that lap.

Dad just looks at Mom, shakes his head. “Just because you can see the future, doesn’t mean you should undermine me at every corner.”

“That’s not the future,” she says, really moving the iron now. Steam hisses out of it, making a loud whooshing sound. “That’s maternal prescience. That’s—”

“—highly annoying,” Dad says.

“But it’s right,” she says, then, iron midair, looks at me. “Don’t do it.”

Dad also looks at me. “What is it now?” he asks. “Is it bad?”

In all the times Mom said this to me growing up, she’d had suspicions, little suggestions. I’d open a door and someone would be there about to knock. I’d point, and someone would drop a glass. And when I began to talk, Mom said, I’d wake up and say it would hurt today, especially today, before rubbing my arm or leg, my head even. Not long after I was five, I wound up in the emergency room monthly: a broken collarbone, a sprained big toe, a bull’s eye rash—even a bad case of poison ivy that lasted a year. 

Dad’s response was always the same. “Boys will be boys. Give him some more time.” But Grandma and Mom must have known. They’d kindly given me more time than anyone could ever really know or understand. They had both wished it wouldn’t be true, that perhaps it would skip a generation or leave the family altogether. But it did not. And how could they not know with their own experiences, that shared history. How could they not know when their bodies were always on the verge of shattering, ironing seemingly the only curative, a temporary solution to an unknown genetic disposition, or what the very first ironer, historically recorded, had posited. Mom said, “No, he’s the one. Just look at him. He’s the future ironer.”

“Nothing,” she says, before looking over at me and repeating, “Do not do it. I’m telling you now for your own good. It’s not worth it. It will never be. Listen to me now very clearly. Not worth it. Besides, sticks and stones.”

“Cara,” Dad yells. “Cara, hurry up, let’s go! You’re going to be late!”

“Dad?” I say.

“Yeah, bud?”

“I think mom’s right. You’re going to be late.”


And mom is right; sadly, she’s always right. I’ll be much older when I realize the burden of that, and Mom, of course, will be gone, somewhere far away where I know I won’t ever be able to reach her. Retirement, stasis, or something like that. And only then, when she’s finally absent, will I better understand why she stopped letting me do what so many other kids did, why she stopped letting me go out into a world that would attempt to break me at every potential turn for being different. A mother’s prescience, for sure. “Do not seek wisdom; unpack and unfurl it.”


Tomorrow, I’ll be sent to the principal’s office, something that will eventually become a habit, and solidified in blocks that someone else’s father will begin to collect and deposit. Some of that anger and sadness, though, will simply be recycled, packaged, and sold. A classmate will call my mother crazy because he doesn’t understand our condition, and instead of ignoring or shaking it off, instead of heeding my mother’s words, “Sticks and stones,” I’ll get upset and angry. Despite knowing what will happen, the anger will lead me to fight my classmate. I mean, I know she irons the future, but some kids’ parents are birds or colors, sounds even. Others live below in the interior crust of the earth, up in the atmosphere, or deep in the oceans. And everyone has a role in the world. Everyone has a duty, even if it’s not always visible and clear, obvious to the outside world. That’s what Mom always said. “Some people will just never understand how the world operates. But, those people, no matter what you think, remember, they’re important, too.”

Sometime this month will also be the day Dad first leaves us, but Mom’s known all along and so has Grandma. But, of course, Grandma also knew just like Mom that they’d get married, have two kids, one of whom would carry on the ironing, and eventually drift apart. Objections were pointless. Love was blind, partially. The future inevitable. As always. It’s not that she’d needed the future to see it. Relationships often just run their course, sometimes even expire. She’d experienced enough flickers, seen more than enough fragments and glimpses. But then she’d also seen something larger, clearer, as I went from building my wall of blocks to spending time in the principal’s office to finally accepting my role because those vibrations became ever clearer to me. 

She’ll keep ironing until she has to because that’s her job, that’s what puts food on the table and keeps the lights on. Because that’s what was dictated in our bones and DNA. And she’ll welcome Dad back and accept his apologies, say, “If anything, please, just stay for the kids.” And he’ll nod to all of it. Want to really stay for us all. And for a moment, we’ll be as happy as the family picture on the wall. But Mom also knows he’ll leave us again forever. And perhaps, in that one moment, no matter how singular or minute, Dad also knew the future, that he was too tired with the roles and limitations of our family. Too tired in general to move beyond his place on the burgundy couch. But she’ll never tell me where he goes or what he does or when he’ll die. If he, perhaps, had another family. And when I ask if he happened to turn his head at least and look behind, perhaps smile, grateful that he had been part of our family, she’ll never tell me if he did or not. She’ll only say, “Happy. He’s finally happy.” And I’ll wonder what exactly that means. 

Soon, too, Cara will leave us for college and meet her partner there. Then they’ll end up somewhere in the Northeast with a child they’ll adopt, animals they’ve rescued. She’ll write beautiful stories and her partner will write devastating poetry, and they’ll teach at the local college, grow a garden, watch as their daughter also grows up and eventually leaves them. In that moment, Cara will see mom’s image so strongly and feel just the slightest tinge of sadness for leaving herself. But then she’ll see mom’s image clearly, hear her say, “Go on now. Live your life. We’ll be fine here.” She won’t have the burden of knowing how it ends for Mom, how, as Grandma will say, “It’s always tragic when you outlive your children.” Cara will smile and her partner will put her arm around her and hold her close. They’ll watch the sun set and then sit on the porch in their rocking chairs until the crickets and other insects take over the night, until the stars reveal themselves in that heavy darkness. And their breaths will become harder and harder to see. Then I’ll choose to hold that memory of them forever, because it’ll be all I have once they’re distant and absent and finally gone.

And soon, very soon, because Grandma and Mom have always known, and in small ways, so have I, it’ll be my turn officially to iron the future, to decide whether or not to prevent my children from pain, to choose love despite loss, to decide how much to reveal what I know to you.

Mark L. Keats was born in Korea and raised in Maryland. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. He has received fellowships from Kundiman and The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His work is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol and Portland Review.