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Taylor was just five, finally asleep at midnight, a little later than usual. I tried, but it always got so late by the time we realized it was time for a child to go to sleep. I lay on the bed on my stomach, breathing out of one nostril because the other was pushed into a musty pillow. Just breathing, and trying to read 14-Down in the crossword puzzle folded on top of the nightstand. "Et tu...." I remember thinking it was a particularly easy one.
I had just moved on to 15-Down when Ken came in. I heard him loosening his tie, the way men say they can hear a woman uncrossing her legs when she's wearing hose. After he got into bed, he rolled on top of me and proceeded to thrash around inside so that he tore me. When he couldn't ejaculate, Ken pulled out and held my face to his. I think he did that so I could see him when he said, "I guess too much pussy in one night makes Kenny a dull boy." That movie was popular then. But I was past getting worked up about his infidelities by that point.
The next day I felt fire when I went to the bathroom, in little streaks, mostly on the outside. It hurt when I rubbed up against myself, even walking. Straddling my cosmetics mirrors, I could see the little red streaks. Some of them oozed clear fluid. My gynecologist told me not to wear panties, to wear a skirt for a week and keep it clean with something non-irritating. Like witch hazel. She asked if I'd ever tried K-Y, if I'd had a problem with dryness in the past.
Ken left something like a month later. He got a townhouse, where else, but in town. I know he might've taken Taylor from me, but it would've been solely on principle. Ken knew that even though he spent a good seventy-five percent of his time telling me how incompetent I was, I knew what to do with Taylor and he didn't. I found a job at a boutique by the river. Then the idea to run my own business when that one went under. I kept the house, I kept Taylor. He didn't come around much after that.
So what do you do? You keep on. You wonder how on Earth you were blessed with the most beautiful living creature in the world, and you hope that you didn't ruin her. Even though I knew I was doomed to ruin her. If that's what I did, I don't know.
I know her hands were always big -- unnaturally big. And square. They looked like Ken's, except they were on a little girl. It was actually quite strange. She didn't have any friends, but she got along with everybody. We took baths together every Sunday night before school. Afterwards I rubbed her entire body with baby oil, until she turned thirteen and started using the guest shower. She rubbed aloe vera lotion into my skin. She poked my breasts, said once, "I got Grandma's, not yours." I cleaned out her ears with Q-tips -- one whole Q-tip, both ends, for each ear. One time she pulled at my wet tampon string when I was toweling off my calves. Then the next thing I knew, she got a waterproof radio and hung it over the showerhead in the guest bathroom and started bathing by herself. Every morning she listened to the traffic report on Providence radio. We didn't even have to drive through town and worry about traffic in order to get Taylor to school.
And so today she moved to another coast. It was the first time I'd called Ken in well over a year. In the many years since the divorce, he wore down just like I did, and he didn't have to be so mean. He asked whether I wanted him to stop by the house on his way home. I said, "No, don't."
I couldn't give her more than a fifty-dollar bill. I know that's odd; no one carries fifty-dollar bills. But one of my regular customers bought an embroidered pillow that said "Honey" for his wife on the way home from work, and he paid with a fifty.
"It could get you to St. Louis," I said to Taylor, handing over the bill. That was all I said. She had come by the store on her way out of town. I didn't even recall her saying anything about leaving in the first place.
I followed her outside, and Taylor rearranged the bags in her trunk. It struck me as the muscles in her forearm flexed under the weight of a duffel bag, that this is the kind of girl who gets pregnant and comes back home. Maybe I got this from watching too many made-for-TV movies, and it had nothing to do with Taylor. But that's what I thought. And at least getting pregnant wasn't really a threat. Or maybe it was. Maybe we'd already been through that with the teacher in boarding school. I think she had an abortion. She made me sign a blank permission slip for March fourth through the fifth, and mail it to the headmaster's office. I think it takes two days for those things; she was away in western Connecticut for two days, then back at soccer practice on Monday. The teacher, he was on leave from dorm duty that weekend too. I telephoned the school and asked.
When I called to tell him my concerns at the time, Ken had said that he didn't want to hear about it. Whatever it was, he wasn't paying for it. His wife had just lost a baby of her own. Their second. He said it "spontaneously terminated because it was genetically unsound." Down syndrome can do that. I liked that. Something's so fragile it just decides what it can and can't take. What it simply is not equipped to handle. Obviously, I lost the ability to do this when I left the womb.
Which is why, for me, and for as long as I can remember clearly, there has always been the store. Buying season, Halloween, Christmas, Easter. Just the coming of a new season necessitated entirely refreshed stock, interesting new displays. It's a little store, but it's a lot of work. The kind of work I can handle.
This company in Vermont, I never went wrong with them. I swear. Way back, I bought these beautifully carved benches from them for the store. Solid oak. I sold two, never could get rid of the third. I kept it until Taylor wanted it for her house in college. She lived with a bunch of the girls from the soccer team up there, and I guess they had a perfect place for it in the backyard. I never got up to Michigan to see it, but Taylor said it worked out great. She studied on it sometimes when it was warm out. At least that's what she said.
I pulled Taylor out of the local high school and sent her away to boarding school because of that bench. It was the one thing I got Kenny to help me out on, coming up with that tuition. I sent her away because I was losing her. It made sense at the time.
"She's got good hands," is all I heard from this coach of hers. Always calling me at home, dropping by the house to tell me what a "natural" my daughter was. A natural soccer goalie. I don't know what's natural, but soccer wasn't ever it for me. She told me Taylor needed to get involved in athletics "to round out her academic experience." That she'd never seen a player with "such raw talent." That woman worried me from day one. Taylor sat in the car for a whole five minutes when that Jill gave her a ride home from practice the first time. Jill, Taylor called her. Jill, or Coach sometimes, but outside of soccer, always Jill.
It was the pear shape of that woman's body, straddling the carved bench and talking to Taylor about her "technique." And Taylor swinging her legs and playing with her hair, not listening in that way she does, but making you think she only has ears for you. I can see how a person could fall in love with that. Believe me.
I saw that Jill a few weeks back, in the grocery store. She had a mighty empty basket. Looked like she was still shopping for one. Or maybe she had just arrived at the store, to be fair.
They live such lonely lives.
She waved at me down the pet-food aisle. I never went down there; I don't know what I was doing. Well, the coffee grinder was across from the dog food, and mine had broken, so I had to get my beans ground in the store. Jill came rolling down the aisle toward me, more like waddling; she hadn't lost that pear shape, but I did notice she didn't look much older than she had when Taylor was in school. She didn't look half as bad as some of Taylor's other teachers I see sometimes. I don't know. Maybe when you don't have a man to cater to, or kids to pick up after, you don't get that stretched out, pained look. I have it. The others with full shopping baskets have it.
Jill asked me how Taylor was, right away. Where Taylor was. She didn't even ask how I was at all. I didn't give her the satisfaction. I lied and said I was estranged from Taylor, that after she graduated from college and trained hard for a year, she decided not to try out for the national team (I knew that would kill Jill).
I don't know why I did it. It just came out. Well, not all of it was untrue. It probably got me a seat on the express elevator to hell, but the look on that woman's face. It was worth it. She pushed her cart on by the kitty litter without another word.
When Taylor left this morning, and I gave her the fifty-dollar bill, I didn't even tell her about her Uncle Charlie. I still couldn't tell her. I think she already knew. We don't really talk anymore like we used to. And Charlie said that we didn't need to trouble her with any of it until he gets sick anyway. If he gets sick. That's how Charlie puts it, but it sounds like a veritable death sentence to me.
One good thing about Taylor's leaving is that there'll be space for Charlie in Taylor's old room. I've been thinking of asking him up. It's something Mom might've done in the time between Dad's death and her own -- make him a son again. If Charlie comes to live with me, I think he's got a friend who could help take care of him when he needs it. There are only three bedrooms. And I don't know for sure, but a dying man probably takes up the space of two or three living.
Maybe if I thought it'd make her stay, I'd have told her about Charlie. But I knew she wouldn't stay. And that's not a comment on how she feels about Charlie. It's mostly a comment on me.
* * *
In truth, at one point I wanted Taylor's help in the store. I thought it could work that way, mother and daughter running the business together, living life together, all that. She seemed to be going nowhere at the time. The soccer thing was a dead end, and she didn't even seem to care for the girls on the team very much. I always thought soccer was all about camaraderie, but no. In the store, Taylor's good with customers, but her inventory and accounting skills are horrendous. In that respect, I'm kind of glad she's gone. I think she feels obligated to help her mother out when she's in town. But I honestly don't need that kind of help.
I know I maybe shouldn't be saying that about my own child, but it's true. She's completely unskilled. Like the other day, Mrs. Williamson came in with her fifteen-year-old daughter, Elaine, who's, well, at an awkward stage in her development. All frowns and limbs. She smelled of that sour, bitter adolescent body odor -- like imitation apple flavor tastes.
"There will be eighteen girls at the party, so we'll need eighteen baskets," Mrs. Williamson said, her purse sliding off a shoulder and into the crook of her elbow.
"Seventeen," Elaine piped in, practically inaudibly.
"What?" Mrs. Williamson snapped.
"Seventeen," Elaine whispered, barely louder than she had the first time.
"What do you mean, honey?"
"Jessica's not coming. Her mom's getting a hystericalotomy."
"Oh god. You couldn't have told me sooner?" Mrs. Williamson looked at me apologetically. "And honey, it's hysterectomy."
"How old is her mom?"
"I don't know: how old moms are," Elaine said, rolling her eyes. Mrs. Williamson shook her head, ridding herself of it all -- age, surgery, hormones, everything.
"Okay then. Well, Arlene, I guess that'll be seventeen baskets -- minus one uterus." Mrs. Williamson laughed that way that's supposed to be at herself, but is really at me. So much pity for me -- no husband, no parties to plan or even go to, a job I have to do, not just want to. No charity work down at the Methodist community center.
"That won't be a problem," I said, laughing along with Mrs. Williamson, at myself. Elaine glared at me, the light from the lamp display reflecting off her braces. Kids never can close their mouths entirely when they've got those things in. Taylor never needed them. "What color ribbon are you thinking? Elaine honey, do you have a favorite color?" I asked.
"Elaine!" Mrs. Williamson frowned entirely with her mouth. The rest of her face didn't move. Must've been a byproduct of plastic surgery. I used to want plastic surgery on my nose. It points down.
"We can incorporate black," I said.
"No. We can't," Mrs. Williamson said. "This isn't a funeral. This is a sweet sixteen. We'll have violet and yellow, and whatever else you think goes with it."
"Okay, that'll be nice, a nice mood-setter. Purple and yellow. So the party's when?" I asked. "I think I can have them ready in a couple of -- "
"Oh, it's in two days," said Mrs. Williamson. "I was hoping to bring them home today. I have to arrange them with makeup, stuffed animals, and issues of YM."
"I guess I could have them for you tomorrow."
"Oh," Mrs. Williamson trailed off. "Not today?"
I didn't really have anything else to do, but I didn't want to give in so easily. "Well, I don't know . . ."
"Please, Arlene. I've always counted on you."
"Agh, okay," I gave in, throwing my hands down in front of me.
"Thank you so much," Mrs. Williamson said, disingenuously.
The winner of this and all battles in the little, mighty world she inhabited. She seemed proud of herself. I wrote up an invoice.
"Young miss," I said after a moment.
"What?" Mrs. Williamson was confused.
"Young and modern," Elaine corrected me. "It stands for Young and Modern."
"When my daughter read it, it stood for Young Miss," I said.
"Oh," Elaine replied, shooting air through the spaces between her braces, making little squeaky noises.
When I went to count out the seventeen baskets, there were only fifteen. There should've been twenty, according to Taylor's inventory. This was the kind of help she gave me. I tore through the storage room, but I couldn't find any more baskets than that.
Where the heck I was going to find another two baskets, I didn't know. Mrs. Williamson wanted these specific ones. I called the distributor. They could overnight a half-dozen. It would cost me though.
Mrs. Williamson was going to pitch a fit. At least I didn't have to worry about where my husband was every night. I knew. I mean, I didn't have to worry anymore. I'd seen her husband quite a few times around here with a nurse of his from the hospital. He performed a strange ducking maneuver whenever he kissed her, but people recognized him anyway.
I suppose that to Mrs. Williamson, I reek of misery. I am nothing like Mrs. Williamson. I watch TV. The last time I went out to see a movie was The World According to Garp. I don't view shopping as a competitive sport. I've had the same Volvo station wagon for fifteen years. My hands are dry, and cracked around the fingernails. I haven't been out of Providence in two years. My house is still owned by my ex-husband. My brother's a homosexual. My daughter could be one too. I wouldn't know to stuff party-favor gift-baskets for my daughter's party with teen magazines and makeup. I wouldn't think to have party favors in the first place. My daughter gave me a vibrator for my forty-fifth birthday. I never even put the batteries in. It's pink with a pearl-like finish. When I tried to open it, the plastic it came in cut my thumb. That plastic is so hard to pull apart you have to cut it, but then it's razor sharp. I never finished opening the vibrator. It's just sitting underneath my bottles of Tylenol, Nytol, and Ex-Lax in the nightstand next to the bed. Come to think of it, I don't even think the vibrator came with batteries.
I could've given all this up to be Mrs. Williamson instead.