Read an Excerpt
A Woman's Place
Had I been a superstitious sort, I would have taken the smell as an omen. I had wanted the morning of our leaving to be smooth and now it was down to the wire. The last thing I needed was Dennis annoyed.
But I was a trusting soul. Entering the kitchen that October Friday, I sensed nothing of the broader picture. All I knew was that something had gone bad. A rank smell sullied what should have been the sweetness of fall—the scent of crisp leaves drifting in from the backyard, cranberry candles on the glass table top, a basket of newly picked Macouns.
I checked under the sink for fishy paper from last night's scrod, but the air there was fine. Same with the inside of the oven. Nothing hit me when I opened the refrigerator, still I checked the milk that my daughter too often left on the counter, the chicken that was ready for Dennis to eat while we were gone, the cheese bin where plastic wrap might hide something fuzzy and blue.
But the odor remained, offensive and strong, another glitch in a godawful week of glitches. With a husband, two young children, and a career to juggle, preparing to go away for more than two days was always a challenge, but I was going away for eleven days this time, in part on a dreaded mission. My mother was dying. My equilibrium was shaky, even without complicating glitches.
Having ruled out the obvious, I was beginning to wonder if something wasn't rotting under the two-hundred-year-old floorboards of the house, when my son padded in in his stockinged feet. He looked more sober than any nine year old with mussed hair, an authentic Red Sox baseball shirt, and batteredjeans should look, but he was a serious child under any conditions, and perceptive. Much as I had tried to minimize the meaning of our trip, I suspected he knew.
"I can't find my sneakers, Mom. They're not in my room, and if I can't find them, I don't know what I'll wear at Grandma's. They were my best pair."
"'Were' being the operative word." I draped my arms over his shoulders. The top of his head reached my chest. "I had to scrape mud from the bottoms last night. What were you up to, Johnny? We agreed you wouldn't wear good sneaks to play football."
"It was basketball. Jordan's dad put in a hoop, but nothing's paved yet." He made a face. "Peewww. What stinks?"
I slid a despairing glance around the kitchen. "Good question. Any ideas?"
"Don't ask me. Ask Kikit. She's the one always leaving things lying around. Are you sure I'll be home in time for practice Tuesday?"
"The plane lands at one. Practice isn't until five."
"If I miss practice, I'll be benched."
I took his face in my hands. His cheeks were boy-smooth, deep into the lean and cool of preadolescent limbo. "The only way you'll miss practice is if the flight is delayed, in which case Daddy or I will talk with the man—"
"It's a rule," Johnny broke in and took a step back. "No practice, no play. Where are my sneakers?"
"On the landing in the garage." My voice rose to follow him there. "Want something to eat? Brody will be here in forty-five minutes. They'll feed us on the plane, but I can't guarantee you'll like it. Unless you want some of Kikit's food." Silence. He was through the mudroom and into the garage. I used the pause to shout upstairs for my youngest. "Kikit?"
"She changed her mind again and is moving the menagerie from her bedroom to the den," my husband announced, tossing the morning Globe, minus the business section, which he held, onto the table. "I have never seen so many stuffed things in my life. Does she really need all those things?" He sniffed and screwed up his face. "What's that?"
The question was more damning coming from Dennis. In the overall scheme of our marriage, the house was my responsibility.
But I couldn't hunt more now, just didn't have the time. "It may be a rat. The exterminator had to rebait some of the basement traps, which means some of the poison was eaten, which means something may have died before it reached the outside."
Johnny ran through with a pithy, "Gross."
His sneakers left a trail of dried dirt, but there wasn't time for remopping, either. "Eggs, Dennis?"
"Maybe. I don't know. Coffee first." He sat down with the paper.
I put on the coffee and, ignoring the heebie-jeebies inside that cried, Come on, come on, let's get this show on the road, said gently, "Eggs, yes or no? I have forty minutes to be cleaned up, packed, and gone."
"What about that smell? I can't live with this for eleven days."
"It may go away on its own," I prayed. "If not, give the exterminator a call. His number is on the board."
"But I won't be here to let him in. I'm leaving right after you do to meet the Ferguson group in the Berkshires. That was the whole problem with driving you to the airport." He shot me a disparaging look. "I can't believe you messed up with the service."
"I didn't. I don't know what happened, Dennis. I booked the airport run two weeks ago and have the confirmation number to prove it. They say I called and canceled last week. But I didn't. If I hadn't called to check a little while ago, we'd be waiting an hour from now for a ride that isn't coming. Lucky thing Brody can take us. And as for the smell," I tried to keep calm, "have the exterminator come when you get back. I don't know what else to do, Dennis. It's a holiday weekend. Flights are booked solid. I can't just decide to fly later." There was more to be said, more about his being sensitive, what with my mother's illness preying heavily on me, but he was already taking care of the kids so that I could fly on for a week's work after Cleveland. I wasn't ungrateful, just feeling frayed around the edges. It was getting later by the minute.
Just as I took out the egg tray, skipping footsteps came from behind, then the voice of seven-year-old Clara Kate, "Mommy, I'm taking Travis, Michael, and Joy, okay?" She gazed up at me with her cheek at my waist, an angel's face framed by a barretted mass of chestnut curls. My own hair was the same color, though the curl had long since fallen prey to scissors and a blow-dryer.
Hooking an arm around her neck, I held her close while I beat eggs. "I thought we agreed you'd only bring two."
Her cheek moved against my arm. "Well, I said I would, but which one can I leave? I'm the only one who knows what'll make Travis sick if he eats it, and Michael has nightmares if he isn't with me, and Joy'll cry the whole time because they're always together, those three. Besides, I want them to see Auntie Rona, and they'll cheer Grandma up. What's her hospital like?"
"I don't know. I haven't seen it."
She waved a small hand, fingers splayed. "Is it all shiny and noisy, like mine?"
"Only the parts that treat little girls who have allergic reactions to things they're not supposed to eat. Grandma's floor will be shiny and quiet."
"Will she be sleeping?"
"Not all the time."
"Some of the time?"
"Maybe some. Probably not while you're there, though. She'll want to be awake for every minute of that."
"Can she talk?"
"Of course she can."
"Not if she has tubes in her throat. Will she have tubes in her throat?"
"No, sweetie." I opened a pack of shredded cheddar and offered it to her.
She took a fistful. "Will she have tubes in her nose?"
"No. I told you that last night."
"Well, things change sometimes." She put the fist to her mouth and, nibbling cheese, ducked free of my arm. "Daddy, why aren't you coming with us?"
"You know why," he said from behind the paper. "I have to work."
"If you have to work," she asked, climbing up a chair to the table top and sitting on its edge so that her legs swung, "why'd you put your golf clubs in the car?"
I whisked together shredded cheddar and eggs, but softly.
"Because," Dennis said, "I'm playing golf after I work. After," he emphasized.
"We're missing school to see Grandma. I think you should come."
"I went with you in August."
Her legs swish-swished against the paper's edge. "When's she getting out of the hospital?"
"I don't know."
"Is she ever?"
"Good God, Kikit," he said with a tight laugh and the abrupt rustle of newsprint set aside, "I can't read when you bump the paper like that. You're getting cheese all over the place. Get off the table."
"Are you meeting us at the plane on Tuesday?"
"The airport's really big, so how will you know where to go?"
"I'll know where to go. Off the table," he ordered and flipped the paper back up the instant she complied. A Woman's Place
A Novel. Copyright © by Barbara Delinsky. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.