Read an Excerpt
Barbara Parkins (or Staizer) leaned over the side of the tub in despair. The bulk of her bosom pressed painfully against the lip, her flesh cold from a damp line where splashing water had wet through her thin cotton blouse. From her right hand dangled a shiny new wrench. Beside her on the floor, open to page six, "What to Do With a Drippy Tap!," was a pamphlet from the hardware store where she'd bought the shiny new wrench and the less shiny but equally new washer. A little package of them, as though she would be needing a half-dozen more sometime in the future. The pamphlet was called Everyone's Guide to Simple Plumbing, but was clearly marketed at women: a sturdy-looking blonde in overalls and a tool belt lay under a sink on the cover, and most of the title heads were fun! And everything ended in an exclamation mark! As though home repair for the desperate was just another Hollywood party!
She wanted to scream. She had been a half hour getting the tap off (righty-tighty, lefty-loosy), only to find that the part in question was as pretty, shiny and new-looking as the washer she'd just bought to replace it. Did that matter?
The tap was in two pieces on the floor of the tub, near the drain. She had carefully placed the old washer easily distinguishable from the new washer because it was wet on the tank of the toilet, where it could be even more easily distinguished. The new one was in place. Her wrist was sore from trying to get the tap off and she was taking a breather.
Staizer. She was Barbara Staizer now, she supposed. Parkins was over. She hadn't actually decided yet to go back to her maiden name, it was nearly as tainted with bad baggage as her married name, and wished she could just pick some clean, fresh name to start over with. Something simple like Smith or Jones, or White or Brown.
It had been suspiciously easy to switch from her birth name to her married name. She remembered her astonishment at how easy it had been. All she had to do was present her marriage certificate and voilà! New person. Barbara Staizer became Barbara Parkins. What was that song?
Water from nowhere rolled out of the top of the tap and slid down the nozzle, dripping into the drain. The water line had been shut off (page two, "Ready, set, repair!"). The water ran anyway, as though not subject to the law of physics.
" how that marriage license works, on chamber MAIDS and hotel CLERKS!" And on clerks in the Vital Statistics offices, also. Like a flash card, a badge.
Annie Get Your Gun? No. Funny Girl. Barbra Streisand.
The wrench was heavy. Barbara Staizer-Parkins-Something-else-like-Brown picked up the tap from the tub and gingerly placed it over the nut and started wrenching. It was easier the second time. Righty-tighty.
She was pretty sure it wasn't as easy to go back to your maiden name, but that was one of the many things she would have to find out. Anyway, she wasn't even sure she would. She was just trying it on, mostly out of anger. Petey (Peter) was still Parkins and that was something to consider.
There was a minimum of mess to Simple Plumbing, and the tiny bit of water that had gotten around stayed mostly in the tub, or had been absorbed by her blouse. The house was a little cool and she suspected that it was poorly insulated, even though it had been renovated by the people who'd owned it last. She'd wondered more than once about those people in the last three days. It was a noisy house. Had they left it because of that?
For instance, the (damn) tub ran. Never when she was in the room, or even upstairs, although she had heard it the other night in the tentative place before sleep: it had woken her. It took just a moment to place the sound. Sitting up in bed, feet on floor, up and at 'em, she could hear it, muffled as though the bathroom door was closed, even though she could see it was open. It was water running from tap into tub, a medium flow, complete with splashing and the hollow sound of pipes in the wall clanging their work. It was a familiar sound like winter wind rattling windows and the newspaper banging against the front door, the fridge coming on. There was no figuring it out: it was the tub, filling up with water. Then draining. And that was the worst part. She'd finally gotten up out of bed, barefoot onto spring-cold floor, and padded to the bathroom.
By the time she reached the doorway of the dark little room, a trek of no more than four steps, she heard the distinct, unmistakable no arguing, I'm not a moron it is as familiar as rattling windows fridge coming on sound of the plug popping out of the drain, and the water running out. Clear as day.
She'd thought Petey was playing, of course. She'd said his name in a whisper because it seemed the right thing to do with the dark and all but he hadn't answered, and when she flicked the light switch beside the door, she looked first to his room. The light caught his smooth white face in sleep.
That's when her heart caught in her throat because obviously there's someone in the house but that lasted only a second because it was too late anyway, she'd turned the light on. No escape lady, ha ha! Someone in the house and he's taking a bath?
The bathroom, tiny as it was, was empty. So was the tub. Empty and dry. She thought it only looked dry, so she'd bent over it and ran her hand along the bottom. Dry as a bone.
She spun around tensed and looked over her shoulder, only to see nothing. The house was quiet again: there was no hollow, muffled clang of pipes in the wall, no water draining out. She'd imagined it. It had been part of a dream.
Something had made the noise. It had to have been the tap. Although it was not the way it had been described in the pamphlet and the man at the hardware store had gone blank-faced as she'd explained it and hastily told her it was likely a leaky washer. He'd insisted, really, as she'd tried to explain. There had been no dripping sound, she'd explained, just the sound of water running and draining. (She hadn't gone so far as to explain the other noise, the one that precipitated the draining of the tub, because it sounded too preposterous, even to her, and she'd heard it.)
"It's most likely a washer, ma'am," he'd said patiently, about one more question from a yawn or a sigh. "It usually is." She'd gone along with it because she didn't know, and while Elizabeth Staizer didn't raise no fools, she wasn't exactly Mrs. Fixit, although she had once put together a yard composter from a kit. And there was no Mr. Fixit anymore.
And, insult to injury and poor repair skills, it turned out Elizabeth Staizer had raised at least one fool.
Barbara dried the wrench on a towel and left it on the back of the toilet. She tossed the old washer into the little wicker garbage basket beside the sink and put the pamphlet beside the wrench. She might need it again. Maybe some pipe would explode somewhere and really test her mettle. She went into the bedroom and changed her shirt, knowing full well the whole exercise had been a waste of time. There was nothing wrong with the washer she had replaced.
Before going downstairs for a cup of tea, she checked her face in the mirror of the little dresser she'd pinched from her mom's house for signs of crying. Her eyes were slightly red and puffy, but no worse than usual. She would rinse her face with cold water. That would take some of the swelling down and lessen the redness around her mouth, too. Petey would be home from school soon. She didn't want him to know that she'd been sad today.
The tub was reflected in the mirror over the sink. Barbara did not keep her eyes closed long when she rinsed her face. She kept her feet tucked close under the pedestal sink, far away from the claws that held up the tub, her eyes fixed on the tub, its reflection white and cool in the mirror.
She had her tea in the living room. There were fewer boxes in there and less work to be done. The pictures that had to go up were stacked against the walls and she wasn't much of a knickknack person. The bookshelves were up and two boxes of books were beside it, but that wasn't bad and she could have those put away before Petey got home. The TV and VCR were hooked up correctly too, the illustrations in the owner's manual much easier to follow than the written directions and the stereo had been up since their first day. The room looked terribly bare. She and Dennis had divided up much of the furniture, and she hadn't been very strident in those days. He had gotten most of the good things, when she thought about it. She did get the sofa a lovely, creamy-colored overstuffed soft thing, long enough to sleep on. He'd got the chair that matched, and the coffee table and one of the side tables. The side table that she'd taken had the stereo on it. Her cup of tea was on the floor at her feet. The decor was minimalist, to put a spin on it. The pictures would help. Time Marches On.
The pictures were currently objects of panic. She had tried to put one up in the hall on the way up the stairs that morning and had succeeded only in hammering a hole in the wall. The nail had loosened the drywall and fallen through. She hadn't attempted another. She would have to ask someone what to do. The pictures in their old house had just been hanging. She had no idea how they'd gotten there, but she supposed that Dennis had put them up. She wondered if there was a guide called Everyone's Guide to Hanging Pictures, Everyone's Guide to Hauling a Spare Bed Upstairs, Everyone's Guide to Unclogging the Gutter. She bet there was. It was a world that needed a lot of home repair.
The floor creaked above her and she cast her eyes that way from under a cool washcloth, soothing away the puffiness around her eyes before the boy got home. It was a noisy house, full of creaks and bumps and draining tubs. The first night she had lain awake in bed, terrified, every bump someone breaking in, every creak someone's footfall. Petey had come to her bed around midnight (after she'd spent the best part of the day putting his room together so that it was ready for him to sleep in). She crawled in with him about one, having put some of the kitchen together, towels in the bathroom so she could have a shower the next morning, and generally wandering around the strange house, poking her head into pitifully small closets and cubbies, running her hand over the smooth refinished surfaces, the new paint. The house smelled fresh and new, just built. The upstairs smelled like something else. Something chemical like fertilizer or that stuff you drag around your yard so that weeds won't grow. Weed-Go. She adjusted the cold cloth on her eyes and rested her head on the back of the sofa.
Petey would be home any minute. New school.
God, let it be okay. She really felt like crying again when she thought of her boy, alone in a new school. She didn't cry, but felt the sting of it behind the cloth. She'd cried herself out, maybe for that day. At least for that afternoon. Nights were harder. But for all the terrors of her day, they did not involve the staring eyes of three hundred new people. And he was sensitive.
As if in answer, there was a sudden, muffled thump! at the front door. Barbara pulled the cloth off her eyes and guiltily dropped it in a ball on the hidden side of the couch. She waited for a moment, thinking it was Petey. The door was unlocked.
When nothing happened, she got up. Her heart jumped a little at the thought that maybe a neighbor was dropping by to say hello and welcome them, maybe a Welcome Wagon lady with all kinds of goodies and coupons and baby-sitting advice. Someone nice, and her age. Divorce would be an asset, but she would be willing to overlook an intact marriage. She put a smile on.
Her socked feet padded comfortably on the cool tiled floor in the hall. She pushed her fringe back, damp from the cloth, and knew how she would look. She had put on a good twenty pounds over the last year and it was not kind on her. It was sloppy-fat and her frame was not large enough to hide anything, not even five pounds. Her lips pressed together and she frowned. There was momentary debate over opening the door at all.
Loneliness won out. Barbara fixed the smile, pushed her hair behind her ears and tugged her T-shirt at least it was clean down over her front, and pulled the door open, hoping she looked suburban, relaxed and only as unkempt as any new homeowner (Oh, hello! Come in! Excuse me, but I've just been fixing a tap!).
A gust of fresh air shuttled in through the open door, but the stoop was empty. She panicked, sticking her head out of the door had she taken too long? There was no one on the path or on the street beyond the hedge at the end of the yard. Crossing her arms over her chest against the cool spring breeze, she stepped onto the stoop to get a better look and trod on something soft that gave. She lifted a foot and looked down simultaneously.
Her smile broadened into something real and she let out a little squeal of pleasure.
On the stoop (decidedly crushed by her foot) was a little yellow bouquet of buttercups. She bent over and scooped them up, letting go of a little groan at the sight of their stems, broken and flattened, bleeding green from having been stepped on. Two of the blossoms had been crushed as well. She bent her head and brought the flowers up to her nose, knowing already how they would smell, the wet way they would brush under her nose.
Do you like butter?
They were limp and battered as though having been carried a long way and Barbara, smiling, looked around again, scanning the street this time for a smaller neighbor, a child, maybe with her mother, coaxed into leaving the new family a hand-picked bouquet. Even when she walked down the sidewalk to the end of her yard, she still couldn't see anyone, big or small, who might have left such a delightful welcome on the step.
"Thank you!" she called out into the open street. She gave another round glance, but saw no one.
Maybe it will be all right, she thought. It was chilly out. The buttercups were cold in her hands, the green juice bleeding onto her fingers. She knew from experience that it wouldn't come off easily, but would stay for an hour or so, until it wore off. Still smiling, she went inside, closing the door softly.
She dug around in kitchen boxes, finally coming up with a little blossom vase and put the flowers into water and placed them in the center of the dining-room table where she could see them and be reminded every time she did that they weren't really alone, that there were people everywhere. Kind people.
Barbara stepped away and admired them for only a moment, and then Petey got home, his nose bloodied, his lip fat, and all the delight went out of the day.
Fat kid! Fat kid! Andy Devries and Marshall Hemp had taken off as soon as someone in the crowd had said, He's hurt. Pushing himself up off the hardened earth, spitting mud out of his mouth, Petey Parkins remembered what exactly had been said, it had been shaddup the fat kid's hurt and then Andy and Marshall had taken off.
Petey spat again and mud sputtered out with saliva, but instead of a good hard hork onto the mud, something that might have salvaged some of his dignity, even just to him, the muddied spittle stayed mostly on his bottom lip. He swiped at it with the back of his hand, his mouth tender where his teeth had mashed into the tissue.
He sniffled snot to the back of his throat. His nose was running. He'd cried. Cried. His face would be ridiculously red against his pale freckles and there would be more dirt, mixed with sweat, under his hairline. He could feel it running down his temples. There was nothing for him to wipe his nose with. He wore a white T-shirt, pulled out and over his pants to hide the large bulk of his belly. If he wiped it there, everyone would know. The snot tickled under his nose. Petey swiped at his eyes with the hand that wiped off the spit.
He would have to use his fingers and then what? He couldn't bear to let it run into his mouth. The kids who had gotten off the bus to see the fight had mostly disappeared, bored now that it was over or scared they were going to get caught. They were all but gone.
"Paul?" Petey realized someone was talking to him. He flinched instinctively, cringing against whatever new horror was in the works. When none came, he answered. "It's Peter," he said, emphasizing out of habit the last syllable of his name. He said it that way nearly every minute to his mother, who still called him Petey. He told her and told her and told her that he was going to be Peter at the new school. At the old school he'd been Petey the Weenie.
"Oh," said the last kid. There was no taunt in the voice, but Petey stayed poised for it anyway. Alert. He spat again. He thought he might taste blood. Nothing came out that he could see. His lip hurt inside. He'd scraped his knee and palms landing from the first push Andy Devries while Marshall laughed but looked angry, and prepared for the next part, which was to kick the fat kid's ass. "You okay? You're that new kid, right? You okay?"
Petey's nose was about to drip. He had no choice. He squeezed his nose with his fingers and pulled it away. He held his hand out in front of him, horrified. He walked a couple of steps to the edge of the sidewalk and wiped it on the grass there.
"Make it grow, eh?" Petey looked up at the kid talking. He was skinny and tall, older than Petey. He stared at him with rounded eyes and easy smile, and it took a second but Petey felt more than saw the blankness behind the eyes. The retard smiled at him, and when Petey didn't bite or snarl or try to punch him, he closed up the distance between them and patted Petey gently on the back.
The unexpected tenderness, or the fact that it was coming from a retard, stung his face and he felt the horrible taste of tears coming back. "It's okay now, they took off," the kid said smiling, nodding with deep understanding. "Andy's bad," he added. "He's a super-shit."
Petey nodded back, sort of, then bent over at the waist, leaning the full weight of his substantial upper body on his knees. His right knee throbbed, but he didn't favor it. Instead he let his head fall and the snot run out of his nose.
The kids at the old school had been used to his fatness. It had come on him gradually over his eight years. It had been a side issue. Instead he'd been a crybaby. Petey the Weenie. If the kids from the new school saw him crying like a baby now, they'd figure it out. He hoped no one could see, hoped the moron couldn't or wouldn't tell, hoped the ground would start to shake and an earthquake would wipe out the whole snot-running city. And, of course, at the old school he'd had Jeremy. His best friend his only friend, really in the whole world.
An ache began like a black hole in his stomach at the thought of Jeremy and his friendly face, any friendly face, and the tears threatened then never to stop, to stay as long as the earth stood, long enough for another Ice Age, or another comet to hit the earth and destroy everything like it had when the dinosaurs lived there. He sobbed harder, feeling sorry for himself, sorry for familiar faces, even for the familiar assholes of the old school. The old taunts.
Fartin' Parkins. He hoped they didn't figure that one out.
Sideways glances on either side showed deserted, quiet streets. Far away he could hear the girls' field hockey team practicing. Just him and the retard. Tears of sublime misery poured from him then and by only hairs he resisted just dropping to the ground and letting it rip, letting the tears swallow or kill him or just anything that would let him be dead.
"He's a shit, that Andy Devries," the kid said. "A shitty shit," he added, and giggled. He repeated "shit" another four times and seemed to get wrapped up in it. "I have to go. You want me to come home with you?"
Just what he needed, to be walked home by the local retard he stopped himself.
"Nah," he said, standing up. He wiped his hand across his nose, wiped the mucus on his shirt, suddenly not caring who saw. "Nah, I'm okay."
"I better go. My mom yells." The kid took off, running up the street, leaving Petey alone.
His house, their new house, was on Belisle Street. It was almost four blocks from the corner and he realized with fresh horror that he didn't know what kids, if any, lived on Belisle, or if they were watching, waiting for him to walk by so they could toss a new taunt out at him, maybe more hey fat kid, or whale boy or something new like fatass or maybe they would just moo or oink when he walked by, hiding behind curtains, doors, fences, their parents still at work and no one home to stop them.
He sighed deeply and let it turn into a snuffle. He wiped again at his nose and it hurt too. His jeans were dirty. His mother would notice that, but first she'd see the snot on his shirt and be disgusted right up until she realized by looking at his (fat) face that he'd been crying. Then she would cry too. Or maybe she would just get that blank look and tell him quietly to go change. Then she'd disappear someplace in the house and he wouldn't even be able to hear her.
Periodically he looked up at the houses, uncertain still which one was his. They were mostly the same on the block, old-fashioned but fixed up. Renovated. That's what theirs was, renovated. The ad had said, "newly renovated." His dad before he left, of course, and stopped being his dad or (not so bad), Your Father had become That Asshole, Your Father had renovated their basement for a year, adding walls and a bar and eighteen tiny little lights that recessed into the ceiling, running all along one side of the basement (he'd said they were "a bitch to put in, just a bitch." Whenever someone came over, Petey's dad shuffled them down into the basement and gave them a drink from the bar and told them what a bitch the little lights had been to put in). Then he left it as though it had been the last order of business. It was as though once he finished the basement he had nothing else to do and so he left. Then his mom started crying and didn't stop for months. She didn't cry as much as she used to, but she still wasn't easy to pin down to one mood. Sometimes when Petey was still at his other school (not so bad) he would come home to find her sobbing in the living room looking through old photo albums like someone had died, the house quiet, breakfast dishes in the sink or even on the table still, the place smelling like cigarettes and coffee, her eyes puffed out and so red he could barely see them. Other days Time Marched On that's what she said sometimes, like an announcement, "Well, time marches on," and she'd ruffle his hair, but it was okay, because even though he wasn't exactly sure what she meant, those were usually the best days.
On Time Marches On days, he might come home from school and she would be in her bedroom trying on every piece of clothing she owned, coming out to show him different outfits and asking him bizarre questions about colors and styles until he wanted to tell her, Mom, Regis says to phone a friend, but he never did. Those times her voice was on the edge of something scary that he didn't recognize but knew instinctively that he had to humor her or else never knowing what the or else was.
He crossed the street onto his block, the last one, and saw with mortification, that his mother had tied a huge, HUGE red bow to the front door, so that he would be able to find it among the other newly renovated old-fashioned houses. (On the other hand, it went quickly through his mind that if the bow was there, it meant at least she was thinking and that meant it might be a Time Marches On day, instead of a That Asshole, Your Father day, but it was quick and rote and meaningless in the face of new torments such as Andy Devries and Marshall Hemp.) Without thinking about it, he swept his eyes stealthily around the block, searching for kids, any kids, even little ones, who might have seen. The streets were bare, the houses staring back. Of course, you couldn't see in them.
Petey ran past the four houses between him and home, the first plan of action to rip that bow off the door before someone saw (Hey, fat kid! You get your house as a present?).
Actually he didn't run, he scurried. Petey only ran when he was going to get beaten up. The rest of the time he scurried, like a bug, hoping not to be noticed.
He yanked the bow off, hearing a riip! with a certain amount of satisfaction, and then he pulled the door open. His mom looked up, a smile forming on her mouth, lips moving in a standard greeting, maybe hi honey how was your day or maybe how was school sweetie, but her whole face seemed to crash once she really looked at him and she leaped to her feet."Oh, Pe-tee, ohmigod, oh, my poor baby, your face " his mother cried when she saw him and crossed the floor in three long strides, dropping to her knees and pulling him into her body like a tiger, lunging.
He let himself be pulled in. "Peter," he managed, before he burst into tears and succumbed completely to the rest of her mother-talk, soothing and hurtful at the same time, because she was crying too, and it was all his fault.
They went into the kitchen where his mom ran cold water over a dishcloth and held it softly to his lip asking him, without expecting his answer, if it felt better, if that helped and there there. Then they went to the little kitchen table where they'd eaten breakfast in the morning. He'd had Count Chocula cereal. So far they'd eaten breakfast and lunch in the little kitchen and dinner at the big table in the dining room. On their way to the table, his mom holding the cloth on his mouth, Petey noticed that a package of chicken was thawing on a plate on the counter.
He told her what had happened, but avoiding the things they said through pride and something like self-protection. She soothed and aaahed and poor-babied him until Petey began to calm down. There was a crossover moment when his mother's voice began to fade, the words becoming sounds and when Petey's mind began to shift to other things soothing.
"I'm going to phone their mothers," she said.
"Can I have some pudding?" he asked, just seconds before she finished closing her mouth on the last syllable. It had come out too sharply, too fast.
"What did you say their names were? You have to tell me their names again," she said. "I'm going to call them. This is a terrible thing to happen. You're a new boy in school. The school," she all but spat out the word school, "should have been watching out for you. Especially if they have such terrible boys there. I'll call the school, too." She finished by picking up the cloth that Petey had let fall to the table. His lip had swollen to the point of feeling foreign against his teeth. His tongue couldn't stay away from it. The tenderest part was right in front of his chewing teeth.
"Mom?" he asked again. He couldn't repeat the whole question. Couldn't break the spell.
Barbara stared at him. She heard him. She chewed her own lip, the same place as Petey's sore spot. Her thinking look. Her eyes dragged away from him, to the counter where the microwave and its little green LCD clock were.
"It's almost supper time," she said, her tone changing, carefully losing its animation.
There were no words, but no silence, between them. Petey's lip throbbed. He needed something in his mouth. He needed it to feel good in there, something creamy, sweet. Something that would take away the taste of the blood and snot. That was all.
"I'm hungry," he said simply. His mouth hung open in his round face, bottom lip protruding, giving him a slightly moronic expression.
Barbara shut her eyes against him. Her arms crossed over her ample chest more ample with the extra weight gained since the break-up. From inside, her chest tightened. The beginnings of panic rose not in her mind, but in her body. Her right leg began to shake and she raised her shoulders, tightening her neck muscles. She got up from the table. Tried to sound offhand.
"I'll have supper ready in a jiff, honey," she said sweetly. "You have to give me the names of those boys. I'm going to call their mothers. I mean it. This can't go unpunished." But the initial anger had passed, and while she meant it, it came out sounding like filler. She knew that. Tasted it.
She pulled the big frying pan out of a box on the floor. She opened the fridge door and grabbed the four potatoes that were left in the bag hastily bought the other night. There was a can of peas in a box by the microwave. She plunked the frying pan onto the stove and turned up the element to medium, then began shuffling through boxes for the oil. She ran across a can of mushroom soup. She would use it for a gravy. Petey liked that. That would be good. She found the can opener and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Petey reach into the cupboard where she had laid out the treats the other night with almost tender consideration.
"No!" she said, too loud and firmly. In his chubby left hand he held a tiny, single-serving tin of pudding. Even as she said it, she looked at the little tin and thought, Such a little bit, would it hurt? and at the same time saw his chubby (not fat he was not fat he was growing) face and his chubby arms and his chubby little fist that gripped the tin with a force that made his knuckles white.
"Mom " His round face twisted into an expression of pain and longing. He did not put the tin down.
She grabbed at the arm that held the tin and squeezed with more force than necessary, her brain crying, He's just a little kid!, but didn't stop and grabbed the tin with the other hand and started prying his fingers from it. All the while she kept her voice an octave too high, the words coming out clipped with the effort. "Honey, I...said no. Supper...will be...ready...in fifteen minutes " She pried at the fingers, the body attached to them squirming with the effort to keep the can held tight. Sweat formed on his upper lip with the strain. Her fingers dug into his arm, into his fingers.
"Mom " he said again, his voice pleading. His eyes squeezed shut.
He yanked on the arm with all his strength, causing Barbara to marvel at how strong he'd gotten over the last year. With two hands, she managed to wrest the tin away from him, and in the final moment he made a grab for it and she pulled it away, behind her back, like a child. Her voice rose. "I said no!" She breathed heavily. For a moment they stood in stasis, each heaving, Petey's eyes squinting with tears, arms reaching out, not to her but the pudding.
He crumpled to the floor and covered his face with his hands. He needed to have that pudding. Needed it. He wanted it. He let out a deep sob and began to wail, crying wordless sobs dragged from far inside. She stood helpless, watching him, her own eyes wide with her results.
His shirt tugged up at the sides and Barbara saw the big roll of his tummy over the top of his pants and how his shirt tugged up over his middle where the belly button had disappeared years ago, and how white his flesh was and would stay because he would not go without a shirt in the summer because he was fat. His freckled back shook. Round shoulders shook. Hands that seemed little and large at the same time covered his face so all that showed was his red hair.
She thought about what Dennis would say about this scene, so oft-repeated, especially in the last few months, and the look of disgust that would fill his face. The sound he would make, pointedly, at Barbara. Look what you've done. Dennis's contempt. She felt it as much as Petey must have over that last terrible year. His terrible day, and now this. She was, in that moment, so utterly, utterly sorry. For him. For his wanting, and his look and for herself.
"Petey," she said. "It's okay." He didn't stop crying. He sobbed over her words. She couldn't raise her voice any further. She couldn't bring herself to cry, she was too tired.
"It's okay, honey," she said. She stuck a finger into the little ring-tab on top of the pudding and pulled the lid off. She opened the drawer beside the stove and found a spoon. "It's okay," she said. By then he was looking up. His face was streaked with tears and dirt. The area around his mouth was red, his lip fat. Under his eyes were circles of shadow that she hadn't noticed.
"Here, baby," she said. She filled the spoon with a mountain of pudding, rich and brown and dark and creamy. Chocolate. She squatted and held it out to him. He sat up, eyes round, red, wet. He opened his mouth like a baby bird. She spooned the chocolate in. "Here you go," she mumbled. Mother words. "There you go." He ate soundlessly, opening his mouth again after every swallow.
She spooned and fed, scraping the last of the chocolate out of the edges until the tin was streaked but mostly clean. Then she grabbed the lid from the counter and scraped the little remaining from that. "There you go," she said. When they were done she touched his hair and they smiled, defeated, at each other. Sad smiles.
"Supper will be ready in fifteen minutes," she said, and stood up, as though nothing had happened. Then she turned back to the stove and had to take the pan off because it had gotten too hot. She started over again. In a moment she heard the TV come on. The Simpsons played out their particular dysfunction and the house began, slowly, by the first commercial, to sound normal again. Fifteen minutes later, when she ran across the empty tin on the counter, she tossed it into the recycling box without notice.
They had supper in the dining room.
Much, much later, Petey pawed through the bottom drawer of his dresser, through long underwear, big winter socks and less-loved pajamas looking for his Hyper-Cat PJs. He found the bottoms and pulled them out, shoving back in the New York Yankees pajamas that came out with them. The top was harder to find, squished up by itself in the back corner. He stuffed everything as flat as he could and closed the drawer.
He told his mom what had happened after school, but he didn't tell her all of it. He didn't tell her about all the F-words that had been said as a precursor to the fight. He didn't tell her that he punched Andy first. He knew that was bad. It had been bad. He couldn't help it. Andy had pushed his buttons. All the kids had been looking, new kids. They all stared and wondered what he (new kid, fat kid) would do. Why'd you come to our school, blubber belly? That was what had done it. A full day of keeping his head down and hardly saying anything and feeling so bad and scared. A school full of Andy Devrieses and that had just pushed his last button. But it had started the fight.
His tongue found the raw place on his bottom lip and stroked it. It wasn't as fat as it had been and now only hurt when he touched it. His mom said she didn't think he'd get a shiner, but there was a little bruise on his cheek. He pulled off his T-shirt and put on his Hyper-Cat top. Hyper-Cat would kick Andy Devries's ass. Burn him with his eye lasers. Hyper-Cat, of course, would never have been in a fight in the first place, and not only because he could fly himself the hell out of there, but also because he was a good guy and only fought back. He didn't start it. Petey sighed. He kicked off his jeans and scraped his socks off each foot using the other. He left his underwear on and pulled Hyper-Cat over his legs.
Hyper-Cat was on after school, right before supper, after The Magic School Bus, at home. Here he had to settle for the stupid show with Pok#émon. He hated that show. They still had The Magic School Bus, even though Petey was getting too old for it; he had watched it so long it was a comfort to him. He liked Ralphie. These pajamas were his favorite because they were Hyper-Cat and because they were new, so they fitted him. He was growing like a weed. Everyone said so.
The TV was still on downstairs. There was nothing on, though. In a few minutes his mom would shut it off and come upstairs to tell him to brush his teeth, like he didn't know, and then she'd tuck him in. Since they'd moved into the house, she'd stayed upstairs with him for a while before he fell asleep, because it was a strange place. That was good. It was a strange place. He didn't like going to the bathroom. He had to go when she was upstairs. The feet on the tub were creepy. When he sat on the pot, he made sure his feet were tucked under.
It hadn't been that bad tonight. His mom had been quieter than usual, but she was a little mad at him, maybe, because of the fight. The bad thing was, his dad didn't call. Petey hadn't talked to him since they moved in on the weekend and the last thing he'd said was that he would call and see how school went. Since it didn't go that good, maybe it was okay he didn't. The good thing was, Grandma Staizer didn't call either. His mom and her mom didn't get along too good. Sometimes his grandma Staizer said mean things. They didn't sound mean, just the words, but they were mean. (Sometimes when she told Petey how big he was getting, it sounded like how fat he was getting. He knew that.)
Petey and his mom had spent the night before their move at Grandma Staizer's. She hadn't let him call his best friend Jeremy just to say good-bye again and hear his voice and he'd been pissed off about that, although Petey could tell that his mother was hanging on by a thread, as she had even in good times, in her mother's house. Bugging her would have pushed her buttons. From upstairs after he was supposed to be sleeping, Petey heard the conversation that had been steeping all evening.
"How are you supposed to put things back together from four hours away?" Grandma Staizer asked.
"It's three hours, Ma. And it's over."
"Nothing's ever really over, Barbara."
"He's banging someone else, Mother. That makes it pretty over." Petey didn't know what she meant by "banging," but he knew from her tone and inflection that "he" was his dad.
"You should watch your language, young lady. Anyway, how do you really know that? Did you catch him? Red-handed?"
"It wasn't his hand that was the problem, Ma."
His grandma made a terrible sound in her throat at that and snapped, "Your mouth, girl!"
It was quiet for a few minutes. Then Grandma Staizer said, "You have to turn a blind eye. Men are men."
"All men do that sort of thing once in a while. You have to be patient. You're his wife."
"Not anymore. I am officially not his wife anymore, Ma. I am divorced. It is over. Please, please, please, for my sake, let's let it go, okay? Let it go." And for the hour or so it took Petey to fall asleep, she had. It was a good thing she never called.
He tongued his lip and wondered about asking for a snack. He and his mom had had fruit cocktail while they watched a show she liked, but he still felt hungry, for something good. He didn't really like fruit cocktail. He had wanted to say as much, but his mom wasn't going to hear it. He still wouldn't tell her the names of the boys at school (he told her he didn't know them) and she was at her wit's end over it. She said that the parents had to be informed. When she said it like that, Petey got an image of parents in suits around a big board table like on TV, and his mother standing at the front with charts and an overhead projector explaining, So, as you see, your son beat the crap out of my son and that is unacceptable behavior even though my son threw the first punch. Is everyone on the same page? Then briefcases would snap shut and everyone would be on their way. He couldn't tell her. And there was no real way to explain to her that it was a different world on the playground and in the hallways. Bad kids beat the hell out of someone at lunch and morning recess and then went home after school and had a piece of chocolate cake and watched cartoons. Parenting was something parents did. Kids were bastards.
And he had to go back tomorrow.
The very thought of school tightened his belly and made it feel like there were cold rocks in it. His face pinched up and felt like it hurt, and not because of his lip, either. He guessed he would get his tomorrow. Probably not at recess. Probably after school. And then every day for a while until they got bored or forgot or soccer started. Scenarios of future poundings ran through Petey's mind. Andy Devries and Marshall Hemp were known quantities, not so much individuals in Petey's mind as types. There had been a kid at the old school, Gregory Johnston, a big, ugly kid with few friends, who had beaten Petey up. Not just Petey, anyone smaller (but in the same grade there were rules) or smarter or stupider harder to find. He was another type. The Andys and Marshalls were different yet the same. Andy and Marshall were the kind that smiled and smart-mouthed the teachers to make them laugh and then got away with all kinds of things. They never got into trouble, or if they did, it was small trouble. They were different kids on the playground and inside the school. Inside the school it was all grins and winks and "Thank you, Mrs. Waddell"; on the playground it was hey fat kid. They had big smiles with white, even teeth and nice clothes and all the Pok#émon trading cards and Nike running shoes. Teachers smiled back at them and never looked through them when they were asking a question. With those kids it was always "Yes, Andy?" With other kids it was a glance and a glance away followed by a curt "Yes?" Or if she was busy, it was "What?"
Probably Gregory would pound Andy, but even if Andy pulverized Gregory, even if Andy started it, Gregory would get into trouble. Those kinds of kids were always in trouble.
Anyway, in a fight between Gregory and Andy, Gregory, Petey decided, would win. But he would never go near Andy Devries. Andy Devries wasn't smaller or dumber or fat. He was smarter, but he was beautiful and that, for reasons Petey didn't even attempt to figure out but just accepted as the way things were, made him exempt.
Petey scooped up the clothes that he had dropped to the floor and stood for a moment looking around with them in his arms. He couldn't remember where he was supposed to put them. At the other house the laundry hamper was in the bathroom, but this bathroom was too small. He thought maybe it was his mom's room. He started off in that direction.
Just before the door, he heard a small click. Not markedly, but unconsciously. It was enough for him to turn in reaction.
The little wooden door to the cubbyhole was swinging open, very slowly. He watched it, standing there, his arms full of his clothes from the day, the T-shirt with the grass and snot stains rolled into the middle, his jeans and socks a shell surrounding it.
rThe door swung fully open, right to the wall and stopped as if held there. Petey waited for the next logical thing to happen. Something's coming out. He did not think this pointedly, but assumed as much in the way a child of eight will follow things through to a literal conclusion. He waited, staring into the dark gape of the closet, so dark that the two boxes of toys (mostly kid stuff now) were buried in shadow. He couldn't even see them.
For a long time, nothing came out.
He heard it before he saw it. Coming from inside the shadows was the familiar sound of plastic wheels on bare floor, and while he stood there, a hot-wheels car (Corvette Stingray, his dad bought it for him, it was his dream machine) rolled through the cubbyhole doorway, across his bedroom floor and slid under the dresser, disappearing. He heard it gently hit the wall.
He recoiled for a second, belatedly startled, then worked through it easily. Petey was good at logic. Good at math. He was developing that kind of brain.
The door had swung open because the house had a lean. The car, loosed from the box (could have happened at any time), shifted with the motion of the door opening and rolled out. These things were not indexed in the thought, but assumed in one smooth motion of logic. Then dismissed.
Petey walked over to the wall and, shifting his load to free a hand, he snuck his fingers between that and the door and swung it back shut. He latched it with the old-fashioned latch that looked like the one he remembered being on the jam cupboard (which never had any jam in it but just stupid jars and Tupperware) at his grandma Parkins's old house. She was dead now. He snapped the latch shut, a good solid sound.
There was a brief moment of consideration and, against logical thought, Petey listened for sounds inside the closet. There were none. The door felt warm.
He took the clothes into his mom's room and found the hamper.
"Mom?" he called down the stairs when he was finished. "I'm ready."
Barbara sat on the stairs outside his room for a few minutes, just as she had when he was little, although back then there had been no stairs, and back then there would have been other sounds in the house: Dennis working on something in the basement, the intermittent sound of a power tool, the TV on, muffled curses coming from the little room off the bathroom after he'd gotten his computer and spent hours learning how it worked. It was quiet in this house.
Let tomorrow be better. She'd tucked him in and they'd read a comic book together. Scooby Doo. They would have done better than that, but most of the books, his and hers (and some of Dennis's, but just the ones she liked, god knows he'd never miss a book), were still in boxes in the living room. He read a panel, then she read a panel and they'd read the thing together in that way. While he read, she watched his face, brows sometimes furrowing, puzzling out a word. He was not a great reader. He was better with numbers. Sometimes, if it was funny he liked it when Scooby spoke with his distinctive lisp, and Barbara tried her best to imitate it his face would open up with a smile and he would look so carefree and joyful, however briefly, forgetting everything and Barbara would be amazed by his beauty. How did others not see it?
He'd been a beautiful baby, with soft pink skin that would take years to pale and freckle, and lovely red hair. His cheeks had always been full, and she could remember pressing her cheek against his just to feel the pillow-fat softness. She'd left his hair long, long after she probably should have cut it and only did after Dennis insisted that he was starting to look like a girl. The curls were gone with that haircut and he had begun then to look like a boy, and by the time he was three or four, she realized for the first time that he was going to grow up and not be a baby forever. That sort of thought had crept up on her every year. The one thing he had retained from babyhood was his long dark eyelashes, brown, not black, but thick and dark enough to pass as black. They were from Dennis. So was the weight.
She had pressed him after the comic book to tell her the names of the boys in the fight. He had explained that it would ruin his life if she called their parents and halfheartedly admitted that he had lost his temper.
They'd called him names. He wouldn't say what names, but she suspected well enough.
They talked about sticks and stones, brave, hard words for an eight-year-old to remember. Throughout the conversation, which got very quiet and introspective, she had remained upbeat and calm, but could feel her heart breaking, looking down at his round, beautiful face. His eyes had been downcast, his long lovely lashes shadowing his cheek, and had not looked at her until the end when he kissed her good night, smiling as he had when they'd read the comic book.
"Good night, sweetheart, I'll see you in my dreams." She'd said it but didn't sing it, a joke. They'd used to sing it when he was little. He smiled, but didn't laugh. He was getting too old.
"'Night, Mom." He rolled over onto his side and she covered him. He looked back at her over his shoulder and said, "You're going to stay up here for a while, right?"
"Yup. Going to put clothes away for a bit in my room, okay?"
She smoothed the covers over him and brushed hair off his forehead. Looked at the bruise on his cheek. There had been incidents at his other school, but they had been rare. Kid stuff, Dennis claimed. She hoped this was just a one-time thing, some kind of initiation. Not every child could be popular and on top but she hoped to god, and anyone else who might be listening, that her child didn't end up on the bottom.
She snapped off the light.
"Love you," she whispered into the dark. He heard her.
"Love you, too," he muttered from under the covers.
Please leave him alone. She thought-prayed to whoever was listening that he needed a little extra help (because his mother might not be quite up to the job, just yet).
Barbara Parkins-Staizer? Not Parkins anymore, but Staizer again, maybe, or maybe just the hyphen. It was hard to get used to either, neither sounded exactly right, and she still hadn't really, really decided to change, but was still sort of trying those changes on (out of anger). This too shall pass. That was what Debra had told her, anyway.
She folded the sweater in her lap and tucked it neatly into the middle drawer of her childhood dresser. She would keep that dresser in the closet, pushed to one side, and use the ample space on the other side to hang her few hangables. Not so many now half, really. Dennis had got the big dresser in the divorce. She hadn't cared. He probably could have taken everything in the house and it would have been weeks before she had noticed. She hadn't even seen him take it. He'd left a note. Near the end there, he'd taken to coming to the house when she was out and taking what he needed then and leaving a note in order to avoid the scenes that ranged between tearful acceptance and offers of friendship (always ending in tears of hysteria) to angry rages during which she might actually throw something especially something he wanted. He himself was always the same, and it was still impossible for her to admit that his general feeling seemed to be one of relief.
He got the big dresser. She got the smaller, daintier bureau with the mirror sort of good of him to leave that for her since she felt the need lately to look at herself all the time, just to make sure she was still there and she'd pinched her childhood dresser from home. Her mother had shaken her head in disgust at that, the unsaid, you had a husband and you let him go. And then what? Now you have no dresser? Barbara smiled grimly.
She spent an hour putting things to rights in her bedroom. Her own room, something she hadn't had since she was a girl. She had done things her way.
Her bed had been pushed up against the wall, beside the window.
There was a pretty picture in her head of the girl she wanted to be, looking pensively out the window late at night and keeping watch. The first day in the house when there were so many things to be done she had gone upstairs to start on Petey's room (priorities: bathroom, Petey's room, kitchen), and glanced into her bedroom. Dropping the bag she had been carrying towels she went directly into it and pushed her bed frame up against the wall. It had to be moved out again to put the mattress on, but it had been a moment. My room. My bed. My window. There had been a sadness under the ferocity of the act, but she had chosen, briefly, bravely, to ignore it. She had her bed by the window.
She'd always wanted that, it touched some kind of childhood chord in her, but Dennis had been adamant about there being enough space between the bed and the window to get out in case of a fire.
"You want us to burn in our beds because we can't get out the window?" he'd said firmly. The thing was, both she and Petey had been small enough to crawl across the bed and get out the window. Only Dennis had been too large. 'Course, he was smaller now. That had been the thing. In the last six months before he finally left her, he'd been losing weight. He'd started working out, going to the gym, running in the morning before work, and she'd been pleased I was so stupid! and had dropped about thirty pounds. He'd lost more since. Not for her, like she'd foolishly believed. For the other one.
The other one. Nameless. She could pass her on the street and not know she had.
It was impossible to stop the process once it had begun, and there it was, the bad pain, the terrible pain, worse even than the reality of the situation she was currently in, the pain that she imagined was like a bone breaking, the first, nearly audible snap of PAIN, then the flooding over her of the real stuff, the real pain, visceral, whole body, complete.
She breathed deeply, tilting her head so that the tears would stay back. She felt the stinging in her nose first, and the full feeling of her face tightening. Her lips quivered for a second. She breathed and sat like that until she thought it would stop. It would stop.
Ancient history now. And no one cares.
She had a phone number. In the dark, disturbing days after she'd realized it, after checking the phone bills, she'd called. Again and again and a terrible, horrible voice (actually an ordinary voice, which was strangely worse, but she was not about to allow that thought, not yet but it would come, it would come) had answered every time. She'd fought the urge to speak, not hard because in the space between the last ring and the voice that answered there was every terror she felt, every fear, no anger at those moments, just terror, and in the stark face of it, she had nothing to say. What to say to the woman who has everything? She would hang up.
Another victory: she hadn't dialed the number in three weeks. By now it was probably changed. And, of course, there were no more phone bills to check.
Her room was almost done. She planned filmy lace curtains for the big window beside the bed where she could look (pensively) out at the moon. Her pretty picture. Her largest piece of art, Klimt's The Kiss, would go over on the far wall. It was romantic and moody and had lots of bright yellow in it, a good color to wake up to. She might, when next spring rolled back around, paint the bedroom yellow. Bright, sunny. Not the yellow that was in the back bedroom (which would eventually be a sewing roombook room), but something nice. Whatever it was called, that color was unsettling.
The sweaters put away, she gave the room a good look-around. Her bed seemed small in the large room, and as yet there was nothing to add to it except an ancient rocking chair that was ready for the dump but that she kept for sentimental reasons. She'd rocked Petey in that chair. She had her little dresser, daintier in the largish room than it had been in their cramped, smaller room at home, but other than that it looked a little vacant. A guest room with a permanent guest. It would be pretty with curtains and the big picture. A nice fat overstuffed chair, maybe, and a tea table. Next spring.
It was a good house. It had to be. She had spent the bulk of her settlement on it, and now it was hers without a mortgage. There was about twenty thousand dollars with which to start their new lives, hers and Petey's (Peter, she reminded herself). She wasn't absolutely sure, but she thought it was enough for about six months, and then she would have to work in earnest. Fifteen years of marriage had come to about $110,000, plus child support.
Goddamn bastard shit Dennis hope you get herpes (not AIDS I need the child support ha ha).
Barbara had just shut off the light in her room when she heard Petey's muffled voice, like shouting, saying something she didn't catch. She went to his door and looked in. "Honey?"
His arm waved in the air above his head. "Don't!" It dropped and his elbow twitched up in a reactive gesture and he said something else, fiercely, unintelligible. He was sleeping. Talking in his sleep.
Barbara slipped into his room and knelt beside his bed, stroking his head. "Ssssh..." she whispered. She soothed and stroked, whispering quietly, close to his face. He shifted on the bed. His little hands were clenched into fists, his face scrunched up, bottom lip jutting out because of his fat lip or some dreamt injury. "Ssssh..."
Slowly his face lost its tightness and he settled down. She stroked his hair softly and stared at him intently, as if able to will away his troubled thoughts.
"Baby, ssssh..." She stayed there for a long time. Until every demon passed.
Those little bastards. Why was everyone such a bastard?
She made it as far as the top step outside his room before dropping down and sinking her head into her hands. What kind of place had she brought him to?
With an ear half-cocked, just like when he was little, she listened for his breathing to get slow and regular, waited for sleep to truly take him to a safer place. When he slept, just like he had as a toddler, he tucked a pudgy fist under his chin. His face would lose that look of concentrated confusion and relax. His lashes would lean gently on his cheeks. He would look like a baby, an angel.
God, at least let his dreams be nice.
A couple of years before, she would have called the parents. She wanted to; she wanted to call up the mothers of those children and scream into the phone, What kind of animals are you raising?, scream until she was hoarse and if she was a man, by god, she might have gone over there and thrown her weight around, see how they liked it. See how they liked to be the little one, the one on the dirty end of the stick.
He was just a little kid. How could people not see what a beautiful little boy he was?
Barbara had debated explaining their situation to Petey's new school in brief, of course, at least to his teacher and the principal. Explain Petey's silence, the expression of disbelief that he seemed to have on his face all the time, explain the little compulsions he had picked up over the last year, like eating without stopping, barely taking time to chew, that look he got on his face when he was doing it. Like a good mother, it had crossed her mind to explain, enlighten and, with hope, garner some compassion for her boy. The thought had crossed her mind and then disappeared in the
In the what?
In the mess that had become her world. In the melting-pot of her brain, where all facts, initiatives and ideas came together to be about Dennis, the divorce, the pain of Barbara Parkins-Staizer. Petey had been lost in that mess for nearly a year.
She cried very quietly so that he wouldn't hear her, and she did this with practiced skill, so second nature by then that this time she realized she hadn't even noticed that she had been crying at all. Once she did she cast a guilty glance toward his room and listened for a minute. His breathing was slow and easy. He was asleep. She smeared tears across her cheek and felt her nose running. She stood up on uncertain legs and stepped carefully down the stairs, not wanting to wake him up.
She needed to talk to someone. To hear a voice.
The phone at the bottom of the stairs was mute with accusation. Who would she call? She could call her mother, she could always call her mother. Barbara was lately of the opinion that her mother spent whole days thinking about the fool she had raised. But she'd also noticed Petey before Barbara had really given it a thought. He's getting very fat, Barbara. What are you feeding him? Mother! She didn't have to call her mother, she could hear her voice in her own head as clearly as if she were in the room. Hovering over her shoulder, shooting spiny comments at every move Barbara made, every decision, until everything she did became so filled with trepidation that she ceased to move altogether. And yet, her mother was often right; cruelly right.
You have to watch out for the boy now. He's without his father.
I know, Mother.
You could change that, Barbara.
No, I can't, Mother.
Men are men. They're all bastards. You have to turn a blind eye and take your licks.
He's gone, there's nothing I can do.
You're not a woman, Barbara.
She could call Debra. Debra was divorced. Successfully. Their friendship, since Barbara and Dennis's break-up, had changed course somehow, and they had both known it. Her shoulder, hardened by her own break-up, was no longer a place to cry. They could discuss clothes, clubs, movies, books, but nothing heavy. If Barbara tried to bring up a subject on the verboten list, Debra's eyes glazed over. She did not want to relive her own pain. Understandable.
The only other friend of any consequence she had was Gail, the neighbor from two doors down at the old house. Gail with 2.4 children, her husband in affable agreement to almost everything Gail said, her suburban life with blond kids, good kids (thin, acceptable kids), her dog, and unspoken judgments and pursed lips about the way the world had turned, and right in her own backyard!). Dennis still saw them, she knew. She supposed that he had gotten custody of Gail and Bob in the divorce. The temptation to ask (and the gleeful telling, probably) about Dennis would be worse than any tone Gail would take with her, and she would take a tone.
You're not a woman, Barbara.
Barbara walked past the phone, the hallway cold, the cold seeming to follow her into the kitchen. She would have a drink. There was a bottle of Canadian Club that Debra had given her for Christmas, about a month after Dennis had left. It had been a joke, to cheer her up. Debra's divorce was four years old already, long past the point of regret and pain and well into the realm of her own life. She was a good example of how things can go right after a divorce: her life was so wonderfully full and she was always laughing and running off somewhere with someone. "Greener pastures and bigger dick," was how Debra referred to divorce now, but it hadn't always been so, and Barbara, under the constraints of their current unspoken agreement, couldn't help but feel resentful for the hours of time she'd put in listening to Debra cry and rage. She also, regretfully, remembered her own smugness, which now looked so foolish and naive, listening to the details, a Gail-like tsk-tsk carefully hidden under veils of sympathy. Poor baby. Men are bastards.
The bottle wasn't hard to find. The label had been replaced by one of those fake ones that you can produce on the computer; at the time (after a couple of belts at Debra's) it had seemed funny, but now was not funny in the least.
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, and under that it had said, THE BROKEN HEART'S BEST FRIEND.
It was a little after, or before, breakfast, but she didn't think anyone would notice.
Barbara sipped her drink and opened boxes of books, shoving them indiscriminately on the shelf adjacent to the sofa. It would crowd the one corner of the room, but if she got a big chair or a love seat or something LARGE for the other corner, it would all balance out.
No ice. The whiskey was warm and sharp in her mouth and down her throat this too shall pass but the ice-cube trays were still buried in one of the many boxes still to be unpacked in the kitchen. She supposed if she was going to take up drinking whiskey that she should also take up making ice cubes. For now they would stay buried. Too bad. She liked the sound of ice tinkling in a glass. It sounded festive.
She separated Petey's books from her own (and the ones of Dennis's that she had taken because she liked and because she could). The titles were all so familiar to her: Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, The Secret World of Og, Henry and Ribsy; just before Dennis left she and Petey had finished reading the first in the Harry Potter series. It occurred to her that they hadn't read "a long book" together since then. They had stuck to comic books and Arthur stories. Short, easy things. She couldn't really remember what they'd read.
She'd been in a fog. She would not be up for any mother-of-the-year awards. Not for a while, anyway. This too shall pass.
She'd always assumed, vaguely at least, that she would have another child. They'd talked about it. But it was as though suddenly Petey was five and then he was seven and then, by the time he was eight, any desire for another child had been eclipsed by the slow disintegration of their marriage. If there had been two children, they might have been able to comfort each other during those first months after Dennis had left, but there had just been Petey. There had been nights when she hadn't been able to speak, and if she did, then it was to rage or cry. There had been many times when she'd cried while cooking supper, doing the dishes, laundry. All day. She'd broken down once in the middle of the grocery store, in the bread section, as she recalled, standing there, leaning against the cart, bawling like a baby, Petey looking at her, his round, freckled face white with embarrassment? Fear? A lady had stopped and asked her if she was going to be all right and she'd blurted out that her husband had left them and that she was never going to be all right again. The woman had patted her shoulder or back or something tentative and then pushed her cart away as though it were catching. Petey just stood beside the cart, silent through the whole thing. After the woman walked away, he went to the shelf and picked up two loaves of bread. "Two enough, Mom?" he'd asked, and she'd nodded and they moved on to Produce.
I'll make it up to him, all of it.
God knew he had enough on his plate. He was a big boy. The doctor said he would grow out of most of it, but that he might just be big. "Like his dad," Dr. Poulin had said. Like his dad. Dennis had been on the heavy side when she met and married him, not something that had ever mattered to her, and when Petey inherited his weight, she hadn't thought about what it could mean for him. Red hair and freckles didn't help. And in a couple of years if he was like Dennis he was going to need glasses. She hoped that somewhere in the neighborhood there was a Jeremy
There was a thump! from upstairs, loud, like the sound of something (soft) falling over, and in her haste, Barbara jumped up and knocked over her drink onto the bare floor of the living room.
"Shit," she said out loud, looking upward. Glancing at the mess her drink had made, she grimaced and went into the hall without turning on the light there. The stairs were dark, but she could see the faint light coming from the upstairs bathroom, the door half shut to cut the glare to his room. From the bottom of the stairs, she looked up and listened. It was quiet. All she could hear was the buzz of the clock in the hall. She stood still, hardly breathing, not wanting to make a sound and wake him, if something had fallen
and hadn't woken him. She listened intently. There was no further thump!, he did not call for her, and Barbara relaxed, diverted her attention back to the floor and the spilled drink. She leaned down and righted the glass. The smell of whiskey filled her nostrils and she wondered idly if it would score the varnish. On her way to get a cloth to wipe up the mess, something else caught her attention, again from upstairs.
Whatever she heard was enough to stop her. She paused between living room and dining room and figured she would just go up and have a peek. Petey was maybe having a nightmare. She remembered reading something once about young children sleepwalking during times of trauma and he wasn't yet used to the stairs.
In the pause between deciding, she heard a giggle. Then something else, not intelligible, but a word maybe. Very distinctly.
Barbara frowned, and went to the bottom of the stairs, one foot on the bottom step, listening. "Petey?" It sounded loud in the dark hall. It was very quiet upstairs, the hush falling into a gap, like breath held.
Feet bare, padding across the floor, quick little steps (too little, she acknowledged before it was too late to take it back but that was impossible) across the floor upstairs. Barbara tightened, swallowed.
"Petey?" she said, and for the first time realized how dark it was up the stairs, in the hall, and how she couldn't see. There was silence up there again, but she was oddly reminded of slumber parties as a child, the little girls spread out over bedrooms (never at Elizabeth Staizer's house, no way) giggling in the dark, daring each other into darker rooms, down hallways, nasty tales of hooks and prowlers in basements and in closets.
She took the stairs with soft steps.
"Petey?" she said louder, stronger, at the top of the stairs. We're only fooling! The light was on in the bathroom and she pushed the door open as she passed it, illuminating the hall and Petey's room, in a band, from the doorway to his bed, pushed against the far wall (by the window).
He slept. His covers were pulled under his arms, elbow tucked close to him, fist under chin, just as she'd left him. His face was still and relaxed.
She watched to see a smile appear, a suppressed giggle released, fooled ya! fooled ya!, but none came. His lips were parted slightly, eyes still under pale lids. It was not fakery.
Barbara frowned. Her eyes darted around the room, indexing and marking off what might (or might not) have made the noise she'd heard. His comics were still piled as they had been when she put Scooby Doo back on top; there was no laundry in a dark corner. Everything was in its place. She began to relax. He hadn't heard it. Hadn't woken up. She breathed deep and let it go. Smiled.
She went to him anyway, wanting to touch him, like saying good night, and there was something out of place. The closet door was open, pressed against the wall, wide.
Pulling the door closed, there was a brief moment when she glanced inside and thought, It's so dark in there you can't see the back wall, and marveled at the fact before pushing the door shut. She gave it a final push before turning back to Petey and (with her other hand) touched his shoulder, lightly. It seemed enough. I heard it swing open, hit the wall. That was the thump.
On her way out of the door, the thought crossed her mind that it had been closed when she had put Petey to bed, because she had thought about moving the untidy pile of comic books in there, to get them out of view. The door had been shut, and she had left it for morning. She gave it a second glance. The latch may be loose. Houses move and settle over and over in the spring thaw. She dismissed it with a shrug. Out of the bedroom, she absently wiped her hand on her pants leg, the hand that had latched the little door.
It was only after ten. Even so, once downstairs she cleaned up her spilled drink and went to bed. She wanted to be upstairs.
Let his dreams be good. All our dreams.
Neither Petey nor Barbara woke up again that night.
From inside the closet, the sounds were muffled, as though taking place very far away. Remotely, as Barbara was dreaming about Dennis, and the hiding of things in desk drawers that could not be opened, the strains of red rover penetrated only once, to be quickly lost in the dream sound of a computer's hum as she checked e-mails that she could not read, and her pace quickened because Dennis is at the door! Dennis is at the door! In the closet the game changed to a slow and eternal game of tag. Petey did not hear the cries, You're it! Because he too was far away, in a playground, surrounded.
Dreams covered the sleepy sounds of endless summer and the warm breeze was silent. If either of them noticed the sweet scent of tall grass, or felt the soft brush of dandelion fur under chins, it went unheeded in the upstairs of the house on Belisle. In places distant the sun shone at midday forever.
Petey, more sensitive perhaps to the underscore of summer places, stirred first around three a.m. He shifted in his bed as, in his own dreams, the children on the playground scattered at the footfalls of a faceless principal in farmer's clothes. Behind the closet door, clouds gathered, the sun disappearing behind shadows. The sounds of play stopped. For a long time there was nothing, the sound that darkness makes.
Then, awful sounds under thunder.
Copyright © 2003 by Funny Girl Enterprises, Inc.