Pavane for a Suburban Mother

On a Saturday, the parking lot of farmers’ market is like a giant playground filled with bigger, meaner kids all waiting to knock into you. There is nothing more intimidating than a Main Line mother in a Land Rover who is gunning for the same parking space you’ve scoped out. She’ll cut you off without a thought, while jabbering away into her cell phone, completely oblivious that she’s driven the wrong way on a one-way lane to do it.

Someone honks at me when I cross the parking lot and block the progress of her SUV to an open parking space. I jump a little, scoot between the parked cars, and count myself lucky that I wasn’t run down and left like a grease spot on the asphalt.

Once inside the bustling farmers’ market I wander from stall to stall. I’ve forgotten what I wanted, but I meander among the bright green and yellow gourds and fat orange pumpkins, the fresh bunches of crimson radishes and deep purple eggplants. The flower stalls feature ghosts and witches scattered among the bright fall mums. Halloween has come to the farmers’ market. I can smell apple cider in the air along with the usual coffee.

I buy carrots, apples and butternut squash along with a cup of warm apple cider. Then I manage to find a lone table squeezed into a corner of the small lunch section and stare out into the parking lot.

Usually I see at least ten or more people I know at the market, but today I have been mercifully anonymous. I’m not sure what’s happening to me. Why I find it easier and easier to slip out of my life and into this quieter place. I stir at the cider, and feel my eyes fill with tears I blink away. I am a stranger in my own life.

I suppose the problem is that I’ve always drifted along with the current because I’ve been afraid. I’ve never wanted to stand out. I’ve always wanted to blend. No controversy please. Nothing unpleasant.

I dance along the edges of friendship, because friendship is a tenuous thing. It slips away quick as a whisper. I am a good friend, but I never hold on to anyone too tightly. I never talk too freely, nor drink too much. Not even with my husband, especially not with him. We dance our stately dance, always in perfect time, always in step, never quite touching.

Each year seems to weigh more and more heavily upon us, and the silences, the things unsaid, grow deeper and darker. The children John was so eager to add to our little circle have enriched us at a cost. Every year I feel as though a little portion of myself has chipped away. I am no longer me. I’m John’s wife or someone’s mom. It is little wonder that I must be introduced to John’s co-workers over and over again.

I swallow the dregs of my cider and stand up, gathering my packages. The air feels a little colder as I walk to my car. In the bright sunlight, I am little more than a passing shadow.

Turkey Vultures

Emily heard the heavy thud out on the deck, quickly followed by a second, and she hurried to the French doors to look out. Her hand rising to her throat, she took a step back at the sight of the two turkey vultures squatting on opposite rails of the deck, their red heads sunk down between their shoulders as they stared at the door.

Thomas meowed at her feet and stretched his paws against the glass.

“Look at those nasty things,” Emily said. “Something must be dead close by.”

She hated this house. With its long winding driveway, it was built deep in the woods that drew closer around it every year. Colin liked what he called “the serenity”, the wildlife that came right up to the door: the deer, the foxes, the squirrels and chipmunks. The lack of crime.

Emily grew up in the city. The pigeons in Washington Square had always been enough nature for her, but she understood Colin’s logic. After all, she had been mugged right in front of their city townhouse. She hadn’t been hurt, but Colin was upset.

“My God, Em, we aren’t safe by our own home!”

“But this could have happened anywhere,” she said.

After she gave birth to Hannah then Will, Colin said it was time they moved out of the city because kids needed open space. “The schools are much better. We can go public or private. We’ll buy a house close to the train, so you can go in town whenever you want,” he said.

“But my job. It’s just so inconvenient to drive in and out.” Emily loved working for the food bank. True, it didn’t pay much, but she felt productive writing grant proposals. When she needed to work from home, it wasn’t a problem, and nobody cared if she brought the kids in with her.

“Darling, you don’t need to work,” Colin said. “When the kids get older, then you can go back full time. If you’re bored, volunteer at school. Get to know the other moms around here.”

But there were no other moms because their house sat alone down this long driveway on three acres of ground that bordered the park. The women in their neighborhood worked. It wasn’t a development, so there were no children.

When the time came, they chose a well-known private school for the kids, and Emily dutifully volunteered for as many events as she could manage, but she never quite felt that she belonged. Her comfortable jeans and tee shirts seemed too casual, but she never seemed to find the right sort of things, even when she shopped at the same stores as the other moms. When there was a project or a committee forming, the women were quick to call her, but afterward Emily found herself alone.

“You’re not trying hard enough,” Colin said. “We go to these school parties, and you talk about things that don’t interest them. No one cares about the food bank. You should take up tennis or golf. Join a book club.”

Emily did what Colin suggested and made a few friends, but she always felt as though she were wearing a mask. As the years passed she thought she was becoming a different Emily and supposed that was a good thing. She threw birthday and holiday parties, and after a while began to get lunch invitations on a regular basis. Maybe Colin was right. She just needed to change her attitude to become a brittle, social Emily.

Still, sometimes like today, she’d catch herself dreaming of sidewalks crowded with people, the little boutiques and cafes, the museums.

From far off, Emily heard a bang and remembered they were shooting deer in the park because the population was getting out of control. A three-day campaign had started yesterday. The shot startled the turkey vultures, and they took off in a flurry of wings.

She shivered, but went back to tidying the house. She finished four loads of wash, popped a chicken into the oven, and figured it was time to get the mail.

When she opened the front door, another bang startled her, and she stood staring towards the park. Colin said the deer were destructive; there were far too many of them, and the herd needed thinning.

“Whenever you think how pretty they are, remember deer ticks,” he always said. “Nasty buggers they are.”

Colin tested positive for Lyme Disease last summer. Now he warned everyone about the dangers of deer ticks.

A deer scrambled across the driveway, followed by a second and third. Goodness, there was a whole herd. They disappeared down the small hill on the right. Emily waited until they disappeared before she headed up to the box.

A last deer crashed the through the trees, stumbled, and landed almost at Emily’s feet. The deer’s sides heaved for a moment before she gave a great shudder. She gazed up at Emily with unseeing dark eyes.

Blood begin to spread around the deer’s body.

Two men dressed in dark clothing with orange caps and vests came through the woods. “Sorry ma’am,” one said. “This one was wounded. She was a runner though. We’ll get her out of here right away.”

“She’s on my property! I have children! Someone might have been killed!”

“No, ma’am,” said the first man. “She was shot in the park and took off.”

“It’s horrible. Horrible.”

“Sorry you had to see this, ma’am,” the second man said.

The men hefted the deer and headed back through the woods, their orange-capped heads sinking down between their shoulders as they bore her weight. The deer’s head tipped back, and Emily stared into her lifeless eyes. The deer seemed to whisper to her.

There is no escape.

Behind Emily, the big house loomed, dark and silent. Below, Colin’s Volvo turned up the hill, and the children tuck their heads out the windows of the car, arms flapping.

They’re coming to pick my bones, Emily thought.




Game Theory

She sat on a bench in the Public Gardens, legs tucked beneath her. It was too cold for the swan boats, so tourists weren’t crowding around with their squawking children to ride the ridiculous boats in a circle around the water. As if the Boston experience wasn’t complete without sitting in a crowded boat with a bunch of loud, sticky children and fat, stinking adults.


Bobby worked a swan boat last summer, and he used to mimic the tourists. “’Ooh, Martha, get a picture of little Tyler waving,’” he’d say. “’Peter, don’t cry, and Mommy will get you another ice cream.’” He made fun of them, but somehow never sounded mean. She didn’t know how he managed to pull off that trick. “They’re just people,” he’d say. “Didn’t your folks ever take you to parks?”


She’d get a flash of her mother in her red capris and tight tee shirts and her father in his jeans with his stomach jutting over the top and his collection of horrid Hawaiian shirts. Her mother’s hair was almost white at the ends, and it darkened to black at the roots. Her father had a tattoo of a snake and a sword on his bicep. They never went anywhere, but she did. In her mind. She told Bobby that.

He said she was like him: a traveler without papers. She wasn’t sure what he meant, but it sounded interesting.

When she wasn’t working, she liked to sit on the grass at the Public Gardens and watch him. He looked golden in the sun.

Bobby would smile and give his “Welcome to Boston” spiel to the tourists and act so polite with his “Yes, ma’ams and no sirs, and I’d be glad to recommend a good, cheap restaurant.”


Often a big spender would even slip him a dollar or two. “Thanks, he’d say. I’m working my way through, MIT.” Sometimes it was Tufts or BU or Northeastern–not Harvard because he said that turned people off.


Most days she worked at Great Rocks in Cambridge, selling overpriced, polished stone jewelry and knick knacks to hipsters. It was easy work, and she could fake the talk. She had cultivated a faint British accent. When people asked her where she was from, she always smiled and said, “All over, really.” She had gotten invited to a lot of parties that way.

Bobby was the only one who saw through her act, but he liked it, probably because they were two of a kind. He moved in with her that first night when they met at an almost-end-of-the-year MIT frat party. Chi Piss-Off or Delta Up-Yours. It was easy to crash those parties. You just had to show up if you were a girl, and she had a fake BU ID. Bobby didn’t need to crash. He was the man who handed out party favors in little cello bags to those with the means to afford them.

“Tell me your thoughts about game theory,” he said with that big white smile.

“I’ll tell you mind if you tell me yours.” She could always throw off trite lines.

“I don’t know much about game theory, but I know a player when I see her.”                       

They left the party and walked down Bay State Road. It had been one of those cool spring nights, and he offered her his jacket. He seemed so gallant. No guy ever treated her like Bobby. She told him things she hadn’t told anyone. She said she was only a year short of her own degree when she left Philadelphia and wanted to see the world, but she only had enough money to get to Boston. It was cheaper than New York and farther from her parents. She felt a longing to do something, but didn’t know what. It was like she was tied by some invisible tether and needed to break free.


He said he was a student of life, and they’d break free together.

She so wanted to believe in him. But now she understood happiness was just a short, dazzling flight until you crashed back into the dirt.

She should have known that Bobby was a golden bird, and she was a crow.


That summer her boss promoted her to store manager and offered her the apartment over the shop at reduced rent. “It’s a little noisy with all the college kids, but the neighborhood’s great. You’re a hard worker. You got a future.”


She put down her payment and gave notice to her current landlord, who didn’t care as long as he got his last month’s rent check. She figured she’d surprise Bobby. They had a good life. She paid rent; he paid for food and extras. She just had to find the right moment because she didn’t want him to think she was being too pushy, but for the first time in her life she felt content. He was the missing part of her. He gave her a necklace he said he made in an art class. It was two entwined brass circles on a simple chain. “It’s not much,” he said, “but I almost burned off my fingers making it. I wanted to give it to someone I really cared for.” She swore never to take it off, even though somewhere in her mind it registered that he had no burn scars.


She didn’t question his love until she saw his cell phone. It was an accident. He was in the shower, and she pushed a button and saw another golden bird, a fiancé named Bryn. She wished she hadn’t looked, but it was like trying to unspill ink. The blot was there.


Did he know? Maybe he wanted her to see. She told herself it didn’t matter, that he really loved her, but she felt the lie mocking her when they lay together at night. She wanted to talk to him about the golden bird and the new apartment, but she didn’t. She couldn’t get the words out. Sometimes when he went out, she wondered if he’d call her from the airport and tell her he wasn’t coming back, and she’d touch his things: his clothes, his grungy backpack, trying to hold on to him.


Two weeks before they were supposed to move he didn’t come home.


Three days later, it hit the news. “Robert Richfield Ford Jensen III was identified as the shooting victim in Thursday nights’ East Cambridge robbery-homicide. He was shot at point blank range with a .9 mm semi-automatic, and the police are asking for your help in identifying the killer.” They showed his Yale University graduation picture because he’d been shot in the head three times. The police said it looked like a drug-related killing. They found some cello bags of cocaine under the body.

There were no witnesses, and no one connected Robert Richfield Ford Jensen III to the girl who lived in the tiny South Boston apartment on the edge of respectability.

She wasn’t sure what was worse: that he never told her who he was, or that he was planning to leave her at the end of the summer. His parents flew his body back home to Colorado for a private burial. The police never did find a suspect; all they got was a bunch of half-assed descriptions of a thin black male in a baggy tracksuit. She heard they picked up a couple of guys just to keep the parents happy but had to let them go.

The whole thing almost made her cry.


She gave away that tracksuit to Goodwill and dropped the necklace and the .9 mm semi-automatic into the Charles River a month later.


She’d stolen the gun from her father before she left home because a girl needs protection from the wrong type of guy, even if he looks golden. She also threw away Bobby’s grungy backpack, but kept the twenty-two thousand she found sewn into its lining. She was going to flush the rest of the cello bags down the toilet, but instead tucked them into the pockets of an old pair of jeans she threw in the bottom of the laundry hamper. Those bags might come in useful once the fall semester was underway. Rich kids were always looking to get high.


The new apartment wasn’t too large, but it had a washer and dryer, and she could look out and see the red bricks of Harvard rising up just beyond her. Cambridge was trendy, and she liked hearing the noise and chatter below. Maybe she’d take some extension classes or an on-line course or two. Maybe she’d get her degree. Lots of people were getting their degrees these days.

She had a nest egg now.


One Little Pill

In the end, Celine supposed, all love stories ended in tragedy. 

She brushed a piece of lint off the sleeve of her black Chanel suit, grateful that the day was cool. The long sleeves covered the fading bruises on her arms. She peered one last time into the mirror to satisfy herself that her cosmetics covered the discoloration under her left eye. Perfect. She was ready to receive her guests.

Really, the viewing and funeral had been taxing enough, and the long ride to the family mausoleum ghastly. All those people offered such banal words of comfort; she, of course, received them graciously.

When the Hollander woman appeared—in church, no less—with her vulgar mink coat and too tight, too short dress and caterwauled like a beast, it had been an absolute circus.

“You killed him! You killed my Matthew!” she bellowed. Thank goodness Mr. Bishop and Mr. Davis had immediately and quite firmly shown her the door. Celine reminded herself to slip a substantial tip to the undertaker and his assistant for their efficiency. Celine believed in rewarding service well done.

At the time Celine had clutched her pearls and leaned back against James, who caught her arm and murmured soothing words into her ear. “Don’t worry, Moms, she’s gone now. Dad was an idiot. A rotten idiot.”

“He was your father, darling,” she said.

Matthew died because the arteries to his heart were more than eighty percent blocked. After forty years of red meat, alcohol, cigars, and women who were far too young for him, his blood was like wet cement. He was one week from an operation to replace three of his heart valves when a massive coronary struck him down. That was the decree of his doctor. Who was she to argue?

If only he’d been able to get to his nitroglycerin pills in time, he might have been able to call out for help. But no, he thrashed in his bed gurgling and choking and begging, his face turning from red to blue to purple as he choked for air. In the morning the tiny white pills lay scattered on the floor, and the bottle lay in the middle of the rug. It had been over in less than five minutes.

Her bedroom was down the hall, too far away for her to hear or help, Celine explained to Matthew’s doctor when he came personally that morning to fill out the death certificate. Though she was completely serene, she delicately dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. He patted her back and said she mustn’t blame herself.

She thanked him with all due sincerity. Matthew deserved far worse.

In the recesses of her dark heart Celine had always known Matthew had married her for her parents’ old money prestige, but even understanding that, she had loved him once. He was handsome and witty, and she had lovely memories of their honeymoon in Paris when he charmed her with his French, his appreciation of Monet and Matisse, his knowledge of the city. He had seemed charming and sophisticated then, so much so that she’d overlooked his arrogance, his rudeness to waiters and those he thought beneath him.

His temper. The temper he let loose with increasing frequency as the years passed. She’d grown tired of wearing long sleeves in summer and extra make up to cover the damage, but she was too proud to admit she’d made a mistake. He wanted her connections, and she enjoyed living in splendor. Everything in life came at a price.

Eventually his other women didn’t bother her in the least as long as they kept him out of her bed. She didn’t care about his rudeness or drinking as long as he directed it away from her. She would go and soothe the hurt feelings Matthew left in his wake. His deliberate cruelty was another thing entirely. She began to make a tally of every incident, every outrage, but Celine had allowed a tough shell to form around her heart. She was also patient.

Three years ago Matthew had deliberately run over her favorite cat, Montgomery, as the old fellow lay sunning himself in the driveway. Though infuriated, Celine said nothing. She had Montgomery cremated and enshrined his ashes in a sterling silver urn that she kept in her bedroom.

After Matthew’s own cremation, she collected his remains from Mr. Bishop and told the undertaker she needed to spend one last evening with her husband before he was forever entombed. Celine dumped his remains in the trash, and returned Montgomery’s silver urn over to the undertaker the next morning. She mixed in some cat liter to balance the weight.

Now Celine took a cleansing breath as she descended the marble stairs to greet her guests. It felt like a celebration.

She nodded sagely when Matthew’s law partner said, “My God, we just played eighteen holes at Merion the day before he died. He seemed fine, better than fine. But I guess you never know. The doc says if he could have gotten to those pills . . . ” His voice trailed off in a haze of scotch and regret. Matthew’s beloved Bunnahabhain 25. Celine never cared for scotch.

Celine nodded solemnly. It was such a small thing, that one little pill.


After The Summer (Story A Day 13)

It was eleven o”clock, and she felt like she’d been at work for a month when Sam Chase stood and walk to the window to stare out at the street below. People scurried past, traffic was beginning to grow heavy in anticipation of the noon rush; two police cars wove in and out of the rest of the cars and trucks, sirens blaring. Life in its rawest form existed here.

Sam thought there were city people and suburbanites. She knew she could never live out in suburbs in a house with a manicured green lawn and commute each day to work on the train. She’d miss the grittiness of the city. Here she walked everywhere from her apartment to work, to restaurants and cafes, to the theater. She didn’t need a car. She just loved that.


She started and turned. “Jim, I’m sorry. You caught me taking a break.”

“That’s a first.” Jim McDonough, the managing partner laughed. “Mind if I come in for a moment?”

“Not at all.” Damn, he would catch me starting out the window, she thought.

He eased himself into one of the leather chairs in front of her desk. “First thing, Sam. Your work on the Mester deal was a work of art. I wanted to personally congratulate you before the official hoopla.”

Sam smiled uncertainly. Jim McDonough seldom, if ever, came down to give personal congratulations to anyone. Good work was its own reward, especially for younger members of the firm. True she’d reaped some hefty bonuses and congratulations in official meetings, but almost never a private audience with Jim McDonough in person. Except after last summer, but that was exceptional in a lot of ways.

“That you,” she said. “I was so grateful to work on a project that important.”

“Well, you proved yourself repeatedly over the last few years, especially last summer. That’s why I wanted to tell you personally that we’ve decided to make you a partner. It’s not official yet, so I’d ask you not to talk about it. We’ll work out the perks and details later. I will say it involves a hefty pay raise.”

Sam felt as if she were being pumped with helium. Partner here in this city she always loved. She thought after last summer she’d be relegated to some rathole, even if she had saved the company from a disaster. Marks and McDonough didn’t like disasters. It was bad for business, even if they had the personnel to make disasters disappear.

Sam was about to answer when Jim said. “There’s more. We’re expanding our operations and looking for people we can trust to step in and get everything up and running.”

“Expanding where?” Sam felt a niggle of concern. Maybe this was the part about the rathole office. She swallowed hard.


She sat back in her chair. “Paris, France?”

He nodded.

She’d spent a semester in Paris when she was in college and dreamed of going back before life got in the way. She could already picture the narrow streets lined with little shops, the darling cafes, the boulevards, the shopping, the museums.

Jim was talking about the company buying apartments for the senior management, but she was scarcely listening. She was walking along the Seine pretending to Audrey Hepburn, except in her case there was no Cary Grant. Of course, in real life, there were no Cary Grants.

“Who else is going?”

Jim shifted in his seat a little. Uncomfortably, she thought. “Bob Kerrigan, Gordon Albright, Mark Levin, Rebecca Judson, Maya Lee, and you to start. Plus Tom Kestler. I’m sure there’ll be some other additions. Nothing’s final yet. Consider this a promotion with a huge perk.”

“But why us?”

“Well, for one thing, you all speak French.”

He stood, and she shook his hand, knowing the conversation was at an end. When he left she fell back into her chair. She spoke basic French, and it was rusty and Bob Kerrigan spoke Spanish. She didn’t know about the others, except she thought Maya might speak Japanese and maybe some French. Mark Levin was brilliant and probably did speak any number of languages. She didn’t know about Gordon or Rebecca. She didn’t know about Tom Kestler, except that she didn’t like him. The only other thing she knew was they were all involved in the incident last summer. They resolved it. They made it disappear. Were they being rewarded or exiled?

She saw Maya lee pass her office and waved her in, but Maya kept walking. She gripped the files in her arms, her face determinedly neutral.

Later Sam watched Gordon Albright walk to the elevator, his head bent down and his briefcase gripped in his left hand. Mark Levin strolled out ten minutes later, and she was sure they were meeting somewhere for drinks. They had always been close. Bob Kerrigan and Rebecca Judson worked upstairs, and she didn’t get a chance to see them. She didn’t want to see Tom Kestler.

Nobody was celebrating this dream promotion.

Sam took a breath, then another, and reached a point of clarity. She knew deep down this coming. Somebody always had to clean up messes, and then what? She’d been afraid of what she knew, but she wasn’t stupid. She put her affairs in order. She thought she’d been careful. Maybe the others had been careful as well, or maybe they hadn’t anticipated this day.

At seven o’clock Sam closed her computer as usual, though she’d accomplished almost nothing, and placed it in its padded sleeve. It was misting outside. That was good. She slipped into her raincoat, took the express elevator, and checked out.

The rain was light but persistent when Sam caught the T to Faneuil Hall, and she was grateful to grab a seat to herself. Before exiting the train, she left her computer wedged between the side of the car and seat. On a Friday evening in spring she knew the market would be crowded with all kinds of people. She wandered through the outdoor vendor stalls and up the stairs into the inside gallery. Teenagers pushed past her, eager to get to the open-air concert near the Hall itself, and she was able to slip out of her heels and into a pair of flats. Despite the cool air she took off her Burberry raincoat, shook it out, and brought a purple tote with BOSTON stamped on it in red letters. After transferring the contents of her briefcase into the tote she dumped the empty case in a trash can. Her coat was reversible, so she turned it inside out, shivering a little at the dampness.

Sam doubled back and slipped out into the main courtyard of the marketplace where the band was tuning up and managed to work her way through the crowd back toward State Street. In the process she let her cell phone drop to the ground where someone was sure to step on it, kick it about, or maybe even use it. It was conceivable an honest person would turn it in, but she figured it would take a while. She walked briskly to the nearest T-stop. She could walk to her destination, but this would be better.

An apartment in the North End awaited her, but she wasn’t going there to stay. Her bags were already packed and loaded into a Honda Civic. In an hour she would be heading for parts unknown. The thought chilled her. She had always loved the city; she might be leaving it forever.

She wondered if she was the only one making plans to escape or if tomorrow, the other honorees would have disappeared as well. They knew after last summer a price would have to be paid. Mark Levin had even said Kaddish.

He was right. Now Sam Chase was going to die. The person taking her place melted into the city night. She exited the T and made her way through the winding streets of the North End. Rabbits hung from butchers windows, blood staining the fur around their necks. The rabbits always made her uneasy. Sam walked quickly to her the garage where her car was waiting and opened the padlock. She started up the car and backed out. Just the sight of those rabbits made her too uneasy to even go near the apartment. She had enough to get away. Greed made you stupid. She took a last breath of the city she loved and melted into the night.







Yellow Shoes (Day Seven of Story a Day Challenge)




            I lie wedged between him and the wall. Sticky and slightly dizzy, I struggle to sit up. A used condom sticks to my thigh, and I peel it off. I want to bathe in Clorox.


            Tyler–or is it Taylor–lies on his back, mouth open, and emits snorting sounds. The smell of Doritos and stale beer on his breath gags me.


            Last night he seemed like a hot musician in his skinny jeans and funky yellow shoes. This morning he’s just another guy who wanted to get laid, and I barely remember the sex. He said he was going to be bigger than Justin Timberlake. I figure he’ll be lucky if he ends up singing on street corners for spare change. I feel nauseous, but if I hurl, I’ll wake him.


            I need to get out before he wakes.


            I don’t do the skanky party girl thing. I’m just not into drinking till you puke and getting laid by guys who only see you as a collection of convenient holes. At least I wasn’t until last night when Ashley finally talked me into it.


            “Come on, Mad, put down the books and come with me just for once. It’ll be fun.”


            And it was fun in the semi dark with pounding music and everyone laughing and drinking, so I let go of shy me and become that other person: the cool girl I always wanted to be. I mixed it up with the frat boys who let us in for free because we were girls, and I flirted with the guys who worked the door. Who knew underneath my average exterior was this whole other person?


            Was that me? Or maybe it was just some fun house version of me, distorted with too much black eyeliner, a slut top, and skinny jeans.


            Tyler/Taylor gives a snort and shifts enough for me to slide out of bed and retrieve my pile of clothes from the floor. His side of the room is cluttered with guitars, pictures of him, and what appear to be song lyrics: the words of a fifth rate writer trying to put a new spin on old clichés.


            Oh, baby, baby need you so bad

            You’re the best girl I ever had . . .



           I’m betting if I get out now, Tyler/Taylor won’t even remember me.


            I dress quickly in the thin gray light, pulling on my bright red sweatshirt. I wish I wore black or gray, something stealthy.


            On the floor I see Tyler/Taylor’s shiny yellow loafers lying askew. They’re held together by duct tape and staples and are run down and scuffed. Why did I think they were so retro-cool last night? I wish I’d hung with his roommate at the party. He was the tall, dark-haired guy with the bright blue eyes, but he seemed kind of shy. His side of the room is filled with books, and an Irish flag hangs over his unmade bed. He got me a Coke when I just couldn’t swill down any more beer, and seemed like a nice guy. Guess I blew that one.


            I start to leave, then stop and grab the yellow shoes. I tuck them under my sweatshirt and slip out to the elevator. Once outside the crisp morning air revives me a little, and I gulp in deep breaths. I can feel the weight of the yellow shoes against my gut, and for a moment, I’m not sure what to do or why I took those stupid shoes. Then I take a deep breath and head up the road to the bridge the spans the river running along our campus. I cross to the middle of the bridge and look around. No traffic. No cops. Not even any rowers. Six o’clock on Sunday morning is a quiet time in the city.


            One by one I let the shoes drop into the swirling gray water. They float for a moment before the current sucks them away.


            On the way back to my dorm, the sun breaks through the clouds, and the sky begins to turn blue.


Mother’s Helpers (Day Three of Story A Challenge)

Mother’s Helpers



            Anne fumbles for the front door keys, juggling Matthew to the left and struggling to keep the gaping baby bag from dropping its contents all over the front porch. His head rests on her shoulder, heavy as a bowling ball, his blond hair, slightly damp, smelling faintly of shampoo. He must have gained five pounds and grown three inches today.


            Katherine shifts from one foot to the other, and Anne can hear the impatience in her movements. She finally gets the door unlocked and pushes it open. She tells Katherine to go ahead and watches her daughter march through the door. Her long, brown hair, pulled up in an overlarge yellow hair bow, bounces with each step; her neat blue school bag is clasped at her side. Katherine walks with precision, every move economical. She places her sweater neatly on its wall peg and takes her bag into the kitchen where she’ll reveal her work from the day and begin her homework after she’s retrieved her snack. Katherine is like a clock, a smaller version of her father.


            Matthew is a mischievous ball of clutter. Anne lays him on the family room sofa and straightens her back, hands on hips. She feels like an old woman in the worn stretch pants and oversized tunic. The tunic is a relic from her pregnant days, but she hasn’t gotten around to buying new clothes. She mostly fits into her pre-child things except for her jeans. Her stomach will never lie flat again. Covered with a web of stretch marks, it has a small C-Section kangaroo pouch that won’t go away without surgery. It’s a gift from her two children, whose heads wouldn’t fit through her pelvic canal.  Anne can’t bring herself to buy jeans in the next size up. Jeff winces at her stretch pants and leggings.


            “Jesus, Anne,” he says, “Nobody is going to check what size you wear.”


            “I’ll know,” she says, but she knows he’s right. Sometime on the weekend, maybe, she’ll try to sneak out, if Jeff feels up to watching the kids for a few hours. 


            The family room is a mess. Matt’s trains lie scattered throughout the room, along with his many puzzles and picture books. Anne tries not to rely on the television for entertainment, and it’s easy enough. Matt knows his letters and tries to sound out words, and he will play with puzzles and trains for hours. He likes to build and destroy what he’s built. The trouble is she can’t take her eyes off him. She never knows when a lamp will crash down or a train will smash into the television. It’s already happened. Sometimes he’ll hide out in the cabinets in the kitchen and bang pot lids together or take wooden spoons and bang pots as if they were drums. It’s noisy, but at least she knows where he is. He hasn’t tried to scale the kitchen counters yet. 


            Still, she knows Jeff hates the clutter, so she needs to get it tidied up and dinner on the stove before he gets home.  Next year, when Matt starts preschool, maybe she’ll go back to work, but for now, she’s a full-time mom. Anne’s afraid she’s beginning to forget how to have adult conversation, but Jeff thinks its cheaper for her to stay home than try to find a full time nanny.


            “You taught elementary school, honey,” he says. “You’re great for the kids. Besides, it wasn’t like you were raking in the big bucks. That’s why you have me.”


            Anne sometimes wishes she had gotten a law degree, but she doesn’t know if she’d be any better off than she is now. Lawyers are getting laid off too.


            She goes to the kitchen where Katherine is busy preparing her snack. Katherine is seven going on twenty.


            “Can you manage the milk?” Anne asks. “It’s a fresh gallon, so it’s heavy.”


            “Yes, Meme. It’s not that heavy.” Katherine never calls her “Mom”.  Since she was a baby, she’s called her “Meme”. It sounds like the name Mimi. Anne isn’t sure whether Katherine saw her as an extension of herself and was saying, “me me,” or perhaps thought of her as a large plaything and meant, “mine mine.” Katherine calls her father, “Dad”, but she’s always been “Meme”. Anne gets tired of explaining it to people.


            Katherine has placed three Oreos on a plate and carries them to the table; she goes back to pour her milk.


            “Did you have a good day?”


            “I made this.” Katherine pulls out a drawing. It’s not perfect, but it is striking: a black dragon spewing its yellow and orange fire against a purple sky. “Mrs. Blackstone, the art teacher, says I have amazing talent. What do you think?”


            “I think it’s very fierce looking.”


            Satisfied, Katherine lays the dragon on the counter. “I love dragons. I’m writing a story about one, but I didn’t finish because we’re doing co-operative writing, and I had to work with Virginia today. She wanted to write a dumb story about Victorian girls. Like Little Women.” Katherine wrinkles her nose. “I didn’t like Little Women. And Virginia’s a pain.”


            “What’s wrong with Virginia?”


            “Nothing really, except she thinks she’s smarter than every one, which she isn’t. Lydia is better at math, and I’m better at history and English and writing. She’s just a year older than the rest of the class. I saw on the Science Channel that you might start out smarter when you’re little because of something about your brain, but that by middle school other kids catch up to you so you really aren’t so smart unless you’re really a genius or prodigy. I think they called it neuronplastic.”


            “Neuroplasticity,” Anne says. Katherine has scored in the genius range on the IQ chart. The psychologist said to have her retested in two years. Katherine can read at the high school level though she’s only in second grade. It amazes Anne how the brain is formed. What genetic strands wove together to form this child who on the surface seems so much like her father with her need to collect data and facts, yet who has such a love for drawing and stories. “And don’t be mean. Maybe in a few years, they’ll catch up to you.”


            “Mrs. Miller says I’m unique. I’m going to be important, and I’m never going to have children. No offense, but I’m not going to be like you. I’m going to be a professional. Maybe I’ll be a doctor like Dad.”


            Anne says nothing. She simply holds her arms around her chest, as if that would protect her heart. “I’m not going to be like you” is something she’s heard many times before.


            Katherine takes her milk and walks to the table where her empty plate awaits.


            “Wait, Meme. Didn’t I put out my cookies?”


            Katherine looks around. The bag of Oreos sags open on the counter behind her.


            “I thought so.”


            “Well, they aren’t here, and I didn’t eat them.”


            Katherine stalks over to the bag and pulls out three more then places them on her plate.  She stands with her hands on hips staring at the table in annoyance. “Now my milk isn’t cold enough. She turns to face Anne who wishes Katherine would just eat the damn snack and get down to the business of doing whatever homework assignment she has to do.


            “I’m putting ice in my milk,” Katherine says. “I hate warm milk.”


            Anne wonders if all children are this picky. She watches Katherine carefully place a few ice cubes into the milk cup and return to the table where once again the plate is empty.




            “Oh, for goodness sakes,” Anne says, exasperated. She walks into the family room to look for Matt but he’s gone. “Matthew? Where are you?”


            Katherine marches up behind her. “Come out this minute.”


            Anne hears a sound behind the couch, “We hear you Matt.” Nothing. At last she starts to push the sofa aside, but before she can move it more than an inch Matt scrambles out. His big blue eyes stare up at her innocently; his mouth, rimmed in chocolate crumbs opens in an O.


            “You little thief!” Katherine’s voice rises, and Matt shakes his head. His cheeks are stuffed with cookies.


            “Oh, Matt, how many cookies did you take?” Anne says. She kneels down in front of him, trying to look stern. It’s hard to do. Matt looks exactly like a cherub. It drives his sister crazy.


            Matt holds up one finger then thinks better of it and adds a second finger.


            “You’re such a little liar. You took all my cookies,” Katherine says, outraged. “You shouldn’t get any more cookies for at least a week. I’m telling Dad.”


            Matt’s eyes fill with tears. He gulps a little, and Anne watches him swallow. “I sorry, Katty. Here.” He offers her two damp, half squashed cookies.


            Katherine just snorts in annoyance. “Just keep them. I don’t want them now. Don’t steal my cookies. You aren’t supposed to steal. Don’t you know that? And you aren’t supposed to eat so many sweets. You’ll get diabetes.”


            “Katherine,” Anne says, “don’t tell him that. I’ll deal with him.”


            He comes over and hugs his sister. “I love you, Katty.”


            Katherine doesn’t hug him back, but she does give him an awkward pat on the head. “All right. Go away now. I’ve got to do my homework.”


            She stalks out to the kitchen, and Anne sits down on the floor with Matt. He gives her a chocolate kiss and holds out the cookies to her. “I love you, Mommy.” He plops down in her lap, and when she shakes her head at his offering, starts to eat.


            “Katherine’s right. You shouldn’t steal cookies, Matt,” Anne says. “Too many will make you sick.”


            “I know, Mommy.” He gives her a weary sigh that implies he’s learned his lesson. Or maybe it implies that he just wants her to stop talking. “Will you tell me a story?” He wiggles closer, and Anne wonders at his ability to get himself out of trouble. If Katherine is all sharp edges and precision, Matt is soft and sweet and cunning. People tell her all the time he’ll grow up to be a heartbreaker, but for now she is content to sit and bask in the glow of her son’s love.


            She hears an ominous rumble then smells something akin to rotting garbage. Matt looks up at her and frames her face with his grubby hands. “I made a dodo.”


            “Yes, you did,” Anne says. The steps look awfully long this afternoon. She stands and reaches out her hand. “Shall we walk upstairs together? You’re getting to be a big boy.”


            “I am a big boy,” Matt says. “Okay, Mommy.”


            They walk up the stairs, and he lies still while she gets him cleaned. Anne has a horrible vision of Matt lying on the changing table as a teenager while she cleans him up and sends him on his way. He’s almost three and isn’t the least bit interested in using the toilet. Anne is about to slap on a fresh pair of disposable underwear when he lets go with a stream of urine that hits the wall. He laughs while she takes a breath, wipes him down again and puts on fresh underwear.  She pulls up his overalls and snaps them shut.


            “You’ve got to start using the potty,” she says, and he hugs her.


            “I love you, Mommy.”


            “I love you too.”


            “Can we have pancakes for dinner?”


            “No, Matt. Daddy doesn’t like pancakes.”


            Matt sighs and hugs her again. “I like pancakes.”


            “Maybe tomorrow for breakfast. Okay?”


            “Okay. You smell like dodo.” He kisses her and wanders off. She doesn’t have to worry about Matt on the stairs. He’s as dexterous as a monkey.


            She cleans up and drops the dirty underwear into the old diaper pail. She stands in the middle of the bathroom. Her hair is in need of washing; she has circles under her eyes; and she looks like a bag lady. She smells like dodo.


            Anne wonders if she has time for a shower before she tidies up the family room and makes dinner. She figures she has just about six minutes to shower and dress before Matt annoys Katherine, and they begin to fight. She turns on the shower then reaches into the medicine cabinet for two Valium before she begins the second part of her day.