The uneven crack that splits the step from solid ground to my back door vibrates in the late afternoon sun. Leaning down, I notice the fracture is really a mini-cliff overlooking a valley teeming with industrious ants. Where do these creatures get their energy, scurrying up and back and up and intoshitmy kitchen.
I unlock the door and hop over the concrete stairs into the house, dump my purse on the counter, blink away the indoor gloom. Last night's burnt hamburger reaches my nose. Mildew, too, from the basement stairs. Urine from the rest of the house. That damn dog.
That damn dog, Beau, dashes in, bumps my leg with his nose.
"Off," I tell him and seize a can of Raid from the top of the toaster oven. Flick on a light. Hunt. Where are those sneaky little bastards? THERE. My purse has landed like an ogre across the marching column of ants. Some struggle to climb over the obstacle, but most bang into each other. I let go a deadly stream of insecticide, fast-tracking them back to their pagan god of Endless Toil.
My cell phone rings, startling me because I thought I'd run out of minutes. I rummage through my purse. Smack away a pesky ant. Read the screen. My mother. Shit.
Gritting my teeth, I click on the receiver icon. "What's up?"
"You sound harassed."
"I'm killing ants."
"Ants?" As if I'm slaying pterodactyls. "Why'd you leave the dishes in the sink?"
"I'm fine, Mom. How are you?"
"If you'd use that book I sent you, your dishes would be washed."
"Some stupid book about writing stupid lists is not"
"Lisa, change your attitude if you want to change your life."
Does she really think jotting down my favorite music, movies, colorsCOLORS???will get me to do my dishes on time? I close my eyes. "Okay, Mom. Anything else?"
"Yes. I'm coming to Indiana. I'll help you with your lists."
I no longer have the book. Five minutes after I opened the Amazon.com box, I fed page after page into the burner at the stove. Rip, ignite, flame, ash. I was immolating the prompt "What are your favorite daydreams?" when my six-year-old daughter traipsed into the kitchen. "What's that smell?"
"Go outside, baby, see what your brother's doing."
"Why you crying, Mommy?"
"Anna, please. Find Jimmy."
I shake off the memory, my mother still in my ear. When she hangs up, I skid my cell through the line of recently expired ants and grab a glass from the drainer, ice and Mountain Dew from the fridge. My mother's flying in from Phoenix day after tomorrow. I'll have to get the Eureka fixed.
Plaster dust and dirt create a kind of orphaned snow across the pee-stained carpet in the dining area and living room... Del's enthusiasm for ripping out our 70's paneling led to Rorschach-like holes in the walls, so he took the rooms down to the studs. That was a month ago. His hammer and crowbar still rest in the doorway to the entry. He's probably down at Ludie's right now drinking Blue Moons with his Uncle Elm, planning his remodeling strategies for the upstairs bathroom. He says he wants to put in a steam shower. He's thinking carrera marble
I shove the puppy off the couch and sit, my mind ticking off what I have to do before my mother comes: clean up ant mess, wash breakfast dishes, get rid of all this plaster dust. Fix the toilet. Anna's bed. Head lice! Funny. That woman's strategy is already working.
But I don't budge. This is my only few minutes before the kids get home from afternoon camp, both of them enrolled in soccer right now, even my daughter who's only six. I work in Indianapolis as an accountant for a small law firm. My kids need a safe place until I get home. Soccer's cheaper than babysitters, and maybe Anna will grow up to be Mia Hamm.
I unstrap my sandals and put my feet on the scratched maple coffee table. Beau grabs one of my shoes and races into the middle of the floor. Butt in the air, tail wagging, he taunts me. I hear the kids clambering in through the kitchen door, cleats on linoleum, shouting in soccer-field voices, scrambling up chairs into the cupboard for corn chips and Oreos.
"Wait, you guys!" I drag myself up. "Dead ants!"
Del calls around eight and asks what I'm making for dinner.
I tell him we ate.
"Didn't think you'd be home."
"Okay. I'll stop somewhere and get a burger."
A Garth Brooks song in the background tells me he's stopped somewhere. "Del? I need to talk to you about my mother."
But he's hung up.
Later, in the darkness, with Anna's feet pressed against the small of my back, her sleeping breath whispering against my arm, I hear Del downstairs, stumbling through the kitchen door. He mutters, then lets go a sharp "Damn," a "No," and "Hey," followed by a yelp from the dog. The slam of the back door shakes the house. Beau barks, outside now. And the light from the kitchen suddenly flashes on through the maple outside my bedroom window.
I turn toward Anna and stroke her forehead. She smacks her lips, stretches, and scrapes my leg with a sharp toenail. Beau should be okay. Another bark and Del will let him in. If not, the dog won't go far. He'll stick around. We feed him, don't we?
Through the uncarpeted floor, I hear the murmur of a late night radio host, then the tinkle of breaking glass, another curse. I struggle to untangle the thin blanket wrapped around Anna and me, moving slowly so as not to wake her.
My mom was right about Del. What had she said when I told her I was in love? 1) His whole family drinks, even his mother, 2) His dad owes money to everyone in town, 3) His oldest brother was a draft dodger, living in Saskatchewan, growing cannabis.
Okay. I'm not stupid. His family had a certain reputation, but Del was different. I remember ticking off his particular attributes: A) An altar boy, for goodness sake, B) In college-bound classes, C) Varsity quarterback.
My mother didn't waste any time correcting me. "An inadequate quarterback," she said.
Del and I were a cliché. I thought a good one, and maybe for a while we were, but who Del and I were at eighteen isn't who we are now. How and why we changed, I don't know. Lives like ours don't happen all at once.
Del comes upstairs and into the bedroom. Flicks on the light. My eyes are closed, and though I flinch, I pretend I'm asleep. He stands at the door with his raspy breathing, his smell of beer and cigarettes. I'm not afraid of him. He's never hit me, but I want him to go away, turn off the light, and close the door. Go sleep in Anna's bed, the words repeat in my head until I feel his weight on the other side of the mattress, the sensation of sagging springs. Anna mumbles "Daddy?" her question answered by his long discordant snore. He has, of course, left the overhead light on.
After I clean up Del's broken beer bottle from last night, I open the back door expecting the dog to be curled on the step. Even with the crack and the ant survivors, Beau should be there, but he isn't. I walk down onto the broken asphalt driveway, make a 360, holler for him, but he doesn't come. Huh. Maybe he's out looking for a better home. Lucky Beau.
I put the kids in the car and go back into the house to tell Del my mother is coming. He's spread-eagle on the bed, his t-shirt and pants off, his shoes still on. I shake his shoulder and wait for him to turn a bleary eye on me.
"Can't you see I'm asleep?"
"My mother's coming from Phoenix on Thursday. I'll put her in our room. See if you can get the toilet working up here some time today."
"I'll pay for the motel."
"Use that money to rent a steamer and clean the rug."
He stares up at me. "This is a nightmare."
"Then you'd better wake up." I walk toward the door. Turn. "And try to find the damn dog, okay?"
I'm drinking Bloody Marys at the airport bar, working on my useless lists. My mother is going to realize very soon that in a house like ours, its front porch drooping precariously southward, its bedroom wallpaper peeling, toilets bubbling, pee stains blooming, there's not much anyone can do except pray for tornados.
Del took off for Kentucky. He claims his boss made him go. He sells insurance. Well, he drinks, plays golf, and watches football on TV, but when he's not doing those things, he sells insurance and he's good at it. He still has some of that old altar boy glow about him, so strangers trust him.
For my lists, I make up prompts and jot everything down in one of Jimmy's old spiral notebooks. "Finding Nemo" is on the battered cover, spilled Dr. Pepper warp half the pages. Page one, Item one is "Find what's left of that book I burned." Which I couldn't. I'll tell my mother the dog ate it. He's eaten everything else.
Oh Beau. He hasn't come back.
I order another Bloody Mary and list celery and tomato juice on the page marked "What foods should I eat besides chocolate chip cookie dough?" I chew the end my pen, curl my lip, turn another page in the notebook.
What am I good at?
2. Numbers (at least I can add)
3. Nice handwriting
4. Parallel parking
With talents like these how can I fail? I rip the list out of the notebook, crinkle it, and toss it over the bar.
The bartender glares at me.
"Sorry, sorry. I wasn't thinking. Sorry."
"At least it wasn't a hand grenade."
I give him a damp smile, take a sip of my Bloody Mary, and nod. "Excellent drink."
I want a normal life. Feed my kids healthy food, get the scar on Jimmy's forehead removed, and know about my daughter's head lice before the school calls me about it. One of these days, I'll go to Myson Elementary because I'm a room mother, not the doomed mother. One of these days, I'll get the house painted and buy new furniture. I'll invite the other moms over to plan a field trip for Anna's class. Make coffee; serve muffins from the Ranch Market. I'll shop in Indianapolis, but not Wal-Mart for my outfit.
Furniture. What am I going to tell my mother about her aunt's mahogany sideboard, listed for sale at this very moment in the Myson local paper? She'll notice it's gone. Even Del noticed. He kicked Jimmy's soccer ball through the screen door.
"What the hell happened to the bourbon?"
I told him to look in the kitchen cupboard next to the pancake mix, which he did, and he immediately forgot we ever had a sideboard.
The bartender delivers a cup of coffee without me asking, but I don't let him take my Bloody Mary glass. It's still crimson down in the icy bottom. I finish it off and feel myself relax enough to glance at the tarmac. The plane is late, but I should recheck the landing time. Or not. I could abandon the grimy Nemo notebook right here on the bar. I could get on I-70 and head west. St. Louis. California even. Is it true that people out west are happy?
I stand up. Wobble a bit. Lean against the counter. The bartender raises his eyebrow, so I sit down, sip the hot coffee, then stand up again.
"Good as new," I say.
When I turn to go, I feel a hand on my shoulder. The bartender holds out the Nemo notebook and says, "Don't forget your homework."
"You keep it," I say. "It's funnier than the funny papers." I'm light-headed, of course, and suddenly light-hearted too. This is the reason Del drinks. To feel like this. Fat lot of good it does Jimmy or Anna. They might as well not have a dad for all the good he does them.
I find a seat in the terminal and plop down, feeling sick to my stomach. I'm facing the arrival board, but I don't look up. My mother will find me. And she's going to be disappointed, angry, disturbed. She will harangue, harass, scold, shriek, bellow, break down. She'll give up on me. Disown me. Start divorce proceedings for me. Take my children away. Is this what I think? That Mommy still has a dictator's power?
But maybe she'll roll up her sleeves and start in on the house, 409 it, paint it, flush out the pipes, repair the screens, wash the dishes, vacuum. Her childhood heroes were Donna Reed and that Beaver kid's mother. She claimed they haunted her because she was never as good as they were, yet she managed. Of course, that's her message to me. Manage. Take charge. Figure it out. But I'm not her. Mommy, rescue me.
Maybe she won't come. This desperate hope lasts two seconds, then I remember last night's ants, dead and glistening on my kitchen tile, the smell of insecticide, and how as I held the sponge under running water, their lifeless bodies refused to disengage. I pick them off one by one.
Across the gray carpet of the airport's waiting area, my mother strides toward me fast, shoulders back, head high, her short turquoise jacket impeccable, her tan slacks only slightly wrinkled from the flight. French-tip nails flash as she waves. How could she ever worry about that psycho-bitch Donna Reed?
An unexpected eagerness hits me. This is it. Things are about to change. I tighten my ponytail and scramble out of the plastic chair.
She starts right in. "Where's Del? The kids? Thought you'd all come."
"Del's in Kentucky, working. The kids are in school."
"Have you been drinking?"
"I had a Bloody Mary, Mom."
"Don't call me 'Mom,'" she says. "You know I hate that."
"We'd better hurry. I told your cousin Janet I'd meet her for cocktails and I need a long shower. "
"Aren't you happy to see me?" I ask.
"What kind of question is that?"
I must look pathetic because she immediately gives me a knobby hug, then glancing at her watch, she takes my arm, and tugs me toward the baggage claim area. "You'll be able to drive me back to Indianapolis tonight, won't you?"
"It's 20 miles."
She leans into me as we walk, her voice soft now. "I promised Janet."
"Why didn't you ask her to pick you up?"
"She would've had to leave work early."
"I had to leave work early."
"I know, dear, but Janet is a vice president of a bank."
I halt and yank my arm away. "What?"
"Lisa, what's wrong with you?"
"Nothing is wrong. I think I you'd better stay with Janet."
"But I have friends I want to see in Myson."
Her eyebrows form perfect arcs. Her frowning lips look newly plumped and gleaming. Her perfume makes me sneeze, and the silence that follows is the longest I've ever experienced.
When I get home, our wall-to-wall carpet is piled window-high on the sloping front porch. I open the car door, get out, and walk around to the sidewalk.
"Mom!" Jimmy limps out the door, his face shining with sweat, a crowbar dangling from his hand, a bandage of some kind wrapped around his foot.
"What happened to you?"
"He stepped on a tack board!" Anna races past her brother, both tennis shoes untied. I reach toward her so she doesn't fall even though there's still a whole sidewalk between us.
"Where's your mother?" Del. On the steps. Beer in hand.
Anna tackles me. "Where's Grandma?"
My mother alphabetizes her pantry, her refrigerator door, the weed killers in the garage. So I told her at the airport to take a cab to Janet's. To stay with cousin Janet.
"She couldn't come. She cancelled."
My mother makes detailed maps of where she stores everything from emergency rations to safety pins to tampons. So I told her she wasn't welcome.
"Let me see your foot." I lean down; pull Jimmy to me.
"Don't make a fuss, Lisa." From the steps, Del again.
My mother diagrams her wardrobe too and color-sorts within each category. So I told her I was tired of being used and manipulated. How could I believe she'd be able to help me? All those books, all those emails, all her damn lists!
Anna hovers and chatters. "We were helping Daddy with the rug. He picked us up at school. We didn't go to soccer."
Jimmy's head bends over mine as I remove the thin layers of paper toweling from around his foot. The perforations in his foot are pink and deep. "Did you put anything on it?" I ask my son.
"Good." Rewrapping his foot, I call out to my husband. "Del? He needs a shot."
Anna whispers, "He went back in."
I stand up, turn toward the house, and using a higher, stronger pitch, I shout his name. The kids study my mouth as if a fly is going to buzz out.
Del swaggers through the front door, gives me an impatient "What?"
"You have to take your son for a tetanus shot."
The kids' heads whip in their father's direction. I fasten on his face. Pin him with my eyes. He starts to look away, but I won't let him. Not today.
My voice holds firm. "Del."