Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here.
Shhhh. Hush now.
The child’s laughter echoes from the kitchen, down the hallway and into the bathroom where Marjorie stands. She grips the edge of the sink and stares at herself in the mirror. The bags under her eyes are fresh; they come and go. The rest never changes.
Please stop laughing.
But the squealing grows louder. That is Kylie, Marjorie’s granddaughter, the girl that she first met about an hour ago. Her grandson, Timothy, is making his sister laugh.
Quiet. Before he hears.
The edge of the sink is sharp. The metal digs into her left hand clenched around it. Her right hand doesn’t have the strength to hold on, hasn’t for years. Marjorie long ago trained herself to pick important things up with her left hand.
This house is cold. Industrial. This sink, large and steel, looks like a place you might wash the blood off your arms.
Marjorie sucks in a short, sharp breath when he knocks on the door. She doesn’t flinch. Not visibly.
“Mom?” Richard knocks twice more. She hears the door handle rattle. Marjorie always locks doors when she’s allowed to. “Are you OK?”
Marjorie flushes the toilet, although she didn’t use it. She runs the water for a moment. Richard walks back to the kitchen. She can hear the footsteps, such important noises.
Another deep breath. Kylie has stopped laughing.
Good. It’s better this way. Quiet.
Timothy sits at the jet black kitchen island, a piece of granite machined into an isosceles triangle. Perched on a spindly metal stool, too close to a corner. Four years old, Timothy fidgets in his aerie. Kylie, just beyond a year old, bounces up and down in her high chair nearby.
Richard opens a cabinet that looks like a fuse box. But instead of wires, inside there are dishes and all manner of darkly clouded glasses. He takes out a bowl. Marjorie watches him read the directions on the side of a box of instant oatmeal.
When Richard was a child, she didn’t think he looked like Carl. Though, to be fair, she doesn’t know what her husband looked like as a child. Marjorie never met Carl’s family and her husband kept no pictures. When she met Carl, he was already fully formed, a man with no past. She did not ask him any questions. But as Richard grew, his resemblance to his father, the density of him, became clear.
Timothy looks exactly like four-year-old Richard. It scares her, that wary expression. The complete lack of trust. Marjorie hears her grandson’s thoughts. Her presence bothers him, it means something, something bad. Mommy went on a trip three days ago and kissed him goodnight, too long and too sad, and that meant something too, something bad. This woman has been introduced as Grandma, but he knows that Grandmas and Grandpas, like Mommy’s Mommy and Mommy’s Daddy, are people who live nearby and take you to the zoo and the park and come to birthday parties. Grandmas and Grandpas are people he knows. He doesn’t know this woman. She is from somewhere else, somewhere called Nebraska.
Kylie waves frantically. She doesn’t stop until Marjorie breaks her reverie, turning toward her granddaughter and waving back. The little girl says “bye,” then returns her attention to mashing up a banana with a plastic fork.
“How was your flight?”
Richard’s voice rumbles like Carl’s.
“A little bumpy. Didn’t sleep much last night.”
Richard nods, half listening. He slides the bowl, now filled with water and uncooked oatmeal, into the microwave.
Marjorie had not been on an airplane in years. She had never been on an airplane without Carl. She thought she was scared of flying. However, she now realizes that she was scared of flying with Carl. It was actually peaceful up there alone, above the clouds, surrounded by infinite variations of blue. Her hip did hurt though, kind of like it sometimes throbs when the weather changes fast.
“You knew I couldn’t pick you up this morning. The kids.”
“I didn’t expect … it was fine.”
The airport had been crowded and no one had helped her with her four large suitcases. Marjorie spent an hour moving them incrementally from the baggage claim to the taxi line. She plans to be in Los Angeles for a long time.
The microwave beeps.
Marjorie freezes when Timothy shouts. The sound, so unexpected, so brazen.
Don’t shout. Be patient.
“I heard it, kiddo,” Richard says. “It’ll be hot.”
Timothy glares at Marjorie as if somehow the delay is her fault. She forces a smile and he turns back to his father, who reaches into the microwave for the steaming bowl. He touches it and recoils.
“Dammit! I hate these bowls!”
Kylie laughs at the outburst and Marjorie wants to put a hand over the girl’s mouth. Dampen the sound.
“I said it’s hot. Just wait.”
“Give me oatmeal now!”
Richard turns on his son and stares him down. Timothy shrinks back in his chair.
Patience, patience. Shhhh.
“You have to wait,” Richard says. “I’m not going to let you burn your mouth.”
Again, that voice. When Carl got angry, he slowed down. He never shouted. Each syllable came out like a pile driver.
The last time she saw her son was at Carl’s funeral, two and a half years ago. Richard was alone. Aileen was working and Timothy was too young to travel, he said. Later, at the wake, Marjorie overheard Richard telling a childhood friend that he had taken the entire family to Hawaii for a vacation and that Timothy had spent the entire week in the ocean, pretending he was a dolphin. Richard was in Omaha for three days and then Marjorie was alone.
The house she lived in with Carl for thirty-one years mourned his death. There had always been shadows in the old house, but now it was the light that lurked in the corners. The floors moaned and the pipes keened. Marjorie found herself sitting often in silent, empty rooms. Sometimes she imagined butlers covering her and the furniture under crisp white sheets to await the home’s true owners’ triumphant return.
The house yearned for Carl, unconcerned that the sound of doors opening still made Marjorie shudder.
On dark days, when the thunderstorms rolled toward her across the Plains and pulsed through her hip, she believed, as she had so often during her marriage, that this is what she deserved.
Richard dons puffy blue oven mitts which stand out in the kitchen due to their lack of pretension. They are what they are, ordinary and useful, perhaps even whimsical. He places the bowl of oatmeal on the table where it steams.
Kylie makes a loud noise and points at the bowl.
Richard nods at her.
“I know you want oatmeal too. It’s hot.”
Her single syllable dissolves further into sputtering lips that mimic the sound of a lawn mower engine, spittle flying onto her tray. Marjorie, transfixed, resists the urge to grab the child and hide her away in an upstairs bedroom.
“It’s too hot. You have to wait.”
“That’s my oatmeal!”
“You’ll share some with your sister.”
“No! Make one for her!”
Again, Richard glares at Timothy, who slumps and sulks.
Don’t ask again. Please. I’ll make more when he’s gone.
Richard asked Marjorie for help, that is why she is here. The phone rang at eight-thirty last Tuesday; Marjorie had already been asleep for a half-hour. She grabbed it on the first ring and held her breath. Slowly, she turned toward Carl’s side of the bed. But she was alone and she exhaled.
“Richard? What’s wrong?”
“She’s leaving me.”
Marjorie had not been surprised.
“Mom? You there?”
“I’m sorry. Where’s she going?”
“What do you mean? She’s leaving the marriage. Me and the kids.”
“Sorry. I know. I’m sorry.”
“Look, I know this is short notice, but . . . well, I have a lot on my plate. Can you come to L.A.? I’ll pay for the ticket. We have plenty of room.”
After Timothy was born, Marjorie had told Carl that they would never see their grandson. Carl told her she was being melodramatic and patted the back of her right hand, like he always did when she told him a truth that he didn’t want to hear. Pat, pat, pat, those big hands could be so gentle, at times. He would only touch her right hand, each tap felt like an electric shock running through her, not painful, just surprising. The pain was long ago; he knew.
Marjorie often tries to remember those moments when he made her love him. Those moments were more frequent in his later years, long after Richard had left them, as Carl’s body began to fail him, leaving him withered.
“I can’t hire a nanny. I need someone I can trust.”
Richard had booked her ticket and given her directions from the airport.
The phone rings. Kylie points to the cordless on the counter and squeals.
“It’s for Daddy.” Richard looks at the caller I.D. “Mom, can you watch them for a minute? I have to take this.”
Richard walks out of the kitchen. Marjorie can hear him in the other room, barking out orders. She doesn’t know what he does for a living. Something connected to movies.
The kids watch her. Kylie, wide-eyed, waits for her to do something, anything. Timothy considers her with a deep and wholly innocent loathing.
Marjorie does nothing.
“I want my oatmeal.”
“Your father will be back in a minute. He said it was too hot.”
Marjorie can see on the boy’s face that he disagrees. Kylie has removed the barrette from her hair, sending a cascade of golden filaments over her eyes.
“You want me to put that back in?”
Kylie waves at her. Marjorie pushes Kylie’s hair to the side. It is soft, like corn silk. She always wanted a girl, a second child, but Carl had said no.
The metal stool scrapes on the tile floor.
Timothy puts on the oven mitts, a little boy with swollen blue Golem hands.
Marjorie sees Richard in his son’s face: thoughtful, methodical, determined, stubborn. He is not thinking about consequences. She sees Carl as well — angry.
When these moments approach, and she can always feel them approaching, Marjorie’s left arm, the one that was never broken, prickles warmly, like a premonition of a heart attack, and her face goes numb, possibly a stroke, and she becomes frozen and she does nothing but watch and wait for it to come.
Timothy pulls the bowl toward the edge, then lets it slide gently off the island into the grasp of the mitts. Prize in hand, he starts to walk back to his seat, grinning widely at his accomplishment. Richard watches from the doorway.
“I told you it was too hot.”
“I’ve got gloves.”
Richard pulls the mitts off his son’s hands, taking the oatmeal with them.
Marjorie wants to say it out loud.
“It’s my oatmeal!”
Timothy grabs the oven mitts and yanks them away from his father. The bowl falls and splinters on the floor. Oatmeal splatters, coating the tile, Richard’s shoes, Timothy’s pajamas.
Marjorie hears the crack. She knows she does.
That familiar sound. Knuckles on bone.
Marjorie stands perfectly still, coated in the silence that always trails the event. Not yet ready to assess the damage. Relief that it is over, hating that that feeling is better than anticipation. The calm before the inevitable after.
Kylie is laughing. But when Timothy bursts into tears, his sister also starts to cry. Marjorie senses the action around her: Richard kneeling in front of Timothy, gently holding his son’s face in his hands; Timothy burying his face into Richard’s shoulder, soaking his shirt, words slipping out between sharp intakes of breath – Daddy, sorry, oatmeal.
In that moment, she thinks she hears something else. So far away.
So many times when she didn’t have the strength to stand between Carl and Richard. When she found herself on the floor and decided to stay there, closing her eyes and ignoring the sounds above her, wondering if her hip was broken, wondering why she couldn’t feel her hand.
And then they are all gone. Marjorie can hear their voices in another room, tears receding, mumbled apologies and the sound of the TV being turned on.
Marjorie closes her eyes and sees years of bruises, layered over each other, darkening her son’s pinkish skin. On arms and legs, blemishing his bone-knobbed back. As she bathes him and dresses him, at age four and six and ten.
Then, later, caught in glimpses on his lanky teenaged body through open doors as he changed, at pools and lakes on those rare occasions when he decided to go shirtless. Rarely, though sometimes, on Richard’s face, ringing a perfect blue eye or embracing his jaw.
Marjorie opens her eyes.
Alone in the kitchen now, she rummages through cabinets and drawers, finally finding paper towels that have been banished under the sink. The bowl lies beyond repair on the floor. It broke into shards, more like pottery than glass. She picks out the big pieces, dropping them into the trash can that is hidden in the island. Then, on her hands and knees, Marjorie molds the oatmeal into a pyre, working from the outermost ring of the splatter pattern first. She lines her hand with a paper towel. Thankfully, there is no blood.
“Mom? Are you OK?”
Marjorie nods without looking at Richard, focusing on the task at hand. He has asked her that question at least twice this morning, maybe three times. The oatmeal feels warm and fragile in her hands.
“You scared the kids there. Does that happen a lot?”
What do you mean?
“After the bowl fell, you checked out on us. Just closed your eyes and … disappeared.” Richard pauses. “Started moaning. Kind of like you used to.”
She drops another handful of oatmeal in the garbage. It hits the bag with a wet thlump, like a boxing glove hitting a stomach.
“Let me get the rest of that.”
Richard kneels next to her. He gathers the stray pieces of the bowl.
“Aileen’s in Hawaii with him right now. He’s well-connected. My lawyer says they’ll look for anything they can latch onto, any weakness. Aileen will know we broke a bowl. I’m sure she’s catalogued everything in the house. If anything is out of place . . . there will be accusations.”
Marjorie looks at her son’s hands, smooth and unblemished. Those hands look like her own father’s, not anything like Carl’s scarred paws.
“She’s the one who cheated on me. My lawyer’s good, one of the best. Thinks I have the upper hand for the kids. But still . . . .”
The last of the oatmeal goes into the trash. Richard helps her off the floor.
“It’s just … I need to know that you can watch them. That you’re OK. If they think I’ve left the kids with someone who ….”
Isn’t fit as a parent.
Neglects her child.
Stands by and watches.
She knows that Richard has no choice but to believe her.
“Let’s take your bags to your room. Maybe you want to lay down for a bit.”
Marjorie nods and follows him out of the kitchen.
Her room is next to Aileen’s office. Down the hall, announced in giant blue letters, Timothy’s Room. Piles of paper and laundry, stray toys, litter the floor.
“I’ve been meaning to straighten up. You rest, and then we’ll show you around the neighborhood, walk down to the park.”
Marjorie closes the door to her room. She stands there, fingers on the doorknob, listening to her son’s footsteps retreat. She feels Carl standing behind her. Slowly, she locks the door.
“You’re doing it wrong,” Timothy says, grabbing the TiVo remote out of her hand.
The child is rude. But it is a four-year-old rudeness and Marjorie knows that with patience and time manners can be learned. She sits next to her grandson on the leather couch, looking at the TV on the wall, the one that is the size of a dining room table. Timothy points the remote and presses a button. The TiVo menu appears, like the credits on a movie.
Kylie sits off to the side, surrounded by blocks. She methodically picks them up one by one, bashing each into the next before putting it down again and moving on.
“What did you push?”
“This one. That goes to TiVo. Then you use arrows to find things.”
The boy is pushing buttons again. Screens fly by and Marjorie is amazed that a four-year-old can do such things.
“It’s easy. You can learn.”
As she has repeatedly all morning, Marjorie scans Timothy’s face for any sign of damage, the bruise that she convinced herself yesterday would blossom on that unblemished cheek, caused by a blow that never happened. It takes her a moment to realize that Timothy is holding the remote out to her.
A block flies across the room, barely clearing the glass coffee table. Kylie claps at her accomplishment.
“Kylie!” Timothy shouts, trying and failing to imitate a voice of authority.
Marjorie whispers to Timothy. “Does she do that a lot?”
“Yeah,” Timothy says, leaning in to share the secret. “She breaks my stuff.”
“We’ll see what we can do about that.”
Marjorie waves the remote at the TV like a magic wand. Nothing happens. Timothy laughs.
“Push this one. Select. I want Diego.”
Timothy grabs her finger and moves it to the Select button. She feels the small shock jolt through her wrist.
Kylie realizes that the TV show is about to start. She crawls over and pulls herself onto the couch next to Marjorie. The two children tuck in under her arms, squeezing themselves comfortably into her sides.
Marjorie pushes Select and the room fills with bright colors and cheerful music.
Michael Landweber lives and writes in Washington, DC. His short stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, Fugue, Barrelhouse, and American Literary Review. He is an Associate Editor at Potomac Review and a contributor for Pop Matters.