Over breakfast, Jillian refused to go to the funeral. “It will be boring,” she said.
Her brown hair was messily escaping from yesterday’s ponytail and dipped into her cereal. Colette allowed herself to be distracted long enough to minister to the errant hair with a bobby pin, grabbed from a basket of trinkets she kept near the telephone. Her daughter’s funny freckled little face, still puckered by baby fat, looked up at this gesture with an expression hovering between wistfulness and resentment.
Colette kept a hand holding Jillian’s head tilted back, so she could look into her light brown eyes. “You really don’t want to go?”
Jillian shook back and forth, no.
There wouldn’t be any good explanation to offer to Robert. But Colette gave in easily enough and said, “Well, Mommy and Daddy are going. I’ll call Grandma to come sit with you for a couple hours.”
“Teddy’s not going either. Can he come over?” Teddy was Jillian’s best friend, a shy thoughtful creature who seemed to outsiders mostly a silent backdrop for her personality.
“Is that why you don’t want to go, so you can play with Teddy?”
No answer, and Colette let go of Jillian’s hair. Maybe eight was too young for such an ordeal anyway—after all, Teddy’s parents had never expected him to go. It would be especially frightening because the child had been years younger than Jillian herself.
But before Jillian had even finished her breakfast Robert came out of his office, stopped by the kitchen to have another cup of tea. “She doesn’t want to go,” Colette said under her breath the moment he was close enough. Hoping to avoid an argument today, she avoided looking at him again while pouring her tea.
Robert took the tea and faced Jillian, skipping Colette altogether. “What is this, Jillian? You don’t want to go to the service?”
“No-o-o…” Jillian hadn’t quite the defiance she’d assumed when it was just Colette in the room. Not that Robert could be called the disciplinarian of the family—that, like most unpleasant minutiae, fell to Colette—but when Robert ventured out of the deep gloom of his office, the occasion always seemed more important.
“But it’s not about what we want,” he said, “is it? It’s about what God wants.”
“Mommy doesn’t believe in God,” Jillian said, as if she had the trump card and was playing it now for the first and last time.
In Robert’s thin, dark-browed face the shadows gathered where the muscles had tightened. “I didn’t tell her,” Colette said in still low tones, but she felt as if she had broken a longstanding treaty all the same. He wouldn’t look at her now.
“God,” he said to Jillian, “is taking care of Maddie’s soul right now, in heaven.”
Colette turned to do the dishes, so that her back was to her daughter when Jillian said gravely, “Did Maddie know she was going to die when she had the asthma?” Stumbling a little on the word asthma: azzuma.
“No, she didn’t,” said Robert, tender again now that the crisis seemed smaller than it had, “she was too little to understand what was happening.”
Scrubbing, scrubbing, Colette listened for Jillian’s next question, but it didn’t come. She caught her wedding ring on the grimy sponge, so she twisted it off, leaving it by the sink so that she could wash more easily.
Her hands began to feel coarse and raw from the soap and hot water, which dried her skin out more easily in these past few years. She focused on the sensation so that she wouldn’t have to watch Robert leave the room again, back to his office to keep writing his endless dissertation on the Book of Job, which he’d been working on for longer than Jillian had been alive.
They had planned to leave at ten-thirty, and with merciless promptitude Robert appeared in the bedroom at ten o’clock, just as Colette had stepped out of the shower and wrapped herself in his old plaid robe.
He stood by the doorway. “Your mother’s downstairs,” he said, and added after a tense pause during which she knew, knew something else was coming, “Does the woman always have to have a romance novel in hand, even around Jillian?”
Colette leaned against the wall the very furthest from where Robert was standing, still, in the doorway. Her hair was dripping down her back, but she hadn’t had time to wrap it in a towel before she was interrupted (it did feel like an interruption, in such a small room, with so little space for decency, even from Robert). “I read romance novels,” she said, an implied question.
“I don’t want her picking one up and getting more than she bargained for.”
“Well, it’s my mother or we pay a sitter, and she raised me just fine.”
“I’m not saying,” he started, then gave up.
Colette stood up straight and said, “We should get dressed.”
Hesitating a moment and shaking off that shyness in her turn, she dropped her robe and opened her underwear drawer.
They had only one bureau, a second-hand piece not quite as high as her waist. Colette’s things took up her side and half of his; Robert had one nice suit and very few other clothes. Out of the drawer she pulled something black and lacy, tugged it up over her hips on her way back to the closet.
When she passed Robert she found him studying with a helpless look on his face the body that had given her so much grief of late. Pregnancy had stretched out the skin by her hips, and beach trips and tanning salons had taken their toll in wrinkles and dark anomalies of freckles on her arms and legs. It had been two weeks since her last dye and she knew the graying dark roots showed a little bit in the buttery blonde.
None of it could be striking him as beautiful, she thought. But he seemed fairly incapacitated by lust sometimes; not that he was so lascivious a man, but that the slightest bodily weakness shamed him so completely.
She reached inside the closet to pluck out the black dress that had been hanging on a hook inside the door. The last time it had been worn, or dry-cleaned, was five years ago for the death of Robert’s mother. With some dismay she said, “It’s wrinkled.”
“It’s not so bad.” The huskiness in his voice surprised her.
“Well,” she said. “Let’s see how it looks on—” And she held it open and stepped in, feet first.
It slid snugly over her hips, but the back zipper was troublesome at the waist. She moved to stand in front of the mirror on the near wall, and stared with perturbation at her own face as she struggled, arms bent awkwardly behind her. There was a flush on her face. “It must be all the eating I’ve been doing since I quit smoking,” she apologized.
“You look magnificent,” Robert said, coming closer. “Let me.”
She tensed but let go of the zipper. It took some effort, with the skin and slight fat of her upper back getting between the zippers, and his fingers were clumsy for this, but he was clearly trying not to let the task seem difficult.
Colette was close to tears now. “I hate this.”
He didn’t ask what this she hated. Simply leaned his head forward and pressed a paternal kiss to her damp hair, his hands gripping her shoulders.
“I didn’t tell her.”
He let go of her shoulders in a movement close to a push. Stupid, she knew she had ruined that tendril of good faith, and they might be alienated again for hours. “I don’t know how she would have figured it out otherwise.”
After giving a last rough shake of her hands through her blonde hair, she turned to face him, away from the mirror. “I don’t exactly vomit up Biblical references in every sentence. She’s not blind.”
“I should spend more time with her,” he said to himself.
“Yeah,” she said, turning back around and snapping her jewelry case open with emphasis. “You probably should.”
He had been with Jillian when they heard about baby Maddie Costa. It was a rare thing, especially during the week, but school had been let out for teacher conferences and Colette worked till three every day at the salon. So he took Jillian to his morning class with him (he was teaching two classes this semester, one on the Psalms and one on translation) and then home.
Bridget Mayer, who lived next door to the Costas, had called the house. At first Robert hadn’t even recognized her name. The way he told it, she wasn’t terribly miffed. He did remember her, eventually, as a big, soft-spoken older woman who had brought them brownies their first week in the house.
“I’m calling about the little girl, Maddie Costa,” she said. “You know, Mark and Gina’s daughter, they live at number 12.”
He knew who Maddie was, but he told Colette later that he didn’t have a chance to be snippy about it, because Bridget launched right into telling him about the asthma attack. She was calling everyone. She had no time for a near-stranger.
By the time Colette, summoned by the receptionist with an inquisitive, slinky “Your husband,” got to the phone at the salon, leaving a regular customer with wet hair that was half cut, Robert was just saying “Jesus” over and over.
He had picked the word up from her, she knew. She tried to calm him down. “Robert,” she said. “Robert?”
The second time she said his name, he stopped saying anything.
“Robert?” she tried again. “Are you there?”
“Will you come home?” he said, so she did.
Outside, when Colette arrived in the driveway, Jillian and Teddy had been playing prince-and-dragon, their delighted roars echoing in a too-quiet neighborhood already blanketed with melancholy. She sent Teddy home to his house next door, waited to see that he was safely home and to wave back to his mother when she came to the door, and went inside her own house.
Robert was sitting in the kitchen. His mangy plaid shirt and khakis, hanging awkwardly off long limbs and legs, were too big for the homely room, too dark for the shabby gleaming linoleum, newly scrubbed.
“I didn’t tell them yet,” he said.
“I can see that.” She looked out the small window above the sink. Jillian, who had been playing dragon to Teddy’s prince, had appropriated the stick he’d used for his enchanted sword after he left. She was dashing it back and forth, swiping invisible enemies. “I suppose I could do it.” Or rather, that he wanted her to do it.
He knitted his long fingers together. Words came slowly, as they so often did. “Will you just, will you tell her that Maddie is with God?”
“Robert!” She threw up her hands. “So you want me to tell her, but you want me to tell her in your words?”
“I never said I wanted you to tell her.”
“Then let’s go. Let’s do it together.”
He hesitated—so slow to action, as he’d always been, that she shoved ahead of him and went to Jillian. How little she was, her upright stocky body was so very alive and alight with energy, and she wondered what it would be like. She was so distracted that she didn’t even hear Robert speaking in the same quiet and mellifluous voice he used to speak with parishioners, until she heard the phrase, “and now she’s in heaven like… like…”
“Like Teddy’s grandmother,” Jillian nodded phlegmatically.
Now Colette remembered being surprised when Teddy’s grandmother died at how Jillian approached death, at how little a child could understand—and here she’d been so afraid that Jillian would be devastated. She looked over Jillian’s head at him and saw Robert’s tears, sparkling in the last remnants of daylight, matching her own.
Now he was following her downstairs at the sound of the doorbell. When Elaine showed up, smelling of smoke and Burberry Brit like Colette herself, Robert didn’t say anything at all.
“Hi Mom,” Colette said, air-kissing. “Thank you so much for—”
“Do you have diet Coke in the house, love,” Elaine asked almost indecently fast, and Colette said no, they didn’t keep soda in the house. Both of them shooting a look at Robert: Wasn’t it his rule, held to with pig-headed firmness against all her protests?
“There’s coffee in the revolving cabinet,” Robert said somewhat stiffly. “And OJ in the fridge. Make yourself at home, please.”
“Thanks dear,” said an amiable Elaine, whose faults, as numerous as Colette’s, didn’t include pettiness. She patted his cheek even, but he recoiled as from an invasion. “It’s all upsetting. Very upsetting.”
But she hadn’t even known the child.
“I’m glad Jillian’s not here,” said Colette when they were sitting in the church in the fifth row from the back. They preferred to be unobtrusive at serious events. Even at Jillian’s first communion they’d hardly known how to stand, how to hold their bodies. Robert seemed uninterested in the social side of it all; meanwhile Colette felt, as usual, all wrong when confronted with such somber and reverent calm. It was because she had this feeling that she thought she recognized the same skittishness in Robert, who hid his shyness with pomposity, and tried to pretend he was above everything.
Yet Jillian had been beautiful then, and Colette had been proud; and now, at the funeral, even too far away to see the child laid out in her open and cruelly tiny casket, she felt as if all the grief in the room was her own to hold inside. She wept.
Beside her she saw Robert clasp his hand in his own lap. He might have thought about reaching out to her—she thought he would do it. But she’d never know. She heard someone cry chokingly in the front—Gina maybe. Definitely a woman.
At the reception she felt less sad—instead she was embarrassingly, ravenously hungry. She was eyeing the mini sandwiches by the time she was halfway through the receiving line. Gina’s eyes were dead and dry—she must not have been the one crying—and it was as if she were a shell of a person, programmed to say over and over Thank you for coming like a demented robot. Colette felt tired looking at her. After all life went on and you were only ground down; your heart, rather than breaking, day by day got worn out. She wanted a sandwich and a drink. God, for something more than wine. The familiar thirst reawakened.
Once they’d had Mark and Gina over for dinner. It hadn’t been that long ago but to Colette it felt distant already, since it had been before she quit drinking. A year, maybe fourteen months ago.
They were Italians from New Jersey, which they joked about a lot, calling themselves Mafia royalty, though they were children of privilege raised in Hoboken to be doctors or lawyers. Not so far off, they were both in marketing now and commuted into Boston for work. Gina had been plump and fresh-faced, her breasts hanging enormous in a tight blouse unbuttoned one too far down. Colette got the sense that was the farthest she ever buttoned up.
Mark was small, dark and nervous. He laughed heartily at things that weren’t funny and asked too many questions. Colette didn’t find it easy to like him, but she tried to anyway, because where she’d grown up, men who stuck around for a pregnancy had been so few and far between. “It’s very kind of you to reach out to us when you seem to be weary to the bone,” he’d said at the end of the night. “You have a beautiful family. I admire the way you take care of them.” He had touched the small of Colette’s back, kissing her good-bye.
Afterwards Colette kept saying, “I liked them so much, but Mark did seem a little, you know, weird? Right?”
And Robert just kept saying, “I don’t know. Sure.” Wrapped up in his damned dissertation, he hadn’t noticed them at all.
Now, at the reception, the two of them were clinging onto each other—Mark standing behind Gina, hugging her waist as if she might fall over.
Colette passed with a simple kiss for each of them. It was as if they didn’t recognize her. After her, Robert said, “I am so sorry. My prayers are with you and Maddie every moment.”
If Colette could have put words together at all, she still would not have been able to say something so simple. Still, neither of the Costas said anything.
Later, when Colette was picking mini cannolis from a tray of desserts, Mark appeared at the other side of the table.
“Hi,” Colette said.
He half-smiled at her. “I love these.”
“The Neapolitans, actually.” He picked one up and pressed it so hard between his fingers that the three colors warped against each other a bit. It looked like he might, rather than eating it, dash the thing to pieces against the table. “Delicious.”
“Yeah.” She gave him her best attempt at a kind smile. It felt like the seams that held her face together had frayed and warped. She was just grimacing now; so she stopped.
“She’s in bad shape,” he remarked, in such a conversational tone that Colette wasn’t even sure what he meant. Then, “She’s in the ladies’ room.”
Mark looked up from the Neapolitan and his eyes shone at her. “I know I’m not supposed to go in there. That’s why she’s there. Can you?”
“Maybe she wants to be alone.”
“OK. If you’re scared, then don’t go. I’m just worried. I can’t go in there. I’m not supposed to go in there.”
“I’m not scared, I just—well I’ll go. I’ll go now.”
“Please bring her up here. I need to talk to her. Tell her I need to talk to her.”
Colette shook her head. “I’m just not sure what I could do.”
“Me either.” He rasped out a cough meant to mask his crying. Then a tap on his shoulder, and he whirled around for a handshake with a bear of a man who called him “MC”; the Neapolitan skittered onto the table, tossed away.
She went downstairs to a narrow hallway, branching off into small Sunday School classrooms and a few mysterious dark vestibules. The ladies’ room was the second door from the end of the hall, with a garish turquoise-toned poster of the Virgin Mary stuck on it. What was on the men’s room door, Colette wondered.
She said “Gina? Gina?” into the ladies’ room stalls, one by one, but no one answered. There were no feet under the doors.
Sitting, then, in a stall by herself and listening to her own suddenly urgent stream of urine echoing off the toilet wall, she felt some relief. Maybe she’d have a smoke. Rules didn’t count during funerals. It meant another few minutes of peace. Someone else would probably be sneaking one on the front porch; and it would be someone easier to talk to than Gina.
Her feet ached. She slipped off her heels for a second, wiggled her toes, and examined the growing bunion on the left foot. Hideous. Maybe she’d get it removed, and then she wouldn’t have to look and feel so old; wouldn’t have to turn her back to Robert at night. Doing that left him worse off, she knew: guiltier and guiltier that he was so bound to his physical body, when she could, at least in bed, transcend her own.
She gave her eye makeup a hasty fix in front of the mirror and left.
There was an exit at this end of the hallway that led to the cemetery. It would be easier to walk around the building to the porch, and sneak a smoke without speaking to anyone—to Mark—on the way.
But she heard a voice coming from the last classroom, which was lit. It was Gina’s.
“He was in bed,” she was saying dully. “She didn’t make any noise. It’s hard to hear even when we’re awake. I do know that.”
Colette stepped forward, trying to be quiet, to see if Mark had found Gina all on his own. It must have been just a motion in the corner of Gina’s eye, but it made her look up—and Colette stood still, feeling so embarrassed it took her a full second or two to break eye contact and realize that the man sitting next to Gina was Robert.
“Mark is, um.” She met Robert’s eyes, held them. He gave a tiny shake of his head, but she ignored it. “Looking for you.”
Gina had had her hands clasped in her lap, and she raised them to press her fingers hard to her temples. “Tell him I’ll be right up.”
Colette scurried back towards the stairs that led to the lobby.
Mark was still standing next to the desserts, talking to the big man who had called him MC. His arms were crossed and he looked nervous and shifty, as if he were trying to escape. But Colette saw him swallow half a dozen times in a row, by the bobbing of the pointy Adam’s apple in his strangely toneless neck.
She peeled off the path she’d been weaving towards him and headed towards the front exit, and the porch. Her eyes were prickling and she was afraid to run her mascara again. Besides if Gina would be up soon, there was no need to tell him anything.
Outside in the muggy heat there was an old man with a beard smoking off to the left. She stayed away, lighting her own, her purse dangling off the railing from her wrist.
Oh she could admit now that she had envied Gina a little—sometimes, when they passed each other in the grocery store and Gina, pushing her stroller, gave her that proud bashful smile, a lot—but with a generous, big-sisterly envy. Having passed successfully the test of her own unhappy pregnancy and hasty, unwilling wedding to Robert—having emerged into her pure wild love for her baby girl—she tried to begrudge other women nothing.
Besides, Gina had showed up at their door in tears one night, not long after that first awkward dinner. Colette shepherded her away past Robert and Jillian, who were making a fire in the den. “I’m sorry,” Gina kept saying. “I don’t have any friends here. I thought you might understand.” She poured her whole story out—there had been some other woman, recriminations, promises from Mark to keep the faith. Colette hugged her and said it would be okay. When that didn’t work she said that love was hard.
That night in bed, Robert, who had not seemed to notice anything, had said, “Is she okay? Gina I mean.”
“Oh. Yes, she’s fine, Robert, it’s, it’s nothing. Really.”
“Nothing…dangerous?” She wasn’t sure quite what he meant. Abuse. Death. Disease.
“God, no. Look, I think she’d rather I kept this private, but it’s just Mark. They’re having problems. I don’t know if they’ll get a divorce, or if it was just a fight. It wasn’t clear.”
“’Private’?” he repeated. “I’m your husband.”
Colette sat up a little, propping her head on her hand to look down towards him in the dark. At first he’d sounded angry, but in the silence that passed, she realized she might have wounded him. “I know that. But don’t start moralizing about what the holy bonds of matrimony might mean until you don’t have any secrets from me, all right?”
Later she’d always been ashamed of that conversation. It was as if the separation of their daily lives and thoughts, all that she’d implied with the word “private,” the fact that she thought of him as a being so distinct from her own sphere of knowledge and experience, were itself a sacred object.
Time passed, and Mark and Gina had appeared often on Birch Street, pushing their stroller together in the spring afternoons, the summer evenings; their laughter echoing up and down the streets, his a tenor chuckle, hers a high and staccato, too-loud laugh. They seemed happy. It had just been a fight after all. Colette did not become close friends with Gina, and it was all right. She had her own things to worry about: Jillian’s inability to sleep at night, her inability to stay still in school, her penchant for climbing trees, her habit of falling off them.
—Robert said in her ear, Walk, Colette.
She walked. They found their car in the center of the church lot, baking on black tar.
Colette felt deflated, like a popped water balloon, as if she were positively leaking sweat. They’d hardly left before she’d remarked, having been itching to say it all day, “I can’t believe they used West Side Story music in the fucking service. What kind of tacky shit is that?”
She’d immediately felt stupid but there were some things that had to be said, and Robert looked at her as if he barely saw her.
Colette began to suspect that she was the tacky one, but really she was only honest. If he could make her feel two inches high and stupid, he always, always did. Some angle of the eye—so subtle she could not even picture it in her head, but they had known each other so well and long, his gestures were as crystalline in her perception as words.
Robert left nagging lifelong doubt inside her that perhaps she was as callow and blunt as she had always been presumed by others, though once she had thought he saw beyond that. Maybe after all she was, like her mother, only a nervy earthy creature of cigarette smoke and blonde dye.
They drove home, the three miles from the church, in sunlight and silence.
It was the height of afternoon. Robert got out first after he’d pulled into the driveway and came around to open the door for her, an old habit of his. Colette looked towards the Costas’ house for the briefest instant. It felt illegitimate. Their house was towards the nicest end of the street, the west side that was more open and sunny, where the houses nested prettily atop the slopes of generous green lawns—most of them dotted with bright plastic children’s toys during the summer.
It was that that unsettled her the most, that they had thought, or someone had thought, to spirit away the life-sized Barbie car that little Maddie had liked to keep “parked” alongside her mommy and daddy’s Lexus.
She tore her eyes away from the now-desolate house and followed Robert across the driveway.
His right shoe was scuffed on the toes, but Colette hadn’t had enough notice to get them polished before the service—and Robert never bothered with it. The left one was pristine. He shuffled a little on the right when he walked, he always had. She had had to admit to herself sometime early in their relationship that it attracted her more than anything. Still did. His one sad scuff-marked shoe stirred her.
They paused at the door. Colette began to rummage in the small unfamiliar black clutch she’d carried to the funeral, amongst lipstick, cell phone, mascara. The keys to the house jangled, but unreachably, hidden somewhere.
“It’s nearly dinner time for Jillian,” she said as she searched, for lack of anything better.
“Do you think your mother will have cooked?”
“All right. Let’s order something then. This is no day for either of us to be working hard in the kitchen.”
“I wouldn’t mind cooking.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He reached out to touch her shoulder, and she jumped in surprise. At that, he gave up on whatever impulse it had been.
“I just think we should have a nice night all together,” she said, to cover up her embarrassment. “I don’t want Jilly to be afraid, or something. I don’t know. It must be upsetting.”
“Do you think she really grasps it?”
“I think she knows it’s something bad, or bad to us. I’m not sure she has any idea that it’s forever.”
“That’s probably right. I wish though—”
Colette yanked the keys out of her bag, skidding a hole into the silk lining. She paused with one hand extended towards the doorknob and, when he stopped in the middle of his sentence, said, “What do you wish?”
“It was … part of the bargain … that we raise her in the church,” he said. “That’s all. I wish you’d remembered that.”
“The bargain?” she said. “The ”bargain’?”
He looked a little worried, but mystified.
“And what did I get in the bargain?” she said. “I don’t think I really know anymore why Jillian needs to owe you her own free will and thought.”
“She’s nine,” he hissed but the door flew open before he could say anything else.
“How are you kids?” Elaine said. “You okay? Colette my lovely, you look so drained.”
Colette blinked. Her mother drew her into a tight, businesslike hug. “Awful,” she said, because it was expected of her. “It was a nightmare.”
“It was sad,” agreed Robert, stepping past them both to get inside. She followed him into their cramped foyer, shutting the front door behind her on the bright afternoon.
Jillian yelled, “Mommy!” in the shrill drawn-out call of an overexcited child, pelting out from the den to throw herself into Colette’s arms. Her hair was all in a tangle, and she was wearing a pair of Colette’s plaid Bermuda shorts, a pink tank-top that had rhinestones on it in the shape of a unicorn, and a feather boa. “I made a tower out of Popsicle sticks and it’s higher than Grandma’s. Want to see?”
“Sure! Show me and Daddy what you made,” Colette said, allowing herself to be led by the grasp of Jill’s plump damp hand and motioning with her head for Robert to follow them.
“I figured out that if you tilt them against each other you can make them stay up till the glue dries,” Jillian was explaining in absorption as she showed them her three-foot-high structure, glistening with globules of glue. “It’s just like when we made that cushion fort and hung sheets over it with Poppy. And he said you had to have stuff lean together or it would fall down.”
“Smart girl!” cooed Colette.
“I am the house building captain of the world!” she crowed, running in circles around both of them with her boa held against her shoulders and flying behind like a cape. “I have suuuper powerrrs,” she hollered on her way past Robert, with her fist in the air.
Colette and Robert smiled at each other, encircled in the noisy ring of boasting and connected by it, apart from and deaf to everything in the world but their daughter. Then something interrupted the wild revolution—Jillian tripped, thudding ignominiously to the ground—lifted her head and licked a little droplet of blood from her top lip.
Colette got to her the fastest, knelt by her and laid a hand on the flushed face, breath heaving. “Hey babe,” she said.
“Ow,” Jillian said, calmly. “Stupid Harry, I tripped on him.” Harry was her security blanket. He never left the house, but she liked to have him around wherever she went within it. Grayed with age and ratty at the corner Jillian used to suck as a baby, it was only washed when Colette picked it up on her way to the laundry, ruefully, with delicate fingertips.
Then, straightening herself up to a sitting position, Jillian saw that the popsicle sticks, the glue not quite dry, had slid gently into a bristling pile and burst into tears. She burrowed into Colette’s lap.
Shifting a little to accommodate the weight, Colette came face to face with the television, on which, with a sinking subtle dread, she recognized her mother’s favorite program, one of the lowest of the talk shows, where people confronted their ex-lovers in paroxysms of self-righteousness.
“Oh Mom,” she said to Elaine, who had come to the doorway after hearing the crash. “do you let her watch this? It’s terrible.” She believed what she was saying, but felt herself performing it for Robert, giving her disapproval some extra flair.
“Calm down Colette. You put too much goddamn importance on your crazy notions of children’s purity. You think this is anything so new for her? It’s just not a big deal.”
“It’s trashy, Mom. They talk about all sorts of things on there.” She sighed and cupped the back of Jill’s head, pulling it more towards her welcoming shoulder, as Robert reached for the remote on the coffee table and flicked off the set.
She remembered a “case” she’d seen once where a girl had gotten genital warts after her boyfriend cheated on her. Degrading, sad. She’d hardly been able not to watch it but it was no good for a child, and then tonight there would be the inevitable clash with Robert where he’d all but call Elaine “trashy” herself.
Colette turned her head towards him and said in a low voice, “Please order Chinese food. I’m going to take Jillian outside to play for a bit.”
“What about your mother?”
Colette began to shift her weight to stand and answered quite mildly, “Ask her to stay, of course.” She left with the child in her arms, caring very little about Robert’s look of chagrin.
Ouside she convinced Jillian to crouch by a rock and dig around the long flexible stalks of the onion grass to find the pearly appealing bulbs underneath. She’d had such a hard time convincing Jillian not to eat them, dirt and all, as a younger child when they played at “farmer”! She sat on a nearby thick pine log, fallen months ago over the winter in a flash flood that had ruined their basement.
The sun was beginning to set, filtered gently by the clusters of birch trees at the west end of the street, where the nice houses were, where Mark and Gina would be home by now, alone. Beyond them she could see more trees and, faintly, the hill that led to the elementary school, bathed in shadow. It was still hot but growing cooler: soon Jillian would enter fourth grade, and then fifth and sixth. At the thought of watching her grow up, Colette shivered: in gladness?
“Ladies, what’s happening?” Marnie Gilligan, drawling from the sidewalk, wearing bright white sneakers and a skintight fuschia jogging suit, holding the five-pound weights she always power-walked with at seven p.m. Throughout the reception Colette had been ducking her. Now she was an unavoidable plague in Juicy and New Balance.
Colette shrank inside herself. “Jillian and I are just out for a little playtime before bed.”
“Poor darling little thing, today’s been rough all around.”
“Her mind isn’t on that right now,” Colette said in warning, giving up her attempt at avoiding conversation and moving closer. She didn’t want Jillian to hear what this woman would have to say about a death.
She stepped over the knee-high log she’d been sitting on with its rotting prickly bark like wet fishscales, and stood at the edge of their lawn. Its blades poked up to her toes over her flipflops; meanwhile, on the gravel, Marnie shifted her weight up and down as if to continue burning calories while she talked. Folds of flesh from her armpits spilled out from her jogging suit in rhythm with her bouncing. “Did you like the funeral?” she said in her nasal, almost-hidden Boston accent.
“I thought it was super classy. They got it right, in everything. God, the flowers. Gorgeous.”
Colette nodded limply.
“And she. She looked real sad. Oh that face. I could have kissed her like I was her own mother if it would’ve done any good but there are things in this world we just can’t help.”
“I guess there are.”
“He looked different than her. He cried awfully. You know? Oh and you know what, I walked by there two nights ago after they got back from the hospital, and they were fighting?”
Colette lifted her eyebrows. Did not want to encourage the telling of this story, which could only be sordid. But it might do Gina good if Colette knew, and besides—she wanted to know.
“You could hear them halfway down the street.” Marnie knit her hands together with a look of importance and consternation. “God it was awful. You could hear the pain—”
“All right,” Colette interrupted.
“Well. He left.”
“What? He was here this morning.”
“I know, I don’t mean that, jeez. I mean he got in the car and drove away. Slammed the door so hard I swear to God it would have woken that little child in her coffin. Just that hard. It was a little vicious. I always thought he had something off about him. But god what a beautiful baby she was.”
“I know. Please let’s—”
“Let’s not talk about it anymore.”
“Of course.” She had a look of understanding on her broad still-lipsticked face now. A look as if she’d understood, oh, everything; everything that had happened and every pale lurking terrifying thing that might happen in their pretty, stricken world. “I’ll see you around, Colette.”
“See you. Around,” she choked. Then turned back towards the house, and Jillian, all smeared with muck already, her chubby knees ground into the dirt.
“What are you doing?” she asked, voice soft.
“With what?” She stepped closer, saw something strange going on beneath Jillian’s hands, a glint of steel-gray, a glimmer of viscera. “Oh, Jilly, what—”
“I’m playing funeral,” Jillian said. And she was, she was cutting them in half, the little wriggling puce-colored worms she’d uncovered by turning over a long flat rock. The moist ground bore the marks of scrabbling fingertips. Having cut the worms in half with another, smaller, sharper rock she picked them up in steady cold hands and lay them in their makeshift mean tomb.
“You’re burying the worms, baby?” Colette said, kneeling down.
“Yes, like you buried Maddie.”
“I didn’t. I didn’t!”
“It’s a game, Mommy.”
“Oh God, oh God,” Colette heard herself murmuring, but she didn’t know if she would stop the game. She looked towards the house again and saw Robert at the narrow window of his office, watching them, one arm hugged to his chest, another lifted to shade his eyes against the sunset. She lifted a hand, and he waved back, and then she scooped Jillian into her arms; and even in the blur of dusk she swore to herself she could see Robert smile, all the long way back to the house.
Kristen Hamelin Tracey lives in New York City and is currently a student in the MFA program at the City College of New York. Her fiction has recently appeared in publications such as Bound Off, The Raleigh Review, and The Foundling Review.