Frank was in Mom’s living room making adjustments to his latest gadget. She’d complained about having to open and close those heavy drapes every day, so Frank had automated the whole thing. The idea was that she could sit in her easy chair in front of the television and just push a button to open and close the drapes. But she lost the remote immediately, and now he was back, putting the whole thing on a timer.
And Mom was sitting there dithering over the exact moments to set the timer for. First thing in the morning, even if she’d stayed in bed? That would be best for the plants but it would be blinding when she got up to get her coffee. And how about at night? She didn’t like the idea of drawing the shades at some arbitrary dusk, when half the year they’d still be open for people to see her thru the window, and the other half they’d be closed when it was still light out, and she would miss the sunset.
She had a vision she liked of herself, striding to the windows in the morning and flinging open the drapes, revealing herself in silhouette as the strong, decisive matriarch of a thriving clan full of grandchildren, all standing outside and looking up at her adoringly – the most important person in their lives.
Besides, how shocking it would be if she happened to get up early, and was sitting in the living room when the drapes suddenly opened. It would certainly startle her; maybe even give her a heart attack.
“I think I’d really rather have the remote, if you don’t mind,” she spoke up. She couldn’t see much of Frank; he was bent over behind the TV, working on the outlet. Just his bony rear end poking out from behind the drapes. He stood up and ran his hands up the side of the window, tracing the wire. He sure was in fit looking A nice looking man, only about ten years younger. Suddenly she missed her husband. Judy doesn’t deserve Frank.
She went over to see his device. “I’d have to change the settings on the timer practically every day without a remote,” she continued, looking over his shoulder at it – a mass of wires and switches like a first generation personal computer. “I don’t think it would be at all easy to change the settings.” She straightened up and added brightly, “I won’t lose it, I promise. I’ll find the other one and then I’ll have two.”
Frank shrugged. It wouldn’t make any difference in how the gadget worked. “I’ll make it work either way,” he said after a moment, and turned back to adjust more switches.
Mom had him set it for half a dozen on and off times, standing right there with him, half hidden in the drapes. She found the curtain ties and removed them, thinking how she never used them to tie back the drapes. She glanced over them for oil stains and saw grime and the dust of years ground into the fabric. Time to take these to the dry cleaners.
Frank emerged from the drapes dusting off his hands. “Well, I should go.”
“No, wait,” she said. She headed to the master bedroom, dragging the curtain ties behind her. “I need you to look at the shelves in my bathroom. They’re all strange looking. I think mold’s eating them.”
Frank heaved a sigh and followed.
* * *
Alice lingered over the fruit section. She would have loved to buy those plump red strawberries or those shiny green apples. And some caramel dip. The kids would love that. But as chief cook and bottle washer, it was her duty to spend as little as possible feeding her brood. Fruit was a luxury. She almost never brought it home. The kids scarfed it all down the moment she took it out of the bag, and Rick the Prick was so mean about it that it wasn’t worth the fight. But she could still look, still squeeze the peaches and heft the pomegranates and thump the melons. She looked at her watch regretfully, and decided it was time to go ahead and get her list.
She ran into Cindy in the diaper aisle. They hugged warmly. “Where are the kids?” Cindy asked, patting the baby on the head.
“At KidSports(tm). I usually slip out and run an errand.” She smiled. “Some things are easier without them.” The baby had her hands out for Aunt Cindy, who backed out of reach. “I have to get them in 20 minutes.”
They moved on down the aisle together, strolling and talking. They talked about nothing; what they were having for dinner that night, how adorable the baby was, each other’s clothes, were they getting fat, did they still look okay. Cindy and Alice were very comfortable in each other’s company. They would have been great friends if Rick hadn’t discouraged contact between them.
But she couldn’t talk about that with Cindy. “You know, the other day your mom called me and hung up when I answered,” she said, reaching for the wipe refills. “I think she’s getting worse.” This was a subject they were allowed to discuss. Rick approved, Cindy was eager, and it gave Alice a vent.
“I’ve been saying for years, Mom has Alzheimer’s.”
Alice stooped to get a giant bottle of bubble bath. “But she’s getting mean.”
“Honey,” Cindy said, putting her arm around Alice’s shoulder, “you don’t know mean. My mom’s the queen of mean.”
“That’s um,” Alice searched, “Hilary Clinton, right?” They turned down the detergent aisle. Alice breathed the scented air gratefully, relaxing. Cindy wrinkled her nose at the cheap perfumes. She leaned in on Alice and the baby, trying to breathe their warm milky scent, but the baby latched on to her purse and pulled her blouse out of her skirt in an instant. Cindy wrenched away and hovered behind Alice while she struggled with the economy size detergent, straightening the hang of her clothes. She watched while Alice grabbed a gallon jug of ammonia and another jug of bleach and bent over to stuff them under the cart.
The shopping cart was nearly full with essentials – diapers, gallons of milk, family packs of meat, a pile of frozen food boxes, a stack of cans, cleaning supplies. Store brands. Cindy felt so sorry for Alice. “You work so hard,” she said gently, rubbing her back as she wrestled the cart away from the endcap. “I just wish he treated you better.”
Alice put her head on Cindy’s shoulder for a second. “Oh, I’m happy enough, but thanks for the thought. I’ve got the kids, that’s enough for me. And he’s good to me, really.” She looked at her watch and started heading toward the checkouts.
Cindy didn’t say anything. They were back on a bad subject to talk about and Alice was starting to act distant. “Wait,” she called, passing the baking aisle. “I’m looking for a meat thermometer. Help me.” Alice brought the cart back They stood together searching the display. They swayed as one as they spotted it, and their hands touched as they reached out at the same moment. Like synchronized swimming. Alice found herself holding her breath.
They stood at Alice’s SUV after loading the back. Cindy tucked a stray hair behind Alice’s ear. “I need to talk to you about something.” she asked, looking intently into Alice’s deep blue eyes. “When can we meet again?” They hugged warmly, and Alice sped off to get the kids, five minutes late.
* * *
Gordon was on his third drink when Allen walked into the club and slumped into the chair beside him. “Hey, man, I’m broke,” he said mournfully. Gordon rolled his eyes.
“Welcome back to freedom. Here, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Thanks, bro.” They sat silently watching the room until Sugar brought Allen a mug of watered beer. Gordon watched the cops watching the house, Allen watched the girls and fingered the lucky ring tab on his pinky. Maybe Gordon’d drop a couple of lines on him in the bathroom later on.
“So what happened?” Gordon, meaning his arrest on the street.
“I got robbed,” he moaned, meaning the break-in at his apartment.
This took some time straightening out. Allen finished his beer.
“It creeps me out that someone was there while I was gone,” he worried, scraping the label with a ragged fingernail. “I feel violated.”
“I like owe a lot of money to certain people, you know?” He put the bottle to his lips a third time, cramming the tip of his tongue into its mouth.
“I’m out of weed, too, and I can’t get no more fronted to me until I’m current with my man.” He set the bottle on its side and began to spin it idly, letting it get to the edge before batting it back.
“There was this guy in the cell,” he began, righting the bottle and beginning to bounce his open fist off top of the rim.
Gordon got up to go to the bathroom. Allen followed eagerly. “Hey, guess what? This guy? In jail?” He remembered Rick swearing him to secrecy, “He just hired me to kill this terrorist guy for some royal dude from like Heroin Land and film the whole thing. It’s for a good cause,” he chattered on. “And I get paid. Maybe I can cut you in, for a change.”
Gordon whistled appreciatively as they entered the bathroom. “Lots of money?”
“He mentioned splitting fifteen million dollars.”
“Wow.” They gave each other high fives, then entered adjoining stalls.
“I’m proud of you, boy,” Gordon said, sitting down with his pants on to open his bag of blow. “You’re really coming up in the world.” He reached in with his little finger to scoop up a nice long pile. He carried it to his nose and curled his lip up to close a nostril, inhaling deeply with all three lungs. “Why you want to record it?” he asked, feeling that chemical peel as it spread down the back of his throat. “That’s like self-incrimination.” His teeth went numb and he started sniffling.
“Nah, it’s part of the deal.” Allen was straining on the pot. “The guy wants to jerk off to it or something.”
“What exactly does he want you to do?” Gordon sucked up coke into the other nostril.
Allen pulled square after square of toilet paper off the roll, which went whap whap whap on its spindle. “The dude hired me made a couple suggestions, but he pretty much left it up to me.” He wiped his ass loudly, like using sandpaper on a snare drum “See, the guy was a bad motherfucker back in the day, killed and raped and mutilated all sorts of the wrong people. But now he’s old and feeble. I won’t have a problem. It’ll be like killing a snake.”
Gordon took a pinch for good luck and closed up the bag. “The only thing is, is I know you’re just a petty thief. Why would someone hire you to murder someone? You couldn’t kill a teddy bear.”
Allen thought for a moment. “Hey, I’m mean when I’m drunk. And I’ve killed plenty of rats got in the kitchen at night.” He reached under the stall and wiggled his fingers in Gordon’s direction.
Gordon stood up quickly. Head rush. “What the fuck are you doing, Senator?” He kicked at Allen’s hand.
Allen sounded desperate. “Hey, uh. Can I, you know?” His voice notched into a whine. “I been in jail.”
“Fuck.” Allen’s hand shot back out. Gordon rolled his eyes and opened the bag for another quick snort. Then he put a pinch into Allen’s palm. “There. Knock yourself out.”
“Thanks alot, man. Save my life.” Allen made snuffling noises. “You know what the really sick part of this is?” he asked as he came out of the stall without flushing I’m supposed to open up the fucking septic tank and dump the guy in there.”
Gordon licked his fingers as he walked out of the bathroom. “God, that’s really gross. It makes me sick to think about it.”
* * *