Judy had trouble rousing Frank. He was pale and quiet. He sat in his chair after breakfast instead of going downstairs to his shop. Sometime midmorning, he announced he wanted to take a hot bath. Judy listened with one ear to make sure he didn’t slip and hit his head. Having no idea what was wrong with him, she was free to worry about each situation, each environment, each action that might possibly injure Frank. For a minute she worried about an asteroid hitting the house. But she got over that when she found a roach and sat there hitting it for awhile.
Frank got out of the bath feeling a little light headed. He called her, and she went in to find him slumped on the floor with the towel draped around his middle. He was fumbling with it and staring. A stroke? But he roused, and was right when she asked what day it was. It scared the hell out of her, tho. She felt a deep, foreboding sadness, watching her husband fade before her eyes. Now that she loved him more than ever. Now that they’d cleared the air and could begin again. It just wasn’t fair. All the good stuff kept getting snatched away from her.
She put Frank into bed, tucking him in and making sure he was cozy and warm. She fussed around for awhile, feeling his forehead, listening to his heart, putting pillows under his legs, filling the hot water bottle. She anxiously flitted around the room, trying to do everything possible to ward off trouble. It occurred to her that Mom, as demon sorceress, was sucking the life out of her husband. She ran and got salt and made a ring around him. she lit a candle. She went off and did things with the pictures she’d brought back from Mom’s house. Not very nice things.
Judy spent the first part of the morning cleaning her house. There were piles everywhere. There were always piles everywhere i her house. But the piles had changed. No longer were they jumbles of random objects piled toward the ceiling. They were all like objects, all stacked orderly, all flagged gaily. And now there were less of them. Judy had discovered freecycle.org.
She found Frank sleeping peacefully. He looked thinner. The flesh was starting to hang off his bones. He was starting to look old. He’d been writing in a notebook. It was a will, signed and dated, leaving everything to her, superceding all other wills. Like he needed to do that. What a nice gesture. She kissed his bald head and shut the bedroom door. He’d never written another will. Except the one giving all his assets to mom, so judy would have to give up her art notion and get a job. She didn’t know about that one.
She spent the next few hours posting items that she wanted to be rid of. National Geographics. Gothic romance novels. Excess kitchen equipment. Curtain rods. Old clothes. Lamps. Puzzles. Fish bowls. Used mom, cranky. Mother for sale, no offer refused.
At lunch, Frank looked no better, and willingly went back to bed. He was warm, and Judy didn’t like how pale he was, and called the doctor. 10:30 tomorrow. Plenty of fluids. Keep him warm. Flu.
Judy went on a cleaning frenzy, looking for a book she remembered that had something particular to say about just the situation she was in. Usually this impulse would lead her to one distraction after another, and she would spend an hour pottering around the east end of the living room. But because she was looking for one particular piece of information, she ended up moving a wall of u-haul boxes filled with old linens, reorganizing a bookshelf, and putting three boxes of books next to the front door ready to go.
Judy was angry with herself for not knowing where the book was. One little piece of information, and it took her half a day to find it. That was just wrong. She could see how the way she lived, the sheer mess she wandered thru every day, dragged her down like wearing a dress in a swimming pool. It was a way of isolating her from her own competence. How could she begin to fail her potential when she couldn’t move around her house? She could blame her lack of success on the mess she made. She could blame her mess on Mom. Well, okay, on the numbing she had to do to cope with Mom.
She was angry with Mom because Mom had gone out of her way to fling all of Judy’s shortcomings in her face last night. Just like every time she saw her. Which is why she never saw her. It only now began to dawn on her that this was a little one sided. Mom couldn’t be that vindictive, to always be scoring points of her oldest daughter. It just showed Judy’s insecurity to take it that way. And Judy was still insecure. At 53. I ask you. Still looking over her shoulder to see who was judging her, still second guessing every decision and action and stray thought. Still anxiously peering into the future in front of every turning point. This is why she drank. Because when she was drunk, she couldn’t make the effort to turn her head. She knew she was shielded by alcohol from mental abuse. Because of its nerve deadening effect. And pot changed her brainwaves. Psychic vampires couldn’t suck her dry because they didn’t know the frequency. But she wasn’t drinking that day. She was staying home watching Frank. She was out of anything to drink, and should already have gone to the liquor store, but something told her to stay with him. So she threw herself into cleaning her house, and it worked to take her mind off it.
She smoked more dope to ease her anxiety. Half a joint every twenty minutes. Repeat if needed.
* * *
Rick dropped the kids off at school and returned to the house. He’d left Alice with the baby because the nurse wasn’t there yet. He was looking for a live in nanny. He was thinking of one who looked like Roxy. He’d seen her picture online. She was from Romania.
There had been a tense moment in the car, telling them why Mommy wasn’t taking them to school. He’d been really tempted to tell them it was because Mommy didn’t love them anymore, but he couldn’t stand the tears, so he said Mommy was very sick (he actually used the word crazy), and was getting the help she needed (his expression said she was going to die). Grandma would be watching them. They really didn’t like that. Grandma smelled. He yelled at them about having proper respect for their elders. Damned kids.
He stood in the doorway while Alice cleaned the kids’ rooms, jeering at her. She was a terrible mother. Not fit to raise his children. If he wasn’t willing to protect her she’d be going to jail and never allowed to see the kids again. She was in tears, on her hands and knees getting dust out from under the beds. He trapped her there and disciplined her with the broom handle, to start with.
* * *
Cindy woke up with a fearsome headache. Nothing was right. Her head was at Bill’s smelly feet, the air conditioning was on full blast and there were no covers on the bed. The curtains were down off the rods. The bathroom door was blocked with towels and cosmetics. The carpet was torn up on the grand staircase, the rips snagging at her feet as she went downstairs. The statuary in the foyer was smashed, the ferns were torn up. The dining room chairs were slashed. The mahogony table had a long, deep scratch down the middle of it.
There was a wonderful roast smell filling the house. The neighbor smoking a ham? She wanted some of whatever it was. Maybe she should call for some hotwings.
She went into the kitchen. The oven light was on. One of the dogs, she couldn’t tell which one, was turning slowly on the rotisserie, dripping juices. The other, definitely Muffy, was partly down the disposal.
Bill awoke to Cindy’s hysterical screaming, and called the police. They were halfway thru the interview when he noticed that the note left by the perpetrator was in Cindy’s handwriting.
Bill quietly renewed his vow to leave. He was terrified that he would be next.
* * *
Gordon didn’t sleep that night. He held court at the club until the sun came up. Crank and coke and Jack Daniels and he could stay up forever. He spent a lot of time thinking about how he could conveniently kill Mom and have someone else take the blame for it.
Laurie, too, stayed up late, but she was alone, back at the trailer. It was her night off, and nights off were sacrosanct. Usually spent sleeping as long as possible, and then again as soon as possible, aided by alcohol and Valium. This night she didn’t want to sleep. She spent her night drinking Patron and modifying those chocolate candies she’d gotten from Gordon. With ground up sleeping pills dissolved in cinnamon schnapps. Spiteful lady didn’t deserve to live.
She did up all the chocolates. Then she selected a nice Tiffany gift box to give to Mom. She also chose a nice box to give a few chocolates to Cindy. But how to deliver it. Maybe the best way would be as an anonymous gift, since Cindy would be suspicious if she were to offer it in person. Laurie did up the last of the chocolate in a little ring box, something Rick had given her a great ring in. The dealer didn’t want the box, and it was a great box, so she was glad to get some use out of it. Some lucky asshole.
Laurie put all her little gifts into her stripper bag, and forgot about them until she found them while looking for a cream to put on a rash that had come up on her arms.
* * *
Allen came outside to get the paper. There was something wrong with the grass at the edge of the street. He went to look. He had to look from both sides. He tried reading it backwards. Words etched into the grass with gasoline. Very clear, if not very legible.
Allen went around cleaning up the house. There were glasses in the plants. There were cigarette butts in the bookshelves. There were a number of disposable pill packages in the bathroom trashcan.
Mom grilled Allen about Laurie’s waitress job. Allen never was much good under torture. Half an hour without a cigarette and he was making things up to tell her.
He had a little more discretion than that. He’d been in prison, he knew how to keep a secret. She even wheedled, and he withstood. Just gave a little bit of information. Of course, Mom was using her time tested whittling technique, and soon had all the pertinent details, with Allen still thinking she didn’t know a thing. Men.
He told her all about the club, suitably censored. About Gordon’s enterprises. like a bellhop, he said. Full service. About Rick’s and Bill’s obsession with Laurie (maybe a little familiar). About Laurie.
“So she performs tribal dances on stage,” Mom mused. “How large an audience?” she was trying to picture it. Laurie in Balinese dress.
“A couple of hundred sometimes. More intimate groups sometimes.” Allen sidestepping every issue.
Mom got the image of a theatre, a cultural center, embassy parties. “Is alcohol served there?”
“No, I don’t drink. A guy can go to a place and not drink, can’t he?” Allen started to sweat.
“How can she be a waitress and also dance?” Mom was really thinking about it now. “Does she fund her dream of dancing with tips from her waitress job?”
“Well, she’s not really a waitress. Ah. She’s an artist, a real artist. She’s spellbinding to watch. Tears come to your eyes,” he said.
Mom looked like she wanted to be in the audience. Exotic dancing. Middle Eastern, African. Mom had trouble thinking either Rick or Bill cultured enough to appreciate it. “Well, how did she meet them? Where did you say she works?” Mom was just getting started.
“Oh, they didn’t meet her at work.” Allen thought fast. “She’s, ah, also a dance teacher.” Mom looked surprised. “They’re taking salsa lessons.” He looked secretive. “Don’t tell their wives.”
“Yes, uh, it’s a class. Once a week.”
“Hmmm. They must be closer than I thought.” Rick and Bill have always hated each other.
Mom was suspicious. She retired to the den to call her family and see how they were doing this morning.
She called Alice. “Mrs Fee-yooks is having a nap,” retorted some unknown woman, wrangling the syllables out of her mouth. Mom could tell Rick had caught her mispronouncing their last name. “Leave a message?”
Rick is cheating on you, Alice. “No thanks, ask her to call me.”
“And you are?”
What a bitch. “Grandma,” she said coldly.
“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll tell her.”
Mom hung up, very dissatisfied. Alice was taking a nap at 10:30 in the morning?
She called Cindy. Did you find your shoe? Allen found it. You can stop by and get it whenever you like.” They chatted a few moments. Inconsequentials. Cindy was incoherent and mumbling.
Then Mom mentioned what Allen told her. Did Bill ever say anything about taking you dancing? A cruise? Anything?
Cindy laughed dryly. “Bill has never danced,” she said. He flatly refused at the wedding. And then he went off with that bitch Judy.
“Well, I thought I should warn you. No, never mind. It’s just my suspicious mind.” In the end Cindy was practically screaming at her to tell.
“Well, it’s just that I think Bill might have an unhealthy fascination with Laurie,” she said mildly. “It seems they know each other.” Cindy didn’t admit she’d noticed the looks between them. But she hedged, looking for more. “I think they’re doing ballroom dancing,” Mom said. “Together.”
“I did not know that,” Cindy replied. The tummy tango, eh? He’s dead meat. Running off after yet another sister in law? That’s a capital crime. He should at least lose his penis.
Mom called her dear little boy. “Gordon, I think you ought to know that Laurie might be unfaithful. I don’t want to be nosy, son, but are you sure it’s your baby?”
“Sure, Mom. Laurie’s as honest as the day is long. She tells me everything. I know it’s mine.”
“Gordon says no,” Mom said, holding the earpiece. Allen tried not to look dubious. He was getting tired of skirting around Laurie. It would be so much easier if he could come out and say it – It’s her job to be unfaithful.
“I don’t know if I want her in this family,” she remarked to Allen. “She’s very trashy. A hairdresser would be higher class.”
“But she’s going to give you another grandchild,” Allen reasoned. “That makes up for a lot.”
Mom sniffed. “She’s not good enough to raise my grandchild.”
She called Judy next. “I think Bill and Rick might already know Laurie,” she said. It was so exciting. “Maybe even in the biblical sense.”
Judy got madder the longer mom speculated. Ancient Delphic rites. “Exotic means stripper, Mom.”
Mom was in the middle of reacting to this when Judy decided she’d had enough. “You self righteous hypocrite. What have you done to my husband?”
“What’s wrong with Frank, dear?” she asked mildly.
“He’s weak as a kitten. Did he have another one of his spells?”
“No,” Mom said, unconvincingly. “He was fine while he was with me.”
“I don’t think I can forgive you for having sex with my husband.”
Mom let fly. “How dare you say that? How could you think such a thing?” She acted like Judy was depraved and making things up. Totally offended. Judy wondered if she could be wrong. If Mom could be innocent at the same time Frank was lying in bed with marks on his neck. If she held both universes in her head simultaneously, she could believe both. But, she reminded herself, nobody else lived in a science fiction world. She didn’t think the idea of multiple universes was correct. She wasn’t sure, but she suspected there was more rationality to existence. Probably not.
* * *
Alice was developing a nice case of poison ivy on the backs of her hands. She dosed it with calamine lotion that was in the kids’ bathroom. Then she cried for ten minutes.
She didn’t need Mom to tell her that Rick was running around with Laurie. Alice could see it in his face. She didn’t mind at all. She wished Rick would go ahead and run off with her and leave Alice and the kids alone. But no, he’d just ruin some other poor girl’s life. Maybe Laurie is carrying his child. Poor baby, just one more kid for Rick to beat up on.
She renewed her efforts to kill her husband. Alice had bruises she couldn’t hide. She wore dark glasses to cover the black eye, even tho the nurse acted like she was hiding drug abuse. Whatever she said to the therapist was immediately being used against her, so she was being very quiet and docile. She was used to acting like a mouse, to walking on eggshells. It was no different, there were just more eggshells, and the stakes were higher. She needed to stop Rick before he completely isolated her and gained total control over the kids. She was afraid for herself, but her injuries would heal. It was the fear in the kids’ eyes she was struggling against, especially the older one.
When they got home last night, Alice followed him thru house with a knife. He yelled at her to get in bed, and she was so afraid of what he’d do to her that she scurried right under the covers. She kicked herself for being so weak. Maybe she deserved such cruelty. She considered killing herself, but a very small voice said, “Nah.”
Rick left his diary open again. There was a figure for his total debt in the margin. Alice swallowed, her throat dry. He owed more than he was worth. But not more than Mom was worth. There was her name on a sheaf of insurance paperwork. Alice studied the information spread before her. Life insurance, money to Laurie, shadowy business deals, Russian mafia. He was in trouble.
Damn right Rick was in trouble. At that moment he was all distraught because of the threat to his inheritance. He wanted Mom dead for the insurance as well as the will, and here she was ruining it by marrying that idiot Allen. He had to kill her now. But how to do it?
Her car has already been sabotaged. He couldn’t get around Allen to push her downstairs or attack her directly. He could ask her to meet him somewhere on the road and then run her car into a ditch, but Allen would be driving. He tried to track her habits so he would know the best time to shoot a rocket into the house, but the reception on his photo frame wasn’t good, because of Cindy’s saliva marksmanship. Rick was in a dilemma. How do you kill your mother if you have to do it yourself? Not poison, not accident, not sabotage.
“Directly, with your hands.” He was meeting with Sam and Dave, continuing negotiations about their investment. “With a gun or a knife,” Dave continued.
“Da,” Sam explained.. “Keep doing it until they stop moving, until blood is the only ting moving.”
Rick felt sick. A river of blood. He tried to get the subject back to where they were supposed give him money for phony stock, but they were being slippery.
“Can’t invest right now, must have down payment first.”
“What?” Rick wasn’t hearing right. “You’re supposed to give me money.”
Sam shrugged. “Takes money to make money.”
Rick looked at them. “Is this a con?”
Sam and Dave shook their heads. “No. For bribes,” Sam explained. “Customs.”
* * *