My husband left me the same day I discovered one of the clerks at Shaw's, standing in a corner at the back of the store, right beside the swinging doors that led into that bloody deli. He seemed to be clutching something in his hands, struggling with it. I finished arranging the new bags of Tostitos on the metal rack at the end of the snack aisle, all the while watching his bony back. Then, as I approached the deli doors, he turned and dropped what appeared to be a white cotton ball in the trash can. That's when I knew for sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he was indeed the Tylenol Killer. I had been suspicious of him for awhile, the way he was always lurking in the drug aisle, making nice with the pharmacists, asking them questions. Now I had proof. I nodded as I passed him, and when my chin dropped, I saw that, sure enough, it was a Tylenol bottle he had been tampering with.I wanted to tell the world that I had found the killer, that silly little June Moore, had figured out what all those arrogant cops couldn't. I thought about all the press I would get. What would I wear for my interview with Barbara Walters? I decided that red, white, and blue was the best choice for an all American hero. But I didn't tell anyone just then. I kept the secret all day, and believe me, it wasn't easy. I've never been one to keep my mouth shut very long. But it's tricky business dealing with murderers. I thought I should maybe get my husband's advice before I went accusing anyone.
I got home from work around 4:30 that night, which left me with a little over an hour to wash the Shaw's grime off and start dinner. I took special care getting ready that evening. My mother always told me that the way to keep a man is to keep your looks. I don't think my father saw her without makeup once during their entire marriage. Every morning she rose before him and got her daily exercise in darting back and forth between the bathroom mirror and the sizzling eggs, and every evening, just before he returned home from whatever construction site he happened to be working on, she replaced her smock and apron with a fresh pretty dress.
I'm a liberated woman. I can't even count the times that Wade came home and found me in holey jeans, my dark wet hair staining the back of my t-shirt. But on this night, the night after I caught the Tylenol Killer, I blew my hair dry, relaxing the curls, so that it seemed longer and shinier. Then I pulled the red dress over my head, the one that Wade bought for me on our first anniversary, being careful so as not to smudge my makeup.
I had brought shrimp home from work, a real splurge, and I was arranging them neatly on a white platter with a dollop of red cocktail sauce in the middle when Wade arrived home. I could tell from the moment he walked in the door that he was in one of his moods. I had gotten in the habit of checking his eyes. If they turned toward the kitchen when he walked in, it meant that we were going to have a good night. If they were blank and avoided me, I knew that I might as well provoke him, let him smack out some of his worries so we could move on to relaxing in front of the T.V.
I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that he wasn't in one of his good moods on that particular night, but, for once, I had news to use. Wade may have had his faults, but he wouldn't have hit a genuine American hero. That's what I thought, as I watched him pull his Pizza Hut shirt over his greasy hair and toss it on the old gray couch that my mother lent us the day we moved into Northridge Apartments.
I finished arranging the shrimp and lifted the platter over my right shoulder, a trick I had mastered during the three months I worked at Red Lobster. Wade fixed his blank stare on me, as I walked as gracefully as I could into the living room, giving him time to see how the red skirt swished around my legs.
"What are you all dolled up for?" he asked, sneering at the dress he had bought. "Expecting the Publishers Clearing house gang? I sure hope you are." He tore the tail off one of the shrimp and flicked it like a cigarette butt, so that it landed on the olive green tile in the kitchen. "Didn't I just tell you yesterday that we have to cut back on all those luxuries you're so fond of? Didn't I?" Wade stuffed the shrimp in his mouth and grabbed another.
"Course I listen to you, Wade, honey, but I thought it might be okay to splurge just this one time." I cocked my head coyly. "We do, after all, got some reward money coming to us, darlin'."
Wade dropped back onto the couch and started taking off his smelly old Nikes. "Reward money? What'd you do? Find another lost cat?" He hurled his right sneaker into the hallway, and started untying the other.
"Oh, much better than that, sweetie." I paused for effect, putting the platter down on the coffee table so that Wade could hug me tight when he heard the news. "I found the Tylenol Killer." It felt so good to finally say it out loud. "I found the Tylenol Killer," I repeated. "Can you believe it? He works at Shaw's."
Wade didn't jump up to take me in his arms like I had expected, instead he started retying his shoe. "You stupid, stupid bitch," he growled. Then he stood up and retrieved his other shoe from the hallway. "Moron," he muttered as he walked past me again. He sat down on the couch and tightened the laces on his Nike. "You didn't tell anyone else about this yet?" he asked, his eyes focused on his shoes.
"No, honey. Remember? You told me never to make a decision without consultin' you first."
"Good girl," he said standing up, stretching. "Let me explain something to you, June," he yawned. "Most people aren't as patient as I am. Your manager don't love you like I do." He ran his finger down the line of my jaw. I could smell the pepperoni on his breath. I nodded. "June, one of these days, you're gonna go runnin' your mouth about one of those crazy ideas you get, and it's gonna cost you more than just another lousy job. They're gonna lock you up and let you fight it out with the rest of the crazy people." He removed his hand from my face. "For God's sake, June, smarten up, will ya?" He started to pull the smelly Pizza Hut shirt back over his head, then changed his mind. He crumpled up the shirt and dropped it on the floor. "My black button-down clean?" he asked. "Wanna go get it for me?"
"Where are you goin' Wade?" I called over my shoulder, from the bedroom. "You goin' to the club again tonight? I thought we could maybe spend some time together." I yanked his shirt off the metal hanger, and hurried back into the living room. "Wade, look at me for Christ's Sake. I haven't worn this dress since the night you took me to the Olive Garden for dinner." I handed him his shirt, "Why don't we go out tonight, just you and me." I picked the Pizza Hut shirt up off the floor and folded it, just to have something to do with my hands. "C'mon," I said. "If you can afford drinks at the club, you can sure afford to take your wife out to dinner every once in awhile. Wade, I..." I noticed the telling tic in his right eye then, and promptly shut my mouth.
"Go to hell, June. I don't need to take this crap from you," he shook his head, just brimming over with disgust. "Think I'm not a good husband to you? Think I don't treat ya well enough, Princess?" He was spraying my face with his pepperoni spit by this time. He poked my chest. I swayed. "Well, I guess we'll see just how well you do on your own." He rested a hairy hand on the doorknob. "I'm going to Ann's now. Maybe I'll be back. Maybe I won't...No man should have to listen to crazy stories and a shit load of bitchin' not five minutes after he finishes up with an eight hour shift." Wade slammed the door behind him. I had been right, he didn't hit me. He wouldn't hit a hero. I sat down on the couch with the platter on my lap and proceeded to eat every last one of those shrimp by myself.
I wondered while I ate. I wondered about silly things like, did this Ann person tease her bangs like the girls at work, or did she wear them long like mine. I wondered about important things, like whether or not she would iron Wade's pants for him, or rub his back after one of those terrible nightmares of his. Would she love him? I didn't know if I wanted her to or not. One thing I did know was that Wade wasn't coming home again. Don't ask me how I knew; I just sensed it.
My mother joined
a cult on my seventeenth birthday. She didn't call it a cult.
She said it was a "Christian Community." She explain to me in that shrill
voice of hers that she had fulfilled her duty to family, that it was time
to fulfill her duty to God. I haven't heard from her once since she
sold the house and headed down south. I have a pretty strong suspicion
that she was somehow involved in that ungodly Jonesboro mess.
Mama was always weird about religion. She couldn't stick to one. I never could keep it straight from one day to the next whether we were Jehovah's Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists or Presbyterians, or, God knows how she managed it, but I think we were even Catholics for awhile. I was never sure on any given week whether I'd find my church clothes waiting on my bed on a Thursday or a Saturday or a Sunday.
Finally, sometime during the third grade, I just threw up my hands and started telling people that I was a witch. I didn't see any harm in it. None of the kids in my class dared tease me for fear of being turned into a toad, and I didn't have to worry anymore about which sect God belonged to. My mother's god was pretty wishy-washy, to say the least. The witch thing only lasted about four months though. The teacher somehow caught word of my new religion and passed the news onto my mother.
"It's her grandmother's influence," Mama said to my father at the dinner table that night. He didn't pay her any mind, just went right on reading the newspaper and eating his pork. He had given up trying to keep her quiet. Mama was the kind of person who had to talk things out. As long as the laundry was clean and dinner was on the table by 5:30, my father was content to just let her squawk.
Right before he was forced to join the witness protection program, Dad told me that the trick to surviving my mother's chatter was to focus on an idea that was big enough to block her noise. My father was a wise man. I wish he hadn't gotten involved with those gangsters; mama and I missed him terribly after he left for California. I also wish he had taught me about blocks of ideas sooner. He would have saved me years of indigestion. "I don't care if she's your mother," Mama told the classified section of the newspaper. "That woman is a witch if I ever saw one." I choked on my milk.
I'm not sure where Mama got that idea about Grandma Kelly being a witch. Grandma went to the same church every Sunday for fifty years and she even wore a little gold cross around her neck, which she was apt to clutch when God was testing her.
I think my mother's suspicion had something to do with the clovers. My grandmother had a sense for them. She could pull a four leaf clover out of a clump of grass in her own fields or a crack in the sidewalk on a crowded city street. Wherever she went they just appeared to her, and a good helping of luck always followed. A clover made the cows start giving milk again. A clover helped Grandpa find an odd job just before the gas ran out. A clover brought my father back from Vietnam. A clover protected the crops from hail. I imagine that enough clovers could even save the whales, or stop global warming.
After Wade left me, I became obsessed with the thought that clovers could raise the child growing inside me like a virus. I had my own magick, of course, a trick or two that had stayed with me long after my mother squelched my little affair with the Devil. I plan to reveal my secrets eventually, in a limited edition grimmoire. Most of the time, they've worked pretty well, but, unfortunately, like God and scientists and even clovers, they're not infallible.
Wade visited me not ten minutes after I saw the telling blue line on the pregnancy test. Well, he didn't exactly visit me. He stopped by to pick up the rest of his stuff. I was crying when I answered the door, but I stopped immediately when I saw the blond leaning against Wade's shoulder. I finally knew. She did tease her hair. I also knew that I could never let on about the baby. It would have seemed like a desperate attempt to win Wade back, and I certainly had no intention of letting that husband thief at his side feel superior to me. She'd find out soon enough that Wade didn't like to spring for luxuries like hairspray, and then she'd wish she had let him be.
From that night on, the baby stopped feeling like a parasite, stopped sucking the life right out of me and started feeding it to me. He became a blessing, my own secret magick, saving me from a lonely hopeless future.
Before I took the pregnancy test, when I only suspected that the baby was there, before Wade showed up at Northridge Apartments with his new girlfriend, before all that, I fell into a deep state of despair. I think the despair was good for me. It let me know what my limitations were. My main limitation was that I was still a child myself. I had never lived alone. I had never even paid so much as a bill without Wade's help. Also, I was poor. How does one get Welfare and WIC and Medicare and all those fancy safety nets people talk about? I had no idea. The only idea I did have was that I wanted my Grandmother, my witchy Grandmother and a bushel of four-leafed clovers.
I arrived at
my Grandmother's house on a Sunday morning during that muddy time in spring
when the world smells good and looks awful, towing my blue escort behind a
fourteen foot UHaul. The greasy clerk who took my twenty bucks, called
it a DC. I spent the entire drive trying to figure out what "DC" stood
for exactly. Dreadful Choice? Dream Come true? Dead Cat? Darn
couch? Diamond Choker? Deck Chairs? Dancing Chameleon?
Darling Cartoon? Doesn't count? Dumb Cunt...? I never did
figure it out. My head was spinning like a top by the time I pulled
into Grandma's circular driveway (Driveway Circular?) and backed the truck
up to the doors of the cluttered barn, where I would be storing my couch and
my chairs and my kitchen table. I decided to leave the bed at Northridge
Apartments when I moved out. I probably could have gotten it into the
DC with a little time and elbow grease, but superstition prevented me from
Grandma was still at church, so I set to unloading the truck. The barn smelled like musty hay and cat pee. I wasn't too sure about leaving my furniture at the mercy of the mice and cobwebs and tom cats, but I hoped that I wouldn't be needing it again for a long time. I hoped that Grandma would let me stay forever. Someone had to take care of her in her old age.
I also hoped that grandmother would bring home a handsome bachelor from that church of hers, a good Christian man to help me take care of her and Wade Junior. She had gotten in the habit of inviting young single people and old widows or widowers to the farmhouse every Sunday since Grandpa was kidnapped by the Grim Reaper a few years back.
I wasn't too concerned about Grandma's bachelor seeing my clothes covered in dust and tendrils of my hair sticking to my forehead. He would know right away by the grime and sweat that I'm a hard worker, a real stand up kind of woman. All those feminists talk, talk, talk about being equal to men, but I bet most of them wouldn't think of moving a couch by themselves, especially with a bun in the oven.
I imagined what the young man would look like. I kind of hoped he'd have blond hair, like Wade, and maybe a nose that was just a little too big. Then people
would assume he was Wade Junior's natural father, and there wouldn't be any talk in town about my husband abandoning his child. I didn't want Wade Junior to inspire pity. There was certainly no need for another weak man in the Kelly line.
Yes, with the help of Grandma's bachelor, I'd have a bright, sturdy boy in no time. I was planning our wedding when I heard my grandmother's tires on the gravel driveway. I stepped out of the dusty barn into the sunlight, wiping my hands on my thighs. I skirted a mud puddle and approached her tan Volkswagen, glancing nervously at the gray Honda climbing Kelly's Hill with my future husband behind the wheel. I wondered suddenly if looking fresh and pretty wasn't in fact better than looking industrious, but it was too late for that, so I did my best, smoothing back my hair and smiling sweetly.
I resisted the urge to look at the driver of the Honda when it stopped behind Grandma's car. Desperation scares a man away faster than you can say, "Help!" So instead of sneaking a glance at my husband-to-be, I walked around to the other side of my grandmother's Volkswagen and opened the door for her.
"Oh, you darling girl! Help me up...There, there. Now let me take a look at you. Why, you're not even showing in the belly yet, only in the face. You been drinking lots of milk, like I told you? Whole milk? That skim stuff isn't any better than water, if you ask me. You have a good trip over? Come here dear. I want you to meet Diana. Diana, this is my granddaughter, June. You probably feel like you know her already. I've been talking about her so much this week. "
Before I had time to recover from Grandma's whirlwind of a greeting, I found myself standing in front of a pale, slender girl with long auburn hair. She was beautiful. I wished again that I had waited to move the furniture. I wished harder than I would have if the bachelor had indeed materialized. Somehow, it's worse to be caught dirty and sweaty by another woman than by a man, especially a pretty
woman like Diana.
"How do you do?" I said, cringing at the clumps of black dirt under my nails as I extended my hand.
"Nice to meet you," Diana said. Her voice was soft, and somehow, even though she didn't say much, I sensed the poetry in it. Or maybe it was the way her graceful movements suggested both joy and tragedy all at once. Anyhow, I knew Diana was a poet from the moment I saw her. Grandma told me later that it wasn't possible to tell a person's profession just by looking at them, but, as I said before, my magick is different from hers.
"You live here?" I asked Diana, eying her car suspiciously.
"Diana's been living here for...Has it been a month already? Lord, how time does fly when you get to be my age," my grandmother answered for the timid girl. Grandma always was a big talker, like Mama without the stinger. "Diana here is Ruth's daughter. You remember Ruth Caldwell? Owned the print shop downtown when you were a girl? Diana and I have a little arrangement. She keeps the house clean and writes the prettiest little poems you'd ever imagine in exchange for a place to eat and sleep."
I looked at Diana, waiting for a nod of the head and a kind word for my generous Grandma, but she was a silent one, couldn't even hold my eyes. Instead, she gazed wistfully up at the barren branches of Grandma's big maple as if she were alone, rather than in the middle of being introduced to her new house mate. Grandma patted her on the shoulder, "Diana here has had a hard time of it, been sick for awhile, but she's getting better now. Learning a thing or two about bootstraps, she is..."
"Oh, you're sick?" I interrupted. "It isn't contagious is it? I'm pregnant, you know." Diana shook her head.
Grandma smiled, "No, not that kind of sickness, dear. Diana is sick in the heart, in the head, but, as I said before, she's coming right along. Why just today, she drove into church early to teach a Sunday School class. If there's anyone can make those little rascals see God's beauty, it's Diana."
I looked at the gravel, feeling uncomfortable hearing all these intimate details while Diana just stood there silently, gazing out over the muddy corn field. "Oh dear," my grandmother said, looking down at my shuffling Keds then back up at my shiny forehead. "Maybe I said too much in way of an introduction, but Diana here doesn't talk to strangers, scared stiff of them."
Diana's cheeks turned pink, but for some reason she didn't seem displeased. "I don't want you two to stay strangers for long," my grandmother said, wrapping her arm around Diana's narrow shoulders. "Why, each of you will probably know the other's life story by the end of dinner, if I have my way. Speaking of which, you must be starving after moving all that furniture. I'm famished myself, and all I did this morning was sing a few hymns. Come on inside. Do you have any luggage? Diana here will help you carry it in. I'm gonna stick the ham in the oven now." Diana and I eyed each other for a moment. The pink on her cheeks spread down to her chin. Neither of us relished the idea of being left alone together. I'm no good at talking to myself.
My grandmother saved us from the awkward moment by calling over her shoulder in a pleasantly sarcastic voice, one hand on the doorknob, one on her hip, "Stop all that squawking now and get to work, girls. Don't got all day you know. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk," she chattered herself through the entrance way.
Diana and I smiled. The silence was suddenly comfortable. I lead her around to the back of the DC, and dragged my plaid suitcase to the ground. Diana Caldwell. "You have the same initials as the truck Wade Junior and I came in," I said, pausing to pat my belly, then removing my hand to reach for my yellow knapsack. "Look over there on the side. This truck is a DC, Diana Caldwell, a sign if I ever saw one." I noticed her feet shuffling over the gravel the way mine had earlier, so I added over my shoulder for good measure, to still those twitching black pumps, "That means we'll be friends, Diana Caldwell."
by the farmhouse only a few weeks after his son was born, only a few days
after his big blond girlfriend left him. I don't think I've ever been
so nervous as I was when I looked out the nursery window and saw him bouncing
up the lawn, towards the house, tight black jeans tucked inside black steel-toed
boots, blond hair resting on his turned up collar. I almost fainted
dead away right there in the nursery with Junior trusting my arms to be sturdy.
Diana Caldwell noticed the fear on my face in the same quiet way she notices
every little detail of every little scene that's played out before her starving
eyes. She took Junior from me and started to sing a lullaby so softly
that I couldn't make out any of the words. Sometimes I imagine that
Diana Caldwell got trapped here during a visit from the future, that she's
really more evolved than the rest of us humans, from a time when words have
become unnecessary because people can see each other's thoughts.
Wade was pounding on the front door by this time. Grandma was out visiting, so it was up to me to answer, now that Diana was holding the baby. I reached into my pocket to fondle the four-leafed clover Grandma had given me just before she left for Frannie Smith's house. It was almost like she had known Wade was coming, the sweet old witch. The clover gave me strength. So did Diana Caldwell. I motioned for her to follow me downstairs.
Wade brought the scent of cold air and leather through the door with him. He tried to hug me, but somehow I managed to resist. I knew that it would only take a single hug to do me in, to have me begging on hands and knees to be his wife again. Well, actually, I was still his wife, by law anyway. Turns out that's why he had paid me a visit. It took him awhile to get to the point though.
I backed away from the door, studying Wade's pink, pock-marked face and rested a hand on Diana Caldwell's elbow. "Wade, I'd like you to meet my best friend, Diana Caldwell, or DC for short, and her newborn son, Junior."
"Junior? Wade asked, running his gloved fingers through his hair. "What's the daddy's name?"
"He's called Junior, too," I replied. "Just Junior."
"Your friend got a tongue of her own?" Wade asked, looking Diana Caldwell up and down with obvious approval.
Her cheeks changed instantly from white to red. "I am sorry that I am unable to talk to you," she told him real business-like, "but I am attempting to escape the confinement of emic reality by speaking only when it's absolutely necessary to do so. Ever hear of Buckminster Fuller?" The corners of her mouth twitched, but Wade didn't seem to notice.
"Yeah, yeah, went to school with him," he stuck his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. I could see that he was having a tough time acting casual. His left eyelid was twitching. "Think we took shop together one year... So emic reality, huh? That's what you're into? What else're you into, D.C.?" He stepped closer to Diana Caldwell, and we both stepped back away from him in perfect unison. Diana shifted the weight of the baby and used her free hand to pretend like she was buttoning her lips.
Wade shook his head, "Crazy females...So tell me," he said, turning his attention my way. "Whatcha been up to, sweetie? Staying out of trouble, I hope." He winked, for no apparent reason other than to be charming. Charm was Wade's magick.
"Grandma's gonna be home any minute Wade, and she ain't gonna be too happy to see you here." Diana Caldwell backed my words up, shaking her auburn head emphatically. Wade looked back and forth from her face to mine. Part of me hoped that he wasn't measuring me against her pale beauty. The better part of me didn't care.
"Why wouldn't the old bag be happy to see me? Whatcha been tellin' her about me? More of your lame-ass stories?" I could feel Diana Caldwell trembling next to me in anger. Somehow that made me feel calmer.
"Tell me what you want, or get out," I told him, taking Wade Junior from DC's shaky cradle. "We have to put Junior to bed."
Wade took the hint. "I want you to take a look at these papers," he dropped them on the table beneath his fist. "Ann said three days ago she wasn't comin' home 'til I at least tried to get a divorce. So," he shrugged, "I've tried now. Have a nice life." He saluted me and bowed his head to Diana Caldwell, with more than a little sarcasm, then stormed out, slamming the door behind him. I smiled and kissed Junior's tiny nose. Then waited.
Wade was back at the door, pounding to be let in, no more than thirty seconds later. I turned the lock and fixed the chain. Then I headed for the nursery with Diana Caldwell close behind me. We couldn't hear Wade from up there.