Marionette Dominic fixed her eyes on the bright red bird feeder that dangled outside the kitchen window. I’ve got to stop this, she thought, if Stevie walks in on me again he’ll get worried. There had not been a hummingbird in months, though, and the feeder-bulb was empty. Mary (everyone called her Mary at her own insistence) dearly missed the jolly pink nectar – even if there were no birds about, she always liked the way the sweet pink sugar-mixture caught the sunlight on clear afternoons. The faded red base was depressing, suspended underneath the smudged plexiglass – funny, she thought, you never notice how ugly they really are until they’re empty.
The cooling water around her hands brought her back to the present. She looked at her hands as the water cooled; the wrinkles were not only from the water, she saw. Age had crept into her skin like it crept into the yellowing romance novels that sat, unread, on shelves throughout the house. Forty-one-years of daydreaming and wishing for other places, other circumstances. Forty-one and still a teenager in so many ways. Mary felt cheap and lonely, as though she’d been ditched by yet another pitying prom-date.
Her sight blurred.. The crying too was more frequent, as her hormones and emotions wrestled for supremacy. Mary’s mornings were sometimes depressed; other times, she was maniacally happy the moment she raised her head from the pillow. At other times she longed for the truant heat between her legs – if only she could be horny, hot-rushing horny, just to know that her chemistry was still capable of delivering pleasure along with the tumbled mess it had created inside her. She threw her hands to her eyes, defensive, unaware of the foulness of the dishwater.
Stephen walked into the kitchen, interrupting the familiar echoes that haunted her hollow needs like laughter.
“Mom?” he asked, as worry wrinkled his pre-pubescent face. God, that’s so depressing, she thought, my son doesn’t even shave and I’m already giving him worry lines. She looked up and tried to smile as cloudy dishwater droplets stung her eyes and spattered the floor at her feet. Stephen handed a towel to her gently, as though she might injure herself.
“Could I eat at Logan’s tonight?” he asked softly.
His tone startled her. He’s so sensitive, she thought, I miss him so much. She stopped – why had she thought that, she wondered as she inquired about his evening – will Logan’s parents be home? What are you having? They’re picking you up? Will you call when you need a ride home? Outwardly, she trusted that her voice was calm. Inside, she wanted to scream, What in God’s name is wrong with me?!
“Okay, Stevie,” she said. “Just let me know when Logan’s dad arrives to pick you up.”
Stephen’s face brightened (like the hummingbird feeder, she thought) as he jumped up, kissed her, and ran out. He’s probably calling Logan right now, she thought, glad he had left so quickly; she was beginning to think twice about letting him go.
Mary’s hands were in the sink before she realized that she had turned around. The clean dishes were in the rack; mechanically she washed them again in the filthy dishwater. Her gaze went past the hummingbird feeder to the driveway where small dandelions poked through the cracks in the blacktop. Stephen had picked the defiant yellow buds, leaving only the dull grey puffballs; all they needed now was a stiff wind, Mary saw, and they’d explode their infested parachutes everywhere.
Mary had told Stephen that his father was on a special trip and that he would be gone for a few weeks (truthfully, she knew little more than anyone else). That was her mistake, she realized, she should have been less specific; Stephen would ask later and the truth, at least what she knew, would come out. She was torn: should she spare him pain now while there was still some uncertainty, or was he old enough to fully understand their situation?
Stephen’s father had been out of contact for weeks and everyone expected the worst. The chaplain hardly knew Mary, but thankfully well enough that he didn’t test her with spiritual platitudes. His polite coffee-visit had developed into an involved game of Gin Rummy and Mary was able, for the first time in days, not to stare out the window, anticipating. Mary dreaded the eventual visit (whatever the news), the nameless crones who would be sent to give her an hour of awkward comfort that neither they knew how to give nor she to receive. They only knew his work; Mary, however, knew that it was as likely that he was holed up with some whore as anything that might be associated with “duty.” Uncertainty had characterized their marriage, and it was uncertainty that caused her to hope – in the dark regions of the psyche that one never admits to anyone else – that he was dead and she would never again have to role-play in their marriage’s schizophrenic facade.
The dishwater, now ice-cold, swirled into the drain. Mary scraped away a small piece of hardened food, not noticing the small scratch that would steadily decay with each sink of dirty dishwater. She flicked the piece of food into the drain, wiped her hands on her jeans, and tried not to look at the empty driveway outside her kitchen window. She looked for something – anything – to do. She knew that the living room needed to be vacuumed and that the entire house was slowly gaining a fine haze of dust on every surface. I’ll dust tomorrow, she said, knowing she was fooling herself just as she knew that she would clean the kitchen again today.
Mary walked to the bathroom, closed the door, and locked it, grateful for the barrier against the silent house. Stephen must be in the basement playing, she thought, as she unbuttoned her jeans and sat on the toilet. The spool of toilet paper on the wall was still new, unused. Her friend’s laxatives had helped, but the ache “down below” nagged that something was definitely wrong. She tried to ignore the pain and told herself that silence made everything louder, including her grumpy bowels. Minutes passed, Mary stood up, flushed unnecessarily, and headed for the kitchen.
Stop, she told herself as she hesitated at the kitchen door, caught between the omniscient sink and the house’s tomblike halls. Family photos dotted the wall: smiling, detached faces, unblemished joy, and memories yelling Cheese!behind paned glass and faux-chrome. Mary wiped a smudgy fingerprint that she had left the day – the week?– before and tried to hate the picture-stories of home, vacation, and Stephen’s baptism. She looked into the living room at the undisturbed vacuum tracks, remembering their last guests, a smiling couple who wanted only to study the Bible when she offered coffee. We feed on the word of the Lord, they had said, as though spiritual fulfilment was a reasonable substitute.
I wonder if that kind of faith would sustain me and Stevie, she thought, half hoping for an answer.
“I’d drop to my knees and beg if you’d tell me that I could look Stevie in the eye and say that everything would be the same,” she heard herself say to the portraits. I’m longing for an easy fix, for normality, she thought, even though she was keenly aware of the unmentionable bills hidden in the filing cabinet. She shook herself as if she could shrug away the burden. Life’s about mistakes, her father would have said.
“And no one needs to be reminded of them, I know,” she finished.
A sudden noise from her – their – bedroom interrupted Mary’s thoughts and seemed to vibrate the dancing dust-motes in the air. Must be Stevie playing, she thought as she slowly moved down the hall. Stephen had always been drawn to the master bedroom, to his father’s razor in the bathroom, to her jewellery, to the shoes in the closet, the ties behind the door. He looked almost out of place in front of the huge headboard; it should have been familiar, comforting; instead, it reminded Mary of her tenuous grip on her surroundings. She stopped at the door and watched him lie with his arm across his eyes like as though he were laid out on the beach coping with too much sunlight. Stephen had long been too old for the predictable routine, but Mary sensed that he found it useful to behave so. She knew that he knew she was watching him, yet Mary paused, unwilling to let the moment pass. She suspected that he had a keener sense of their situation than he let on, and that consciously he had grown used to the various manifestations of her grief. Analyse that, she thought, how twisted is a mom that revels in her own psychological distress?
“Hi, Mom,” he said from behind his arm.
He was so calm, she thought, and her throat hitched. She waited a moment before answering.
“Hey, kiddo,” she replied. “Where’s Logan’s dad? I thought he’d be here by now.”
“Oh, he’s on his way, I’m sure,” Stephen said.
Mary sat on the edge of the bed. Neither spoke, as though they were afraid that the sound of their voices would break the moment like a cough during prayer.
“Some of the kids in Sunday school say that dad’s not dead at all,” he said.
Mary lay back beside Stephen and stared at the ceiling, waiting.
“Really?” she asked.
Stephen spoke quickly, as though he could gain courage by getting it all out at once: “They said that dad is screwing some slut while we stay at home and worry about him I know what screwing is and I found out what a slut is Mom so you don’t have to explain it to me but they called me and him bastards but I don’t know that word is what they say true mom because I think that bastard is a really bad thing –”
Stephen stopped when his voice cracked. Again Mary waited, ready to burst.
“Are we bastards, mom?” He finished.
Hate, black as obsidian, filled her broken heart as she imagined the church kids hammering Stevie with questions while Mrs. Freelman stepped out of Sunday School for a cigarette.
Sometimes it feels like it, honey, she thought, sometimes it seems like we have a million different parents and that we’re floating around not knowing or caring where we come from. Sometimes people are so shitty to each other that it just makes you weep. Sometimes you just want to give the world the finger and scream as you run away. But she said nothing, ashamed that she had no answer, only vague bumpy resolutions that bounced around her cerebrum.
Stephen was silent as he lay beside her, as though mustering courage for his next inevitable question. The family portraits in the hall suddenly appeared in Mary’s mind, the smiling faces, the trips, the places, the people. Her husband, Stephen’s father, their family completion, was not in any of them. Mary was slow to respond, shaken, forgetting even to warn him about his language.
“No, Stevie, you’re not,” she said.
Stephen had cried after Mary told him.
Later, after Stevie had left with Logan and Mr. Guild, Mary found herself again in the kitchen. She watched the feeder as she stood in front of the sink. She missed the tiny hummingbirds that suspended themselves almost motionless save the blinding speed of their wings. She had watched a sparrow spasmodically flutter around the feeder, desperate to sample the remnants of sweet, syrupy nectar.
I’m like that sparrow, thought Mary, I’m just not properly equipped to get at the sweet stuff.
Sighing, she decided to make a new batch: all she needed was water, sugar, and red food-colouring, a few simple items. It should keep until we move, Mary thought as the water on the stove boiled. Her eyes moved past the feeder to the driveway beyond, where a dark car had pulled up, crushing the grey dandelions. Suddenly Mary wished that Stephen was still home as the three balding men politely closed the car doors, walked up the path, and rang the doorbell. She put down her tea towel, dried her hands, and changed her mind. No, I’m glad he left, she thought, I’m not even sure I want to be here. The doorbell’s fading echoes clanged in Mary’s mind as she opened the door, walked past the men, grabbed a ladder from the garage, and took down the empty, faded feeder. She said nothing as the men stood confused on the doorstep. That’s okay, she thought, somehow she knew that the visit would last no more than an hour anyhow.