by Connie Biewald
My thirty year old daughter has been in her bedroom closet for almost
two days now. The smell is terrible. We try to talk to her, coax her out,
even threaten her. I tell her I'll leave the kids on their own to stick
their fingers in light sockets and choke on pennies. How long does she think
a sensible, nice looking man like Randy is going to put up with her nonsense,
as loyal a husband as he may be?
All a mother wants is for her child to be happy but Reba wouldn't know
happiness if it tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to dance. A devoted,
hard working husband, three beautiful children, boy, girl, boy, just like
that. Couldn't ask for it any better. Alicia, the middle child, the only
girl, so she's still special. Maybe that's the root of Reba's problems. She's
smack in the middle of my five daughters but no more special than a
McDonald's hamburger. I know girls, I can tell you that and I'd have traded
any one of them for a son. Don't believe anyone who says boys are harder.
They don't know what they're talking about.
Take Randy. You couldn't ask for a nicer boy. He loves my
blueberry-rhubarb pie. Now a lot of people make a passable
strawberry-rhubarb, but blueberry-rhubarb, as far as I know, is my own
invention. You should see that boy with blueberry around his mouth.
"This pie is the best Mrs. D," he says. I tell him to call me Charlene,
call me Mom, but it's always Mrs. D. Got in the habit since he's been coming
around the house since he was a kid. I can still see him speeding along on
his bike, skinny legs pumping, reaching into his bag of newspapers without
even slowing down, tossing the paper so it hit smack in the middle of the
doormat. When he
came to collect I always gave him a big tip and a bag of my oatmeal raisin
cookies. Sweet, sweet boy.
Sad, his mother died years ago, when he was about ten, right around the
time he started the paper route, and his Dad...well, you can't blame the man
but he couldn't take it, drank like a fish. Why do they say that? Drank like
a fish. Come to think of it I've never heard of a fish drinking. But Randy's
father drank a lot. At Reba and Randy's wedding which was picture perfect
thanks to me and me only, Reba wanted to get married in the woods, barefoot,
but I put a stop to that. Anyway,
Randy's father could barely stand, he buttoned his jacket wrong. Did Reba get
mad at him? The one who deserved it? No. It was me she glared at every time
she looked in my direction. Not a word of thanks. The flowers, the food, all
my doing. I've had to depend on myself to get things done since Don died
eleven years ago. "Charlene," my friends say. "You are sooo organized. How do
you do it?"
Well anyone could, anyone with the slightest bit of organizational sense
who's not afraid of a little hard work.
So day before yesterday, Reba, five years married with three healthy
children, goes off to a hypnotist. He's supposed to help her figure out who
she was in a past life. I don't know why this one isn't enough for her. And
out of the kindness of my heart even though I know it's all a bunch of hooey,
I agree to baby-sit and make dinner for Randy. A man deserves to find dinner
ready when he comes home from a day at work. I know some people would think
me old fashioned for saying so but
it's what I believe. She comes home and without a word of thanks disappears
into the closet.
"Grandma, Grandma," Matthew calls. "Play Candyland with me." And even
though I've just that minute got the casserole in the oven I do because Reba,
the child's own mother, says right in front of the kids that playing
Candyland is her idea of hell. After all the games I played with her. I sit
down with Matthew, Alicia stacking blocks by my feet and the baby sucking on
a rattle. Everything under control.
Randy comes in right at five fifteen. He plays with the kids while I
put the dinner on the table. When we're all sitting in our places I say grace
and we start on the macaroni and cheese, made my special way with a bag of
frozen peas and carrots stirred in. People ask for the recipe all the time
and wonder if they can substitute fresh vegetables. They could but it just
wouldn't taste the same. Everything is nice and then the howling starts.
Randy stops eating, fork halfway to his
mouth. Alicia shreds her napkin and actually puts the scraps into her mouth.
The baby whimpers and bangs his highchair tray with his fists. Matthew
frowns and with his fork smashes the peas and carrots he's picked out of his
macaroni and piled on his placemat. I don't know why she waits until we're
all sitting down to dinner. After a hard day of work a man deserves to eat
in peace. Reba's
always been like that, has a sixth sense about ruining things for everybody.
"Stop that, Matthew," I say, and scoop up the vegetable mash with my
spoon. I can feed it to the baby. "Alicia, spit out that paper. You have a
perfectly good supper in front of you."
"I finally got a hold of the hypnotist today," Randy says, above the
noise."I told him he'd turned a perfectly decent wife and mother into a
scratching, grunting cave woman."
No one says anything else. Reba's racket makes conversation impossible.
We eat. Randy holds out his plate for seconds.
I spoon a man-sized serving onto his plate but instead of eating it
himself he wonders if we should bring some to Reba. "Maybe we could set it
outside the door," he says.
"I don't think so," I tell him. "She should come out and sit at the
table if she wants to eat."
Her howling has died down to whimpering, still loud enough to hear.
Even hiding in a closet she has to make herself the center of attention.
"Remember the time we all went camping?" Randy asks. "The time we saw
the coyote?" We used to camp for a week every summer up at the state park,
every year pretty much like the one before except for the coyote year, the
same night Reba ate a marshmallow that was still in flames. She was about
fourteen, should have known better, but that girl never could wait. We
didn't really see a coyote either, just a flash of fur, but that was enough
for her to go telling everyone.
"Reba burned the shit out of her mouth, remember how she howled then?
It must have hurt like hell but she didn't even complain, went around
bragging she eaten fire. We stayed up that whole night, I bet she couldn't
sleep cause it hurt so much. She said we were listening for coyotes." He
stands with the plate, head tilted, listening to the ungodly sounds coming
from the bedroom, a faint smile on his lips, as if he likes it. I don't know
why he has to use such foul
"She never said it hurt," he says. He presses his lips tight, then
says again, "she never said it hurt," as though he's just now realizing it
"Mommy sounds like a coyote," Matthew pushes his chair away from the
table, food untouched. "I want to play coyotes with Mommy."
"Remember how excited Reba was?" Randy can't shut up about that
"Come back here young man," I say to Matthew. "You are not excused."
I've always believed in strong limits with children. Reba complains about
her kids not sleeping through the night, watching too much TV, fussing when
they don't get their way. "It's you," I tell her. "You're the parent. Set a
limit and stick to it."
Alicia spits a giant wad of chewed up napkin onto her plate. My
napkin is missing. Her guilty smile tells me she ate it, sly little minx.
She won't look at me.
"Reba must be thirsty," Randy says and lifts his water to his lips,
swallows, then uses the half empty glass to push the food around and make a
space on the plate. He balances the drink in the space he's made. The water
sloshes up and down. The bottom of the glass is sticky with breadcrumbs and
Reba's howling grows louder. Even the baby pays attention, his
forehead all wrinkled and confused. Poor Randy. He stands there, hands
"Matthew, come back to this table and clean that plate," I say.
Someone has to be in charge. Matthew stands, just like Reba used to, fists
clenched, face screwed up. Alicia tears her napkin clot apart with her fork.
"The hypnotist said she'd come out of it on her own," Randy goes on.
"I asked how she'd driven home. How would a cave woman know about cars? He
couldn't answer that one. He said if we startle her out of it she could be
permanently scarred. He said to let her alone. She can't stay in there
Matthew makes a sudden move and slips past me. I chase him down the
hall to Randy and Reba's room. He bangs on the closet, he rattles the knob.
The howling and whimpering stop. I try to pry Matthew's fingers from the
doorknob but they stick tight as tentacles.
"Mom, Mom," he whines. "Let me in."
"Let go of that door," I say. "You come finish your dinner."
"Let me in," Matthew shrieks. "I want to play."
It's crazy, all of us clumped in that little bedroom--Matthew
yelling, me trying to get him back to the table where he belongs, where we
all belong, Randy with the baby wriggling on his hip and the plate in his
hand, Alicia squeezing between our legs.
The doorknob turns. The door inches open. A slice of my Reba
appears. The smell of urine and God knows what else pushes me back a step.
I gag. She pulls Matthew and Alicia part way inside, crouches down and holds
them close, all three of them staring up with slitted eyes and twisted
mouths. If I didn't know better I'd think they hated me. I grab the plate
from Randy just in time to keep the water from spilling and the macaroni from
sliding onto the rug. He nudges me
out of the way and squats beside Reba and Matthew and Alicia. The baby
reaches for Reba's nose. Next thing you know they are all in that smelly
closet with the door shut and I'm standing there with a plate of cold food.
The kitchen is a disaster. I'm sure they expect me to clean up. Some
people will never appreciate what you do for them but you do it anyway
because it's right. I have never left a dirty dish in the sink overnight.
I'm not about to start now even though Reba is always out of paper towels or
dishwashing detergent, and the lids to her plastic containers are nowhere to
be found. I'll make do. It is not in my nature to leave a mess.
Connie Biewald has completed two novels, Digging to China and Roses Take Practice. In addition to
her recent PEN New England Discovery Award, she received a 1998 Massachusetts Cultural Council
Artists' Grant. She is currently working on an historical novel.
~Miss Brown to You
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