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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 language.

"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 did.

"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 camping trip.

"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 melted cheese.

Reba's howling grows louder. Even the baby pays attention, his forehead all wrinkled and confused. Poor Randy. He stands there, hands shaking.

"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 forever."

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.

More Fiction:

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Picture "Blue Belle Girl" by: Catherine Marche

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