By Andrea Slonecker
Karen rolled the scent of new carpet around the back of her nose before she exhaled. She traced her hands along the pure white walls; freshly painted to hide greasy shoe marks. Over the past year Karen had started to hang pictures, covered with glass, on the walls. It thrilled her to set something fragile on the mantle, or on top of a carefully arranged stack of books. It was as if she was doing something illicit. When she dusted the rooms that had been bare for so many years, she would whisper, like a litany, where and when she purchased each item. She wiped the whorl of a crystal monkey’s tail and recited “Biltmore, last December, our trip to the mountains.” She held a pair of champagne flutes etched with double hearts she said, “Macy’s, early May, to celebrate our 25th anniversary.” They reminded Karen of the ones, long broken, from their wedding. She lifted a heavy glass flute in each hand and tapped them together. They gave a dull clank. The originals were thin crystal and shuddered a chime even when empty. Still, these would work for toasting Glen at his retirement party tonight. The guests should start arriving in just over an hour.
Karen noticed a thin fiber that dulled her plaster Madonna. She wiped away the sticky web. She traced the ridge of the blue veil. She had passed a junk store, the kind of place she used to troll through with her old neighbor, Char Huber, when they were both newlyweds. The Madonna in the window had called out to her. Something in the statue’s gaze said that she knew what it meant to have a child that people whispered about. Karen wondered if, like Eileen, Jesus was Autistic. Was Mary left to gather the remnants of her social life, constantly damaged by her son’s odd actions? She saw the words in the tired plaster eyes: “No touching lepers honey, they have germs,” “stay close to mommy and daddy at the temple; I am not coming to look for you if you get lost this year.” “No, that isn’t a nice lady, they are throwing things at her for a reason.” She began speaking to the Madonna whenever they were alone. Silly things. Karen would ask the statue’s advice on the placement of a brooch, whether she should make tuna casserole or a roast that night.
Once, Karen loved antiques. She’d invent a story for every chip on an enamel bowl. Then Eileen was born. As the girl grew, every thing she touched was ruined. Either she broke it in a tantrum, or drew Mickey Mouse ears on it. Karen became tired of worn things
Karen knew that she should hide the Madonna now, but the statue transformed the empty house into something warm and still. Without the Madonna, being alone was simply lonely. Some magazine, probably Martha Stewart, said that a hostess must plan well and finish all her preparations one hour before the guests arrive then she should sit down with a glass of wine to refresh herself. Ever since Eileen was born, Karen wished for that serenity, just for an hour, and now she had it. A glass of wine, not dumped in a plastic tumbler from Disney World, late at night, after Eileen had finally gone to sleep, but in a real glass, with a stem and yellow wine charm.
The Hubers, who used to live two doors down managed to have a child and a perfect, quiet life at the same time. The Huber’s baby had sat on a thick quilt and chewed a wooden train. If he attempted to move off his quilt, Char Huber picked up a yardstick and tapped the oak floor at the fringe. The baby returned to the center.
“It’s so much more humane than a play pen, we can interact more easily here,” Char had explained as she glanced at the baby. “In the beginning I had to rap his knuckles, but now he knows to stay as soon as I touch the floor.” The women drank tea while the baby listened to Mozart and played. Yes, Karen thought, perhaps it was time for a baby.
Both Char’s son and Karen’s daughter were grown, or at least trying to be. A year and a half ago Eileen had moved into a supported-living apartment. A nurse stopped by twice a day to distribute meds. Eileen attended a life skills support group with others from her apartment once a week. At this meeting, everyone worked on a meal plan and shopping list for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. The apartment complex had a large dining room, and Eileen ate there every night. She worked twenty hours a week at a nearby grocery store. She’d never gotten a driver’s license, but she rode the city bus to her job.
The doorbell rang, half an hour too soon. Two women stood on the porch with arms linked. Beth, Karen’s mother-in-law, tapped her powdered cheek, warm from the heated car, against Karen’s face and made a kissing sound with her red lips. Karen’s eyes itched from Beth’s perfume, Red Door.
“I know you won’t mind that we came early, dear, the traffic on I-40 was so much lighter than I planned for, and Eileen was ready to go when I got to her apartment.”
Karen nodded as she took the older woman’s coat.
“I brought you some pimento cheese; I know how much you like it.” Karen grew up in Vermont, the land of sturdy cheddar. The year she and Glen were engaged, Karen spent Christmas in Raleigh with her future in laws. She concealed her horror at the speckled blob that was presented at a cocktail party by dipping one Wheat Thin after another into it and chewing with her tongue tucked away in the upper corner of her mouth. Some of it she swallowed, but when no one was looking, she spat into a paper napkin. She spent the next twenty-seven years complementing her mother-in-law on her pimento cheese.
The younger woman wobbled into the room. The tight skirt on her red cocktail dress pinched her knees together. She wore black heels and short white gloves. Her hair, freshly dyed black, was arranged in two large masses on either side of her head. Karen walked over and embraced her.
“My goodness, Eileen, you look so dramatic. And beautiful. Dramatically beautiful.”
“Three circles, Mom.” Eileen pushed Karen away and curved the tips of her fingers as she tapped the top of her head. This had long been her sign for Mickey Mouse. Karen mimicked Eileen’s motion and tapped. So did Beth. Karen slipped her hands off her head, and crossed her arms as she turned around.
Beth walked into the kitchen; she pushed trays of Karen’s appetizers aside, and placed her pimento cheese next to the stack of plates.
The doorbell rang again and Karen excused herself. Everyone was arriving before Glen. Buzz and Char Huber, their former neighbors, stood on the porch with arms outstretched. Karen leaned in to hug them. Their wool coats soaked up the contrary hot and cold smells of winter–wood smoke, frost, cinnamon, and scotch. It beaded into droplets that Karen shook off before she hung the coats. Even though Buzz and Char had moved to a gated community fifteen years ago, they still ran into each other occasionally, at Costco or the Olive Garden. They didn’t go out to dinner any longer, just the four of them, but they’d invite each other to parties, the kind of parties you throw to make up for the lack of intimate meetings with friends who drifted away. Karen hung the Huber’s Christmas photo on the fridge each year, and each year remarked to Glen how handsome their son was getting to be. Karen pointed the way to the dining area where she had shared many meals with the Hubers before their lives began to separate.
The bell rang again; Karen took the coats from the latest guests, offered hors d’oeurvres and drinks. Glen slipped in through the garage and pulled a seat next to Buzz and Char. Karen patted and smiled her way through clots of guests to join them. Buzz rose, pulled a chair out for Karen, and offered to fill empty glasses. Karen sighed from the relief of sitting. She scanned the room to see if the party was a success. With all the vanilla candles and butter-flavored shortening, it smelled like a meal created in a beaker, but everyone was smiling. Sharon, one of Glen’s former colleagues, leaned towards a man from Karen and Glen’s church and tapped his shoulder with her glass. She could hear Buzz near the bar, his voice filtered through party chatter, telling the story of his son’s quick rise up the corporate ladder at IBM. The sounds and smells layered and blurred as light ricocheted off the candles.
The new dinning room table and chairs shone in the candlelight. They were a splurge, part of the remodeling that happened after Eileen moved out. Sometimes, when Karen was alone, she would sit in one of the chairs and lay her face on the table, feeling its perfection on her cheek. Now she splayed out her fingers to gather the sleek surface. Holding the table felt like holding the life she wanted: poised and smooth. Karen sat in the large chair with armrests. When she was a girl, Karen called this type of seat the “daddy chair.” When Eileen was little she sat in the armed chair from the old dining set. Karen and Glen felt that the arms had given Eileen boundaries and Eileen became used to it. Last year, they threw away the old one, crusted with wood glue in every joint, but each Tuesday when Eileen came to dinner, she chose the new chair with armrests.
Eileen returned to stand in front of the Madonna. She rocked back and forth on her high heels; the bridge of her nose almost brushed the glaze with each forward movement. Karen jumped up and ran to her daughter. Her daughter must not break anything today. In the months since Eileen moved out, Karen restored her home, and the peace she felt from that was too great to lose. She twisted Eileen’s arm backward and caught her as they both almost fell to the floor.
“What do you think you are doing?”
“I was just looking.”
“You could have crashed into the shelf. You can’t keep your balance in heels when you stand still, much less if you rock like that.”
Eileen pulled her arm away, and both women looked at the silent crowd.
“I was just worried that you would fall and hurt yourself sweetie,” Karen said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Why don’t you come get some of those egg rolls you like and sit down next to your father? He’s been looking forward to seeing you.”
It was true; Glen was the one who pushed to include Eileen in the party. He always had more patience than Karen did. Karen didn’t think that this was really her daughter’s type of event. Eileen didn’t like small talk.
Once she saw that Glen would keep an eye on their daughter, Karen checked the supplies in the kitchen. Her head ached from the noise that only a few minutes ago thrilled her. Why must people use such shrill voices at parties?
Only a few pale celery sticks were left on the veggie tray. The mini quiches had disappeared down to crumbs. Karen put the last greasy egg rolls on a plate, and brought them to Eileen’s chair. Karen opened the kitchen door that led to the garage to grab more appetizers from the extra freezer and escape the noise of the party.
Neither Glen nor she were good at fixing things or building things, but they’d both been given a small Craftsman tool set as a high school graduation present, and another when they married. The three identical hammers lay in a drawer next to a larger, worn hammer that had belonged to Glen’s father. Karen picked up the old hammer and smelled it. She looked at the heavy head, black with age and full of nicks. She touched the tip of her tongue to its grime, tasted its tang and shivered. Their own hammers had never been used to build anything. They had tapped a few nails into drywall, but never found a stud.
Glen’s dad had been a busy small town doctor, but, unlike Glen, he always found the time to build things. The kind of things that lasted. He built the home that Glen grew up in, and bookshelves for this house. He built a rocking horse for Eileen. She rocked on that horse for hours, wearing out the carpet. It was the only thing that calmed her some days. She’d rock for so long that she’d throw up, then climb back on again. Karen’s own father had cut and sanded a set of wooden blocks for Eileen. Like everything else she loved and claimed as her own, Eileen branded both these toys with an outline of Mickey Mouse’s face. Unlike most of the defaced toys and furniture, Karen kept the blocks and the rocking horse. At the time, Karen was horrified when Eileen marked these toys. She threatened to put them away. But now, it seemed as if Eileen’s marks were a partnership with her grandfathers. The blocks and rocking horse were incomplete without the girl’s decorations.
Karen squeezed her short brown hair in her hands as if that would remove the idea from her mind. She remembered that she was irritated with Eileen; she didn’t want to leave space for sentimentality. She set the box of frozen appetizers down on the hood of the car while she opened the kitchen door. She re-entered the party, refreshed from her brief escape.
The crowd had gathered around Buzz and was laughing at a story about his secretary. The girl usually wore out of date glasses, stained rayon skirts, and had stringy hair, but last week she’d had a makeover, and the results were more disastrous than her original dowdiness. Buzz puckered his lips and rubbed his upper teeth, showing where her garish lipstick landed. He pinched his knees together and splayed his loafers to demonstrate her new hobble, caused by a miniskirt and high heels. He waved his arms to steady himself. Amber beads flew from the glass in his hand; they sparkled in the air, landing on the carpet and his shirt. Karen looked at Eileen and bit her lip to staunch the idea that that Buzz’s description of the awkward secretary dressing up reminded her of her daughter.
She looked at her guests staring and smiling at Buzz. He warmed the crowd, made them love him. Karen remembered how, when she first met Buzz, being admitted into his circle filled her. She could see the expansion in each of her guests. Watching Buzz, each one of them smiled a little bigger, or stood a little straighter than she had ever seen before. Buzz was always full of praise; he must have complimented the young secretary on her new hairstyle, just as he had to Elaine tonight, to every woman in the room.
Suddenly, Karen was tired of Buzz’s endless humor and charm. Looking back on all the dinners they had shared, Karen realized their laughter always followed mockery. She wondered if she and Glen, or even more likely, Eileen, were ever the objects of the Huber’s ridicule. Karen wanted to run to her guests, shake each one of them, and say, “It’s not real, this warmth, this confidence you feel. You think because you are laughing at someone else, you are protected. It could be you next time.”
Through the haze of guests, Karen could no longer hear Buzz’s flattery or even see him, until he rose above the crowd. He pulled one of the dining room chairs, the one with the arm rests, in front of the bookshelf and was dancing on it. One guest thumped a beat on the side of the couch, and another hummed a tune. Buzz turned away from his audience and faltered. At first, Karen thought the stumble was apart of the act, but then she heard the brittle collapse of porcelain and a man’s voice cursing. The guests dispersed, averting their eyes, muttering about approaching weather, forgotten until now.
“We must be going now before it hits; could be icy soon you know,” guest after guest murmured into Karen’s ear. “Don’t worry about me, dear, I can show myself out.”
She caught Glen’s look, and knew that he was headed to the bathroom to get the first aid kit. Although, first she watched Karen pulled the dustpan out from under the kitchen sink. They had followed this routine before. Glen returned with band-aids and a glass of water, he nodded his head, smiling to calm Buzz down.
“Sorry Buzz, old buddy, we’re out of bourbon,” Glen said, “how about some water instead?”
As Karen swept up the remnants of her broken statue next to Buzz, she noticed the faint, warm scent of good whisky that he had carried in the door with him had morphed into something sour and garish on his breath. She turned her head away to try to find fresh air and saw Char slumped on the sofa, squeezing the arm-rests, eyes closed. Karen could see her lips moving, muttering something too low to be heard. Karen picked up the chair the Buzz knocked over, and felt a roughness under her fingertips. She didn’t need see it to know what caused the cuts in the silky wood. The three circles were familiar to her fingers. Hidden Mickeys.
Karen returned to the garage with the dustpan and opened a box labeled “off-season clothes.” She lifted a single sweater off the top. Underneath the sweater, the box was filled with shattered colors. She dumped the remains of the Madonna with the rest, and sifted her right hand through the shards she had been collecting for twenty years. The splinters of glass scratched and stuck in Karen’s winter dry hands. She pulled one of the larger Madonna pieces out again, two thin layers of blue sandwiched the pasty interior that no one was supposed to see but now revealed its nakedness.
In the beginning, the box was proof. She never showed it to anyone, not even Glen, but she always thought about it when other parents pretended to complain, but were, in truth, amused by their child’s antics. The daughter of one mother Karen met at the playground had written the entire alphabet! In upper and lowercase! At the age of two! On the wall! The only brilliance her own child displayed at two, and at twenty-two, was that of destruction.
The box was an accumulation of individual moments of Karen and Eileen’s shared anguish–shattered, dumped, and mixed together–increasing in volume as the years went on.
When Eileen was six, she thought she might log all the remnants in a journal, but by the time it had occurred to her, the box was already established; she couldn’t remember what all the earlier items were, even though each destruction seemed horrid at the time.
And, perhaps, the reminder of this forgetting was why she still continued to add to the box. Perhaps the box was also a monument to her early vision of the perfect child, the ideal family. During Eileen’s early teens, Karen thought if she could collect, and then forget the exact moment of these pieces of her family’s brokenness, they would be that much closer to perfection themselves. Tonight, she realized that despite the Mozart, despite the shiny floors this other dream family never existed. She reached both hands into the bin and pushed with eyes closed, searching for the bottom. The first aid kit would be waiting when she went inside.