Things were always a little harder when Bill was on the road. She glanced at the refrigerator door. Amid magnetic alphabet letters, scribbled coloring-book pages, and a taped-up article about the comet, his note still hung where he’d left it early Friday morning: Hold the peaches, Baby–Daddy’ll be home soon to make pie. Kyle, her oldest, had read it to his younger brother and sister, declaring with fourth-grade sincerity that they’d all get pie when Dad got back from his trip. She’d tried to convince them it was a joke. “But it’s not funny, Mom,” Kyle pointed out. Looking at it now she felt a sudden pang of lust. Lost in a slowly forming fantasy, she stepped on the foot-pedal of the kitchen trash can and began scraping one of the dinner plates. There was spaghetti all over the floor before she realized her aim was off.Suddenly one of the kids was screeching. She rushed into the living room. Abby looked up in tears. “Mom, Duncan took my yellow worm!”
Standing with his hands in his jean pockets, Duncan gave one of his furtive looks, then apparently decided to be honest. “I was just playing with it!” he blurted. “She’s had it all day!”
Duncan was seven, a strange child in some ways. He was the one she kept her eye on, found herself thinking about as she fell asleep at night. The yellow worm was a gooey rubber thing Bill had bought for Abby’s Easter basket; when you threw it against the wall, its own sticky weight made it creep down end over end. Which of course made it invaluable.
“I know, Duncan,” she told him, smiling and tousling his hair. “And I wish Abby would offer…” (here she raised her eyebrows at her four-year-old) “…to let you play with it. But you remember our new-toy rule, right? ‘On the day a kid gets a toy’…”
Duncan looked down, taking it too hard. Hearing his mother’s recitation, Kyle piped in from the dining-room table where he sat with a Goosebumps book: “…’the kid doesn’t have to share.’ I saw Duncan grab it, Mom.”
“I didn’t!” Duncan growled.
“Enough,” she said, “all of you. Duncan and Kyle, why don’t you go play with your racetrack?”
“I’m reading, Mom,” Kyle answered importantly.
“Can we play with the Nerf bow and arrows in the house?” Duncan pleaded.
“You know better than that!” she said. Spotting two of Abby’s stuffed animals on the rug she automatically stooped to pick them up–and at that moment felt herself quietly crossing the line between “pro-active parenting” and simple exhaustion. But there was still spaghetti on the kitchen floor, and in a moment or two someone would probably step in it. Hell, she thought, dance in it, slide around like otters.
On her knees, wiping up the noodles and dark red sauce with an old bib-turned-rag, she found herself thinking about the dolphin at the Moulin Rouge.
It was years ago. She and Bill, married only a year, were in Paris, doing the typical things but not caring about that, museums, cafes, gardens, walking tours, theater, hard at it from six in the morning till one at night–and then hard at it in the big soft hotel bed. One evening they’d taken a tour bus to Montmarte, peering eagerly through the tinted windows as the driver pulled up behind two other buses parked along the crowded boulevard. The street smelled of dust and exhaust fumes. Their group was herded into the club and ushered to small tables, the entire operation patently designed to maximize the flow of francs. And of course the famous cabaret was nothing like it had once been–the flood of tourist money over the years seemed to have scoured away all its color. Bill said it reminded him of that show they’d seen in Vegas, Don Rickles and the Mills Brothers, silent middle-class folks packed shoulder-to-shoulder at long tables in the theater, waitresses bringing four drinks to everyone (the minimum purchase), just booze and ice, mix on the tables in big pitchers.
As the can-can show began, she’d noticed a big run in one of the dancers’ fishnet stockings. The girls looked tired, young as they were; you could tell they were pushing themselves. She wondered how many shows they did a day. Tinny music came pumping out over big black speakers, rattling the dusty Talouse-Lautrec posters on the walls. Feathers swayed, sequins flashed, breasts jiggled–the fancy brocaded tops, in fact, came off as automatically as the curtain opened.
But then the houselights went down completely and stage-hands rolled out the tank. It must have been fifteen feet square, filled with water almost to the brim. Backlit, it flooded the dark little club with brilliant golden light. As the green-gold water shifted against the glass, great shimmering streaks flashed across the worn plaster walls around them and played on the heavy curtains gathered at either side of the stage. In the tank was a dolphin–an actual dolphin–pale undersides and sleek gray curving back, its tail held with expert grace just above the bottom of the tank and flicking now and then with elegant precision. She couldn’t take her eyes off it.
Then a busty young woman in a two-piece climbed a little red ladder, lifted herself gingerly over the side, and slid down into the luminous water. The music waxed big-movie-thematic as she attempted sylph-like manuevers in sync with the dolphin. The emcee described it, in a thick accent, as “underwater ballet.”
The climax came when the dolphin (to whom the woman was not so surreptitiously slipping bits of fish) managed to get behind its swimming partner and unhook her top with its glistening beak. More jiggling breasts, but this time in a shower of dramatically lit bubbles. “Mammal reveals mammal’s mammaries,” she’d whispered to Bill, and he’d laughed.
The music swelled to pseudo-lyrical heights, then blared to a stop. But she was stunned by the animal, felt an ecstasy pounding within her. Sitting in the darkness beside her new husband she watched the dolphin’s every move, even as they rolled the big tank off into the wings. Its smile–its beatific consent to perform these silly tricks–its composure and grace in that tight little cube of sea which was all it might have known of the greater world it was born to–this haunted her, with a joy so great it bordered on something dark.
Now she was older, realized it was abusive to treat an animal like that–and wasn’t a dolphin’s smile more anatomical accident than real emotion? Well, yes. But she’d talked to a trainer at Sea World when they took the kids to San Diego. Oh, they know what they want, and they’re pretty independent. You have to go along with them or else it just doesn’t happen…and they really do, you know…play…
Funny she’d think of it tonight, after all these years.
Bath-time brought new frustrations, and fatigue was really taking hold now. Despite her best efforts during the long gray day, the living-room was still strewn with plastic animals, board-game pieces, library books, and the family to Abby’s doll house, father, mother, daughter and son, whom the boys had assembled in a kung-fu fight-scene that morning. And by now, of course, all the major traffic routes in the house were marked in plastic Easter grass–the kind that got onto the vacuum and bound it up. Sooner or later she’d have to get down on her knees with a screw-driver, the vacuum upside down before her, then scrape out the tightly-wound strands of plastic grass and hair to get the roller spinning freely again.
During Abby’s bath the phone rang. Kyle gave her a hard time when she asked him to watch his sister while she answered it; she had to get tough with him. Nothing out of the ordinary, of course, but unpleasant enough.
It was Marsha Dossin on the line. The meeting time for “Moms and Munchkins,” Abby’s Saturday play-group, had been changed. “I know this won’t be a problem for you, Louise–I mean, your schedule is pretty open…” She caught all the intended scorn in that, found herself shaking with anger as she hung up. Marsha Dossin was a local news anchor; the paper had run a kind of gee-whiz-how-does-she-do-it piece on her for Mother’s Day. She’d read along until Marsha was quoted as saying, “Some mornings it’s really a challenge to have the kids ready for their full-time caregiver…”
For a moment, standing there by the phone on its nicked little stand in the chaotic living room, she thought about her friend Rebecca. Rebecca’s family had recently made the paper too, when her ten-year-old son landed a contract with a talent agency from Los Angeles. Rebecca’s husband lived apart from them now, in another town, but he was there in the picture with his family, the loving and concerned father. He’d told the reporter, “I don’t want anything to stand in the way of Josh’s potential…” Of course he wouldn’t, she’d told Bill bitterly the next day; Becca tells me just how lovingly he treats his son. Calls him shit-for-brains. Can’t be bothered to actually do anything. The kid himself begged her not to move back in with him…
But that anger, as usual, had nowhere to go, a little stream running dry in an immense desert of helplessness. She shook off the dark reverie and went back upstairs.
After three baths the bathroom had a swamp-like air to it, and the laundry in the upstairs hamper was spilling over. That would have to wait. Pushing back her hair and rolling her head to loosen her neck, she went from bedroom to bedroom, overseeing, with varying degrees of success, the nighttime clean-up of each child’s toys and clothes–and repeating for the fifth time that they couldn’t eat any more Easter candy. She had to stand over Duncan as he picked up his plastic horses one by one. If she didn’t, he’d throw two or three in the cigar box and that would be that. But for some reason she wasn’t annoyed, found herself thinking, “My changeling!,” stooped suddenly to kiss him on the forehead, called him Terrific Kid.
And yet, as she stood at the hall window looking out through lace curtains at the swirling snow, she suddenly felt crushed–her own life as distant as that night at the Moulin Rouge–a story she could hear but never really enter except in brief flights of imagination.
These were the hardest moments, she thought, like those Greek mermaids singing from the rocks. With Abby’s newly-washed bunny pajamas in hand, she looked back down the hall into Duncan’s room, saw the illuminated globe on his dresser, each of the countries glowing with its own color: red Sudan, yellow Egypt, orange Israel, sky-blue Greece. Bill understood. “Someday, Precious,” he’d say. “Someday. Our traveling life’s not over yet.”
But Bill was in Philadelphia, and she was out of milk for breakfast, and she hadn’t truly conversed with another adult in over forty-eight hours. At the moment she simply couldn’t call to mind all those crucial reasons for staying home with the kids. Nothing could get past the ache in her heart. I’m tired, she whispered.
She handed the pajamas to Abby in the bathroom and then went back into Duncan and Abby’s room. To her surprise, Duncan was not only lying beneath his Bart Simpson blanket in the top bunk but had obviously straightened up the room before he climbed into bed, even putting some of Abby’s things away. She smiled and thanked him, then happened to glance at his desk. “What’s this, Dunc?” she asked, crossing over and picking up a torn piece of college-rule with a sketch on it.
“Nothing,” he murmured, staring blank-eyed up at the ceiling. As she looked at his drawing, she felt her heart beat a little faster. Parts were crude, she saw immediately; there was no mistaking the childishness. But there was something else in it too, something oddly powerful.
“Did you do this?” she asked gently. “Is it your own drawing?”
“Yeah,” he said, as if terribly depressed. “I made it from that picture, The Flying Horse of Kansu.” She remembered seeing a photograph of the Chinese bronze in the new Smithsonian catalog.
“It’s wonderful, Duncan!” she said, a little breathlessly–then noticed the slightest smile on his lips.
Abby came in from the bathroom, threw herself dramatically into her mother’s arms for a goodnight kiss. “Mom, I wanna be Pocahontas! Can I be Pocahontas?!”
“Of course, honey,” she answered, then tucked them both in, promising at Abby’s insistence to braid her hair “Indian-style” in the morning. “I’ll be back for your story,” she told them. Then she went down the hall and poked her head into Kyle’s room. “I don’t want you reading Goosebumps in bed,” she warned. “You know it gives you nightmares.”
“I won’t have nightmares, Mom!” he answered, grinning. “Last night I started having one, and this giant hamster was attacking me–but then me and you got weedwhackers and cut its head off. It was awesome!”
From down the hall, Duncan and Abby began clamoring in high-pitched voices for a story. So she kissed Kyle, leaving him wide-eyed over Terror Teacher. Should I tell him Duncan will soon be sharing his room? she wondered. No. Tomorrow’s soon enough.
Back in Duncan and Abby’s room she sat on the floor, opened Horton Hatches the Egg, and read to them in lamplight glow:
…And he sat
and he sat
and he sat
and he sat…
Finally they were asleep. She got up off the floor with a half-suppressed groan–her back stiff again–and did a last bit of picking up: a yo-yo, Abby’s black-felt stallion with the plastic saddle, the now insignificant yellow worm, nine crayons Duncan’s thorough room-cleaning had left untouched.
When she looked down at her children they were breathing heavily, little bodies limp among twisted sheets and stuffed animals. She wondered what they might be dreaming about, thought of Sleeping Beauty as she often did when at last they lay still and silence descended on the house: A hundred years in the thorn-bound palace with everyone asleep, the cook spread-eagle on the kitchen floor, guards slumped against gate pillars, the king and queen’s heads thrown back against their thrones, dogs and cats limp and fidgeting, bees like little gold-black balls in the dust–each one defenseless, utterly helpless. The profound sadness of it filled her again, as it always did, and the mystery of it.
Enough, she told herself. She checked on Kyle; he was asleep too, his tattered paperback open-faced on the floor beside his bed. She went downstairs slowly, straightened up the living room, ran the vacuum (unclogged as yet), washed the last few pots and pans in the sink, and then started the dishwasher, smiling to herself as its reassuring hum filled the house, that easy white-noise rhythm of her quiet time. The laundry had been folded and put away; the kids’ lunches were made; the kitchen was clean; the house more or less in order. After pouring herself some orange juice, she paused to re-read the comet article still taped to the refrigerator door. Then she carried the glass of juice to the living room, sat down with a long sigh, put her legs up on the couch and turned on the news.
Then she remembered Monday was trash-and-recycling day. Taking up a couch pillow, she hugged it for a moment and swore quietly. With a deep breath she heaved herself off the couch, put on a jacket, and went out the back door.
But when she stepped into the darkness, the hard brilliant stars and cold night air seemed to wash her clean. The snow had stopped, now humped thick and motionless on the roofs and streets and empty lots and yellow lawns of the city. Everything was quiet. Above her the dome of the sky, enormous and star-strewn, lifted away into endlessness. Beyond the cluttered stick-like branches of trees along their back fence, Orion shone, supernal hunter with his companion the Great Dog. She spotted the shining W of Cassiopeia overhead, then the Dipper in the north. For a time she stood there, head tilted back, lost in the silent immensity of night and stars.
Then she remembered the comet. Turning slowly, she began scanning as she had before, the way the paper said to, following the front lip of the Dipper to the North Star, then looking west. For two weeks it had hung there in the night sky, racing alongside the Earth, slowly outdistancing her planet. It hadn’t been as bright and dramatic as some experts predicted. But her northern city was small; the broad lake to the east and the Adirondacks on the west kept a great circle of darkness around its little grid of tree-lined streets. So the comet had been clearly visible, a ball-like white smudge trailing its vaporous tail across the emptiness. It had thrilled her.
Now she couldn’t find it. Tracing the familiar stars she looked again, determined, wondering if Kyle’s camp binoculars would help. Nothing. Only the stars like every other night, their glittering ancient patterns, Jupiter bright and low in the west. For a moment she felt terribly alone. Lifting the big trash cans one by one, she hauled them, huffing, to the front curb.
It was only in bed, later, as she was falling asleep, that she realized.
The Van Oort Cloud, the newspaper said, home of comets: far beyond the spinning pin pricks of the solar system, out where no human being might ever go. The comet had travelled billions of miles through utter darkness, streaking toward the bright center, endlessly fueling itself–would soon whip around the solar end of its strange ellipsis and plunge again into the deeps. Ten thousand years from now, maybe twenty, it would rush past Earth again, people would get excited, astronomers hold press conferences, newspapers and magazines run big dramatic pictures.
But the fly-by? When you thought about it, the fly-by was nothing! Such an utterly minuscule part of the whole that it hardly even mattered.
She turned over under the blankets, noticed the luminous hands on her alarm clock. It was late; she’d pay for that tomorrow. But as she closed her eyes she smiled to herself.
The comet. Out there even now, churning along its appointed path, burning like a small sun in the dark where no one could see.
Settling into her pillow, she felt the delicious softness of sheets against her bare feet, sleep breaking over her gently like a wave. Was there PTA tomorrow night?..