Chapter 17

Clara’s bed was short-sheeted when she woke up the next day. She had only herself to blame; Gerald would never make up a bed—much less hers. Must’ve been in a rush when I made it, she thought as she stared at naked, chilly feet.

Clara Mae hated those feet.

When she was a girl her father had mocked them—got ‘em from her mama’s side—and as growing morphed into aging, her already gnarled toes grew into themselves: knuckle thickening to bunion, big toe ever-so-gradually migrating to point toward little toe, overlapping.

Needy.

She didn’t like people to see them (the deformity), and even though it was painful—especially after being on her feet all day long—she was never without shoes, even in her own home. Clara remembered years back when Gerald had first noticed their misshapen outline beneath slipper sock—what was it he’d said? Sad sack full of claw? She remembered that was when they’d migrated to separate sleeping; she’d said it was his snoring that kept her up, but really it was her shame. They talked to her head throughout the night (THE CLAWS) and with any brush of his leg or shift of her weight she heard his words again, and again, and again. She watched the clock pass through minutes to hours to daybreak, greeting the days again unrested, his words repeating to the rhythm of his peaceful snores. When they had fought—and Lord, had they fought—Clara never admitted to either of them why.

But she was careful not to leave herself vulnerable to him again.

Just as she hid her feet, he still snored loudly—trumpeting his restfulness, broadcasting the depth of his relaxation to nearby ears, vibrating sinus and uvula in taunting crescendo of Sleep-You-Are-Not-Having. As she passed Gerald’s room she could hear it now—his song of slumber—and she noted that he wasn’t WITH HER. It warmed her heart to drink in the familiar annoyance.

Bastard’s here.

Where he belongs.

But as she got to the stairs, Clara realized that not everyone was where they belonged. The trailer out back was dark, as if no one had been there since church, as if the girls had gone and not returned. Surely not, Clara hoped, but the car was absent, the bikes untouched, everything so conspicuously the same as when they had walked out her door.

We don’t need you.

Regret washed over Clara, wishing she had stopped them, gone with them—

We never needed you.

Or just signed it over, for God’s sakes, why hadn’t she just signed it over?

Clara Mae’s morning was a blur that she spent tidying up, shuffling back and forth from window to window in her housecoat, nursing a cup of lukewarm black coffee. She knew they would come back. Kathy always came back, looking for dinner or money or gifts. When there was a holiday, or a big meal, or even if she just went to the bulk store, Kathy was there, like clockwork. Like she could smell it.

This was just a threat. A power play. A game of grandchild chicken.

She’d be back.

She had to.

As Clara marinated herself in worry and her pork chops in garlic, she chided herself to stop thinking about it and stay busy. The kids were fine. Probably just stayed the night with Marie and her kids; they had a spare room and everything. And the girls were probably back at school now, wishing they could stay and play with Marie’s kids, hoping they could spend another night, not giving a second thought to Grandmom, or their bikes, or their beds, or being away from the trailer another night.

(At least, she hoped)

Clara Mae had the papers for the trailer folded on top of the microwave. She didn’t open them again—this time her mind didn’t drift to recount the days of double shifts, the days of hungry belly while squirreling money away. Instead she thought of why she had sacrificed, why she had saved. The trailer was there to be shelter for those who needed it, a safety net in times of trouble, a home when there was none. Clara Mae had dreamt of keeping all of her loved ones close, protecting children and friends and parents alike, a village, a clan, a commune. But here she was now, alone. She placed her hand on the folded paper like she was taking an oath, and she prayed. If you just bring them back to me, Lord, I will sign. I promise, I will sign.

In her worry, Clara had briefly forgotten her husband was at the house—until her nervous pacing brought her down the stairs. “Hey, would ya grab me a brew?” Gerald called out, as usual, just as her foot hit the bottom floor landing. And as usual, she backtracked up the stairs to bring him his Miller High Life.

Bottle, not a can.

It was 10am, but she didn’t raise an eyebrow handing him the golden bottle. He was already planted in the recliner in front of the computer, head in his hands.

“Hair of the dog?” Clara asked, and the moment of sympathy earned her a light in his bloodshot eyes.

“Mmmhm.”

“Let me get you an Aspirin,” she insisted, but still waited for his nod of approval.

Clara felt her heart quicken as she headed upstairs. When she could have taken a right—to the bathroom, to the medicine cabinet, to the bottle of Bayer—she instead took a right, to her room, to the chest-of-drawers, to her sock drawer. There, inside a wadded pair of knee highs, were two round white pills in cigarette-pack cellophane. The twenty-something had used a lighter to seal them in, clear plastic melting together into a milky-white ashy seam—a shady, but precious, encasing. Etched in each was the number 9. The twenty-something had called them “Cloud Niners”, but Clara preferred to think of them as “Love Potion Number,” remembering when they were dating: Gerry singing the song at the top of his lungs, driving her around town or in-between making out in the parking lot of the hardware store or the library or the Quik-Freeze until they got run off to the next place.

It smelled like turpentine

It looked like Indian ink—

Clara had heard of MDMA on an episode of 20/20—the kids that burned up their bodies, their brains, their very capability for joy until all that settled in was vacant. Kids that could smile with their mouths, but their eyes shone only sorrow, even years after rehab and recovery.

The episode had also told of the original use: the couples in therapy, older couples trying to find themselves in each other again, husbands and wives breaking through the years of routine, business and finances and kids, failed diets and failed dreams. With one pill the couples rediscovered their young love.

That was why they called it Ecstasy.

Clara and Gerry had done some drugs in their day. A little grass, a couple of times with an acid-soaked sugar cube. All that, though, was before Life and House and Kids, before attachment, before fragile bodies that bruise and break for no reason. Before Acid Reflux.

Before Mortality.

These days Clara fretted over even a teaspoon of Robitussin, scrutinizing labels warning her about her liver. But she thought of her empty yard, and how empty these walls had been lately without Gerald within, and she snipped open the seam.

She presented Gerald with the pill and a paper plate of the moth-cookies. He didn’t question the pill, popping it and swigging it down with a gulp of Miller.

“Cookies for breakfast?” he asked.

“Well, they are oatmeal.” She laughed and looked at the pill. She thought of her mother—silent and swollen with tumor. She thought of Aunt Helen, and finding herself the lesser woman after all of these years. She thought of her backyard, absent the giggles of her Granddaughters. She looked at the pill, then she drank it down with some Diet Coke.

I held my nose,

I closed my eyes

I took a drink—

He expected her to leave. She knew he expected her to leave. Expected to retreat into his computer and she into puttering around the house, their lives close in proximity yet with no intersection. And though he expected her to leave—and though he was a great deal disappointed when she didn’t—Gerald didn’t let on. He just turned his back on his wife as she settled in on the corner of his bed, silently irritated at the sounds of her chew. That was one of my cookies, the silence of his turned back said to her. He turned his annoyance into clicks and gulps—of the mouse button or the keypad or the bottle—and Clara Mae watched the folds of the back of his neck extend and compress in accordion-like undulation and wondered if the twenty-something had ripped her off.

Clara tried not to let on how closely she was watching her husband taking a bite of the moth-cookie. She scrutinized his mastication, trying to see if he could taste something was off. Though he ate quickly—polishing off the first cookie in two bites—she could have sworn she saw a wrinkle of the nose, a second accusatory glance at the pile before he dove in again. In the end his compulsive appetite negated any taste-bud skepticism. He polished off the remaining cookies: three, four, five. Clara wasn’t feeling anything, not a tingle or a buzz, not a warmth or a jitter, not even a twinge. Of anything.

She knew he was playing nice, silencing his frustration at her hovering in his space.

It wouldn’t last.

“Don’t you got better things to do?” His voice sneered, but his face stayed turned to the monitor.

“Well, I thought we could spend some time together,” Clara tried to seem casual. “I got the day off.”

“Since when do you want to spend time with me?”

“I know! Ain’t thirty years been enough time? But I thought we should throw in a couple more minutes for good measure.”

Gerald made a little grunt, a guttural chuckle that he couldn’t help. “Whatever. But I’ve got a tournament on here today, so I won’t be much comp’ny.”

The two sat in silence, Gerald mouse-clicking and his wife sitting on the bed, feeling nothing, watching—nervous.

“SHIT,” Gerald said, as the monitor proclaimed GAME OVER. “Stop looking at me. I can feel your eyeballs.” Clara Mae complied, lying back on the bed. The New-Age Therapists on 20/20 had said that the drug would just bubble up real emotions. If Gerald really felt no love, that would be clear as well.

Sure seems clear.

Clara’s thoughts swirled to the rhythm of his clicks; she was looking, but not looking at anything. The spray spackle on the ceiling was a lovely texture, the white now flecked with dust and cobwebs and yellow-ringed water stain—when had that leaked?—and Clara wanted to rub her hand over it, wanted to feel its bumps and ridges under the pads of her fingers, wanted it to flake its ceiling dandruff on her face and arms and eyelashes like drywall snowflakes.

Clara Mae became aware that the clicks had moved to distant wretches. It was loud—her husband sneezed loud, burped loud, puked loud—and she figured even the neighbors could hear. The sound of his vomiting was jarring as it always was, but she was not alarmed, nor worried—no cell phone at the ready, no voice in her head reciting what to say to 9-1-1. Clara just patted his back and comforted him, “Get it out. You’ll feel better once you do.” Gerald looked back at her with puppy dog eyes and shock-white lips and then he threw up one last emphatic time.

“Reckon it something I ate?” Gerald said, his color returning.

Was it ever.

Clara shrugged. “Need me to get you something? Some Sprite?”

“Yeah, thanks. I’m sure thirsty.”

Gerald followed her to the downstairs fridge under the stairs where she shook rounded wedges of auto-ice into a Solo cup and filled it with fizzy. She could hear the clack of teeth against teeth as Gerald’s jaw grinded, but she was not annoyed. “Here, this’ll settle your stomach.”

“Oh, it’s better already,” he said, but downed the drink in its entirety and belched. He looked better—his skin rosy, even—but his irises were as wide and black as her Mama’s family-size iron skillet. “Thanks for taking care of me.”

“Well, sure,” Clara said, kind of sheepish, pouring herself a Fresca.

“No, thank you, Clara Mae. You always take care of me. You always have. I s’pose you always will,” he looked at his wife, but she could not look back. She could tell he was feeling it.

She felt—nothing.

Nothing but guilt.

“Babe, don’t look so sad! Hey, I got an idea. Let’s go out on the porch and pretend like we’re old people.”

Clara laughed, spewing Fresca through her nose. “What?”

Gerald looked back at her unapologetic. “You know, pretend like we’re old people,” his words were delivered with the enthusiasm of a six year old convincing a friend to build a blanket fort.  “Sitting in rocking chairs ‘cause that’s about as much moving as we can do. Waiting for the kids to come over but they never do. Cussing at the neighbors. You know, what we’ll do when we’re eighty.”

Clara wanted to say, We do all that already.

Or, You think there will be a ‘we’ when we’re eighty?

Or, Will Helen be rocking right there with us?

Or, Since when do we ‘pretend’ anything?

But the warmth had come to her as well, and instead she hunched over the frame of a mimed walker. “First one to the stairs is a rotten egg!”

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