The next day Clara got up the way Mama always used to: with no alarm clock and before daybreak, needing to pee. After her needs had been relieved she took longer than necessary putting houseshoes on her feet—her bare feet—while she looked over the husband sleeping again in her bed.
But she was afraid to look too long. If she let herself look too long, it might all vanish.
Again like her mother she fought back her fears of transience with elbow grease. This morning her salve was a hand wash of the laundry in the bathtub—even though her washer and dryer worked perfectly fine. And even though it was February and there was still a fair amount of chill in the morning air, she carried the load out to the line for a sun-dry. This, too, reminded her of Mama: hang and pinch and pin, an unused clothespin stashed between her lips, tasting wood and hearing the creak of rust in the beak of the pin-spring, one shirt overlapping slightly with the next, all the while behind the shed horizon broke a new day. Growing up her Mama welcomed every day this way—weather willing—before making biscuits for the lot of them. So again in her footsteps Clara followed, cutting Crisco into pebbled flour, working the buttermilk with bare fingers that clumped up into pasty mitten-hands. When she was done she cut them with the mouth of a nearby glass and mashed them and mashed them and mashed them, baking the flattened dough-circles on high heat until they were dense and crisp because that’s the way her Pa-Paw had liked them. Mama had made them for her when she was younger and she hadn’t really liked them: she always wished for thicker; she wished for fluffier.
What she wouldn’t give for one of those biscuits today.
But her approximations were welcomed warmly. Jennie and Sarah gathered over paper plates, their hair still in needed of brushing; even Gerald joined in this early hour, each of them armed with knives of margarine or spoons of jam. Clara savored the moments watching her flock of family biscuit-nourished in her gaze, a dusting of crumbs falling to laps and feet and floor crevice, words passing among them through mouths full, smiling.
Then Kathy came in.
“Dammit, girls, the bus is right outside,” Kathy let the back door slam behind her.
“Oh no!” Jennie said, and she and Sarah dropped their biscuits and scrambled for backpacks and lunch bags.
“Too late! You done missed it. It’s drivin’ off now,” Kathy looked a little…smug. The girls responded with a chorus of apology. “Now I have to go and put my clothes on, drive you all the way over there. I can’t go back to bed; I have to be running you two around. I told you, if you missed the bus again you get the switch.”
Sarah and Jennie were looking at the ground, eyes welling with tears.
“But I don’t have time to do it right now; you’ll get whupped when you get home. You’ll have to think about it all day.”
Kathy took Jennie’s biscuit and waved it in front of her.
“Hey, that’s my biscuit!” Jennie cried.
“Not anymore,” Kathy said as she ate Jennie’s biscuit in front of her. Ate it even though she wasn’t hungry.
Ate it even though they all knew she didn’t care for jelly.
Clara watched from her kitchen window as Kathy’s grape-stained
looked back at her through the car windshield as she drove away, pleased. Behind her Clara could only see the part of the girls’ hair and the slump of their shoulders in the backseat, their little faces turned down, looking at feet.
At the table Gerald was finishing his biscuit. He was not looking at his wife. Not watching her pacing the counter by the sink in agitation. Not listening to her huff and sigh. He just sat eating his biscuit in sleepy silence.
“Gerald, I’m worried,” Clara said.
“Don’t be worried,” her husband said.
Clara looked out of the window again at nothing and sighed heavily. That sound said to Gerald that he wasn’t getting out of this one, conversation would be had, and he would either go willingly or by force—but he would go all the same.
“Nothing to be worried about, hun,” Gerald said. “The girls are fine.”
“She’s just so nasty. I don’t like it.” Clara made a sour face.
“I don’t like it, neither, but I reckon there’s nothing more we can do. You know we’re just the grandparents…” Gerald trailed off.
“We got no right to them, I know,” Clara finished.
“But they live on our property, she looks to us for food and watching the kids so she can run around. She’s all bark, Clara. She needs us. She’s in our trailer, for Christsakes.”
Clara knew that was her cue to tell him. She was to open her mouth and let the words come out, I signed over the trailer. It isn’t ours anymore.
She got me.
But she couldn’t bring herself, couldn’t shatter the newfound niceties, couldn’t risk sleeping alone again, couldn’t risk Helen. So instead she just nodded, I know you’re right. It will be fine.
Everything will be fine.
Everything will be fine.
As if saying the words would will it so. As if optimism were all it would take to rescind the stupid, idiotic, dumbass thing she had done.
Everything will be fine.
Washing up after breakfast seemed to go in slow motion. Outside the window she could see the trailer—closed up tight, windows dark. It would probably be empty for hours yet; on the occasions that Kathy woke up before noon she and her car would disappear until the evening, long past when the girls were off the bus and most times past when the girls had gone to bed. It’s in there, Clara’s head said to her, You could go get it.
She continued washing the dishes, watching for her husband to finish from the corner of her eye. He was unusually chatty, and on a normal day she would have been desperate for that, on a normal day she would have put aside everything else and pull up a chair and hope he would open up, but today all she could do was ‘uh-huh’ him with her back to his words, gaze out the back window and wait for him to leave.
As soon as he was done she would sneak out the back with her spare key and
Everything will be fine.
About fifteen minutes later Clara was at the trailer’s back door, key poised at the lock. It didn’t slide in easily so she turned it upside down and tried it and back again, then forcing it. It went in with some protest, but did not turn, and as she jostled it Clara realized with punch-to-the-stomach clarity that Kathy had changed the locks.
She turned to walk home when she saw that the back window was slightly ajar, a stained ditsy-print kitchen curtain rustling behind rusted screen. It called to her—over the protests of her good sense and her arthritic hip: C’mon, Clara… You can make it. The window was high up on the front, but she knew that on the other side of that window the dryer made an easy step down to the floor. She found herself moving a cement block or two beneath the window, just to see how high it’ll get ‘ya.
In the end it was a trashcan that lifted her enough that she could catapult through. The can was black and thick rubber and TOUGH, but even it had buckled on the bottom beneath her weight, and when Clara dismounted the can its newfound dents returned to their previous fullness with an emphatic POP! At the same time Clara had overestimated the grace with which she would land on the dryer. She fell, aching hip first, through the window and onto the top of the dryer. The fall reverberated through the old dryer drum in unison with the loud release of trashcan—CRASH BANG POP!
Clara felt for sure she’d be caught. Felt like the chorus of sound was so loud it would be heard in Bernett county, and felt like Gerald—half-deaf though he was—would certainly hear it, would certainly be concerned, and would certainly wield a gun while mumbling to himself about investigating. But she couldn’t go back now without an admission of guilt.
She was knee-deep in it now.
Clara righted herself and dusted off, feet planting on the warped tile surrounding the dryer base. She was shaky, but surprised to find that she liked it. It came with a body buzz—like when you get a deep cut (a little fight, a little flight)—and when the pain falls away it leaves in its wake a heady clarity.
She had to find that deed.
Clara figured Kathy would keep it in her bedroom, but she did a quick scan of the other rooms (just in case) as she walked through them: hallway, living room, kitchen. The place was quite tidy, and Clara suddenly knew—yes, knew—that the girls had cleaned it, that Kathy had sat her fat butt on the couch, bag of cheese puffs resting her belly, and did nothing but watch while the girls mopped or swept or scrubbed. Kathy was probably enjoying herself, too, watching an old VHS dub of Ghostbusters II
and doing jack shit.
The anger fueled her forward into Kathy’s bedroom. In the moment she did not feel the guilt or hesitation that was her trademark, she felt, well—
like she was entitled to be there, like it was her right, like she was to be the protector of her family, like her Mama would have wanted,
like Dan would have wanted.
While the rest of the house was tattered and decorated piecemeal, Kathy’s bedroom decorated to the hilt: a matched furniture set encircled a canopy bed that was far too big for the room and near about scraped the ceiling. The décor was pink-quilted in squares of light or dark or floral, and all of it—curtains and pillows and comforter—dimmed in a thin coating of ash. A peculiar odor permeated the room: a thick burned smell—more like burned hair than cigarettes—mixed with the artificial syrupy scent of industrial room freshener.
As Clara Mae rifled through Kathy’s under-bed storage, she was not surprised to find maxed out credit statements for the furniture set that progressed to collections notices in a rainbow of colored envelopes—all unopened. The storage was cluttered and unorganized otherwise, like a junk drawer or the emptying of a woman’s purse: a melted lipstick canister nestled in a bed of fast-food receipts, a rusted can opener.
It was in the bottom of Kathy’s chest-of-drawers that Clara found the shoebox. At first Clara had lifted the lid and put it right back, since on the very top she had seen a “personal massager.” But rattling around with that were small cigarette-shaped tubes of charred glass and a half dozen pills of different sizes and shapes and shades of medical pastel, and now the scene she played in her head was Kathy laying on the couch blowing toxic rings of smoke around the heads of girls as they cleaned and coughed.
The fury pushed her forward. The booty of her excavation was lined up by her thigh on the bedspread, chanting at her. The pipe. The pills. The bills. The MARITAL AID.
Chanting: Find it. Find it.
You’ve got to find it.
But when she did find it—when the deed was in her hands safe and sound, when her signature again in her hands, when she had the power to make it right, hit rewind and wipe it all clean again—she found the voices did not stop, they just chanted louder, they chanted faster. They wanted more: more secrets that weren’t hers for the taking, more unearthing of the darkness beneath. She could not only get the trailer back; she could get the kids, too.
But with the next envelope, she wished she hadn’t continued.
“Manual vacuum aspiration,” the hospital letterhead proclaimed to her in 10 point courier.
Manual vacuum aspiration? Clara’s head didn’t want to understand the words, but it was clearly spelled out in diagnostic code below: “Diagnosis Code 635.92. Legally induced abortion, without mention of complication. Complete.”
Clara Mae realized two things at the same time. The first was that the piece of hospital letterhead was dated two days before Dan’s death.
The second thing she realized was that she was being watched.
Kathy was standing in the hallway.
“Not to worry,” Kathy said when Clara looked up, her thick frame now blocking the doorway. “The sheriff’s on his way.”
“Kathy, please, that’s not necessary,” Clara said.
“Oh, I know it’s not necessary. But it sure is fun,” Kathy chuckled and snatched the deed from the bed. “I’ll be needing to show the sheriff this, you know, for the trespassing and break-in charges. Thanks for fetching it for me.”
“My vibrator, Clara, really,” Clara Mae covered her face as Kathy snapped some shots with her phone. “Tsk, tsk. Disgusting.”
“Kathy, stop. What do you want?” Clara tried again in vain. “I will do anything,”
“Oh, Clara,” Kathy said, her smile ear-to-ear as the sirens drew closer. “You’ve given me more than I need.”