Jennie knew how much her Grandmom has always liked putting things in jars. Pickles, pear preserves, pig’s feet. Pennies. Jars and jars and jars of pennies, squirreled away in closets or drawers or secret holes in the walls.
But when she found this jar—
(while she was looking for The Doll)
large, wide-mouth Mason jar, like the kind she would use for Bread & Butter—she found moths.
About a dozen.
What would Grandmom need with moths?
Jennie and her sister had been staying with her Grandmom more and more lately since her father passed. It didn’t surprise her. Her mom was lazy. She basically came and got her once a week, on Sundays, to take her to church for all to see—and then to make the two girls clean up the leavings of her Saturday night parties.
It was the best relationship she’d ever had with her mother.
Jennie would start in the kitchen: dishes, handwashed. Piles and piles of plastic cups, usually a hidden one filled with throw up. Jennie would wash; Sarah was supposed to rinse and dry, but was easily distracted, and most of the dishes Jennie did herself. Her mom would either be getting ready (“for Bible study” she would say)—spritzing with Jean Nate’ and applying too much eyeliner—or sitting on the couch reading a Woman’s World with a bootlegged VHS playing in the background or talking on the phone. Barely acknowledging them. If anything, she watched the girls in a removed way, as if watching a professional. Jennie behaved that way in turn: detailed, methodical cleaning. The more methodical she was, the better job she did; the better job, the less her mother said to her—and, therefore, the less she yelled.
After the dishes, the toilets. Jennie did these things immediately on each visit, as if she had been asked, as if she was complying with an order. Jennie suspected that her mother didn’t know how this began, but by now applauded herself for the discipline. For “running such a tight ship.” For Jennie, she liked the secret control of the exercise, bringing into order the chaos that was her mother.
She also, in spite of everything, liked to make her mom happy.
The visits were short enough (and the apartment messy enough) that from After-Church to dusk Jennie worked swiftly and steadily, always worrying as 5:00 neared that she wouldn’t make it, then finishing under the wire. They would barely have finished when her mother ushered them through the door and out to the car. The girls would sit at the kitchen table—foreheads still damp with the sweat of work—eating the beef stew that Grandmom kept simmering for them and feeling the victory of another visit ended with nothing more than an over-the-shoulder goodbye.
Jennie put the moth jar back on the shelf of her Grandmom’s closet and used a shirt sleeve to wipe it down of prints. Of course she moved The Doll, she thought. That’s where you stole it from.
She knew magic wasn’t real. She knew there was no Santa, no Easter Bunny. There are no monsters in your closet, no Gremlins under the bed. No Tooth Fairy. When a grown-up pulls a quarter out of your ear IT WAS IN THEIR HAND THE WHOLE TIME. She was no dummy. All of these things she knew.
But as much as she knew those things, she knew something else.
That Doll did something.
She needed to find out what it was.
She saw the look in her Grandmom’s eyes when she returned The Doll. She saw the relief. She saw the fear. She knew she needed to leave it alone, push it out of her head. Run and play, her Grandmom’s eyes said to her. Let this one go.
But when it was in her hands, she felt complete. Like closing a circuit. The final necessary piece. She couldn’t get it out of her head. And what had happened at the school, she knew they had done that to Mrs. Morrison, the two of them, together, synthesized in destructive electricity. How could it do anything but explode? And if it hadn’t been for that
they would be together right now, so she got what was coming to her.
Or maybe deserved even more?
She knew, in a deep down in-the-stomach way that she should stop looking for him. What was she going to do, talk to a doll? Ask it what happened? Expect it to talk back?
Make out with it again?
She never did find it, and though she knew it wasn’t there she kept returning to the closet looking for it, but only finding a jar filling more and more with moths.
When Jennie found the piece of paper in bathroom, it was stuck to a used tampon wrapper in the trash can. She had been finishing the toilets and was about to take out the trash when she saw the word peering out from the lip of the can: “NOTICE.”
She knew the meaning in that word. It meant PAY ATTENTION. It meant LOOK OUT. It meant TROUBLE. She pulled the paper out gingerly, touching only the corners free of stains with her cleaning gloves, shaking the paper free of debris.
She scanned the page.
“Eviction,” “in arrears,” “must vacate,” “trespassing.”
And in that moment, Jennie clung to the little childhood she had left. She wadded the paper into a tight ball, pushing it back, back, back into the way back of the trash bag—and the way back of her mind. She didn’t tell. Didn’t say anything to her mother. Didn’t say anything to Sarah. Didn’t say anything to Grandmom. She just continued their routine as if she knew nothing: the anonymous maid, disinterested, uninvested.
If there was one thing Jennie had learned, it was the value of the calm before the storm.
A little more than a week later Jennie saw a moving van out back by the trailer. Grandmom had paid for the van, and was helping with the boxes, but Miss Evie was noticeably pouting. She was wearing her “angry shirt”: Tasmanian Devil in a swirl of tornado and—in all cap, block letters—the words, “ASK ME IF I CARE.”
Jennie had her own room at Grandmom’s. Her mother’s apartment was a two bedroom, and she always shared everything with Sarah: her room, her bathroom, her closet, her chest of drawers. Here she slept in her uncle’s old room amidst boxes of old comic books, posters of R-rated movies, and a real jukebox. It was a wonder to her; even lying on someone else’s bed, under someone else’s blankets, listening to someone else’s music, she felt more at home than she ever thought she could.
As she fell asleep she stared at the boxes piled high in the body of the van, her mind telling her again what she already knew: the trailer in back is a two bedroom.
The baby slept in a crib in her room, silent, its chubby infant body swaddled in soft blankets knitted by hands of generations past. His breath was slow, rhythmic, unfettered by congestion or worry, eyelids pale and still without a hint of flinch.
A deep sleep this time, she thought.
That’s where she had gone wrong before. Not a deep enough sleep. Not enough commitment to the deed.
The pillow felt light in her hands, the feathers inside fluffed just so; she thought it might have been the down of angels inside as she covered the child’s face and held. The fabric spasmed, limp to rigid and back, and she tried not to look at it she held (it was hard, she had to be strong), tried not to think of it as she held it even longer—
after all, he is a fighter—
until, finally, she felt nothing beneath.
Adults gathered. One feeding him breath. One crying. One—a magic one—sprinkling over him the droplets from a vial: THE WATER OF THE DROWNED. Nothing. No response. He went limp, his little body, once of olive complexion, blanched to albino-white. And then, after minutes, a cough. Eyes wide, bloodstained; his hair, once slick and black and thick like hers, now turned a shock of mud red. The adults cried out in victory, applauded themselves and their gods, embraced their loved one in relief. She watched them nurse the wounded child, whispering in hushed tones about—
the one that had touched the other side. Some said the word came from folks who couldn’t say “haunted,” but her mama used to say, “h’ain’t here and h’ain’t there.” Ain’t in the world, ain’t in heaven. “We see his body, but his soul—well, that’s somewhere in between.”
The commotion had quieted, only the slight tremor of a hand belying the catharsis of adrenaline just past. She tiptoed nearer to the cluster of grownups, the child—now feeding from her mother’s bosom—seemed unphased by earlier excitement. But as she (in part out of guilt, in part in fear) reached out to smooth his
NOW BRIGHT RED
hair, he spat the nipple from his lips, looked her with eyes petechial-red, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
“Jennie. Psst! Jennie.”
Her mother, lips pressed against the screen, was whispering loudly into her room through the crack in her window. Could it even be called a whisper?
“Jennie. Wake up. C’mon. Psssst!” Her mom raked her fake nail against the wire webbing of the screen. “Jennifer Lynn, wake up! I brought you a present.”
As Jennie’s lids opened—her waking mind still stained with violent dream-visions—she saw the board game “Hi-Ho-Cherry-O” pressed against the screen. She rolled her eyes, knowing the game was one of hers—one of the three “Hi-Ho-Cherry-Os” she received when she turned five. $5.95 and “educational,” it has been too easy for a mom to pick up for an anonymous classmate. Her mother was cheap, and she squirreled away these gifts in the basement for bribes or regifting. Jennie had never cared for the game in the first place—even at age five thinking it a bit beneath her. But her mom had seen her open her eyes, so we had little choice but to slide her window open and thank her.
She wants something.
“Just a little errand back home,” her mom said.
But if it was just a little errand, why was she squeezing out the window in the middle of the night?
As her mom’s car neared the neighborhood, she slowed and turned off the headlights. She stopped in front of a neighbor’s house—the one with the giant sheepdog—and turned off the engine.
“But Mom, this isn’t the apartment!”
“You’re just going to have to walk.” Jennie opened the passenger door, but didn’t move to exit. “Don’t be lazy; it’ll do ya some good to get in some walking.” Her mother swatted her on the behind. “Get whatever you can carry—only the important stuff. And for God’s sake, don’t leave there without my box.”
“The jewelry box with the ballerina? That plays Somewhere Over the Rainbow?”
“It’s on my dresser. Come back without it and I’ll blister your backside, do you hear me?”
“And be fast, too. No dilly-dalling. It’s 12:35 right now. Be back by 1:00 or you get the switch.”
She crossed through the neighbor’s yard without incident (the dog must’ve been asleep inside) and made it to the building that had once been her home. She crested the stairs to the second floor, only to find a padlock on the door. She wasn’t entirely surprised; her mother hadn’t given her the key. It was giant lock with all sorts of buttons, roughly the size of her head, encasing the entirety of the knob. Above it was another familiar sheet of paper with EVICTION in big print.
So this was why she was needed!
Jennie gave a passing thought to trying the buttons (they looked fun), but she knew what was intended of her. She’d done it a hundred times: when no one was home to let them in (like they said they would be), when her mom had locked the keys in again, or when her mom got drunk and mad at Dad and threw the keys into the woods (that happened more than once). It wasn’t without peril; as she hooked a toe into the lip of a slender brick overhang, there was a moment—before her other foot hit the balcony, before her hands wrapped around the rusted iron railings—where she was falling instead of jumping, the cement from the floors below taunting her balance. But she refocused (an amateur error to look down), squatted on the edge of the balcony to gain some momentum, and catapulted herself up and over, a gymnast on a vault, her movement quick and crisp. Once she was over, getting in was the easy part: the sliding door never worked right, no matter how many times they called the landlord. By wedging a slim stick into the door track she could jack the door up enough to jimmy the lock with a few swift motions.
The computer was gone already, pawned or repoed, as was the TV. Most of her stuff was already at her Grandmom’s, plus she knew she had better come back with the right stuff for her mom or
YOUR ASS IS GRASS,
as they say. Jennie rummaged under the sink, past the cleaners for the boxes: Ziplocs, aluminum foil, Saran Wrap. Bags. She unscrolled a kitchen trash bag, small, scented of lilacs and stretchy plastic.
Her mom’s room was trashed, messier even than usual, ashes ground into carpet and comforter and sheets. Jennie tiptoed, dodging the pair of men’s boxer as some of the carpet fibers sogged around her soles. Probably beer, Jennie thought, as she pushed aside another empty bottle with her foot. She grabbed most of the clothes from the floor and the hamper, but not the hangers—weren’t too many there to begin with, and the ones she would need were the ones she usually wore—the ones that were dirty. She pushed a smelly pair of shoes to the very bottom, so the heels wouldn’t soil the rest of the contents.
She added the newest Woman’s World from the bathroom, in case Mom hadn’t read it, and some tampons. No towels (Grandmom would have those), no shampoo, mustn’t forget the makeup. She waffled on the hair dryer (it was old) but decided not to risk it. And, of course, the jewelry box. Don’t forget the jewelry box.
In her room, she didn’t add much: a couple of Nancy Drew’s that her dad used to read to her, a handful of stuffed animals for Sarah to keep her quiet. And she knew she
HAD TO GO
but went back to the hallway and topped her pile with one last thing: a framed picture of her mom and dad, pressing cake into each others’ faces at their long-ago wedding.
The time was nearing; she could feel it breathing down her neck as she slung the trash bag over her shoulder by the ties. She knew she didn’t have enough time, there was no way now, she had let too much go by. She tried to exit from the front, but with the super-lock it wouldn’t budge, so the back exit was the only way. She had never gone the other way, and certainly not carrying so much stuff, but there was no time for questioning.
No time for fear.
She heaved the bag to the stairwell, grateful for the clothing in the bag acting as a sort of padding for the other fragile contents. Next it was her turn, and she felt a little off but pounced just the same, knowing time was pressing, her mom was already gonna be pissed.
She felt the concrete gravel rake through her knees, but she didn’t look down. Jennie could feel the sore and the wet and she knew it must be bad, but she didn’t look down, she dared not look down. She needed to run: down the stair, across the grass, through the yard, and she had a brief moment of panic when she thought the car was gone
SHE HAD BEEN TRICKED
but it was just her eyes that had tricked, the car was still there, dark against dark. She opened the door and offered the bag up to the inside of the car without entering, worried about the dirty, bloody knees bloodying the inside of Mom’s car (you know how she is funny about that), and out of breath she could see the car clock
Jennie braced herself for fury at her deadline missed; she waited for the looming ‘blistering,’ but instead she heard, “Get in, dammit. Where’s my box?”
Jennie removed the jewelry box from the bag. It had brass keyhole and marble inlay, with a brass winder on the bottom to make the music play. She used to love opening it; as a child she could watch the ballerina spin to its repetitive tune for hours and hours.
Her mom snatched the box from her hand. She had the key at the ready, poised in her fingers—at the ready to slip into the keyhole, ready to spring wide the hinge. And just before she twisted, she looked at her daughter and stopped. “For Christssakes, get in the car. You’re making the light stay on.”
Jennie slid onto the seat, careful with her knees—but her mom didn’t notice. “I’m gonna have a smoke in the backseat for we go. You sit there and look forward. Turn around and I’ll beat you into tomorrow, you hear?”
Jennie nodded and did as she was told, looking forward through the windshield out at so much nothing. Behind her she could hear the box open. In the rearview mirror she could see the tiny dancer unfurl, awaking into twirl. She could see the shadows there: scraping, tapping, fumbling with the lighter as her head sang along to the tinny, mechanical notes.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
She could hear the flick of the lighter, the hungry slurping of air, then the low, guttural moan of satisfaction.
Away above the chimney tops—
The smell of burning rubber and chemical brought water to her eyes but she dared not complain—
That’s where you’ll find me.
That night her mother took her to a 24-hour diner. Jennie had All-You-Can-Eat Pancakes while her mom chain-smoked, rambling about vacations, Mickey Mouse and “Being A Family Again.” Her words were too fast and her pupils too wide, but Jennie (knowing that none of it was real) was grateful for the time nonetheless.
Clara Mae hadn’t been looking forward to coming home to an empty house. The girls had moved to the trailer in the back, and this was the first night she would be home without them. She worked at the store as late as she could: restocking, a little cleanup, even taking care of the launderette—only excusing herself after the twenty-something made it clear she’d overstayed her welcome.
She hadn’t come home to an empty house, in fact. Gerald and Aunt Helen were there. On her couch.
He’d checked Aunt Helen out on leave, “Isn’t that a blessing?” Gerald looked up at her, overjoyed, like he’d brought home a lost puppy, Gosh, can we keep her? And who was she to say no?
Clara had still not confronted her husband, thinking she would get around to it (her insides boiling) but never managing more than a cold shoulder. Not saying it made it a little less real—not that she could get the words out, anyway. Just what should she say? Please pass the salt, and oh-by-the-way, would you mind not letting your sister touch your willie?
Talking didn’t come easy between them, either. The distance there was carefully cultivated over the years; the coldness familiar. Secure. Aunt Helen may have the warmth, but Clara—she still owned frigid. So Clara didn’t answer her husband, or offer any approval of the newfound guest. She turned wordlessly to the kitchen, her silence only broken by the clink of ice cubes in her Diet Coke.
Clara could see them well from her angle, but they couldn’t see her at all. Like adolescents discovering the other for the first time, the two snuggled with biological exuberance under the throw. The blanket (their passing nod to modesty) bobbed and stretched against the fondle of frenzied hands beneath. Their skin flickered to greens then yellows, a reflection from Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.; Helen was watching the screen but he was looking at her, nibbling a neck, suckling an earlobe. The blanket rose and fell gently, its rhythm slow. Just a nudging caress. She leaned her head back, eyes closing, lips parting into an unvocalized moan.
Clara’s neckline flushed splotchy; she fought the involuntary rush of pulse to her areas, but her nipples swelled erect against her protest. She angered herself with her own arousal, but she couldn’t look away. She needed to watch. From her distance she joined them, touching herself in the love of the alone, slow and soft along with the rhythm of his hand; it was barely a touch, the lightest of a glide right at the apex, until by the dish soap she climaxed. When she opened the faucet (to wash off the stink of shame) the two on the couch broke apart like once copulated beetles.
(Like a moth to a flame.)
Neither of them looked at Clara Mae as she walked past them on the way to her room, their breath still heaving, their armpits damp. And neither of them looked at her on the way back, jar and doll in hand.
(Just couldn’t stop.)
The moths hacked quickly into grey fluff, their dry bodies scattering to dust by the blade of the food processor. She could still hear the two on the couch, abuzz with post-coital murmurs. The doll was propped up against the hinge of the flour jar
so He could watch her work.
She was meticulous in the kitchen: reading off precise measurements from carefully-penned script on legal pad pages, knife-backs scraping against cup edge or spoon—never a pinch or an eyeball. Like a chemist
or a mad scientist
she put on her reading glasses and added pecans—
everybody has too many pecans lying around this time of year—
chopping them as she added, watching the evenness of the cuts, studying them piece-by-piece as they shattered. The Doll coaxed her onward, Oats would help the texture, and of course she agreed. Folding in the oleo and egg. It needed something else. The moths, they were important, but she knew for this to work that she must have something more. She needed a piece of him, something he worked for, something with a bit of his soul.
The honey butter.
She pulled the Mason jar out of the refrigerator, warming the outside with her palm. She jimmied the seal and whiffed its fatty sweetness. She smelled the purity of the love of his grandchildren. She smelled the friction of their marital arguments. And—faintly—she smelled a little booze.
This, she thought, would work just fine.
The dough was soft, pouring out wide on the surface of the cookie sheet, sprawling beyond the diameter she’d intended, expansive circles more like pancakes than cookies. Her oatmeal cookies were Gerald’s favorite, light and crisp and sweet, with the too-browned, butter-flavored edges he preferred. When the kids were younger she would make them every Friday.
She hadn’t made them in years now.
He would always eat too many: all of them really, or at least whatever the kids didn’t eat. At least a half dozen, as many as eight, every Friday, for fifteen years.
She did the math in her head without any effort. She wasn’t sure if she was born with a head for numbers, or if she just acquired it over the years of dealing with cash, but she was a whiz. Could count out any register in under two minutes—one minute, forty-three seconds, to be exact.
That, she thought, is a lot of cookies.
So much measuring and remeasuring, always preheating and sifting, carefully folding one texture into the other, a swift but gentle turn of the spatula revealing a light, even mix. Never anything less than perfection. The cookies took an hour from start to finish, not including cooling. The end result was sugar and flour woven together in buttery doilies of pastry, artfully crafted with painstaking precision.
She could picture them before her, the rows and rows of cookies, all waiting for him, waiting to be mindlessly scarfed down in the light of the moon and cracked refrigerator, delicate crumbs falling past open robe, encrusting drunken testicles.
280,800 minutes of her life making those damn cookies.
And as she slid the cookies into the oven she could hear them in the other room, cooing, nuzzling, giggling softly to each other. Clara Mae’s jaw clenched as she removed her potholders. Her hand instinctively went to The Doll, clutching it around the waist like a stress ball. As she clutched his midsection, hers seized up in turn—a fireball of acid climbing her throat, searing her vocal cords. Was it a heart attack? She remembered reading something in a magazine: heartburn, for a woman, was a heart attack symptom. Indigestion had never felt like this, her heart beat rapid, and she couldn’t catch her breath as she watched the timer tick by painful second by painful second. As the romantic mumblings in the other room gathered volume, Clara Mae visualized flinging cookies at them, one by one, buttery edges slicing into flesh like throwing stars.
But she knew she couldn’t.
First, of course, they would have to cool.
At least thirty minutes.
That was 23,400 total minutes of cooling his cookies. 23,400 minutes of waiting for them to crisp on wire racks, 23,400 minutes of watching them through her periphery as she washed dishes, 23,400 minutes of guarding from stray snacking hands, gestating them to maturity in the womb of her kitchen, only to see them thoughtlessly broken and consumed before they saw the light of day.
“Surprise, surprise, surprise!” her husband exclaimed for the forty-third time today in that awful hick tone, and the two twittered like ninnies. The laughter raked over her like nails against a chalkboard. She clutched the Doll harder between her fingers and palm, worried the old seams would burst but not able to let go. Her eyes focused on the DVD player, and the years her husband spent on the couch flashed through her. The years of memorizing Jim Nabors while Clara worked on her feet ten hours plus. The poorly-imitated dim country mannerisms. Repeating of lines over and over again—as if autistic. Or an idiot savant. A Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. friggin’ genius.
All of the years of putting up with that. All the years just to be brushed to the side for HER.
Then, the pain came. She’d thought her heart had just exploded right there inside her, all over her organs, and OH GOD SHE COULD FEEL IT. She swooned, feeling that she was about to lose consciousness. It must be the last little bit of blood still circulating though brain, the remaining bits of pumping oxygen causing the last few synapses, all making her still awake and aware of her dying hurt. The blast of nerves was sharp and clear, hot inside her organs, waxy and acrid (like the burn of a chemical) but her skin pricked dots of icy shock, cold like the secret mist of an unexpected scattered shower on a sunny day. A flash of yellow then chaotic blue sparks, like half-broken fireworks, from the living room. Screams. Clara Mae thought had been shot, but she could find no entry, no opening, no blood.
In truth, it had not been Clara Mae’s guts that had exploded; it was the guts of the DVD player, ignited inside the slender black box so that they puffed out, like plastic chipmunk cheeks. The DVD tray was stuck in EJECT, extended but limp—a flailing, melting tongue. The disc smoked furiously from the end table where it had landed, its surface fire-crackled, broken into a charred kaleidoscope of metallics.
Surprise, surprise, surprise!
The two prodded the electronic remnants with a remote while Aunt Helen squealed.
“What was that?”
Clara Mae clutched her belly again, the pain gone, but in its place the phantom aftershock. She kept looking for the wound, but she seemed, well, fine.
The Doll was splayed on the floor beneath her. She looked at him, and he looked at her, and she could have sworn he winked.
Her good mitts lifted the smoldering player and dumped it in the outside garbage, all while Clara Mae (instinctively) kept an eye on the cookies.
She needn’t have worried. Her husband and Aunt Helen were long gone.
Clara Mae stood and waited and waited over his cookies cooling (as she’d done so many years ago) even though he had gone. As she watched the microwave digits reverse she felt embarrassed, ashamed of what she had done. And she knew that she had done it. Didn’t really know how, but knew it all the same.
After the timer had buzzed and the moth-cookies were in the jar, she put them in the top of her closet. All bark and no bite. She was too afraid of change, too afraid of action. Even if the moths held the cure for her marriage—for the sister-love—could it unravel the years of stagnant unhappiness, scrub out the frustration that over the years had soured into the fabric of their relationship? She picked up the Doll, cradling it to her bosom with the unconditional love of an enabling mother. Tomorrow she would try to give it back to The Home—get rid of the bad ju-ju. Don’t need that in my house. But tonight she held it lovingly, even with pride, and she thought of the burst of flame with a little smirk of we-did-this, picturing the incestuous adulterers scurrying off and out and away, afraid.