There used to be trips to the mall, to restaurants—from fast food to four star, and, of course, dance classes. It would be just Lottie and her mother. Lottie never had to share her mother with her older siblings as far as she could remember due to the wide gap in their ages. Holidays were strange for her since the house suddenly became filled with electrical energy Lottie didn’t understand. It was as though she were an observer watching from a distance. There would be the nasty comments and cutting remarks, and eventually someone would leave in a huff. Lottie hoped today would be different.
She turned the car radio off, the music too upbeat for her mood. The open road looking cluttered with nothing but heartache, she supposed it was because she was feeling guilty. If only Sandy had given Lottie her blessings, then the day would look more promising.
“Damn it!” Lottie pounded the steering wheel with her clenched fist, recalling the way Sandy trailed behind her as she gathered her belongings for the day.
“I embarrass you,” Sandy had said.
“Not at all.”
“Then why can’t I go with you?”
“Because…” Lottie grabbed her long-sleeve polo shirt from the chair and slipped it on over her head, mentally scrambling for a believable excuse. But all she could mutter was, “Next time.”
“Next time, my ass,” Sandy said. “Your excuse used to be because your mother was too ill. You didn’t want to upset her any more. But now she’s better, Lottie! What’s the excuse this time?”
“Because it’s not about me, us, today.”
Sandy nodded, her jaw tight. “You want to hide me as long as you can, don’t you? Makes it a whole lot less complicated.” When Lottie tried to get by her, Sandy reached over and grabbed her hands, turning them over. “Maybe you can hide me, but how are you going to hide these?”
Lottie pulled away, refusing to look at the ragged scars. “Mom doesn’t understand this.” She motioned a wave between the two of them, an invisible line of sorts connecting two women.
“How is she gonna, if you keep hiding it? Us?”
Scooping up her duffel bag and the bag of corn, Lottie replied, “I said next time. When it’s not so—”
“So what?” Sandy shouted.
Lottie started toward the door, but then came back and went to give Sandy a kiss, but Sandy turned away.
“I won’t be late,” she said.
They never left each other without saying they loved each other; didn’t matter if it was before they left for work or went down the block to the deli, they always said, “I love you.” But today, with a hundred or so miles separating them, the three words hadn’t been exchanged. And Lottie felt unhinged. If only Sandy could understand her dilemma.
Unlike Lottie, Sandy had grown up in a very liberal house in Los Angeles, raised by a single, progressive mother. Sandy recalled entering church twice in her life—not to pray, but simply to admire the architecture. However, for Lottie, each Sunday meant sitting in a pew below her mother’s watchful eyes while she sang in the choir. Lottie couldn’t recall her father ever attending with them. Patriarch Gerald Lamb piloted commercial jets through the blue heavens, stating that he was closer to God than any so-called hymnal-holding parishioner who was grounded safely in the sanctuary.
“What I have is real faith,” Lottie recalled her father saying to her mother in one of their simmering arguments. “To take that hunk of metal up in the sky and trust it’s not going to come crashing down, well, that’s faith.”
It was Lottie alone sitting at attention each week, feigning observance to the service while imagining she was up in the plane with her father, barely hearing what Reverend Cole was preaching. So, Sandy didn’t understand what it was like to live a lie while being observed and judged, to be the last of the Lamb children with a mother’s full attention. According to Natalie, who was never at a loss for words, Allen and Lottie were bookends that got all their mother’s concentration. “Those of us in the middle, well, we were pointless.”
“You are my wonder child,” her mother would tell her. Lottie used to take it to mean that she was special, unique, just as Allen had been, even if she didn’t exhibit any unique talent, until one time she overheard her mother telling a new member of the church that Lottie “of course wasn’t planned with such an age gap between her and her siblings, but God must’ve had a reason to bless the Lambs with another little one so late in the game.” Her mother would sigh and then, as if it were an afterthought, add, “But did you ever hear of the television show Benny and Crow?”
Later that Sunday afternoon, Lottie, who was about twelve at the time, went outside in the backyard and dropped down on the grass next to her mother who was basking in the sun on a chaise lounge.
“Hmm?” her mother replied, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, her trim figure in a modest one-piece swimsuit.
“Why didn’t you just have an abortion, if you didn’t want me?”
Her mother lunged up, taking off her sunglasses. “Who on earth said I didn’t want you?”
“Well, of course I did, sweetie.” She leaned over, giving Lottie a gentle hug to confirm it.
“So, you and Dad had sex to have me?” Lottie often asked questions about her father, since he was a mystery to her. He was rarely home and when he was, he would sit at the kitchen table reading the paper and drinking one cup of coffee after the next. And always checking his watch.
Her mother cleared her throat. “Well, Charlotte, your father and I made love and you were a…a wonderful surprise.”
“But were you trying to have another baby?” Lottie was attempting to make sense of many things, but sex was becoming the utmost importance.
“Well, we weren’t not trying.”
Lottie nodded. “So, did Daddy want me, too?” Even as she asked, she knew the answer.
Her mother rested back in the chaise lounge. “Of course,” she said, her tone less convincing. “And you were a special gift. I’m sure you’re going to do great things with your life. It’s why God blessed me with you.” After a slight pause, she added, “We’ll find that special talent of yours, yet!”
Her mother had taken her on one audition after the next for commercials and television shows, enrolled her in dance and acting classes, had her take piano lessons, but Lottie exhibited little interest. Besides, how could she ever achieve what Allen had achieved, even though by the time she was born, Allen’s acting career had been compromised by adolescence. No longer was he the cute little Benny who had a best friend named Crow. The series wrapped up and nothing else came along, except one rejection after the next. Lottie wondered if she had been born in hopes of filling those shoes.
Then, something else occurred to her on that day. She said, “Did you ever have sex with anyone besides Daddy?”
“My goodness, Charlotte Lamb, I cannot imagine ever having a conversation like this with your sisters!”
Lottie sat cross-legged on the grass at her mother’s side, waiting for a response, but her mother remained quiet long enough to let Lottie know the conversation was over.
Like Lottie, Reverend Cole’s favorite topic was sex, except he talked about it from the pulpit without actually using the three-letter word. According to Reverend, “God’s way” meant saving oneself for the sanctity of marriage. It also meant homosexuality was an abomination of the Lord. So many Sundays meant being led in prayer to give the deviants a change of heart. Lottie would bow her head and fervently pray that God would make her want to look at boys the way she looked at girls. Eventually, though, Lottie discovered it was easier just to keep her thoughts to herself, far from God and her mother, but especially her mother.
But now her love for Sandy was challenging all that.
The motel had been cheap and not the sort of place you impress a good lay, but for how inferior the sleeping arrangements had been, Allen made up for it by the car he’d rented. A silver sporty convertible Jaguar with white leather interior hugged the sharp turns of the rural roads with Allen keeping the power skillfully under his command. Sure, it was pricey, but he knew he couldn’t show up at the reunion with something that didn’t mirror his supposed successful lifestyle.
With one eye on the road and the other on Gail, whose hair was whipping all around her composed face, Allen became distracted by her long, smooth, tanned legs. He reached over and slid his hand along her thigh, traveling further up until he found all that made him grateful to be a man. Women, even the rare few who tried to politely reject him, eventually gave in. Gail leaned back, closing her eyes, a low moan coming from her, proving once again that at least he still had the touch. After all, he’d learned from the best.
It had been an elucidating moment when he’d discovered at the vulnerable age of nine that the female species could provide more than a hot meal and a Band-Aid for a scraped knee. At the time, the Lamb household had the hints of an outbreak of chicken pox when Denise came home from school with some early signs. Since Allen was scheduled to be on set within a week, his mother convinced his father to take him to work with him in hopes of avoiding getting infected. However, going to work with his dad meant a flight to Paris–City of Lights; a foreign city crammed with monuments and gothic towers; a place that would easily bore a nine-year-old boy, especially when it was obvious he was an intrusion.
Allen recalled the flight and the way the stewardesses, which was how the beautiful, slim female flight attendants were referred to then, fawned over him, making sure he was fed and given as much soda as he wanted—and even times when he didn’t want any. Allen had to keep reminding the women that his name wasn’t Benny, but that was just a character he played on television. Still, Allen lapped up the attention, unaware that the women not only were enamored by the child actor but hoped to get noticed by his handsome father.
Once they arrived in Paris, Allen was stuck in a hotel room with a baby-sitter while his father went out for what he called a “quiet” dinner. Since Benny and Crow wasn’t playing in Europe yet, the baby-sitter considered him just another snot-nosed kid. Her name and face are forgotten while her command of the English language was minimal. However, Allen had understood her repeated demands of “No!” as she chased him away from the door that led to his father’s adjoining room. But there were noises coming from that room that took the pre-adolescent some time to figure out. It helped when the baby-sitter eventually became engrossed in some program on television.
Allen edged the door open and was given a narrow view of what was going on. The undulating bodies were in a tangle of sheets and Allen wasn’t sure to attribute pain or pleasure to the moans and groans being uttered. It went on for what felt like hours—or seconds—depending on how Allen chose to think about it, but he was being given a very instructive course on how to please a woman, and she a man, and sometimes his curiosity was so intense that he almost forgot the instructor was his cheating father.
Eventually, a woman with jet black hair, huge tits and cartoon waistline climbed from the bed and wiggled her way into the bathroom. That’s the memory Allen had of her anyway. He both wanted and not wanted to see more. The sight was confusing and embarrassing. He backed away, keeping what he’d witnessed to himself.
Sometime later, his father, dressed in a shirt and pants, came in Allen’s room finding him in front of the television.
“Picking up the language, son?”
Allen hadn’t understood a word of the program that the sitter was watching, but it didn’t matter since his mind was elsewhere. His father paid the sitter and told Allen to get to bed and that he’d come get him in the morning for breakfast.
Allen had the sense not to discuss what he’d seen and the following morning, after breakfast, they were heading back to the United States. He couldn’t go home since Emily and Denise were now in full bloom with chicken pox, so the production company put Allen and his mother up in a nice hotel in Manhattan near the studio. Miss Pearl, their live-in nanny, would stay with the girls.
His dad dropped him off in the lobby where his mother was waiting. He scowled to see the way his father kissed his mother, the way his mother tugged on his father’s tie and smiled. She then turned to Allen. “Did you have a good time, sweetheart?” She went to hug him, but he pushed her away.
Raising an eyebrow, she said, “Someone’s tired,” ruffling his hair.
“Stop!” he snapped. “Do you have to be so…so annoying?” He went over to a sofa and dropped down on it. He felt miserable without understanding why while his mother worried that perhaps he was coming down with the chicken pox despite all their efforts.
Now, as they drove along the highway, Gail broke into Allen’s thoughts. “Why don’t we pull down one of those side roads?”
“Good idea,” he said, “but there’s really no time.”
“Ah, come on,” she said, reaching over and cupping him. “I know you want—”
He grabbed her hand, squeezing it firmly, and placed it back on her lap. “I said there’s no time.”
“What’s in that?” Emily said, leaning on the bakery counter and pointing to a three-layer cake.
“Chocolate mousse,” the clerk behind the counter said. She cleared her throat, glaring at Emily’s large body pressed up against the glass.
“Is it fresh?”
“Just like everything else you’ve asked about, it’s fresh.” The clerk stretched her neck, scanning the forming line. “Shall I box it up for you?”
“And there aren’t any apple pies in the back?”
“Lady,” a voice from the line called, “wouldya make up your mind already?”
“Whatever is in the back has been preordered,” the clerk said. “Apple pie is in demand this time of year. You know, Fourth of July and all that. So they need to be ordered ahead of time.”
“Well, I make a delicious apple pie,” Emily began before another voice piped in: “Just take one of each! Looks like you can handle it.” Snickers followed.
Without looking back, Emily sucked up some air. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll take it.”
“That,” she said, pointing to the mousse-filled cake. And…and a pound of cookies. The boys like cookies.” She spoke as if the clerk were familiar with her nephews.
In silent haste, the clerk boxed up the desserts and took Emily’s money while rolling her eyes at the patron behind her. Emily took the boxes and felt disgusted stares following her as she waddled by the endless line of customers. There was a dichotomy to the Emily Lamb she’d become: On the one hand, she felt ignored, invisible when people avoided looking at her. On the other, she saw the repulsed expressions when they did choose to look, making her want to hide. She hadn’t always been this large. It sort of caught up with her the last year or so.
Once she got to her blue Camry, she placed the desserts on the front passenger seat, regretting not having bought the sheet cake frosted with the likeness of the American flag. It would show she’d made an effort, even though she knew the exhausting effort it took to come this far. Flushed and feeling the perspiration slide down her back, she heaved herself in to her car, shifting her seat back and forth. It seemed she could never adjust it so that she was comfortable for any length of time.
How you doin’, hon?
“Could be better,” she said. No longer were the desserts on the front seat; instead, it was him sitting there.
She started up the engine, then leaned over and rooted around in her glove compartment, finding the CD Coach enjoyed listening to. Coach wasn’t his actual name, but once she’d heard the students fondly refer to him in that fashion, it’s what she started calling him. She’d been the only teacher to do so, which made her feel all that much closer to him. She shoved the CD in and put the car in reverse.
Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine…
There’d been a time she thought the song was silly. It wasn’t until he began singing it to her did she find it had redeeming qualities. Even now, she could hear his off-pitch voice screaming out the song, the twinkle in his eye that she so loved. She laughed and started to join in.
She slammed on the brakes, her body lurching into the steering wheel. A horn blared at her for an embarrassing length of time. She fumbled before shoving the car in park.
Joy to the world! Allll the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep—
Emily turned off the engine, immediately cutting the song.
“What the hell!” a disembodied voice shouted. “Didn’t you see me?”
One look in her sideview mirror and she saw an agitated man, looking much like a wild boar, approaching her car. She rolled her window down just as he reached it.
“Sorry, no, I…I didn’t see you.” Not a smart thing to say, but she wasn’t about to explain how difficult it was to turn around to see what the rearview mirror could not reveal.
“That’s for goddamn sure!”
“Really, I’m sorry.”
“Well, you should be. Your car is the one that got most of the damage.”
“Did you want to exchange insurance information?” She reached toward her glove compartment. “Guess we should call the police.”
“You sayin’ I caused this?” the boar shouted.
“No!” Emily said, tears coming to her eyes. She knew she should’ve stayed home. “I’m just saying if you want, I can give you my insurance card and I’ll take your number and we can deal with thi—”
“Hey, I ain’t lettin’ my rates go up because of your fuckup! I’m willing to let it go.”
She couldn’t believe her luck. The guy was all hot air and threats and little else. She thanked him as he rushed toward his big-ass car. From her rearview mirror there was no telling what make it was. Nor did she care. She caught her breath and turned the engine back on.
…blue sea, joy to you and me.
Just as she started to roll up her window, she saw a woman approaching her. “Hope you got his insurance number.”
If I was the king…
“Excuse me?” Emily said, annoyed to be interrupted yet again.
“He came in through the exit and tried to rush right by you. It was his fault.” The woman looked at her through eyes that sunk deep in a chubby face. “And it looks like he did some damage to your fender there.”
“Thanks,” Emily said, putting the window up.
“We need to defend ourselves!” the woman shouted. “We’re targets, you know.”
Don’t worry, honey. You’re nothing like her.
Emily pretended it was his hand brushing away the tear that was sliding down her cheek. She smiled, grateful to be so loved, and stretched as far as she could to see behind her, ignoring the fat nosy body who was still watching her, and backed the car out of the space. Soon she was on her way and could once again dwell on Coach.
She’d met him when she returned to school from another summer break. She weighed far less than her present weight, especially after having been active swimming, running and learning how to play tennis. She was never thin, but she’d been fit, tanned and comfortable with herself. She’d brought her optimism to the classroom, looking forward to introducing the students to Debussy and Mozart.
Before long, though, she found that the ninth graders had their own agenda in mind, leaving her to battle with headphones plugged into covert iPods. Not to be outwitted, she called on Sean who didn’t hear her. She approached him and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Since you’re not interested in listening to what I have, how about sharing your tunes with us?” Emily said.
At first he balked at the idea, but after she insisted, he grinned and swaggered to the front of the room, plugging the iPod into her speaker. Emily thought she would take the opportunity to discuss present day music compared to composers from centuries earlier. She would try and meet the students on their level. Before she knew what was happening, though, lyrics, nasty and lewd, poured from the speakers.
“Turn that off!” she shouted.
Sean reached over, but instead of turning off the music, he turned up the volume. Most of the students were hysterical and Sean enjoyed the attention, even blocking Emily as she tried to get to the sound system.
I want you to jump me, hump me…
“Sean!” she screamed, knowing that the horrid words had to be pouring out into the hall.
I’ll pry you, ride you…
Just then a strong hand appeared, clutching the back of Sean’s neck. Sean dropped to his knees, his face a purplish red. The newly hired coach that Emily had seen in the teacher’s lounge on a couple of occasions looked over at her and said, “You can turn it off now.”
She was too stunned to move. Dragging a squirming Sean with him, the coach turned off the offensive lyrics.
“Let go,” Sean spewed. “I’ll sue your ass.”
“Yeah? Meantime, you owe this lady an apology.”
“Me?” Sean said. “She told me to put it on!”
Some of the students muttered in agreement.
“I…I didn’t know that’s what you were listening to,” Emily said. “My god!”
Still having a firm hold on Sean’s neck, Coach said, “Apologize to Mrs. … Mrs….” He gazed at her with a questioning expression.
“Oh, Lamb. Ms. Lamb,” she said.
“Apologize to Ms. Lamb.”
Sean may have apologized to her, but Emily was more distracted by the coach’s muscular arms and taut stomach, by the deep blue in his eyes. “Thank you,” she called out as he escorted Sean out of the classroom.
“That was real nice what you did,” she now said aloud, glancing at the passenger seat where she imagined him sitting.
I’m glad I was there to help.
Emily kept a tight grip on the steering wheel, certain that Natalie would be on the Port Jefferson ferry, which was why she would not be. The drive was much more pleasant in the company of vivid memories that were given a voice, even if it was a much longer drive.
Joy to the world…
Together they sang with the Three Dog Night as she kept a steady pace along the highway.
Denise stood in the walk-in closet riffling through her blouses. The one she was wearing, the one she’d thought would be just right for the day ahead, was now covered with strawberry stains. Eventually, she pulled a blue cotton sleeveless blouse from the hanger. Before she did the hasty switch, she did a quick breast check. Ever since her mom had been diagnosed, Denise checked herself as often as she changed blouses. Jeff told her she was being paranoid, and maybe she was, but she couldn’t help but think that for the last couple of days there was something off as she pressed here, then there. Was that a lump? It certainly felt like it. She started to hyperventilate while slipping her arms into the sleeves of the clean blouse. She began to work a button into a hole when the closet started to whirl in slow motion. She groped her way over toward the bed, all the while feeling like she was in a tunnel, one that became more and more narrow. Beads of sweat dampened her forehead.
“No, no, no,” she said under her breath. “Please, not again. Not today. Not ever.” She dropped down on to the bed.
“You taking a nap?” Jeff said, running into the room.
Denise’s eyes were closed, but the aroma of chlorine filled the room; she imagined water dripping from her husband’s bathing suit. She said, “Just trying to collect myself before everyone gets here.”
“Don’t know why you agreed to have this thing, anyway,” he said.
She willed herself to feel better, pushing herself up onto her elbow in time to watch Jeff run bare-assed to his dresser, pull out a pair of jeans and slip them on without the benefit of underwear.
“I have to run out,” he said. “Want me to pick anything up?”
“We’re out of propane, aren’t we?”
Jeff grabbed a faded T-shirt, slipping it on over his wet head of hair.
“Don’t start, Denny.”
“Who’s going to be open now for propane? It’s a holiday.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat up. You’re going to be okay, she told herself.
“Mackenzie’s opened. I called.” He grabbed his wallet from the dresser. “So, you need anything else?”
“I just don’t know why you would wait till the last—”
Jeff stopped and gave her his insolent, stultifying look. “If you were so goddamned concerned about the grill, why the hell didn’t you make sure we had propane while I was working my ass off all week? I’m the one going out for it on my day off, aren’t I?”
She had a hundred comebacks, all that wanted to point out how busy she, too, was with running the boys to their soccer practices, dentist appointments, friends’ houses, her photography classes, taking care of the house, and the laundry, all the while trying to get ready for the family reunion, but just then, Elliott yelled up from the bottom of the stairs, “Grandma and Grandpa are here!”
She tossed her hands up and forced a smile. “Well, as long as you’re going out, could you get a bag of Granny Smith apples?”
Jeff slipped on his sandals, running out of the bedroom. “Granny Smith apples,” he repeated.
She went to the bedroom door and started to call that she’d be right down, but then felt her stomach roiling and rushed to the bathroom, crouching over the toilet just as scrambled eggs spilled into the bowl. Once she believed it was over, she got up, wiped her mouth with the hand towel and walked out of the bathroom to see her mother standing tentatively outside her bedroom door. She looked like a picture of health, dressed smartly in crisp white slacks, navy blue shell and matching sweater draped over her shoulders. Her shock of white hair was thinner than before the cancer, but it suited her.
“Are you okay?”
“I am now,” Denny said. “I don’t think my breakfast agreed with me.”
“I should be okay now, though.”
Her mother walked into the room and ran her thin fingers through Denise’s short layered brown hair. “Are you sure it’s not morning sickness?”
“Mom, please,” she muttered. Fact was, the unacceptable thought had already crossed her mind. She thought she could take the news of having breast cancer better than finding out that she was going to have another baby.
“Well, wouldn’t you like to have a little girl before it’s too late?”
“Mom, I said—”
“I know, I know. I’m just saying. It’s just that you’ve always been so good with babies.”
True, she did know how to be a doting mother to babies. It was when they started walking, speaking, and making demands that she felt at a loss, but Denise suspected her mother was referring to her own long bout with postpartum depression after she’d had Lottie. Her mother would occasionally reference Denise’s mother-instincts, as though that was why she had taken over when her mother had failed.
Denise was about ten years old at the time and recalled how the baby, Charlotte, would cry for hours unattended in the crib while her mother was hidden away in the bedroom refusing to push herself out of bed. Denise wasn’t quite sure what to make of it since she really didn’t know her mother all that well. After all, it was Miss Pearl who’d cared for Denise, Natalie and Emily while their mother was on shoots with Allen for most of Denise’s young life. But for the last couple of years, there was no more Benny and Crow, and her mother didn’t quite seem to know what to do with herself. According to her father, there was no need to pay for live-in help any longer, even though her mother did try to make a career out of bringing Allen to one audition after the next, but they eventually let the nanny go. But then her mother got pregnant, which kept her in bed during most of the nine months. Denise had been under the impression that once the baby was born, her mother would be better, but that hadn’t been the case at all.
It seemed that Denise was the only one around. Her siblings expressed little interest in having a baby in the house and her father seemed to always have to fly somewhere that would keep him away for days at a time. It was Denise who stayed home from school to take care of her baby sister. Otherwise, she was afraid Lottie would die of starvation or cry herself to death. She was the one who gave Charlotte the nickname Lottie and it stuck.
Part of Denise had hated her mother for being void of feeling for such a little needful being and another part feared that her mother would soon snap out of her melancholy behavior and stake her claim. Denise discovered she loved being needed and couldn’t understand why her mother found it so difficult. Now, all these years later, Denise discovered that babies grow up into charges that drain you, suck the life from you, cause fights with the man you were once so madly in love with.
Now, she looked over at her mom and said with determination, “I’m not pregnant.”
Her mother raised her hands as if giving up.
“He took a ride with Jeff. Did you want to rest for a bit before everyone gets here?”
“No,” she said. “There’s too much to do.” She went over to the dresser and grabbed a roll of film. “It’s going to be a good day,” she said with forced optimism.
“It is, but you probably should put on a clean blouse.”
Denise looked down to see that vomit was splattered on what she’d just changed into.
After having gone all the way back to the house to get Pooh, who’d been sitting on the couch patiently waiting for Bethany, Natalie was finally back on the highway. It had been too late to catch the ferry and waiting for the next one would be time wasted. Besides, Natalie found that driving was relaxing. She also found it more relaxing puffing on a cigarette.
She glanced in the rearview mirror to see that Bethany had fallen asleep, Pooh resting in her arms; just what Natalie was hoping for. As quietly as she could, she reached in her purse and dug around till she found the opened pack of Camels. She pulled one out and lit it with the car lighter. Even though the air conditioner was blasting, she opened the window a crack, waving and willing the smoke to go outside. If Bethany caught a whiff, there’d be a scene. Sometimes too much education cramped a mother’s style.
One especially stressful day some months earlier, Bethany got off the school bus and immediately howled, “Mommy! Those make you sick and die!” She pointed to the cigarette Natalie had forgotten to toss.
“Such drama,” Natalie said, forcing an uneasy smile at the two conscientious mothers who greeted their children, Jessica and Dexter. She dropped the butt and crushed it with her foot.
“I don’t want you to die!” Bethany cried.
“One cigarette isn’t going to kill me, Bethany,” she said. “Besides, lots of people don’t smoke a day in their life and get cancer anyway.” She’d been thinking of her mother when she said that. She looked down at a teary Bethany and, with a roll of her eyes, said, “I’m going to quit, okay?”
Not only was Bethany waiting for the correct response, but so were Jessica and Dexter. And their mothers. She sucked up some air and said, “Absolutely. Now, come on. I’ll put on Lady and the Tramp for you.”
“You know,” Dexter’s mother said, “I heard that those patches are supposed to be good.”
“I’ll have to pick some up,” Natalie said, reaching down and grasping Bethany’s hand, pulling her toward the house.
And she did plan to quit. Every day it was a promise for the next. But something always triggered her desire. Besides, if she didn’t smoke, she’d eat. And then she’d be as big as a house; as big as Emily had become.
One would think losing someone the way she’d lost Greg would kill the appetite, but that had not been the case. Nighttime was the most difficult. Invariably, she’d end up in the kitchen, sitting alone at the table, the stove light the only illumination in the room, spooning gobs of rocky road ice cream from the carton and not stopping until it was scraped clean. After days and nights of nonstop snacking, she stopped at a 7 Eleven with the intention of picking up another bag of Doritos and frozen pizzas, but then on a whim decided to add a pack of Camels, which had been her brand of choice in her youth, to her order. The ditzy clerk misunderstood her and rang up an entire carton instead. Not wanting to bother with the time and hassle of having the sale voided, she paid for it, but not without scolding the clerk.
Later, at three in the morning, she was grateful since she’d almost finished off an entire pack. But she hadn’t gone to the refrigerator or cabinet once and found that cups of coffee, occasionally spiked with a bit of Scotch, and a cigarette were great comforts. Something about sitting in the quiet of evening, Bethany sound asleep, and watching the glow as she pulled in the tobacco and then watched the smoke curl all around her calmed her, told her she was indeed in control of her orbit. And, even more importantly, she’d been losing weight.
It was just a pain in the ass to hide her habit from Bethany, she thought, taking a final pull and then tossing the butt out the window.
It’d been years since she had to invest so much energy in hiding anything from anyone. She used to be rather adept at chicanery, at fooling her mother with her lies. It hadn’t been so easy with Miss Pearl, their nanny. But once she was let go, Natalie discovered she could get away with pretty much anything. It was as though her mother had little idea how to handle adolescence, so the Lamb household became a free-spirited teenager’s paradise.
Just then, Natalie hit the brakes, lurching the car to a dramatic stop. A car behind them screeched within inches of slamming into her rear end before swerving around them, the driver blasting the horn and calling her a name she refused to believe she was. She pulled to the side of the highway and turned to see what had made Bethany so hysterical. God, she hoped there wasn’t another toy back home that needed to be gotten.
“What’s wrong?” she said, turning around.
Bethany shot her a hooded look. “I smell somethin’ funny.”
“Hmm?” Natalie said, grasping where the conversation was going.
“Smoke. I smell smoke.”
It was miles back when she’d tossed the butt out the window. And the kid still smelled its redolence? Scary.
“Bethany, honey,” Natalie said, “we…we just passed a factory. You know, with the big chimneys. And…and smoke was coming out of them. That’s what you smell, I bet.”
“No,” Bethany said, her accusatory tone somewhat tempered with uncertainty. She kept Pooh close to her chest.
“Yes!” Sell it, she told herself. “Yes, honey! See, if you look back there…” She stretched her neck to see that they were parked in the curve of the highway, so there was no way to see what they’d passed. Or hadn’t passed. “Oh, darn. Those trees are hiding it. But, really, it was a factory and the smoke was billowing out and—”
“What’s billing mean?” Bethany said, her expression dubious.
“Billing?” Natalie said. “Oh! Billowing! Puffing. It was puffing out of the chimneys. Rolling all around us. It looked like fog. Sorry if it woke you up.”
Wiping her eyes, Bethany said, “Are we almost there yet?”
“Well,” Natalie said, exercising a patience of which she was proud, “we probably could have been, if we didn’t have all these interruptions. We’ll be there soon, though. Aren’t you excited to see your cousins?”
Without waiting for a reply, Natalie turned back around in her seat and put the car in drive, pulling out onto the highway. She hit the gas, coasting along for a few miles while feeling a sense of satisfaction at averting a scene with her daughter. The story had worked, and she couldn’t help but smile. But then she heard three tentative meek words:
“I hafta pee.”