Ronalda lights a Camel but leaves it burning on an egg-crusted plate. Everywhere she sees what needs doing: stovetop glazed with grease, counters studded with crumbs, corners laced with cobwebs. She swabs the counter while the boys’ jeans clink against dryer walls, while the baby squalls from the living room, while her head spins as fast as that silly, don’t-go-breakin’-my-heart song jabbering on the radio. Thank goodness Diane’s coming through the door, no knock needed.
Diane glides in, all legs in her shiny red running shorts. She points at the cup on the counter. “Let me guess — cup’s full but the coffee’s cold?”
Ronalda starts to say, “Fill her up again,” the cue for Diane to make a fresh pot while Ronalda changes the baby. Instead Ronalda says, “This cup’s half-empty and I’m half-dead.”
“I’ll fix us a fresh and we’ll have us a good sit-down.” Diane pours coffee down the sink and rinses the cup.
The baby’s wailing so hard he’s choking. Ronalda says, “Sit down? I want you to look. This filth — and all the beds unmade.” She heads to the tiny living room where the sun is already strong like a fist behind the shutters. Maybe one day it will melt the whole world and send a flood of tar and creosote and pop tops pouring through these windows. Even then they still won’t have the money to paint or furnish the room that could make a home civilized.
Things get dark at the edges as she leans over the playpen and lifts Bradford, red-faced and snot-nosed, heavy as a stone. “Stop it,” she snaps. “This ain’t the day. This ain’t the day.”
Funny how Diane could just pass him by when she came in. Then again, she’s done her time with her own three.
She carries Bradford to the kitchen, jouncing and shushing. She runs a dishrag under cold water and wipes his face. Crying turns to hiccups.
“I think you’re a poet,” Diane says.
Ronalda laughs. “Law, me who never graduated?” She grabs a diaper from the stack on the kitchen table.
“You’re smart, emotions kind of smart.”
“I sure hope I’m something. Crazy’s more like it. Maybe I am a poet.”
“Remember how you said boys only bring trouble and traction while girls bring the high drama and heartache? Where’d you get that kind of stuff?”
“I don’t know, I just get stupid sometimes.” “How about the time you said we got to have flowers so our hearts can grow back every morning?”
“You know my zinnias are doing great. Only this one don’t smell like a flower.” She taps Bradford’s bulky bottom and he giggles.
Diane spoons Folger’s into the filter. “I’m going to make a book of Ronnie sayings.” Diane doesn’t care a lick about flowers and jokes she’s got a black thumb. Ronalda has almost given up on hints about Diane and Bobby doing something about their yard.
“Make me that cup while I get this one done. Law! It is hotter than a match in here.” Ronalda leaves with Bradford for the bathroom. She lays him on a towel on the counter. The old diaper hits the floor. Sweat drips from her nose. She swabs his bottom with wet tissue. She wraps him with the fresh cloth and seals the deal with duck-shaped pins she used on the other two. She sits him on the bath mat while she shakes the turds into the toilet and flushes. Bradford squeals when she dips the diaper in the fresh water and wrings it out. The diaper hits the pail with a wet clang. As she scrubs off in the sink, she sees her hands aging faster than the rest of her, so red and lined and ragged with hangnails. No poetry in these paws.
When Ronalda comes back, Diane has the radio turned up to “If You Leave Me Now,” all mournful and begging. “Ronnie, songs are like poetry, you know? What I meant to say was, you got what they call ‘a turn of phrase.’”
New coffee percolates. The smell is all of a sudden nauseating and not a good sign. Ronalda says, sharper than she means, “You’re the one turning heads when you talk.”
“Don’t know about that. Bobby don’t – he doesn’t seem to look no more.”
“Then he ain’t got sense to get out of the rain,” Ronalda says. “Look at you — hair not a strand of gray in it, still dark as chocolate, and legs a mile long; you would look good on the TV.” Ronalda does not add, Bobby’s always been a fool. “You got a case of think-too-much. It’ll drive you crazy.”
Diane says, soft, “O teach me how I should forget to think.” “What’s that?” Ronalda sits Bradford in the high chair and rifles through the cupboard.
“Something I read.” Diane gets pink, grabs cups from the shelf, then looks hopeful. “You ever read Shakespeare?”
Ronalda pulls out a jar of applesauce. “They made us back in school, but I never could keep my eyes on it. Mama always said, Books collect the dust. Traded all of ours one time at the swap meet.”
“I been picking it up again – Romeo and Juliet? Kind of sounds like the Bible.”
Ronalda wonders whether that’s blasphemous. Instead she says, “Darryl took me to the movie one time, that Zepparella one. All I remember was it had naked bodies in it. Darryl took it so serious. I was teasing him and I said, ‘Look at you, all tore up’ — but he just kept saying, ‘It ain’t right. Ain’t right. No way out. Fate’s got us all screwed.’ I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”
“He must have meant the Prince,” Diane said. “He’s the one who said, ‘All are
punnashed.” “Funny how they talk,” Ronalda says. “How do you keep it straight? And who has the time?” She wrestles with the lid.
“Here, give it,” Diane says. She taps the jar against the counter, then uses a dish rag. The jar pops and she hands it back. “What I wouldn’t give for some time. But I can’t help thinking.”
Ronalda finds a bowl and a baby spoon. Bradford waves his arms. The sauce is slow coming but finally glops into the bowl. She puts some in his mouth.
Diane says, “Don’t you ever want to, you know, figure it all out?”
“What’s to figure?” Suddenly Ronalda’s heart starts hammering; she doesn’t know why. “Mama used to say, the more you stir the s-h-i-t, the more it stinks. That enough poetry for you?”
Diane cackles. “Yes’m. I don’t know, I just like imagining things, like life’s a bunch of doors. Price is Right: Door Number One or Door Number Two? Which you going to choose?”
Ronalda points at Bradford. “One of these and you got no choice.” He waves fat fists at them, beaming, his face muddy with applesauce. They laugh. He gurgles, deep and chugging like an old man with phlegm.
Diane taps red nails on the counter. “Ye-e-es, babies do slam the door on some things. A lot of things.”
Ronalda sees the shadow cross Diane’s brow quick as a summer storm. Diane catches her looking and puts on her happy face. Ronalda says, nice as she can, “Don’t be like Darryl driving himself crazy asking what if. I tell him, ‘Shut off the brain, it’s closing time.’”
Bradford screeches as Diane says, “Well, it’s just so hard.” “What’s that?”
“It don’t matter.” Then she says, “Hey, that’s new. Isn’t that nice.” She points at the family portraits Ronalda had taken at Penney’s and finally got hung late last night: Laird with his new college girlfriend, that skinny thing who needs a good mama; Ronalda with Darryl and the three boys, her grin too crooked but her eyes about closed from the bliss of getting them all in the same room; and her and Bradford, drool glistening on his chin, but at least not colicky. Kenny, always monkey and sullen in the middle, he flat refused to smile in any of them. It still eats at her.
“We come a long way from that,” Diane says, pointing at the tinted one, moved to a lower tier beneath the new glossies. In another age back in Saxapahaw, long before life in Charlotte, Ronalda grins in a dress made from a flour sack, tiny blue flowers she used to think pretty, Darryl next to her, gangly and a face full of acne, proud as punch on the stoop of the old home place.
“Yes we have.” Ronalda’s head gets light again, then taut at the temples. That photo goes back twenty years but feels like someone took it this morning, like someone shoved her on a space ship and sent her right into the flat and weightless Tang-filled future.
“Where’s one of you and me?” Diane says.
“We need to get one done, don’t we.”
“I know what. I’m going to snap one of you scrubbing the floor. That’s you all over.”
“It never gets done. Every day you get up and there it is to do all over again.” Bradford smacks her on the arm. Ronalda pours more in the bowl.
Diane says with a grin, “I think you like it. You never come over and just sit.”
What to say? Diane’s place is so, well, dirty. Diane always looks like a picture — Ronalda can’t abide those who can’t keep neat. Here she goes saying something about her Polaroid camera. Then the dryer buzzes and Diane jumps. “Loud as the apocalypse!” Diane she says. “Lord, I will never get used to that. Anyway, I meant to tell you, Flannery called.”
“Don’t say.” Flannery is the one who left and has boys by two different men. How she came from good people, Ronalda doesn’t know. Well, yes she does: Bobby used to be no good. As for Diane’s twins, Eudora and Katie Anne, there’s hope yet. Least they can go to the bathroom by themselves, and Diane can leave them for a spell while they play in the sprinkler. Bradford plunges his hand in the bowl and
flings sauce on the floor; Ronalda grabs the dishrag and mops him off, then the floor, then tosses it back in the sink.
“Got herself a job,” Diane is saying.
“Good for her.” Ronalda’s knees creak as she straightens from the squat.
“How’d you get Laird to go to college?”
“I don’t know. He just wanted it.” Suddenly her throat fills up with a throbbing nausea; she has to swallow hard against it.
“But how’d you get him to want it?”
“Couldn’t tell you.” Ronalda steadies herself against the counter and swallows again. “Least he helps us pay.”
“Flannery don’t seem to be the type to go, ever.”
Because she’s a spitting image of Bobby, Ronalda thinks. Meanwhile, Laird is just like Darryl. If Flannery had once ounce of Diane’s or Darryl’s kind of brain…Ronalda yanks the cupboard door open and finds the Saltines. She scrambles in the box and stuffs three in her mouth.
“If I’d gone to Carolina…” Diane is saying, looking dreamy. “Well, I wouldn’t have got much done. I’d have followed Todd around like some pitiful thing. Son of a – ” She gives Ronalda a devilish look.
“Don’t say it.” Ronalda watches Bradford smack his high-chair tray with sticky hands.
“Well, it’s true. Didn’t think he was the type to run….but he did get that scholarship. Can you blame him?”
A moment of silence for men who disappear when they fear girls are pregnant. Ronalda remembers the story different; the scholarship is a new twist. She can picture Diane still a girl in Elizabeth City, living for steamy nights beneath the bleachers and promises of honeymoons in Morehead City. She was left high and dry in those stands by one who could throw touchdowns and smile like Paul Newman. Ronalda does the math, wondering if she and Diane could have been friends if they’d lived in the same town; maybe not, since by that time Ronalda had dropped out and married to Darryl, with Laird on the way. A silly door to go through, dwelling on things past.
Diane shakes her head. “Mean as a snake. He wouldn’t have been any better.”
Ronalda looks sharply at her. Husbands aren’t brands to pull off a shelf. They are what you get, maybe even what you deserve. But all she says is, “Where’s Flannery at?”
Diane says, “The StopNGo,” and her face twists with sadness. Finally: “It’s a job.” “Yes, it is. It’s like I keep telling Kenny: there’s no shame in honest work.” “You and Darryl teach him right.” “Kenny hung on me when he was a baby. Now he don’t have two words for me.” “Baaa!” yells Bradford. “Ba! Ba!”
“Says he wishes he could go live with Laird. Acts like he hates us, especially his daddy.” Suddenly Ronalda wishes she could hit something; the boy can be that stupid. “Darryl made him quit that Record Bar. Has him running errands at the shop.”
“That Record Bar has too many delinquents.”
“It’s got too many colored and too much hard rock. The owner’s from up north. Got his hair this high – ” Ronalda lifts her hand several inches above her head “—then scalped like an Indian on the sides. It’s not right.” She feels her heart speed up. “Then he tries to sneak out to drink and carry on.”
Bradford screams. Ronalda shoves a big spoonful in. Diane squeals, “You like dat, little boy? That’s right, you eat up.” She comes over and rubs his bald head.
Bradford chokes and spits up. Diane backs off while Ronalda mops him off, sighing. “You can pour me that coffee.” How can a woman fail to get the littlest thing done? The coffee’s cold all over again.
Diane finds cups and pours. “Sit down. Your cigarette’s half gone.” “I can’t sit.” “You will when you fall down.”
The radio shrills with horrible sound. Then the man says, “This is a test. For the next sixty seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.” Another blast of sound. Bradford yelps and swats his ears. With Diane’s back turned, with the drowning blare, Ronalda hears herself say, “Darryl’s cheating.”
Bradford tunes up, eyes full of tears.
The signal cuts out and the man says, “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with the FCC…”
Diane has been holding the cups forever, frozen like an ad for a cute waitress who will serve you right. Bradford opens his mouth wide as a church door, waiting. Diane says, “How do you know? Have you seen her?”
“No.” “But how do you know?” Not a question Ronalda expected. Diane keeps on. “Does he — ignore you?”
Her heart flutters, like a bow scurrying across strings. “No more than usual.” She’s hit Diane with too much – dirty laundry of the worst kind. Ronalda waits for Diane to say the right words. She always says, Darryl’s a good, good man.
Bradford starts to cry.
Ronalda scoops him up. Diane sets the cup at the end of the counter where Ronalda stands, jouncing Bradford. Usually Diane brings the sugar bowl and a spoon. Ronalda knows she’s said it wrong and scary. She tosses Bradford even harder, walking around the kitchen table, then into the den to lower the radio that got her into trouble, then around the coffee table. Back into the kitchen, settling him on her hip, feeling her shoulder tweak, saying, “Come on now. Enough of that.” He simmers down. She feeds him again, thinking maybe if she tells Diane about how Darryl jerks in his sleep, hot with Jolene nightmares, what he said to her after the fireworks the other night, then Diane would see.
“You said you feel half dead.” Diane sounds distant, eyes somewhere else. Ronalda panics: is Bobby cheating, too? Then they’re all going to Hades tomorrow, this whole street.
Ronalda feels her eyes fill up. She says to Bradford: “Diane, it’s killing me.”
Diane picks at something stuck to the counter. “I bet it’s all in his head. Men get thoughts. Long as they don’t act, no harm in that, right?”
Ronalda feels a lump in her throat so hard she can barely talk. “He stays in his room for hours. Plays George Jones all the time.”
“That’s it?” Diane looks relieved.
“I’ve known the man since 1953. I know when his heart is somewhere else.” Ronalda feels a gap between her and Diane for the first time. Her heart pounds in her ears and a sweat comes over her, then a surge of anger, prickling all over. Maybe it’s being thirty-eight with a one-year-old and two boys almost grown. Maybe it’s being married to a man who kills himself at the shop every day. Maybe it’s all just her body, the change come too early, making her crazy as a loon. But she thought Diane would at least ask about this woman, about how Ronalda imagines her, fills her out like a mannequin who blinks long lashes, twirls on stick legs, and purses full lips like a Barbi Benton. Then Diane should tell her not to worry, how if there is this other woman, she’s like to be sorry and no count, and even if Darryl has gone through that door, he’s like to come back. Ronalda almost says, “He’s taken up reading,” but then again, so has Diane, and Ronalda doesn’t want to hurt feelings.
The front door bangs. Kenny bolts through the kitchen, a blur of curly blond hair too far past his ears and a tight, sweat-stained t-shirt. He sees them, grunts, “Hey, Mrs. Strayer,” and heads for the room he used to share with Laird.
“What’re you doing home?” Ronalda yells. “Not even noon!”
He hesitates, always with that cornered look about him, big eyes staring. Gets on her last nerve. “I quit.”
“You what? Your daddy let you walk out? How’d you get here?”
“I walked.” Now he looks defiant.
“You walked?” Diane says. “Ronnie, that’s five miles and some highway in there. Poor thing, look at him.”
“Poor is right. Always wants the best of everything, now how’s he going to get it?” Before Ronalda can catch a breath, Kenny disappears down the hall and into his room. In seconds the walls are shaking.
Beat on the brat
Beat on the brat
Beat on the brat with a baseball bat
Diane laughs. “What is it? It’s not even rock music.”
“I’m telling you, that’s how he spends his money. That and her.” Ronalda stuffs Bradford in the high chair. He screams.
“I got him.” Diane moves at Bradford with a huge grin. “Gonna getcha!” She pokes a finger in his belly button and he giggles.
Ronalda hustles to the boys’ room. The hallway is dark and she stumbles on rippled carpet. Diane calls after, “Ask him who it is. I never heard such a racket, but now I’m curious.”
“Kenyon Ray!” Ronalda bursts through his door.
“Mom, dang it!” Kenny is hunched over, stepping out of his jeans. He clutches them to his waist, glaring at her. From diapers to Fruit of the Loom in a heartbeat. The room buzzes and rattles with drums and electric guitar, beating so fast they could knock out walls.
“Turn that off! Your father’s like to kill you!”
“He ain’t here! When’s he ever here!”
“You watch your mouth!” Her throat feels raw. There’s been a lot of yelling lately.
“Get out, I’m changing! You ruin all my jeans!” He turns away from her, tossing them on the floor and reaching for another pair.
“What you mean, ruin? I don’t see you doing laundry!”
“I keep telling you, don’t put them in the dryer! You never listen. They’re all damn high waters. I can’t afford more. That’s what you say.” Back still turned, he steps into a fresh pair, pale blue, tight against his bottom, so many years beyond a baby’s.
“You quit your job, then you got chores here.” The room is a disaster with clothes, books, albums everywhere; on his bed, a black record cover with a ghostly silver triangle smack in the middle. It looks from the devil. Ronalda isn’t much religious, but she is God-fearing. That triangle might just be the long and the short of everything that’s wrong. She stalks out, almost slamming the door.
The music lowers a few decibels, but the beat is relentless. Diane coos at Bradford, all smiles now, waving his arms.
“Went and quit a good job,” Ronalda fumes. “Darryl will kill him. Diane, this might be it.” “He’ll get another. He’ll see when he can’t buy records.” “He even told us he’d vote for Carter if he could.” “Lordy, lordy.” Diane seems amused.
Ronalda shakes her finger. “Watch yourself. Even if Darryl does say g-d every five seconds.” Her cigarette is ash, and something about the way Diane hovers over Bradford Ronalda just can’t bear. She scoops him up. Bradford whimpers as she holds him tight.
Diane says, “Honey, it’ll be all right.”
What does Diane know? She’s stopped wearing red lipstick, only pale pinks and oranges now, and she’s stopped ratting her hair, just does curlers and spray. She even jokes about getting a pageboy. It’s boy stuff, girls getting into the Navy, bra burners in the streets, standing things on their head. It’s not country but city, so far from where they came from, this place only five years young to Ronalda and still not home. It’s not family.
Ronalda blurts, “You don’t know it’ll be all right.”
The music cuts off like someone pulled a plug. Kenny slouches out of his room, shirt fresh and hair combed. Waves of Brut aftershave surge their way as he comes up to the counter, picks up the phone, and dials.
“Who you calling?” Ronalda says. He says into the phone, low, “Come get me? Okay. Bye.” “Where you going?”
“How you getting there?” Ronalda already hates the answer.
“She’s picking me up.”
Ronalda considers whether to make him stay, but she doesn’t want a fight in front of Diane. “This is between you and your daddy. Wait till he gets home. You’ll see.”
Kenny gives her a look that could break glass. Then he says politely to Diane, “Goodbye, Mrs. Strayer.” “Kenny, what’s that music you’re playing?” Diane says. Kenny looks shy. “The Ramones.” “Where they from? I never heard a thing like it.”
Kenny looks proud. “I think New York? It’s so new they don’t got a name for it.” Ronalda snaps, “Sounds like cats squalling.”
Diane chuckles. Kenny’s face reddens and he leaves the kitchen. Ronalda follows him down the hall and out the front door onto the stoop. “I don’t like her collecting you,” she says to his back.
Kenny turns and glares. “She doesn’t collect me.”
The sun is fierce out here, the air thick, and she can see a fine line of sweat dampening his t-shirt, his taut back. “She’ll think she wears the pants.”
“Give me a car and then we all get what we want.”
His eyes are so green with casual betrayal, she gets dizzy. They all hate her. He starts down the steps.
“I’m taking away those records,” she says. “No job, no nothing.”
He stops. “Why don’t you take Dad’s,” he says over his shoulder, and then under his breath, “Hypocrite.”
“What’d you say?”
“Nothing. Least I’m honest.”
“You don’t make any sense.” She hears her voice, faint against the sound of her heart beating crazy. What if she’s got something wrong with her?
Kenny squints at the sky, then back at her, his look almost sedated. “I’m sick of all the lies.” “Tell me one lie I ever told you.” “It ain’t you. Never mind. You don’t get it.” “I get you’re acting crazy. Don’t get above your raising.”
Tires squeal from a distance. Karen’s butterscotch Mustang convertible zooms up.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Ronalda snaps. “Spoiled rotten. I don’t know how they afford it.” She hears the phone ring back in the house. Very like to be Darryl, probably in a rage.
Kenny tumbles down the remaining steps, eager as a puppy for this blond, her hair in bangs, the rest soft cascades falling away from her face. She smiles shyly and wiggles her fingers at Ronalda, other hand on the shift.
Kenny turns at the bottom and says, as if to a child, “This thing’s fuel efficient.”
The phone keeps ringing. Kenny gets in her car; Karen glances at Ronalda, almost apologetic, but then looks ahead as if something important is through that windshield.
They are gone. The thick air makes droplets crawl along her scalp and pool between sagging breasts. She hears the murmur of Diane answering the phone, saying, “It’ll be all right. It’s the age. They rebel. Don’t do that. No. No. Give it a while. Give him time.” Diane’s voice is soft, firm, knowing. “I know. It’s all right.” Ronalda waits, chest tight, waiting for Diane to call, “Ronnie?” But she doesn’t.
Then Diane says with words where you can hear the smile, “You, too.” Soft. Then softer, “Take care.” Words of a smart woman who knows what to say when teen-agers stray. Who isn’t about to faint or scream on this stoop. Words that can be said smooth as liquor to another woman’s husband.
No, not the one friend she has. No! He might, just like a man, but not her. Him last week, July fourth, his whistling good mood as he hovered around Diane at the neighborhood picnic. Their jokes about barbecue and the swine flu, talking about wanting to see All the President’s Men, talk that bored Ronalda to tears. Little things she catches now, suddenly painted loud in stripes of red, white, and blue.
In the yard next door, Diane’s twins skip through the sprinkler, a rotating spray with barely any pressure. The girls are giggling. The water still looks good enough to join them. What if she does? Darryl would say she was a damn show.
“Hey, Mrs. Block!” calls Katie Ann.
“Whatcha doing?” calls Eudora.
Ronalda almost says, Going crazy, but instead: “Hey girls, how you?”
“Come on over, Mrs. Block! We couldn’t get Mama to, but you can! Please!”
Ronalda feels her body moving down the steps, grass tickling her ankles, and sweat pouring from every nook and cranny.
“Yay, she’s coming! Tag, you’re it!”
A small hand stinging her arm but that’s okay, the water’s fine, just a trickle but warm, welcoming, spattering her stiff hair and taut neck and jiggling torso. She chases the girls around and around through dandelions till the crabgrass spins and the brown patches about come up in her face.
“Hahahahahaha!” Eudora is shrieking, pointing at Ronalda’s blouse –the white gone dark and stuck to her bra. Now the neighborhood can see her intimates.
“Learn some respect!” Ronalda yells. She steps on the hose. The sprinkler tilts and shoots into the bushes.
The girls’ faces fall — from evil to crushed. Ronalda stalks around the corner of the house and twists the water off. “Go inside. Get! I’m sending your mama over with a belt!”
The girls scatter.
Ronalda hustles from the yard, hands slammed across her breasts, feeling wild, not right. She bursts through the open door into the foyer and sees Diane like a light at the end of the hallway’s dark tunnel, singing and waltzing Bradford around the yellow kitchen to “Afternoon Delight.” He giggles. The curve of her arm as she twirls, the flash of a red manicure; the woman moves like songs were made for her.
Now Ronalda knows what she knows. It’s true, even if she didn’t find it in a book. She laughs, a cold hard bark, grim as a reaper come due.
She heads to their bedroom – the room that might have been a dining room but he said, What use we got for that? and built a door. It gave them some extra room, but like all things in this house, he is the boss and she cleans up. She squats before the stereo cabinet, pries it open, and yanks out all his LPs. Osborne Brothers, Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, Buck Owens, the records slide across the carpet like a huge deck of cards. What if she broke the George Jones, ripped his smirking face off the cover? Her blouse feels slimy now, like another thick skin.
“Ronnie?” Diane calls from the kitchen, her voice light and breezy. Ronnie, not her name, don’t call her that, even if the other fits like a shoe too tight. “You got a boy’s name,” said Will Hunt, the first day of first grade. “That name’s ugly,” said Betty King, whose daddy owned the supermarket, destroying all hopes of free Bit o’ Honeys. Ronalda went home that day and asked, “Why I got this name?”
“It’s your daddy’s,” said her mother, not mean, but not nice either, just busy.
Ronnie, Diane calls her. Today it seems fake as the Astroturf that makes Darryl so mad, or credit cards, or gas prices. Never mind Diane’s name isn’t real; she once told Ronalda she picked it up when she moved here. Back home she was Harriet.
Ronalda sits down hard. Beneath her bottom, LPs crack. She feels tears. What he said Fourth of July, now it means the world: “Don’t you ever stop long enough to think?”
She’ll stop all right. Stop the nonsense.
Once there were two, supposed to be one; now there are three. Well, then. Where there was one, make it two. Split the beds apart. He may be doing the adding, but she’ll do the subtracting.
She moves to the beds, twins shoved together, since there’s never enough to afford a queen. She squats and yanks one her way, budging it a few inches to this corner, now wrestling with the other, till there’s a small channel between the two. Make it a canyon. Push hers against the window, then his all the way against the wall. Let him come home and see her handiwork. She won’t sleep with him again, not till Gabriel blows his trumpet.
She pictures her son in a girl’s bedroom across town, shy but insistent, slipping inside something he doesn’t understand but will pay for the rest of his life. Fifteen, same as her when she took up with Darryl. Here, back with the grownups, there are no touches, just words and longing glances across a fence. You could write a book about all the feeling trapped inside people’s heads. She’s the only one who picks something and sticks to it. Goes where she’s told. Doesn’t look where she’s not supposed to at a cookout, get led astray by explosions in the sky. At the end of every party is punishment; any fool knows that.
Why is everyone else blurring the lines?
When she looks up, sweating, she sees Diane standing in the doorway, staring at her, Bradford in her arms.
“Ronnie, you okay?” Slow, with a sneer, Ronalda says, “Don’t you got some poetry to read?” The air tightens like a tuned string. Diane’s blue eyes stare bad as Kenny’s.
After a moment, she lays Bradford on Darryl’s bed. He wriggles there like a fat little worm. Diane leaves without a word, that sway in her hips, that tiny waist still there after three, grace she doesn’t deserve.
There is no one here but Ronalda. That must be that women’s lib: go it alone because there’s no one to trust. Just you and a choice of how many feet between the beds, a space where you can wave your arms like crazy, till you take off or fall to the floor.
Printed with permission by Lyn Hawks, copyrighted by Lyn Hawks @ 2009.