by Tally Brennan
"Come on, Daphne," Lisa urges. "Your mother's waiting. I'm dying to meet her."
"Don't get excited." I duck Lisa's kiss and haul myself out of the car. "She won't be here." I reach around the jam of the garage door. My hand falls on the light switch. Bright space leaps away from me toward the distant back wall. "See? No car." I dissolve into the familiar trance, swimming through smells of damp cement, gasoline, earth mold, garbage to the shelf of old flower pots where I know she hides the key. Unless she moved it. Lisa, burdened with both duffles, presses my reluctance from behind, pushes me into the deserted kitchen.
"Where do I put these bags?"
"Anyplace. My mother will decide where we're sleeping."
"She does know that we sleep together?"
Before I can answer, gravel-grind announces her. An electric click of warning. The motor growls. The garage door rattles up. Twelve cylinders roar, being revved in that confined space.
The kitchen door bursts open and she's here, my mother, Virginia, clutching a grocery bag, looking up me. How old she is, my mother. I'm shocked by white hair, skin pleated over shrunken bones.
Undaunted, she surges into the room, drops her load on the table, holds out her hand. "I'm Virginia." I watch her assess Lisa's black designer pants and tunic, her boots, her shining, expensively cut black hair. My own faded t-shirt and torn jeans are condemned by implication.
Lisa cradles Virginia's hand in both of hers. "I've been looking forward to this." Her teeth gleam white against the deep rose blush beneath her olive skin. "Daphne and I are about to commit ourselves to a mortgage. Joint tenants in common. That's as close to marriage as we can get in this state. Of course I wanted to meet my mother-in-law."
Lisa's smile, her blinding candor are thrown away. Virginia turns and plunges both arms into the grocery bag. "Your necklace is very attractive. Antique, isn't it?"
"It belonged to my mother," Lisa says to Virginia's back. "Both my parents are dead, killed in a car crash when I was two." She catches up the open-work medallion, presses it to her heart. "My grandmother raised me. She passed away three years ago."
"Madonna and child," I point out. "Florentine."
"I had to bring Daphne up without her father. As I'm sure you've heard." Virginia takes an audible breath and makes herself face us. "I must apologize for not being here. I suddenly realized I had nothing to feed you girls. I never eat myself. I've completely lost my appetite. I hope you're not one of those people who hates lamb, Lisa. I saw this darling little leg of lamb. And the left-overs will make a nice curry. Get me the small roasting pan, Daphne. It's in the cabinet under the microwave, where it always was."
Still wearing her tweed coat and matching hat, Virginia unwraps the bloody butcher's paper, transfers the meat to the pan, ritually sprinkles pepper and salt. She opens the cabinet above the stove and cranes her neck. "Daph, reach me down the rosemary. I've gotten so short, I can't find anything up there." She steps back, close beside me, and raises her arm. I duck. But now her hand, fingers wiggling to direct the search, barely comes to my elbow. Osteoporosis? I picture an X-ray of thinning bones. I can almost hear the crash, see her lying helpless and broken on this cold tile floor. A shiver of fear runs down my sides from my armpits. "There. Now go get the rest of the bags out of the car like a good girl."
The roast slides in. The oven door slams. "Does that say 350, Lisa? No, Daph, don't you put the canned goods away. I can never find anything after you've been here. Not that it's a frequent occurrence."
She stumps out to the front hall to shed her hat and coat, her silk scarf. "Would you like a drink, Lisa?" she calls. "You must be exhausted after that long drive. Look in the liquor cabinet and find what you like. I bought some beer for you, Daphne, but it never got into the fridge. Put a couple of ice cubes in your glass." In Virginia's absence, Lisa's eyes seek mine, but communion is cut short. "What are these suitcases doing in the middle of the floor? Take Lisa's into the guest room, Daphne. You can sleep in your old room. I put in a sofa bed when I had it redone."
"Was that Daphne's bedroom when she was a little girl? I really want to see it, and the baby pictures and the first pair of shoes. Tour the hometown. The whole formative bit." Lisa tosses me a smile of reassurance.
"It's my junk room now," Virginia insists, her footsteps rapping smartly back to the kitchen, the stacked heels of her pumps defining boundaries, claiming her territory. "Daphne's stuff got tossed years ago." She fluffs her thin, hat-crushed hair. "Billy Jean and Martina posters. Pictures of little girls with big rackets. Trophies. Dozens of them. All for runner-up." My fists are jammed into my pockets, my elbows locked, pushing my shoulders up around my ears. I'm a spectator here, completely disengaged. "We thought Daphne was going to be good. She had the ground strokes, the foot-speed, quick hands at net. She even had a decent serve." Virginia has Lisa cornered between the powder room door and the liquor closet. "No matter what coach I put her with or what the coaches said, Daphne could not close out a match. Even against a weaker player. She lacked the killer instinct."
"Daphne and I are taking a boxing class at her gym." Lisa pulls out bottle after bottle to examine the labels. "I've got a lot of respect for her speed and coordination."
"Boxing?" Virginia sniffs. "Girls?" She shakes her permanent curls. "That's ridiculous. What's that you have there? Tequila? The one with the worm? I have no idea where that came from. Somebody from the book club probably left it."
"No worms," Lisa assures her. "Not in tequila. Mescal, maybe. Do you have a blender? I could make my famous available-material margaritas."
"Somewhere over the refrigerator." Virginia is forced to back off and let Lisa pass. "Those are pitiful-looking limes. Do you have to use them? I did serviche a couple of weeks ago for my church group." Potatoes, puckered and sprouting, bounce noisily in the sink. Virginia brushes aside my offer to peel them. "You didn't put those beers in the freezer, Daphne! If they blow up in there, I'll kill you. I hate that brewery smell." She bangs a sauce pan down on a burner. "I would have had a dinner party for you girls, but you know yourself, Daph, you never want to see anyone. You run in and you run out. Daphne is so antisocial,"she complains to Lisa. "She's never been to a high school reunion. Her own cousins wouldn't recognize her if they passed her on the street."
Fearless Lisa empties ice trays, opens and closes cabinet doors. She finds glasses, rinses them. Pulverizes the ice. The pitcher is emptied with a flourish, filling three glasses precisely to the brim.
"Oh," Virginia breathes. "Those are water goblets. They're Baccarat. They were my grandmother's."
Lisa examines them, the tray raised to eye level. "They're lovely," she agrees, with innocent appreciation.
"I do have some lovely things." Virginia's agitation keeps the tray aloft. "Handed down from generation to generation. When I'm gone, some soup kitchen will get them." Virginia rescues one glass from the tray, and bends, in apprehension, to sip. Her eyes widen. "Very nice. You have a fine hand."
"I'm a graduate mixologist."
Virginia eyebrows shoot up. My hopes rise. "A bartender?" Virginia's hand seeks the comfort of her pearls.
"Former bartender." Heedless Lisa squanders our advantage. "I needed the cash and the comic relief while I was in law school."
"I guess Daphne did tell me that," Virginia admits. "You're a prosecutor."
"For the time being," Lisa says.
Herded toward the library, Lisa barely glances at the gilt-framed portraits, but pauses in front of the book shelves to pick up and put down snapshots framed in wood, silver, ceramic, leather. Photos of cousins and cousins' children, family vacations, holidays, weddings, christenings, funerals. All the family orphaned Lisa longs for and might find with a different partner. Brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. A new mother.
"My father was a litigator. And my husband." Virginia shucks off her shoes and lifts her legs onto the couch. "Civil, of course." She assumes her pose, collapsed against the cushions, a leftover from her repertoire of seduction. "They're both dead, now, and I'm being prosecuted. For an expired inspection sticker." She sighs the sigh of the oppressed. "A state trooper stopped me. He looked like a high-school kid. I can't believe he gave me a ticket." Her eyes widen. Shock. Abused innocence. "I just had the car in for an oil change. Shouldn't my mechanic have checked that? I could give him such a smack, that Mike." She drops her chin on her chest. "Now I have to appear before a justice of the peace in Collierville on Wednesday."
"I wouldn't worry," Lisa says gently. "Just get the car inspected before you go. The objective is safety, not punishment."
Virginia is taken aback. "Don't be ridiculous." Determination brings her upright. "They're not bringing me all the way down there just to let me go scot free."
"Even a JP can tell the difference between a scofflaw and someone who's just forgetful," Lisa assures her. "You don't have any outstanding warrants? Unpaid parking tickets? Points on your license?" Lisa leans forward, concerned, ready to counsel, ready to come to the defense of a defenseless little old lady.
"I do not." Virginia raises her chin. Her brightly reddened lip rolls over in a pout. "I respect the law. I don't require special consideration. Violators deserve to be punished," she announces with dignity. "I assume you agree with me, Lisa, since you're a prosecutor."
"My boss certainly does." Lisa's voice drops into depths of troubled introspection. "I handle crimes against women and children. That usually involves family." I bite my lip to forestall what is coming. Lisa ignores me, determined to make her own way here. "Locking people up is seldom the best solution for family problems." The pain in her voice is like sonar, locating for Virginia the vulnerable place, the place to strike. "My boss is up for reelection," Lisa says. "He's looking for convictions. I may not be a prosecutor much longer."
"I would never want a woman as a lawyer." Virginia's voice is acid with disdain. "In a crisis, they go soft. The same with a doctor. Or a priest. They ordain women in the Episcopal church these days, but if one were assigned to Trinity, I'd walk right out. You're Italian, aren't you Lisa? That makes you a Catholic, I suppose. That's one thing I admire about the Pope. He has stood his ground on ordination of women. I know it's not fashionable to say so, but I could never put my faith in a woman."
Lisa says nothing.
"Well," Virginia plunges in to choke off the lengthening silence, "this way you won't end up like Daphne's father, working yourself to death at an early age. Don't just sit there, Daphne. Get those suitcases out of the dining room the way I told you. Then you can set the table."
"I'll give you a hand," Lisa says quickly.
I give her one of the duffles and lead the way to the guest room where one of the two twin beds is turned down, one set of towels laid out on the arm of one upholstered chair, the lamp on one bedside table lit. "You see? Didn't I tell you?"
Lisa closes the door. "Don't bait her," she cautions, sliding her arms around my waist.
"Why won't you believe me? This isn't a game. She means what she says."
"She's your mother," Lisa croons in her sexy, ex-smoker's contralto. "You're not going to change her."
"The question is, will she change me?"
"Would that be all bad?" Lisa laughs.
I pull away from her arms.
"Don't be so prickly. This is hard for her." She hugs me close, whispering in my ear. "Her life hasn't turned out the way she expected." The bristle of shaved hair at the nape of my neck stands up. She gives my ear lobe a nip. "She's old. She's alone. She's afraid she's going to lose you." Her tongue thrusts into my ear. "She's being very nice to me."
"Just watch your back. She's a killer."
Lisa's laughter explodes. "She'll calm down. We'll all live happily ever after." She spins me around and we fall together, Lisa on top, across the bed. "See? There's plenty of room for two."
I look up into Lisa's eyes. Her mouth curls at the corners and she takes my face between her hands.
"Lisa!" Virginia's voice cuts through the closed door. "Come help me, will you? I need you to choose a wine for dinner."
I roll out from under, jump to my feet, open the door. She's there, clutching bottles by their necks. "Red or white?" she demands.
I move aside and hold the door open for Lisa to leave.
"I hope you'll eat your lamb pinkish, Lisa." Virginia, standing, leans with her weight on the bone-handled carving fork, to impale the slippery roast. "I may have underestimated the cooking time." Lisa watches her saw away at the blood-rare meat in silence. "Did you say what you wanted to drink? There's half a bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge, left over from the theater club dinner. We won't open a new one unless you really want the red."
Lisa laughs, her amusement unconcealed. Lisa gets it. Finally. I feel a surge of hope. "I'll have one of Daphne's frozen beers," she says.
"If those cans exploded in my freezer, Daphne," Virginia warns, spooning peas onto Lisa's plate, "you are dead meat."
I rush to the kitchen and yank open the freezer door. The cans are dangerously domed but intact. What's still liquid is pure alcohol. Anesthesia, for Lisa, who feels no pain, who is determined not to fight back. All three cans won't fill an eight-ounce glass. I leave the slush in the sink to thaw and pour a glass of the re-corked Chardonnay. For myself, a wine glass full of tequila. An extra slug, straight from the bottle, goes burning down my throat and I'm convulsed. Hacking, gasping, wheezing, weeping, I smother my face in a damp dishtowel. Smeared with tears and snot, I listen to the voices from the dining room as they intertwine, Lisa's steady reassurance softly swaddling Virginia's staccato complaint, as if with patience, Virginia can be tamed.
"Have you considered, " Virginia is saying, "whether you can count on Daphne to carry that mortgage? Assuming you're let go." Stiff-kneed with reluctance, I return to rescue Lisa.
She can't spare a hand to take the beer. Lisa's using both to steady the platter that skitters under Virginia's attack "I'm sure I'll find a job." Her earnestness is exposed as she looks up into Virginia's face. "What I'd like is some sort of women's advocacy. Child protection. Welfare rights. Sexual minorities."
"Jesus." I put the beer glass down at a safe distance from Lisa's elbow and slide into the chair opposite her. Under the table, I grind the knuckles of my left hand with the strength of my right, trying with pain to short-circuit Lisa's candor.
"I really respect what Daphne does. That's how we met, you know, at a hearing." Lisa's eyes open wide, to signal significance. The Kodak moment. The Hallmark occasion. "I was taping testimony because the witnesses were children. And there was Daphne"—a pause, to wring the drama of its last drops of sentiment—"the social worker assigned to protect them from me."
I'm chilled by recognition. This is Virginia all over again. Why did I never see it? Emotion enacted, expectations defined by the conventions of tv sitcoms. Happily ever after. A vision of technicolor bliss they would realize, if only I were a different person.
"Daphne was so gentle with those kids, so maternal." Lisa beams at Virginia. "I fell instantly in love."
Virginia is stopped in her tracks. "A social worker? You would abandon the law for social work?" The carvers are suspended. "The world doesn't need another bleeding heart. Take it from me," Virginia insists, "nature will prevail. In nature," she points the knife at the darkness outside the patio door, "the weak perish. That's nature's way of protecting the gene pool. So the species will survive." She spears a potato, forks it onto her plate.
"How fortunate for me that you were never one of the weak," I snap.
"Don't be snide." Virginia lowers herself into her chair and unfolds her napkin across her lap. "Lisa knows what I mean, don't you Lisa?" She lays her hand on Lisa's wrist, lets it linger.
Lisa covers Virginia's hand with her own. I can feel the warmth of that impulsive squeeze. "This is a lovely dinner you prepared for us. And such beautiful china. Are the plates heirlooms too?"
I realize that I'm biting the inside of my cheek only when I taste blood.
"A wedding present." Virginia takes back her hand and picks up her knife. She fingers the handle nervously. "Tell me this." She leans toward Lisa. Her sharp-bladed shoulders tense under her sweater, like a cat getting ready to pounce. "What makes you think people can be changed? With all her degrees, Daphne can't stop twelve-year-olds from having babies, even though they've seen their own mothers' lives destroyed. How do you explain that?"
Lisa exposes the tender flesh beneath her chin as she tilts her head. Her eyebrows rise in compassionate peaks. "They think," she tells Virginia seriously, "when they have a baby, they'll have someone to love them."
"The more fools they!"
Vehemence shocks the air. It reverberates with numberless unspecified grievances. Lisa's eyes widen. Her impressionable lips open. She turns to me. I recognize my cue. But I refuse to surrender.
The pressure of bruised silence defeats her. Lisa squares around to take the burden on herself. "Parenting is never easy. Daphne and I know that. We have a lot to consider, now that we're talking about having a child."
I aim a kick at her under the table. My Converse high-top connects with a wooden leg. The table lurches.
"Child?" Virginia pinches the foot of her wine glass between forked fingers to still its rocking. "What child?" she demands.
"Our child." I leap into the fray. "Lisa's and mine."
"Daphne!" Lisa breathes. "Really? Seriously? Are you ready?"
"That's not possible," Virginia says.
"Of course it is," I inform her. "You buy a turkey baster at the dollar store and solicit donations. Or shop for sperm in some fertility clinic's stud book. Motherhood doesn't require a license, although obviously it should."
"Don't be ridiculous." Virginia lets go of her glass and gropes for the reassurance of pearls. Her lips are pursed. Red-caked islands of glamor are eroded by runnels of naked old age.
"You're right." I smile, happy to agree. "It's absurd. But any problems that crop up can be smoothed out with the right fabric softener."
"Daphne is just trying to upset me." Virginia leans confidentially toward Lisa, excluding me from this conversation of adult with rational adult. "Even if you were to conceive, you have no idea what it means, raising a child by yourself. There was a case in town here. I don't suppose you know it. It was years ago, before your time. The woman was driven beyond control. She was washing dishes. Children squabbling under foot. She had a skillet in her hand." Virginia raised her arm, her fist clenched on the imaginary handle. I envision, as I always do at this point in the narration, cold, hard, heavy, black cast iron. "She just reached over and whacked one." Virginia's arm shoots out. I flinch. "He died. They put her on trial for murder." Virginia glared at me. My involuntary reflex has betrayed us both. Our shame is now public. "I could understand that woman perfectly," Virginia says.
I let my held breath go in a sigh of vindication. I lift my eyes triumphantly to Lisa's and am impaled on her smile.
"Of course I wouldn't attempt it alone. Daphne and I would both have to want it." Lisa reaches across the table, holds out her hand to me. Her square, honest, capable hand that wears my ring. I throw myself back in my chair.
"Obviously," Virginia says, "you don't know Daphne very well as you think you do."
As Lisa's hand retreats, it leaves a smudged trail across the gleaming expanse of tabletop. Her fingers close around the silver medallion and press it to her heart. The links of the chain toppled into chaos. Towers, angels, gaunt gothic saints tumbled out of plumb, deprived of the straitening weight of mother and child. Lisa's forehead furrows. She examines me. Not with anger. That I would understand. But with bafflement.
"Well, I've had enough." Virginia's knife and fork are laid carefully across the back of her plate. She raises herself on the arms of her chair and shoves it back. "I hope you like spice cake, Lisa." She picks up the platter. "I made it because it's Daphne's favorite. At least it was. I had thought we'd have a little birthday celebration. Belatedly." As she turns to sweep from the room, she totters, threatening to collapse. Lisa leaps to her feet, jolting the table as she lunges, arm outstretched, to save my mother who grabs the corner of the sideboard and steadies herself. Bravely she goes, white head high, through the swinging door into the kitchen.
I blot the puddle of spilled wine with a napkin, ignoring the tingling in my wrists, the remains of a panicked adrenalin rush. Lisa massages her thighs where they'd caught the table edge. I shake off a twinge of sympathy. Lisa has earned her pain. She brought it on herself in her gallant rush to rescue Virginia from danger, a danger that Virginia obviously staged.
Under the kitchen faucet, I scrape the untouched lamb from my plate. Lisa has swallowed hers. I flip on the garbage disposal. Its blades chew stumps of birthday candles, drowning out the voices from the diningroom. I load glasses, silverware into the dishwasher. I have time to begin on the roasting pan, sprinkling the blackened bottom with cleanser and scouring it with the palm of my hand, before Virginia appears, sets the ravaged cake down at my elbow.
"Can't you use a sponge? You know I hate to see you do that. It sets my teeth on edge. The rubber gloves are right there under your nose. And the hand cream is next to the soap.
"I don't need it."
"You think you're so tough."
I go on scrubbing, the gritty grind under my palm amplified by the hollow of the inverted pan. "I am so tough. What doesn't kill us makes us strong."
"Poor baby." Virginia's voice was acid with derision. "Such a hard life." Her breathing is audible, as if the muscles of her chest have to work harder against the constriction of anger. "You have no idea how hard life can be." She pauses, but she's moving too fast to stop. "What kind of mother do you think you'd make?"
I grip the edge of the sink and answer her through clenched teeth. "Tough. What else?"
"Of course," Virginia is hissing, goaded by fury she can't contain. "A tough little lady boxer. Well, let's see how tough you are." She waves white-knuckled fists mockingly. "Put up your dukes."
I face her and put up my hands, red, wet hands, loosely clenched, to protect my head, the way I've been taught. I can't help grinning at the absurdity as I circle. Even in my crouch, I loom over her. Suddenly Virginia understands. She jerks her head back. Her eyes dart everywhere, looking for rescue. I dance around her, throwing my upper body from side to side. I feint with my left and press forward behind its threat.
Step by step she retreats until she is halted, trapped against the refrigerator door, her eyes and mouth and nostrils wide with panic. She shrinks inside her cashmere sweater.
Now I'm laughing. This is a joke. Virginia is actually scared. She expects a beating. Even as she would have delivered one, if she could. To punish me. To rid the earth of me. In spite of all I know, my feelings are hurt. My own mother assumes I'm going to exact revenge, now that she's old and vulnerable. My own mother believes I'm a bully. In defense of my honor, I drop my hands and stand back.
Virginia lunges. Her arm comes up, swinging, and lands a roundhouse blow to the side of my head.
I am staggered. Ear ringing, vision blurred, rocked by treachery, at the same time, I'm flooded with relief. At last, something true is acknowledged. We have touched the marrow of our connection, familiar and deeply real, in a way no one else can share. Through a haze of tears, I see her ruffle up, grow big with defiance. Old she may be, but Virginia means to put up a fight. Virginia is going to survive.
"So," I say.
"So," Lisa's voice echoes. I turn and see Lisa standing in the doorway, a coffee cup and saucer in each hand.
"She made me do it," Virginia insists, not taking her eyes off me, threatening worse to come. "Whatever Daphne can do to infuriate me, she does. Since she was a little girl, she never loved me. Never."
"Is that what you want? Daphne to love you?"
Sympathy takes Virginia by surprise. Her gaze slides warily toward Lisa then back to me. "Of course," she quavers. "Isn't that normal?" Her outrage reignites. "I did the best I could for her. Daphne thinks only about herself." Her voice dwindles to a whisper. "She's incapable of love."
"I hope that isn't true. Daphne, give your mom a hug."
"Come on. Put your arms around her." Lisa's opaque black eyes are leveled like the barrels of a shotgun. I freeze. My pretensions evaporate. Lisa sees now that Virginia is right. I have nothing to give. I will never be the person she imagined. That possibility is dead within me, shriveled, bloodless, stillborn. My hands are held out, empty, for Lisa to see. Virginia steps forward into my arms. I find myself hugging my mother's meatless bones.
Lisa smiles encouragement. "Now you, Virginia."
Virginia turns her shocked face away from Lisa's view. Her lips draw back from clenched teeth. The stringy cords are pulled taut in her neck Her hands flutter and find a perch at my waist. We stand there, attached by stiffly extended arms.
Lisa slides the coffee cups clattering onto the counter and bounds forward to embrace us, squeezing the space from our reluctance. Virginia, thrown off balance, topples. Clinging to me, she falls against the refrigerator door. I throw up my hand, cupped behind her head, to keep her frailty from being crushed against cold steel. Lisa collapses on top of us.
"Get off, Daphne, you lummox!" Virginia gasps. "Do you want to kill me?"
"Virginia!" Lisa, riding my back, tightens her grip around us both. "Can't you see that Daphne loves you?"
"She hates me." Virginia goes limp, a sack of bone hanging heavily on my arm. I strain to support them both until I can figure out how to let go.
Tally Breannan is a recovering computer programmer, liberated by technological change, happy to be emerging as a writer of fiction. Her stories have appeared or are scheduled for publication in journals, including Rosebud, 13th Moon, PMS/Poem, Memoir, Story, and Room of One’s Own.
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