“There she is,” a woman cries as she flings open the curtain. “All of us are there with the children,” and points beyond the mosaic tile and then at me. “You were supposed to watch them today.”
I hear a rabble of voices. “That’s right.”
I want to say, “No,” but feel a hand slip over my mouth. Art tips my chin upward and lowers his mouth to kiss me. His breath is sour, rancid. Out of the steaming water, I hear a phone ring. A cake of soap slips out of my hands. Who?
I wrap myself in a towel, reach for the cellphone on top of the closed toilet cover.
“Is this Anna’s mother?”
“Yes.” I recognize Di’s voice, Anna’s sitter. “She’s sick.” Her voice is mildly accusatory. “She’s burning up.”
I pull on my jeans and jump into the car. I remember to blow out the candle. Damn. I wonder if I have Anna’s medicine from the last time she got sick, a bottle that I keep in the cabinet. The doctors say she’s pre-asthmatic. When she gets sick, purplish shadows form beneath her eyes and make her look like a first draft choice for the Adams’ family.
I finally get to Di’s house. I pull into her driveway and run to the back of the building. A brown and orange Thanksgiving turkey is pinned to her door wearing a Pilgrim hat. There’s also a note listing families that are overdue with their monthly payment. Fortunately, our names are not there. Not this time.
“Mommy,” Anna jumps from Di’s lap.
Green gunk is drips from Anna’s nose. I place my hand to her chest and feel her wheezing. “How’s my honey?” I pick her up. She laces her feet around my waist.
“Di pats Anna’s head. “Poor little girl. We didn’t know when Mommy was going to show up, did we?”
When we get back home, Anna gags on her medicine. But the wheezing subsides. She sits on the couch and draws with glitter pens. I sit next to her. We wait for my son Brian and Art to arrive back home.
“It’s a new routine called, “I never make love anymore and it’s written in C,” laughs Julia. She is the programmer I work with, a single mom with a ten year-old daughter. Julia’s been on her own for the past seven years. Her husband died in a freak accident.
I inhale the scent of her Juicy Fruit gum. We’re sitting in her cubicle looking at a flowchart. Her desk is filled with framed pictures of her daughter, Francine, and pots of African violets. Julie is telling me about her weekend.
She said she was on a date at Jack London Square during Fiesta Time, otherwise known as Happy Hour, selecting a variety of tomato, corn, and guacamole chips from the chip buffet. “Then he asked me, have you had the test, and I tell him, honey it’s been so long that I’ve done it with anyone, don’t worry about getting infected.”
“He didn’t feel reassured?” She shook her head. “Don’t worry,” I say sounding motherly. “It’ll work out.”
“You’ve got a husband waiting for you at home every night. Art’s crazy about you. Easy for you to say.”
I look at the flowchart. We’re designing a specialized value-added tax system for a new complex of hotels and an amusement park on the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary. The Hungarians have a different attitude toward money than their American counterparts. Culturally, Americans won’t serve you unless your money us authorized up front by the banks while the Hungarians are okay with cooling their violins until checkout time.
I want to confide in Julie, tell her that Art and I hardly make love anymore, tell her how days and weeks and even months can accumulate before we touch each other. But I don’t.
“Our deadline is in three weeks,” says Julia. “Think we’ll make it?”
In the six years that I’ve been with Hotel Reserve, I’ve always met my deadlines. I specialize in preparing the custom specs and mostly work in the office. But about twice a year, I’m assigned to the field. Derrick steps inside the cubicle. He’s the Sales Manager for European accounts. He wears a silk tie, some Japanese design.
I say, “Love your tie.”
“Bet you tell that to all your salesmen.” We laugh, comfortable flirting with each other. “I hear the big guy wants to send you to Budapest.”
“But why don’t they send Joe instead?” Joe’s the Project Manager who’s assigned to Europe.”
“Joe’s one taco short of a combination and this isn’t the Marriott Hotel we’re talking about. Plus, you’ve designed the customer specs for this value-added tax business and are probably the only one who understands it.” Derrick glances at Julia’s flowchart. He lowers his voice so we both can hear and says, “And I might’ve had something to do with recommending you. I’m tired of looking at Joe’s ugly mug.”
“What about Julia?”
“I like her mug.”
“I’m serious, Derrick. I’ve been talking to this Sandor guy for months now, but Julie’s the one who knows the code. If anything goes wrong, we’ll need her there.”
“I’ll consider it,” he says, and has already turned the corner.
“Double shit!” I blurt out,“ remembering how Anna’s been sick. How can I leave, especially around Thanksgiving? I look out the window to the parking lot. A squirrel climbs down a tree and hangs perpendicular to the sidewalk.
I come home. Anna, nearly three and a half, races me to the toilet.
“Linda, where’d you put my extra set of keys?” Art calls back from the kitchen.
“What’s for dinner?” I call back, sitting on the throne with Anna smiling next to me. Art has is back from his own job administering the county’s free food program. I remove my business suit, and transform myself in the space of two minutes from Linda, the Project Manager, to Linda, the Mom. Anna takes my hand and walks me to the kitchen where Brian, my sixth grader, is eating a peanut butter and jelly.
I tell Art, “We already talked about it. I thought you were cooking tonight.”
“Why can’t we stick to a regular schedule?”
“Because we don’t have regular lives,” I say. “Sometimes my meetings run late. I can’t help it.” Purrfect, our cat, sees an opening and jumps up on the counter to the lick the butter. “Brian, can’t you come up with something for dinner?” My voice sounds desperate.
Anna tugs at my sweatpants. “Wanna color?”
“How ‘bout a soda?” Art asks Bryan, who is well aware of my no-sodas-when-you-get-home-from-school rule.
“That’s okay.” Bryan must’ve seen my eyes flicker, a smart boy. “I’ll drink juice.” He fades into the cabinets on a quest for a clean glass.
“To hell with dinner,” says Art. “Let’s go out to eat.” Anna dumps her shoebox of crayons on the kitchen table. “Mommy, color.”
“Do you remember Monday evening when you cooked and burned the rice and over steamed the vegetables?
I outline a purple circle and color it in red. “But you were tactful enough not to mention it then.”
“There’s several tons worth of rice sitting at the dock and the county can’t find the right paperwork because a bunch of bureaucrats have moved their offices from one place to another; it’s a month before Thanksgiving, hundred of people are out on the street and you want be to be tactful. Geez!”
Anna goes over to Art and gives him a crayon. “But Artie,” I say, feeling more communicative. “We went out for dinner last night.”
“I’m not keeping track.”
Brian sails into the kitchen dressed in his white karate gi. “You don’t have karate tonight,” says Art. “Friday.”
“What day is it? Oh, that’s right.” He disappears to his bedroom.
“Think about it,” says Art, and gives me a quick hug, the kind where we don’t really touch. “And how’s my sweetie?” he says, bending down to meet Anna’s face. “You want Daddy to pour you juice?”
We go out for dinner.
After the kids are asleep, we approach each other from opposite ends of the bed. Art has folded up his pants and shirt into a neat envelope and places them on his chair.
“Wanna watch the news?”
“No.” His stomach has ripened into a paunch. Still, there is something athletic about him, like the way he springs up on the balls of his feet after removing his socks.
“You tired?” We speak in evening shorthand.
He nodes, “It’s a mess. One jurisdiction in the way of the next. And for what? Just to move a bag of rice. And we’re supposed to be feeding people.” Art props up several pillows behind his head. I place my hand on his shoulder. He squeezes my other hand. “I hate bureaucrats.”
He is aware that I am listening. “How’re you doing?”
“They may send me away during Thanksgiving to direct a new installation. Isn’t that great?” He solemnly drinks his beer. “It’s just a rumor.” Art understand rumors. Last year it was rumored that county social services would be cut back twenty-five percent and they were.
“You’re going to tell them no, right?” He presses the beer can against his lips, rolls over on his side and looks at me, hazel eyes lined in red. “Not now,” he says. “There’s too much going on. People are dying in the streets and you want to run off to install a piece of software for some kind of Holiday Inn?”
Our long-time arrangement has been that he maintains the socially correct heart of our marriage and I bring in the money. It’s the Budapest Crème,” I say. “They’re our biggest client.”
“AWOL for Thanksgiving. That’s great.”
I’m ready for him. “Just take the kids to one of your shelters. They can see what you do. I bet Brian would love to serve dinners and maybe Anna can help set the tables. At least the napkins.”
Next morning Cheerios spill all over the table tap. I cajole Anna about what shoes to wear, what dress to wear, what color napkin to place in her lunch box.
“Blue.” I give her a blue one.
She runs around the house and squirts me with her Lego gun and I squirt her with my fingers. She must wear her jellies, a pair of plastic shoes in day-glo orange. If she can’t wear them, she insists, she wants to wear her tap shoes.
“No,” I say. We go through the same thing every morning. “You have to wear your school shoes.”
On to the disaster of her blanket that is soaked with pee and she must hold her blanket before she agrees to have her teeth brushed which is never an easy operation on the best of mornings. She sits on the toilet seat with her finger in her mouth. “Don’t want to go,” she cries. “Don’t want mommy to go.”
“Mommies always come back.” I repeat this mantra several times every morning. Finally we are out the door as Brian and Art wave goodbye to us through the departing Buick window.
Art says, “I’ll call later.” He is wearing the green crewneck that I bought him last year.
“Did you remember your homework?” I call out to Brian.
He groans, “Yeah, Mom.”
I take a deep breath because I’ve made it this far, get into our other car, a red Fiesta wagon, and push in the CD that Anna and I always listen to for the ten-minute ride to the sitters, songs about fish swimming in the ocean.
“Hi squirt.” Di opens the door. Her brown hair is permed into curls. She’s a woman who probably was pretty as a girl, but her features have softened into late-night snacks.
“Wow! Lookit those new red socks.” Anna shows off her red socks that she’d insisted on wearing with her purple flowered pants and striped top. “Whee! What fun, huh?” We walk into Di’s kitchen, warm with the smell of blueberry muffins and coffee. Di pushes a mug my way. I thank her, but explain how I’m running late. I smell something bubbling on the stove.
“Caldo Verde,” she says. “Portuguese soup. Carlston likes it. Come over here, Anna. Want a muffin?”
Di hands out paper plates to the rest of the children. “Okay, it’s muffin time.” She’s been running the daycare center in her home for the past twenty years, a woman my age, 44. Both of her children are grown and out of the house, overseas and stationed in Germany. Carlston, her husband, is the security manager for the apartment building where they live and doubles as backup when Di needs to run errands. Di reaches out to the circle of children. “Lewis, don’t smack Charles in the face. That’s his muffin. If you want something, then ask. Say please.” She turns back to me. Anna is beginning to ease her way into the circle.
She gets up and moves to the kitchen table to pour cups of apple juice.
“Over here, kids,” she says. “Who wants juice?
In the meantime, Di gossips to me about Lewis’ mother. It’s her way of holding all the balloon strings. Sometimes I try to imagine what she says about me. “We’ll probably need you to watch Anna more hours for the next few weeks. I mean, it’s not absolutely sure. My cheeks begin to burn. “Art’s going to be working overtime these next few weeks.”
“I bet,” she says. “I read about that agency mix-up on the morning news. It’s enough to drive a person to drink.” She winks.
“Art doesn’t drink.”
“Didn’t say he did.” She goes to the closet to pull out the vacuum, catches the muffin crumbs as quickly as the kids can drop them on the floor.
“Shut up, baby.” I hear Anna say to one year-old Paula, who is crying.
“Anna, that kind of talk gives the baby oowies.”
Di takes her hand. “Don’t worry,” she says, and navigates Anna back to the circle. “At this age, they all talk like that…So you’re increasing your hours?”
“Only for the next few weeks,” I say. “Plus my job’s sending me overseas for Thanksgiving.”
“You’re not going to be here for Thanksgiving?”
I shake my head.
“Really? I always tell everyone what a good mother you are.”
“This isn’t about being a good mother. It’s about work.”
“Whatever rolls your socks. Just write down Anna’s new hours. Otherwise, I’ll forget.”
I wave goodbye. My babysitter tells me that it’s best to leave quickly to make a smooth transition. This time I don’t.
I stand there crying for something I want to understand.