FEBRUARY 2007 – NO. 12
We Were Lucky with the Rain
The first short story selected by our fourth Guest Fiction Editor, Pauls Toutonghi
Lacey can't resist spying on her parents. She lies flat on the floor, peering through the banister at them arguing downstairs. Her father wants to know where her mother has been and why she didn't pick up Lacey or her little sister, Eileen, this afternoon.
"I was at a party," Lacey's mother throws her purse onto the floor. Only her legs are visible, jutting out from underneath a red dress, roaming around the living room.
"You forget how a telephone works?"
Her mother laughs and bumps into the coffee table, left ankle buckling.
"You're a mess," her father's voice goes up an octave. "You could have killed someone, you know."
"Relax, okay. I left my car at Star Market."
"You can't park there overnight. We'll get towed."
If Lacey tilts her head a certain way, she can see her father's slippers pacing back and forth. She strokes her fraying rope bracelet that she got at her school's Fall Festival. Her fingers always work their way to its soft underside whenever she's waiting for her turn to bat for her softball team or perform in a piano recital.
"I'll go get the car," her father sighs.
"It will be fine."
"It won't be fine. It's not fine." Lacey watches the slippers head towards the front door.
Every Friday, Lacey's mother picks her up after her piano lesson finishes at 4:30. But that afternoon, 4:30 had come and gone, then it was 5:00. Lacey was there through all of Jimmy Hagerty's lesson, and still her mother didn't come. Jimmy Hagerty has a permanently stuffy nose and is in Lacey's sixth grade class for the second time. If someone is going to get beat up at recess, it is usually Jimmy Hagerty.
Lacey waited for her mother out in the hallway on a bench, her back pressed up against the wall of the living room where Mrs. Szabo gave the lessons. She could hear the metronome, Mrs. Szabo counting, "one and two and one and two," and fumbling scales going up and down the piano. The hallway's striped yellow wallpaper was covered with faded photographs. It smelled like Lacey's basement: old furniture and rugs, mold and dust, all mixed together. She pulled out her school notebook and finished up a doodle she'd started during French of Mr. Tibault, the teacher, who always threw chalk at anyone not listening.
Mrs. Hagerty arrived promptly at 5:15 to get Jimmy, her hair pushed back in a pink headband, a tennis skirt bouncing off tan legs. "Where's your mother?" she looked Lacey up and down, then checked herself in the hallway mirror. Lacey shrugged and didn't say anything. "Jimmy hurry up," Mrs. Hagerty shouted at her son, not offering Lacey a ride. He ducked down when he ambled past Lacey, as if she was going to punch him on the way out. "Still no mother?" Mrs. Szabo rushed to the bathroom, in between students.
The next lesson was with a nervous girl shaped like a pencil. She barely looked at Lacey when she arrived, huddled underneath her oversized backpack. Lacey listened to her play Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin. "That girl is going places," Lacey's mother always said. When the girl's father arrived, he had a worried consultation with Mrs. Szabo. The girl stood silently next to Lacey, looking like she might burst into tears, which she did at every recital, her father the only one not clapping.
After they left, Mrs. Szabo asked Lacey if she wanted to call her mother. The phone rang and rang, ten, 11, 12 times. Lacey hung up and returned to the hallway bench while her teacher started dinner. In the living room, the black baby grand was shoved in a corner. During the lessons, Mrs. Szabo always sat next to Lacey on a folding chair, making sure her hands didn't slouch onto the keys, that she sat up straight, back like a board, shoulders down.
Lacey hadn't practiced very much this week — one piece she didn't work on at all — and Mrs. Szabo was annoyed with her. "You've got to put some porridge into it," she'd said, wiping her nose on the Kleenex that was always tucked inside her sweater, resting against her wrists. There was going to be a recital in three weeks and Lacey wasn't close to being ready. Usually she received stars on all her pieces, but this week she got none.
The hallway became a mixture of smells, damp basement, sautéing garlic, baking chicken by the time Mr. Szabo came home. Lacey could hear them discussing her in the kitchen, sometimes slipping into another language. "They're survivors, honey," her mother would say in a hushed voice whenever her little sister wanted to know why they talked so funny. "Mr. will give you a ride home," Mrs. Szabo came out to the hallway. "You must practice an extra half hour each day this week."
As he drove, Mr. Szabo leaned way over the steering wheel and waited a long time at intersections to make sure nothing was coming. Cars honked at every traffic light, and Lacey hoped they wouldn't see anyone from school. "Mrs. tells me you are a good piano player," he said when they arrived in front of her home.
Lacey let herself into the darkened house and turned on all the lights downstairs. She sat in the window seat in the kitchen and waited. The phone rang but Lacey didn't answer it. The only other noise was the stove clock flipping over numbers and an occasional car driving by. Lacey looked at her school bag which was filled with weekend homework. A Jeep turned into the driveway, Neil Young blasting out of the open windows. When Lacey's father opened the kitchen door, he was singing to himself, but stopped at the sight of Lacey alone and the absence of dinner.
"Where's Mom?" he pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose.
"Didn't you have your lesson today?"
"Did your mother pick you up?"
Lacey shook her head. He stood in the middle of the room, running his hands through his starting-to-gray curly hair, which could never seem to find a comfortable place on his head. "What about Eileen?" he asked. "She's not here either?"
"Dad, I don't know where anyone is," Lacey was hungry and worried about the book report she needed to do this weekend, and the algebra test on Monday.
Her father listened to the messages while she went upstairs and ate some crackers and cookies stolen from the kitchen that were stashed away in her bottom drawer. Then she dove onto the bed and looked out the window.
Lacey had chosen the smaller bedroom when they moved here five years ago because it was the only one facing the street. Not only was there a clear view into the homes directly opposite Lacey's, but she could also monitor all pedestrian, pedal and motor activities as well. Usually there wasn't much to look at after dark: people coming home from work; Mr. Dempsy taking out the trash; a dog being walked.
After awhile, a car pulled up in front of their house. Eileen popped out and ran towards her father who was shouting out "thank you" from the front door. Avoiding her school books, she lay down and studied the water stains on the ceiling. Then she heard Eileen bounding up the stairs, before bursting into Lacey's room.
"Mom is in so much trouble," her little sister panted.
"She can't be in trouble, she's Mom, stupid."
"Where is she anyway?" Eileen's hair was in loose braids, leftover from yesterday.
Lacey rolled over onto her stomach and stared at her little sister.
"I had to go to Josh Hartman's house for like forever. I even had to eat dinner there. Everything was green," she pressed her hands against the door frame. "I think I'm going to barf."
Lacey yawned and covered her ears.
"Why are you so mean?"
As a reply, Lacey started humming loudly.
"I. Hate. You!" Eileen slammed the door.
"Eileen, it's time for bed," Lacey's father called up.
Then there was the sounds of Eileen complaining that it wasn't fair she had to go to bed earlier, water running in the bathroom, another door slamming. Lacey pulled Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry out of her bag and started reading it, glancing out the window after every paragraph.
When she had finished two chapters, a taxi stopped in front of the house. Her mother got out and started walking slowly towards the front door, steadying herself as if she were on a boat. Lacey scurried over to the staircase, trying not to make any noise on the wooden floorboards. Downstairs, her father sat in the orange armchair which was stuck in the recline position, parked between the front bay of windows and the TV, reading the newspaper. As soon as her mother opened the door, he stood up.
Lipstick and breath mints spill out of her mother's purse when it hits the floor. Why is her father so focused on the car, Lacey wonders? What kind of party for grown-ups is in the afternoon? Also, her mother never wears red dresses when she goes shopping with Lacey and her sister.
Her mother hates doing errands, especially going to the supermarket. She usually gives Lacey the grocery list and waits in the checkout line reading magazines. If Eileen comes, they each grab a cart and split up the list, racing each other around the store. Their mother buys them each a candy bar after they've finished. "My helper girls," she says when they bag the groceries. But what Lacey really enjoys is walking down all the aisles looking at the variety of pasta, sauces, salad dressing, spices, each item containing the promise of some perfect meal. Whenever she goes next door to her best friend Margaret's house for dinner, they always have visitors, cousins, friends from other countries. Everyone crowds into the kitchen to help. There are always fresh vegetables and herbs, pre-soaked beans, and nothing comes out of a can. Also, Margaret's mother doesn't wear see-through dresses to parents night at school, never calls to ask Margaret if she could put some frozen lasagna in the oven, saying "I'll be home in a minute."
During lunch at school, Lacey and Margaret sit at the edge of the cafeteria, rating everyone for the day while eating their misshapen sandwiches. Sometimes they talk in a secret language around other people. Most weekends are spent daring each other to walk into the woods behind Margaret's house after dark to see who can go the farthest. And spying on their parents. They hide just outside the kitchen, listening to Margaret's parents gossiping about their friends. Or studying Lacey's parents in front of the TV. One time, they saw Lacey's mother dancing alone in the middle of the living room. The music was turned up loud as she held her hair on top of her head with both hands, elbows pointed out, hips swaying back and forth, legs moving up and down. "Your mother is so cool," Margaret had said.
"You think?" Lacey didn't want to keep watching her.
After her father goes to get the car, Lacey gets back in bed and starts reading again. The sound of her mother's footsteps travel up the staircase to the hall. "Can I come in?" she stands in the doorway of Lacey's room, taking off her shoes. Lacey doesn't answer or even look up from her book. Her mother comes in anyway and sits at the end of the bed.
"I'm sorry I didn't pick you up from your piano lesson today," she says. Lacey keeps reading. "Sometimes I get carried away."
After finishing her chapter, Lacey turns off the light and pulls the blankets tightly around herself. Her mother keeps sitting there in the dark looking at her. "You were such a good baby," she smoothes the covers over Lacey, her hand resting on her shoulders. When she was younger, Lacey could only fall asleep if her mother tickled her back. She strokes Lacey's hair, then gets up and walks quietly out of the room, closing the door behind her.
In the morning, Lacey goes down to the kitchen to find her father and Eileen having breakfast together. Usually her father is barricaded behind the paper, but today he just stares ahead at nothing in particular. Eileen is eating pop-tarts, which they are only allowed to have on special occasions like Christmas or during school vacations, but their father doesn't know any better. Lacey warms one up in the toaster, spreads butter on it. She sits across from Eileen, letting each bite linger on her tongue for a minute before chewing.
Her father finishes his coffee and then starts unloading the dishwasher. "I almost forgot. It's Road Trip day," he announces.
"I'm supposed to go to Margaret's," Lacey says quickly.
"But it's Road Trip day," he repeats, a wounded look starting to creep across his face. "Margaret could come too."
"I don't think so, Dad."
Ever since she can remember, her father has designated the first Saturday of the month for family outings that are never fun. He takes them to flea markets in other states, obscure historical landmarks, on long, destination-less hikes. And they wind up getting lost because he gets sidetracked by garden stores and garage sales, buying knickknacks and broken furniture that their mother ends up throwing out six months later. Lacey's mother has long since stopped coming on these excursions, has "Mom alone time" whenever they go off in search of whatever her father is looking for.
"Just go get dressed," he snaps at her. "We'll figure it out then."
Lacey sighs and looks at her little sister who is oblivious to everything before shuffling upstairs to take a shower. While she is getting dressed, Eileen comes into the bedroom.
"Why are you so mean to Dad?"
"I'm not mean," Lacey says.
"You're mean to everyone," Eileen starts looking through the pile of magazines by Lacey's bed.
"You want me to French-braid your hair?"
"Okay," Eileen sits on the bed while Lacey kneels behind her, combing her hair, separating it into three sections, then weaving them together. When they were younger, they used to dress up in their mother's clothes, shoes, jewelry. They'd fish out necklaces and bracelets from their mother's blue, wooden box that was next to a picture of their brother who died when he was three months old. Eileen wasn't born yet and Lacey was only two and she wouldn't even remember him, except for the tiny picture in the silver frame on the bureau.
Downstairs, her father waits for them in the orange chair thumbing through his well-worn guidebook to everything from parks and monuments to the World's Largest Ball of String and Car-Henge, a replica of Stonehenge. "There's an alligator farm only about an hour away from here," he doesn't look up from the book. "It sounds great. And we could hit the outlets on the way home."
"But what about Margaret?"
"I've already called her mother. She said Margaret has a softball game today. You can go over there when we get home. They're going to the movies later."
Lacey groans and goes outside. Early morning dew still covers the ground and it smells like fresh cut grass. She hopes no one sees her sitting there in front of the house.
Next door, Margaret's driveway is empty. She has three sisters, and the whole neighborhood is always in their backyard. On warm spring evenings when Lacey's practicing the piano, she can hear them all laughing as the sun starts to disappear, Lacey inside, alone with her music books.
By the time they are ready to leave, there is still no sign of their mother, except for the sound of the toilet flushing in the bathroom upstairs while they were having breakfast. Lacey ducks her head down when they turn off their street and head onto Woodbine Ave. Osco Drug is right on the corner where people go after school to steal candy bars, skateboard in the parking lot, maybe even smoke a cigarette. But fortunately, no one is there right now.
Eileen had insisted on sitting in the front seat so she could be in charge of the music. But she just keeps changing radio stations, and finally their father puts on his Neil Young tape. "It's not fair," Eileen whines.
It starts to rain. Lacey looks out the window as they hurdle past the Burlington mall, the Woburn mall, a state liquor store, discount furniture warehouse. Gradually the landscape gives way to trees, hills even an occasional farm as they head further and further into the countryside.
They used to go camping near here at the end of every summer with the Stralands who Lacey has known her whole life and a few other families. Lacey's mother would sit on a plastic lawn chair near the tent all day, reading magazines, her hair pulled back in a bandana, while Lacey's father took them on hikes or wading in nearby creeks. In the evening, they would eat burnt hot dogs or clotted spaghetti on a picnic table, brush their teeth in a vast cement bathroom with only cold running water. Then Lacey and Eileen would lie curled together in a tent, listening to their parents drinking around the campfire with the other grownups and fall asleep to the sound of their laughter. Two summers ago, they camped by a lake and Lacey and Eileen went swimming every morning with their father and an inflatable tire. One day, Lacey didn't feel well so she came back early to find her mother on Mr. Straland's lap, kissing, his hand inside her shirt. As soon as Lacey saw them, she ran to the bathrooms. When she came out, Mr. Straland was gone. She walked past her mother, sitting on a tree stump, her back to Lacey, and headed for the beach, where her father was spinning Eileen around in the water. Later that evening they made s'mores and her mother slipped her an extra chocolate bar when Eileen wasn't looking.
It takes nearly two hours to get to the alligator farm, but the rain subsides by the time they arrive. Lacey feels slightly car sick as they walk across the empty, wet parking lot. It has just opened for the day. Lacey's father rushes up to the entrance booth, shouting out "hello there" to the man sitting behind the desk. He is sucked back in his chair, burrowed deep beneath a worn-out baseball hat, so faded you can't even read the name of a team on it anymore. Taking the money, he doesn't say anything, just shoves a brochure and change back. "Thanks, Hank," her father says, referring to his name tag. Hank looks like if he had a gun on him right now, he would use it.
Lacey and Eileen dodge puddles as they try to keep up with their father. "Girls, come take a look at this," he indicates a hissing bobcat, taking up almost the entire cage. "Isn't that something?" They walk around past a molten owl, two foxes sprawled across a small, filthy cage, a panther. There are no signs on anything, just a soggy animal penned in behind wire mesh that smells like an outhouse with barely enough room to even turn around, gnawed chicken bones in the corner. No one else is in the whole place. It looks temporary, like a summer fairground that could be packed up in an hour before moving onto the next town.
Then they come upon the alligator pits, five concrete fenced-in areas. Each one has a watering hole, a trough, and a pile of hay in a corner, and looks better suited for a pig.
"You know the difference between a crocodile and an alligator?" their father reads from the brochure. Eileen and Lacey ignore him. "It says here that the alligator is part of the crocodile family, but that the snout of the alligator is shorter and blunter than the crocodile."
Lacey looks at her watch and tries to calculate how many more minutes it will be until she is at Margaret's house.
They watch an alligator walk towards the water and slide itself in.
"This is boring," Eileen says. "I'm hungry."
"Let's go have a look at the other ones," their father steers them towards the rest of the alligators. One has duct tape wrapped around a foot. Another one is missing an eye.
"Daaady, I'm hungry," Eileen whines again.
"Okay, okay. I heard you," he fishes around in his backpack and pulls out the camera. "I just want to get a picture of you girls for your mom. She's going to be sorry she missed this."
As they stand next to each other, waiting while their father tries to focus, it starts to rain again. They head for cover, an overhang near the panther, and crowd together, trying to stay dry.
"We better just run for it," their father says. Their shoes squelch as they hurry back past all the cages.
By the time they reach the Jeep, they are completely soaked. There are still no other cars in the parking lot. Lacey dives into the front seat before Eileen can get in, but she doesn't even say anything, just slides into the back.
"Wasn't that great, girls," Lacey's father dries his glasses off with the inside of his shirt.
"It was totally awful," Lacey takes off her wet shoes and socks, her toes red with cold.
"It was totally interesting," he reaches for the glove compartment and pulls out his diner guidebook. "Let's find somewhere good for lunch.
""I'm not even hungry anymore. I think I'm going to barf," Eileen shakes out her wet hair.
After consulting various books and the road atlas, Lacey's father decides on a different route home that will not only take them through a mountain range, but should also lead to a pancake place and finally, the outlets.
"Fine," Eileen scowls and lies down.
Lacey thinks that if she could just wake up a little bit more, she'd remember her mother on these trips. Was she there when they went to the mock Pilgrim village? Or the Shaker furniture factory? The last time Lacey can definitely picture her being with them was when they went apple picking, but that must have been at least two years ago.
It is raining so hard now, Lacey can barely make out the ski area and a river that they drive past. Somehow they wind up heading into another state and then onto a different freeway for several exits before her father realizes they are still going the wrong way. They pass a sign that says "Scenic View 1 Mile" and her father pulls into it.
While he checks the road atlas, Lacey realizes he has started to cry. First it is just a few tears trickling down his face. Then stifled weeping. But it just keeps coming and coming. "Crescendo," Mrs. Szabo would say if it was a piece of music.
"She doesn't, she doesn't," he whispers to himself, crumpling over the steering wheel and burying his head in folded arms. His shoulders shake as he sobs. Lacey has never seen a grown-up cry this hard. Glancing at Eileen in the rearview mirror, whose eyes are bulged out, she wills her little sister not to say anything.
Lacey looks straight ahead, winding a strand of hair around and around her finger. Rain pelts the car as the windshield wipers flap back and forth. She closes her eyes and rests her head against the window, her cheek sticking slightly to the cool glass. Hot, thick air blasts in from the vents on the dashboard.
Finally, her father stops crying. He wipes his face, breathes deeply with his eyes closed, and counts out loud to ten. "Okay, okay, okay," he says as if he were alone before turning on the radio.
"I think we'll just go straight home," he pats Lacey on her knee, then shifts into reverse. "We were lucky with the rain, weren't we?"
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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