Hotbedby Shelley Stenhouse
I slouch next to the pool in my bathing suit. It shows off my spider body. My straps fall as I hunch over my knitting, or crochet small flat clothes for my troll children. My blonde ponytail drips a thin steady line down the middle of my curved back. The water smells like a hospital: urgent, sinister. I listen to everything from my perch on the redwood lawn chair. Its splashy-flowered all-weather cushions stick to the backs of my legs. The patio turns my toes black. The contractor didn’t seal it right so it bleeds black all over people’s toes and the soles of their feet.
High in the cherry tree, on the strip of yard the pool didn’t eat, sits the tree house Mother built with the grocery boy. But the crabby old man across the alley made off with our ladder so there’s no way to get up there now. It’s too far to climb from the top branch, even when you brace your feet on the knot.
Past our fence, I can see the unreal green grass of the golf course. Sometimes balls fly into the yard and Todd and I pull them apart like medical students. Inside the white pocked exteriors, their rubbery brains are dense and intricate.
Our pool is a hotbed of activity.
Bert Miller, the next-door neighbor, walks over every day on his shapely hairless legs, wearing tight white trunks I can see through when they’re wet. He smokes a pipe and drives a Volkswagen bug. He always says "Hi gang," even if I’m the only one around when he and his twin daughters invade our pool.
His wife is a religious fanatic who sings hymns early in the morning. Shall we gather at the river? We never see her. She doesn’t approve of the goings-on at the pool. She says we will all be going to Hell. My mother says Heaven and Hell are right here on earth.
Kitty Riley, "Kee-kee," is the Catholic who lives next door to the Millers. Everyday she brings her three daughters over to swim. Kee-kee’s husband Marvin is a professional bowler; he’s never around, except for a quick dip once a week. Occasionally he joins Kee-kee for a Manhattan. Kee-kee always drinks Manhattans. They are the same color as her living room, a rusty brown. Mother says she likes a dry vodka martini, although what she really likes is straight vodka. She’s always worried there’s too much vermouth, even when I don’t put any in.
When I want attention from my mother, I stand up, curl my toes under and stomp them hard on the black patio, leaning into my left hip. "Sandy, stop doing that St. Vitus’ dance," she says.
My brother Todd won’t mix Mom’s drinks. He doesn’t want to be involved, but I know she’ll put more vodka in if she mixes them, so I do it for her. Todd builds models in his room and does all his homework, like a goodie-goodie. He’s avoiding the pool scene. He only comes out here at night, late, after everyone has left. He squirts lighter fluid all over his freshly built ship, lights it on fire, launches it, and we watch it explode. They look beautiful in the pool, the plastic parts all lit up, fireworks for those few seconds before they sizzle and die, floating on the pool surface like gray ice.
Mother tells stories all day. She’s a sit-com that’s run too many seasons; the scenes are elongated, the laughs underlined. But brilliant moments sometimes appear, like prisoners let out in the sun. I can almost see them blink at the unfamiliarity of this setting, the pool, these people. They are shy and out of place.
Mother says it’s too nerve-wracking to wait for Mabel to mix drinks. Mabel is our maid. She’s very fat and moves slowly. "Hell could freeze over first," Mom says. "Freshen me up, little Jim." I am a small mirage of my father. She sees him in me for a second, then I’m just a skinny ten-year-old again.
She’s been drawing on her drink napkin. Three small stick figures sitting around a picnic table. Sandy, Todd and Ginger. Our house stands in the background, a happy swirl of smoke rising from its chimney, its windows square blank eyes. The pool below looks like an astonished mouth. Off to the side, a tall figure—"Me!"—leans over a lightning-bolt-shaped chasm she drew so furiously her ballpoint pen dug a hole in the paper. "ABYSS" she wrote in large capital letters at the top and underlined it three times.
"Cute, Barb," Bert says, getting up to do his laps. Kee-kee and Bert sit all day on our lawn chairs, drinking Mom’s liquor, enjoying the pool. Bert comes out of the water with his balls showing, a dark shadow at the bottom of those white trunks. No one seems to notice but me. He has never liked me. He knows I know what he does with Mother and Kee-kee in the kitchen late at night. One time I went downstairs for some ice water and caught Bert kissing Kee-kee. The dishwasher steamed behind them like theater fog. "Isn’t it past your bedtime, gang?" Bert’s hair curtains hung messily across his forehead as if they’d lost their tiebacks. Kee-kee’s eyes were closed; her face was ruddy and wet. She didn’t even notice I was there. When Bert kissed Mom, it looked more like an attack. He had her pinned against the refrigerator, his hairless knees banging into the metal, while he smashed his mouth around on hers and dug with his tongue. Luckily Mom doesn’t know I spy or she’d kill me.
During the day, they all pretend to be parents. Kee-kee says, "Play nice" a lot, between sips of her rusty Manhattan. Bert talks about how he taught his twins to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a lake when they were one-and-a-half. It builds character, he says.
Kee-kee doesn’t look that great in a bathing suit, especially her orange terry cloth two-piece with the square bottoms, but I can tell this does not faze Bert Miller one little bit. Despite what I thought of them as the very close veins vining their way up her pale legs, in contrast to my mother’s spectacular, tanned ones, he likes Kee-kee. He likes her a lot. He likes religious women. He sits close to her, they talk in stage whispers about child rearing as if they’re talking about sex, and I guess in a way, they are.
"If you expose them early, they learn, they’re not afraid," Bert says, leaning into Kee-kee, dripping water all over her. With her frosty fingernail, she swirls it into little eddies on her leg.
"The main thing is, they should play nice," Kee-kee says, "That’s what I tell Mary Beth."
"Nicely," Mother cuts in to correct Kee-kee.
"Nicely, nicely," says Bert, tapping his pipe on his knee. "Don’t rock the boat, Barb."
Mother laughs and grabs Bert’s muscular arm. "You card," she says, her voice deep in her throat.
Mother tells me privately she thinks Kee-kee should do something about those awful veins. They have ways of fixing them, she tells me. It’s that Irish skin, such a shame, she says. She should at least wear black stockings to church instead of those godawful white nurse stockings. But Kee-kee has two men and Mother hardly has one. Jim is downtown somewhere; he has abandoned her in this terrible paradise.
As the day progresses and the sun dips down below our fence, they get louder. Bert pulls Mother’s straw hat on his head. Pompons that look like cotton balls hang down all around the brim. Bert wiggles his hips and the cotton balls dance. "Oh for God’s sake, Bert, stop!" Mother snorts. Kee-kee laughs too, covering her big teeth with her hand. The twins and Mary Beth play Marco Polo while her little sisters splash around in the shallow end, doing sloppy somersaults in their nose plugs, until we all hear the scream of Lois Miller’s gym whistle. "Thare she blows!" Mother says.
The twins hop out of the pool, wrap themselves in our colorful beach towels and flee like refugees. Now Mary Beth leans off the ladder at the deep end, dragging her arm through the water, gazing solemnly in my direction. She wants me to swim with her but I pretend I don’t notice. I’m busy crocheting a pink outfit for my green-haired troll. Finally she pulls herself out of the pool all puckered, and whines for dinner. I tense up. I know what will happen next, I want to prevent it, but I can’t. Mother grabs Kee-kee’s ankle.
"You’re not going anywhere, you fink. You stay put. Sandy, get Kee-kee a refill, honey. Bert, how are you holding up? Can Sandy freshen you up, too? Bring out the big tray, honey, and get some cheese and crackers, poor Mary Beth is starving.
"Bert, honey, get those coals going, I’ve got some lovely chopped sirloin, we’ll have burgers. Sandy, while you’re in there, could you make up some patties, nice and fat, honey, that-a-girl."
"Kee-kee, Mother says, "you may not leave. I spent a fortune on that meat and I’m not going to waste it." Dinner is a ball that gets tossed back and forth, till it finally goes out of bounds and ends up in foil in the refrigerator, where it will rot and we’ll throw it out weeks later.
For that moment before they agree to stay, I see the panic in her eyes, the fear of being deserted, even though I’m right here, Todd is upstairs and Ginger spends most of her time in the living room, alone in the playpen. On my way to the kitchen I stop and pick up the toys she has thrown out onto the carpet. She’s staring at the ceiling, cooing as usual. She will never be the baby my mother lost, so she sits in the living room all day like a houseplant.
The other baby was a boy. I remember the day Mother went to the hospital to deliver him. Deliver is a funny word for it—it sounds like the baby is borne up from Hell. Deliver me from evil.
No one was home but me. Mabel was at church and Todd was at Tommy’s house for a sleepover. I found Mom downstairs in Mabel’s bathroom, doubled over, moaning, sweating, taking frantic puffs on her cigarette. She squeezed words between clenched teeth. "Call…a…cab…Sandy."
The number was written in pen right on the wall above the phone. Alpine-1-TAXI. The man who answered thought it was a prank call, till I gave him the address. We were their biggest customers. Todd and I took taxis to and from school.
When I got back to the bathroom, Mother was sweating so much, the top of her sundress had turned dark brown. I could see her stomach jump. She told me to run and get a cold washcloth and she held it over her forehead while we waited. When she heard the honk in the driveway, she pulled herself up, leaned on me and sighed into my neck. "Where the hell is your father? Jesus, Jim should be here." The wet washcloth landed on my shoulder and sat there, heavily dripping.
Mother walked down the front stairs, grasping the rail, picking her steps carefully. "Have Mabel defrost those steaks for you and Todd when she gets back from church." I watched her venture slowly out into our front yard and through the gate. Above the fence I could see her head move down the walk to the waiting yellow cab. I heard the scratchy sound of the dispatcher. "Good luck, Mom," I said. She was out of earshot. "I love you, Mommy!" I watched the driver hoist her through the cab door onto the seat.
"When’s Mom coming home?" I asked Mabel, who was humming a hymn in the hot kitchen. I lifted a pot lid to bug her. "Now, don’t you go touching them arty chokes, they for dinner." She shooed me away with her giant hand. "BW be home in the good god’s time." Mabel was the only one who called my mother by her initials. She was also the only one who could corral my wild-eyed mother in the bedroom until she calmed down.
Mother didn’t want us to visit her at the hospital. She just wanted Jim, but he was out racing a sailboat on the ocean. When he got there, the baby was already blue. Blue and unnamed. The forms had not been filled out before he died. That part really bothered my father.
Five days later, Mother came home in another cab, very early in the morning, earlier than I’d ever seen her awake. Most mornings when I shook her, she was in the middle of some elaborate dream. She’d grab my arm and try to drag me into the dream with her, murmuring about a white fence or an old boyfriend from the good days before Dad. Sometimes she woke up laughing but when she tried to explain the joke it wouldn’t make sense. Frustrated, she’d send me down to mix her a screwdriver, to get the juices flowing. Once the juices were flowing she got distracted and lectured me in her dark bedroom about money. In a raspy worshipful whisper she described it: a vengeful god, the only one we had. She warned me about what would happen if we touched our principal, which is the sacred part.
Mother thought marrying Daddy would keep her afloat, above the dark water of her money, above the principal. But Daddy wasn’t home much. He was a wrinkled broadcloth shirt in her closet, a tweed golf cap in the armoire downstairs.
Mom was happy when she was pregnant. She had her dressmaker cut a hole in the center of her favorite white muumuu, then add a panel of fabric that tied around the hill in her middle. She ate and ate and ate. She loved to eat. She smoked her Raleighs and drank screwdrivers, for the orange juice. It was healthy for the baby. She sat out in the yard and read aloud while Todd and I drew with crayons at the picnic table. She sent two of our best drawings to a company that glazed them onto ashtrays.
When Mother came home from the hospital, Todd was landing his model planes on a Lincoln Log runway he’d set up in the living room; Mabel was loading the dishwasher and I was at the counter, reading the back of a Cap’n Crunch box (Crap’n Crunch, Mother called it) where they tell you about the prizes.
She walked straight past all of us to Mabel’s bathroom and slammed the door. She struggled with the metal hook. Mabel’s bathroom was the only room in our house that locked. I tiptoed up to the door, flattened my ear to it and heard crying. When I knocked she cried louder. I pounded for a while, until my knuckles throbbed, then I started pulling. Rhythmically, over and over. Each yank of the knob revealed a small crack of Mother, and a bigger sound, like waves breaking. I was trying to force the hook screw loose. Finally my whole hand ached so I slumped down and banged my back against the door.
Mother opened it and I fell against the washbasin. Something dropped out of her hand onto the white tile floor. A three-inch curled strip of plastic with a blue label embedded inside. I picked it up before she had time to notice she’d let go of it. It looked like a roll of cap gun caps.
"Baby Boy Windfield/Mother Barbara" it said when I unrolled it. I wrapped it around my wrist. Then I put my arms around her, while she sat there on the closed toilet seat. I rested my head on her stomach. It felt like a big empty purse.