by MARK JACOBS
A bunch of noisy goddamn ducks were flying over the hospital as the orderly wheeled Glynda’s wheelchair out to the taxi. Geese, probably they were geese. Whatever. The orderly was a studly black guy named Lorenzo. No man should have arms that sexy. Glynda kept waiting for him to hit on her. Nothing. The swelling in her face had gone down, but the bruises uglified her. That explained it. Murphy’s fault, although he would say it was hers, she should have given him what he wanted. Easier said than done. What Murphy wanted was everything, all the time
She hated fall. It made her feel like she was losing something and she couldn’t figure out what it was.
The cop who answered the 911 call when Murphy beat her up had come by the hospital. She knew him from high school. Mickey Garrity. Mick. He used to look at her that sexy way. Then he turned out to be a man, the genuine article. Buff, didn’t talk too much, eyes like blue ice chips. Classic cop. You want to press charges, Glynda? She had to think about it. If she did, that was the end of any possible good with Murphy. He was not likely to take care of his baby unless it was a boy— he might like the idea of having a son, and she was positive it was going to be a boy, this time. Anyway, she’d told Officer Mick she was conflicted. That was the word she used, conflicted. He never said it but he thought she was being stupid. There was no baby bump yet, and she believed he found her of interest.
Why the hell wouldn’t he?
October, and frost, had shriveled the green life of summer, and Troy was hands down the ugliest city in New York State, never mind the barking geese and the happy sunlight bubbling everywhere. The cab driver treated her like dirt because Social Services was paying for the ride. Screw him; not.
She lived on Fort Hill Street, which ran uphill, in a rundown blue duplex two houses from the top. The location was a pain, but the rent was cheap. Getting out of the taxi, she moved slowly. Things still hurt. The lung was okay, or so they told her, but her rib cage was extremely sore.
A garbage can sat on the strip of dead lawn by the curb, the lid lying next to it like a clumsily tipped hat. It was the old-fashioned aluminum kind, banged up and blackened with age. The neighbors all had those big green plastic monsters the truck could pick up and dump into its dirty maw. Glynda hadn’t signed up for service; she didn’t have that kind of money. She just kept putting out the old can, and the garbage men kept emptying it. Which was strange, if she thought about it, and satisfying.
Her apartment was on the upper floor. There was a separate outside staircase to get there. Every step made her groan even though no one was there to hear. It felt good to be home, though. She went straight for the kitchen and opened the fridge. Not much there. She had meant to go shopping when the thing with Murphy happened. I am conflicted, Officer Garrity. I need somebody to help me think things through.
She found a box of Froot Loops in the pantry. She didn’t mind eating them dry. She filled a bowl and sat down in front of the TV and got lucky. Deputy Dawg was on. But one element of ease was lacking. She stood up and went to the bedroom. Murphy had left a canvas bag. She rummaged through it and scored a blunt in banana-yellow paper. So she watched the cartoon just high enough to be entertained by the resounding crunch of the Froot Loops in her mouth, delighted to be an animal that chomped and giggled at a cartoon dog with a cowboy hat.
Knowing Murphy, there would be more goodies in the bag, but she could not put off calling her mother any longer. Lorraine Brozick had a thing about getting out of bed in the morning: she didn’t. She said she was depressed and took pills for it, but from what Glynda could see, the pills didn’t help. It had taken some arm-twisting for her to look after the girls when Glynda went to the hospital, but Social Services was threatening to take them, and Lorraine finally came through. When the weed wore off, Glynda called her.
“So they let you out. That son of a bitch Murphy been over yet? I so much as see that piece a shit his ass is grass.”
“Let me talk to the girls. I want to hear their voices.”
“They’re watching TV.”
“You get your butt in gear and come get them. They’re good kids but they give me a headache. I can’t handle headaches, not in my condition.”
“I can’t drive.”
“What do you mean, you can’t drive?”
“That’s what the doctor said.”
He had said no such thing, and because she was her mother Lorraine knew he hadn’t. But Glynda needed a little time to get her own head together. Think about getting a job, that was the main thing. She was running on empty. She’d heard the Wal-Mart out on Hoosick Road was hiring. Anyway the conversation was a contest to see who was more stubborn. It was always a contest. This time Glynda congratulated herself; her maternal instinct was kicking in. Did that mean she was winning?
Lorraine said, “You want another day off is what you want.”
“Please, Mom. Bring them over.”
Glynda heard Tamara in the background. She was picking a fight with Brandy. Tamara never let anyone forget she had a black father. In the white world she lived in, she wanted everybody to notice who she was. Every now and then, her attitude got the best of her. In Glynda’s opinion she was milking it, making a big deal out of her coffee color which as far as Glynda was concerned was prettier than Brandy’s pale white skin, although of course she would never say that out loud. Her mother hollered at the girls to shut up, which naturally they did not.
“Are they worried about me?”
“You’re not here in the next thirty minutes, they’re out in the street.”
Lorraine hung up, which meant she would bitch and moan but bring the kids back home that evening. Nice. She had a little freedom. Better than nada. She made her way to the bathroom and studied herself in the mirror. If a beat-up woman with a bruised face could look sexy, here was one who did. Still no flab, after two kids. Her tits stood up firm as God intended them to. Her rich brown hair had natural auburn highlights. Her face was angelic and punky, the perfect combination. Even without makeup it said, ‘Come see if you’re a man.’ Murphy was not the first guy who had lost control.
She thought about calling Perk in Washington. Perk had loved her since dinosaurs roamed the earth. He wasn’t taking her calls now, pretending he was over her. Never going to happen. Perk had a big job in Congress. She had seen him on CNN, standing next to his boss, the Congresswoman, like it was up to him to tell her what to say to the camera. If Glynda had been smarter, she would be living in a big house in Washington, not this Fort Hill dump. It was funny. She hadn’t screwed Perk in years, and once she got out of the habit she never seemed to want to anymore, which did not make him all that happy.
She grabbed her cell from her purse. It had a fake leopard-skin cover she was fond of. Brandy’s father had bought it for her, or said he bought it, trying to score something she was not surrendering. She called, but Perk did not pick up. She left a message telling him what she saw in her mirror; oh, and she was out of the hospital.
Lorraine didn’t want to have to feed the girls again, so Cyrus brought them back home. They tiptoed into the apartment. Unlike Tamara, Brandy didn’t know enough to hide the fear she felt. She was delicate in every way. People came up to Glynda in stores and said what a beautiful China doll your baby is, which, surprise surprise, never failed to put Tamara in one of her moods.
“I’m okay,” Glynda told them. “Cyrus is going to run to the grocery for me, and I’ll make us something to eat.”
Cyrus was her mother’s skanky old boyfriend. He had been to Vietnam. He wore boots and leathers and had a Fu Manchu beard that made him look more derelict than he was. He liked to say he had killed eleven short men in black pajamas in the service of his country. Whether that was true Glynda had no idea.
“I can’t go to no grocery,” he protested. “I gotta be somewhere.”
“Come on, sweetie. You’ll be back in half an hour. You want these adorable little girls to go hungry?”
So he went, and paid for what he bought. He followed her into the kitchen with the plastic bags of food and halfheartedly came on to her. He took her arm and rubbed it up and down as though that would give her a thrill.
“What Murphy did to you, I mean, I’m awful sorry, Glynda. He don’t deserve you. That’s what I told Lorraine is that piece a shit don’t deserve to be in the same space as you.”
He wanted to feel her up, that was obvious, but the idea was absurd.
“What’s the matter, Lorraine leave off making home deliveries?”
He pulled away, shrugging. Glynda could never respect a man who gave up that easily.
“Do me a favor?”
“I just bought your groceries.”
“This is a little baby favor. Bring that garbage can in off the street when you go.”
He left, and she started some grilled cheese sandwiches, something the girls actually liked. While the sandwiches were in the pan on the stove she went to the window and looked down. The garbage can was still out there. Damn the man. Why it bugged her, the way it stood there, she could not say.
She made some cherry Kool-Aid to go with the sandwiches. It was her way of telling the girls they didn’t need to worry, she wasn’t going on any warpath. She asked to look at their homework but didn’t quite understand what they showed her. This was what a mother did, though, she looked at her kids’ homework. Using school next morning as an excuse she got them into bed early. They were relieved that nothing bad happened, which brought Glynda low, and then made her just a little angry.
It was not a good thing on her part, she admitted it, not her first night home, but she was bored. She wanted entertainment. She wanted company and comfort. Before she could change her mind she called Murphy. When he didn’t pick up she felt the same sort of relief the girls felt, going to bed without a blow-up. But he called back five minutes later.
“Hey,” she said
“What happened that night…”
“Let’s not talk about it. You coming over?”
“Is it worth my while?”
She didn’t feel like having sex with him. If things went right she wouldn’t mind pleasuring him, but that was far as it was going. She told him to bring a bottle of white wine. No need to mention weed: he never left home without it. As soon as she hung up she thought, this is a mistake.
And it was.
In a way Murphy was Cyrus, minus thirty years and the black pajama kills. He knew how to live off a woman, do next to no work, share his druggy riches, have a good time, and give a woman just as good a time. But Cyrus was a hairy old dog, and Murphy was hot, and vain about his looks. He had one of those gift-of-God bods and the face to go with it. Blonde in just the right way, green sexual eyes, a full-time smirk. Only the temper, which came with a will to hit, kept her from taking the good with the bad, inviting him to live in.
“I’m sorry, Glynda,” he said, coming through the door and shoving the wine at her. “You have no idea how fucking sorry I am.”
“That’s what you always say.”
Expecting instant forgiveness, he was taken aback.
“Hey,” she said. “Never mind. Let’s kick back.”
It bothered him to see the evidence of the beating he’d given her, which she supposed was a good thing. It meant he had a conscience. They sat on the couch, their bodies just touching, and watched TV and drank the wine and smoked some reefer. It was fun. They turned the sound down on a dumb-ass old movie and Murphy made up dialogue to go with what they saw on the screen. He was good at things like that—intelligent and quick. She was laughing like crazy and totally mellow on the inside so why bring up Mick Garrity? She did.
“I remember we were all seniors,” she said, not sure whether the memory had to do with a real event or simply served a dark purpose. A haze of Lake Niagara white was making it hard to follow her own thought process. She put a hand on his crotch and got the reaction she was entitled to. Didn’t turn her on, though.
“You and me and Mickey Garrity.”
“He’s a cop now.”
Murphy had been gone by the time Mick showed up for the 911 call, and he couldn’t know that Garrity had come to see her in the hospital.
“You and him, you got into it in the gym, that’s what I’m seeing.”
“No we didn’t.”
“You sure as shit did. I was there. You were fighting over me. How am I not going to remember that?”
“Now you’re going to tell me he cleaned my clock.”
“You left the gym with the cleanest clock in Troy High.”
Roughly he removed her fondling hand off his expectant dick. He was pissed.
“You seen his wife? She’s cute but she’s got a wide saggy ass. It’s sad.
“A guy, a man, like that deserves a woman he can be proud of.”
She kept at it, provoking him until he raised a hand and she had to remind him she was just out of the hospital and there would be repercussions if she went back. He stormed out, unfortunately not forgetting to take his canvas bag of goodies. Under the circumstances she couldn’t ask him to bring back the garbage can.
There were just enough ingredients in her body to help her sleep. She lay on the couch, pulled a blanket over herself, and went out until sometime in the middle of the night when Tamara woke up with a nightmare. Glynda made her way into the girls’ bedroom. She sat on the bed and pulled Tamara close.
“I’m scared, Mommy.”
“You had a bad dream is all.”
“It won’t go away.”
“It will in a minute.”
To her own surprise, Glynda hugged the whimpering little girl until her ribs hurt. She combed her hair with her fingers. She soothed. She softly sang a nursery rhyme she had no memory of knowing or forgetting. And she stayed there, humming and hugging, even after Tamara fell back to sleep. The sense of accomplishment she felt was huge and unfamiliar. It was nothing like the phony self-congratulation she had experienced in her tussle on the phone with Lorraine. When she felt tired she slept alongside her daughter.
In the morning she had to terrorize the girls a little, making sure they got out the door in time to catch the bus. They were used to that, and the agitation they expressed was only meant to chalk one up in their column, which Glynda did. Fair was fair. Showering, she felt her tender ribs but decided she had to go apply at Wal-Mart. Her car was an old Lumina. The suspension was bad, and it started hard. But it started. The weather was shitty—raining and cold. She drove slowly, looking every which way all the time, because her insurance had lapsed. She could not afford a mistake, or the ticket that came with one.
She parked in the Wal-Mart lot but did not turn off the ignition. There was something in the car with her. A feeling. It was what she had felt the night before, comforting Tamara. She felt herself stretching, in a mental way, to grab onto and hold the feeling. It was a desperate stretch and not successful. The windshield began to fog up. Reaching and not getting, she was afraid.
She called Perk, but the bastard wouldn’t answer. She was about to blister him with the kind of voicemail rant she was great at but pressed the end button, lost in a quickie fantasy about living in Washington. Her and Perk. They would buy a house in the expensive part of the city, near the White House. Rowhouses, people called them. They would get a thoroughbred Husky, and a Lexus. Perk would adopt the girls and they would take tennis lessons. The Lexus would be purple.
A text from Murphy killed the fantasy. She didn’t look at it. She adjusted the rear-view mirror to see as much of herself as possible and was shocked by how old she looked, how haggard. And then she was crying. She was not a person who cried and didn’t know what to make of the sudden gush. It took effort, but she looked at herself as the Wal-Mart manager would see her at that moment and knew she could not go inside and say she wanted to work there. Not today. She wiped the condensation from the windshield with her jacket sleeve and drove carefully off.
She wanted to talk. If she talked, she might figure out how to hang onto the feeling from last night. She went through a list of friends and discarded them in a bunch, knowing they didn’t have the ears to hear what she had to say. That left Lorraine.
The rain was starting to freeze. Her mother lived in the lower apartment in a duplex not far from Fort Hill. She couldn’t climb stairs, or so she claimed. When she got there, Glynda skidded and bumped against the curb. A sloppy crust of slush was building up on the sidewalk and the mounded dead grass of the yard. The fear she had felt in the Wal-Mart parking lot, looking in the mirror and seeing her debility, got worse. She walked slowly through the slush and was happy to find no Cyrus on the premises.
Lorraine was in bed watching TV, a tray with coffee and toast next to the bed, cigarette in the ashtray giving off smoke signals, it’s getting bad, send in the cavalry. In her thousand-year-old paisley robe, her flat gray hair trapped under a bandana, she looked like somebody’s prisoner. Her face was puffy not because Cyrus knocked her around—he didn’t have the nerve—but because she didn’t take care of herself. If she forgot her blood pressure pill a couple days running, she took three to make up for it.
“I don’t have any money,” her mother warned her.
“Who’s asking for any?”
Lorraine squinted and squinched her puffy face. It was as close to a gesture of welcome as Glynda would get, so she took it as such. She sat at the foot of the bed, taking hold of her mother’s foot to get her attention. The foot was dead-body cold.
“Tamara had a nightmare last night.”
“I snuggled with her. It felt good.”
Lorraine shifted on her pillows, jamming her elbows back into them for purchase. She was trying to be sympathetic, it seemed to Glynda, but didn’t know how.
“I wish I was married, Mom.”
“There ain’t a man in Troy that’s worth the having, Glynda, and that includes the rich ones.”
Glynda gritted her teeth. She didn’t know how to say what was on her mind any more than her mother knew how to hear it.
“I want to be a good mother.”
But Lorraine was reaching for her cigarette, and if she heard she didn’t allow the words to register.
“I’m going home,” Glynda said.
Lorraine nodded. Her mother knew there was something to be said. Knew it mattered. Knew neither of them could take it forward. All that was in the way she didn’t look at Glynda, and Glynda gave her credit for something, something.
At home on Fort Hill she parked next to the garbage can. She was going to bring it back to the house, but when she lifted it, a hot pain stabbed her in the side and she left it where it was.
The apartment needed dusting. Glynda was not into maintenance any more than she had to be, but she took a rag and went room to room. She was saving space in her mind to think about what was going on. Not that she filled it, but the space was there if a thought showed up.
When somebody knocked, she expected Murphy and was tempted to get a jump on the truth. She would tell him his child-to-be was a boy and see how he took the news. But it wasn’t him, it was Mick Garrity at the door. God, he was an attractive man. Her bruises felt like scars. She was glad she had started dusting in the living room.
“I haven’t made up my mind. About charging Murphy. You want coffee or something?”
“Just had one.”
But he came in; good. Brought his policeman aura with him; also good. He was capable and cool. No fit you threw would faze him. She did not sit too close to him. She folded her hands in her lap.
“Tell me about Murphy,” he said.
“You and him, you were in the same graduating class. Me too.”
“I remember. Is he going to knock you around again?”
She lifted her hands and let them fall into her lap in a parody of helplessness he did not find convincing. She wished she hadn’t done it. Her fear was eating at her good intentions.
“You married Midge Deavers, didn’t you? Got any kids?”
“Boy and a girl.”
Maybe it was because he saw through her, saw that she was fluttering at him, trying to get his sexual attention. Maybe. But she wanted to think it was something else, something better, that backed her down. From that moment, she did not want to come on to him, or to be come at. She was tired. Lake Niagara and wacky weed together did her no good. She said something she immediately wished she could un-say.
“I don’t want to be my mother.”
He nodded as though that made perfect sense, and she compounded her mistake.
“I’m pregnant. It’s Murphy’s.”
“He came over last night. I never said anything about him beating me up.”
“Think you should have?”
“Do I look old to you, Mick?”
He shook his head, not saying no, just telling her he didn’t want to talk about how she looked.
“I won’t press charges,” she said.
“That’s your call.”
She wasn’t finished. “I won’t charge him for what he did, but I won’t let him into the house again.”
She could see him evaluating what she said, wanting to believe she meant it but not sure he should. Same with her, although if Murphy showed up today she would definitely turn him away.
Garrity wanted to go. Why should he stay? If she ran into him with Midge somewhere, the mall, say, they would have identical memories of now. Her turning it off. Her awkward honest questions. His concern, going back and forth a million times a second between professional and real life. But she would not be able to say to him, you were there the day my life changed.
After he was gone she knew she ought to vacuum but didn’t. She was restless and sad but no longer full of dread. She looked into the fridge to see what she could make the kids for supper. Eggs. And, miracle of miracles, Cyrus had picked up a quart of orange juice.
She went to the window to look at the nasty weather. It was getting colder. She put the palm of her hand against the pane and let the chill seep into her. On the ground, the slush was thicker and crustier. There sat the garbage can.
She put on a jacket. She looked for gloves but couldn’t find any. Boots. Both girls needed new ones. Their feet were way bigger than last winter.
She went down the stairs and up the walk. She stooped to pick up the lid, knocked the slush off, and then fitted it onto the can. Somebody had backed into the can, a long time ago, crunching one side, so the lid wouldn’t seal, but it was on. She lifted the empty, not-heavy can, holding it against her body.
Last summer the landlord had built a doghouse for garbage cans in the back yard. Glynda was wearing sneakers but had forgotten socks. Before she was through her feet would be soaked. The can pressed to her hip, she ploughed back. She did not feel all that terrible. She had done something, won a small prize, not coming on to Mick Garrity. In a way, it was like deliberately choosing not to come on to any of them, all of them. She wondered when she might stop wanting to.
Mark Jacobs has published more than 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Iowa Review, and The Kenyon Review. His five books include three novels and two story collections. A full list of publications can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.