by Jeff Bond
It’s interesting to Dorothy that she saw Bill’s wife get killed. She was at a dress store, Stephanie’s, looking for something to wear to a friend’s wedding, still a few weeks off, but she hadn’t found anything she liked at Stephanie’s. She was about to leave when she heard and then saw the car as it sped past the dress shop with a terrific sound. Dorothy dashed out and watched in horror as the car, a silver Monte Carlo, struck first a mailbox, then a public water fountain, then Bill’s wife, parts of all of these things making contact at last with the STOP sign guarding the exit of a small alley by the bank. She was killed instantly. Dorothy hoped so, at least.
It was pure chance she’d seen it. Bill Dexter was a stranger to her. A year later, he joined her church, and they met at an evening group assembled for parishioners who’d lost their spouses to tragedy. Of course, Dorothy didn’t realize that she’d been witness to the tragedy specific to Bill. She didn’t make the connection for several months. After all, it’s not as if Bill were brimming with the particulars of his wife’s tragic end. “She was hit by a car.” Well, that could be anybody. Dorothy likewise was stingy with details from her own story: “Edgar was crushed by a tree.” As their relationship deepened, however, and allowed for more intimate revelations, Bill painted a fuller, grim picture. Only then did Dorothy realize the significance of what she’d seen.
She remembers it vividly. A stroller had held Pauline, the baby. After that car took Bill’s wife away, the stroller, no longer tethered to a human, rolled off and was stopped from passing into traffic by one of those public benches Dorothy seldom sees anyone using, unless it’s near an ice-cream parlor or a bus stop. Bill’s two other children, who Dorothy would later learn were named Samantha and William, watched the horrid scene in stunned silence. Dorothy herself looked on from across the street, under the awning of Stephanie’s, as strangers comforted the children. A fat man with a cigar retrieved the baby and rocked it gently. At last she heard the siren of an ambulance and could, with confidence, assure herself that competent people were taking charge of the situation. Someone thought to turn the older children’s faces away from the accident, away from where their mother had just been flattened by a car the size of a small fishing boat. The ambulance took the body away, and Dorothy at last felt relaxed enough to light and enjoy her cigarette.
Yet even now that Dorothy and Bill are married and have formed a new family, she’s never mentioned what she saw to any of them.
She hears Samantha, ten years old, come in from outside. She can’t see her, but she knows the sound of Samantha’s legs and feet. This is their second summer house together. They arrived just this morning. Bill, she’s sorry to say, won’t be able to join them for another three weeks. Work commitments command his attention in so many different cities that Dorothy has practically ceased keeping track of his whereabouts. Last summer, when they’d been newlyweds, Bill’s boss allowed him more time off.
“Samantha, did you change your shoes?” she calls out. Earlier, Dorothy had reminded Samantha to change her shoes before coming inside. “Samantha!”
None of Bill’s three children call Dorothy “mother” or “mom.” The children call her, as was decided by family committee, what they called her from the beginning: simply Dorothy, a name they have a habit of pronouncing in two syllables, “Dor’thy,” with the first vowel said as an “OR” and not “AH.”
Dorothy removes herself from where she has been washing the space under the fridge. She goes to the staircase in the front hall.
The house they are in for the summer is a four-minute drive to the lake. Or the children can bike there, if they choose. There are three upstairs bedrooms, a living and dining area, and a family room with a color TV and a VCR. There’s a stack of movies on VHS, titles both old and new, some in black and white (Dorothy’s favorite, especially if there’s dancing), for the family to enjoy together on days that are rainy or if they grow tired of looking at the lake. The family room has a large picture window that could be perfect for watching thunderstorms, if they’re lucky enough to get a few good ones before September chases them back to chilly high-rise reality. Dorothy appreciates a good storm—who doesn’t?—although last summer it rained too much and they ended up with nearly a lake of their own in the backyard.
William appears at the top of the stairs. He is seven and named for his father. He prefers to be called “William II,” as if he were in line for a throne. Dorothy calls him simply “William,” or “Billy” or “Billy the Two.” This irks him. Irking him offers Dorothy a degree of pleasure. William collects rocks, Legos, marbles—anything he can sort into piles of like colors. He then refines his sorting so the blues that are lightest are together, the darker blues in another group, the red ones likewise distinguished by degrees. William is probably a homosexual, Dorothy thinks.
“William, have you seen your sister?” Dorothy asks. “Could you see if she changed her shoes?”
When he sees her at the bottom of the stairs, William freezes in place to stare at her, wide-eyed, from the landing, looking for all the world like he’s been caught in the act of doing something awful.
Sometimes, Billy the Two gives Dorothy the creeps. She squints at his soft pink lips, his chocolate brown corduroy shorts, sleeveless shirt, and red plastic firefighter’s hat. Dorothy can easily imagine him growing up to be a stripper.
“Did you unpack your bag?” she asks. “Did you put everything away? Did you help Pauline? Did you make sure she put everything away, too?” Her voice grows sterner with each question. William remains frozen. His pose, mid-motion, is evocative of a child’s silhouette on a school crossing sign.
Dorothy rolls her eyes. She tries so hard to get along with these kids, to be a role model for efficient, responsible adulthood, but no one wants to make it easy. “I found a popcorn machine in the pantry,” she says, softening her tone. “It drips the margarine down while it’s popping, so you don’t have to butter it yourself. You’d like that, right? We’ll make some. I’ll clean it first; it’s disgusting.” Actually, Dorothy didn’t find the machine in the pantry; she found it in the basement, on a shelf next to a can of turpentine. She amends that detail, changing the scene from the basement to the pantry, because she assumes that, even after she cleans it, knowing it had been next to turpentine might make eating from it somewhat repulsive, especially to William, who is particular about the purity of his food. “We can clean it together. You have to be careful when you clean things that you can plug in. Did you know that?” Her voice steers its way back to sterile severity. “You know not to get electrical things wet, don’t you, William? Did your father ever tell you not to get anything wet that you can plug in to a wall?”
Dorothy swats a fly from her face. She adds to her mental list: check the windows for screens, and check the screens for holes.
Children play the most inane games, she thinks, as William keeps his pose, staring, refusing to move. Now he’s making a face to suggest idiocy.
She doesn’t have the time for this. What she needs to do to end this charade is to undermine him.
“Tomorrow we can drive into town and get you all haircuts,” she says. “We’re going to start this summer off right. Long hair makes you look poor.” She turns and heads back to the kitchen, which is beginning to look like a room she’ll be willing to spend some time in, even if the bulk of that time will be making sure Pauline’s macaroni and cheese has enough Velveeta and Samantha’s not too much Vermont fucking cheddar.
She smiles to herself. She’s satisfied that she thought to spring the threat of a haircut on William. William is very particular about almost everything, including his hair, which he prefers to keep long so he can pretend to “style” it. Whenever they’re watching TV and a commercial comes on for Vitalis Dry Control, or whatever product they’re selling for men’s hair these days, William makes everyone hush as he scooches himself closer to the set to gaze at the men and their gleaming manes and whiter-than-white smiles. If he had his way, William would probably make them spend the Dexter family fortune, such as it is, allowing him to get fussed over by the ladies at some frilly salon. William would want to get his nails done, too.
She punctuates these thoughts with an amused grunt. If Sir William II grows up to be a queer, she trusts no one will put the blame on her.
She moves to the rack where she’s letting clean cutlery and cocktail glasses drip themselves dry. It would have been nice if 24 Bridge Hill had come with an automatic dishwasher, but at least it has updated electrical and a washer and dryer in the basement. Power outages were common in the house they had last year. They went through so many candles, it’s a miracle someone didn’t burn the house down. It wasn’t all bad, however. There was one lightless night, she remembers fondly, when Bill gathered the children up and told them eerie ghost stories and even Samantha had gotten scared.
Dorothy opens a cutlery drawer and pantomimes her revulsion. Nothing telegraphs the unwieldiness of “summer house” more than all this mismatched flatware. She fills the sink with soapy water and dumps everything in it, including the knife honer and a rusty garlic press. The press will be free of grime, if not rust, when later she chooses to throw the thing away.
There’s a Yellow Pages somewhere. She saw it. She’ll find a listing for an inexpensive barber in town. If there isn’t one, I’ll cut William’s hair myself, she thinks as she returns a pair of polished kitchen shears to a drawer near the stove.
When Dorothy first came into the Dexter family, Samantha was eight years old and didn’t trust her. Sammy didn’t want Dorothy to touch her or hold her, and she rejected Dorothy’s offers of kindness, like the first time they all went to a restaurant and Dorothy offered Samantha a taste of her baked scrod.
Sammy made it clear she was interested in nothing that came from a plate of Dorothy’s.
Not even a fry?
Sip of my Slice?
Samantha’s distrust of Dorothy hit its peak after six months when Sammy became convinced that Dorothy was a witch and would eat her. Samantha would say it, quietly but not so quietly that Dorothy didn’t hear.
Dorothy let it go, not even mentioning it to Bill when he asked her how she was getting along with the children. “Stunning,” Dorothy replied. “Those faces. Nicole must have been very beautiful.”
“You’ve seen pictures,” Bill said dismissively as he pulled off his shoes to get ready to crawl into bed.
She had. Dorothy was a bit envious of Nicole, because in pictures Nicole would never age. Then again, Dorothy had life. And Bill. And the children, of course.
Eventually, Samantha’s wariness of Dorothy lapsed wholly into lassitude, and there was no more talk of Sammy thinking Dorothy wanted to eat her. There was no more talk of Dorothy at all, as far as Samantha was concerned. There simply is no Dorothy. They can occupy the same room, but it might as well be that Dorothy isn’t there. Dorothy dismisses this attitude as more or less typical for a girl Samantha’s age, bracing for an acceleration of this attitude when Sammy gets to her teens.
Now Pauline, Bill’s youngest, is the same age Samantha was at the time of the accident that killed their mother. Pauline had been a hardened toddler, often struggling to get through a single night without at least one problem—earache, bed-wetting, night terror—or a single day without scratching her siblings or throwing a spoon or a toy or a rock—whatever was at hand, really—at someone’s head. As she’s aged, however, she’s become sweeter and quieter. Pauline’s face is butter-colored, and her eyes are extraordinary: olive green, with flecks of lavender and curly lashes that look practically invented.
“Pauline,” she says, “would you like to go for a drive?”
Dorothy needs a fresh pack of menthols. She and Pauline are now driving thirty miles an hour with the windows down. The air is thrilling. Dorothy can smell the lake.
Pauline, however, is in a mood.
“Is there anything you want me to get you at the store?” Dorothy asks.
Pauline reacts ever so slightly, as if someone put a cold hand on her back.
“I thought we’d try the gas station, and if they don’t have what I’m looking for, we can look for an Osco. There might be candy or a toy there that would interest you, no?”
Pauline is playing with a hair band. It’s around her forearm, and she is stretching it to let it snap against her skin. Pauline has lovely skin. She will be quite beautiful when she’s grown up and will give Dorothy darling step-grandkids to show off to friends.
“Don’t do that, Pauly,” Dorothy says.
Pauline continues to do it.
Dorothy slows the car down as they near a red light. She’s not supposed to call her “Pauly.” Pauline doesn’t like it. Dorothy keeps slipping on that point. She will try to do better. Dorothy would like to have a good relationship with at least one of Bill’s children, if she can. Pauline, having no memory of her deceased mother, would seem the best candidate for accepting Dorothy in the role of mother figure.
Pauline snaps the hair band against her skin.
“Are you looking forward to seeing your father? When he gets here?” Dorothy asks the question brightly, trying to cheer the sullen thing up. “He’ll be here in just a few weeks.”
Pauline lets out an exaggerated sigh, like an old radiator waking.
“My father lives in Nebraska,” Dorothy says. “I was raised on a farm there.” None of the children ever asks Dorothy about her life from before. It could be a rich topic to explore. “Do you like animals?”
“Do you see him?” says Pauline. Her voice is soft, mature.
Dorothy cocks her head. “See who?” Dorothy thinks Pauline is referring to someone outside the car. “Do you mean my dad?” Dorothy takes Pauline’s silence as an answer. “Not in a while. Not since before I met your father.” Dorothy attempts a sunny inflection. “We had all sorts of animals on our farm. Do you know what an alpaca is?”
“Sammy says I can’t remember.”
“Can’t remember what?”
“Sammy says I can’t remember my mother.”
Dorothy lets this sink in. That came out of nowhere.
“What do you mean?” Dorothy says. Does Pauline think Samantha means she’s not allowed to remember?
“I know what she looks like.”
Dorothy nods. “From pictures.”
“I remember seeing her, but Sammy says I didn’t.” Pauline’s tone is hurt, defensive.
The streetlight is green. As they pass under it, Dorothy sees a gas station up ahead on the left with a convenience kiosk. This doesn’t seem the ideal time to stop the car and interrupt Pauline, however. This might be a real connection she’s making; she wants to see where this goes. She can loop the car back around for cigarettes if she has to.
“You remember seeing her where?” The sun is withdrawing from the day and creating a magnificent sky before them.
“When they took her.”
“Who took her? Took her where?”
“To the sky.”
They are coming to the top of a hill and cannot see what’s beyond it. The sunset continues to paint a wondrous scene, with golds and pinks and ambers. Dorothy wishes she had a camera and could take a snap.
“I saw Mommy’s face, right before they took her,” says Pauline, matter-of-factly.
Pauline is talking about her mother the day she died, Dorothy realizes with some amazement.
“Oh? What did Mommy look like?” Pauline dribbles off a few particulars—hair color, face shape, what have you—nothing that she couldn’t have gathered from photographs. Dorothy presses for something more concrete. “Were you looking up? In this memory of yours?” She asks it like a lawyer trying to trap a witness in cross-examination. “Or was she holding you? Or was she—”
“I was in my wheelie.”
Her wheelie. Yes, Dorothy can remember Bill calling the baby carriage a wheelie when they got rid of it. We don’t need the wheelie anymore, do we, Bill had said coyly, affirming their understanding that Dorothy had no desire to ever get pregnant.
“Your wheelie. I see.”
It’s a bit spooky that Pauline would mention that detail, though one of the other children could have told her she was in her wheelie when her mother was killed. Or she could just have assumed she’d been in her wheelie.
“I was in my wheelie and Mommy looked at me and she was smiling and then she looked up and she saw something and she yelled.”
“She yelled?” Dorothy doesn’t remember that. As she recalls it, there was no time for yelling. That Monte Carlo was simply going too fast. It amuses her to know that this detail isn’t true. It boosts her confidence.
Now Dorothy wants to laugh. For a moment, she imagines what would happen if Pauline said that when her mother yelled, had she yelled, she yelled the name “Dorothy.” She has no idea why this thought invades her head, or why it’s so funny. It’s absurd, actually, horrifying and hilarious, and now it makes her want to laugh, a good roar, the kind that rips your sides and hurts later.
“Okay then, what was the day like?” Dorothy asks, controlling herself, probing. “Do you remember? Was it hot, cold…light, dark?”
Pauline is quiet. They are driving down the other side of the hill now. It’s steeper on this side. Dorothy can see an Osco at the bottom.
It’s interesting to Dorothy that there is a version of her memory of that day where she did make eye contact with Nicole before that car hit her. It didn’t happen that way in real life, of course, but sometimes when Dorothy replays those events in her mind, she slips and thinks it almost could have. Sometimes that’s the version that feels real.
“I remember a man, and I remember what he smelled,” Pauline says.
“What man? What do you mean, ‘what he smelled’? You mean, what he smelled like?”
Pauline looks at Dorothy’s fingers, wrapped around the steering wheel.
“Like my cigarettes?” Dorothy says. Her voice fills with electricity. Yes, there was a man with a cigar. He rescued Pauline’s wheelie when it collided with a public bench.
The wheelie, the smell of smoke…Dorothy takes one hand off the wheel and smells her own fingers. They don’t smell like smoke. Then again, they wouldn’t to her, though they would to Pauline. Not like a cigar, exactly, but who knows how kids’ memories work?
“Did it smell like that?” Dorothy puts a finger under Pauline’s nose. Pauline recoils.
“I remember it smelled like rain,” says Pauline.
They’re at the bottom of the hill now. Dorothy’s heart sinks. No, it did not smell like rain. It was definitely not raining that day. She knows that. She can’t confide that detail to Pauline, of course, who—even as a six-month-old baby—supposedly has a greater claim to a first-hand account than Dorothy does, as far as anybody else knows. But now that it’s clear that Pauline is simply lying about remembering these events, Dorothy is surprised at how disappointed she feels. However briefly, Dorothy was relishing the fun of knowing she wasn’t the only one remembering something she wasn’t supposed to. Someone else in the family would have understood the subversive thrill of illicit recall. She’d never be able to share anything like that with Sullen Samantha, or Princess William II.
After all, that day changed more than just the children’s lives. Dorothy wouldn’t have married Bill if Nicole hadn’t been killed, and she wouldn’t now be trying to parent these ridiculous children.
Pauline’s voice comes hurtling at her from the passenger seat. “You were there; you should know.”
Dorothy’s foot slips and hits the brakes. A car behind them blasts its horn. Dorothy hears the screech of tires on pavement. She braces herself for what she’s sure is coming next. Nothing happens. There was no impact. No car touched another. Thank God.
“Oh shut up!” Dorothy screams at the blaring car horn behind her. She stops to catch her breath before she can figure out if it’s safe to resume driving.
“What are you talking about?” Dorothy demands.
“What Mommy yelled.”
“What? What do you mean? What should I know? What did Mommy yell?” Dorothy’s voice comes out of her mouth like a thick paint.
“Door…ah…thie.” Pauline’s voice drops lower with each syllable, finally ending on a low bass note after a slow, rich glissando.
Dorothy struggles to catch her breath. She tells herself her heart is racing because of the accident they almost had, not because she is terrified. It’s not, she tells herself, because she thinks she’s sharing a car with a demon.
She makes everything wait a full minute. “Are you okay?” she finally asks Pauline, her voice shaky, quiet and unkind. “You weren’t hurt? Just now? We almost had an accident.” She explains this as if it were necessary, as if telling someone on the other end of the phone. More honking outside the car now. Other drivers want them to get out of the way. “Pauline,” she demands firmly, resisting the urge to shake her, “were you hurt?” She’s not sure she will resist shaking her for long.
“I’m okay,” Pauline says. Her voice is bright and crisp like a child’s—the way a child ought to sound. Dorothy remembers teaching herself how to act and sound exactly the same way.
Jeff Bond is a writer living in New York City. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The New Engagement. His video work appears on his website, jeffbond.nyc. For many years, he has been a staple of Manhattan daylife as a Happy Hour bartender. He is currently working on a novel.