The trees along Pine Street that every spring bloomed purple flowers had bloomed purple flowers. So what? What was the big deal? It happened every spring. Pammy kept saying, “Look at the flowers, Ma. Ain’t them flowers amazing?” The kids were trying to kiss up. Paulie had flown in, and Pammy had taken her to Mother’s Day lunch and now was holding her hand. Holding her hand! Right on Pine. The girl who once slapped her own mother for attempting to adjust her collar.
Pammy said, “Ma, these flowers, wow, they really blow me away.”
Just like Pammy to take her mother to lunch in a sweatshirt with a crossed-out picture of a machine gun on it. What about a nice dress? Or pants suit? At least this time Pammy and Paulie hadn’t been on her about the smoking. Even back when Pammy was taking harp, even back when Paulie’s hair was long and he was dating that Eileen, even after Eileen slept around and Paulie shaved his head, whenever Paulie and Pammy came over they were always on her about the smoking. Which was rude. They had no right. When their father was alive they wouldn’t have dared. When Pammy slapped her hand for adjusting her collar, Paul, Sr., had given her such a wallop.
The town looked nice. The flags were flying.
“Ma, did you like your lunch?” Pammy said.
“I liked it fine,” Alma said.
At least she didn’t have an old-lady voice. She just had her same voice, like when she was young and nobody had looked better in a tight dress going for cocktails.
“Ma, I know what,” Pammy said. “How about we walk up Pickle Street?”
What was Pammy trying to do? Cripple her? They’d been out for two hours already. Paulie’d slept late and missed lunch. He’d just flown in and, boy, were his arms tired. Paul, Sr., had always said that after a trip. Paulie had not said that. Paulie not having his father’s wit. Plus it looked like rain. Black-blue clouds were hanging over the canal bridge.
“We’re going home,” she said. “You can drive me out to the grave.”
“Ma,” Pammy said. “We’re not going to the grave, remember?”
“We are,” she said.
At the grave she’d say, Paul, dear, everything came out all right. Paulie flew in and Pammy held my hand, and for once they laid off the smoking crap.
They were passing the Manfrey place. Once, in the Nixon years, lightning had hit the Manfrey cupola. In the morning a portion of cupola lay on the lawn. She’d walked by with Nipper. Paul, Sr., did not walk Nipper. Walking Nipper being too early. Paul, Sr., had been a bit of a drinker. Paul, Sr., drank a bit with great sophistication. At that time, Paul, Sr., was selling a small device used to stimulate tree growth. You attached it to a tree and supposedly the tree flourished. When Paul, Sr., drank a bit with great sophistication he made up lovely words and sometimes bowed. This distinguished-looking gentleman would appear at your door somewhat sloshed and ask, Were your trees slaggard? Were they gublagging behind the other trees? Did they need to be prodderated? And hold up the little device. In this way they had nearly lost the house. Paul, Sr., was charming. But off-putting. In the sales sense. The efficacy of his tree stimulators was nebulous. Paul, Sr., had said so in his low drunk voice on the night that it had appeared most certain they would lose the house.
“Mother,” he’d said. “The efficacy of my tree stimulators is nebulous.”
“Ma,” Pammy said.
“What?” Alma snapped. “What do you want?”
“You stopped,” Pammy said.
“Don’t you think I know it?” she said. “My knees hurt. Daughter dragging me all over town.”
She had not known it. She knew it now, however. They were opposite the shop where the men used to cut pipe. Now it was a Lean&Fit. The time they nearly lost the house, Paulie had come to their bed with a cup of pennies. He was bald these days and sold ad space in the PennySaver. Pammy worked at No Animals Need Die. That was the actual name. Place smelled like hemp. On the shirts and hats for sale were cartoons of cows saying things like “Thanks for Not Slamming a Bolt Through My Head.”
And as children they’d been so bright. She remembered Paulie’s Achievement Award. One boy had wept when he didn’t get one. But Paulie’d got one. Yet they’d turned out badly. Worked dumb jobs and had never married and were always talking about their feelings.
Something had spoiled Paulie and Pammy. Well, it wasn’t her. She’d always been firm. Once, she’d left them at the zoo for disobeying. When she’d told them to stop feeding the giraffe they’d continued. She’d left them at the zoo and gone for a cocktail, and when she returned Pammy and Paulie were standing repentant at the front gate, zoo balloons deflated. That had been a good lesson in obedience. A month later, at Ed Pedloski’s funeral, when, with a single harsh look, she’d ordered them to march past the open coffin, they’d marched past the open coffin lickety-split, no shenanigans.
Poor Ed had looked terrible, having been found after several days on his kitchen floor.
“Ma, you O.K.?” Pammy said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alma said.
In the early days she and Paul, Sr., had done it every which way. Afterward they’d lie on the floor discussing what colors to paint the walls. But then the children came. And they were bad. They cried and complained, they pooped at idiotic random times, they stepped on broken glass, they’d wake from their naps and pull down the window shades as she lay on the floor with Paul, Sr., not yet having done it any which way, and she’d have to rise exasperated, which would spoil everything, and when she came back Paul, Sr., would be out in the distant part of the yard having a minuscule perschnoggle.
Soon Paul, Sr., was staying out all night. Who could blame him? Home was no fun. Due to Pammy and Paulie. Drastic measures were required. She bought the wildest underthings. Started smoking again. Once, she let Paul, Sr., spank her bare bottom as she stood in just heels at the refrigerator. Once, in the yard, she crouched down, schnockered, waiting to leap out at Paul, Sr. And, leaping out, found him pantsless. That was part of it. The craziness. Part of their grand love. Like when she’d find Paul, Sr., passed out on the porch and have to help him to bed. That was also part of their grand love. Even that time he very funnily called her Milly. One night she and Paul, Sr., stood outside, at a window, drinks in hand, watching Paulie and Pammy wander from room to room, frantically trying to find them. That had—that had been in fun. That had been funny. When they finally went back in, the kids were so relieved. Pammy burst into tears, and Paulie began pounding Paul, Sr., so fiercely in the groin with his tiny fists that he had to be sent to—
Well, he certainly had not been sent to sleep in the garden shed in the dark of night. As he always claimed. They would not have done that. They had—probably they’d laughed it off. In their free-spirited way. Then sent him to bed. For hitting. After which, probably, he’d run out and hidden in that shed. Rebelliously. They’d searched and searched. Searching and searching, heroically, they’d finally found him in the shed, sleeping naughtily across a fertilizer bag, tears streaking the dirt on his—
Why had he been crying when he was supposedly hiding rebelliously?
That was all a long time ago.
She wasn’t getting in the fricking time machine about it.
Sky was black now over the library.
If Pammy got her caught out in the rain she would honest to God tear Pammy a new one.
One Fourth of July, Paul, Sr., had groped her in the mums. He’d liked that. He’d been craving more wildness. O.K., pal, here it is. That did the trick. Around the time of the groping-in-the-mums one ceased hearing the name Milly, ditto Carol Meninger, ditto Evelyn Whoever. One briefly ceased hearing those names and smelling those strange perfumes during that fleeting victorious period of victory-by-wildness. Where had the kids been that magical Fourth of July? Somewhere happy with sparklers, probably. Two sparklers had approached. Then paused. Then departed pronto. Well, that would teach them to spy. That would teach them that adults needed their private time.
“Behold, kiddies,” Paul, Sr., had slurred drunkenly into her bare back. “Welcome to your painful eyeful.”
Soon after that wild Fourth came another near-loss-of-house. All wildness ceased. In the absence of wildness the names/perfumes resumed.
No. A person misremembered. They’d worked shoulder-to-shoulder to save the house, and the entire question of names/perfumes had permanently receded, both of them finding it humorous that anyone could possibly think that Paul, Sr., would even consider—
She was so tired.
“Home,” she said.
Up ahead, across Pine, sweeping her walk—was that?
Debi Hather. Good God. Was she ever old.
The strange trashy girl in high school. Big hippie. Tiny head, curly hair, no chest. Look at her over there, still weird: Asian blouse, pants with ties at the ankles, bird-skinny. Who did she think she was, Gandhi or whoever? Mrs. Gandhi?
Sweeping like a banshee in front of that same tiny former carriage house she’d lived in since she was a girl. With her oddball parents. Mandy and Randy. Both had limps. Different limps. When they walked down the street it was like a freaking dance party.
Now, hang on a briefen short second there, Eisenstein, Paul, Sr., said in her mind. Let’s poise a hyperthetical: Say you were born to gimps and grew up in a tiny house, and never had und potten to piss in. Mightn’t you have turned out a strange lost gal with twelve or so marriages behind you and a tragic runaway daughter?
No, she answered. I wouldn’t have.
You know that for a certainty? Paul, Sr., said. Well, maybe I’m just dull. Perhaps I fail to grasp your immensely higher logic. Maybe, having lived a perfect life, you’ve got all the answers.
Do not defend that one there.
I merely pose the query, he said.
He was bearing down on her in that way of his, not even giving the other person a chance to—
Wong or white, snook? he said. Clock’s ticking! Answer, please!
Well, how should she know? Who she’d be if she weren’t her? Why would you want to even know that? It didn’t amount to anything.
“Ma, you want to go over, say hi?” Pammy said. “She’s an old friend, right?”
“Well, she’s old,” Alma said. “But she’s no friend of mine.”
“Ma, God,” Pammy said.
“We never had nothing to do with her,” Alma said. “Big hippie. Never meant nothing to us.”
Not much she hadn’t.
owie! Here came Alma Carlson. Up Pine. Daughter in tow. Pammy or Kimmie or whoever. She’d seen the son, Paulie, at Wegman’s yesterday, arms full of flowers. For Alma (!). Not sure how that worked: Mean Old Thing (Alma) gets Mother’s Day flowers; Nice, Generous Mom (her, Debi!) gets—
Lord, what a face: shrivelled apple. Drawstring purse pulled tight.
When was God or whoever going to lower the boom? On a meanie like that? Or did she just get to live out her life, mean as all getout? Oh, God, Schmod, she, Debi, wasn’t a big believer in God or Hell or any of that male-based crap. She’d been no angel herself, having done (yes) a few drugs in her day, and also she didn’t exactly love the idea of showing up at the pearly gates or whatnot and having St. Whoever look her up in his book and go, Whoa, hey, I was just sitting here tabulating the number of guys you had in your life, and, yikes, can you wait here a second while I go check with God on what the limit is?
(Why did we use that word when the actual sound was more like swep?)
Because, O.K., yes, she’d loved men. And they’d loved her. Back in the day. For her? It was a form of joyous overflow. Like that art guy on TV who loved to paint so much that sometimes his wife got peeved, and he’d go, holding up his brush, “Joyous overflow, Ruthie! Mea culpa!” She’d been like that. But with sleeping with guys. Ha! She’d enjoyed every last one of them. Even the sleazes. Especially the sleazes! That salesman from Ohio! With his little blindfolds? What had that been about? Did he carry them everywhere? Apparently! But, God bless him, that was just him, that was his thing. Everyone had a thing, or several things, and her view was, if you loved the universe (which she did, or liked to think she did, or, anyway, sure tried to), you had to love all of it. Even Mr. Ohio (Tom? Tim?) with his little blindfold case. Where was he now? He’d been like fifteen years older than her. So he’d be . . . what? In a home? Dead? Having his own interesting conversation with St. Whoever? Re the blindfolds? Re the not exactly stopping when she’d asked—
But even that—you learned something from everything. Or, at least, she did. What she’d learned from Mr. Ohio was—
Well, she wasn’t sure.
Don’t date guys from Ohio.
What a hoot.
Tim/Tom from Ohio had been followed by who? Whom? Carl, then Tobin, then the Lawrence/Gary combo. After that it got blurry. Lord, what a roster! She’d really lived. Had not discriminated between tall/short, nerdy/cool, married/not married, whatever. No blockages. No hangups. If you’re interested in me, I thank you for that, I bow to that part of you that bows to me, let’s get it on. Ha. No, really, she recanted exactly none of it. Why recant openness to the moment? Bring it! Even now, bring it! Open, open, open! She ought to run across Pine and give Alma a hug. That would freak the old bitch out.
But no. If she’d learned anything in her life it was: you had to accept people the way they were.
Like Vicky. Her daughter. Whoever Vicky had been at any given moment, she, Debi, had accepted it. When Vicky wanted to be a bookworm and wear those big cloddy boots and memorize everything about the French Revolution and always be tidying up the house and scrubbing the toilets and whatnot, she’d been like, Go for it, kiddo, I accept you. When Vicky wanted to mow the lawn because the parade was this weekend, and the whole town would see how long their grass was (as if that were a thing), have at it, amiga, even though you’re only like eight, reach way up and dig in with your cloddy boots and push that big heavy mower, I won’t be embarrassed about it at all.
Whatever Vicky had wanted to be, that had been fine with her.
Only wouldn’t it have been cool if what Vicky had wanted to be was a less subservient, more out-there type of girl, so self-assured that nothing ever threw her? Somehow she’d got stuck with the wrong kid. Which made for some tension. Vicky was so uptight. Everything had to be perfect. Like once Vicky brought over this nice young guy, Rob, and she, Debi, made them mac-and-cheese, but there was no milk, as she’d been getting the runaround from Phil, or maybe it was Dennis, and was a little distracted and hadn’t been to the store in a week or two, so she made it with strawberry yogurt, and the kids declined to eat it, and she pointed out (just being honest) that they must be a couple of pretty privileged humans if they were turning up their noses at what would pass, in ninety per cent of the world, for a fucking feast, and at the F-word Rob (the son of surgeons) had blanched or blushed or whatever (basically looked like he was about to throw up and/or fall over from shock), and Vicky had started stuttering, and all that time Vicky—she remembered this in particular, this detail being so classically Vicky (big self-sabotager)—had kept her retainer on, like a harmonica holder. With a boy over! What was that about?
So, yes: tense. Tense between them. Tenser and tenser. Finally, senior year, Vicky had pulled this really skillful tension-release move. Of bolting. Running off. With that little punk Al Fowler and his stringbean cousin. Al came back a few months later, said they’d left her in Phoenix, she was being a total bitch.
Two weeks after that, a postcard: “Ma I’m fine don’t try to find me.”
And that was that.
Thirty-two years ago.
Not a word since.
It was what it was.
But you know what? Actually? She felt good about it. She did. She’d raised an independent young woman. A young woman so intent on getting what she needed she hadn’t even bothered to say goodbye. To her own mother. That was bold. That was awesome. She’d raised a warrior princess. Because if Vicky had said goodbye Debi would have tried to talk her out of it. She’d loved that kid so much. She would have said, like, O.K., look, agreed, I’m a mess, there are too many men in my life, I’m not always available to help you with—whatever, algebra or whatnot—but give me another chance, and I’ll be more focussed on you and your needs, and will totally disavow who I am (a person always trying to say yes to life) and will do my best (hereby resolved!) to start saying no to life, and very fakely pouring myself into that constricting mold you seem to prefer me in (“Perfect Robotic Mother”), so that nothing I do will ever challenge you in the least or make you step even an inch outside your tiny restrictive comfort—
Alma was paused now across the street. Glaring at her. As if stuck.
What’s up, kid? What do you want? A bow? A salute? A wave?
Here you go, pal.
Care to wave back, Your Majesty?
Far be it from her to judge. Anyone. At any time. To judge was to dominate. To place yourself above another. Which she refused to do. Some would. Many did.
Although wouldn’t it be a hoot when Alma kicked the bucket and St. Whoever was like, Why so mean? Why so proud? Why such a hypocrite? Did you not find life beautiful? Where was your heart? Why did you squander your precious life force trying to possess, control, interfere?
And Alma, newly dead, would stand there, stunned, like, I’m having a realization right now. Who was correct? Debi. Who was wrong? Me, Alma. Then they’d show the movie of her life, and Alma would see what a fuckhound Paul was and that would really drive it all home.
Would she, Debi, be standing nearby, inside Heaven, looking on, amused? No. Because she was going to outlive Alma.
No. Let’s say she was dead. She’d be like, I knew you in life, Alma. Do you remember me?
Gosh, Debi, hi, I do, Alma would say. And I am so sorry. I was always a super-snoot to you.
Yes, you were, she’d say. But I forgive you.
And St. Whoever would look over, all impressed, like, Wow, even though she always treated you like crap, you are being totally cool to her right now.
But then again you fucked my husband, Alma would say. Like a gazillion times. According to that movie I just now watched. Even when I was in the hospital having Pammy.
Does that come as a surprise to you? St. Whoever would say. About your husband?
It does, yes, Alma would say. I lived in a state of self-imposed blindness, never seeking truth.
That’s too bad, St. Whoever would say. That’s some bad juju right there. What is the greater sin, do you think, adultery or standing in the way of true love?
I don’t know, Alma would say.
Standing in the way of true love, St. Whoever would say.
But he was my husband, Alma would say.
Well, marriage is just a shallow cultural tradition, St. Whoever would say. At least, it is to us up here.
She fucked him and fucked him, Alma would say, all crestfallen. Right under my nose. And I never knew.
And yet here I am in Heaven, Debi would say. Think about it.
Ha. That had all just popped out.
The creative mind, wow.
Well, Paul had deserved better. Than Alma. He was so sweet. You got the feeling that, in being a fuckhound, he was just acting on his true nature. He took so much joy in it, flattered you so sincerely after, never ignored you in public, like so many did, but always lit up when he saw you and sometimes even gave you a wink, with Alma standing right there, which was weirdly delicious, because Alma (she had to admit it) had always had this sort of glamour, being one of the older girls and (oh, she could give her this much) really pretty. One time, at some sort of yard party, Paul had given Debi that wink and they’d snuck off to a pool shed or some such, and afterward, when he rejoined Alma, who was (as she so often was back then, ha ha) looking worried, Paul put his hand right on Alma’s ass while giving her, Debi, a second wink, and Alma had brightened so sweetly at his hand on her ass, as if it really meant something to her, that, thinking of that pathetic little brightening now, she, Debi, felt a twinge of sisterhood, as in “Men are pigs, sister, are they not?,” although, at the time, not so much, because she’d just been dumped by either Derek or Clive, and that second wink (which meant, as she took it, “Das Wifen has no clue how bondingly naughty it was for you to go down on me just now while sitting on that tub of chlorine”) had just made her really, really happy.
Could that guy ever talk! “I am maximally ardent pour toi,” he’d said. She’d written that one down. In her Krazee Jernel. Those were the days! You did whoever, then wrote about it in your Krazee Jernel.
How could Alma not have known? What a fucker Paul had been? Literally? Debi, Linda, Milly K., that Iranian gal, both Porter sisters, Mag Kelly, Evelyn Sonderstrom. And those were just the ones she personally knew about! Everyone knew. How could Alma not know? You’d walk around town and there’d be tall pale nerdy Paul sneaking out of some house, or leading some gal (her, Debi, ha, guilty as charged) around back of St. Jude’s for a quickie, humming “Kumbaya” ironically. A few days after that, he’d sent her a bracelet. Nice bracelet, actually. Still had it. She should donate it. To a women’s shelter. Jesus, who had she been back then? Doinking a married guy? Behind a church?
No, you know what? She loved that woman. Praised that woman. That woman she’d been: authentic, spontaneous, never thought twice. About anything.
Sometimes it was so frustrating! To have been born in the wrong time! In the future, she was pretty sure, people would be open and free, and fuck whoever they wanted, and live communally, all responsibilities shared, and if you dug cooking and cleaning and whatnot you’d do that, or if you were more creative, and felt more authentic hanging out with others, offering counsel re their problems, smoking a little hash to go deeper, you’d do that. Nobody would own anything or anyone. Everyone would do exactly what he liked and nobody would gossip about anyone or look down on anyone or consider anyone slutty, and all the houses would be exactly the same size, and if someone started to build some fancy addition, bang, everyone would be right there, going, No you don’t, we are all equal here, and if the person made a fuss about it, they’d simply—well, there’d be some sort of council. That would very fairly and systematically bring that élitist down. To their level. Make her live in a smaller house. For penance. And some of that wiser subgroup who had chosen to give counsel and smoke hash might symbolically take over the oppressor’s house. Just temporarily. And her husband. Until she was genuinely sorry. And if the élitist resisted, and refused to be genuinely sorry (as judged by them, the wiser subgroup), she could stay in that much smaller house until she relented, while the wiser group gathered outside, taunting her, enacting a sort of virtuous blockade, until she was nearly dying of hunger and—
It was so unfair. She’d loved Paul and Paul had loved her, but she’d never got to live with him for even a single minute, and then he’d broken it off, and she’d had to drive by his house every day on her way to that stupid receptionist job, watching that ugly new addition go up (and up and up), and sometimes there’d be Alma, standing cross-armed amid the framing, smugly smoking.
Who’d triumphed? Who was happy? Who was happy right now? Was Alma? She didn’t look very happy.
She, Debi, was happy.
Happy in this moment, just as it was. Wind picking up, clouds dark over the Rec, left heel out of her slipper: perfect.
Game, set, match: Debi.
Life was harsh, people said. But no. She disagreed. Life was wise. Life compensated. The love of your life broke it off, and many years passed, and your kid ran off, and that about killed you, but then, laid low, you were forced to take stock, see what had been good in your life, see what had been best, and when your answer was “Paul. Paul was the best thing that ever happened to me,” you drifted back to him, sought him out, sort of lured him back into it, into you, and what did you get? The happiest year of your life. Of both your lives. He said so. “I’ve never been so happy. That’s the truth.” His exact words. So she had that. Then he died. Just her luck.
She couldn’t exactly show up at Chasen-Winney for visiting hours, so she’d snuck out to the grave a few days later, bawling her eyes out. Then here came Alma. As always. The Interferer, the Truncator. In that sweet red Granada that Paul had just bought her. For her birthday. Ouch. Off she, Debi, had scurried, through the woods, ruining her new black pumps, because (who knew?) there was a swamp back there, eventually stumbling out, like some sort of dispirited ghost, at Wendy’s, where she’d had a milkshake, clay-red mud pooling up around her wrecked shoes, that mopping kid looking over at her, like, Lady, it’s weird that you’re crying in Wendy’s. Please leave, so I can clean your shit up.
And then she’d had to call Carl from work to drive her back to the graveyard to get her Dart.
Alone ever since.
“Ma, jeez, wave back,” Pammy said. “You’re acting nuts.”
I don’t believe I will, Alma thought.
“She’s just some old lady,” Pammy said. “Why hurt her feelings? Anyways, that’s what I think.”
“That’s because you don’t know shit about anything,” Alma said. “Look at you. What have you ever done?”
The breeze was suddenly cold, and leaves were skittering around.
Oh, great. Now Pammy was mad. Boo-hoo. Pammy was touchy. Dainty. Who knew why? She’d always treated Pammy-Putt square.
Ha. Pammy-Putt. She’d almost forgotten they used to call her that. Pammy-Putt. With the pigtails. At the end of one pigtail a pink tie and at the end of the other a yellow. Because Pammy-Putt wanted it like that. Little Pammy-Putt, standing on the footstool, confidently directing the pigtailing. She hadn’t thought of that in—she could smell that kid’s head now. Sort of sweet. Cloverish. Where had that smell gone? Where had that confident little gal—
Once, Pammy-Putt came home from second grade asking what a laughingstock was. And what was a philanderer? Who’d said those things? Alma demanded. Who’d been telling those filthy lies? She’d had a few nips. So was forceful. Pammy wouldn’t cough up a name. So she’d had Pammy stand on one foot awhile. Then Pammy-Putt got her mouth good and scrubbed with soap for disobeying a direct—
The church bells at St. Caspian’s rang once, twice, three times.
Now here came the rain. Perfect. Stupid Pammy. Eight blocks from home. Her knees were shot. What’s the plan, Pam? You carrying me? Pammy had a bad back. Pammy wasn’t carrying shit.
Some little hail-thingies came bouncing up off the sidewalk.
Ouch. Not pretty.
Hey! Damn! What the—
“Ma, we better run for it,” Pammy said.
Run? You run. I can’t, dummy, I haven’t run in—
Then she was. Running. Kind of. Behind Pammy. God, the shuffling funny way they ran now. The hail stung her arms like wasps. Wasps coming straight down. A lemon-sized hail-thingie smashed on the sidewalk in front of them like a snow cone.
Holy crap, if that hit a person?
Pammy had her sweatshirt off now and was holding it up. Over Alma’s head. Lord, what a kid. Standing there in her bra, bare pink arms up. So her ma wouldn’t get zoinked. Hair full of the smaller-size hail-thingies, like the plastic beadlets on them old Catholic—
She felt a rush of tenderness for Pammy.
Something clipped Pammy in the head, and a red mini-divot appeared at her hairline. Pammy seemed stunned. Too stunned to move. A tree? By the Ubernicks’. She pushed Pammy over by the tree. That was better. No, it wasn’t. The hail was cutting right down through the branches now. A shower of snapped branches crashed down on the Ubernicks’ fence: one, two, threefourfive. Jesus, they had to get out of here. One more branch came down, caught her on the shoulder. Hey, that hurt, clown! Like the time Karl Metz had whacked her with that hammer.
Someone was calling her name.
From across the street.
The hail-thingies bouncing off Debi’s black umbrella looked like sweat flying off a cartoon-guy’s head when he was supposed to be worried. Paul, Sr., had once shown her a porn like that. A cartoon porn. The one Paulie later found. Guy so worried, watching his wife have at it with a big sailor or—
It wouldn’t do. Wouldn’t do having Debi help. Or would it? It might. It wouldn’t. Paul had liked that one too much. Of all of them, he’d liked her best and stayed at her longest and gone back to her way after all the others were done. It was humiliating. That he should stay longest with the trashiest, strangest of all, always speaking kindly of her, as if he actually might—
Old man. Stupid old man. Old man in love. Old man so happy, in his boxers, in front of the fan, telling her all about it, like she was supposed to be happy, happy for him, happy for—
She waved Debi off.
We don’t need you, slut. We won’t have you.
She leaned against the Ubernicks’ fence. Dirty fence. Someone should paint it.
“Ma?” Pammy said, trickle of blood running down her face. “You O.K.? Ma?”
She pushed Pammy off. She couldn’t breathe. When pushed off, Pammy stayed off. Pammy was like that. Sweet but weak. No bounceback. You could push her right off.
The fence gave way. The ground came up. Ouch. Cheap fence. She ought to sue those stupid Uber—
She was on the ground now, severed bike pedal huge in her sight, ant crawling along it. The fence was up. Still up. Hadn’t given way. Only she had. Why the hell was she on the ground?
Oh, God, something with her heart, something with her—
The church bells at St. Caspian’s rang once, twice, three times.
Rain coming. What a drag.
She’d be stuck inside all day.
Across Pine, the Denisons’ sunflowers were bending in the breeze. Alma and what’s-her-name were standing hunched over like a couple of lady trolls. Mom troll and daughter troll, out on the troll town. On Troll Mother’s Day. How nice. How sweet. How weird.
One last swep.
Here it came.
Let it rain! Jesus, what a deluge! Bring it! Yes! Gorgeous! Memo from Mother Nature: I can be one crazy dame. Don’t piss me off, I shall instantaneously make Pine Street a river and back up the gutters and cast forth (whoa! dang!) a torrent of tiny pinging crystals, which you humans call “hail,” but which I, Mother Nature, call “my wondrous display,” which shall resound or rebound to the music I play, such that they shall—whoa! dang! fuck!—ricochet up off the rain-slick black street and come bouncing back as high as your waist, falling alike on the lowly and the—
How was Alma doing over there? Not great. Getting pounded. Ha! There you go, kid. There’s an example of world-serving-as-teacher. Try snooting your way out of this one, Your Majesty.
From somewhere came the sound of a parade, that distant-drum sound, which was weird, because wouldn’t it have been cancelled? On account of the hail? Only it wasn’t a parade; it was the sound the biggest hailstones yet made smashing down on (yikes!) the Ubernicks’ Fiesta, the Neillys’ trash can, which—oof!—tumped over (as if knocked unconscious) and rolled directly out onto Pine.
Pammy or Cammie or whoever had her shirt off now and was making a tent of it, over Alma.
Over her mother.
Kind of sweet, actually.
Oh, hell’s bells, hang on, somewhere in this mess she must have a—
She stepped in, grabbed Dad’s duck-handled umbrella from the rack, stepped out.
Because who was she? She was Debi. Who was Debi? Debi was generous, a generous soul. She was known for that—she gave and gave and reached out to others, no matter how badly they’d treated her, even a meanie like Alma, who (yes, O.K., she admitted it) she’d often wished dead, so that she might have a decent chance at the man she loved and a real house and all the things you were supposed to get in this world—but, no, she didn’t wish Alma dead anymore, because she, Debi, was love, was forgiveness, was goodness, was light; where there was need there was Debi, which was why she was about to do what she was about to—
She stepped out, umbrella up, yelled across.
Wait a minute.
Had Alma waved her off?
She had. Oh, my God. You have got to be kidding. What nerve! What balls! Still queen? Peasant girl still too lowly? To come fetch you, Your Highness?
Stick it, Alma.
Let this be a lesson to you.
There is some shit I will not eat.
Because she, Debi, was also a person who had the wisdom to let the world teach the evil ones a lesson while she stood calmly by, watching/trusting the cosmos.
She stepped back inside, slammed the door, shot the umbrella into the stand, retreated to the middle room, Mom and Dad’s old room, angrily pulled her tax things from the file cabinet, sat shuffling the forms uselessly around, thinking of how strange it was (beautiful, really, a mysterious unsought blessing) that, after a lifetime of being everybody’s joke (easy lay, jilted lover, discarded mom), she was finally (in the eleventh hour) learning to frigging stand up for herself.
She stayed in there about fifteen minutes, fuming, getting absolutely nothing done, until she heard the first ambulance arrive and leapt to the window, heart in her throat, and watched as, without even trying the shocking-paddles, they pulled the sheet up over Alma’s head and loaded her in.
Debi’s mind lurched forward, sputtered, went (momentarily) quiet.
Alma got hold of a fence slat. To pull—pull herself out. Of this. Pain. Something new was happening now. The tightness in her chest was worse. Jesus. Like labor with Paulie. Then it went past that, to labor with Pammy, and she was giving birth to something bigger than Pammy, out her chest.
God, oh God.
Pop! is how she would have described it had she still been able to describe.
A number of little beings came now. God, get back. You didn’t know whether to pet them or kick them. As they gazed up at her intently, she saw they were saying, Careful, girlie, careful.
Then their boss-being came: a man.
Looking so handsome.
“Did you finally wake up, dear?” she said. “And love the right person? The one who knew you longest and understood you best?”
Looking at him, she saw the answer was no.
The little beings condensed into two. Boy and a girl. Paul tapped them on the head and they turned into babies. Who stood cowering beside Paul. Giving her the stink eye. Like he was guarding them. From what? From her? In a pig’s ass! It was his fault! He never let us be a family!
“Now will you accept me as I am?” Paul said.
What? What a crock! How about you accept me as I am? Treat me nice. Like a wife. A real wife. Forsake all others. Love just me. Is that too much to ask?
She saw it was still a no and always would be.
It hurt. So much. Again. Well, if he wanted a fight, she knew how to fight. She liked it. She was good at it. She’d make him pay. The way she always had. You’d think he’d know that by—
She looked down. Her hands were glowing. Glowing red.
“This has nothing to do with him,” the girl baby said. “How do you want to be?”
How could that baby talk so well? She was like a little genius. In a diaper. And what did she mean? It had everything to do with him. He’d done it all. Turned everything bad. Before Paul had messed with her, she’d been a smiling little dear sniffing lilacs on graduation day, swinging her diploma by one corner. It was Paul. Paul who’d made her hands this way. She went to wipe her eyes and started her hair on fire.
Now Paul was gone. The babies looked lost. She should pick them up. She went for the boy. His eyes got wide at her hot hands. He toddled away. She went for the girl. She toddled away. It was like when you dropped a piece of paper on a windy day and it grew a mind bent on eluding you. She stood still. The babies drifted back. They wanted her. But she had the hand problem. She went for the boy. Who toddled away. She went for the girl. Who toddled away.
Then it happened again.
For like a hundred years.
A stump appeared. At some point.
At least now she could sit.
She sat trying to figure it out.
It seemed she was meant to admit that she was wrong. But she wasn’t. If she was wrong about this, there was no right.
Maybe she could fake it.
“O.K., O.K.,” she said aloud. “I was wrong. The whole time. About everything.”
Hands still hot.
The stump began rising. Lifting her above the babies. Then: a terrible bark-cackling. The beings were back. With big old teeth.
Here they came, scrambling hyena-like across a vast plain.
Lord, so fast. She’d have to hoist the babies up. She reached down, grabbed the boy, singed his little arm.
How to do it, how to do it, how to get her hands to cool?
“Whose fault was it?” the girl baby asked.
“His!” Alma cried. “His, his, his!”
Her arms went hot right up to the elbows. Big bully! Whoever’d made her this way, unable to lie, was jerking her around now because she wouldn’t lie.
The hyena-beings were closing in, all meat-breath and yellow teeth.
“Whose?” the girl baby said. “Whose fault?”
“I don’t know,” she cried desperately. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I really don’t! Mine? My fault?”
“No,” the girl baby said.
What the hell? Fine, forget the babies, she’d keep the hot hands. She was what she was. No one could blame her. As long as she was Alma, she’d be mad. She had a right. Did she want to be mad? No. What she wanted to be was her, younger. Her, non-mad. Her, not yet mad. Pre-Paul. Smelling lilacs, swinging that diploma. No, even before that: so young she wanted nothing yet, liked nothing, disliked nothing. No, before that: before she was even Alma, because Alma would always find Paul, love Paul, and Paul would always be Paul.
It came to her, and then was happening: it would be fixed when she stopped being Alma.
Her arms and hands went cool and pale, perfectly normal.
She reached down, hauled the babies up.
“Who do you want to be?” the girl baby whispered into her ear as the stump rose just high enough to keep them safe from the hyena-beings bark-cackling below.
It was like waiting at the top of the Alpine in that little wooden car, unable to believe that what was about to happen was about to happen, and then, even as you thought, God, oh God, this cannot possibly—
“Nobody even close to home in there,” the paramedic named Henry said to the paramedic named Claire.
Which was rude, Claire thought. But actually, no, it was fine: the daughter was out of earshot, sobbing against a tree.