The Luxury of Time

Margaret groped crusty tissues, two prescription bottles and a Katherine Porter novel to find her tortoiseshell frames. She knew the time of day only by the color of her bedroom; the angle of the sun hit different parts of the color-blocked curtains at different times of day. Orange meant early morning. Candace would need feeding and William will want breakfast when he comes home from his shift, but Margaret continued floating on the island of her mattress.

 

The diner was dark except for the green neon glow of jukeboxes peering from every tabletop. A woman stared at her across a row of cherry red booths, her hair pinned up so a single russet curl fell perfectly above her eyes. She smoked a cigarette as if she were thumbing through a magazine. The absence of waitstaff behind the long counter unsettled Margaret as she strode to join the woman who so obviously expected her. She wished the blinds in the windows were open, even knew it only looked out onto a parking lot and an expressway. Margaret heard the plugging sound of lips on cigarette.

“Well, someone call the press,”—plumes of smokes rose to the speckled ceiling as the woman spoke—“Miss Maggie Jane is in a place that serves Spam.”

“What do you mean? I eat Spam all the time.”

“Not out in public, you don’t. And you hide it behind the orange juice in the refrigerator as soon as you pull it out of the grocery sack.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Mothers know things.” After she said it, the shadows on the woman’s face fluttered like moths’ wings and Margaret recognized the curve of chin and the Jayne Mansfield-inspired eyebrows of the mother she’d only seen in photographs. In the silence after the woman’s quip, Margaret heard someone talking, the voice—a young woman’s—muffled by the closed metal swinging doors. A sign of life just beyond this room.

“You aren’t anyone’s mother,” Margaret said. There was a plate of French fries in front of her, but she couldn’t remember ordering or seeing a waitress deliver it.

“Boo hoo, missy. You know, there’s a reason why you only hear children saying “No fair” when the world doesn’t give them what they want.” The woman’s patent leather purse strap fell off her shoulder as she talked. Margaret watched her shake salt into her chocolate milkshake and stir it with her straw.

Maggie couldn’t taste her food; she was too distracted by the eerie quiet of the restaurant. No meat sizzling on a grill, no whir of a refrigerator engine, not even an Elvis song coming from one of the jukeboxes. The only sounds were the woman’s interjections whenever she took a sip of her milkshake—mmm. They grew louder the more of it she drank. Mmmm. MMM-mmm. By the time the milkshake was gone Margaret was relieved the diner was empty because the woman’s enjoyment verged on sounding sexual. The woman plucked several fries from Margaret’s plate, popping them in her mouth, all the while maintaining eye contact. The moans turned into half-screams as she chewed, subtle vowels entered the sounds. When the woman clearly screamed “Mommy,”  Margaret rolled her eyes, but then felt remorse when she grabbed Margaret’s hand and started bawling.

 

 

Margaret’s bedroom shined red, and on the other side of the door a man’s voice lilted above her daughter’s whimpering. The smell of William’s Brylcreem already permeated their small flat. She found her glasses resting on the duvet next to her hand and returned them to the nightstand. She picked up one of the prescription bottles and sprinkled a few over the duvet, careful not to make a sound. Her legs kicked off the sheets and blankets and her arms flung out to her sides, one hand still holding the bottle. She closed her eyes and waited for William to open the door.

The door finally creaked open a sliver, and then immediately closed. She heard William pick Candace up from her crib and walk into the kitchen. She opened her eyes again to the sizzling of bacon in a frying pan.

Chicken

My daughter holds the knife exactly as I taught her—arms straight out, left hand on the grip, right hand on the scabbard. She treads mindfully, keeping the sharp edge of the knife pointing away from the unicorn on her t-shirt. Our footfalls are barely audible because of the farm’s loose soil, and because I’d just told Letty to slow down. Her cadence, her concentration pushed a fast-forward button in my mind. Her body elongates. The knife blooms into a bouquet of calla lilies, her clothes bleach and stretch into a modest white dress.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I ask. “You don’t have to.”

The collie catches up after sniffing for squirrels along the low slats of the barn and stables. She huffs, kicks up dirt, yips. High-pitched. It’s all playful. She thinks we’re headed to a backfield to play frisbee.

“I can do it. I want to do it.” I check Letty’s face—no fear—but still I’m doubtful. She’d cartwheel through hell itself all day to show up her older brothers, but I’d tuck her in on the closet floor that night. The boys have been killing since they were 8, since the day I saw Porter take a hoe to a garter snake like he was sitting in church. Just like that. A white flutter had followed—the chickens disturbed by his victory howl.

The henhouse is quiet now. I open the latch and let Letty in, latch her in again. As I fill the pot with water and light the fire underneath, I hear her inside; her voice is a bee buzzing: “…it’s an honor to be Sunday dinner…you’ve had a good life.” She walks out of the shack carrying a hen upside down by the legs. “Easy,” she beams, white kernels of corn.

The double noose hangs from a support beam. It’s too high for her, so I move an egg crate closer. “Legs in the loops while she’s still calm.”

I picture what she’s about to do: the quick sideways slash, the spatter of blood on her jeans, the immersion of the carcass, white feathers floating in the boil. My stomach burbles. Letty’s still messing with the rope.

“Where’d that dog get at? Be right back. Just dip her in the water or plucking will be near impossible.”

“I know, Dad.”

I stop yelling the dog’s name when I get behind the silo.

Pull

Every night, Schlitzy and I take a walk around the neighborhood. I get to hand over the responsibilities of raising twin toddlers; Schlitzy gets to walk more than two steps without little hands attempting to shove crayons up his nose. I evict my brain of a worry with each step, eventually I find myself floating behind him, tethered only by Schlitzy’s leash. He is oblivious of his role as anchor; there are too many squirrel scents for his nose to track. I’m pretty sure that’s all our neighborhood is to him: lines of squirrel scents like spaghetti noodles dropped on the ground.

Last night, I felt a crunch beneath my foot as we were circling back behind Camden Elementary. A green plastic O, the kind with a magnet glued to the back so they can be arranged and rearranged on a fridge by tiny fingers, defied my path. As I reached down to pick the O up, I spotted more plastic letters scattered the sandy gulch around the aluminum merry-go-round.

One by one, I gathered the cold letters onto the flat plain of the metal, their magnetic pull surprising me at first, but then reminding me of those magnet science kits of my childhood—the hours I spent trying to force two repellant magnets together, watching the one I was holding throw off the other. With a P and a D, I performed the experiment again, only this time releasing them just as I feel their pull toward each other. They’d be mid-air for a split second before I’d hear the satisfying snap of their connection, confident in their new relationship.

I spelled words. Twins. Role. Display. Job. Looping. No place for the X and Y. Although, I did think of adding the X to the end of Role before imposing a “no proper noun” rule on myself, like in Scrabble. I’m not sure how long I sat there trying to use all the letters, but I got up when I felt Schlitz tug on his leash. The next thing I knew I was hanging his leash up on the peg next to my back door, Schlitz’s nails were tapping on the linoleum, and little arms were wrapping around my knee.