I caught Heather at home about an hour later, just as she was about to go shopping. I had no clue where she would be going because the only place I could picture her was Frederick’s of Hollywood, and the mall hadn’t yet opened. Her breasts were jutting from the low neckline of her scoop neck blouse and her long legs protruded from the short hemline of her micro-mini skirt. She invited me in and quietly explained that Tiffani was in her bedroom getting ready for their shopping trip. We huddled together at her dining room table and she proceeded to tell me all about the previous evenings disastrous dinner in a hushed, venomous tone.
Chavez had tried sneaking a beer when her back was turned. He’d lit up a cigarette during dessert. And she swore her called her “bitch” at the end of the evening when he thanked her for her hospitality.
“I still don’t like him,” she surmised vehemently. I couldn’t say as I blamed her after hearing about his insolent behavior. “I told her I’d let her go to the prom tonight, as a sort of test. They’re to go to the prom, and only the prom, stay at the prom the whole time, and be home by eleven. If they screw up, they won’t be allowed to see each other again.”
“I don’t know if that will work,” I warned.
“What do you mean?” Her eyebrows drew together, forming something I’d never seen on Heather’s face before: a small wrinkle puckered the space between her two perfectly groomed eyebrows.
“Did you do everything your mother told you to?”
Heather looked crestfallen. “Oh, I see your point.”
I apologized for not being more help to her and was about to leave when she placed her cold hand on my shoulder.
“She won’t listen to me because I’m her mother. . .” She trailed off as she looked beseechingly at me, silently willing me to fill in the blank.
“She won’t listen to me either. I already tried, and you see how well that worked,” I said as I shook my head.
She hurriedly reminded me again how much Tiffani looked up to me and just maybe I could “talk some sense into her.” I was feeling extremely uncomfortable, as much from Heather’s pleading as from her sterile decorating style. I finally agreed to speak to Tiffani again, only because it seemed to be the fastest course of action to get me out of her house.
“Thanks, Cami Jo,” Heather said, walking me to the door. “Now I need to hurry Tiffani up so we can buy her a prom dress.”
My family was waiting for me on the front porch when I returned home. Bill and Dylan were dressed almost identically in jeans and dark t-shirts, while Katie Nicole wore jeans and a tie-dye t-shirt. Dylan fidgeted from foot to foot, and he raced to the car when he saw me approaching. He’d never gone roller skating before and his excitement was palpable. Katie Nicole was more nonchalant, because she’d been skating since she was Dylan’s age. She tried to act cool but I could tell she was excited, too. It had been years since Bill had skated, and I thought he was beginning to regret his foolhardy decision to join us. I had gotten my first pair of skates when I was Katie Nicole’s age. I was clumsy in many aspects of my life, but on roller skates I was like a duck in water!
Growing up in a small town without much to do in the way of entertainment, I’d learned early on you could either get into trouble or get involved in sports. Fortunately, after testing the troubled waters a bit, I chose the latter: tennis, volleyball, swimming, and skating. The only other way to amuse myself had been to go to the movies and the library. But the library was so small that I eventually read every book in it. I didn’t particularly enjoy sitting in a cold, uncomfortable movie theater for two hours either. So, I spent almost every Saturday afternoon of my youth at the skating rink.
I held Dylan’s hand tightly at first, but in no time he was keeping pace with his sister. After I saw Bill take his third tumble, I offered him my hand instead. He was a good sport about it, though, and only laughed off my look of concern.
I was the only member of my family who was brave enough to go out for the dangerous Fast Skate. I must admit, I enjoyed my rare gracefulness and showed off by skating backward. The kids joined me for the ‘YMCA,’ and we convinced Bill to do the ‘Hokey Pokey’ as our final skate of the day.
“You’re a great skater, Mom,” Dylan said on the way home.
I’d heard the same thing from Katie Nicole the first time I’d taken her, but I never grew tired of hearing my children say I was good at something. I knew my days were numbered before my kids considered me to be a hopeless dork.
“Thanks,” I said with a smile.
As soon as we got home, Dylan began writing in his notebook at the dining room table. Katie Nicole disappeared into her room to pack for her sleepover at Kiley’s house. Bill hobbled slowly to the couch and lowered himself gently onto it. He declined my offer of an ice pack, but gratefully accepted the Motrin I brought him. I set him up with some fluffy pillows, the remote, and a glass of ice water. Then I told him I needed to talk to Bethany for a minute.
She was consumed with her “pre-third date ritual” of primping, preening, and painting. The date was still hours away, but there wasn’t time to lose when there was so much waxing, shaving, and plucking to be done.
I wasn’t envious; I’d grown quite fond of only shaving my entire legs when I took the kids to the swimming pool. Bill had gotten used to my somewhat slovenly habits and stubbly legs. I loved the way I felt when I was all dolled up, but I hated to take the time to do it.
After ten years of marriage and two kids, Bill still thought I was beautiful no matter what I did or didn’t do to myself. Dolled up or skanky, it seemed to make no difference to him. God, how lucky could a girl get?
I helped Bethany choose from the vast assortment of slinky dresses that were strewn across her bed. The low-cut red dress had made another appearance, and once again it didn’t cut the mustard. I wanted to suggest she should throw it away, but decided to hide it behind a floor-length Valentino gown in the back of her closet instead. I helped her choose a white dress and was ready to return home and tend to my injured husband some more.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” I quipped from her doorway.
She poked her head out of the closet. “Exactly how much do you do?”
I chuckled the whole way home.
I dropped Katie Nicole off at Kiley’s house and verified with her mother when she would bring Katie Nicole home the next afternoon. Then I swung by a drive-thru and brought home a bucket of extra-crispy chicken with all the fixings for dinner. Afterward, I urged Bill to relax and he obliged by dozing off in front of the TV.
Dylan and I waited for the first twinkling star before we clipped on Frank’s leash and headed out into the twilight. Our neighborhood at dusk was awesome for all five senses to behold: the smell of mowed grass and honeysuckle, the last bevy of doves cooing overhead before roosting in the pine trees for the night, and the singing of the crickets intermingling with the plaintive “Who?” of the resident Great Horned owl.
Our paths crossed a few of our neighbors as they took their own daily constitutions. I hadn’t ever formally met most of them, so we merely nodded an acknowledgment at one another. I didn’t know any of their names and I wondered if they knew who I was, and if their signatures appeared on my membership list.
Each house we passed looked warm and inviting, some ablaze with lights and others dark save for one brilliantly lit window. Dark shadows occasionally passed in front of a curtained picture window as the occupant moved around inside. The only light emanating from some houses was the unmistakable flicker of a TV set.
“I thought they were brother and sister,” Dylan said as we neared our house. His sneakers shuffled in time to the slapping of my flip-flops.
“Who?” I asked.
He jerked his chin across the street in response. I’d taught him long ago it was impolite to point and I was glad he remembered that lesson so as to not draw attention to what was going on across the street.
Jon and Tonya Johnson were locked in an embrace so tight a sheet of paper couldn’t have fit between them. Their lips were locked together just as tightly. As I watched, Jon’s hand strayed down to Tonya’s round jean-clad butt. Even from across the street I could see their tongues darting around.
My attention had been so riveted to the incestuous spectacle that I had completely forgotten about Dylan. “Hmm?”
“Aren’t they brother and sister?”
“I thought so,” I said, trying to keep a judging tone out of my voice.
“Well, I would never kiss Katie Nicole like that.”
The last pink smudges in the sky faded to a velvety purple as Dylan and I walked up our driveway. Our own two-story house was one of the blazing homes; practically every light in the house appeared to be burning. The flowers I had planted added an inviting touch to the walk and the gardenias under the living room window carried their cloying scent all the way to the porch.
We entered the front door and were greeted by the sight of Bill sprawled across the couch, his limbs akimbo and snoring slightly. He awakened when Frank jumped on his chest to lick his face. Fortunately, Bill seemed to be feeling better, and his ass had fully recovered by bed time. In fact, he was recuperated enough to give me a lingering kiss and ask in a husky voice if, “Brandon’s the only one who’s gonna get lucky tonight?”
I awoke some time later with a start, my heart beating a heavy metal rhythm in my chest. Bill snored like a diesel truck beside me and I envied his ability to sleep through crying babies, thunderstorms, or barking dogs. I checked the clock and saw it was one o’clock in the morning. I inwardly groaned and prayed to fall back asleep. Before I could, though, I heard a noise.
Unlike Mrs. Matilda, I kept our windows open as often as the weather permitted. That night the weather was perfect: seventy degrees, no humidity, and a gentle breeze. I could hear crickets and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. But the sound that roused me was something else entirely. What I heard was the sound of a shuffling footstep on the front porch.
I jumped out of bed, instantly wide awake, and ran down the stairs with my heart hammering in my ear. It was pounding so hard that I didn’t hear the soft tapping until my hand was on the doorknob. Without bothering to check the peephole, I unlocked the door and flung it open. I don’t think I would have believed even Miss Kitty if she’d predicted who would be standing on my front porch.
I was shocked to see Mrs. Matilda on the porch, and even more shocked by her attire. She wore a voluminous flannel housecoat, a pair of pink bunny slippers, and a hair net over top of a head full of sponge curlers. Grasped firmly in her hand was a straw purse. Thick gobs of green cold cream slicked the fleshy jowls of her face, and I fleetingly wondered how she managed to smear it in all the folds of her triple chins. She brushed past me, slamming the tip of her cane squarely down on my bare foot in the process. She flopped down onto the couch and I sat down beside her.
“It was back,” she simply stated. We just stared at each other for a second, her face appearing naked without her glasses, before she continued. “I’d just gone to bed, and was laying there saying my prayers when the door opened and a dark figure was standing there!”
“What’d you do?” I asked.
“I screamed, you ninny. What would you have done?” She peered at me sharply. “Anyway, after I screamed, it ran away.”
“I never heard of a poltergeist who ran away before,” I commented.
Mrs. Matilda glowered at me. “Don’t be daft,” she said crossly. “I realize now it must have been a man all along!”
We sat in silence for a second.
“What does a girl have to do to get a drink around here?” she asked.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, standing up and glancing down at her. “What would you like? Water? Iced tea?” I headed for the kitchen, but her answer gave me pause in the doorway.
“I’m a big girl. How about something a little stronger?”
“I’ll see what we’ve got,” I called back to her.
Bill and I weren’t big drinkers and didn’t have much of a selection of liquor to choose from. Mrs. Matilda was forced to settle for a 7 & 7, to which she curled her nose but drank, nevertheless. I watched in amazement as she chugged the entire contents in one long swallow, her neck wattles quivering as her throat worked.
“That sure hit the spot.” She smacked her lips and held out her glass for a refill. When I didn’t respond quickly enough, Mrs. Matilda jiggled her empty glass at me impatiently.
With a second drink in hand, she settled back and resumed her tale: after the intruder left, so did she. Which explained how she’d ended up on my front porch in the middle of the night. I wondered why she hadn’t called the police or gone to Ms. Gertie’s, but figured she must have been upset and not thinking clearly.
“Well, you can’t go back there,” I said after she finished her drink.
After another stiff drink, her third in less than fifteen minutes, she readily agreed to spend the rest of the night with me. She also blearily went along with my plan to get her moved in with Ms. Gertie first thing in the morning.
“Let’s get you to bed, where you’ll be more comfortable,” I said, struggling to help her to her feet. “Upsy-daisy.”
We listed up the stairs with her arms wrapped around me for support. I got her settled in the upstairs guest room before returning to my own bed. Bill was still snoring, completely oblivious to the recent events, and from across the hall I heard a resonant snore come from behind the closed guest room door.
Early the next morning, as the rest of my family still slept, I deposited Mrs. Matilda off at Ms. Gertie’s house. Upon hearing about the intruder, Ms. Gertie burst into tears of sympathy for her friend. I left them in Ms. Gertie’s spacious living room, which already looked smaller with Mrs. Matilda’s presence in it. They quickly began making plans to retrieve Mrs. Matilda’s essentials and most prized possessions from her house during the day. I paused at the front door long enough to remind them to get it all done during the daylight hours. I would only leave after they vowed to be all locked in, “safe and sound,” at Ms. Gertie’s house before dark.
Bethany came by just as I got home, wearing white shorts and sandals in honor of Memorial Day. I had just finished loading the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. Bill and Dylan were watching a thunderous action movie in the living room. The movie was full of dramatic Foley art to enhance the already loud sound. Bethany had to lean over and whisper in my ear to be heard without shouting.
“We did it.”
I had a claustrophobic sense of déjà vu, complete with the funky-smelling cafeteria and the sounds of locker doors slamming shut. My high school flashback was broken by Dylan’s uproarious burst of laughter from the living room. I grabbed Bethany’s hand and dragged her into my bedroom, closing the door behind us. She sat at my secretary and began rearranging various items of my desk set. I hurriedly began to strip the sheets from my unmade bed.
“It was magical,” she said breathlessly.
“The sex?” I asked, pulling a clean sheet over the mattress.
“That too. But I was talking about the entire evening.”
The evening did sound magical as she described it to me: the candles, the wine, and the moonlight and thousands of stars shining in his eyes. Apparently, Brandon smelled better than he looked, and felt even better still. He was gentle and skilled, “very tender and conscientious,” was how Bethany described him. He sounded more like a house-trained puppy than a lover I concluded as I pulled up the comforter.
“I feel like celebrating,” Bethany declared after she impressed me with how many orgasms Brandon had brought her to.
“That’s because it’s been almost two years since you last did it,” I pointed out and tossed the last decorative throw pillow in place.
Bethany sounded defensive. “I’m selective.”
“Better than being a slut,” I said. I balled up the dirty sheets and deposited them on top of my overflowing laundry basket.
Bethany returned to the subject of celebrating, at the same time fiddling with my space pen that could write upside down. I was still wearing my Tweetie pajamas, and had barely managed to brush my teeth, let alone feel up to celebrating. We pinky-promised to have a Girl’s Night on Friday; “come rain or shine, hell or high water.”
After Bethany left, I mentioned my plans with her to Bill, who thought it was a splendid idea. In fact, he suggested we should go out dancing or do something crazy like hire a stripper. He seemed to truly believe our periodic Girl’s Nights at Bethany’s house were actually raunchy pajama parties in disguise. I reminded him yet again that we just listened to music, gossiped, and washed it all down with countless pitchers of margaritas.
“A guy can dream, can’t he?” Bill asked.
For the second morning in a row I went to Heather’s house to find out the latest installment of the Tiffani and Chavez saga. Heather answered the door wearing a tight pair of Levi’s and even tighter white t-shirt. For once, she was wearing a bra. The red lace showed through the thin cotton of her shirt like a stop sign. I know I certainly stopped when I first noticed it, which was about one second after she opened the door.
Her blue eyes were swollen and there were dark circles underneath them. She must have forgotten Miss Kitty’s Pot of Gold, I reflected as I entered her sterile living room. At least it smelled sterile, like ammonia and Lysol. There was a large pink stain on the middle of her living room carpet. It had faded considerably, the bubbles foaming overtop was evidence of that, but it was still quite visible. It looked as if someone had been stabbed; it was only missing an outline of a body around it.
“What the hell happened here?” I asked after taking two steps into the room.
“Chavez is what happened here,” she said.
I wondered if she had finally gotten angry enough to have killed him, and I must have given her more than just a blank look of surprise.
“More accurately,” she went on, “it was Tiffani. But it was all his fault. He got her drunk last night on strawberry wine coolers and she puked on the floor when she got home!”
“Oh God,” I said.
“Yeah,” Heather agreed. “She’s sleeping it off right now, but I’m saving the rest of the mess for her to clean up. I only cleaned as much as I did because I couldn’t stand the smell anymore.”
“Did they go to the prom at all?”
“Oh, yeah. They got drunk first and it’ll be a wonder if the school doesn’t call me and want to suspend her. They have a zero tolerance policy about alcohol at school functions.”
“Maybe no one noticed,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “If you could’ve seen the condition she came home in you wouldn’t be saying that. I can’t believe she did something so stupid.”
“Did she at least make curfew?”
Heather rolled her red-rimmed eyes again. “Yes, but who cares? She’s not allowed to see him anymore! Coming home drunk and puking on the floor aren’t the worst things, though.”
I could only look at her, dreading what she was about to say.
“She started undressing in front of me and, Cami Jo, her panties were missing!”
“Oh God,” I repeated.
“I just want to choke the shit out of both of them.” I didn’t blame her. I thought of my own daughter coming home in a similar situation, and I kind of wanted to choke Tiffani myself. Her mother had given her a chance, against her better judgment, and Tiffani had blown it big time.
I stayed only a little while longer because Tiffani woke up. I let myself out before the shit could hit the fan, and hurried home to my blessedly normal family. I reminded myself again that when I’d first met Tiffani seven years earlier, she’d seemed just like Katie Nicole at the age she was now.
Currently, my daughter was dancing around on our front porch wearing her bathing suit. The neighborhood pool was about to have its annual opening, and I was the only member of my family not ready to go. I remembered how Tiffani liked to wear her bikini around the neighborhood all summer long, and I hurriedly shooed Katie Nicole inside the house.
Bill and I spent the rest of the day at the pool with our kids. My job mostly consisted of throwing various objects into the water for the kids to fetch. Bill’s job consisted of throwing the kids as high into the air as he could so they could make the biggest splash possible. I also began the arduous task of teaching Dylan how to dive. Katie Nicole had perfected her dive the previous summer, after practicing two long summers in a row. Now it was Dylan’s turn. As I watched him do some sort of frog jump into the deep end, I figured it would probably take him three summers before he could perform anything resembling a dive.
As usual, a couple of random teen-age boys tried to saunter through the gate without signing the guest book. Unbeknownst to them, an off-duty lifeguard sat at the entrance and checked each new arrival’s signature against the list of members’ names who had paid the outrageous annual dues. The two teens were stopped immediately by two swaggering, muscular lifeguards, wearing matching red swim trunks. Then the two teens were unceremoniously escorted by their elbows back out the way they’d entered, long before their feet could ever touch the frigid water.
We ate a dinner of corn dogs and chips from the concession stand, and chatted with acquaintances from summers past. The kids ate their dinners at picnic tables nearby, surrounded by other children. They eagerly renewed old friendships and sniped about having to return to school the next day.
We left when the pool closed at eight, and walked home listening to our kids gripe some more about the upcoming school day. They didn’t want to shower and wash off the chlorine and sunscreen. They didn’t feel it was necessary to brush their teeth, and only did so under my watchful eye. They certainly had no desire to go to bed, only to awaken in the morning and go to school. They protested vehemently, but in the end, they slept the fitful sleep of the physically exhausted.