Carlee thinks she smells something dead in her oven, but she knows this is impossible because she keeps her kitchen as clean as her life.
A former Ponchatoula High School Strawberry Queen, Carlee Tantillo is married to an electrical engineer and has 2.7 children. She is choir director at the First United Episcopal Methodist Church and has just become president of the Junior League. She can solve any domestic problem.
Right now she is cooking breakfast in her newly-remodeled, sunlit kitchen with Corian countertops. As she smiles over a pan of scrambling eggs, Randall, eight, pulls at her apron, Nathan, five, is singing “I’m a Little Teapot,” and Donna, seven-tenths, is hanging from a sling on Carlee’s shoulder, taking her breakfast from an exposed but modest-sized breast that would offend no one who might catch a glimpse of it.
The last course Carlee slides onto the boys’ plates is pan-fried tomato slices. As she sips her Earl Grey tea and watches her children eat, she thinks of their futures, thinks of everything she has, which is everything she has ever wanted and planned for. Her mind whisks her back to high school, then takes a reflective turn.
In high school, every student has the same chance to succeed. They take the same classes and do well or not based on their own determination, and when they graduate they are prepared to pursue any goal they set before them: college and then graduate work in the various professions, or they can launch out right after high school and start a business: open a photography studio like Victor, get a franchise like Carl, or sell Mary Kay like Alice Ann.
“What is that smell?” Carlee thinks. “Odor,” her mind corrects.
This truly is the land of opportunity. There is simply no excuse for not going out and getting what you want. I dated Blain in tenth, eleventh, and part of twelfth grade, and he just wasn’t going anywhere. He was a star athlete and popular and very good looking, but not really the caliber I wanted for a mate. So I set my sights on Raymond. Ray was well-liked and smart as a whip and knew even then he was meant for higher things than chasing a football down the field and getting injuries he’d pay for for the rest of his life.
The commotion of the boys putting up their dishes and silverware rouses Carlee from her reverie.
“What would y’all like for lunch, boys?”
Wild-eyed, Nathan screams, “Fried tuna fish!”
Randall, with a sore throat, croaks out, “No, hamburgers!”
Nathan, as if it’s a contest to guess what Mom wants to fix, “No, Roman Numerals!”
Randall pushes Nathan so hard his neck whiplashes. “You’re such a dork.”
“Randall, I’ve told you before not to push your brother. And use land words to each other. Right? Look at me. Now what does he mean by Roman Numerals?”
“You know,” Randall pouts, “those noodles you boil. Roman noodles.”
Carlee laughs. “Those are Ramen noodles, Randall. So you didn’t get it right, either, and you’re in third grade. And it sounds like you’ve got a frog in your throat this morning.”
Wide-eyed with wonder, Nathan stares at his brother. “A fro-og?”
His mother laughs. “It’s just an expression. It means he has a sore throat and sounds croaky, like a frog. Probably because of the cold nights and hot days of this false spring.”
Carlee turns to the stove. “That reminds me. What is that odor?”
Randall suddenly remembers and rushes to the oven door. He and his mother open it together. It’s an expensive oven. The rack slides out when the door opens and presents the family dog as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey, feathers unplucked and rain-soaked and matted to its body.
“Oh, my God,” Carlee says. In a flash her mind remembers what she has taught her boys. “Oh, my goodness, oh, my goodness,” she repeats as she swings around looking for something to pick up the dog with. She is not used to confusion. She turns the oven off and pivots to Randall.
“What is the meaning of this? Have you lost your mind, young man?”
“No, ma’am,” Randall says. He feels like he is about to cry. He looks at his bare feet and thinks about how to get out of this. He points to Nathan with dead seriousness. “He lost it.”
Nathan’s eyes widen at the false accusation. He thrusts his spiky, crewcut head forward. “I did not! I did not! I did not!” His face crumples, he takes a deep breath, and he is about to let go with everything his little body has when his mother picks him up and rescues him.
“That’s okay, honey. I know you didn’t lose anything. It’s just an expression.” After she calms Nathan down, she sets him on a dinette chair and turns to Randall. “I ought to spank you good for this.”
“Maybe you ought to, but you won’t,” Randall taunts, “because you don’t believe in spanking.”
Carlee inhales to begin a lecture, then stops herself. She closes her eyes and counts to 10.
Randall takes advantage of the pause and swivels to Nathan, who is still pouting. Randall flips his eyelids inside out and peels them back until they stay. Then he crosses his eyes and twirls his index fingers around his temples. “Yes, I have lost my mind, young man.” Nathan wants to laugh but he is still mad at his brother. He looks away, then back, and it’s so funny that he starts to cry to let Randall know he’s still mad, but when Randall hangs his tongue out the left side of his mouth and wiggles it, Nathan starts bawling and laughing uncontrollably.
“Stop it! And I mean stop it right now, little boy, or I’ll whip your behind till you can’t sit down.”
The boys have never seen their mother this mad. In pure self-defense, they both break into a genuine gale of squalling.
Smokey was barking and barking next door at the Prudhommes’.
Then Dad said. He was watching bass-fishing on TV. “That dog wouldn’t bark so much if someone gave him a little antifreeze.”
Smokey he was trying to tell somebody he was cold. Mocha is our dog. He don’t bark too much. Daddy trained him not to. So he don’t know how to tell us he’s cold. He’s an Australian shepherd. So Nathan and I got a lawn chair, then we got the blue ice chest, then we put Daddy’s tackle box on top of those, so then we could get to the antifreeze on the top shelf.
It was green in Mocha’s bowl. Green and shiny. He drank it right away, so we knew he wouldn’t be cold in the night.
The next morning he was curled up against the door sleeping. He must have been pretty cold, even with the antifreeze, because we couldn’t wake him up even though he tried to move a little. So I got him by the back legs, he ain’t got a tail, and dragged him in the house, and Nathan he got his head so it wouldn’t bump on the door thing. The step-up.
In school we learned water boils at 212 degrees so I knew that was too hot so I turned the oven on to 150, that should be plenty. I figured 10 minutes would be long enough to get him going again so I looked at the clock on the wall. Then we ate breakfast. Mom came in and fixed it. We forgot about Mocha but Mom smelled him. I think he was overdone when she took him out because he wasn’t just sleepy anymore. He looked real tired, you know, with his tongue hanging out like it does on hot days, only it was black instead of pink. If he could talk like Daddy when he comes home from work, I know just what he would say. He’d say “I’m exhausted” ‘cause he sure looked it.
Carlee holds her hands up and tries to regain her composure. “Okay, all right, it’s okay. We just have to deal with it. These things happen. It’s sad, but they do. Why don’t we just bury him in the backyard, how does that sound?”
Nathan says, “He’s dead?”
Carlee goes to him, still standing on the chair. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. We can get you another dog.” Nathan doesn’t feel sad, but his mother’s tenderness affects him and he starts to cry softly.
“It’s okay,” Nathan says. “I just never saw a dead dog. Birds and things, but never dogs.”
“Have, too,” Randall injects. He holds his sore throat. “On the road to Granny’s. We see dead dogs all the time.”
Nathan glares at Randall. “I mean real dogs, you stupid.”
“Oh, like those aren’t real.”
“You know what I mean. We don’t know them.”
“All right, boys, let’s take Mocha out back and we’ll have a nice funeral for him with flowers and everything.”
Carlee thinks for a moment, then opens one of her new cabinets and pulls down the crystal platter Raymond gave her for their third anniversary. With oven mitts, she lifts Mocha from the rack and places him on the crystal. Nathan watches his mother moving around. His face has been worrying itself to the boiling point about something uncertain and when it comes to him he screeches like a teapot.
“No! If we bury him here, we won’t be able to take him with us when we move to the trophy room.”
Now Randall is furious. “Mama, he is so stupid! I hate him!”
“Randall, what have I told you about that? He’s only five. What does he mean by the trophy room?”
“You know. The trophy house you’re always talking about. When we move into the trophy house, we’ll have to leave Mocha behind all by himself.”
Carlee laughs gently and enjoys the moment, reminds herself to put that down in Nathan’s diary tonight. Then she sets herself to solving the childhood crisis.
“What about Granny’s, then? Would y’all like to drive out to Granny’s and put him under the old pecan tree?”
Carlee sets Mocha in the back of the Ford Expedition, which cost more than her parents’ house, then washes her hands and straps Donna into the child restraint seat. The boys have already buckled themselves in the back when Carlee says, “Randall, have you taken your medication this morning? Run inside and take it real quick like a good boy.” Randall opens his door. “And take some Robotussin for your throat.”
While Randall runs inside, Carlee adjusts her seat belt and turns on the air conditioner she hasn’t used in a week. From the clocks on the dash and visor she notices it’s only 10 a.m. but the humidity is already building like it’s midsummer.
When Randall entered first grade, he just wouldn’t mind Carlee, so she decided he had Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Doctor Dave confirmed her diagnosis and put him on medication. On their trip to Disney World last summer, when they had forgotten his medication, he played a GameBoy for four straight hours and Carlee wondered if her diagnosis had been right.
Carlee drives expertly through the neighborhood, left, right, around Dr. Monsour’s RV, left, right, around Dr. Wu’s sailboat, then rolls to the four-way stop at the end of her gated community. She notices a doorless jeep rushing to the stop sign on her left and eases into the intersection. Sailing through the stop sign, the driver of the Barbie-pink Tracker jammed with teenagers sweeps around her on screeching tires.
Stopped in the middle of the intersection, Carlee looks at them quickly disappearing, laughing and yelling at her. A young girl makes a vulgar motion with both hands, and Carlee finds it so sad the girl would even know such things at her age that she feels like crying. She checks on Donna, then looks in the rearview mirror.
“Nathan, Randall, are y’all okay?”
Randall unbuckles and looks over the back of his seat.
“We’re fine but it looks like Mocha slid off the plate.”
“Yeah,” Nathan adds, holding his nose, “and he stinks! Pee-you. Pee-you-ZEE!”
“All right, buckle back up. We’ll fix him when we stop at the Eazy-Tote for ice cream, how does that sound?”
Carlee turns the air up a notch, then opens all the windows to flush the car with fresh air. She turns onto Highway 51 and heads north. The first billboard always makes her laugh: “If You Love Your Kids, Belt ‘Em.” It is part of a campaign to increase seatbelt use, which she agrees with, but she dislikes the implied violence of the message.
As Carlee settles into the drive, she thinks of the lads in the jeep, labels them privileged brats. She remembers working her way through college in three years, how it taught her to value what she now has.
Carlee had paid her dues by teaching second grade for two years while Ray finished graduate school, then waited another year while he established himself at Conoco before starting her family. They had worked and planned together for the life they wanted. That’s why she was able to stay home after Nathan was born and give her children all the attention they needed.
A drop of sweat trickling down her temple breaks her reverie. Carlee rolls the windows up and turns the fan up another notch. Her nose tests the air for any lingering odor and she settles back into her drive. At the flashing yellow caution light in front of North Oaks Hospital, she hears a small pop under the hood and wonders if she has hit something.
Five minutes later, just as the Eazy-Tote comes into view, Carlee sees wisps of smoke escaping near her right windshield wiper and notices how hot she is. She checks the baby. Donna, asleep but sweating, is wearing a puckered frown.
Carlee is relieved when she remembers that her ninth-grade boyfriend owns the Texaco station attached to the Eazy-Tote. She glides under the awning and stops by a gas pump. When Carl walks up, they laugh before speaking.
It is the same greeting they’ve been exchanging for almost 20 years. When they met in Mrs. Mullin’s algebra class, they thought because of their matching names that they were destined for each other. Carlee told Alicia that Carl must be deep because he didn’t say much, but as the months rolled by she realized he was just boring. Later, she discovered that he was merely reserved. In tenth grade Carl took to Alicia, married her the summer after graduation, and worked hard for five years to buy the Texaco franchise.
“Looks like someone planted a smoke bomb under your hood. Better pop the latch.”
“Yeah,” Carlee says, “I think my A/C just died.”
Carl lifts the hood and waves his hands to clear the smoke. After a minute, he walks around to Carlee’s window.
“Whew,” he says, waving his hands again. “Smells like something died inside, too.”
“Oh, I’m so embarrassed. I can’t even smell it anymore.” Then, under her breath, “The boys’ dog died this morning, and we’re taking it to their grandmother’s to bury it.”
“Yeah,” Nathan pipes up. “We gave him some antifreeze last night but he was so cold this morning my brother put him in the oven this morning and overdid him, this morning.”
Carl looks at this possum hanging over Carlee’s shoulder. “Well, at least you know he didn’t freeze to death. That’s the worst way to go.” Then, to Carlee, “It’ll take a few minutes to check things out. Why don’t you go into the Eazy-Tote and get out of this heat, maybe get the boys a Freezee?”
The boys yell and tumble out of the SUV while Carlee works the baby loose from her restraint.
“How do you stand working in this heat day in and day out?”
“Well, it’s not always hot. This morning it was cold. The weather tends to lie this time of year.”
Standing and holding the baby, Carlee says with real concern, “Aren’t you afraid, Carl? I mean, with all the insta-lube places and Wal-Mart and such, it’s got to be hard to compete these days.”
Carl looks at her with the slight smile she remembered from their teenage years. The smile was in his eyes more than on his lips. It came, she realized now, from a calm confidence she mistook as dullness years ago.
“Nah,” Carl says, like it’s a private joke. “We do the work right and earn their respect. Customer loyalty ain’t free. After a few years, they’re like family. They speak sharp, you can even snap back and they know you don’t mean nothing by it. Nothing permanent, anyways.”
Donna starts to fret, and Carlee jostles her. She looks at Carl and smiles and nods and something from long ago comes back to both of them. Then Carl laughs and steps back and shoos Carlee away by waving the red rag in his hand.
Carlee approaches the convenience store and reads the sign in the window: No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service. As she opens the door, a young teen rushes out in front of her and stops. Shirtless, he has countless silver studs and rings in his eyebrows, nose, ears, and lips. A black spider-in-a-web tattoo spans his chest, and his forehead is stigmatized by a red skull with blue words on either side: “Eat Death.”
Carlee is not afraid of the boy, but she feels sadness and revulsion mix in her stomach like a bad drink.
“What’re you looking at, Mama?”
Carlee clutches Donna tighter and sidles by the boy. “Nothing, I’m sorry, excuse me.”
Inside, the boys run up to their mother waving things in their hands.
“Can I have this, Mom, I just gotta have it, can I?”
“Me, too, I want this, it’s so awesome!”
“Whoa, whoa, what is it that y’all just can’t live without? One at a time.”
Randall screens Nathan out and holds up a magic-marker in a clear plastic bubble attached to a sheet of cardboard. Beautiful children with colorful tattoos on their faces and arms suggest that all happiness is wrapped in this package.
“Absolutely not, young man. Next thing I know, you’ll be wanting real tattoos. And what do you have, Nathan, some Play-Doh?”
Instinctively, Nathan tries the shy approach. Without a word, he holds his treasure up to his mother, who reads the label,
“Tub o’Gum.” On the package is a bug-eyed cartoon boy blowing a pink bubble bigger than his head. Carlee imagines the canister holds a plug of gum big enough to choke five children.
“Out of the question.” She shifts Donna to her other hip and digs in her purse. “Here. Here’s a dollar apiece. Why don’t y’all get some ice cream to eat on the way to Granny’s?”
Carlee threads the aisles a couple of times, then calls to the boys from the door. “I have to talk to Mr. Carl about the car. Y’all make your selections and meet me at the car in five minutes, hear? Randall, you see that clock over the register? Five minutes. And I don’t mean six, seven, or eight.”
At the cash register inside the station, Carlee has to wait for Carl to finish with a customer. She looks around and notices maps, belts and hoses, and boxed parts neatly hung and stacked and racked. A movement outside catches her eye and she looks up in time to see the boy with the facial hardware take a yellow quart of oil off a dolly.
She spins toward Carl, who is waiting on an elderly man signing a credit card receipt. Carl subtly shakes his head “no” to Carlee so his customer won’t be interrupted.
When the room is empty, Carl chuckles.
“What’s so funny about that, Carl? You just lost money because of that kid.”
Carl opens the middle drawer of a metal filing cabinet and pulls out a folder.
“I’ll add it to his father’s tab and tell him about it. ‘Course, he probably won’t do anything but pay. That’s why he’s got such a confused lad. Won’t give him any direction.”
Carl writes in the folder and refiles it.
“I couldn’t tell anything from a quick look under your hood, Carlee. It’s something electrical and that’s always tricky, especially in these bigger SUVs. They’ve got more electronics than a slot machine. You’ll have to bring it by tomorrow when I’m not so backed up.”
A mild dread comes over Carlee at the thought of driving without air conditioning. She looks out the side door that opens onto the two work bays. Two men are working under hoisted cars and a boy is fixing a flat. Carlee attempts the desperate baby talk that worked on Carl almost 20 years ago.
“Oh, Carl, can’t you wook at an old girlfriend’s boken down car?”
Carl smiles and looks at her.
“Oh, pleeeease, pitty-pitty please?”
Carl laughs and looks out the window away from his old girlfriend. He scratches the back of his head, then looks back at her, his laugh settled to a comforting smile. “Now, you know I can’t do that, Carlee. It wouldn’t be fair to my other customers.”
Carlee pulls out of the Texaco station a little hurt, a little angry at making herself look like a foolish schoolgirl, and a little sad because for the second time she feels like she is leaving behind something worthwhile. It takes her almost a minute to adjust her mood.
“Hot!” she finally says, enthusiastic as a cheerleader. She swivels the rearview mirror around to look at each of her boys licking on their dripping ice cream, Nathan with an orange Push-Up, Randall with a Waffle Cone. “When life gives you lemons, boys, you just have to make. . . .” She glances back and forth from the road to her sons as they stare at her blankly. “You have to make what, boys?”
They frown hard for a while and look outside the window as if the answer might be there. Randall whispers in Nathan’s ear and his eyes brighten.
“Lemon pie!” Nathan shouts.
“No, no,” Carlee says with humorous exasperation. “Lemonade. When life gives you lemons, you just have to make lemonade.”
Randall thinks about this for a while and concludes, “Well, if somebody gave me lemons, I’d make a lemon pie.”
“It’s just an expression,” Carlee says, feeling a twinge of irritation that she quickly suppresses. “It means if something bad happens, you can turn it into something good. Like now. Our air conditioner is broken, but we can make it fun by opening the sunroof.” She lowers the four windows a bit, then hits the sunroof button.
As the sunroof slides open, Randall unhitches his seatbelt and drops his cone on the seat. Knowing the routine, he takes a tissue from the Kleenex box in the center console and swipes at the mess, leaving sticky shreds of fiber on the leather seat.
Although she wouldn’t ordinarily let her boys do such a thing, this one time, to make lemonade, Carlee allows Randall and Nathan to stand up and put their heads through the open sunroof. She enjoys hearing their playful screams and recalls her father letting her hold a carnival pinwheel out the window of their two-door compact.
Happy she has made something good out of a bad situation, Carlee thinks of her childhood while driving and leaves the boys to their play. She is vaguely aware of their background noise and motions as they stand up and sit down and stand again in restless boyhood jubilation.
Ten minutes from her mother’s house, she sees a single rain cloud up ahead. She flicks her headlights on, then makes a quick mirror check in the back seat. Randall’s head is above the roof, but she sees black markings on his arms. She swivels her head to look at Nathan. Unbuckled, he is sitting quietly chewing a huge piece of gum while holding his stomach in obvious pain.
Carlee processes this in a fraction of a second. The boys could only have bought ice cream with the money she gave them, so they must have stolen the marker and gum.
She brakes and jerks the car onto the gravel shoulder of the blacktop. Randall tumbles down onto the console between the front seats.
“What,” Carlee says as she grabs Randall’s arm, “is this?”
Randall whimpers and says nothing. He tries to be invisible but when that doesn’t work he pulls away from his mother.
“Stop it, you’re hurting me,” he whines, “you’re hurting my arm.”
She looks closely at the arm for the first time. Snaking from his wrist and disappearing up his shirt sleeve is a long, black stitched-up scar drawn with the tattoo marker. Carlee grabs Randall’s chin in her hand and turns his head toward her to talk to him, but she almost loses control when she sees his fake black eye and a black smiley face on his forehead. She pushes him carefully into the back seat and rests her head on the steering wheel. Sadness displaces her anger as she realizes her sons have stolen from a good man. Have stolen, period. Are thieves.
She is thinking how to approach this subject in a way that won’t damage her sons’ self-esteem when a gurgling sound interrupts her. She looks at Donna, properly strapped into the child restraint facing the back-rest of the passenger seat. As if on cue, Donna spits up foamy white milk that slides down into the crevice of the seat.
Instinctively, Carlee grabs for the Kleenex box and returns with nothing. She reaches into the back seat and snatches a wad of sticky tissues and does the best she can with that.
She knows this will take a while and thinks of the Wet-Wipes in her purse. As she hits the button for the emergency flashers, a noise like a sick cat meow comes from the dash and the entire instrumentation panel goes dark. She feels now like she is about to cry.
She has one Wet-Wipe left and a small tissue with a perfect red imprint of her lips and when they are saturated with the baby’s sour spittle, a light rain begins. She punches at the array of buttons to roll up the windows and close the sunroof, but not one of them works. Then she hears a car pulling up behind her and thinks with relief that help has finally arrived, maybe one of those roving mechanics in a car garage on wheels. Just as she checks the rearview mirror, the officer turns on his flashing blue lights. Now, she cries.
But only briefly. She has time, as she watches the officer put a plastic sheathing on his hat, to pat her running mascara. When he walks up with his ticket book and says, “Ma’am,” she is all sunshine and birdsong.
“Oh, officer, I’m so glad you’re here, everything you can imagine is wrong with my car, you’re an absolute knight in shining armor.” Here, Carlee looks up and takes a surprised breath as she recognizes him. He is The One. This is what she calls him to herself and to no one else, not even to her best gossip friend and bridge partner. He is The One she gave up because he lacked ambition.
When she looks at him—the yellow-green eyes, the beautiful, angular cheekbone—it feels like he squeezes a small, harmless creature living inside her throat. She had forgotten it hibernated there because Ray had never roused it and so could never hurt it.
“Carlee,” he says flatly as she reads his tag: Sgt. B. Stoddard.
Blain had been captain of the football team when Carlee was head cheerleader. She understood enough of the game to cheer when things were going badly and after something good had happened. Blain was tall and wore number 88. At this remove, Carlee has only one memory from the playoff for the district championship. She looks at the field to see why the fans have exploded. Blain has already broken away from his defender, so she sees him in a fluid, open stride, his white shoes flashing in the stadium lights. With effortless speed, he is sliding along the sideline, the ball spiraling down to meet him and just when she thinks he is going to miss it he looks up as if the ball would be right where he expected it, and it was, and because she has never seen this combination of precision and grace and speed, she will always remember it like a vivid dream, detached in time from anything else.
“Carlee, I know you know better than to let your boys put their heads through a sunroof.” He tilts his head to look in at the boys.
“Oh, I know, Blain, I know, but first the air conditioner went out and then something with the electrical system—.”
They look at each other in the light rain and she sees a firm but kind resolve on his face.
“It’s wrong because it’s dangerous. The roads are wet.” He puts his pen to the ticket book. “I don’t have to tell you the rest.”
Carlee picks up her large red-and-white striped umbrella and steps out of the car.
“No sense in your getting wet over this.” She stands close to him and holds the umbrella over them both. “How’s Marcie, Blain? Are y’all attending the 15-year reunion?”
Sergeant Stoddard continues to write. “Marcie’s fine. We won’t have time to go to the reunion.”
“Blain, do you have to do this? Can’t you just let it slide?” With her free hand she squeezes his arm. “For old times?”
“Sorry, Carlee, but the law’s the law. I’m just trying to protect your children.”
“I haven’t seen you in years. How many children do y’all have?”
“I have two by Marcie.” He looks at her. “And right now I’m trying to keep my third one in one piece.”
Shocking herself, Carlee slaps him, hard, on his beautiful cheek.
Carlee made one mistake, almost 10 years ago, when Conoco sent her husband, early in his career, on a six-month assignment to Dubai. The math was so close that even Carlee has never been sure which of them is Randall’s father. Several times she has gone through an entire year without thinking of it, and then a sudden reminder would make her nauseous with the possibility.
Blain stops writing and calmly but firmly tells Carlee that she has just committed a felony.
Randall sticks his head out the window. “You leave my mother alone!”
“Ran-dall! You get back in that car.” Turning to the officer, she says, “Surely. Blain. Surely you wouldn’t arrest me.”
Blain looks at her with his clear green eyes. “The law applies to everybody, Carlee, even to you.”
When the officer finishes the ticket, he looks into the car. He smells first the baby puke, then something dead, then he sees his son tattooed like a Borneo native.
“How’re you doing, tiger?”
Not sure what to say, Randall gives him a mad frown, then croaks out, “It’s raining in our car.”
The officer turns to Carlee. “Sounds like you need to take care of that boy’s cold.” Then he looks at Nathan bent over holding his stomach. “Hey, little podna, what you got there?”
“Huh, what’s the problem, little buddy?”
Squinting one eye, Nathan turns to him and says, with a mouthful of juicy gum, “I got a squib in my stomach.”
“A squib? What’s a squib?”
Nathan doesn’t know how to explain, so he bends over and starts to cough out little sobs.
“Randall,” his mother says, “what does he mean by a squib?”
After some hesitation, guilty, Randall explains. “At Joey’s we watched Alien and the monster that comes out of that man’s stomach scared him so we told him it was just a squid, that everybody has them and if you ate too many sweets it would grow and break out.”
“Randall, I told you not to watch those kinds of movies, especially not with Nathan.”
Randall sinks below sight into his seat.
Blain looks at Carlee, then steps into the rain. He moves with a slight limp to the back of the vehicle and peers into the cargo area.
When he returns, he shakes his head, then speaks in a low voice.
“Carlee, you listen to me. And look at me.” She looks up. “If I thought you were doing any real harm to that boy, I’d set it up to take care of him myself.”
Carlee has never thought of his claim on Randall and a seizure of fear grips her entire body.
She nods. “I didn’t think you even knew.”
“Carlee, in five more years, only an idiot won’t see the resemblance.” He pauses. “You might consider that, if Ray asks you what you think about a transfer.” He tears the ticket from the book. “Now, I need your license. When you pay the fine, they’ll return it to you by mail.”
Carlee leans through the open window and reaches for her purse.
The officer takes Carlee’s ID, then looks at her.
“Let’s just let a dead dog lie, why don’t we?”
Carlee pulls onto the blacktop in a steady rain, thinking nothing. She stares ahead and drives out of the isolated thunderstorm and doesn’t hear the wipers chattering on the dry windshield. Despite the open sunroof, the car is now a leather-padded box of sweltering heat.
Randall pulls a bottle of red Robotussin out of his baggy shorts and takes a swallow. Nathan chews his gum sullenly, then his eyes close, his body leans forward, and his head drops. The shoulder harness holds him up as he chews slowly in his sleep. Then he stops chewing. He partially awakens, rights himself and, heavy-lidded, looks around. Then he resumes chewing slowly. When he falls asleep again, he stops chewing but his mouth stays open this time. His chin drops and a thin pink stream of saliva slips from his bottom lip to his chest. He tilts to his left, then slowly, in stages, settles onto the wet seat with a groan. His stomach hurts.
The squid in his stomach has a single, large eye, like the alien octopus on The Simpsons. The eye is purple, like Marge’s hair. The squid grows and tightens in his stomach until it has no more room. One gray, rubbery, suction-cupped tentacle snakes out of Nathan’s mouth, then another and another, and he can’t breathe. He grabs a tentacle and pulls hard. He wants the squid out of his stomach. Now he has a tentacle in each hand and he wrestles with the others as they spiral around his arms, but the squid has grown too big and can’t come out. Nathan barely manages a whimper.
Randall, heat-dazed, looks over at his struggling brother and takes another swig of the Robotussin.
Cheesy bands of gum form a network stretching from Nathan’s mouth to both of his hands. With lives of their own, his hands keep returning to his mouth and pulling the gum, band after band of it, and sticking it to the shoulder harness, his thighs, and the car seat.
Randall looks at the back of his mother’s head, then again at his little brother and he chuckles. He suddenly feels very hungry and takes another pull at the Robotussin. He looks at the bottle while working his numb tongue over his lips and he decides to take another hit.
Carlee turns off the highway onto the horseshoe-shaped shell drive of her parents’ house, then eases onto the lawn. When she switches off the ignition, the wipers stop in the middle of the windshield. Without looking in the back seat, she says, “Okay, boys, we’re here,” and sits for a minute before opening her door and stepping onto the running board, then slowly onto the ground. She looks through the window at Randall. “Okay, boys, y’all step down and let’s bury”—she forgets Mocha’s name—”the dog.”
She walks to the back of the Expedition and pops the lift gate up. She stares blankly at the dog.
“Randall, come on, son. Let’s do this.”
Randall grumbles something and shoves his door open. He misses the running board and falls onto the grass. He is startled at first, but when he sees he is not hurt he rolls over and looks at the sky, one arm flinging out to his side, the empty bottle of Robotussin rolling free. He turns over and laughs and tries to right himself on all fours but he tilts over and laughs again.
“Randall! Quit playing and get back here.”
He finally stands and guides himself to his mother by sliding his hand along the embossed groove of the side panel. When he reaches the bumper, he leans heavily on the car.
Still inside herself, Carlee looks at the pecan tree a hundred yards away in her father’s pasture.
“You grab one side of the platter, baby, and we’ll carry it out to the pecan tree.”
Randall looks at the dog, his head lolled off the platter almost upside down, then slowly turns his eyes toward the pecan tree. It looks very small and as far away as his next birthday. A wide, loose, clown-like smile grows on his tattooed face as he thinks of the words. In a raspy voice, he sounds them out very carefully, one at a time, so they don’t go out of control.
“I don’t give a shit if we throw the damn dog in a ditch, I’m hungry!”
Carlee comes awake like someone ugly has stripped naked in front of her.
“What did you say?” Her blanched face is a picture of emptiness. Too many unbelievable things have happened to her today for her to believe this one.
Randall looks at his mother and is reminded of a stalking man from a Stephen King movie he saw at his cousin’s house. In horror, he takes a step back and away from the car and his mother.
Carlee’s fist emphasizes the two syllables by pounding on the carpeted cargo bed: “Ran-dall.”
A low, growling moan comes out of the car. Randall and his mother turn to the cargo area. Mocha, staring at them with one dying eye, is trying hard to bare his teeth.
Carlee turns back to her son.
“It’s just an esspression, Mom. Like you say.” He tries to laugh. “Chill out, Mom. It’s just an esspression.”
She approaches him slowly, like you would a skittish pony who has gotten loose in an unfenced pasture.
“Randall.” It is almost a question.
“What.” He is almost crying.
“Honor. Do you hear me? Honor your mother.”
Randall turns and looks at the tree in the pasture, then back at his mother just as she lunges for him.
“Make me,” he says, stumbling out of range as her hand brushes his shirt.
She reaches for him again and he almost slips from her grasp, but she catches him by the right ear and it probably hurts him, but for now it is the only purchase she has on her son’s life so she does not let go, but chases him in a small circle while he flails his arms to escape.
Finding her rhythm, Carlee swats his legs at every other step, commanding him to be good, and he croaks out the words as he runs in the circle described by his mother, promising, promising.