Dear Boomer Highway Readers. Happy Autumn, a time to put the garden to bed, dream about the coming holidays and picture yourself curled up with a book. After all, it’s the time of colder weather and strong winds, maybe snow and staying indoors. So find that warm corner by the fire or the heater and read! My offering? One of the stories from my collection of short fiction A Mother’s Time Capsule which was published in May. This is another short one. Comments and questions? Greatly appreciated. So whether you live in California where it’s cloudy and we had some misty rain, or in the Midwest and East where there’s sure to be snow, please enjoy. I think I love just everything about pumpkins.
That day was a Friday and she drove with the pumpkins in the back of the car. They were going on the front porch. Now, this year, there would be only two. Heather drew the faces on in black magic marker. Maybe she would look more carefully at Heather’s pumpkin face this time. Children’s art revealed things.
She zipped the car through sloshy puddles under the viaduct. The windshield wipers set a pace. The pumpkins rolled in the back. She had been thinking about him off and on all day since it was his birthday. Only last year they had both, for a joke, entered the date and year of his birth in a computer. It told them his birth occurred on a Thursday. She had liked that. Heather, too, was a Thursday’s child. They all had far to go.
The traffic light was changing, running through the old cycle backwards—red to yellow to green. She worked the gears and hurried. Her mother-in-law was nervous about the dentist. It was crazy for her to be doing this, but she’d gotten into the habit. Keith worked. Who else would take her? And moments later, there was the straight brick apartment building, the yellow slanted lines in the lot.
“You know it’s Keith’s birthday?”
She nodded as Mrs. Oates climbed in, pressing her body against the other bucket seat. “Call him, Rachel, call him. He’d call you on your day, now wouldn’t he?”
Rachel backed the car down the drive.
“What’s that rattle, your car can’t need repairing already, you just—”
“Pumpkins,” Rachel said.
Mrs. Oates watched out the window. She shifted her body and filled the car with some cloying perfume. Rachel rolled down a window.
“Don’t open that now, please. I can’t afford to catch a cold. I’m going through all this pain right now, I don’t need–”
Her voice stopped. Rachel looked over and noticed that Mrs. Oates wore a new raincoat. Her mother-in-law wasn’t a fat woman, but she made great pies and cakes and made them constantly. The raincoat was a juicy berry color and it plumped around her. “I got him a lovely angora sweater for his birthday. It’s a blend. But I spent a lot of money on it.” Rachel decided Keith would hate it. He would complain about the tiny angora hairs messing up his dark pants.
“It’s hard getting to be my age,” Mrs. Oates said. “You have trouble getting to the stores and then when you’re there what do you buy your son? What? It was easy when he was little, but now?”
At the dentist’s they sat together on an orange vinyl couch. Mrs. Oates folded her glasses into a case. She snapped the case and then unsnapped it. She touched Rachel’s arm and told her about an exercise program that she watched. “The girls have these little tummies. You ought to do it, Rachel.” Her breath was warm and sick. Rachel thought about the mints buried in her purse. She thought about exercise. She didn’t need to lose weight, when you didn’t eat much, that wasn’t a problem.
The hygienist came for Mrs. Oates. She nodded for Rachel to follow. Root canal was somewhat serious in an older person with a heart condition. Rachel followed. She watched the berry-colored coat come off and she thought that cakes and pies were even worse for one’s heart. But it wasn’t her business. Not really. And yet when Mrs. Oates was settled in the chair and the dentist made Rachel look at the x-rays, look down into Mrs. Oates’ mouth to confirm, it was her business. No one else’s. She backed out of the room. She could still see Mrs. Oates’ grey hair against the back of the chair. She walked. Keith was 39. Mid-life. Mid-life crazies. Mrs. Oates’ hair, probably auburn, had spread out on a table, some delivery table somewhere, and then Mrs. Oates spread her legs and touched the roundness of her belly and used energy and will to push Keith out. Thirty-nine years ago. It was her business. Mrs. Oates a connection.
Rachel went and called Heather.
“Did you get them, Mommy?”
“Yes, two, one big and one medium sized. They’re in the car. Did you get a lot of homework?”
“I’m doing it. When you get home, then can we?”
“I’m going to design my face on paper first.”
“Don’t spend too much time, Heather. Your homework.”
“The other kids were asking why we do it this way. They like to cut theirs. Yuck—all those seeds.”
“Heather, I’ll be home by six, okay?”
“Just listen, I forgot to tell you. I want to draw this picture for Dad’s birthday. I had a dream about it. The picture is me carrying a birthday cake, but it’s not a cake, it’s noodles—a noodle cake!” Rachel smiled, saying, “There must be some significance there.”
“Oh Mom—it’s just a dream. It doesn’t have to mean anything. Bye now.”
Rachel hung up. The little artist was always at work. Creativity clung to her like the fragile blonde fuzz that Rachel could see on Heather’s legs and arms when they wrestled in the sunshine. But Heather’s fingers didn’t always move the way she wanted. Her fifth Christmas, five years ago, she had worked at the card table every day. Rachel watched. Some of it was clay, some playdough, some drawing, pasting, cutting.
On Christmas everything went into a bag. During the gift passing, Keith got the first one—a playdough face with runny-black hair and bulging eyes. He started to laugh before Heather could tell him the sculpture was of him, her Dad. Everyone clamped down on the laughter, turned serious and began the compliments. But Heather knew. Later when Keith announced it was her turn to give again, she looked into her bag, looked for a long time and then raised her face that was pink with grief. “It’s all garbage,” she said quietly, fighting so hard for that control. “All garbage.” Rachel still grieved, thinking about that moment—Heather’s face quivering, tears moving down her cheeks, the adults having broken through the barrier, crashed into that perfect place she thought she inhabited.
“We were cruel, all of us,” Rachel had told Keith. “She’ll get over it, Rachel, don’t take it so hard.”
The dentist’s waiting room was empty. Even the receptionist was gone from her desk. Rachel sat listening to the music. It was the feathery kind that no one really wants to hear. All distinguishing features had been removed so that it was clean and sterile like the alcohol and cotton in the back rooms. When she tried hard enough Rachel could identify a song. Now an old McCartney tune about a “butter pie.” Rachel heard the melody and worked to remember the lyrics. Then she saw their first house. Keith had painted all the rooms a light celery just for her. It wasn’t a well-built house, but the rooms were airy and they made love without worrying about apartment neighbors, and they turned the radio up loud and sang and chased each other up and down the halls, laughing like children. There was no clutter around them then, they had almost no furniture. But in the second house, even though they filled up the rooms, Keith kept buying more and weighing down their life. There was little space for music, and none for any more children.
“Mrs. Oates?” Rachel heard the name and looked up for her mother-in-law. The old woman wasn’t there. The hygienist stood in the doorway. Rachel thought she saw blood on her white pantsuit.
“She’s okay, isn’t she?” Rachel was standing.
“Yes, of course. The doctor just wants to discuss the post-op care with you. Follow me.”
Mrs. Oates moaned all the way home. Rachel talked quietly to her, but after a while she had no energy for words. The rain still came down; the car radio talked about the end of Indian summer, the series of inevitable rainstorms. Rachel felt the words like pressure, a dark curtain descending. All she could see was this older neighborhood, the houses leaning toward the street, apartment buildings with cracked front stairs, older people moving along with little wire grocery carts.
“Here was are, Mom.” Rachel jumped into the rain and helped. Mrs. Oates leaned on her into the vestibule. Then she turned.
“Don’t come up with me, Rachel. I’ll be okay. Keith’s here. I saw his car. You’ve had enough Oateses for one day.” She let go of Rachel’s arm. The pressure still clung there and Rachel reached out, wanting something back. But the door clicked and the woman was gone.
Heather had her pink bathrobe on. Her hair shone in the lamplight and powder smells filled the hallway. Rachel burdened her with two slightly cold but brilliant pumpkins.
“Fantastic,” Heather yelled, leading her mother back into the house. Rachel saw the table set. “I did everything I could. How’s Grandma? I hope you don’t have to do this every day.” “Everything’s fine. Go get your drawing and I’ll be right there.”
At the kitchen sink Rachel turned on the water. She stood waiting for it to get warm. Though she could hear Heather’s chatter in the next room and feel the light and space around her, she was still looking down, still seeing her mother-in-law’s face and remembering what a doctor once told her at a cocktail party. “You wouldn’t believe the number of children women are capable of having. Why even after they’re dead, you can cut open the ovary and there they are—all those seeds.”
Rachel bent to the water, cupping her hands. In a moment she would hold her face in the towel for as long as she needed to.