My hair is getting dry, and a little bit gray, but I dye it red, and you can’t tell it isn’t natural. I think it probably makes me look younger. The dye stuff doesn’t smell good going in, but it isn’t too much work just to touch up the roots now and then, and I don’t have to do it that often. Anyway, it’s the color I have used since Stacey was born, and I wouldn’t know how to find another I like. Hannah, my other granddaughter, says I should get highlights in it (“pink ones!”), but then Hannah wants me to wear leopard-print leggings all over town like her mother, and could you imagine me in leggings?
Lizzie dropped the two of them off with me after work. She is taking an extra shift, so for now I watch the girls. We make mac ’n’ cheese and watch American Idol, and bicker over who we are going to vote for, and whether the singer with the blonde dreadlocks is the “real deal,” and yesterday we made no-bake cookies with peanut butter. I was doing the dishes after I made up the couch and big chair for them to sleep on, and thinking how I should try to get cushions or something from the Goodwill just in case they have to sleep here more often.
It is pretty quiet when they’re not around. I go to work and come back late and feed Floppy, and he looks at me mournfully and swims around vaguely, and I go out on the fire escape and have a cigarette and a cup of coffee out there too if it isn’t wet or cold, and I look over the housetops and trace the scoop of the telephone wires with my eyes, from pole to pole, and think about how deep they must have to be planted in order to stay up. And then usually I look down at my feet too on the grating, and think about how high up I am and what would I hold on to if it all crumbled, but that is silly. I know that won’t happen, of course. Anyway, I could grab on to the windowsill, I think. And then I tie up my hair and lock the doors and the window too, just in case, and climb into bed.
About a month ago, when it was a little warmer, I was out on the fire escape taking my time smoking before supper, because a wind was blowing in that cut the humidity, and it was overcast, and darker than usual, the kind of day where everything smells like itself, only stronger, and you can see the treetops waving before the wind gets all the way to you. Sometimes I can guess how many seconds it will take before I feel it on my face. I was halfway into my smoke when I heard my name, and I stood there letting the thing ash itself out while I tried to understand the rest of what I heard. The song was coming out of the big brick church, St. Jude’s, across the street, but it was muddled, and it took me a while to realize it was in some kind of other language, maybe Spanish or French.
Gloria in excélsis Deo
et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntatis
I jumped the first time I stayed out long enough to hear my name at the end, too, as it was slowing down:
in Gloria Dei Patris, A-a-a-men.
I am always out having my cigarette before supper, and every so often I catch it beginning, so I’ve heard it a bunch of times now. It’s a pretty song. I like to wait until it’s over to go inside now. I mean, of course I know they don’t mean me, but it makes me feel important, like a whole bunch of strangers are singing about me, so I pretend it does mean me, but I don’t know what to pretend the rest of it means.
I bus to work. Lots of people come and go, but some of them ride every day like I do. There is this one man with fingernails longer than Lizzie’s purple manicure, and he always sits in the very front drinking from his old crinkly bottle of water and leaning way over the aisle with his head tilted almost horizontal to the rubber floor to tell the driver about what is on his mind, but even though you get the gist, it’s hard to follow. The driver just listens, and sometimes says “Really,” or “I know,” and the girl with the oversized purple purse across the aisle just rolls her eyes and turns up her music.
Today he is outraged about the way somebody looked at him on the street, or maybe it wasn’t a person; it might have been a bird. “You know what I’m sayin’? I don’t stand for nothin’ like that, but I know what they’re all thinking, I got their number, you know what I’m sayin’?” He taps his temple knowingly with a yellowish finger and takes a big gulp of his water, and the driver doesn’t turn her head, but she says softly, “I know what you mean.”
“Hey, Mom. So would you believe that Freddie pitched a fit right at the end of the shift and made Madison stay late, so I had to get a ride home with Ricky, and he took forever to get going? He was all like, ‘Five minutes, Liz,’ and then he spends twenty minutes doing I don’t know what. I don’t even take that long gettin’ ready for a date, you know?” She rolls her eyes.
“Hun, not here, smoke out on the fire escape please. You want a Hot Pocket or something? We made macaroni but it’s all gone. There are cookies left on the fridge.” Lizzie takes a cookie and turns it over in her hands.
“They behave themselves?”
“About usual. Listen, don’t wake them up. You sleep here tonight too and they can stay over again, since I don’t work till late, and then you don’t gotta worry about their lunches tomorrow.”
But Lizzie doesn’t go to bed. She plops down in the big chair beside Stacey, who is sleeping with her socks falling off her feet, and one arm flung out over the arm of the chair, unsupported, just hanging there. Liz sits there and picks at a scab on her face, and looks at her daughters, and picks at her nails a bit, and finally gets up to have a smoke. She is out there so long that when she comes back I am in bed, and she wakes me up a little when she gets into bed next to me, since the couch is taken.
“Liz, hon, you’re going to be late!” I am tapping on the bathroom door; she doesn’t answer. “Lizzie, it’s ten past seven!” She doesn’t answer. I let her be, and ten minutes later I hear her calling Freddie and saying she’s not feeling well and that’s she’s really really sorry to miss a shift like this last minute, and she promises cross her heart she’ll make it up. But when I ask her if she’s okay, she says “Fine.” and then, “I’m going for a walk.”
So me and the girls watch cartoons on the couch all tangled up in Hannah’s blankets, and every time the commercials come on, I say “Quick!” And we all scramble to the floor and do five sit ups together and count them out loud, which is important, and when the show comes back on we go back to our Kix. Then I let the girls dress themselves and I have an idea, so we walk down to the lot behind our complex, where some of the last Queen Anne’s lace flowers are growing. Stacey screams when she notices the black spot in the middle of each flower, but I squat down to her height and pinky-promise her it isn’t a bug. I still take the spot out of each of the flowers before she will pick them. They turn out to be really hard to pull up. Either the roots come up too, in a big cloud of dust that I can taste, or I yank and pull, and the stem just bends and splits, but doesn’t break. I saw at them with my apartment key, and we get a handful. When we go back up, we put drops of food coloring in different cups, and I explain how the flower is going to suck up the colored water right into its tiny white petals, and turn colors. But Hannah is pretty skeptical, because the water really just looks brownish and murky, worse than Floppy’s water. We line them up by the kitchen sink window anyway, though, to see what will happen.
Lizzie gets back in the late afternoon, rubbing her eyes and picking up her pack of Marlboro Reds, and putting it down, and picking it up again. Finally she looks up and says, “Mom, I’m quittin’.” I say, “Okay, honey, good for you.” “I’m just gonna go out now and have my last one, ‘kay? My last one.” She hurries out to the fire escape with her back to me. “You want any supper, hon?” She doesn’t answer me, and she doesn’t answer when Hannah tries to show her the flowers, either. Before she shuts the window, though, I hear my song starting.
The next day, Lizzie takes the girls back home, and when I call the day after because Hannah forgot her inhaler, she doesn’t pick up. That day is quiet. I hear car doors shutting in the distance, and phones buzzing, but when the phone actually rings, it’s a recording selling security systems. Even so, I don’t hang up for a good 30 seconds. But there’s lots of noise on the bus. Everyone has been talking about it, but the man with the long fingernails is especially worked up because of Hurricane Martha, and keeps shaking his water bottle around to make a hurricane inside and laughing about it too long and too loud, and saying, “Like that, look, look!” The driver keeps her eyes on the road, but says softly, “I know, I see.” The girl with the oversized handbag gets up and moves three seats back and turns up her music.
I stop at the supermarket on the way home to pick up chips and spaghetti-o’s and milk in case we lose power, and I get a box of Hostess Cupcakes too, just in case the girls will be over. It makes me a little anxious, not the storm, but the crowd of people inside. There are a lot of mothers. Everybody is looking harassed. There’s no milk left. At the check-out line, which is so long it spills over into the aisles, I see a lighter and scented candle (exotic paradise punch) that somebody decided not to buy, stuffed between Vogue and Simple Living on the magazine rack, so I pick that up too. It is good to get out of the store. The air in the parking lot is heavy and humid, and seagulls are picking at wrappers here and there. The sky is big and dark.
At home, two of the Queen Anne’s lace are all still white. One of them is dropping its petals all over the counter-top, like dandruff. I drop the bags on the couch, and pick up the phone to tell Lizzie’s answering machine that I still have Hannah’s inhaler, and also I found the ChapStick she lost, it was in the couch, and that she should tell Hannah that I think her flower is about to turn, and she can come by and get the ChapStick and stuff if she wants, and that I am doing well, just the usual.
The man on the bus with the long fingernails is still speaking, but today I can’t understand a word he is saying. His sentences are all smashed together and muddled up like a different language, like that stupid song with my own stupid name in it.
The day after that, I don’t even put a can of soup in the microwave. Instead I just go out onto the fire escape, and wait to see if my song will start, and I wait as long as I can, but it doesn’t come. I clench my fingers around the rusting iron railing and close my eyes and listen, but nothing. The wind is picking up. I can feel it on me at the same time as I hear it across the parking lot in the big oak trees. I can smell smoke and exhaust, and I don’t go in until the sun is looking at me horizontal through the rusty red oak leaves at the end of the lot, and my fingers and shoulders and back are stiff.
Saturday night, Hurricane Martha is suddenly on us, and after work as I pick up the phone to tell Liz’s answering machine that if they lose power they can always come and stay with me, she bursts in the door with the girls, hair all frizzy from the wind and rain.
Hey, Mom. It sure is something out there, isn’t it?” Liz says, a little winded. I don’t ask her where she’s been, just smile real big and go to get some dishtowels to dry the girls’ hair, and rub down their little blonde heads until they squirm away.
“Did you get any supper?”
“Nope. You got anything? There was a line down on 5th and we couldn’t get home.”
“I saw two police cars!” Stacey tells me.
We all sit down on the living room floor, and I get out some big comforters and I wrap Stacey up “like a bug in a rug,” which makes her giggle. But then we hear a big crash outside, and we all sit up straight, and Hannah fights her way out of her blanket to look out the window. We can’t see what it was. The tomato soup is warming up in the microwave when we hear a pop and a crack, and the lights go out just like that, even the street light, and the microwave stops. Hannah is grabbing my arm, and Stacey is holding on to my legs so tight I am afraid I’ll trip over her.
“Okay, Hannah, Anastasia, we are going to sit back down, and guess what I got for us?” For once, I am prepared. I disentangle the girls and plop them on the couch, returning with the candle and the lighter. When I set it up on the floor in the middle of us, I can see Hannah’s face uncrumple a little bit as the flame grows.
“See? Hey, this is going to be fun. No, Stace, move your blanket, honey, okay, we don’t want a fire.”
There is another crack and a crash, and this time we all run to the window, but it has gotten so dark out there. You can see the church windows across the street much dimmer than usual, flickering a little with the candle-light inside. The power must be out there too. There is a huge draft coming from my window, and the windowpane is wet. I can make out the dust on the windowsill magnified by the water droplets.
The next crash is louder than anything I’ve ever heard, and Hannah and Stacey are both on me again, and Stacey starts to cry.
“Aw, honey, it’s okay, it’s just loud noises, okay? We’re going to be fine in here.” But I look over at Lizzie, and first I think it’s the shadows from the candle, and then I realize that there is mascara smeared all down her face. She is sitting on the floor with her knees at her chin and holding her two hands over her stomach, and I understand. Lizzie sees my expression and makes a small strangled noise, but Stacey is still crying, and I hold her and my mind is a hurricane of the wheezing choking sounds of Hannah’s first bad asthma attack when I didn’t think that the ambulance could possibly make it to us on time, let alone all the way back to the hospital, too. I can taste the cloud of parking-lot dust on my tongue. I have let go of Stacey, and Lizzie leans forward to take her two hands, saying, “Hey, girl, hey, don’t worry. Hannah, come here too, I got something to—I got a surprise for you.”
They just look at her.
“I’m gonna have a baby!” she says, falsely cheery. She pauses; they haven’t reacted. “You know what that means?”
I hear my song carried through the crack in the window, on the draft:
Gloria in excélsis Deo
“Really, Mommy?” Stacey stops crying and looks at her with huge eyes.
et in terra pax homínibus
“What does that mean?” Hannah suddenly asks.
“That I’m a big sister!” Stacey pipes up.
“No, I know what that means, silly, what does that mean?” She has nodded toward the window, and is looking at me. I start to say that I’m not sure, but all at once the power comes back on. The fan is picking up speed and the microwave is humming and Floppy’s filter sputters and spits to life, and Lizzie’s charging cell phone chirps, and we all cheer and when my eyes adjust to the light, I catch a flash of color in the corner of my vision and see that the Queen Anne’s Lace we’d forgotten about on the sill has turned scarlet.
“Jeezus!” Lizzie exclaims, blinking in the light. But Hannah is still looking to me.
“It means everything is going to be fine, sweetie.”