Saturday, May 19, 2012

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For Amanda’s last birthday, her thirty-second, her husband had given her a small gold locket that he insisted she wear at all times.Inside, one in each of the hinged halves, were pictures of her three-year-old daughter Kimberly and her husband Jim.And she hated wearing it.It made her feel owned, like the locket.Unassuming (”cheap” she thought) like the locket.And she hated her husband for expecting her to wear it.

She could feel it inside her blouse now as she pushed the shopping cart up the aisle of laundry soap, hand soap, cleansers, paper towels, toilet paper--items reminding her of her role as housewife, “home technician” as Jim was fond of saying. The locket was there, a small insistent presence between her collarbones just above her bra. It was warm against her skin and her skin felt hot and oily. It was cool in the supermarket but she could still feel the July heat from grubbing around in the flower beds that morning and then the hot drive to the store.

She wished she could go without her bra. Just once she wanted to put on her favorite blouse, the light blue sleeveless that made her look so good. Just once she wanted to wear it braless, feel her breasts against the soft material, fell their bounce and sway as she undulated seductively up and down the aisles, see the stock boys’ eyes pop out as they stared at her hardened nipples thrusting out at them. She’d watched young girls do that brazen strut, and though most of her mind deplored their brazenness, part of her spirit envied it.

“Mommy! Mommy!” Kimberly screamed as she tugged at Amanda’s leg. “Can I get a b’loon, Mommy? Can I? Can I?”

“Stop that! No! You don’t need a balloon!”

Her daughter’s face squeezed into that eyeless mask she’d learned to use just prior to forced tears. And then came the shuddering sobs that invariably led to increasingly louder wails.

“Ohhhh!” Amanda breathed as she grabbed her daughter by the upper arms. “Don’t you dare embarrass me by throwing one of your tantrums! Do you hear me?” She shook her until Kimberly’s eyes opened in her bobbing head and all signs of tears vanished. Amanda was bent at the waist, her face inches from her daughter’s, the words a hissed whisper.

“Now . . . no more of that,” she said as she straightened to the cart and began her slow walk up the aisle. Kimberly trailed along behind, head down.

What was it they were out of? Something she’d noticed the day before but couldn’t remember now. Oh well, it would probably come to her when she saw it on the shelf. She put several cans of soup in the cart and continued up the aisle, depositing various items that didn’t require much attention, then rounded the corner and started down the next aisle.

Alicia Carter was there studying the salad dressings. She glanced up at Amanda and smiled tentatively as Amanda and Kimberly approached her. Amanda looked straight through her and went by without saying anything. Alicia Carter lived two streets east of her, and although they were acquainted, they were not friends.

“I want some siweoh, Mommy,” Kimberly whined quietly, testing the water after her recent shaking. “Can I get some, please, please? Somma dese, Mommy,” she said, pointing to a blue and yellow box with a raccoon catching marshmallow stars and bits of variously shaped cereal.

“Oh, I suppose so, yes,” Amanda responded, thinking more about Alicia Carter than about what her daughter was asking her. Alicia Carter was so, . . . so common. The Carters had moved into the old Fischer house a few months earlier, and even before Amanda had first met them, she’d heard stories about them, especially about the wife. It was rumored she “fooled around” with whatever male was willing to be a fool.

Amanda and her husband were introduced to them one afternoon in the post office, and then, about a month later, she’d caught Jim looking at the woman out of the corner of his eye. They’d gone to a movie at the mall, and right afterward, as they strolled through the central corridor gazing at window displays, they’d passed the Carters coming in the opposite direction. Amanda felt Jim slow his pace almost imperceptibly, and his head turned a fraction to the side. And though he was still supposedly looking straight ahead, she knew his attention was all on the Carter woman. Alicia Carter, in stone-washed jeans--tight stone-washed jeans--and a faded blue T-shirt hanging loose outside her waistband. She was in her late twenties and was, Amanda supposed, attractive in a cheap sort of way. They passed them without speaking, but Jim was too deliberate in his walk. She could sense how much he wanted to turn to get a rear view of what he’d seen from the front. Then he turned to Amanda and made some inane remark about the movie, too too deliberately avoiding any comment about the Carters. And, she was certain, he probably wanted to do more than just look.

“Wheee!” The sound of her daughter’s voice brought her back to the present. Kimberly was spinning a large sign extolling the merits of a diet drink. “Wheee!” she sang again, batting the edge of the cardboard sign until it blurred. The sign, one of three designed to rotate slowly in the air-conditioned breezes in the store, was on a pole in front of a pyramid of cartons at the end of the aisle.

“Stop that!” Amanda hissed. Thank God there weren’t many people shopping. She wouldn’t want the whole town to think she was raising some kind of brattish monster.

Kimberly swatted the sign again, looking over her shoulder at her mother, a little Kimberly pout on her face, challenging her mother’s authority. Amanda jerked her away from the pole, hoisted her into the seat at the front of the cart, and then leaned into the child’s face. “You just wait till we get home!” she whispered. “I’ll give you a whee you’ll never forget.”

Her fury dissolved into an artificial smile of greeting as Martha Jamison came around the end of the aisle.

“Well, hello there, Amanda,” Martha purred. “And sweet little Kimmy.” She patted Kimberly’s head as the little girl tried to shrink away. “How’ve you been, Amanda? I can’t remember the last time I saw you or Jim. How is that handsome devil anyway? Still as gorgeous as ever?” Martha Jamison was a gossip. Telephone, telegraph, telemartha--three ways to spread the word instantaneously, disperse the dirt. One did not want to be on the wrong edge of Martha Jamison’s tongue.

“Hello, Martha. You saw us three weeks ago at the Taylor reception. You know, Sally Taylor’s wedding.”

“That’s right, I did. And you know what I heard about them?” She leaned across her cart conspiratorially. “I heard he beat her black and blue on their wedding night.” Her eyes sparkled as she pictured it. “Isn’t that just delicious? And now Sally wants to get it annulled but she’s afraid he might kill her if she tries. Can you believe it?” Amanda was more than willing to believe it.

“I didn’t think Sally looked any too thrilled when she said ‘I do,’ but I didn’t realize how awful he really was.” They were like two little girls sharing secrets in a schoolyard, whispering across a round-eyed Kimberly. “And when they left in the car,” Amanda went on, “she looked out her window at me and she didn’t seem any too happy. Her eyes were almost pleading for someone to stop them. I just knew something awful was going to happen. How did you hear about it?”

“Oh, I have my sources,” Martha said. “But you can consider it gospel. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a juicy story in The Daily within a week.” And she confirmed it all with a knowing wink. “Well, you kids behave. I’ve got to pick up some things for a little soirĂ©e I’m throwing tonight. Very chichi. Anyone whois anyone will be there. gotta run.”

“Oh, Martha,” Amanda said, stopping her as she was about to wheel away with her cart. “Have you heard the latest about Alicia Carter?”

“Oooo, do you have a goodie for me? I’m in a rush, but I can always take time out for another juicy tidbit. What is it, what is it?”

“Well,” and then she paused for what appeared to be dramatic effect but was really to stall for time. She had to devise a tale good enough to elevate her in Martha’s eyes. After all, how could she have invited “anyone who is anyone” to her dinner party and not have invited her? “Well, I saw her and . . . Roger Lewis--you know, that hairy young man who’d been mowing lawns in our neighborhood?--I saw them going into that perfectly awful little motel out near the airport. They were almost running from his old car into one of the units. It was just getting dark, but I saw her face as plain as day in the light above the door.”

“You’re kidding! Alicia Carter and that primitive young man I’ve heard so much about? How intriguing, how perfectly scrumptious.” Then a thought crossed her face like a cloud. “But what were you doing out there? I mean, it’s not exactly Grand Central at . . . what’s the name of that dreadful place?”

“It’s called The Runway, I think. And I was there . . . well, not there, but driving by with Jim. We were on our way out to that new place, The . . . The Embers. Oh you know. Everybody’s talking about it. For dinner. We were stopped at the light, the one at the airport entrance, and I just happened to glance over at the motel. This couple was just getting out of a car and something about the way they were acting just didn’t look right. They went to the door of one of the units and while he was fumbling with the key, the woman stood under the light waiting. And there she was. I know it was pretty far away, but I recognized that face all right. It was Alicia Carter and this young man. Well, he’s really only a college boy. I mean, she must be at least ten years older.”

At that moment, she looked up, over Martha Jamison’s shoulder, and there was Alicia Carter standing on the other side of the diet drink display, just standing there staring at them. She’d obviously heard enough of the conversation to know she was the center of the story, for there was a mixture of pain and puzzlement in her eyes. Amanda could feel herself flush with embarrassment at being caught in the lie.

“Yes, yes, then what happened?” Martha asked, ravenous for new grist for her mill.

“Uh . . . oh, then the light changed and we drove away. That’s all I saw.” Amanda couldn’t force her eyes up to see if Alicia Carter was still there.

“That’s it?” Martha seemed disappointed at the lack of sexual specifics. “Well, that’s enough. She certainly wasn’t there to tutor him in English, was she? Or have him show her how to mow lawns.” She chuckled at the thought, delighted to think of how she would embellish this little tale later that evening. “Or maybe he was going to trim her bush,” she tittered, eyes up, fingers of her right hand against her cheek, affecting a prurient Jack Benny. The humor vanished with a click and her eyes were all business again. “Well, I really must run. So much to do before tonight. Thanks so much, Amanda. You’ve just given me my conversational centerpiece for my party.”

Before Amanda could even say goodbye, Martha was gone up the aisle in her pursuit of gourmet garnishments for her dinner party, the party to which Amanda wasn’t invited, not good enough to be invited, in pursuit of goodies to complement the goodie Amanda had just offered up.

Amanda knew she’d been wrong to make up that story about Alicia Carter, and now even Alicia knew she’d done it. Well, that couldn’t be changed now. But it may as well have been true. In fact, it probably was true. Maybe not the exact details, but close enough. And probably not the first time--or even the tenth. She deserved whatever she got. Little slut! Parading around malls like a whore, just looking for men to snare. And Jim was certainly susceptible to snares. Yes, she certainly deserved whatever she got.

Amanda decided she’d had enough of shopping. She was depressed. Not invited to Martha’s party, indeed! Well, she’d feel better when Jim got Home. But she wouldn’t mention anything about the party . . . or her story about the Carter woman.

Kimberly was humming a little tune as Amanda pushed her cart into one of the checkouts. Two registers over, Alicia Carter was waiting as her groceries were rung. And between them was Martha Jamison. Kimberly continued her patternless song while the clerk rang up the items. Amanda could feel Alicia Carter’s glare from two aisles away, but she refused to look at the woman.

All right, all right, she thought. So I shouldn’t have made up that story. I still say she probably deserved it. It could just as well have been true, or something very like it. But she couldn’t erase her feeling of guilt, and her eyes flickered up to Alicia Carter’s and then down again.

“Mommy, ‘member when I went to bed las’ night, ‘member I ax you for a drink of water? You din’t bring me one an’ I coun’t sleep. “Member, Mommy?”

“What, Kimberly? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Amanda seldom paid much attention to what her daughter said.

“Yes you do,” Kimberly pouted. “You said you’d be right back an’ bring me some water an’ you never did an’ I waited an’ waited an’ you din’t come. So I went to the baffroom an’ I got me a drink.”

“That’s good, Kimberly. That’s a big girl.” The woman at the register had been listening to the story and now gave Kimberly a smile and a wink.

Kimberly, pleased now with her audience, raised her voice proudly. “An’ when I went back to bed I was real quiet an’ I peeked in Daddy an’ you’s room an’ you an’ Daddy were playin’ a game.” And now everyone was listening.

“An’, an’, an’,” she stuttered, trying to rush on, “an’ you had Daddy’s peepee in you’s mouff. Oh, Mommy, you looked so funny. What a silly game!” She hunched her shoulders and put both hands over her mouth, her eyes squinting a smile at the remembered picture of her mother and father and their silly game.

Amanda stood frozen at her daughter’s words. Then she grabbed the little girl out of the cart and rushed to the door, groceries abandoned. But not before her mind registered the scene around her, a scene with the awful clarity of a flash photo--the three checkout clerks at the cash registers staring in disbelief, Alicia Carter with a tiny smile of satisfaction. And Martha Jamison, shopping bags in her arms as she moved to the exit, smiling widely as she imagined how her latest tidbit would shock and delight her dinner guests that evening.