"OK," SAID PHIL as he buttoned his pajama top on Friday night, "you've issued all these mysterious warnings, Ash, now tell me why I'm supposed to be on my good behavior. Not that I admit to any other behavior."
"You're aloof with some of my friends, almost rude, and I don't want you to act that way toward my stepsister."
"Like when my book group comes over."
"I try to stay out of the way. A bunch of middle-aged women discussing romance novels? -- it's scary."
"See, that's a rude comment, totally uncalled for."
"I apologize." Phil scratched the sixteen strands of hair on top of his head and smirked unapologetically as he climbed into bed with the latest issue of Model Railroader.
Ashley leaned back against the headboard. "She's supposed to be here in the early afternoon tomorrow, and I'll ask her to stay for dinner. She's bringing her dog, too, which is peculiar; I had to assure her our yard is fenced and secure. She sounds strange on the phone -- jumpy, kind of -- and Mother is very keyed up about this."
"What kind of dog?" Phil said absently as he flipped pages.
"I don't know, a little one, why does that matter? Maybe you can take it to the basement and show it your trains. It may appreciate your new wireless digital throttler."
"Throttle," he corrected. "How do you mean, jumpy?"
"Nervous. Unsure. Which isn't the way I remember her at all."
"I've told you about her. When they moved in, she took over my bedroom. Drew a line down the middle and said I couldn't set a toe on her side. Of course the door was on her side, so it was impossible to avoid arguments."
"Sounds like a kid with issues."
"I guess, if your mother turned beatnik or something, decamped when you were eight, and your father was a brute, you might have issues. But I looked up to her -- she was twelve by then, two years older than me -- and we were comrades when our parents fought. One time we walked two miles to the library and hid out there till we figured the battle had died down. My mom, she could give as good as she got. I think West Point has a course on the Smithers-Finesmith War."
"This is all very fascinating. Maybe I'll go to the office tomorrow. The new payroll system has some glitches that -- "
"No, you're not responsible for the payroll. You will be here when she arrives. You will be charming. You'll bring us cheese and crackers and coffee while we chat. You'll take the dog for a spin around the neighborhood, and you'll pick up its poop."
"How can you chat when your mother insists on turning her chair the wrong way?"
"Phil, I'm serious, I need your support. I'm not sure why, but I'm nervous, too."
Phil set the magazine aside and nuzzled into her neck. "Stop that," she said, "it tickles."
She snuggled with me last night. Let her stay up late while I watched a Bogart movie. Her head in my lap, she's my joy & my best friend. Then tonight she wanted to see movies again and I said it's a school night honey you have to get your sleep and she threw a raging fit. Which started him raving "See this is what you get for being lenient" etc. etc. -- and I went to bed and let them deal with it, they're so much alike.
I want to kill him sometimes. Or both of them. That scares me.
Margaret says he manipulates us and I shouldn't let him. Which makes it my fault. Is it? So if I melted into the wallpaper what'd happen, would they get along better without me?
BY EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES Erin got herself out of the apartment by noon, after only 35 minutes at the bathroom mirror. Last week she had spotted two small pimples on her chin -- a ridiculous affliction at her age, but there they were, and she couldn't let them embarrass her. With her face jammed into the mirror as she struggled to see without her contacts, she had squeezed and dabbed and washed and tried some old foundation makeup that she hadn't used for years, squeezed and dabbed again until the whole area was inflamed, then banged her wrist on the sink in frustration.
Today the skin had mostly healed, but careful examination and treatment were still required. As was a second session with the toothbrush after her first cigarette of the day. Luckily her gray blouse had come out of the laundry unwrinkled, and it looked decent with her best slacks. No major bulge at the stomach, not too much excess at the hips -- unless the full-length mirror in the hall was lying as it sometimes did. But she told herself she couldn't be responsible for untruthful mirrors.
On the front passenger seat of her small Toyota coupe she placed a thermos of coffee and her overstuffed purse containing two kinds of medication, cigarettes, poop bags for Sal, two pairs of reading glasses, an empty case for the lost glasses she still hoped to find, tissues, nail scissors, tweezers and the like. Beside the purse were Ashley's directions, plus an old printed map from a gas station. Her car had no GPS, a technology she knew she wouldn't understand anyway.
The back seat was occupied by Sal, with his favorite two pillows, a chewstick, a bag of biscuits, a second thermos of water and a blue bow around his neck. Tying and retying the bow had taken the better part of half an hour, and she worried that he would mess it up out of vexation at his exile from the front seat. But she couldn't let him ride up front because she had to focus her mind on the turns. If she got lost on the interstate, she could end up in Connecticut or Florida.
These last-minute thoughts almost proved a tipping point. After packing everything, including Sal and herself, into the car, she stopped with the key just short of the ignition. She got out and looked back across the street at the Coke sign in the deli window. It would be so much easier to spend the day watching TV as usual; on Saturday afternoon Let's Make a Deal was on, along with reruns of Happy Days. She reached to open Sal's door. Then she shook her head and returned to the driver's seat, started up and drove slowly away while Sal yapped commentary.
With surprise she found the weather cool and brilliant, a jewel of an August day. Traffic was sparse on the interstate, and the little Toyota thrummed with contentment at its rare high-speed outing. Sal snoozed. Erin held her cigarette high and kept her window wide open to waft the smoke away from her clothes. She poured coffee from the thermos, pleased that she could manage this while smoking and driving. She realized she might be enjoying herself if she weren't so anxious.
Once she passed through Delaware into Maryland, the directions proved easy to follow, leading to a leafy suburb of two-story stone houses with covered porches and bay windows, wide hedges, trim lawns. Though not mansions, they awed her with their stateliness. Worried about where Sal would pee, she made a careful U-turn and backtracked to a small park. Sal sniffed the grass for five minutes while Erin fretted about being watched by neighbors and smoked another cigarette. She thought about offering him water from his thermos but then lost track of that idea.
Back in the car, after a momentary panic when she forgot which direction was which, she headed off again and spotted what she thought was the address. Despite difficulties with dry eyes and vibrating hands, she pulled the Toyota into the driveway as instructed. With careful concentration on each movement, she lifted Sal from the seat, set him on the winding flagstone walk, held his leash in her left hand and her purse in her right, proceeded step by step toward the entrance, pressed the doorbell button exactly in the middle with her right thumb. She swallowed repeatedly.
When the door opened, she was eyed by a tall, bald, pear-shaped man in a checked shirt. "Oh," she said, "sorry, it must, my mistake ... " and she backed away rapidly with the dog. Then a svelte gray-haired woman swept through the doorway with arms outstretched.
At this instant, Sal yanked his leash out of her hand and charged, growling, toward another person in the background, a stooped, white-haired figure in a flowing violet dress.
He made fun of Margaret "that 200 lb. blob." I said don't talk like that about my friends you -- you asshole. He slapped my face. I picked up the big glass ashtray, saying that's the last time you'll do that. I dumped his cigar butts on the floor and raised it up high. His eyes got huge.
For once I scared him. That felt good.
"STOP THAT, SAL! Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Erin exclaimed again and again. Taking a dislike to the swishing hem of Susan's long dress, the dog kept snapping at it on the way to the living room. When Erin reached for his leash he danced away. "He's cranky because he had to ride in the back seat," she apologized. "And he had a bath last night, he hates baths. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. But he's always friendly, I don't know why he --"
Eventually Phil scooped the fluffy little tan dog into his arms and stared it into submission. The blue ribbon dangled on one side and the magenta tongue on the other. "I ... will ... bite ... your ... ears ... off," Phil warned, and Sal, after contemplating his options, licked Phil's fingers.
"Phil," his wife cautioned, "Erin doesn't know your sense of humor, please don't make strange jokes."
"It's all right," Erin assured everyone. "Sal could use some discipline."
Phil grinned. "Dogs have the type of operating system I can understand."
Erin was sort of cute, he thought, if you could say that about someone their age: a rounded small woman with short, faded-blonde hair (a home coloring rinse?) and a snub nose. He sympathized with her predicament in facing his mother-in-law, who was now fussing about her outfit, a ghastly billowing purplish garment that he supposed was meant to be an upgrade from her usual housedress.
"My god, did he tear the fabric?"
"No, you're fine, Mother, quit flipping it around, you'll get him started again."
"Come here then, Erin, honey, I didn't greet you properly in all that commotion."
The visitor gave Susan a tentative hug.
Despite his previous night's threat to abscond to the office, Phil found this odd convocation interesting. Like Susan, the other women were a little too dressed up for a Saturday. Ashley wore a teal top and good jeans that she usually saved for parties; the visitor, a conservative blouse-and-slacks outfit like the receptionist at his office.
When they had seated themselves around the living room -- Susan and Erin stiffly at opposite ends of the sofa, Ashley in a facing chair -- he offered to bring coffee, tea, lemonade, Diet Pepsi, bottled water, tap water or mineral water, with or without ice.
"Are you training to be an airline cabin attendant?" Susan asked.
"Ash told me I have to be useful today," Phil retorted.
"I'm fine," Erin began, "I don't need -- "
"The lemonade would be perfect, thank you," Ashley instructed. "Do be useful, Phil, without jokes. And don't put the dog down until you're sure he's quiet."
Though miffed at his wife's tone, Phil allowed for the tension he could see in her face. "Sal's coming with me. We're pals now. We'll check out the refrigerator together."
"Oh, he'll love that," said Erin, smiling for the first time. "He's so spoiled."
The two males located half a leftover sausage that Phil chopped into slivers for Sal. When they returned with a pitcher of lemonade and three glasses on a tray -- Sal now off-leash, trotting behind his new best friend -- the women were exchanging comments about the house and furnishings, Erin offering profuse admiration for everything she saw. Since the ad hoc décor consisted of old pieces from both sides of the family, plus plug-ins from miscellaneous furniture stores, Phil thought she was either lying or without taste, but he couldn't resist promoting his own contribution.
"Did they tell you about the train layout?" he broke in as he set the tray on the coffee table.
"The train? I drove here, maybe a train would've been faster, but Sal -- "
"In the basement. I have an N-scale setup based on the old Rio Grande line in the mountains west of Denver."
"She is not the least bit interested in your toy trains."
"Don't call them toys, Mom, he'll go off in a huff and stop being useful. Erin, let me pour you some lemonade."
"Actually, my stomach -- "
"I gave Sal some sausage, I hope that's all right."
"Oh, sure, he eats just about anything except dog food." "Don't you touch my dress. Look, he's sniffing at it again, Phil, don't let him -- "
"Sal!" interjected Erin. "Stop that!"
"I had a good friend in high school named Sal," Phil noted. "Short for Salvador. From Venezuela."
"I don't care where he's from, if he puts his teeth in -- "
"OK, OK. C'mere, boy. The two of us are going off in a huff. We are obviously not appreciated here. Erin, if you need something stiffer to tolerate this family, there's vodka in the cabinet over there."
Erin giggled. "Oh, no, not this early in the day."
"Thank you, Phil," Ashley said in a dry tone. "Where's his leash? If you're taking him out, don't forget plastic bags. Remember the Friedenbergs' cat hangs around the -- "
"We got it covered, Ash," he said as the dog followed him toward the kitchen. He shook his head and exhaled.
Margaret says we could live together in the Village. I think she has ideas about us. As a pair. She was talking about the life there and I said I'm not sure it's my cup of tea after all you know. She said it's not tea honey it's good strong bourbon.
I try to picture it and picture Erin there with me and it's all a blank. I think my imagination died.
THEIR INITIAL TOPICS exhausted, the women sat in silence. Erin, ignoring her lemonade, kept her feet primly together and hands in her lap, her shoulders straight. Ashley crossed her ankles. Susan, with her arthritic back, struggled to find a comfortable way to angle herself toward Erin, who she wished would move closer on the sofa.
"It's a girl's name, really," Erin broke the silence, "but I didn't care, and he doesn't know the difference."
"Yes?" and "What?" the others said simultaneously.
"From my favorite book when I was a little kid, Blueberries for Sal."
"Oh, I remember that," Ashley lit up. "I read it to my kids, too. That's the one where a mother and daughter go up a hill to pick blueberries, and a mother bear and her cub come up the other side, and the two young ones wander off and get mixed up, so the bear cub follows the human mother and Sal follows the bear mom. That was adorable. Of course they get it all sorted out in the end. My children loved it."
Susan, who remembered the classic story as well, blanched at the reference to mixed-up mothers. Was the dog's name an implied rebuke? Was this a clue to Erin's life with her original mother or three other stepmothers? She wondered how to approach the subject and, in her typical fashion, decided to ram straight ahead.
"My Sal doesn't like blueberries, though," Erin was meandering. "Apples but not berries. Chocolate, which I can't let him have. Pasta, but only with Ragu sauce."
Susan cleared her throat. "Erin, when I married your father, he claimed that your birth mother had disappeared without a trace, but the more I thought about it, the less I believed him. He admitted that he tracked Ellen down long enough to have divorce papers signed, and I concluded he must be hiding additional information. Did you ever hear from her again?"
"Her? No, I, no -- " Erin's hands rose toward her mouth.
"Mom, don't be so nosy!"
"After forty-nine years, I have an interest in -- "
"It's OK, it took me by surprise is all. I think there was a card from her once, yeah, my dad showed it to me, when I turned sixteen or something. It'd gone to an old address, it came way late."
"But it was nice that she thought of you," Ashley said, "and she'd kept track of your birthday."
Erin's face, round and relatively unlined, still resembled a girl's, Susan thought. The full, wobbly mouth, the mobile cheeks. Her voice almost matched, rising and falling like a teenager's. And her mind, once on a certain track, seemed to ramble on with as little control as a child's.
"But there wasn't any more from her. Until, like, years later, I was already out of high school and waitressing at Denny's, I think it was there, and he said someone sent word she was found dead in an L.A. apartment, but I never learned what she was doing out there or how she, you know. He said there were rumors about drugs, which was something he was always on about with me, staying away from them. But it didn't matter, I guess, I mean knowing how my mother ... there wasn't anything I could do."
As she spoke, Erin's head pivoted back and forth from Susan to Ashley, though she looked past them rather than at them. Soft blue streaks appeared under her cheekbones.
Susan felt as if a walnut had lodged in her throat.
I started crying again. About her toes. When she was taking a bubble bath, hair covered with shampoo, she stuck her toes out & wiggled them. It was too beautiful. I covered my face so she wouldn't see.