Lena kicked off her shoes, the oh-so-comfortable ones whose discovery during a President’s Day sale briefly made her the hero of the Fredrickstown service world, in a perfect arc; they landed with a silent thunk on the multi-colored throw rug that Lena had insisted be part of the purchase agreement on the house. A collection of outside-the-line, dot-connected (sort of),Pollock-in-waiting paper kid placemats jutted from the top of her purse, refrigerator-bound. Ava snored and drooled on her shoulder. Triceratops dangled from Ava’s fingers. Lena tip-toed up the stairs, hitting the wooden steps at just the right point to avoid creakage; she knew the house’s nuances: the noises beckoned by each footfall; the precise, to the quarter-milimeter, height of doorknob-lift for the side door to latch; the exact amount of turn on the reversed hot-and-cold faucet to reach optimal handwash temperature. The house was a part of her and she a part of a house, something she never anticipated on that first viewing a lifetime ago, the realtor’s eyes sparkling upon the first taste of sales blood as Lena and Rob fell in love with the unfinished attic that had “potential,” in spite of the ancient, combustable window fan that sort of pulled hot air from the four corners of the roof.
Entering Ava’s room, Lena took a wide step over the pink and yellow dollhouse, home to a Goodwill-discovered, right-arm amputee Sentinel figure and a jumble of plastic dinosaurs huddled under a plastic turquoise corner shower nozzle. She laid Ava down in the center of her tiny bed, a nest of stuffed animals surrounding her: cheetahs, iguanas, pterodactyls, the protean jungle mixed with Transformers and superheroes. Lena turned on the nightlight. She wiped the drool from the corner of Ava’s mouth and kissed her on the head. With a grunt, Ava went to sleep.
• • •
Lena sat at the kitchen table; she ignored the blob of cellophane-windowed and postage-paid demands for remuneration. She held Tess’s envelope and stared at her name, written in simple capital letters, free of ornament and underlined with a line and a small vertical slash. She turned it over and over. She ran her finger around the outline of jagged metal edges tucked deep inside. She broke the seal of the top fold.
Her phone vibrated. The woo-hoo kicked in, the E Major to C-sharp minor. She dropped the letter; it floated to the ground to the tune of the Pixies’s “Where is My Mind.” She reached for the envelope, the major third to perfect fourth riff insistent. Lena relented and slid her finger over the screen.
– Hey, Mom. No, no. I was going to return your call tonight. We’re doing great. Rob’s got a new job and things are looking up. Long hours. He’s not home much, but –
She listened. She slid her foot to touch the opened envelope, to reach.
– We’re still coming for Christmas. I’ll bring your – I’ll bring it. Yes, Rob and Ava and I’ll see you then. Yes, I got the time off work. Love you too.
She sacrificed the phone to the table and crawled under. She unfolded the letter, perfect creases that took a few times to get perfect. She could hear Tess’s profanity-rich cocktails with each uneven fold line. A small key landed in the linoleum square next to her. She leaned against the table leg and read:
Well fuck. Happens to all of us, I suppose, in the end.
Anyhow, someone once showed me how important family is, so I want to help yours. Your ex sounds like a sack of shit and you deserve the best so let’s show him what being a good person gets you. Go to 45 Underwood in Mooreston and tell them Tess sent you. You can’t miss the sign: “ene’s iner” in pink neon. Bet they never did fix that. Anyhow. They’re open 24-7. Take the key.
P.S. You do smell like –
– Mommy, was that Grandma who called?
Lena bumped her head on the table. Ava stood in the doorway, Triceratops in hand.
– No sweetie, it was a wrong number. Let’s get you back to bed.
– But you said “Where is My Mind” means Grandma.
– I changed it. That wasn’t nice of Mommy.
– Was it Daddy?
– No, baby. No, it wasn’t. Bed. Let’s go.
• • •
The rain pounded on the roof, the attic still had “potential.” Lena lay in the middle of the bed and stared at the ceiling. Ava snored in the next room. The night he left, he had apparently taped a note on the side door. She never saw it, only the remnants of adhesive that hadn’t been there when they went to bed that night. She found the note three days later, the bacon-and-eggs-adorned duct tape curling and crackling in what was left of the winter-beaten shrubberies. In his unmistakable and largely illegible scrawl, smeared by winter, the note said that he would call and they could sort out “Ava and stuff.” He never called.
Rob had run off, Mrs. Adams told her, at 3:13AM on a clear Wednesday morning. Mrs. Adams had heard commotion, a muffled “mf-word” and assumed it was one of the neighborhood’s “undesirables” out to steal her collection of heirloom Amish Country figurines, or worse, “could you imagine,” her out of house and home. But no, she told her, it was “that friend of yours” out “carousing again.” He had waved at her, “all neighbor-like,” and “well, that just rubbed her the wrong way.” She said she had no choice but to shut the curtain and go back to bed and her dream of “that dreamboat Rock Hudson.” That was the last she had seen him, Rob not Rock. She then admonished Lena for being such a heavy sleeper, that the security of the neighborhood depended on being vigilant and that she had reported her for having a cardboard box out on the curb at 4:01PM, not the neighborhoodly-agreed-upon 5:20PM and to expect a ticket in the mailbox. A fifty-three dollar, twenty-seven cent ticket appeared in the mailbox two days later. That was when she found Rob’s note. Lena paid the fine.
Lena rose from bed. She grabbed the LED zebra-striped flashlight and turned it on. Tess’s letter was illuminated, the key on top of it. She shined the light at the sewer grate; she watched the water pass through the slats and was satisfied that all was well, that Mrs. Adams’s heirloom Amish figurines would see another day and another grandchild. She returned to bed, the flashlight still on. She picked up Tess’s letter and the key.
They were open 24-7.
To be continued.