Lena rushed down the stairs and cursed the world, the tzatziki and the packing tape. She had rehearsed what she would say to him, if he ever dared come back through that door, a million times, a million and a half, but now, confronted with the reality of the car in the driveway and Ava’s shouts of paternal ebullience, all she could do was concentrate on not falling ass over end down the stairs; she wasn’t going to break her neck and lie, crumpled and dead, against the godawful floral wallpaper, not on his account.
Daddy! Ava shouted again. Lena made it to the door in time to stop Ava from unlocking it and unleashing a tidal wave of Ava-bundance on a populace all-too-familiar with the particular abundance of Ava-bundance. Lena’s hand ached from stopping herself against the door; her tzatziki-shot tailbone shouted at her.
Lena closed her eyes. She winced in pain. She counted to three. She steeled herself. A knock.
– Go sit on the couch. Let Mommy deal with this.
– But Daddy, Mommy.
Ava trampled away in a huff. She plopped herself down and muttered, with force and conviction, that Daddy would’ve gone and got Triceratops and that Daddy will take her to get Triceratops now.
Lena rehearsed again, last minute, like when she played Hodel in the Waucheega Community Dinner Theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof. That entrance hadn’t been successful either: her first words, when she stepped onstage in her authentically inauthentic peasant outfit, across from Tevye’s glued-on beard and sprayed-on gray hair whose can-fresh distinction was even more apparent in the glow of the lights, were “motherfucker” instead of “matchmaker”; an audible gasp had risen from the audience as they chewed on their undercooked dinner rolls.
Knock knock knock.
She closed her eyes tighter. She opened the door.
She opened her eyes: Ben, a bag in hand, one of those reusable things that helped you save five cents, looked at her with a befuddled countenance. He cleared his throat.
– Claire’s still puking, but she was worried, so here I am. You ok?
Ava jumped off the couch and into Ben’s arms. He didn’t even have time to put down the bag. Its contents tumbled across the entryway: Hummus, grapes, mac and cheese, fresh mozzerella, bacon, sriracha, and other assorted, unidentifiable, foodstuffs.
– You’re not Daddy, Ben.
– Will you take me to get Triceratops?
Lena gathered the hummus and the grapes.
– Long story. What’s with the food?
– Claire said she’s took sick to eat, so she sent me with our groceries.
– All your groceries?
– You eaten anything?
• • •
They ate their Mac and Cheese and grapes at the table, the gargantuan blob of bills the centerpiece that said feed me, a cornucopia of Courier and Times New Roman and perfect, machine-enabled, razor-edge folds. Tess’s latest hand-delivered and, no doubt, hand-folded, posthumous dispatch was the cherry on top.
– So yeah, you can totally see the wires on the monkeys if you look hard enough. But they’re real good. Really good. The crane operator really knows what they’re doing. Just like, boom. Wow, I mean. Wow.
Ava chomped on her Mac and Cheese. She tapped Ben’s arm. She showed him the bounty in her mouth. She giggled.
– So you got some good ideas then?
– Yeah, I mean obviously we don’t have the equipment or the budget to do it that well, but I think we can pull it off.
– When do you open?
– Six months tomorrow. Gave me a lot of time on this one.
– Good, good.
– Mommy made me leave Triceratops in some shitty iner.
Ben and Lena stared at Ava.
– Ava! What did I tell you?
– Do as you say, not as you do.
– Then why are you still talking like that?
– What’s an iner?
– Diner. The sign at the diner, the D wasn’t turning on. She’s been calling it an iner ever since.
– What diner?
– Long story.
– Same long story?
– Tell me what I want to know!
– These pants won’t last forever you know!
Ben and Lena stared at Ava.
– Where did you learn…? Ben, I’m sorry. She’s been –
– Ben, you wanna see my favorite toy?
– I thought Triceratops was.
– Was. He’s in a…
Ava looked at her mother. Lena raised an eyebrow.
– My new favorite toy.
Ava jumped out of her seat and grabbed Ben by the hand. Lena glanced at Ava’s plate.
– You left a lot of food there.
– Tin cans can’t stop me!
– One more bite.
Ava grabbed the Mac and Cheese in her hand and stuffed it in her mouth. She showed her puffed-out cheeks, like an overstuffed squirrel, to Lena. She grabbed Ben with the Mac hand and pulled him up the stairs.
Lena gathered up the plates and placed them by the sink. She leaned against the counter and listened to the quiet from upstairs and stared at the overflowing cabinets. She dreaded packing dishes and made another vain attempt to discern what, exactly, she was thinking when she agreed to purchase multiple collections of plates and dinnerware. He had said that they were for the dinner parties that would be populated by his friends who would be thrilled to have him back and that they would have the life they had always wanted if they just moved back to his hometown and bought dinner plates. He didn’t pack the dinner plates.
The Avasaur screeched and howled.
– Give that back Ben! You give that back!
Lena jolted from the counter and ran to the stairs. Ben stood in the landing, his eyes wide. He held Whiz!Bam!Pow! Comics #7 in his shaking hands. Ava snarled behind him and jumped up and down, reaching for her new favorite toy.
– Lena. Shit.
– Do you have any idea what you have?
Ava tugged at his jeans.
– Give it back, it’s mine! These pants won’t last forever, you know!
Ben lifted the comic above his head. Ava jumped again, arms flailing.
– This is real, right? Lena. Holy shit. This can’t be real, right? I mean, holy shit! Lena. Shit.
– I –
– Tin cans can’t stop me, Ben! Tin cans! You give that back! Rahr!
Lena stared at him and at her acrobatic daughter’s tantrum-fueled leaping, and then at the new envelope with her name on it, in Tess’s unmistakable scrawl.
She ran, limping, to the table and picked up the envelope. She broke the top fold. Nat Shermans; cinnamon; Chanel No. 5; a small card with a phone number. She showed the card to Ben. He pulled out his phone and dialed the number.
– Lena. Holy shit. Shh. Shh. Holy. Shit.
A man’s voice, tired, answered halfway through the second ring. Ava shouted from the landing that, once again, tin cans couldn’t stop her.
To be continued.