Lena made sure to get the Windex into the tiny nooks of the car’s rear door handle recess and capture the remnants of pancakes and blueberry syrup that had been spewed between exits 263 and 262. She threw the soaked paper towel into the plastic bag that said “thank you for letting us serve you.” The roll empty, she spit on her hand and wiped the edges of Ava’s mouth.
– Ew, Mommy.
– You’ll live. Now, go to sleep; we’re almost home.
Lena tied the bag tight and threw it into the trash can in front of the Welcome Center. She leaned against the car and fan-dryed the comic book, still wet from Ava’s pancakeial over-indulgence. As cars whizzed past on the freeway and Ava peeked around the driver-side headrest, Lena composed herself and drowned out the self-cursing that swarmed around her brain like flies to a garbage bin: she had wasted an entire day for a fucking comic book.
She gave up the taming, got into the car, threw the comic on the seat next to her and, after silent prayers to the ignition gods, started the car.
– That fucking comic book has dinosaurs in it.
– Ava, Mommy said a bad word one time. You don’t need to say it again.
– You said it more than one time.
Lena put the car in gear and headed towards the highway. She strained to look over her shoulder and find a place to merge with the unceasing traffic.
– Where’s Triceratops?
– He’s not with you?
Lena floored it and made it into the right lane. She edged over to the middle.
– No. Mommy. Where’s Triceratops?
– Is he under the seat? Did he fall?
– Did you leave him?
– Mommy. I want Triceratops.
Traffic blazed past her on either side.
– Honey, we have to get home. Mommy’s going to be late.
– I want Triceratops!
The screaming and wailing started; Lena’s protestations lost amidst the wall of sound. She lost count of how many times Ava told her she hated her, and that she wanted Daddy back, and how Daddy was so much better and Daddy would have gone right back and gotten it and how Daddy doesn’t want to come home for Christmas because Triceratops.
Lena took the first half hour of Ava’s stream-of-conciousness vitriol personally. By the hour mark, she took it in something approximating stride. As they passed the outlet mall, where the hookers roamed, allegedly, and the kid’s train was highway robbery at five bucks a ride, the screaming wore to mutterings to mumblings to finally, by the the time Lena took exit 204 onto the interminable two-lane highway home, silence. No one barfed the rest of the way.
• • •
Lena saw the note taped to her front door as soon as she pulled into the driveway. She muttered “shit” under her breath and got out of the car, as quiet as she could so as to not unleash the venom-spewing mockingbeast asleep in the lime-green carseat. She walked up the chipped stone steps to the porch, and after she cursed herself for never painting the still-flaking porch, read the note:
“Where are you? Can’t make it. Food poisoning. Never get a hot dog at intermission. You guys OK? Can’t watch Ava, sorry. Barfing. CALL ME.- C.”
Lena tapped her head against the door frame and, upon turning to lean against the house, saw the back of a new lawn decoration. She made a second mental note of the need to paint the porch as she took the steps, two at a time, and hopped back into the car. She slammed the gearshift into reverse, peeled out of the driveway and tossed a glance to the new decoration. She got the jist of its message as her tires negotiated the pothole in front of the driveway: Sheriff’s Auction: December 15. She didn’t need to read the description of the house.
Lena stopped at the stop sign at the last second. The car lurched forward. She extended her arm across the empty passenger seat. The SUV honked. The Avasaur woke.
– I want Triceratops.
– We’ll go back and get him on my next day off, I promise. I’m sure he’s fine.
She turned right and passed the still-honking SUV. She ran through the red light and passed the station wagon with the handicap sign hanging off the front mirror and the “my other car is the Batmobile” bumper sticker on the rear. Before Ava drifted off again, Lena was reminded, in no uncertain terms, that Daddy wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas because Triceratops.
• • •
Lena tied the apron around her waist and gave Ava a huge stack of placemats and crayons. The framed light opera celebrities stared.
– Be good.
Harumph, harumph, Triceratops, something, harumph.
Lena pulled Ava’s head close, in spite of the child’s considerable resistance, and kissed her on the forehead. The doors of the kitchen squeaked.
– You are late. Late again!
She nodded at Piero, made a “give me a minute” gesture and whizzed past the tables filled with early-bird-special faithful and the new Pixie-waitress waiting on them and to the specials board. She scribbled their pink dry-erase specialness down in the waiter’s pad. The stench of carbon paper wafted upwards.
– She was right about the margarita. Sub-fucking-lime.
Lena turned to face the lawyer. He had on the same suit, a bit more rumpled than before. He produced an envelope from inside his jacket. Piero came up behind them.
– Late, again. And this? Your new boyfriend again?
The lawyer looked Piero up and down.
– She left instructions that said I could only give you this if you did what she said in the first one. Did you?
– It was bullshit.
– You do not talk to customer this way, boyfriend or not! Sir, I am so –
– I can take it. So you did what the first one said?
– Ok then.
Lena snatched the envelope from his hands. She turned and hurried past Piero, who raised his voice higher and higher, punctuating it with moments of soft apology to the lawyer. Piero’s Greek curses reached a fever pitch. The earlybirds watched the show, cats and windshield wipers.
Lena ran back to the kitchen and pushed open the door. Pixie-waitress stumbled backwards. Tzatziki sauce flew in the air and splattered across the dirty floor. Lena’s feet flew out from under her and the kitchen ceiling came closer. She was lighter than air; she was flying. The ceiling got further and further away. She landed on her back. Tzatziki spread in every direction; Lena felt it seep into her shirt and the breath escape her stomach.
Piero marched into the kitchen and stood over her.
– Get out. Never come back.
Lena tried to pull herself up from the floor. She slipped again in the sauce. She tried to breathe. The air stung her ribcage.
– No scenes! You waste food! You are petulant to customers. Petulant! You are late…
Piero looked around the kitchen. He made sure the Pixie-waitress was watching. She was.
– And you steal. Yes, you steal my stamps!
Piero stormed out. Pixie-waitress helped Lena up from the floor. Ava never looked up from the placemats.
To be continued.