Managing Helen

by Marta Randall

short fiction


The children clatter up the steps and across the back stoop to the screen door. Between them they clutch a brown paper grocery bag. The older, a girl, reaches up for the metal handle.

"Max! Hilary! Hold the door for me, please." But by the time Miri rounds the corner of the house they are already inside, their voices fading toward their grandmother's bedroom. 

Miri frees an index finger to hook through the handle and pull the screen door open. She pauses for a moment, shifting the bags in her arms, and looks across the back yard. Gladiolus grow along the garage wall, red and gold against the cream stucco. Lilies and a hedge of pink roses bloom under the apple tree, edging a neat square of trimmed grass. Alejandro must be doing a good job. 

She frowns, the groceries heavy in her arms. No, Alejandro worked here last spring, followed by Ramon, followed by Benito. Miri and her husband pay for the gardeners, but Helen fires them; five since last Thanksgiving. Her tote bag pulls at her shoulder. She sighs and goes into her mother's kitchen.

"My babies!" Her mother's voice, from the bedroom. The children stop arguing about cartoons as their grandmother exclaims over them. The kitchen is clean and neat, appliances gleaming as though never used, the smell of disinfectant still lingering from the house-cleaner's visit yesterday. The children have left the bag on a chair. Miri puts her own bags on the scrubbed wooden table. She pulls out a bottle of wine and puts it in the refrigerator, moving aside bowls and plates of leftovers. She will have to throw most of them out, before her mother gives herself food poisoning. As she opens the second wine bottle the voices in the bedroom become murmurs – her mother is asking about the children's father, Theo. She always drops her voice when she does that. Hilary's clear voice says, "Mom says he'll be home when we wake up tomorrow." She is seven. Max, who is four, chants "Fa-ther! Fa-ther! Fa-ther!" The television clicks on.

Miri lines ingredients along one side of the table: onions crackling in their yellow skins, the bag of peas, a jar of home-made chicken broth, green herbs, flour. She has already picked through, rinsed, and stemmed the spinach. The crimped edge of the apple tart is still perfect.  She takes an apron from her tote and ties it around her waist.

"There you are!" her mother says. Miri straightens as Helen comes into the kitchen, feet bare under a pair of bright pink pedal pushers. She walks with her toes curled up, as though they can't stand to touch the floor; she has lacquered her short white hair into waves. Her eyes are still magnificent. Miri leans down to peck the offered cheek. Helen sniffs and pokes her finger at the chicken breasts.

"These are too small," she says. "What else is for dinner?"

Miri's shoulders tense a little as she recites the menu: onion soup, spinach salad with blue cheese and almonds, chicken breasts in an herbed wine sauce, fresh sweet peas in butter, the apple tart. A celebratory dinner, in honor of her brother Jack's return. Two bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. Helen sniffs again.

"You know I don't drink," she says.

Miri says nothing, busy with the onions. She nudges them against the flour sack so they don't roll away and takes her knife from her tote bag. Helen's knives, expensive but uncared for, are never sharp enough. Helen moves the onions.

"You should buy them frozen, they don't sting your eyes," Helen says. "Does Jack like peas? I don't think he likes peas."

"Yes he does." Miri remembers Jack sitting across from her at the dinner table, sliding peas into the bowl of his spoon and launching them at her whenever their parents were distracted. She smiles. These past few years have been difficult; having Jack around will at least give her a break. Besides, she misses him.

Helen picks up the jar of chicken broth and opens the cupboard. "What can I do?" 

"Nothing, Mom." Miri corrals the onions and puts the jar back on the table. "I'll ask if I need help, okay?"

Helen sits on one of the kitchen chairs and complains about the woman across the street. Miri tunes her out as the onions unpeel under her hands. The rise and fall of her mother's voice tells her when she needs to mutter an assent or make a noise of astonishment. The knife whispers through the onions, raising clear, pungent fumes.

Miri starts on the second onion and hears Helen say, "cut her hair."

"Whose hair?" Miri says.

"Hilary's, of course. If you won't make her lose some weight, at least you could disguise it. A haircut would help."

This is not a new argument. "Her weight is fine," Miri says. 

Helen huffs again. "Fat children turn into fat adults." 

"She's not fat," Miri says. "Just love her the way she is, Mom. She doesn't need improvement."

"And I do?" Helen demands. 

"I didn't – "

Helen shoves her chair back and stands. "Yes you did." Her voice shakes. "You've never loved me, no matter what I do." She leaves before Miri can respond.

Miri sighs and pushes her mother's empty chair under the table and measures butter into a pot. She's just an old woman. The bedroom door opens, emits the sound of cartoons, and closes again. I shouldn't get so upset. The butter sputters a little as it melts. This all, all of this, ends with me. She takes a deep breath, letting the onion fumes sting the insides of her mouth and nose, before picking up the knife again. 

The butter has melted by the time she finishes slicing the onions. She scoops them into the pot and glances at the wall clock; Jack should be here soon, unless traffic is bad on the bridge. She lifts the onions with a wooden spoon and turns them over, thinking about her brother. She hasn't seen him for over two years, since the Christmas after he started driving the long hauls. That year, Helen went into debt buying presents for Miri, the children, even Miri's husband Theo, whom Helen hates, but pointedly gave Jack nothing. Jack had retreated into furious silence and slammed out of the house. 

Miri had followed him to the garage, where he paced a narrow aisle between boxes of family junk. She stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"You know she's mad at you for leaving," Miri said. "She always does this. Remember the summer I was 15 and I bought a guitar and paid for lessons, and she sold the guitar one day when I was at school, and I got mad at her? She bought you that expensive train set, just to show me how angry she was at me."

Jack started to smile. "Yeah. A Lionel Santa Fe. It was great." His breath smoked in the cold. "I loaned you the dough to buy another guitar."

"At ten percent interest, you shark." He laughed and she hugged him. "I've missed you, Jack."

"You just want someone else to hang out with the old woman."

"Yes, I do," she had said into the warmth of his shirt. "I can't do it all myself. There's nobody else, with you gone."

"Yeah. Well. You've got Theo and your kids."

"They're not you, Jack."

"Damn straight they're not." She moved back to look at him. He shoved his hands deep into his pants pockets.


He wouldn't look at her. 

She crossed her arms against the cold and glanced away, looking for something to break the silence.

"Look, she dug out your old lamp," she said. The lamp was shaped like a cowboy on a rearing pony. A shaft rose from the pony's head to support the bulb and a fringed shade; the pony and cowboy lit up at night. Jack, afraid of the dark through most of his childhood, had loved it. Now 
his glance followed hers and he cursed.

"Why do you keep bringing up shit?" he demanded, and left the garage. Miri winced and looked again at the lamp. What was that all about?

She sighs, lifts and turns the onion slices, separating them. The onions begin to release their scent.  She turns her attention to the peas.

The bedroom door creaks, followed by a bright spatter of cartoon music and the click of the door closing. Hilary comes into the kitchen, her hands behind her back. Her freckles glow in the sunlight along rounded cheeks; her hair is a cheerful mass of curls.

"Mom, I'm hungry," she says. 

"Dinner's not for a couple of hours," Miri says. "Want a banana?"

Hilary makes a face. She has hated bananas since she learned that they were her first solid food. Miri tucks a strand of hair behind the girl's ear. Her skin is as smooth as warm cream. "Maybe graham crackers?  See what Grandma has in the cupboard." She hooks a chair with her ankle and drags it to the cupboard so that Hilary can climb up.

Ignoring the chair, Hilary leans forward. "Look what I found in Grandma's closet."

Miri frowns and opens her mouth, and stops when she sees the silver evening slipper in her daughter's hand. A tangle of thin straps falls over Hilary's fingers; the spike heels must be three inches high, shiny and clean. Manolo Blahniks? She blinks at the name, appalled.  Where did Helen find the money to buy them? Miri takes the shoe from the girl. Did Helen even try them on?

"Hilary, you shouldn't..." but she can't finish. She slides the shoe into one of her apron's capacious pockets. "We'll have to sneak it back," she says, her voice low.

The girl shrugs. "Grandma won't notice."


"She's got a million shoes in there," Hilary whispers back. "She's got some made out of fur. She's got shoes with diamonds on them and rubies and stuff." She climbs onto the chair. "I saw them before she came in again."

"Oh." Miri touches her pocket. "What did she say? When she found you in there, I mean?"
 Hilary's smile fades. "She said pretty shoes were for pretty women. She said - she said you should brush my hair more."

"Oh, baby." Miri gives her a hug. "You're my beautiful girl, and you know it."

Miri has seen the contents of her mother's closet only twice. The first time she was four, Max's age, and discovered the same wonderland that Hilary has found: pumps, mules, evening slippers, sandals; closed toes, open toes, straps, buckles; leather, snakeskin, fur, cloth; every color of the paintbox, a mulch of beautiful, expensive footwear from wall to wall, the floor invisible beneath them. Her mother had punished her trespass by locking her in the closet with the shoes for half an hour, forbidding her to step on them, or in them. 

The second time was after her father left, when Miri was seventeen. She had came home from school to find the note centered on the kitchen table, held down by a peach. She held the peach as she read the few words, then read them again, and a third time.  There was, she thought later, nothing original in his story: married in haste, on the rebound from a broken heart, and 20 years later he must have spent a cold moment staring into the shaving mirror, seeing the grey stubble on his cheeks, the crevices bracketing his mouth. Two children; a wife who rewrote history to vindicate her grudges; a house with clogged plumbing, chipped paint, a leaky roof; his paycheck never enough and a job of seamless monotony. He walked away from all of it, disappearing save for the occasional birthday call, always surprised at being grandfather to two small children he has never met. 

At the time, though, she stood in the old kitchen, her fingers pressed against the inked words of the note, listening to the empty house.  His recliner sat by the front window but his current book was gone; his can of shaving cream had left a circle of rust against the bathroom counter. The bedroom was neat, drawers closed on nothing, the bowl on his dresser empty of keys and change. But he had opened Helen's closet and excavated it; shoes lay scattered like jewels across the beige rug, expensive and untouched, gaudy in the light of day. Miri had let the note drift from her fingers to lie amid the sandals and pumps, and left the room. 

Hilary has wriggled away and stares into the cupboard. Sunlight touches her hair and one perfect ear. "Find anything?" Miri says. She lifts a pea pod and splits it with her thumbnail.

Hilary shakes her head and climbs off the chair. "Mom?" she says. "Peas?"

Miri laughs. The girl stands with her chin raised and lips parted while Miri tilts the fresh, sweet peas into her mouth. As Hilary chews, Miri cuts an apple into thin slices, adds long fingers of cheddar, and piles it all on a plate. "Save some for your brother," she says. Hilary nods and tucks into the food.

"Tell me about the shoes again, about Uncle Jack and the shoes," Hilary says, her mouth full of apple. Miri shells peas and tells her about taking Jack downtown to buy special shoes, corrective shoes to keep him from toeing in. 

"The shoe store had an X-ray machine where you could put your feet. If you were tall enough, you could look through the scope at the top and see your bones. But we weren't tall enough, so I put my feet in the machine while he stood on a chair and looked at them, then we changed places and I looked at his." His toe bones seemed so delicate, she remembers, little jointed bamboo pieces, light grey in the darker grey of his flesh. "On the way home we always stopped at the café and I bought us ice cream cones. They cost five cents a scoop and there were only three flavors, chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry." Hilary laughs, not believing it. Miri remembers the wide, white sidewalk in June sunlight, holding her brother's hand while ice cream melted along the sides of the cones and they licked as fast as they could to keep up. If she only had a nickel, they shared a cone while he counted licks to make sure she didn't take advantage. 

"Did you buy shoes for you when you got them for Uncle Jack?" Hilary hasn't asked this question before.

"No," Miri says. The last of the peas spill into the bowl. "No, I got mine from a different store, where they weren't as expensive. Because I didn't need special shoes." She curls her toes in her comfortable flat tennis shoes, remembering blisters.

"Here, take the plate and make sure your brother gets some," she says, scooting Hilary out of the kitchen. Then she calls her back and tucks a couple of napkins into her collar, kisses her forehead, and sends her on her way again. Miri touches the shoe through the fabric of her apron. She'll sneak it into Helen's closet later.

The onions are still opaque. She lowers the heat until the flame is just a hint of color and touches her pocket to feel the cigarette pack and matches under the shoe. The door opens and Helen comes in, holding the plate of fruit and cheese.

"You know I don't want the children eating on my bed," she says. She puts the plate on the table.
 Miri lets the cigarette pack slide back down in her pocket. "But you do it all the time..."

"That's different," Helen says. "And Max makes such a mess. You should teach him to be neater."

"He's only four. He'll learn."

"Well, some people never learn." Helen stares at Miri, who covers the plate of food with plastic wrap. She jerks the plastic tight.

"I wanted some cheese," Helen says, still challenging.

"Your doctor said to cut down on fats, remember, Mom?"

The front door slams. 

"Jacky! Jacky, I'm in the kitchen!" Helen starts to cry. "It's your brother, Miri, it's Jacky come home!" Jack comes to the door and Helen clutches him.

Her brother hasn't changed much in two and a half years: he's a little more tanned, a little more muscled, and sports a thin moustache. He puts his arms around his mother, who mutters ancient nicknames. Miri smiles at him over their mother's head. The children stand in the hall, peering into the kitchen.

"Welcome home, Jack," Miri says. 

"Yeah, well." He kisses Helen's forehead and pushes her back a little. "You look good, Mom. Lost some weight?"

She beams at him, tears gone. "Just a little," she says.

He grins at Miri. "You're looking good too. Where's Theo?"

"In Chicago, on business. He'll be back late tonight."

"He can't be bothered with us," Helen says.

"Mom, it's his job."

"He should change jobs," Helen says. "He doesn't make enough anyway."

"Christ," Jack says. He sees the wine. "Sauv blanc? Great." He opens the cupboard, grabs a tumbler, and pours wine into it.

Miri looks from the glass to her brother. "Jack, that's a lot of - "

"Let your brother have what he wants," Helen says. 

"I can fight my own battles," Jack says. "You don't want me to have any wine, sis?"

"That's not it," she says, frowning at him. "Just go easy, okay? It's for dinner."

He smirks and drinks half the glass.

"What's got into you?" she says.

"Miri! Stop that right now! Leave your brother alone!" 

"Gee thanks, Mom," he says to Helen. "You want some too?"

"You know I don't drink," she says.

"Yeah, wouldn't want to self-medicate," Jack says. "Here, hold this for me. Don't let my sister get any, okay?" He grins at Miri and goes into the bathroom.

"What's wrong with him?" Miri says.

Helen puts the wine down. "Stop picking on him. You do it to annoy me." Her voice quivers.

"Oh for God's sake," Miri mutters, turning back to the stove. She raises the flame under the onions.

"I heard that!" Helen stamps into her bedroom, taking the children with her. Miri pours wine into a measuring cup and hides it in the cupboard. She bends over the onions as the bathroom door opens.

"You didn't touch it, did you?" Jack says.

"You are such an idiot," she says. He laughs and comes up to hug her from behind.

"And you are such a bitch," he says. "You should be happy I came home. God knows you nagged me enough."

She turns and kisses his cheek. "I am happy, Jack. I've missed you."

"Yeah, well." He pulls out a chair and reaches for the peas.

"Hey," she says. "They're for dinner too." She dips her hand into the bowl and pours a few peas into his mouth, already open and waiting. Baby birds, he and Hilary. "Tell me everything," she says.

"What's to tell? I drove all over hell and gone, slept, drank, drove, got laid, drove, read your goddamned letters, came home. Big deal."

She unwraps the blue cheese. "Do you have any long-distance jobs lined up?"

"Maybe. Why? Want me gone already?"

She tries to hear humor in his voice but it isn't there.

"No. I hoped you'd be home for a while. You know. She's not getting any younger, or healthier."

"Or saner?"

"That too." She starts crumbling the cheese. "I could use a hand with her, Jack. It's not easy – "

"Yeah, well, you should've thought of that before you got married and got knocked up," he says.  Miri looks up, blinking at him, as he says, "Besides, nobody said you had to take care of her. I never said that."

"But, Jack, somebody's got to. She can barely take care of herself anymore. She loses her money, her keys..."

He shrugs. "So how is that my business?"

Miri catches her breath. "She's your mother, too."

"Shit," Jack says. He empties the bottle into his glass and heads for the livingroom. After a moment she hears the big television set click on, then the roar of a ballgame. Hilary comes into the room, Max half hiding behind her.

"Mommy?" Hilary says. "Why was Uncle Jack angry?" 

Miri gestures, tries to find words to explain it all away, and can't. 

"Are you still hungry?" she says. Max nods. Light travels up and down the smudges on his glasses. The kids sit at the table and she uncovers the apples and cheddar, and pours two glasses of milk. 

"I don't like it when people get angry," Max says. "I don't like it at all, Mother."  These formal speech patterns are fairly recent. Miri finds them both endearing and exasperating.

"Me neither. Uncle Jack's just kind of grumpy." She picks up the empty wine bottle. "He's just ... he just has things to think about, and I guess he doesn't like it." Yes. She puts the wine bottle in the garbage. 

She looks into the pot again. The onions are ready for the next step, but she needs a break. She turns the flame off. Max, for all his elegant speech, crams food into his mouth with both hands. Hilary picks at the fruit without enthusiasm. When Max finishes Miri wipes their hands and faces, and sends them back to the cartoons in the bedroom.

She pushes through the screen, fingering the cigarettes and matches beneath the shoe in her apron pocket. She follows the path through her mother's garden. The leaves and petals are perfect, fertilized weekly and doused with insecticides. No aphid or earwig would survive touching one of Helen's plants. 

The garden ends at the rose hedge, beyond which the ground slopes toward where a creek once angled along the back fence. Here the yard is a jumble of abandoned vegetable beds, a bumpy square of rough grasses, the old magnolia tree. Bees hum in the weeds.

She sits on the picnic table, her feet resting on a bench, and lights her cigarette.

This part of the yard has not changed much since her childhood. Her father patterned the picnic table on those in the state parks, thick redwood planks bolted together to form a tabletop and attached benches. Sturdy enough to last forever, he had said, and except for some weathering and the initials she and her brother carved into it, it looks much the same as the day her mother banished it to the hinterlands. 

She misses the creek. Where it had passed into the neighboring yard to the left, the west, she and Jack and the Bruckner kids, Francesca and Marco, had tunneled under the fence, making a shortcut that was safe except during the rainy season when the creek stretched to fill its bed. The Bruckners rented the third floor of the house next door, a soft old brown shingle filled, downstairs, with the yeasty smell of mold and, upstairs, with Mrs. Bruckner's cooking, full of lemon and oregano and sunlight. When Mrs. Bruckner grew homesick she would stop speaking English altogether, and Mr. Bruckner would take her on his lap and say, "Oh Paola, sweetheart, darling." When Mrs. Bruckner wept the children crept away, their pockets crammed with sweet Italian breads, and wriggled through their tunnel to sit under the picnic table; dressed in their imaginations, it became the cave in which Mrs. Bruckner's family had hidden from Allied bombers during the war.

The Bruckner's house came down ten years ago, replaced by a tan stucco apartment building.  Under it the creek now runs through a concrete channel, sealed beneath the building's washrooms. A few years later another apartment building went up where the house on the left had been, and the city required that Miri's part of the creek also disappear. The city paid for the work and compensated Helen for the loss of the creek; she used some of the money to remodel the kitchen.

Miri crushes the cigarette out against the sole of her tennis shoe and field strips it, scatters tobacco shreds over the covered creek, rolls the paper into a ball and carries it and the yellowed filter to the garbage can near the back stoop, where she dumps them before going in.

As the screen door closes Hilary erupts into the kitchen, wailing, and flings her arms around Miri's waist. Max follows, scowling, fists balled together at his sides. 

"What?" Miri says, taking Hilary by the shoulders. "What? Are you hurt?" She touches her face, her sides. 

Hilary shakes her head so hard her curls fly. 

"Grandma said I'm fat! And I don't deserve pretty shoes and - and you don't love me because you don't - because my hair - because my – " She hiccups and sobs.

"Our grandmother is an ugly old mean lady," Max says. "I told her so." He shoves his glasses back up on his nose.

"Oh, God." Miri gathers her children into her arms and hears Helen crying in her bedroom. "Hilary, honey, you know you're not fat. You're beautiful and I love you very, very much."

"I also love you," Max assures her.

"Don't mind your grandma," Miri says. "Sometimes she says things she doesn't mean."

"Oh, yeah, right," Jack says. He has come to the door. The children squirm in Miri's arms, turning to face him. Miri blows out her breath.

"It's your uncle Jack," Miri says. "Remember the stories I told you, about my little brother Jack? There he is, all grown up."

The children say hello tentatively. Miri nudges them forward. "Jack, can you take them into the living room and – and tell them about – about your truck? Or where you've been? I'll bet they'd like that." Over their heads, she nods toward Helen's bedroom. 

Jack shrugs. "Come on, sprouts. Maybe there's something in my bag for you."

The children look at Miri, who smiles and flutters her hands at them. They follow their uncle out of the kitchen. Miri exhales and goes down the hall to Helen's room.

Her mother resumes sobbing as Miri enters. The old woman lies across the tufted bedspread with a pillow pulled over her head. On the wall above her is a photograph of Helen at 18: pretty, laughing, thoughtless, before the years of making-do, the bookish husband who didn't dance, the stomach-stretching children, the shame of being abandoned. In the photo two friends sit beside her: tall Georgia and blonde Isabel. Miri has heard ugly stories about both.

Helen's sobs increase. Miri sits beside her and tugs at the pillow.

"Mom, stop this. Come on, you don't want to look all puffy for Jack, do you?"

"She hates me," the old woman wails. "They both hate me."

Miri sighs inaudibly. "You shouldn't tease her - you know kids are sensitive at that age."

"I didn't tease her," Helen says with indignation. She sits up. The pillow has flattened her hair, her delicate skin is splotched with red. "I just told her the truth. And Max! Max is just a rude, mean devil and he hates me!" Helen starts sobbing again.

Miri shakes her head. There is no time for this. "If you don't pick on his sister, Max won't pick on you," she says, hoping it doesn't sound as patronizing as she knows it does. "Come on, Mom. Jack's home and you've hardly spent any time with him. You can visit while I finish cooking, okay? Okay?"

She helps her mother off the bed and into the bathroom to wash her face and fix her hair. Helen stares into the mirror and Miri too glances at the reflection, wondering what her mother sees. 

"Come on, Mom, Jack's waiting."

Helen stands still for a moment longer, staring at Miri in the mirror. Miri tries to contain her impatience. Helen's features soften. "He's my baby," she says at last. "He loves me. He's the only one who loves me." 

"No, Mom, we all love you," Miri says, but she's thinking about dinner and timing, and knows it sounds flat. Helen's radar is tuned to such things and now she makes a small, satisfied humpf and leaves the room. 

Miri sighs and returns to the kitchen. She raises the flame under the onions and stirs in the chicken broth, pours water into the steamer pot and sets it on a back burner, heaves the large skillet up and melts butter in it. The chicken won't take long: a few minutes to sear, then out of the pot while she makes the herbed wine sauce, then back in to simmer while she steams the peas and butters them, and dresses the salad. Say forty minutes. She glances at the cupboard but decides to leave the wine where it is, and lays the chicken breasts in the hot butter.

Something clatters in the dining room; Helen rushes sobbing through the kitchen toward her bedroom, Hilary and Max close behind her. Miri grabs Hilary as the girl goes past.

"What is it?" she says. "What happened?"

"It's –  Uncle Jack said –  Grandma – she hugged him and tried to kiss him and he called her names and Grandma started crying and she ran away and we came too." Hilary wriggles from Miri's hands and follows Helen.

"Yeah, Uncle Jack's a big meanie," Jack says. He stands in the kitchen door holding the second bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. It is empty. 

"Christ, Jack," she says with disgust.

"It's what you wanted, isn't it?"


"Oh, yeah, innocent," he jeers. "I know what you're doing, hanging around waiting for her to die so you can grab everything." 

"That's not true! I want you home because I need help with her, I need you to spend time with her, I need – "

"You need, you need. Bullshit." He waves the bottle. "You never think about what I need, do you?"

"That's not true – "

"Ever since we were kids," he says, furious. "You'd run out of money and I'd loan you some. You never paid me any interest. I'd do chores for you, if you had homework or something, you never paid me for those."

"But I did things for you too," she cries. "I took care of you, I spent my money on you – "

"I never asked you to. You did that on your own. You do everything on your own, and then bitch about it."

Jack throws the bottle at the garbage can. It bounces and rolls under the kitchen table, but by then Jack is tearing open the cupboard doors. 

"Jack - "

"But it doesn't fucking matter, does it?" He slams a door closed. "Anything you do for her doesn't matter, because she'll give me anything I want." Slam. "You know why?" 

"Jack, please – "

"Because I can give her what she really wants," he says with triumph. He has found Miri's measuring cup of wine. "Me. I can give her me."

He snatches up the wine and takes it out of the room with him.

She stands without moving. Helen and Max sob in the bedroom. She hears Hilary's voice in moments of quiet, trying to soothe them both, and recognizes the tone of controlled alarm.

She turns off the burners, one by one, under the unfinished onion soup, the partially cooked chicken breasts, the raw peas. She frowns at the stove for a moment before leaving the room. The kitchen door closes behind her. As she comes down the steps, the evening slipper in her pocket pokes against her thigh.

It's almost dusk now; the apartment house shadow reaches all the way across the yard. Miri goes through her mother's lush garden and climbs atop her father's picnic table. Mist rises from the buried creek, obscuring the wooden fence. She wonders if there was a snake, an insect, something that bit her mother years ago, injecting meanness into her. She wonders if something bit her brother during years of his absence. She wonders if something will someday come to bite her.

The mist rises toward the top of the magnolia tree, as it did long ago when the tree was a forest and the picnic table the tossing deck of a galleon. She curls her fingers under the table's rough, thick edge and holds on.

short fiction
copyright 2003 by Marta Randall
originally appeared in