23 February 2009 | Vol. 8, No. 4
Jennifer wakes to the cat vomiting. The sound makes Stephen, the man trying to prove his potential as her kids' fill-in father, jump out of bed like he did when the neighbor kids lit firecrackers in the alley—like trouble, something to reckon with. He's naked, and she tries to swallow the slight nausea she always feels at the sight of naked men—even beautiful naked men, which this one might be said to be, by some.
"It's the cat," she says. "She always vomits when I refill her food bowl; she's the binge-and-purge type."
He laughs, like he does, at her wit, an unsure laugh that says, I'm not sure that I get it, but I'm good-humored, so understand that I want to get it. I'm trying really hard to get it.
He's already pulling on his shorts and t-shirt. He's careful not to let the kids see him without clothes—"Wouldn't want to give them the wrong idea," he says.
"Right," she says back, "Wouldn't want to give them the right idea."
"Can I find something under the sink to clean it up with?" he asks.
She nods into her pillow, rolling away to cover her nose, the smell bringing back her nausea. She hates the cat, always has, but it was her husband's before he'd met her, the other woman, they used to joke, and now such a source of displaced love that to get rid of the thing would be unimaginable. The cat is getting old, too—ribs like rebar under her thick coat, fur left in clumps on the bathmat, teeth discarded in corners—an incisor in her son's closet, an indescribable chip by her daughter's bookshelf. She both fears and welcomes the cat's death. Fear for her children, welcome to quiet mornings, an absence of hair stuck to her wet, clean feet every time she steps from the shower.
Her son has his father's name—Finn—too good not to reuse. Her daughter has her aunt's name, her father's sister's name—Mae—by demand. They were the exact same age apart as the first Finn and Mae—eerily so, impossible to orchestrate if they'd tried—Finn born in March, three years and four months before his little sister. They were all born on the seventeenth, in early morning hours, right before dawn. At family gatherings, her husband Finn would seek out his sister Mae and they would take the children, running to swing-sets, slides, merry-go-rounds, throwing a Frisbee, starting the first game of croquet. Mae's husband Robert would invariably find Jennifer, whispering, "It's our inadequate names," and they would stand close to each other, the hair on their arms brushing, close, but not quite skin-close; they would stand and watch their spouses play with the children—the ones the first Mae couldn't have.
Often, Jennifer finds her Mae back in her brother's room—though she moved to her own years before—finds her curled against Finn, head on his chest, leg tossed over his, positioned like small lovers. She worries they'll never love anyone more, that her husband's love of her came of a necessity neither could name, the genuine affection it grew into surprising them both.
Mae had been the maid of honor at their wedding, supplanting Jennifer's own best friend. This was part of the deal. And Mae cried through the entire ceremony, making Jennifer worry about what she was getting into, even more than she already did. There was close, of course, but there was always too close right behind it.
Stephen comes back with some cleanser and a rag from the bin in the laundry room. Ten years of marriage and Finn had still never used the rags, grabbing the first cloth he could find instead—the good bathroom towels, an embroidered pillowcase. "It'll all go in the wash anyway," he'd reply to her protests. She'd note the exact linens and hang them on his hooks, put them on his pillows, a small revenge.
She misses that, the pieces—the ones that itched, a grass seed in her sock—these she misses the most. The laughter and smiles, she's found, can be replaced—easy, almost—but the disappointments, the bickering, the flaws are irreplaceable.
"She threw up all over your flip-flops," Stephen says, a note in his voice that could laugh or scold.
"Which ones?" Jennifer asks.
"The red ones."
"Which red ones?"
"Um, I suppose the rubber red ones."
"Lucky bitch," Jennifer says through her pillow. There are leather red ones too, suede red ones—ones the cleanser would do nothing for.
"I think I'll just take these out to the hose," Stephen is saying, and Jennifer is moving on to her kids, to what she'll make for their breakfast, to the awkward chit-chat with Stephen, who will never get a toe in with either.
"Can I call you Steve?" Finn had asked the first time Jennifer had chanced a shared dinner.
"Sure," Stephen had replied, the eager-to-please grin of a golden retriever.
"That's unfortunate," Finn had replied. "Nicknames are weak."
These were his father and aunt's words, slightly skewed, slightly out of context. A name that could have no nickname was strong, they both felt (for obvious reasons), and they had shared this belief with the children, tossing Jennifer the bone of never going by Jen or Jenny, at least.
"Not giving into an obvious nickname seems like it would make me even stronger," Jennifer had said.
"Don't push it, Mom," young Finn had replied, and all of the single-syllables had laughed.
Mae's husband Robert tells people to call him "Rob, or Bob, or Robby or Bobby—really just about anything. Call me Dick, if you'd like. I mean if Richard can become Dick, I don't see why Robert can't. Nicknames are great." He retaliates in his own way. Falling short of his wife's living brother was hard enough, but Jennifer hurts more for him now—floundering in the shadow of a dead man, an unrelenting absence that has made Finn even more impossibly perfect in Mae's eyes—everything exaggerated, bloated, greater. Mae misses Finn more than Jennifer does—they all know this.
She is still in bed when the young Finn bounds into her room. "Why is Stephen hosing off your shoes?" he asks, scrambling onto the bed to sit cross-legged at her feet.
"The cat puked on them," Jennifer replies.
Finn laughs. The cat, of course, never pukes on his things.
"Dad would find that funny," he says, and there it is—the day's first Dad reference. They have a running competition: who can legitimately mention Dad the most throughout the day. Neither Mae knows about the game—they wouldn't want to play, wouldn't appreciate it. Jennifer loves having this with her son, something of her own.
They talk about the dead Finn to keep him there—a presence. There are things slipping already, memory lapses that make her doubt herself. What had he said to Jennifer's mother when he first met her? So that's where she gets the floral leaning, Jennifer's mother in an enormous flowered smock. Had she hated him then? Did he laugh to show a joke, or keep it quiet, a secret she had to find out? She's forgetting reactions—is this where he would've shown anger? Or indifference? Or fear? When was it that she felt she knew him most intimately—when he wept, or was it when he yelled, so uncommon? Were those the moments she cherished?
"This," she says, pulling young Finn close to her, where she can curl against his growing body, "was one of your father's favorite things."
Silently, she counts to three, and on cue, Finn says, "Mine too, Mom. It's one of my favorite things too."
When will he outgrow this devotion? When will the scale tip just enough into adolescence to make cuddling with his mother disgusting? She fears that day more than the cat's death.
She thinks both Finns would like Stephen under different circumstances.
She thinks she'd like Stephen under different circumstances.
He is back with her flip-flops.
"Good-morning, Finnegan," he says, tossing the sandals in the closet.
"Breakfast!" Jennifer shouts before Finn can respond. He has said the words himself enough, If there is anything worse than shortening a name for the point of intimacy, it's making a name longer. The long nicknames made the original Finn and Mae irate—their mother calling them Finnly and Maebelle, Finnable and Maeling—miniaturizing names, they would say, condescending. Jennifer never got to indulge in the normal banter with her children—no sweet endearments. She can't remember ever calling her children anything but their names, no sweetie, honey, love, darling. Only Finn and Mae.
Is it strange, she thinks now, that they elected to go by Mom and Dad?
"What'll it be, Finn?" she asks. "It's Saturday and we've all the time in the world. What should we ruin the kitchen for this morning?"
Finn smiles the sly smile he learned from his aunt. The loaded smile, the put-on-your-fighting-gloves-smile, the be-ready smile.
It's not aimed at her, she knows, but at Stephen, who is ridiculously organizing her shoes.
"Dad's pancakes," Finn says. "And his fruit salad and sausage and Mimosas sans champagne." Dad's pancakes, Dad's breakfast.
"That sounds good," Stephen calls over his shoulder. "I am an excellent pancake chef."
Finn rolls his eyes and whispers into Jennifer's ear, "Do not let him make Dad's pancakes," before rolling off the bed and heading back to his room to dress.
She smiles, an inappropriate tendency.
"I'll make the pancakes," she says to Stephen. "Leave my shoes alone."
He drops a pair of green clogs.
"Are you angry with me?" he asks, and she has to turn away to hide the face she makes.
She and the older Finn had promised each other they'd never ask this question, since the answer was always obvious, if the question was raised: yes.
It's unfair to compare them—Finn and Stephen—she knows. Finn would be disappointed in her.
Stephen is on the bed, behind her, rubbing her shoulders. "What is it?" he asks.
She likes his hands, without reservation.
"That feels nice."
He moves down her arms like he's been trained, digging his thumbs into her biceps. She enjoys it for a minute, before slipping away, standing up. "I'm going to get started on breakfast," she says, pulling on pajama bottoms—once Finn's. The clothes are like the mentions—seeing them makes her remember. He wore these particular pajama pants with a ridiculous catfish t-shirt his mother sent for a birthday. He wore them one morning when Mae had the children—the morning after a date night. They had gone out, drank, loved, slept in. He wore the catfish t-shirt and these pants at the kitchen island over coffee and croissants from the bakery, where he'd walked in the same outfit earlier, while she lay sleeping. They were still in their pajamas when Mae and the kids got home, laughing at their laziness, the jealous tint to Mae's expression so common by then it was dear.
Jennifer wonders where the catfish shirt is. She's kept all of his clothes. Stephen knows not to open the other closet.
She pads down to the kitchen at the center of the house and starts the water boiling for coffee. Mae will drink tea—the ginseng mint tea her aunt loves—but Finn and Stephen will drink coffee, Stephen weakening his with extra water, of course, she thinks, of course this man weakens his coffee.
She can't stop being mean.
Her daughter walks in with messy hair—her aunt's. Finn has more of his mother in him than Mae; he is obviously her son, whereas Mae is always mistaken for the older Mae's daughter, not Jennifer's. The older Mae smiles at these comments, never correcting the stranger who says, "Oh, your daughter looks so much like you." Mae would go with Mae, given the choice, Jennifer thinks, but Finn—Finn, like his father, would stay.
"Morning, Mom. Finn said Stephen's still here."
"And he's making Dad's pancakes?"
"Never," Jennifer says, pouring the loose-leaf tea into a steeping basket over Mae's favorite cup—again, from her aunt. "I'd never let anyone other than us make Dad's pancakes."
Mae smiles a sleepy smile. "Us and Mae," she says. "Mae says she and Dad made up the pancakes when they were about how old Finn and I are now."
"Mmm," Jennifer replies. "I remember that story—no blueberries or raspberries to be found, but a box of peaches from the orchard and some nutmeg in the cupboard, and let's not forget the recipe on the back of the flour bag."
Mae smiles again. "It's something Finn and I would do."
"Of course," Jennifer replies.
She brings Mae's mug and the honey pot to where she sits at the island, then returns to the press, pouring herself and Finn each a cup of dark coffee. She leaves an empty mug for Stephen.
"Do you want to do the salad?" she asks Mae. "If you do the salad, Finn can do the mimosas, and I think we can let Stephen handle the sausage."
"Oh, I don't know about that," he says, appearing in a doorway. "Sausage can be tricky."
Mae rolls her eyes. The poor guy, Jennifer thinks. Why is he still here?
"I trust you," she says to him now, wanting to give him something, a modicum of respect, a pinch of hope—maybe this family will let him in, though she thinks he's almost ready to admit that it won't, that he's almost ready to accept her past diagnoses. Not ready, not ready, not ready.
"But it's been two years," he would say.
But two years is nothing, she's found, not even enough time to get rid of some clothes.
"I'll make the salad," Mae volunteers, skirting Stephen at the stove, where he's wrestling with the butcher paper on the sausage.
Jennifer cracks eggs and scoops flour from memory—there's no recipe for Finn's pancakes. She'd known he was about to propose when he taught her how to make them, standing next to her in his kitchen, directing without helping, telling her, seeing if she could follow it.
It was years later that he told her the story, how he and Mae had used a cookie recipe—how good the pancakes had turned out. She had hung on the details—peaches from the orchard (right out the backdoor), whole nutmeg in the cupboard, that they knew to grate on a miniature cheese grater. These children who substituted honey for the sugar in their misguiding recipe. She'd been raised on Twinkies, Coke, Doritos. She didn't even know ground nutmeg; she'd certainly never picked a peach. She knew that the handing down of names had been more than the names themselves—that she'd wanted the whole package, those lives for her children too.
She thinks they have them, nearly at least, almost.
"Mom!" she hears Finn yell. "Mom! Come here! Hurry!" There is panic in his voice, like two years ago. Jennifer runs toward his room, Stephen and Mae following.
And there, in the middle of the rug, is the cat on her side, mucus and saliva pooling around her open mouth, a stain of urine easing out behind her. Jennifer watches the bony ribcage for a heave, but it is calm, flat. Finn is standing in the doorway to his bathroom, just clean from the shower, a towel around his waist.
Jennifer feels nothing but anger—how dare this animal come here to die.
Finn runs to her, hiding his face in her collarbone (Is he really this tall? she thinks); Mae squeezes under her other arm. All she can do is look at the growing stains, swallow away the gagging sensation threatening her throat as the smell reaches her. Finn's cat, her husband's cat. Of course, her name had been Mae.
It's Stephen who eventually scoots past them with a pillowcase—intricate stitching at the corners—and kneels by the animal, putting his hands under the light body, gently sliding her into the sack. He makes sure to keep her in a respectful position, supporting her body through the fabric as he carries her away.
None of them ask where he's taking her. After a minute, they hear the clank of a shovel coming off its hook in the shed, and the slow pitch of soil in the backyard.
Will he bury her without us? Jennifer wonders, though she truly doesn't know if she'd prefer otherwise, if she would prefer to stand on the rim of this other Mae's small grave, pull in the scent of soil tightening itself down for winter—the ground on the verge of frost—whether she'd smell the same air she'd smelled two years ago, the soft perfume of the older Mae settling across the space. They had buried Mae's brother first that day, then her children's father, her husband last—a quiet good-bye she shared only with him. She knew that death would return him to the others—the Maes and Finns—leaving her—all of the Jennifers and Roberts and Stephens—behind, exposing them as the foreigners, the interlopers they were. She hears the shovel again, feels her children under her arms, and wishes for a moment that she could guide them all toward the backyard where she would stand next to Stephen, strip off her dead husband's pajamas, lay them in the ground with his dead cat, then take the hand of the man here now. But instead she squeezes her children tighter, closing her eyes to the stains and the smell and the shovel, to everything—herself included—that isn't this family.
About the author:
Virginia Reeves lives in Helena, Montana, with her husband and two daughters. Her fiction has appeared in Farfelu, storyglossia, grain short/grain long, and Peeks and Valleys. She contributes regular theatre reviews to the Queen City News and teaches composition at Carroll College.