The television is loud.
My tea is cold.
Two more complaints to rhyme with loud and cold, and I’ll chuck it all to become the next Dr. Seuss. Do you think Dr. Seuss is mad? Or glad? Or sad? Do you think Dr. Seuss has a demon like mine sitting on his shoulder?
Henry looks over the lid of his laptop at me across the breakfast table — No, that sounds romantic — Henry looks at me over the gnawed pancakes, spilled syrup and Jason’s latest bug-eyed monster magazine. He doesn’t see the mess any more than he sees me. His mind is on important things. A chill creeps up my neck. He’s going to say . . .
“I may be late tonight.”
I hear a whisper. Was I right or was I right? “Again.” Succinct. After ten years, one word — without a question mark — is enough. Finally, I have joined the ranks of discontented women who use guilt as skillfully as a fisherman uses a wriggling pink worm. Hook that man. Reel him in. Make him as miserable as you are, darling.
Henry, who does not see the table, or me in my egg-stained robe, understands that he is baited. He tries to avoid the hook. “Eleanor . . .” He makes the mistake of looking into my eyes. So, he gets angry. “This is my career.” Cold anger. The anger a fish feels as it fights the hook that reels it in? “One of us has to work.” His mouth slashes shut as he realizes how low a blow he has struck. We are still new in this discontent.
I sip my cold tea and pull hard to imbed the hook as deeply as possible. “I’m stuck with Justin all day long. The least you can do is let me have some time for myself in the evening.” My voice is sharp, as angry as Henry’s in an instant. Then, I am angrier. At night, the light is gone and my brush can capture only velvet sky with jeweled stars, or the hard outlines of electric blaze stark against nature’s stillness. These have been done before by better painters than I. The anger boils, and I know it is fueled from without as well as within — Mondemonus.
Henry has long ago pulled his gaze from my morning-creased face to return it to the safety of his laptop monitor. He calls out, “Jason! Time for school.” His voice resonates with his anger. Jason, as bug-eyed as his favorite monsters, thinking Henry is mad at him, gathers his backpack and lunchbox without being reminded.
Mondemonus. It chose the name, not I. My demon. It thinks the name is clever. I think the name is sick. I can feel it cooling my tea with its breath as it waits for Henry and Jason to leave. I want Henry to feel it, to see it. But Mondemonus never materializes when Henry is here. Instead, it strokes the back of my neck with ice, promising to come once the door is closed, and I am alone except for Justin.
Jason steals a fragment of pancake from his brother’s high chair tray and scoots out the door, ignoring his brother’s wail. I follow them to the car. Why can’t Henry see the demon that torments me? Why does he always look at me as though the bills, the egg stains, everything, is my fault? Not that he is looking at me. Not even when he leans over and kisses my cheek.
“Don’t worry, Henry. We’ll manage without you tonight.” I try to sound calm and wifely. What I really want to do is climb in the car with them. Drive away, far away, from the house, the dishes, Mondemonus. Justin’s wail penetrates the screen door.
Henry hears my words and takes them in without inspection. Already he swallowed one worm this morning, the pain of that hook is still fresh and warns him off. “I love you.”
“I know. Sometimes it seems as if I’m possessed. My mind tells me the right thing to say and my tongue deliberately says something inflammatory.” I pause to gather the courage to tell him about Mondemonus.
But Henry thinks I am finished. “You need to get out more. Take the baby to the park and paint there. We need another painting for the den.”
“I can’t concentrate on a painting and keep him from eating bugs at the same time.” My arguments fall from my tongue without conscious direction. “And as long as I’m not working, we can’t afford a babysitter.” The breeze is a cool whisper in my ear. Besides, you can’t paint anymore. The paints are false flags of color on the pallets. Nothing is true anymore.
A familiar gleam lights in his eyes. “Maybe you should go back to work, if staying home makes you so unhappy.”
This is a trap. “Right. And then I can handle Justin, Jason, work, the house, you. And what will you do? Run away to your office as soon as I need anything from you?” This is half unfair. He doesn’t always run away, but I’m past shading my judgments anymore. Especially when I see the blind hope in his eyes — that my going back to work will bring back his normal little wifey. “Then, when will I paint?”
If I were Henry, I would say, “When do you paint now?” I would make my eyes hard and sharp to pierce my heart, make me bleed — make me cry. But I am not Henry.
His cheeks bulge slightly as he slides behind the steering wheel. A fish drowning in water? “We’re going to be late.” He slams the door shut.
If only Henry would listen. If only I could tell him straight out. Tell him how it feels to have a demon stalker in your life. To find your thoughts building tunnels that lead back upon themselves, always, to that demon. As they drive away, Jason waves, and I wave back.
Now, Justin and I are alone with Mondemonus. In the kitchen, my demon sits on the floor like a naughty devil child. It is making a house with the bits of pancake Justin has flung to the floor. Mondemonus is clever, if it weren’t a demon it could have a career in design — the house is beautifully crafted, stuck together with drops of syrup until it does not look like chewed pancake pieces at all.
It looks at me, red eyes sparkling. Get the whipped cream so that I can make some curtains for the windows.
“There isn’t any.”
There was half a can yesterday. His red eyes glow with merriment. Nothing makes Mondemonus angry. All the anger is mine.
“I finished it last night.” A fat fudge sundae for a fat fool. I get a rag to wash Justin’s sticky hands and face. The mitten-shaped washrag is one of a set he got when he was born. Each one is embroidered with a day of the week in a different color. This one says Saturday, but I know it can’t be Saturday because Jason and Henry are gone to school and work. My head aches.
Whenever Mondemonus comes to call I get a headache. Or does my headache summon it? There are so many things to do. The dishes from dinner several days ago await me at the sink. If I don’t do them today there won’t be any clean plates for dinner tonight. Not that I have any idea whether or what dinner will be.
Justin holds his tiny cheek against the wash cloth — he loves the wetness if I’m not rough and hurried. He takes the washrag in his mouth and sucks with loud greedy sounds.
What pigs children are. Tired of the pancake house, Mondemonus stands, swelling from the size of a child to Henry’s six-foot stature before my eyes. It opens the freezer wide. What are you making for dinner?
When I first saw Mondemonus, it was thumbnail size, hiding in a dusty niche under the TV. A tiny red demon with a very sharp tip on its tail. I poked myself with it by accident and bled. Its eyes gleamed as bright as the bead of blood on my finger. Mondemonus loves pricking me when I least expect it. I keep out of tail’s reach most of the time, unless I’m too tired to care.
There are three edible things in the freezer, and nine unidentifiable ice encrusted shapes. I take out the chicken and lay it on the counter to thaw.
Mondemonus puts my chicken back and takes out one of the ice blobs. Where’s the chisel, Ellie? Before I can answer, the point of a red tail chips away until the ice cracks and falls free of the, I now see, chicken livers. Nope. The red tail curls around the container and pulls taut. The lid pops off and the livers fly into the garbage.
One by one, three more icy mysteries are solved. Mondemonus is satisfied. We will have stuffed peppers for dinner. If I find the energy to do the dishes.
Justin’s head nods forward, coming dangerously close to the syrup coated high chair tray. He’s been awake since five and it is time for his nap. His eyes widen as we walk up the stairs. Through the cloudy blue that is darkening to hazel, I see his mind working to make sense of his world. He bounces in my arms, excited by the unknown.
Everyday around this time we walk up the stairs to his room. If he remembers yesterday, today overshadows it with anticipation. I believe he wouldn’t be surprised to see a green dragon in the hallway. I know I wouldn’t. But not for the same reason as my son. He has high expectations–and no fear that today will echo yesterday and tomorrow today.
Mondemonus, the size of a toy soldier, hurtles out of the way as I lay Justin in the crib. Justin reaches out an eager hand. The demon disappears at exactly the moment Justin closes his chubby fingers. To stop his astonishment from becoming tears, I put a real toy soldier in his hand. Mondemonus forgotten, he puts the soldier’s head in his mouth and scrapes his tiny teeth back and forth. Occupied, he does not cry when I leave quietly.
The little monster’s going to nap, now, I presume? Mondemonus sits on my shoulder, heavy, like a sack of flour.
“For about an hour,” I whisper, afraid the sound of my voice will remind Justin that I am gone. “Enough time to get the dishes done and mop that floor.”
Mondemonus bounces from my shoulder to the couch. The television changes from the cartoons Jason watched this morning to a soap. Look.
I don’t look. I concentrate on the dishes perched in, near and over the sink. Scrambled eggs, spaghetti sauce, macaroni and cheese — days old and dried up — look like dollops of paint on the good black plates that are mixed in with everyday white.
From the corner of my eye, I can see Mondemonus swell to Henry size again. Tyler is going to tell Vanessa why he took the trip to Tokyo.
Out of the window over my sink I see that buds are springing out on the tree limbs. Soon the bare branches will be beset by green leaves, overwhelmed with foliage. I clear a little room to reach the faucet, but when I turn on the water, it splashes up into my eyes, blurring my vision. When I wipe the drops away, I see that water is running from plate to plate to countertop to floor in a sun-catching, glittering series of waterfalls. I turn off the faucet.
Ellie, look at the new actress playing Simonette. She’s short and has dark curly hair.
Yesterday, Simonette was a six foot blonde.
“Move over.” Mondemonus has grown fat and wide and takes up the whole couch. It shrinks obediently to make room for me, laughing sibilantly and revealing sharp pink teeth and a black leather-like tongue.
When the soap is over, I say, “Time to do the dishes.”
Why? Eyes glowing, my demon feeds on my discontent. If only I could cut the discontent away and throw it in a dark corner where Mondemonus could feed in solitude. What difference does it make? They’ll just be dirty again before you can turn your back on them. Watch the game show with me.
What can I say to the truth? Besides, I’m good at game shows. Maybe I should be a contestant? If only I lived in California. If only I lived… “Westphalia!” I know the answer, but the contestant doesn’t.
Dumb idiot. Do you believe who they let on this show? A long, low moo comes from the fat red cow with large red cow eyes on my couch. They must look for the ones with the cowiest brains.
“Maybe it’s easier to think on your own couch than it is in the studio with all those lights and cameras.”
Yeah. You’d probably lose your nerve–or your voice. The sibilant laugh sounds again, squeaking a bit, like chalk on a blackboard.
I probably would. My grocery list peeps out at me from under the telephone. There is no way to postpone shopping. No more milk. No more diapers. Justin can get by with pureed food, but not paper towel diapers. Besides, I’m out of paper towels.
Justin stiffens his legs at the sight of the shiny silver cart at the entrance of the supermarket. “Cookie?” is all I have to say, and he succumbs, bending his legs and sliding into the cart seat. He points in the direction of the meat counter, where the promised cookie resides in a jar. His little body strains with the effort to make the cart move toward his prize. If will were all it took, he’d have the jar in his hands. And I’d have the shopping list I left at home.
It’s too cold here. Lying in the crushed ice under the marinated cucumbers, it is as big as an olive. A round red olive. A round red olive with a sharply pointed tail.
“No one told you to come.” I pick up the plastic make-your-own salad container.
Mondemonus sits…I mean rolls…up. Who gets paid to sit around and create these things. I’d like that job. And while we’re talking about it, who invented salad bars? Here alone there’s fifty varieties of fruit, vegetables, and prepared salads glistening with supermarket dew.
Supermarket dew? “What should I have?” Something low calorie, to make up for the sundae yesterday. Lettuce. Spinach. Tomatoes.
You’re not a rabbit, for heaven’s sake. To Mondemonus, that’s a curse. Here, look at this delicious fruit salad. Fruit is good for you. He points out a pinkish yellow glob with one or two pineapples and probably a million marshmallows visible just beneath the surface. I can almost taste the marshmallows. And feel my thighs swell another inch. I pick up some carrots that would put Crayola to shame.
“Eleanor?” The voice is smooth, silky, definitely not Mondemonus.
In the reflecting sniffle cover, I can see a muted round peach with black outlined circles where the eyes should be and a red smear just where a mouth might sit in a face. It comes to me that I haven’t brushed my hair today. I meant to, right before we left, but then Justin fell down, and I had to give him a hug, and then…Well, anyone can forget to brush their hair, can’t they?
The peach is Rosemary Wilkins. Once I was her supervisor. Back when I had a job. When I liked to leave the house. When… “Hello, Rosemary.”
“How are you?” She doesn’t stare particularly hard at my hair. Maybe it doesn’t look unbrushed? Or maybe she thinks the wind ruffled it? It is windy out today. Mainly, though, she’s staring at Justin. “What an angel! Is this the handsome man who convinced you to give us up?”
“Yes, this is the center of my universe right now.” Rosemary has stated more than once that she enjoys visiting children, but she wouldn’t want to live with one. I believe her now. One flirt fits all? Batting her eyelashes and flirting with a 16-month-old like he’s old enough to date. Wonder what her demons look like?
“Do you think you’ll be coming back soon?” Rosemary does not once take her eyes from Justin, who could be 26 the shameless way he’s responding to her flirtation.
“No. Banking’s not for me. I’m going to stay home and paint a little, play the lottery a little. Maybe I’ll get lucky.” Maybe you should paint yourself a winning lottery ticket. Make your own luck.
“Really?” She actually gives me a brief glance before she begins kissing Justin’s little fingers. Henry would be displeased if he knew I had just buried my career. Gossip is the currency my colleagues deal in. At our level in banking, you don’t get paid enough of the real thing.
Justin tries to stick four fingers up Rosemary’s left nostril. She straightens up as if a ghost just goosed her. Poor Justin, the dew off his romance so quickly. I don’t believe it possible, but the urge to throw myself upon Rosemary’s well-groomed breast and let loose a torrent of tears is suddenly strong. A trick in the lighting has made her look friendly. Fortunately, she is wearing a red silk blouse that must cost a fortune — and I remember that she is just someone I used to work with.
“That salad looks yummy.” She scrutinizes what I have in my container, and I’m glad I didn’t succumb to the marshmallows. She chooses the same ingredients for her own salad. “What kind of salad dressing is that?”
While I’ve been preoccupied, Mondemonus has crept into the little plastic container for salad dressing. It is curled up like a fat red jellyroll. “It’s red hot dressing.” How can she see him? Henry never does. “Lots of pepper and ketchup.”
She wrinkles her nose. For a moment I am safe, and then her hand snakes across the counter. “Sounds interesting.” A sharp red tail waits as her fingers close upon the container.
For a moment, I consider letting her take the container–and Mondemonus–but then I push her hand away and snap on the plastic lid. I will now be reported as rude and untidy to my former co-workers. But Mondemonus is trapped inside. “You wouldn’t like it.” I wouldn’t wish Mondemonus on anyone, not even Rosemary. To close the subject, I hide the plastic prison deep inside my purse.
Rosemary, apparently feeling that I am a gold mine of gossip opportunity, invites me to lunch.
“Sorry,” I lie. “I’m taking a salad to Henry. We’re going to have lunch together.” Even as I speak, the lie turns to truth. Anything is better than going home to the nouvelle art standing in my sink. Maybe, if Mondemonus is still in the plastic cup, Henry will ask to try the red hot dressing. I might let him.
Hours later I am home again when Jason arrives home from school. “Are you feeling okay, Mom?” Jason’s face is a young reflection of Henry’s earlier in the day when I descended on his office bearing lunch. Writers never describe suspicion and delight at war on one face. Perhaps the subtle interplay between hope and fear is too fragile for words. Perhaps, I am the only one who inspires it regularly in those I know.
“Why? Don’t you like chocolate cake and milk for a snack?” Echoes of “Why? Don’t you enjoy having lunch delivered by a beautiful woman with wild hair?”
Jason — much like Henry — doesn’t dignify that with an answer, instead satisfying himself with an arched eyebrow. At 10 he’s seen it all. He wants to know why I made a cake, why the dishes are not only washed, but dried and put neatly in the cabinet, why I’m sitting in the middle of a huge pile of clean laundry laughing and playing with Justin.
I don’t intend to tell him. Partly because he might think I’m crazy, and partly because he’s at that awkward age when he might understand. Two years ago, he would have devoured the cake and jumped into the clothes without question. Two years from now, he might have told me what I was doing, why, and how I had to change in order to make his life bearable.
Dealing with Henry’s suspicions was easier. He’s past childhood and knows that answers are merely puzzle pieces that, work as hard as you like, never reveal more than a few sections of the picture at a time.
Two years ago, I might have tickled Jason, two years from now I might have told him about his dad’s class ring, and how I thought the ruby had a pointed tail that almost stung me when I handed Henry his salad at lunch today–would have stung me if he hadn’t suddenly switched hands to take the salad with his left. And how I’d checked and found that my demon was still in my purse.
I reach into my purse, past the container that holds Mondemonus, and pull out five dollars. “Do me a favor and run down to the corner for milk. I forgot to get some at the supermarket.”
Almost at the age where diversion fails, his brows draw together in a frown. But he is only ten, and the unanticipated responsibility is a siren song he can’t resist. “Can I get a candy bar?”
“Of course.” A warm breeze brushes my cheek as he leaves.
I take Mondemonus’ prison out of my purse. Justin laughs and makes a grab for it, but I am easily stronger than he. Inside, Mondemonus waves its pointed tail like a pendulum at me. It seems that it is content where it is — for now.
I put the container on top of the box of baby clothes that Justin has outgrown, stick Justin in his playpen, and carry the box upstairs to the attic.
Watching me, it cleans sharp red nails with the hooked point of its tail, red pinprick eyes glinting with merriment. Mondemonus never gets angry. The anger is all mine. I bury the container deeply in among the tiny t-shirts and outgrown onesies, seal the cover closed with packing tape and shove the box into an empty niche on a high shelf. It nestles snugly between a stack of my old college art books and a box marked “Tax Papers, ’90-’00.”