Bubbles and Doc were married for forty years before he had gone and died on her just six months ago. Doc had been delivering the mail downtown. He probably clutched his pockets where he kept his cigarettes when the pain erupted. He must have grabbed the cellophane packet instead of his heart, which, at lightning speed, had lurched and then stilled. The irony, he probably thought.
The EMT said he kept talking about Bubbles. Where are my Bubbles? I want Bubbles. Bubbles didn’t know if this was true or the EMT was just saying this to calm her down–make her believe she was in her husband’s thoughts and that his death was peaceful.
“But you don’t understand,” she said, falling to her knees before him. “I can’t even drive.”
Throughout the day and at night (always at night) Bubbles lit cigarettes. She kept them burning in the ashtray, watched the gray dust quiver on the filter. Before her daughter, Ellen, moved back in the house, Bubbles carried on entire conversations with Doc: about the mail, the news reports, Baltimore (before all the whatsacalled moved in). They often discussed their daughters as his cigarette smoke followed her around like a tail.
“I’m telling you, Bubbles,” he’d say. “Our Ginny is a whassaname.”
She knew if she looked at the chair he insisted keeping the plastic on, it would be vacant. Yet she heard him nevertheless. She had always liked his voice. Smoking all those years had deepened it, charcoaled its edges.
“She is not,” she’d reply to the emptiness.
“Then why doesn’t she get married?”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to.”
“That’s bologna, Bubbles. Even Ellen knows it. Besides, Oregon is a haven for those whassanames.”
“She says she likes the rain.”
“She likes the women.”
Now that Ellen and her two kids were back in a house that felt simultaneously too full and too empty, she still heard Doc speaking, but she did not reply. She’d just nod and say, “Okay, okay I heard you already.”
“Who are you talking to mother?” Ellen asked, accusingly.
Bubbles served Doc spaghetti with baked beans (his favorite) almost every night. Occasionally she made him tuna. She pulled his plate down from the cupboard and placed it on the sunflower plastic mat. He liked a steak knife, a salad fork, thought spoons were silly. When she wondered what was holding his appetite, he always said it was Ellen.
“I can’t eat knowing she is flushing her life down the pisher,” he confided later.
“For God’s sake mother, are you saving a spot for Elijah?” Ellen said tonight when she walked into the kitchen and spotted Doc’s plate. She dumped the plate in the sink, the food floated and squished in the dishwater.
“He’s dead, mother,” she said, again and again. “Weren’t you at the funeral?
Her two grandchildren ignored the plate and ate their dinner. Sometimes she wondered if they heard Doc too.
Bubbles and Doc had expected Ellen, their eldest daughter, to go far away, to one of those fancy schools that didn’t like Jews. They expected her to study something like biophysics. They did not expect her to go to Towson State, down the street literally, and get certified in music education. They had not expected her to leave her handsome goyim husband (a doctor!) and move her two children back to Liberty Road. But here she was.
Bubbles looked at the plate Ellen had set afloat in the sink. Luckily her daughter did not notice the lit cigarette on the counter. Bubbles watched the smoke curl as if it contained an answer. How she wished she had been a smoker, just so she could swallow her husband. Breathe him in one last time before breathing him out.
After she cleared the dishes and dried them with a towel she rubbed with a lemon peel she watched the sun dissolve into a timid pink. It was bedtime, a ritual Bubbles found depressing. For one, Jackie would not settle down. There had to be one more game of Sorry! One more outfit to try one, one more cupboard to empty, one more one more.
Then Bethany, the little one, about 18 months, refused to sleep. She spun around on the floor, kicked her white Stride Rites, pulled her hands into fists, screamed. Then she wanted milky, wawa, cwacker, milky, mo milky, nother cwacker. Bubbles running back and forth to the kitchen, Doc in the chair, telling her to stop. Ellen yelling from the other room. She’s not hungry. Ignore her.
Jackie slept in the twin bed, Ellen’s old bed, and the little one slept in a crib they had donated by Jewish Services next to her sister.
“Why didn’t you bring the baby’s crib?” Bubbles found the strength to ask her daughter three months ago when she had plopped her kids on the porch and said she had left her husband. Again. For the last time. There she was talking about emotional bankruptcy and passion aggressiveness like it was Guiding Light.
“I left in a hurry, Bubbles. I couldn’t very well take apart a crib and put it back together now could I.”
“I guess not.”
Doc could have.
“And put out the damn cigarette, mother,” Ellen yelled before rounding up Jackie and Bethany for a bath. “He’s dead.”
Doc had been quiet tonight. He hadn’t said much at dinner and she had not heard his voice from his chair. She stacked up the dishes, now dry, in the cupboard, ran the garbage disposal, snubbed out Doc’s cigarette. She pulled three cookies from the brown ceramic cookie jar and wished she’d had whatsacalled, a gift like the psychics on TV had. Three letters. PMS? ESP. She wanted ESP. She wanted to know where Doc was.
Jackie came into the kitchen wearing a tutu.
I can do a back handspring, wanna see?
Jackie bent over like a bridge, backwards, and pulled her legs up so quickly the yellow linoleum tile barely squeaked.
This was when Doc usually said, “Tell that girl to get out of her whatsacalled. She needs to sleep in something proper,” but the house was still. Jackie grabbed her Oreo, sat down in a kitchen chair and spun around.
Bethany toddled in wearing a t-shirt and diaper. She wanted a popsy. She had curly hair, a color not quite blonde, but not brown either. She liked to tap her fingers on her leg, impatiently, when someone made her wait.
Bubbles handed her the popsicle.
“Promise Bubbly you’ll sleep tonight.”
“OK,” she said.
Two hours later, Bubbles sat in the living room, still waiting to hear Doc’s voice interrupt the darkness. Instead she heard Bethany’s.
“Mommy?” she squeaked. Politely.
“Daddy? Daddy? Daddy? Daddy!”
“Jackie,” she repeated, about eight times.
The worst nights were when they were both up.
This was when her cries reached a crescendo, snaked around the house like a tornado, knocking down shelves and crashing up stairs.
She cried her name so clearly, like a poem, like a song.
Every night Bubbles went into the room, pulled Bethany from the crib and rocked her, fetched her milk, got her a cracker, rocked her, fetched her milk, answered her questions, then she would put her down gently, oh so softly, only to have Bethany wake up and start again.
However, tonight, when Bubbles pried open the door, Jackie whispered,
“She pooped herself. She smeared it around and everything.”
Bubbles pulled the cord of the circus nightlamp.
“It’s called pistachio,” Doc had said when he painted these walls ten days before he died. Bubbles sucked in her breath when he took her hand for balance; she tiptoed across the plastic drop cloths. “Your favorite,” he said, green paint freckled his hair. He twisted his cigarette in an ashtray that rested on a ladder rung and admired his own work. He pulled the plastic shade down over the window and motioned Bubbles to the then vacant twin bed.
All over the walls were brown smudges, desperately drawn like they were trying to convey something. It had splattered too, hitting at least two walls and, Bubbles noted when she raised her eyes upward, the ceiling. Bethany stood in the crib looking at the walls. Bubbles couldn’t tell if the child was pleased or scared.
“Uh Oh,” Bethany said.
“Wake up. Wake up,” Bubbles rapped on her own master bedroom door where Ellen slept. “Something’s wrong with Bethany. There’s whassaname all over the walls, the crib, the sheets. She must be sick.”
Ellen clicked open the door and stared at her mother.
Bubbles pulled her towards the girls’ room.
The first word Ellen said when she saw the room was, “shit.”
Then she sighed. “It’s her diapers. She’s the size of a three-year old. They’re too small.”
“What do you mean her diapers?”
“She’s in a 3T and the diapers don’t come that big.”
Bubbles stared at her daughter blankly.
Bethany was gripping her very own diaper when Ellen went to pick her up. She laid her daughter down on a towel, wiped her rear with a wet washcloth, and put on another diaper.
“She needs to use the potty,” Ellen offered Bubbles as explanation. “She’s too big for diapers. The walls will have to wait until tomorrow.”
Before Ellen even turned off the light, Bethany began to protest.
“Go to bed,” Ellen said, and pulled Bubbles from the room.
Bubbles looked towards the plastic covered chair, waiting to hear Doc, but she only heard Bethany hiccupping, gasping, pleading.
She lit a cigarette. Bubbles wondered if he had gone out to the car, where he often went when things got too hectic, too dramatic. Perhaps he wanted some peace.
Bubbles knocked on Ellen’s bedroom door. She wanted to tell her that she was going outside, so she would not be rocking Bethany to sleep tonight. Ellen didn’t answer. Ellen, she said softly. Ellen! How could she sleep through this?
She grabbed Doc’s car keys and his cigarettes and closed the door behind her. She was surprised that no matter how intently she listened, she could not hear Bethany’s cries–only the crickets. She walked all the way down the brick steps before she realized she was barefoot. She lifted the door handle of the 1985 red Pontiac.
The car smelled like ketchup and cigarettes, like Doc. Her husband’s jacket was crumpled in the backseat next to a packet of spaghetti. Maps were shoved into the side pockets. Bubbles wondered when she had told him to buy the spaghetti, if she had even asked.
“Tell them to get the hell out,” she heard him say. She had figured he was here.
“You tell them,” she said and collected the dust from the air-conditioner vents with her finger.
“I can’t” he replied easily. “I’m dead.”
And that was when a fury rose up in Bubbles for the first time in months, years. Ever. She cursed him for the spaghetti, for painting the walls mint green, for letting his daughter and her two children move back into his house and most of all, you bastard, for dying.
She had never raised his voice at him; she knew he liked her soft, yet she couldn’t help herself.
“And another thing,” her words marched out. “Why didn’t you teach me to drive?”
The car was silent. The sun was long gone, the moon a cheap replacement, it seemed. Bubbles listened to the persistent crickets and wondered if she had made Doc angry, too angry, so angry he would leave her for good, forever. And then,
“Put the key in the whatsacalled,” her dead husband instructed. “Let’s see if she starts.”