Julianna faces her closet in her bra and underpants. What to wear? Half the women from the neighborhood dress up for these nights out, the others down. From her bedroom window, Julianna checks the circle of light under the street lamp: at least the January rain and sleet have stopped. But a thin skim of ice now shines on the lawns and has grown thick and white over the pond.
“You look great just like that,” Bob says, pausing on his way from their bathroom to the hallway. He pretends to chew on his knuckles. “Good enough to eat.”
Julianna waves him away. “There’s no time for that.” Frowning, she turns back to her closet. She pushes the hangers back and forth before yelling over her shoulder: “Hey, Bob — have you checked in on the girls?” She hears him head down the stairway.
Finally, Julianna shimmies into her skinniest jeans. She pulls on a Christmas present — a red cashmere sweater. Noise from some basketball game floats upstairs. But for quite a while, no sound from Bob, or the girls. Earrings? She finds them on the bureau, cups them in her palm, and heads for the stairs. No noise is bad noise, she reminds herself, adjusting the earring backs as she hurries down.
Turning a corner at the bottom of the staircase, Julianna sees the evidence: a trail of her own high-heel shoes leads from the hallway to the kitchen. And in that kitchen the girls have dumped a jumbo box of Wheaties and a full bag of kidney beans onto the tile floor. There’s three-year-old Amy, in mismatched high heels, sliding at full speed into the mess. Two-year-old Allison sits on the floor, shaping the food into neat little piles. From the kitchen Julianna can see straight into the family room. There’s Bob, sacked out on the couch.
“Into the dining room,” she says to the girls, in a whisper that means business. They frown up at her. “Now!”
Julianna takes a deep breath. She marches to the closet and picks up the broom and dustpan.
In the family room she shakes Bob by the shoulder. “Nice going, Mr. Narcolepsy.”
He stares up at her, wide-eyed. Julianna lays the broom beside him on the couch. She points to the kitchen.
Bob’s eyes follow her pointing finger. He groans.
“How often do I get to go out — by myself?” Julianna asks.
“Not often?” Bob says, rubbing his face awake.
“That’s right!” She can’t help yelling that. “So would you mind sweeping that up? And staying awake till you’ve put these kids to bed?” But Julianna’s mettle wavers, just a little, when Bob takes the dustpan from her and places it, like a pillow, behind his head.
Julianna leaves him, walks to the dining room window seat. The girls whisper and play nearby; from the kitchen she can hear the wsskk, wsskk of the broom on the tile. She sits down and checks the street for Astrid’s car. No doubt that husband of hers, Benjamin, is holding things up. Julianna doesn’t trust him. Why? At the end of last month’s holiday party, he had gathered all the men in a circle. “Next season, we’ll all go hunting,” he had said. He placed his drink at his feet. “Now, after me,” he yelled, and then he had thrown back his head to let out a “Quack!” He retrieved his glass. “Duck-mating,” he’d said, weaving. “You’ll need to learn that.” Her own Bob had led the pack of men in wandering away, to the makeshift bar, bemused. Yet even from across the room Astrid had smiled and nodded approvals of Benjamin’s every drunken move.
No doubt about it. Somehow, someway, Benjamin is slowing Astrid down tonight. And with that big belly, six months full of twins, Astrid already moves slowly enough.
The rolled and rubber-banded newspaper sits beside her. Julianna snaps the band off, spreads the paper flat against her thighs. She starts skimming.
“The Irish Sports Page,” that’s what her Boston-raised parents had called the obits. As a teenager she despised the way her father had turned to that section first each morning. It always made eating breakfast seem so pointless. Her mother, who seemed to sit only after the hour of noon on religious holidays, liked to lean over her husband’s shoulder, and the two of them skimmed the pages together. They cluck-clucked. “So young, too,” they might say, or once: “Wouldn’t that be Bucky’s mother? The one without the nose?”
Rockport, Massachusetts. She checks the listings. Four people. That’s a lot, isn’t it, for a Wednesday in this little coastal town? Julianna’s stomach tightens. She doesn’t recognize any of the names but maybe she should double-check.
She’ll proceed alphabetically: “Cavelli, Gail.”
“Cavelli, Gail. 35. Suddenly.
Beloved wife of Anthony. Loving mother of . . .”
How sudden, what sudden? Julianna wonders that. For Julianna, two months past 35, life itself still seems sudden. Her eye catches a clue: “(See story, op. page.)”
“Gail Cavelli, 35, Rockport wife and mother of three, died suddenly on Monday afternoon when . . .” Suddenly. A car horn beeps.
“Bye, kids!” She runs to the dining room and bends to kiss their soft faces. “Bob?” she calls.
“Bye, honey!” Bob yells that from the kitchen. “Have a good time!”
He could have come to the door to see me off, she thinks, given a little peck or something. But she opens the front door. A full winter wind blows in and ruffles the girls’ nighties. The girls squeal so Julianna is quick to click the door shut behind her.
Cold. When did the temperature plummet? One bad thing about that new gas heater: Julianna always feels deceived when she steps outside and meets the air.
Rock salt crunches under her high-heeled boots. Bob must have thrown it there on his way in, knowing she’d be heading out. Kind of sweet. She hears a knock behind her. Julianna pauses on the last step, turns. The girls wave from the window seat. Julianna blows two kisses. Ooh, they are so sweet sometimes, and this is so noticeable when they are being left behind that she has to tell herself: Keep going!
She hears the tiny roar of a power window moving down. Then: “Hey, Julianna!” It’s Astrid who yells. “Go slow, Honeybunch! Black ice!”
Julianna slips; luckily, she catches the door handle and regains her footing just before sliding under the car. Opening the door, she peers in to a full back seat.
“No room here, honey,” a woman says, laughing. Her Southern accent sounds warm in the cold night. She’s the newest-comer, Julianna remembers. Last month Julianna had watched two huge moving vans deposit nice stuff at her overgrown shingled place, just completed, across the pond. And Julianna has seen her at Toddler-Swim at the Y. What’s her name, again?
No-name touches Julianna’s arm. “Go round to the tailgate, honeybunch,” she says. “You get the way-back.”
“I can pop the door from here,” Astrid yells. “The jump seat is already down. And Marybeth is back there to keep you company!”
“Dandy,” Julianna says. She lingers there at the driver’s door to talk to Astrid. “Just how many have we got tonight?” Julianna still has the hardest time keeping all the women straight. With them she still finds it easier to think in numbers rather than names.
“Eight,” Astrid says, with cold white air billowing from her mouth, “including you and me. But not if you include them!” She points toward her big abdomen. “Good thing I have the biggest rig on the road!”
“And isn’t it great,” drawls No-name, from the seat behind, “to have an automatic designated-driver!”
She walks to the rear and pulls open the tailgate. There’s Marybeth, all right. Marybeth, Julianna’s closest neighbor, points at the jump seat and grimaces. The seat faces the back window and Marybeth already looks carsick.
“Found Joey’s boot, anyway,” Marybeth says, once Julianna has clambered inside and gotten herself settled. Marybeth holds up one little red snow boot for Julianna to see.
At least the jump seats have safety belts. Julianna clambers in and clicks hers together, pulling it waist-band-tight. “Is everybody buckled?” she calls out to all the others.
“Oh, Julianna,” someone says from the back seat, “you’re such a safety queen.” Who is that? With just disembodied voices, in the dark, Julianna is going to have quite a time of it. But really, does it matter who they are, or just that they are all strapped in right?
“Mothers,” Julianna calls out, in what she hopes is a joking imperiousness, “have a duty and an obligation!” She was pleased to hear a heavy sigh accompanied by one last click.
Suddenly. Suddenly. The word comes back to Julianna when Astrid slams on the brakes at the end of the on-ramp.
“Give me some help,” Astrid says. “I can’t see what’s coming. I’ve gotten so big this month, I can hardly turn around!”
Necks crane. “Okay,” someone says. “Hit it.”
Astrid giggles. “Prego puts the pedal to the metal!”
On Route 128 the cars speed past the jump seat in quick succession. Julianna counts them. One, four, five.
“Are you going too slow?” Julianna yells. She’s read of the dangers of driving under 55 mph. Just as many accidents that way. Maybe more! She turns to look at Astrid on this one, craning to see beyond the many heads.
“Hey, way-back driver,” Astrid says, “do you wanna take over?”
Headlights from an oncoming car light Astrid’s face in the rearview mirror. Julianna notices that Astrid’s chin looks awfully bloated. She sure does hold water like a thermos! Julianna is glad that she had her own babies one at a time.
“Well?” Astrid prompts.
Pregnant equals testy, Julianna remembers. “I’ll keep my mouth shut, if you like,” she says.
“Good,” says Astrid. She taps the steering wheel and the car jerks. “Ohh!” she cries. “That’s cruise control!”
Certainly Julianna can keep her mouth shut. That shouldn’t be so hard. So what if she has been shut inside all day with the Teletubbies and those two kids, however adorable, whose words rarely crawl over two syllables?
But what is Astrid doing? Julianna hears the metronomic blinker. Is she moving to the left or right lane? Don’t go left, Astrid! That’s the passing lane, Astrid, and I think there’s a tractor trailer behind us —
Oh, Sweet Jesus — he can knock eight women out . . .
Suddenly. Julianna feels the car begin to slide. Black ice! She closes her eyes and grabs for Marybeth’s hand. She feels that hand squeeze her own. Astrid must have turned the wheel sharp — too sharp — and the car begins a counter-clockwise spin away from the tractor-trailer. Time slows to syrup, but Julianna’s thoughts race.
This is it — the end! They’ll be in the paper! Oh, their obits will be easy enough to write: Beloved wife of, loving mother of, suddenly! Those death notices will run side-by-side, complete with pictures. Or maybe just a group picture, like the one taken poolside at the Y just last month. With the kids on their laps. Julianna wouldn’t mind that one, what with the kids covering the 16 never-again-thin thighs.
And life will go on — sort of. Black awnings. She bets that a salesman will drive right out after reading the morning paper. Bamboozled, the stricken husbands will buy in bulk, sheath the whole development in black. The hooded houses will face each other and no one inside will see out to that egg-shaped pond in the middle. The best feature of the development!
The children. Lord, have mercy! Still spinning!
The husbands. Alone. Grieving. Perhaps they will visit each other, seek solace. Bob will leave the too-quiet house, go next door perhaps, to Marybeth’s. She won’t be there, of course, but her husband will be. Once there, Bob might collapse — forcing Marybeth’s husband to run next door. There he too might drop from the strain. On and on, around the pond: grieving dominoes.
A dying development. Spinning, spinning, would this rig ever stop spinning? And sightseers will drive by, slowly, the way they had at Christmas when each neighbor tried to outdo the other with far-hung strings of big-bulbed lights. This time the sightseers will cluck their tongues at the black awnings, sigh heavily, maybe nod their heads in recognition when at 6:00 p.m., eight microwaves, simultaneously whirring, will dim the households’ lights. Faced with the slow but constant stream of onlookers, the widowers will surely pledge to place their black-hooded houses on the market.
Unless Astrid’s husband has a hand in it. That Benjamin! And as a stockbroker, he knows a lot about markets. He’ll dole out advice. Will probably hold seminars for the more timid in Astrid’s southwestern-styled sun porch.
“Follow me!” he’ll probably say, and this time their quack-quacks will ring loud around the pond.
Will Bob follow? Well, in college he only drank too much when his roommate suggested it. Then he had followed his father straight into law. Later, hadn’t he only thought to ask Julianna to marry him after she herself had proposed?
How long would he/they wait? Not so very. She can see it. In the spring, the black awnings will come down. The windows, uncovered, will shed early morning light on the half-empty beds.
Half-empty or half-full? The age-old question. Eight men. Eight men out.
How could they? What about those kids? Kids cry when their moms aren’t around. Unless. Unless. They had food to play with. Bob knows all the tricks. Sure, a truckful of Wheaties. To make those girls happy, he’ll pay any price. “Back it up, fellah!” Wheaties, Cheerios: into the sandbox. Jello, cocoa: into the wading pool. Jello-ed and Cheerio-ed, Amy and Alison will smile wide, forget fast.
But where? Where will the men go? Eight men, driving separately, in fine new sports cars: two-seaters, with one empty seat, paid in full by those ample insurance policies.
Route One. (Julianna opens her eyes for a flash and sees some lights smear by. She clamps them shut again.) All those strip joints. Sure, plenty of places, right near home. And the rich get richer: Before heading out they’ll probably drop the little ducklings at just one house, maybe her own. Pooling babysitters, they’ll save a few bucks.
Young bucks. Not really, but that’s how they’ll see themselves. Sure. Eight men out. Who sees the bald spots in back when eight men look forward?
The car lurches to a stop. Julianna opens her eyes and drops Marybeth’s hand. The SUV sits on the sanded edge of the road, facing in the wrong direction, yes, but somehow safely off to the side. The truck that started it all has disappeared as quickly as a child’s nightmare.
It’s been quiet all this time, through 540 degrees of spinning, but now the voices inside the SUV join together, in cacophony. Prayers, swears, mumbles.
Back. Julianna feels nauseous facing this way.
Can she go back? Drive us home on the shoulder of this road, Astrid! Put the pedal to the metal, prego!
Back to what? To the so-sweet girls? The sleepy husband? She imagines unlocking the door to check on them — to know for sure that she can’t be forgotten. But what will she do there? Interrogate? Show love, make love, prove love? Watch over them? Hold a mirror to their mouths? Check foreheads? Hold hands? Forever checking, worrying — and holding her own place like a flesh and blood bookmark.
“What should we dooooooo?” No-name calls out in an accent that seems now to be wilting.
The whimpering around her continues. Julianna thinks of Gail Cavelli, 35, dead, so suddenly. What, indeed, to dooooooooo?
“Fuck it!” Julianna cries. As those words leave her mouth, the truth of her next thought strikes her as revelation: “Keep going!”
“Are you nuts?” Marybeth asks, touching one bare red hand to her own cheek. It’s the hand that Julianna gripped as if in labor pain just a moment ago.
But Julianna watches as wordlessly, with a grim cut of determination to her bloated chin, Astrid pulls a 12-point turn at the shoulder of the road, waits for a slow moment, then merges into the nighttime traffic. Julianna can see the lights of the restaurant, to her right, as the car loops away from the highway at the next exit. Polite claps ring out (even — eventually — from Marybeth). Then one whoop, and another. No-name pushes a button, lowers her window, and Julianna and seven other mothers cat-call those whoops and hallelujahs into the icy northern air.