Every day at lunchtime, a group of children cut across the green expanse of the school’s front yard, and into the labyrinthian streets of Sherwood Forest.
Walking on streets with names like Fox Chapel Place and Friar Tuck Way, the children went home to mothers standing over kitchen tables filled with grilled cheeses and bowls of bright orange, tomato soup. Sunlight streamed in through the open windows of their kitchens; the milk in their glasses glowing white in its rays.
Or so I imagined.
Every day, I wished one of them, I wouldn’t have been particular which one, would invite me home for lunch.
My own mother was at the university all day, where she was getting the degree Dad had told her when he left, that she wouldn’t have the brains or discipline to finish. My older brother and sister were in high school and ate at the cafeteria.
My best-friend Tina lived next door, our houses separated by a tall hedge. As we turned onto our street, I felt the first finger of anxiety press into the base of my neck.
We stopped at the end of my driveway. The windows, reflecting the overcast sky, shouted, “Empty!”
Tina made her hand into a pretend loudspeaker.
In a low, gravelly voice, she yelled, “We’re the police, the house is surrounded. Come out with your hands up.”
I was eleven and knew that no one was going to believe we were cops.
I said, “Just go. I’ll meet you in half an hour.”
I watched her through the hedge, listening for the slam of her back door, before walking slowly down the driveway.
The screen door was torn and bulging from where our dog jumped on it all the time. I opened the door and kneeled down to pet her.
“It’s okay, I’m here,” I said, running my fingers through her fur.
From the front hallway, I could see up a short staircase into the living room. That’s where I’d stood, watching, the day Mom and Harry smashed up all of our records. A fight that had started with me losing Harry’s screwdriver. By the time they were done, and Mom had run up the stairs threatening to call Dad, there were jagged bits of black vinyl strewn all over the rug. Mom had torn the arm off of the turntable. Harry had knocked over the standing lamp, shards of amber glass flying down the stairs, almost hitting me.
The next day, a stack of album covers sat at the end of the driveway, neatly tied up with a piece of twine, my Snow White and the Seven Dwarves record on the top of the pile. I said a silent goodbye to it, and walked to school without waiting for Tina.
After that fight, Mom and Harry didn’t talk to each other for days, and then Harry just asked her to pass him the salt at dinner, and suddenly it was like nothing had happened. The memory of the fight, gone away with the records, crushed in the back of a garbage truck, dumped somewhere on the city’s outskirts, buried deep beneath stinky garbage. Would the memory rot away or stay embalmed, deprived on sunlight and air, like a corpse?
I strained my ears hard, holding my breath, listening for any unusual sounds in the house.
The crawl space in the basement. When we were little we went in there on our hands and knees. Sitting cross-legged in the pink fluff of fiberglass insulation, we had tea parties with our Barbies. We’d be itchy afterward and never knew why.
The trap door in the ceiling upstairs, just outside of the bedroom I shared with Gail. We’d never opened that hatch. Had no idea what was up there.
The coat closet, where Tina and I played with our trolls, making burrows for them in Mom’s fur coats.
The TV room, where we watched Shelley Winter horror movies on Saturday night, rocking in the chair with the wheelbarrow upholstery, springs screeching under us. Tina, always too scared to walk home after the movie called her brother, Butch, to come and get her.
Before going into the kitchen, I went to the dining room and stood in front of the hutch. In the cupboard, under the good china, was the sherry.
I’d poured the sherry into one of Mom’s crystal glasses and put it in her hand the day Tina and Gail’s friend, Micheline, and I surprised her by making dinner. The others were in the kitchen busily shaking up bags of crumbs and chicken legs. I took a sip out of the glass before putting it on a silver tray that I’d shined up with Brasso. The sherry was warm and sweet and it made me feel warm and sweet. It had been a revelation.
I kneeled beside the hutch and opened the cupboard door. Breathed in the sweet smell of the sherry mixed with the dusty, wood smell of the pine cupboard. Beside the sherry was a bottle of peach brandy that I knew Mom didn’t like.
“Too sweet,” I’d heard her say.
I pulled it out and twisted the lid off. Took a big swig. Warmth shot up to the tips of my ears.
Taking one more gulp, I licked my lips, put the bottle back, careful to position it in the same way. I sat on the floor for a minute letting the unfamiliar feeling flow through me. The quiet in the house softened.
In the kitchen, I turned the broiler in the oven on, making sure the rack was in the highest position. While the oven heated up, I took Jolie down to the yard, and attached the chain to the metal loop on her collar.
The sky above our neighbor’s house was clearing up, bits of blue showing between the clouds. My body was gently humming, my tongue coated in the sweet warm peachy taste of the brandy.
Back in the kitchen, I pulled out the drawer under the stove. Got a baking sheet out, and put it on the counter. I took the Kraft cheese slices out of the refrigerator and got a hamburger bun out of the bread box. I opened it carefully and put the two halves face up on the baking sheet. Then I put a slice of cheese on each half. Slid the baking sheet under the red glow of the heating element. I left the door slightly open, the way Mom had said to do when I was using the broiler, and watched as black patches spread across the bright orange cheese.
I slid the two halves onto a plate, turned off the broiler, and went down to the den. Turned on the TV.
Jolie was barking in the backyard.
I’d never called the Swanns at lunchtime. I’d never called them without Tina. I put the sandwich on one side of me on the couch and pulled the black phone onto my lap.
The Swanns lived two doors down, across the street. The grass in their yard was perfectly green and never got long. In the spring, I’d see Mr. Swann from my bedroom window, spraying every one of the bright yellow dandelions on their lawn with a nozzle attached to little tank that he had slung over his shoulder. He used scissors to clip the grass along the edge of his driveway.
Mrs. Swann watched every one that went up and down the road through a lace curtain on her front door. Gail had lost her babysitting job at the Brubachers, who lived right across the street from the Swanns, because Mrs. Swann told Mrs. Brubacher that Gail had her boyfriend over while she was babysitting. Mrs. Swann had tea parties with the other neighborhood women and didn’t invite Mom.
For me, calling the Swanns was different than the random prank phone calls that Tina and I usually made. People that were just names in the phone book. I wanted to make the Swanns feel powerless. Tina and I had called them for months. We’d made their phone ring over and over, and they hadn’t been able to do anything to stop it. We weren’t dandelions that Mr. Swann could spray with his poison. Weeds he could pull out by the roots and toss away.
I dialed the Swann’s number quickly, barely waiting for the finger plate turn back to where the holes and the numbers lined up, before turning it again.
After three rings, Mrs. Swann answered.
“Do you suck cock?” I said, a rush of blood running through my body.
I hung up before she could answer.
I took a bite of my grilled cheese.
Tina rang the front doorbell. I went into the backyard, took Jolie off the chain, and led her into the house. Leaving the second half of my grilled cheese on the couch, I grabbed my coat and joined the stream of kids walking back to school.
Laura Taylor is a painter/writer living in the Catskills in New York State. She is currently at work on a memoir about growing up in Canada and spending summers in the Brazilian-Atlantic rainforest. Her writing has appeared in Airport Reading and is forthcoming in Landlocked.