Authors: Amanda Eyre Ward
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary, #General
“My mom always said the compounds were a great place for kids,” said Emmett.
“That was a different time,” said Lola. “It was safe here then.”
“And she was a different person,” said Emmett.
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“I don't know what to do to make you happy,” said Emmett.
“How about kissing me?”
He swept her up and carried her into their palace of a bedroom. He kissed her, and then she went into the bathroom and inserted her diaphragm.
Jody, who was throwing the baby shower, had a month-old infant named Rebecca. Karen and Jody had tried to get pregnant at the same time, Karen had told Lola, but “Andy's swimmers were a little slow.” Lola laughed uncomfortably, hoping she would not be expected to talk about her husband's sperm.
Karen knocked on Jody's door, and Jody pulled it open forcefully. “Karen's here!” she screamed. Lola followed Karen, resplendent in a pink maternity dress, down Jody's long front hallway to the living room, where twenty or so suntanned women sat on leather couches. In the adjoining playroom, kids of all ages and their Filipino nannies watched
“Hooray!” said Suzi, who had changed from her tennis whites into a dress printed with fuchsia crabs. Suzi and Lola were among the few Haven wives who were not from Texas. Suzi had decided to pretend Saudi was Nantucket.
“Do you want a drink?” asked Karen. Lola shook her head.
“Oh, come on,” said Jody, “it's my bathtub special.” Lola shrugged, and Jody ladled her an icy glass.
“Sit back now, make yourself at home,” said Jody, leading Lola to a La-Z-Boy. Jody had returned to her trim size two in a matter of weeks, it seemed. Lola watched the hubbub, sipping her drink and eating whatever hors d'oeuvres Jody's maids brought by: deviled eggs, shrimp, nachos. She listened to the women talk about the stupidity of having to wear an
outside the compound. “For the Arabs,” said Suzi, “your hair is like your boobs.”
“At the mall yesterday, I saw someone with a few curls sticking out,” noted Jody.
“That's like wearing a skimpy bikini,” said Beth gravely.
“That's like wearing a thong!” said Suzi.
“You went to the mall yesterday?” said Lola. As soon as she said it, she wished she had not.
“Sorry?” Jody looked at Lola, narrowing her eyes.
“I mean, should we be leaving the compound?” Since the massacre, Lola's stomach hurt from the time Emmett left the house until the moment she heard his car returning at the end of the day.
Karen sighed. “Lola,” she said, “you can either think about the nutters all day long or you can go about your business.”
“That's true,” said Suzi. She crossed one long leg over the other.
“Has it been this bad before?” said Lola. There was a silence.
Beth Landings ladled herself another cup of gin. “No,” she said simply. “I've been here for ten years, and this is the worst. To be completely honest, I'm scared to death.”
“We might go to Bahrain,” admitted an older woman. “I'm sick of this … this fiasco,” she said. “The Saudis can't control the terrorists anymore. Maybe they don't even want to.”
“They just shot people,” said Beth quietly. “They just stormed Oasis Compound and shot people in the head.”
No one spoke, and finally Jody rose and clapped her hands. “Time for the games!” she cried, her face brilliant and brave.
The first game was the string game. Jody made Karen stand up, and each woman cut a length of string that estimated Karen's girth. Hilarity ensued: every single person thought Karen was wider than she was.
The I-Spy game was a silver tray filled with baby items. Jody let them look at the tray for a few minutes, and then she covered it with a sheet. Lola chewed her pencil eraser, trying to remember what was on the tray as the kitchen timer ticked.
“Rattle, Teddy Bear, Bottle.”
In truth, she didn't even know what half the items were. Beth won the I-Spy game, remembering seventeen items, including the rectal thermometer.
As Karen opened each present, the women made comments—“A Godsend,” for example, when she opened the Diaper Genie, or “Alice couldn't get enough of that damn toy,” when she opened the Lazy-Bee Singing Mobile. Lola tried to imagine her own child dressed in the appealing clothes, batting the mobile. Surprisingly, the thought made her happy. Would her future baby have Emmett's green eyes, his slow, sweet smile? Lola hoped so.
Lola saw a guard through the window. He was looking straight at her, his hand on his gun. What if he was a terrorist?
Look at that American, enjoying deviled eggs and nachos!
she imagined the man thinking.
What does she believe in, I'd like to know
. When he saw her looking, the guard nodded and moved on.
Twice during the party, Lola caught herself running her hand along her neck, pressing at the tendons and the bones.
Outside Lola's house, Karen put her car in park. “Francis is home with the girls,” said Karen. “Mind if I come in for a few?”
“Sure,” said Lola, surprised. Corazon seemed happy to have a guest, and brought out a tray of lemonade and cookies. Karen sank into one of Lola's sofas.
“Well, did you have fun?” asked Karen.
“I did,” said Lola. “I really did.”
“You know,” said Karen, “a million years ago, I was in advertising.”
“Sorry?” said Lola.
Karen played with her hair. “You think I'm some dumb housewife,” said Karen. “Don't look so shocked. I know.”
“I don't …,” said Lola.
“You think you're smarter than everybody else,” said Karen. “You think you can figure out what's going on out there.” She pointed to the window. “I'm here to tell you, sweetie, at some point you have to stop asking questions. This is your life, Lola. This is your house. It's pretty nice, don't you think?”
“You know,” said Lola, “I've got to get dinner started. …”
“Let me finish my piece,” said Karen. She leaned toward Lola. “I promise you, what's going on in here,” she pointed to her pregnant belly, “is a hell of a lot more meaningful than what a bunch of Muslim nut jobs might be planning. You mark my words.”
“I'm miserable,” said Lola, realizing the truth even as she spoke.
Karen stopped talking, her mouth open.
“I don't feel safe here,” said Lola, “and I've almost forgotten who I wanted to be.”
Karen looked down at her swollen hands, and Lola could practically hear the indignation draining out of her. “Holy guacamole,” said Karen.
“I don't think I'm smarter,” said Lola. “I'm just sad.”
“You know, I was drifting until Babs came along,” said Karen, thoughtfully. “Then it all came clear.”
“That sounds nice,” said Lola.
“It's real nice,” said Karen. Then she said, kindly, “Honey?”
“You've got to have faith in something. Think about that before you jump on Lufthansa.”
“I will,” said Lola.
“And thank you for the lemonade,” said Karen Mc-Daniels. She stood, clutching her lower back. “Andy better get his boy this time,” she said, grimacing.
When Emmett got home from work that night, Lola met him at the door. “Hey,” she said, “let's go out to dinner.”
“Out to dinner?” said Emmett. He opened the passenger side of his car, gathered his briefcase.
“I'm sick of this big house,” said Lola. “Remember when we used to go driving at night, just to see where we'd end up?”
Emmett sighed. He had grown pudgy from eating too much and sitting at his workstation. Even with the leather shoes and the Saab, though, Lola could still see in him the river guide who fly-fished along the Grand Canyon, his arm moving gracefully, a beer stuck in the top pocket of his waders.
“Okay, okay,” he said, after a moment. “How about the Japanese place?”
“No,” said Lola. “Out.”
“The Mexican place?”
“You know what I mean, Emmett.”
“Look,” said Emmett, coming toward her. “It's nothing great out there. You've been out. You have to wear the—”
. I know.”
He set his face in a mask of calm. “Okay,” he said. “All right,” he said, “fine.”
Emmett changed into clean clothes and Lola put on the long-sleeved black robe and headscarf. As they drove the Saab down the busy streets, Lola watched the men drinking tea outside dim cafes, the boys selling cigarettes. “We could have taken the bus,” she said, “for a little change of pace.” Emmett snorted.
“They hate us here, don't they?” said Lola.
“Of course they don't,” said Emmett. Then he added, “Well, some of them do. A few crazy ones.”
“More than a few,” said Lola.
“You know,” said Emmett, “I work with people who are very happy we're here. What I do matters to a lot of people.”
Lola turned back to her husband. The anger she had nursed all day—maybe even for months—faded when she saw that he was biting back tears. “Emmett …,” she said.
“Can't you be proud of me?” he said, staring at the un-paved road, where a cow was trying to cross the street. “Can't you just try?”
The restaurant Emmett chose was a steak house, lit up like a Christmas tree. When Lola noted this, Emmett told her to keep her voice down. They were seated at a table set elaborately for six. Next to them, a large Saudi family had already been served their dinner. The women scooped food underneath their headscarves politely. Lola watched them as she squeezed into a chair, but they took no notice of her.
“Come here,” said Emmett. “You're three seats away. And wearing that damn hood.”
Lola moved closer, and Emmett put his hand on the fabric covering her knee. “Should we drink from all the glasses?” he said. “Should we eat off all the plates?”
He was trying to be charming, and Lola smiled tightly. Not that Emmett could see. For all he knew, she was in tears underneath her headscarf.
They ordered filet mignon and Cokes. They talked about Karen's baby shower, the time they'd gone skydiving, how a well-done steak felt like the tip of your nose when pressed. Finally, Lola put down her knife and fork. “Emmett,” she said, “we need to talk.”
“Yeah,” said Emmett, “I know.”
“I just don't—,” Lola began.
“Hold on,” said Emmett. His eyes were the color of jade, with bursts of white around the irises. He blinked in the fluorescent light of the restaurant. There was something in his forehead, in the lines around his mouth: he was just as scared as she was. “You have to understand,” he said. “I've been in school my whole life up till now. I'm doing complicated, exciting work, and I love it.”
Lola glanced around at the Saudi families, the glassware, the lights. “I don't want to be here,” she said. Lola thought about her father suddenly, understanding for the first time that he must have been trying to alleviate unbearable pain by abandoning them.
Emmett looked right at her. “If you need to go home,” he said, “we'll go. I don't know what the hell I'll do for work, but okay. I'll quit. Is that what you want? I'll quit. There: I said it.”
Lola did not feel joyful, as she had expected. She felt queasy, and excused herself. In the ladies' room, two Saudi women stood at the mirror. Above their dark bodies, their faces were bright, topped with elaborate hairdos. Precious stones glittered in their ears and around their necks. One applied very pink lipstick to her lips.
There was a couch in the corner, and Lola sat down. She felt calm underneath the robe, with no skin exposed. She could walk out of the restaurant and into the street, joining the groups of people out for an evening stroll. She could take a cab to the airport, and fly to JFK. Nobody would notice her: she was just a blank expanse of cloth in the shape of a woman.
Without warning, the lights in the bathroom went out. Lola heard her blood in her ears. The women at the mirror fell silent. As Lola's eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw them putting their headscarves back on. They walked past Lola quickly, and she smelled perfume.
She was alone. At prayer time, they cut the electricity, she knew that. But she imagined a man in the doorway of the bathroom. She imagined cold metal against her temple, a blade to her throat. The man would take pictures of her, afterward. He would post a video on the Internet.
It occurred to Lola that if she and Emmett had a baby here, they could tell it the Jacuzzi tub was an indoor pool. A child would think Corazon loved it wholeheartedly, and not just because she was being paid. And when they were forced to evacuate (which they surely would be, sooner or later) the baby would know only that they were together—a family— and safe.
Though she felt far from home or a hope of home, she made her decision. She was putting her faith in something, and he was sitting at a big table, too upset to eat his buttery baked potato. As she walked back to her husband, Lola thought about lying on her expensive sheets and holding a baby—their baby—to her breast. To the baby, Lola would smell like a mother, and the ridiculous chandelier would look like stars.
The Blue Flame
Sissy was allowed to visit when her first grandchild was six weeks old and the new family was falling apart. Emmett “had a big day at work” and nobody trusted Lola behind the wheel, so Sissy gamely took a taxi from the airport.
“What brings you to Austin?” said the taxi driver, a fat man with a porkpie hat and a biography of Buddha on the dashboard.
“My son just had a baby,” said Sissy. “A baby named Louis.”
“Nice name,” said the driver, putting the car in gear and lurching toward the airport exit.
“I suppose,” said Sissy. In truth, she thought the name was pretentious and strange. Louis? With all the wonderful— and masculine—names in her storied family, it bewildered Sissy that her son had seemingly picked a name out of the ether. (Emmett had been the name of Sissy's beloved father, might he rest in peace.) “He just looks like a
Emmett's wife, Lola, had said on the phone. “You know what I mean?”
Sissy did not know. Furthermore, she thought this statement was ridiculous. A baby didn't look like anyone, not for at least six months; this was Sissy's belief. But she said, “Mmm!” to her daughter-in-law, and felt that saying “Mmm!” was both supportive and not telling a lie.
Austin was about as hot as Midland, but much more urban. As they whizzed along the highway, Sissy took in the cranes, busy building the new condominium complexes some of her friends were investigating. She was not the only woman in Midland with grandchildren in Austin. Many University of Texas grads never left, falling awkwardly into some job or another. Sissy was very proud that her son had gone east for college, west for a doctorate, dabbled in the oil patch, and then returned to Texas as a triumphant (if poor) professor. Her son, a professor! (Her second-born, a disaster, but why dwell on the negative?) Sissy had loved mentioning to friends that she was off to see her grandbaby in Austin, which was the best city in Texas, especially if you were a tree-hugger, as Emmett was.
The taxi deposited Sissy and her suitcase in front of a yellow house with green shutters. It was a real 1920s gingerbread house, Emmett had told her excitedly, on one of the rare occasions he had telephoned. He and Lola had bought a subscription to
This Old House
, Emmett said, and they were talking about building a white picket fence and adding an outdoor shower.
Outdoor shower! This was before the baby, of course.
Sissy hadn't even finished paying the taxi driver when the front door slammed open and there was Lola, who had once been beautiful. Of course, she was still carrying extra weight, even at six weeks, but the poor thing seemed to have misplaced her lipstick and hairbrush as well. “Welcome!” called Lola, with desperate cheer. In her arms (a bit flabby—had the girl never heard of push-ups?), Louis screamed bloody murder.
“Heavens,” said Sissy, feigning love, which she knew would come with time, “is that my very first grandbaby?”
Lola made a strangled assent and held the flailing infant toward Sissy, who quickly paid the driver, ran up the walkway, and took Louis in her arms. “Oh,” she said, gazing at the red, angry face.
“Isn't he …,” said Lola. “Isn't he … wonderful? Can you hold him just for a sec while I run to the bathroom?”
“Of course, dear,” said Sissy.
mother, Nan—had been in Austin for Louis's birth. Nan had been invited for the big day, the naming, the happy homecoming, back when all the baby clothes were clean and the nursery did not yet smell like sour milk and diapers. And then, just as Lola began to go bonkers and Emmett had started to resent Lola and all of it, Nan flew back to her tennis pro life in New York and who was left to call? Sissy, and she'd come to town like a loyal mutt hungry for leftovers.
Sissy held her grandson on the sagging front porch, keeping an eye on her suitcase. A girl in a tank top wandered by, holding a poodle on a red leash. A man on a strange bicycle pedaled past. A boy parked an old Ford Fairlane in front of Emmett and Lola's house, got out of the car, and put on sunglasses. The baby kept screaming. Sissy supposed she should do something.
“Oh, thank you,” said Lola, coming back outside, still clad in a nightgown over sweatpants. “Do you want me to get your suitcase?” said Lola. “Or. …”
“You take Louis,” said Sissy. “And it looks like you have a visitor.” She pointed to the boy in sunglasses.
“That's just a student,” said Lola. “UT's ten blocks south.”
“So people park right in front of your house?” asked Sissy. That this did not happen in Midland (or nice neighborhoods, for that matter) went without saying.
Lola held the baby to her collarbone, patting him a bit roughly. “They do,” she said.
“Mmm,” said Sissy. “Well, let me get my bag.” She lugged her own suitcase up the walkway and into the front door, which opened on a living room. It appeared that someone had taken a bag of diapers and baby toys and dumped the bag on the floor.
“I wanted to clean up …,” said Lola.
“No matter,” said Sissy gaily. Perhaps they would give Emmett a cleaning girl for Christmas.
Lola had affixed the baby to her nipple, whoa, so Sissy busied herself looking at the bookshelves, at the weird artwork, at the sole souvenir from her eldest son's wedding day: a snapshot of the happy couple holding glasses of champagne in a cheapie Las Vegas chapel. Sissy had hired a photographer for the celebration in Midland, but the professional photographs were nowhere to be seen. Sissy and Preston's home was filled with them, ensconced in silver and cowhide frames.
The baby was blessedly quiet as he nursed, and Lola turned her sleepy gaze on Sissy. Emmett had called his mother the week before and told her he was worried about his wife. Actually, what he had said was, “How would you feel about a spring trip to Austin, Mom?” But Sissy was no dope—she could read between the lines.
“I can't believe you did this twice,” said Lola.
Sissy smiled distantly. She knew Lola wanted to bond with her, and she wasn't interested. The way people talked nowadays, all about
—Sissy didn't mind watching low-class people on television talk about their problems, but she was having none of it. “Oh, well,” she said now.
“Didn't you think it was hard?” Lola persisted. The poor girl had always been insecure, a fact she tried to mask with beer and bravado. Sissy didn't know who Lola was trying to impress with her exhaustive antics: river rafting, veterinary school. This girl had derailed Emmett's promising career with BP so she could learn how to spay and neuter pets. Honestly! It was a lucky thing UT had an open position in the Geology Department.
Sissy supposed it was some sort of reaction to Lola's parents' messy divorce, or maybe it was something feminist. When she thought of her daughter-in-law, Sissy hoped Lola would try to enjoy life's quiet pleasures—a simmering sauce, the hush that falls over a house when well-tended children are asleep.
“Sissy?” said Lola, her voice wavering with the threat of tears.
“Well,” said Sissy, “I think I'll find my room and freshen up!” Leaving Lola anchored to the (unattractive) couch, Sissy wandered past the kitchen and into the back rooms. The nursery featured the beautiful maple crib she had sent from Graham Krackers in Midland, and another room held a futon bed piled high with dirty laundry. Sissy was adaptable—though oil had been discovered on her grandpa's ranch before she was born, she had not been spoiled, like some girls in town—so she filled her arms with laundry and called out, “Lola, where's the washing machine?”
There was a muffled response. Sissy said, “Sorry?”
“We don't have one!” Lola cried.
Well, well. It was not Sissy's place to judge. She dumped the clothes back where she had found them and shouldered her Coach purse. In the living room, Lola was holding her sleeping son and crying. “I'm so tired,” she said when Sissy approached.
“Where do you keep the car keys?” asked Sissy.
“And the dishwasher is
sobbed Lola. She would come out of this, Sissy was certain. In the meantime, Sissy would employ her second-favorite motto: When in doubt, spend. (Her favorite motto was: Raise kids in Midland, raise hell in Dallas.) In a bowl on the kitchen counter, she found the keys to the Ford Escape they had given Lola and Emmett for their anniversary.
“Where are you going?” said Lola, as Sissy walked past her, heading outside and to the car, her heels clicking on the pavement.
At the Hancock Shopping Center, which Sissy found after driving around for a bit, she bought a washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, queen-size bed, and ice-cream maker. She bought towels, sheets, a set of knives, and a few adorable baby outfits. (Who knew Sears had baby clothes?) The appliance salesman gave her the phone number of Merry Maids, and Sissy booked an appointment for a full cleaning that afternoon. Emmett had taken a pay cut when he left BP, Sissy knew, but everyone deserved a washing machine. Sissy remembered something about Lola being interested in movies (this was before she found her calling with animals) so Sissy bought a DVD player and plasma-screen television as well. And a DVD of
. Then she went next door to the H-E-B grocery store and filled a cart with groceries, beer, and wine. What on earth had Lola's mother been doing during her visit?
By the time Sissy returned, Lola was asleep on the couch, Louis still as a stone on her chest. A Mexican soap opera blared from the crummy little television. On top of the television were rabbit ears! Sissy hadn't seen those in years. She put down her grocery bags and stepped slowly toward her grandson, just to make sure he was breathing. When she was a few inches away, Louis opened his eyes. He took her in, gazing at Sissy, staring straight at her, unblinking.
Sissy sank to the (dirty) floor, not breaking her eye contact with the baby. Soon, Lola would wake, and her neediness and her chatter would resume. Lola wanted to
to Sissy, but Sissy had made peace with only having sons long ago. Unfortunately, the saying had turned out to be true: A daughter's a daughter all your life, a son's your son till he takes a wife. Emmett called her once a month, maybe, and Preston Junior, now engaged to a hostess at Bikini's Bar and Grill, never called at all.
Sissy remembered when she was Lola's age and Preston had just moved them all to Libya in the search for more oil. After three excruciatingly sober weeks in Brega, Preston had arrived home one evening with an idea and a booklet called
The Blue Flame
. “We're going to make liquor ourselves,” he said. “If I don't have a cocktail in the evening, I'm going to impale myself on Emmett's
.” (Preston had bought his son the dagger at the old market, and it was Emmett's most prized possession.)
“I completely agree,” said Sissy. “How are we going to do it?”
Preston, his long, thin nose in a book as usual, held up his palm in a distracted gesture that meant
. Sissy was just getting used to his lack of attention. Where once she had felt a flare of anger when he ignored her, now she felt a quiet resignation.
“Sorry,” she said, and went to see about the boys.
By the time Sissy was thirty-two, she had two children. Emmett, four, went to the Exxon Preschool and loved playing kickball and hanging around the pool snack bar, angling for Popsicles. He was a cunning child, constantly thinking of ways to get more sugar and attention. When Preston snapped at him—or who was Sissy kidding: when Preston yelled at him, even striking him on occasion—Emmett seemed to zone out, as if he were elsewhere.
, thought Sissy. It seemed a neat trick.
Preston Junior, only one, wanted to eat sand. Sissy could not rest for a minute. There was sand outside the door of their prefab house—the streets were made of sand. What did Sissy expect, Preston had said, they were in the darn desert. He had alluded to travel in their courting, but Sissy had thought he meant a hotel room in Venice, overlooking the canal. Even the golf course in Brega was made of oiled sand and a roll of Astroturf, which you laid out and wandered along, gamely tapping your ball toward the flag. Oil and sand. And Astroturf.
Sissy played with the boys for a while, helping them stack blocks while Emmett said, “And that one's the
and that one's
his voice escalating in volume. The baby strutted around, his belly stuck out, shrieking.
“What's all the racket?” demanded Preston, appearing at the door of the boys' room, wearing his beleaguered expression, holding
The Blue Flame
in his hand.
“The children are playing,” said Sissy.
Preston shook his head. “Okay,” he said, “we need yeast and sugar. I'm going to make a still.”
“Will this experiment result in a glass of chilled chardonnay?” asked Sissy.
“Fat chance,” said Preston. “We're making flash, but it'll take the edge off.”
Though Sissy agreed they could use a way to take the edge off, she resented his implication that their lives were so awful. Didn't he have what he wanted? He had married into an oil fortune, earned a nice engineering position, sired two healthy boys, and Sissy was a good homemaker besides. She hated the words “fat chance.” They made her think of a chubby boy with glasses, crying in an elementary school gymnasium.
“How about a cool gin and tonic?” said Sissy.
“I'll do what I can,” said Preston. He came closer, and surprised her by kissing her hair.
What Preston could do, it seemed, was add yeast to sugar water in a bucket, then leave the bucket to fester—or “ferment,” as he called it—in their garage for a month. Then he added more water, and began to assemble a still.
The Blue Flame
showed three different types of home stills: the Home Pot Still, the Reflux or Fractional Distillation Still, and the Sneaky Home Still, which could be stored in a dresser drawer. As Preston was an engineer by trade, and liked to make everything as difficult as possible, he chose the Fractional Distillation Still. The boys watched, rapt, as he worked with copper tubing, thermometers, glass marbles, water flow valves, and all of the stainless steel wool he'd asked a colleague to pick up during a visit stateside. He explained to Sissy that once they had the flash, they could flavor it any which way and, with a little imagination, have a full bar to offer their guests.