We need to take a vacation as a family, Marlene thought, standing in the garden in her nightgown, her feet planted firmly on either side of a row of beets. She glanced at the boat parked beside the curb. It was tall and silent, its hull shining like baleen in the light of a moon that seemed to wax as it set. Even with the tarp snapped tight over the bow, Marlene could imagine Josey there, his little hands glued to the silver rail as a gust of wind comes along and blows his hat off, whipping his blond hair around furiously.
She clung to the image as she turned back to her work, to the yellow sunflowers, which, tall as she, bowed like men broken after days of heavy labor. One at a time, Marlene cut the heads o with a pair of big scissors, leaving them on the ground beside the dry stalks. When she finished the row, she gathered the heads and brought them to the end of the driveway. In the shadow of the boat were a metal chair and cardboard box. A family fishing trip, she thought, sitting down heavily. They would all take the boat out together. She would make sure they brought Josey along. Marlene paused, the head in her lap staring up at her from its hundreds of crowded, little, gray eyes, and listened, holding her breath, for the peal of laughter, the footsteps pattering through the house.
During the day, Marlene counseled young mothers, most of whom did not speak English, about how they should feed their babies so that they would grow up healthy and strong. Driving to the clinic, she would see the fathers in the parking lot of the Gas-N-Go, waiting to be picked up. Years ago, it had been farm labor; today, they probably framed houses. Not that Marlene, herself once a stranger to this valley, resented them. When she’d gone back to school to study nutrition, she had made a point of doing a minor in Spanish, this though she knew she didn’t have a head for languages. Eight years later, she liked to joke that she still couldn’t speak a word.
It was hard for her to joke about that anymore. Starting last spring, when she’d begun having trouble sleeping, there would come a point in the middle of every afternoon when, no matter how many cups of coffee she’d drunk, Marlene could not put together a coherent sentence—not in Spanish or in English. By summer, when she could have used the lack of air conditioning as an excuse, “Marlene’s mid-afternoon crash” was a running joke at the clinic. She would drive home in a daze, the recording of Ricardo Montalbán reading translations of Danielle Steel floating in and out of her consciousness. She would stop at Albertsons on the way, where teenage Mormon boys in aprons smiled warily at her from behind the deli counter. There were nights when Marlene could not remember eating dinner, let alone getting in bed. But that was where she awoke, between twelve and one every night, and always with the same terror at not remembering where she was. A few moments later, she would recognize the waterbed undulating beneath her, the tick of the clock in the living room, the broken blinds above the bed.
It was then that she heard him: a peal of laughter, ending in a shriek. She would rise and start through the living room, toward the kitchen, which she believed to be the source of the noise. A crash and the sound of pattering feet, the tottering descent of a child who hops from one stair to the next, holding the bannister at eye-level. Pushing through the saloon doors, Marlene would call, “Little boy, little boy, come here! I have some chores for you!” A chair was overturned in the kitchen. From the top of the staircase, she would catch a glimpse of his black head above rainbow pajamas, just as he was rounding the corner into the den.
At the bottom of the stairs, all was silence. Marlene crept about, looking behind the potbelly stove and the recliners, then started down the hall, turning on lights as she went. She looked in the laundry room, and in the room under the stairs, where squashes ripened slowly. She looked in her son’s old room, which she was redecorating to match the guest room upstairs, and in the sewing room beside it. For years, she had been meaning to turn the sewing room into a bathroom, though now that Darren was married, and given how seldom Marlene could count on even one overnight guest, the idea seemed past its prime.
The door at the end of the hall was closed, and Marlene had to curb the impulse to knock. Stepping onto the stone floor always made her shiver, and for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out why, after all the work she’d done, turning this once unfinished part of the basement into an office, she had not put down a single rug. Anyway, ever since they’d given her a new computer at the clinic, she hardly had occasion to go inside. The room seemed almost less inhabitable than when they’d first moved in. Spiderwebs laced the computer monitor to the keyboard, wall, and desk. There were boxes stacked up to the window well, and old files on top of them almost obscured the natural light. Her old schoolbooks were piled on the two bookcases built against the inside wall. On the panel between them hung the prize mackerel, the biggest one ever caught in Utah, her husband Nelson’s one big fish.
That fish might be mean and ugly, Marlene thought, but it had never fooled anybody. She laid her hands on the panel and was surprised to find it unlocked: it slid easily, until the fish struck the bookcase to her right. The sliver of dark was just wide enough for her (but easy, she thought, for a child) to squeeze into the room behind. There, she pulled the cord for the light and squatted down to search the cabinets under the workbench. It was the last conceivable place the child could be. But except for a few old boxes of shells and some mechanical equipment whose purpose Marlene could not fathom, the cabinets were empty.
She stood, dizzy and weak. Everything seemed in order, though she had no way of telling. The office might have been hers, but the secret room belonged to Nelson; she just told him to keep it tidy. She never went inside unless he was already there. Not that she wasn’t allowed. She had her own key. She just had no reason to. For that matter, neither did he, not anymore. He hadn’t gone hunting in years. Every gun in there seemed as much an antique as the Winchester, the centerpiece of a small cache of rifles and pistols that hung against the stone back wall of the secret room, a relic of the old cellar. Light glinted off their dusty barrels. It must have been years, Marlene thought, since any of them had been fired.
• • •
The first time Marlene’s neighbor saw her in the garden at night, she told Marlene that she thought she had seen a ghost. She’d gotten up for a glass of water, happened to look out the window, and almost choked. “There you were,” she said, “feet hidden in the garden rows, and the way the wind was blowing the hem of your nightgown . . .” She lay one hand on her heart. Marlene thought it had less to do with the nightgown than with the women in this valley, none of whom understood the concept of doing for oneself. When she had first moved here, no one knew her as anything but Nelson’s wife and Darren’s mother, this despite the fact that Nelson had a two-year contract in Galveston, or somewhere in Texas—Marlene couldn’t remember anymore—and was only home on holidays. They couldn’t have picked him out of a line. Marlene was sure she heard something like envy in their voices when they spoke of him, like he was an adventurer who rolled into town now and again, and by whom she happened to have a child. What they said, though, was that God did not intend marriage to be that way: man and woman were supposed to live together, work together. Help each other.
But wasn’t it the case, in their religion, that married women stayed with their husbands for all eternity? So what did a few short years matter?
When Marlene said things like that, they would ask her if she was thinking of converting. But Marlene told them she was not church material. It was supposed to be an excuse, to stop that conversation before it started. But she ended up believing it. When Darren was little, she used to walk him to the neighborhood around the temple, and upon seeing the gleaming, white steeple with the golden angel on top, Marlene would feel truly unworthy. After all, she drank occasionally, and she liked to gamble, more since moving here, a hair’s breadth from Nevada. On Sundays, she would take Darren over the border with her, to Wendover. He would sit on the carpet with his Matchbox cars while she played the slots. Of course, Marlene didn’t mention this to her neighbors, let alone to the mothers of the big families that lived around the temple, whom she helped out during the week. Relief Society officers, all of them. Marlene guessed she was part of their charity work, and the last thing they needed to hear was that they weren’t making any headway in saving her soul.
What was there to tell? Gambling relaxed her, like knitting did some
women. Besides, if she’d had a problem, how could she have managed to save the money to go back to school? Of course not. And once she was back in school, she started spending her Sundays productively, sending Darren to church with one of those families while she studied. It was a minimal concession. Nelson never found out—about the housecleaning, about the gambling, about Darren’s going to church—though he must have wondered where she got the money to pay for school. On her end, Marlene figured she might as well get as much mileage as she could out of her mysteriously absent husband. So when the women complained that, though they appreciated Marlene’s help, it was high time she got moving on a family of her own—a real family; just one child didn’t count—Marlene blamed Nelson. He just doesn’t want to, she said. And the women had pitied her, at least for a while.
It wasn’t quite a lie. They had talked about adopting, or Marlene had. Nelson had interrupted her: Look at your sister. Those kids ended up screwing up her own kids, her natural-born kids. Marlene had wondered then if she really wanted another one for herself, or if it was just moving to this valley, so full of children, that had prompted the desire. Maybe no matter how many you had, you always wanted one more. Maybe you did spend all eternity with your husband! But a woman didn’t need ten or twelve kids to feel fulfilled. For that matter, she didn’t need even one. Of course, she didn’t tell her neighbors that, or the Relief Society officers, either. They looked at her funny enough already.
That was all ancient history anyway. Marlene never went to that old neighborhood anymore. She had what she thought of as a satisfactory relationship with her neighbors. Nelson had taken a job over the border, in Wyoming, and was home most weekends. Between their two jobs, they had more money than they’d ever had in their lives. And she liked to think she did have another child now: Josey, Darren’s boy. Her first grandchild. Darren had married young, a buxom blonde Mormon girl—at least those church years had been good for something. They had another child on the way; Darren said they planned to have a big family. His wife attributed Darren’s moodiness to his worrying about how he would keep food on the table for the projected clan. That was fine with Marlene, who had years of practice dealing with Darren’s moods, as she had with Nelson’s before him. The problem was that she only ever saw Darren and his wife on Sundays, and only for the few minutes it took them to pick up and return the boat, which they took out almost every weekend now. And they never, ever brought Josey along.
Time was an issue. Darren lived in the direction opposite the clinic, so going over to see them on weekdays was out of the question, what with how tired she was after work. But weekends were a different story. And when Marlene found out that they were leaving Josey every Sunday with her parents, she became convinced that she was the victim of a conspiracy.
Darren refused to get involved, and his wife always gave Marlene the same excuses: he was a little heck-raiser; he got into everything; Marlene must be exhausted from working all week; her parents lived just a few minutes away; and the one that really made Marlene’s blood boil: they had raised so many already! This, when she knew Marlene used to help out two of the best families in town, families hers wasn’t even fit to talk to! In fact, if Marlene didn’t go up and tap on the window of the truck, the girl wouldn’t deign to speak to her at all. And even then she didn’t get out, just rolled the window down halfway and turned down the rock station, which she listened to at full volume (it couldn’t be good for the baby), just enough that Marlene could be heard if she shouted. Marlene would feel the cool air trickle down on her as she stood sweating with the broom in her hands and asked, “Did you bring the little guy with you today?” She knew what the answer would be, but she asked anyway, just to see Darren’s wife flash that cheap smile and not look her in the eye when she said, “We left him with his grandma and grandpa.”
As if the boy had only one pair!
Marlene would go inside and put some ice in a glass, get a Coke out of the pantry. She had met them a few times, an animated couple a decade or so older than her, polite and sincere. They had confessed they wished their daughter had married a Mormon boy; it was the reason, they said, they had moved back from California in the first place. They smiled when they said this, like gracious losers. It was probably them, Marlene reflected, who counseled their daughter not to leave Josey with her.
When Marlene had returned with the glass of ice and the Coke, she would ask about Darren’s job, his raise, her folks, and her. Everyone and everything was always the same. Except Josey.
“Growing like a weed! Look, hon, your mom brought you a Coke.”
Darren, standing behind Marlene with his shirt off. He takes the glass and the can from her and starts cracking the ice in his teeth.
“Dad’s in the garage if you want to say hi,” Marlene says.
“We should get going,” Darren’s wife says.
• • •
The boy didn’t come on the night Marlene harvested the seeds, rubbing her hands over the sunflower heads to dislodge them so that they fell, in a grayish-white hail, into the cardboard box she straddled. Her hands grew as rough and dry as the shriveled, gray honeycombs that hardly made any sound when she discarded them, all their weight in the seeds. And he did not come the next night, when Marlene had scattered the seeds on the racks she used for drying fruit and sprayed them from the hose. The following night, they were dry, and she spread them on a baking sheet, doused them with salt. When they were cool, she sat down at the counter and ate, cracking the shells in her teeth and spitting them into her hands.
On the mornings after the boy visited, she would go down and check the secret room and find it locked. She would feel comparatively refreshed for a day. The insomnia would follow close on his heels. She thought maybe it was the reason he came: the need for sleep, for the dream, and always just as she was beginning to despair that he would never visit her again, that she would never sleep again.
“Frightened him away,” she mumbled, spitting the shells. With all that chasing him around and yelling at him to do his chores.
Marlene decided once again that she was the reason—not more money—that Nelson had sought those faraway contracts. And while during the day she could blame Darren’s wife for taking Josey away from her, at night, standing in the garden, or sitting at the counter, she told herself that it was her own fault.
But what was she supposed to do? Darren didn’t have a job, and she hadn’t been about to let some seventeen-year-old high-school dropout live rent-free in her house, eating her food, without lifting a finger. They got into shouting matches every evening, and came to blows almost every morning when she went to roust him, until he finally left with his things tied up in a sheet, like a hobo. She remembered a morning when he shouted at her as he turned over in bed, defending himself against the broomstick, “Mom, you don’t live on a farm anymore!”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Marlene shouted back at him, prodding. “I was born in a chicken coop!”
The next day, she saw the black boy’s face in the vacant faces of the dark children whose mothers brought them into the clinic and talked endlessly while Marlene nodded, hearing little and understanding less. In the evening, she saw his face in the faces of the potbellied African children on TV, huddled in twos and blanketed by flies. She remembered reading somewhere that those organizations would forge letters and include photos of other children long after the child you were supposed to be supporting had died.
She awoke in darkness, her heart kicking like a mule until she recognized the broken window blinds, and the waves: the brazen sound of Nelson snoring beside her. The clock in the living room was about to chime one. Saturday.
Then she heard the peal of laughter and was on her feet, running for the kitchen, calling, “Little boy, little boy, I have some chores for you!” From the top of the stairs, she glimpsed his dark head over the rainbow pajamas, just as he was disappearing around the corner. She remembered the time her brother-in-law spotted a grease fire in the kitchen from the flames reflected in the head of his spoon. “Fire,” he said, and they all got up and ran into the kitchen, where he managed to get the lid onto the pan. When he turned around, his face was black. Even Nelson had laughed.
The basement was silent. She looked behind the stove and the recliners, and in each of the rooms along the hall, turning on lights as she went: laundry, storage, sewing, Darren’s old bedroom. The door at the end of the hall was closed, but when she went inside she found the door to the secret room open already, as far as Nelson’s mounted fish would permit.
The cabinets beneath the workbench were such a perfect place for a child to hide that, upon standing, Marlene could not quite convince herself that he wasn’t there. She felt compelled to repeat her search. She straightened and glared at the dusty gun barrels glinting in the light from the bulb overhead, as if they guarded the secret of the boy’s disappearance. And then her eye was drawn upwards, to something small and shiny sitting on a high shelf that remained out of reach even as she stood on tiptoes.
There was a chair tucked under the desk in the office. But on squeezing out of the secret room, Marlene realized that in order to get the chair back inside, she would need to take Nelson’s fish down from the panel. As if sensing this, the animal’s one glassy, spiteful eye seemed to narrow in on her. The lacquer gave it a still-wet shine, its body curved as if caught in the act of leaping. Its jaw was locked in a perpetual frown, fat lips puckered over big, triangular teeth.
Carefully, she grasped the fish by the tail end and lifted. As it unhinged from the nail on which it hung, the heavy head swung down, just missing her knee. Marlene shrieked and hopped onto one foot while the fish clattered to the stone floor. She waited a time before taking one long step over it.
With the fish down, the door slid easily until it disappeared inside the wall, leaving a yawning hole almost as wide as the secret room itself. She dragged the chair inside, pushing the back up against the workbench, and then climbed on top, careful not to knock her head into the bulb.
It was a bullet.
• • •
TO READ THE REST OF THIS STORY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 51.1.
CRAIG BERNARDINI’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Confrontation, New Ohio Review, and TriQuarterly. “Fat Kid,” originally published in Memorious, was a finalist for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Web 2015. He teaches English at Hostos Community College, a City University of New York school in the Bronx.