Caroline slammed the trunk shut and turned to wait for Eddie. “Where are you, O Light of My Life?” she called, but he didn’t appear. She wanted to see the ironic smile that made her impatient to marry him now, in their middle age. She shifted from foot to foot, as if stepping on broken glass. Maybelle in the carrier on the back seat meowed, hiding none of her anxiety. Eddie had gone back into the house to check the locks on the windows again.
He jittered out of the house. “You drive,” he said. “I’m not up to it today.” Yesterday he had finally, for the first time since the accident, driven to the grocery store by himself.
She imagined the loud clunk and the boy flung off his bicycle seat onto the pavement. She imagined the pavement as hot and abrasive. She had not been there.
Eddie stared at the open car door and pulled at the hem of his t-shirt. “I’ve never even hit a squirrel on the road. Walt told me he hit a deer once. He was upset about the dent in the hood of his car.”
“Walt’s a jerk. He believes he hung the moon. He belongs to the church of Walt.”
“I dreamed about it last night. In the dream, the boy is not looking back at his friends and laughing. He stops the bike just before he hits the fender. A parachute lofts him up and he calls down, ‘Mr. Dodona, I’m sorry I startled you.’ I don’t know how he knows my name.”
“It’s a dream.”
“You should try to forget. You should try. The boy got off easyjust a broken arm.”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “I know that visiting my mother is stressful, but then we’ll go to the lake. We’ll have a good time.”
Her mother would be surprised, though Caroline had called her four times and told her she was coming with her fiancé. Eddie’s mother was long dead. One less person to worry about. Caroline fanned herself with her hand, probably a hot flash. Her inner temperature matched the outer. Her mother used to joke about her own hot flashes: “Light up the world.”
The trunk was full. Suitcases, sunscreen, hats, insect repellent, lots of armor against the environment. The light cut into her eyes. She searched for her sunglasses in her purse and put them on. Her mother’s mind was fraying. Caroline patted her own waist. Her insides were disintegrating: no more eggs floating downa good thing. The sunglasses darkened the world. She clutched at the door handlethis hot metal would not melt until the sun burned the planet in a heat-death. She would not be there, Eddie would not be there, Maybelle would not be there, would be long gonea good thing.
Eddie dropped heavily into the passenger seat. “Walt surprised me. The other day he said when he was a kid he thought he would be a priest. A missionary. He wanted to feed people, heal them. He wanted to save pagan babies.”
“I wanted to be a nun when I was a kid. Holden Caulfield wanted to save animals.”
“So: would Holden Caulfield want to save Walt?”
She sat back. “Well, he’s an animal all right.”
“What I didn’t know was that his mother beat him. She would get drunk and angry, stamp on his toy soldiers, scream at him.”
She shrugged. “Weve all got problems.”
“He forgave her. He said she couldn’t help it. She would apologize the next day.”
“At least she had good manners.”
“Why do you have to be so cynical? Huh?”
She took a breath. “I’m sorry. I’m upset about work, my mother, hey, even pagan babies. The world, global warming.”
He fumbled with the seat belt and stopped. “What about your work?”
“They let the newest copywriter go.”
“Jason is gone?”
“I may be next.”
“You’re too essential.”
“If Deckert decides to fold the company …”
“You would have to stay home and do your art. Hallelujah. A consummation devoutly to be wished. Painting and relaxation.”
“Mother used to say, ‘In the grave, I will sleep.’ Meaning she didn’t have time to relax.”
“Meaning she was exhausted. Meaning she yearned for peace. Meaning she had to keep working.” Caroline stared in the rearview mirror and searched behind the car, though she knew nobody was there. “My mother doesn’t say it anymore. Now she talks about the bicycle she wants, a red Schwinn Meteor. A 26-inch girls’ bike. ‘It’s easy to pedal,’ she says.” Caroline swatted at a gnat, not wanting to catch it, and got a fistful of air. “I had a red bike I loved.”
“Me, too. And I had a large globe with the continents printed in green and brown. I intended to visit every continent.” He set his hands on his knees. “I’ve been to two. Should I be disappointed?”
“We’re not dead yet.”
He stretched his hands on his knees. “My hands are wrinkled.”
She took the hand closest to her and squeezed it lightly before letting it go.
Maybelle meowed. Eddie got on his knees on the front seat and faced her. “She’s such a good cat. She puts up with us and the cage.”
Caroline inserted the key in the ignition. “You know I visited Mother last week. She told me about washing her silk scarf. She soaked it overnight and when she squeezed it in the water, she felt something hard against her little finger. It was a beetle. It must’ve crawled there to drink and it died. Mother was startled. She wondered what it meant. It had little human eyes staring up. As she was telling me the story, she knocked over her tray, spilled her soup on her dress. ‘Look at me,’ she said, tears streaming down her face. ‘I’m a mess.’ All I could do was hold her.”
Maybelle meowed in her carrier. Eddie chirped to her and stuck his fingers into the front of the carrier. She raised herself up from the back, moved to the door of the carrier, and pressed her head against his wiggling fingers. He turned and sat forward. “She’s a good creature,” he said.