The first thing on Jane’s mother’s list was the UPS store. There was always something to send back. Not all items passed muster.
“Too yellow,” Margaret had said, handing the opened box to Jane. “And I sincerely doubt there is one natural fiber in that blouse. Silk, indeed!”
Jane printed out the return form, bundled up the synthetic, screaming yellow, almost sheer blouse in its original box, and then they drove downtown in Margaret’s white Cadillac sedan that had a name with initials or an acronym: ATM, LOL, CRV, DMV. Jane hadn’t really paid attention. When she was growing up, her mother—always wanting to buy American—drove brand new Caddies with names: Eldorado, Fleetwood, Deville, Seville.
But those days were gone.
“Slow down,” Margaret said, as she always did, when Jane neared the S curve on Camino Diablo.
Jane slowed, letting up on the gas, the great car floating around the turn. The car was insulated from the actual environment, the ride so smooth, it seemed possible they’d lifted off the pavement.
“We need sidewalks,” Margaret said as the road straightened, one of her daily complaints.
“Yes,” Jane agreed as they passed a teenager on a bicycle. Unhelmeted and wearing an almost diaphanous, flickering skirt, high-top sneakers, and a baggy sweatshirt, the girl coasted down the hill fast, her bike wobbling. For a second, Jane paused, took in breath, and thought, without wanting to, about soft skull bones, hard asphalt, blood.
“Keep your eyes on the road!” Margaret said.
“Yes, Mother.” But Jane glanced at the girl one last time. Why wasn’t she in school? Jane wondered. Maybe the high schools were having a break. When Sam was in school, every other week was a break. Or teacher training. A special holiday that was too new for Jane to know about. Indigenous multicultural LGBT appreciation day, which might go a far distance in terms of making up for the lack of anything indigenous in Magnolia, population 17, 457. Exactly. And at least ninety percent white.
Point was, Jane thought as she took another sneaky look in her rearview mirror at the bicyclist, magnolias weren’t even indigenous to Magnolia, much less California. Southeastern United States. Africa. China.
“This town needs to think more like a city.” Margaret clicked open her purse and pulled out a shiny golden cylinder of lipstick. Eternally Red. This, the third application of the day, a good five minutes before they reached their UPS destination. The swish of her pulling off the top. A crank to expose the red tip. A one, two, back and forth. Smack, smack. And then swish, the top was back on. Jane could smell her mother’s waxy lips, a layer on top of the hum of Chanel No. 5.
When she was little, Jane would come into the bathroom after her mother’s toilette and find a piece of tissue floating in the toilet with an open red kiss on it, a love raft, a kiss all alone.
Jane stopped at the interaction of Camino Diablo and Main, her turn signal on, the click a solid but muffled sound in the car cab. The town not city was busy, cars pulling up to the intersection, all polite, everyone ready to wait. Jane took her turn, sailed smoothly left, the signal flicking off. The only sound in the cab her mother’s nasal breathing, air in her sinuses, rattling. Deep in her throat, something heavier, built up from fifty-five years of smoking.
There was always a colored pucker on her cigarette butts, too, but a year ago, Margaret had finally given it up.
“You brought the package?” her mother asked.
“It’s in the trunk,” Jane said, not adding, where it always is when you ask, the same thing she always didn’t say when her mother asked the same question.
“I’d hate to get all the way downtown without it.” Margaret sat up a little more stiffly in her seat, adjusting her skirt, the fabric against leather a tugging shiff shiff. The outfit was designer-labeled, made for Margaret exclusively in the years before Jane moved back home. Not bought online like the horrible yellow blouse but fitted and delivered a decade ago when Margaret was still heading to lunches in San Francisco or arriving at board meetings for the symphony or opera. A light but not obnoxious pink, the skirt still fit, though now snug around the thighs, the jacket tight under the arms. And if Jane were honest, her mother’s blouse was gaping open, a slight gap that the big white silk bow didn’t cover. Underneath, a bra filled with one real baggy breast, the other a rubber prosthesis.
Margaret refused to discuss the cancer or the subsequent operation, dressing in private, decorous and modest, jerking away from Jane’s attempts to straighten shirts or tug on blouses. There was never one conversation about reconstruction, which seemed miraculous in that Jane attended many of her mother’s doctors’ appointments. It was as if Margaret had send a handwritten note on her 20-weight, gold-rimmed notecards, asking for such.
As per our earlier conversation, please do not mention anything related to my illness to my daughter before, during, or after my visit. Do not talk about my surgical options or life expectancy. Do not talk about blood donors or anticipated recovery length. As you look at my chart, make no mention about scarring, skin saving mastectomy, or antibiotics. Do not mention my weight or blood pressure. Such a courtesy will be much appreciated.
As if reading Jane’s thoughts, Margaret coughed, shifted in her seat, pulling Jane away from thoughts of which Margaret did not approve.
Through two stop signs—the second taking longer as the crosswalk to the assisted living facility bisected the middle of town and the field trip to Safeway was in progress—Jane finally neared the UPS store, only a half-block from the Chevron station. UPS, fill up the tank, and then lunch at Niemen Marcus in Walnut Creek. Her mother would order the shrimp salad and an iced tea. Jane would have the soup and coffee, black, her middle bulging when she’d moved home but now things were back on track. Margaret would put the lunch tab on her Niemen’s account, and then off they were on a swift survey of cosmetics and accessories and then out into the shopping square for a buzz through Tiffany and Co.
Back home with a couple of small blue bags—pearl earrings for one of Margaret’s friends or a silver bangle for Jane’s niece Sage—it would be nap time and then card time and then cocktail hour. At six, Maria would let them know dinner was ready, and then she’d be off, leaving Jane and Margaret to their meal of chicken and rice and broccoli. A slice of carrot cake or bowl of fruit salad for dessert.
“Watch out!” Margaret cried, her arms flailing.
Jane slammed on the brakes, blinking out of her thoughts, focused on the crosswalk. Purses and jewelry rattled in the cab. Her mother huffed against her seatbelt.
Jane exhaled. Had she hit something? Someone? A senior citizen with a walker?
Something banged on the hood, but after Jane had lurched to a stop. Not before. There it was again. Jane flinched. Whap! Wham!
Margaret clutched her purse to her chest and cried out. “Oh my goodness!”
Jane, looked to her left. The girl on the bike, her dark eyes blazing.
Her hand shaking, Jane pressed on the window button. Warmer air wafted in as the girl leaned close. She was pared to bone, skin a translucent glow over fine cheeks, sharp chin. Face flushed, eyes watery, hair a whirl on her perfectly round head, she vibrated with righteous indignation. What was she? Sixteen? Seventeen? But those eyes, dark, black, almost without pupils. And angry, too. She seemed to take in all of the car’s foolishness. Margaret’s sleek red leather purse, her careful lipstick. And then Jane, how she was in a lesser degree just like Margaret. Brown leather purse. Slightly rose lipstick, a shadow, a washed out younger but lesser image.
The girl’s upper lip raised, a sneer, something Jane hadn’t witnessed for almost two years on anyone. “What’s wrong with you? You old Cadillac people! You almost killed me.”
“I didn’t even see you,” Jane said.
“Exactly.” The girl stared at her. “That’s your problem. You don’t see anything.”
“I’m very sorry,” Jane began, but then a tap tap of a horn behind her. “We’re going to the UPS store. Right—”
“Don’t tell her,” Margaret hissed, clutching her purse.
“Right there. “ Jane pointed with one finger at the meager parking lot at the end of the block. “Let’s talk this through.”
The girl shivered, her arms flecked with tents of chill. “Fine.”
Slowly, Jane took her foot off the brake, watched as the girl got back on her bike and started peddling down the sidewalk. She followed behind and then next to the girl, her eyes burning from being wide open, unnaturally so. She didn’t want to miss a thing. Flicking her wrist, she turned on the signal, checked all her mirrors, and pulled into the parking lot.
As Margaret grumbled about crazy teenagers, Jane’s heart seemed to float out of her body, hovering over the car. Or back at the site of the almost crash. Back at the thump on the car. A hand, not a body. The girls’ face, vibrating with anger. But alive.
“Well?” Margaret said. “Are you going to get on with it?”
Jane undid her seatbelt, grabbed her purse, and got out of the car. Without looking at the girl who stood under the building’s awning, Jane assisted Margaret out of the car. Her mother gripped her tight with one polished claw.
Jane pressed the leather key fob, the trunk opening with a smooth, prolonged wuhhh.
“Just give it to me.” Margaret used her claw again, reaching for Jane like a mad lobster. “Just take care of this . . . mess.”
Without looking at the girl, Margaret clacked by as if she were a sylph, a dancer on her way to Cotillion, and not a 145 pound woman in a too-tight suit.
Jane hit the key fob, the lock beep echoing under the eave. The girl flinched. A flush blasted across Jane’s cheeks. This mess. As if the girl would what? Steal the car? Vandalize it? She didn’t seem to be toting paint cans or screwdrivers. Nothing to scratch the silvery gleam of the Cadillac. No gun to put to Jane’s head.
“Give me all your money or else, sister,” she didn’t hiss when Jane rolled down the window. “And you don’t want to know what or else is.”
Who did? Who would ever want to know the facts about or else?
“Look,” Jane said, walking toward the girl, who stood on the pavement, her bike between them. “I apologize. I didn’t see you, and I’m sorry if I scared you. There’s no excuse for it. Really.”
Up close, standing straight, the girl was not as imposing as she had been, all sneer and anger in the open car window. Actually, the opposite. Slight, small, shivering in the brief under the awning, her dresses skittered around her slim bones like confetti.
“It’s okay,” the girl said. “I was on the wrong side of the road anyway.”
She fiddled with her handlebar, straightened the basket. In it? A bag, a can of Coke, a bike lock, a pack of cigarettes. “But you did scare me. You were totally like drifting.”
“Sorry.” Jane felt her whole body clench, wanting to straighten out her car even now, needing to be in the lines, away from danger, from hurting anybody.
“Are you on your way to school?” Jane asked. “Are you late?”
“Nah,” she said. “Anyway.”
“Right,” said Jane, a suddenness on her tongue, slick and fast. “Do you want to come to lunch with us? Are you hungry?”
Again, a flush of heat and embarrassment, Jane hot under her blouse. “Or a ride to school. You could lock your bike up here. What’s your name? I didn’t ask that, did it?”
At the flood of questions, the girl stepped back, stared at Jane, who felt as old as she was. With her mother constantly at her side, it was easy to forget her age, she the perpetually younger one. But next to this child, skinny and pale, unmarked skin (except for that turtle tattoo on her wrist), thin baby-fine hair, Jane felt the decades on her body like barbells, heavy, pulling her toward ground.
“Emma,” the girl said. “That’s my name.”
Jane nodded, took in breath. “Are you supposed to be in school?”
Emma shrugged. “Kinda.”
“So do you want a ride?”
Emma glanced up at Jane, some kind of upset flashing across it. Was it other kids? Teachers? Or maybe grades, a paper due, a test in an hour? Or was it worse, something at home keeping her from moving forward even as she rode her bike through town.
Jane blinked, looked down, smoothed her already smooth pants. So much had likely already gone wrong in Emma’s life, no bike ride was going to fix anything.
“Okay,” Emma said, just as the UPS Store’s door opened with a tinkling of bells and Margaret stepped out, purse in the crook of her elbow.
“Okay what?” Margaret’s eyes were sharp, like arrowheads. Jane knew what that look could do to a heart.
“Lunch,” Jane said. “Lock up your bike. We’ll bring you back.”
Margaret exhaled a horrified “Lunch,” but Jane bundled her back into the passenger’s seat and then opened a back door for Emma.
“Lunch,” she said.
“We could be arrested for kidnapping,” Margaret said, swiveling to look at Emma in the backseat, the stenosis in her neck keeping her from full-bore stare. “Shouldn’t you call your mother?”
“She’s not home yet.” Emma played with the up and down on the window until Margaret humphed.
“What about the school, at least,” Margaret said. “Someone has to be looking for you.”
Jane flicked a glance into the rearview mirror, saw Emma shrug, and looked back to the highway. In the back seat, Emma’s big dangly earrings clicked and clattered. Margaret was exactly right. No one, for instance, was looking for Jane. Margaret always knew where she was, and Jane’s former husband was former, just as the word implied. If he was looking for her, it would be in his files labeled “taxes” or “divorce.” Or he could find her online. He’d email, wanting to only find her response to a question about the past—did you take my mother’s silver?
Jane’s friends were mostly in Phoenix, and if they needed her, they’d check on Facebook, noting the few photos Jane had posted, all of them seeming to recount the same events over and over again. So without doubt, Jane was entirely findable and unnecessary, unneeded and unused. The most important thing about her was that she was driving, had her hands on the wheel. Was keeping the three of them alive. So far.
“My mom can write a note tomorrow.” Emma said.
“Oh,” Jane said. “Where is she?”
“New York. Some like business thing. She’ll be home later.”
“What about your dad?” Jane asked.
“What about him,” Emma said instead of asked. A flat, completed topic.
“Well, what about siblings?” Margaret asked. “You can’t be running around home and town all by yourself without anyone.”
“No,” Emma said. “None.”
“How long were you alone?” Margaret asked, turning her head again. Jane could almost hear her mother’s vertebrae crackle.
“Just four days. Not like she totally leaves me without money. I’m fine. I didn’t feel like going to school today. It’s so lame, actually.”
Lame. That’s what Sam used to say. Jane could see him still. There, just there. She at the front door, morning light beating in. His back to her. Tall, such good posture, even on that skateboard. His hair moving as he rolled away from her. Curls, so dark.
Margaret pulled her body back, adjusting her skirt again. “Ridiculous,” she said as her hands rasped on the stretched fabric.
“So we have some lunch,” Jane said, changing lanes. “Maybe do a little shopping.”
There were items on the menu Jane had never really noticed before, not in the year since she’d been lunching at Niemen’s with her mother. Emma ordered a pancetta, avocado organic free-range hamburger on an Acme roll, ketchup, no mayo. A side of zinger fries (lots of red spices) and a hot caramel sauce sundae for dessert
Jane looked at the heft and heat of the burger over her salad. A perfectly good salad, but she’d probably eaten 36 of them the past year. Even Margaret seemed to be having a hard time with her shrimp. Jane watched her mother’s fingers almost reach out and grab a fry.
“Looks good,” Jane said as Emma tucked in, a driblet of mayo-ketchup on the girl’s upper lip.
“Mmmm,” she said.
Jane almost hummed with empathy, vibrated with food envy. Sure she’d gotten her weight back to where it had been two years ago, back when she had a gym and a good running path right outside her door. When she played golf, walking the green courses with friends instead of taking the carts; and when she played a set or two of tennis with her friend Jan before swimming laps in the Olympic-sized pool. When she had activities and places to go each day.
The server who had been stolidly bringing Jane and Margaret their meals for weeks actually smiled. And when the sundae came, it was clear he’d added extra whipped cream.
Then he looked at Jane, his smile slipping back into frown. “Coffee?”
“What about a latte?” Jane asked, and he lightened a little. But not by much.
“Really,” said Margaret. “Well, I might as well have a sundae, too.”
Finally, the truth out in the open, Jane thought, knowing that her mother had impromptu and hurried ice cream in front of the open freezer door. Always vanilla with a soup spoon.
The server beamed.
Instead of taking the pilgrimage to Tiffany, they headed to Nordstrom, Margaret certain she’d bought her last raincoat there. But this year’s coats were not what she had in mind, even if it was late in the season and she might get a discount.
“How does this fabric stop the rain?” she asked, holding up the bronzey fabric, shiny and thin. “What is this in a storm?”
“It like looks good,” Emma said. “When the wind whips, you’ll be a lightning storm.”
Margaret pretended to ignore her but then bought the coat.
Back in the car and after two right turns and before the freeway entrance, Margaret fell asleep, her shopping bag at her feet. Jane looked in the rearview mirror at Emma.
“This was pretty weird,” she said.
“Everything is,” Emma said. “But weird’s good too, sometimes.”
Was it? Jane didn’t know. But normal seemed like a faraway island reachable only by shipwreck.
“Maybe,” Jane said. “So I’ll get you back to your bike. And I’m sorry about the whole thing.”
“Kinda worked out great,” Emma said. “That was an awesome sundae.”
Jane smiled, turned on the radio, the station the classical one Margaret had been listening to for decades, the actual notes buffed and trimmed for a mature listening audience. She took the exit to town, pulled into the UPS parking lot, and parked right by where Emma’s bike was supposed to be.
“Shit,” Emma said.
“Where is it?” Jane asked.
Margaret stirred but stayed asleep. Jane and Emma got out of the car to investigate, finding nothing but Emma’s bike lock, cleanly cut in two pieces and kicked to the side of the building in a corner.
“Lemme go ask inside.” Emma went inside the UPS store and walked up to the counter. Jane turned to look at her mother, her head against the car door, her mouth open a little as she slept. This is what happened. You came back to what you thought would be there and it was gone. Stolen, damaged. Broken forever. Sam on the pavement down the street, his skateboard upside down, the wheels still turning. The man in his BMW 6 something, no name for that car either. His face in his hands. The clarion of sirens, someone holding Jane’s shoulders. Police and firefighters. Metal clacking all around her. A gurney. Doors slamming. The sound of tires speeding down the road.
“Ma’am,” someone kept saying. “Ma’am.”
It was then that Jane realized she’d been screaming the entire time.
“They’ll take care of him,” someone else had said, moving her toward another emergency vehicle. “It’s okay.”
But it wasn’t okay. And it was too late. Sam broken in two, kicked to the corner of the street by the blast of the man’s car, the man who had been reading his texts. Calling his wife. His hand on the steering wheel, his mind a hundred miles away.
All that was left was the rest of the time without Sam. A weird time, that wasn’t good. Not at all. From that moment on, Jane knew that life could be snapped like an icicle. Like burnt sugar. Like the glass all over the street for weeks after the accident.
“They didn’t see anything,” Emma said, the door closing behind her.
“Of course they didn’t,” Jane said. “They never do. The next thing you know your kid’s dead on the street. And no one saw anything. The man isn’t charged with a crime. Not a misdemeanor. Not even negligence. You fight. And then you give up. On everything. Your husband leaves you and you end up living at home with your mother.”
“Huh?” Emma stepped back, and Jane rushed to her, her hands on the girl’s shoulders. But it wasn’t Emma. Not in that second. It was Sam, leaving the house, going to meet his friends at the park.
“Bye, Mom,” he said. “Gotta go.”
“It’s okay,” someone said, the same someone who’d told her that before at the scene of the crime. It had been a crime. Not an accident. Didn’t they understand? Didn’t they see that her child was dead? Jane shook off the hand, but it grabbed her again.
“Jane,” her mother said. “It’s okay.”
“Sorry,” Emma said. Jane exhaled, leaned into her mother, put a hand to her face.
“No,” Jane said, taking in a deep breath, feeling rib as she did. “I’m sorry. I was thinking about something else.”
“What happened here?” Margaret asked.
“Some douche stole my bike,” Emma said.
“Then it’s settled,” Margaret said, and for an instant, Jane hoped that her mother was going to invite Emma to come live with them. Margaret was going to do what she’d done all of Jane’s childhood. Fix things. It was easy. They had spare rooms. Rooms to spare. They could go on as before, but Emma would be there to do the things that made Jane’s life necessary. Clubs, and homework, and boyfriends to talk about. Clothes shopping, movies, and pizza.
“We’ll take you home and explain this to your mother. None of this,” Margaret said, her voice steady. “Not one bit of this is your fault.”
At Emma’s house, Margaret went to the front door with the girl—one splayed, red finger-nailed crab on the girl’s back as they walked down the front path—and seemed to explain the odd, convoluted story to Emma’s mother, who stood in the doorway. Margaret’s hand went up and down. Emma’s mother’s arms were folded across her chest at first, but then she unfolded them, let them hang at her side, finally putting one arm around Emma. Her gaze was sharp, but then she smiled. Laughed once. Maybe about the sundaes. Now and then, the woman looked over Margaret at Jane, and Jane raised a hand, seeing in the woman’s eyes the early stages of the terror Jane fell asleep with every night.
Where is she?
Where did she go?
Why wasn’t she in school?
Why did you take my daughter anywhere without my permission?
Leave, now. Leave. Don’t ever come back.
I’m calling the police.
But the conversation seemed more convivial, the woman trying to usher Margaret inside, Emma smiling, her mother and she waving as Margaret walked back to the car. As Jane drove away from the house, she could see them both in her rearview mirror, side-by-side, together in the doorway. But then Jane made a turn and the mother and daughter slipped from view.
“That was more excitement than I need in one day,” Margaret said. “Let’s go home and have a drink.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Jane said.
“But only one. Really, I need to cut back,” Margaret said. “And I certainly hope that purse I ordered shows up today in the mail. Otherwise, we are going to have to go back to Nordstrom tomorrow. Can’t wait one more day. Though no more sundaes after lunch.”
Jane felt her hands on the wheel, her heart in her chest. All these months, Jane had thought she was doing her mother a favor by moving home. Taking care of her, driving her around, mailing her packages. Slipping into Margaret’s life as needed and where need be.
But really, Margaret was holding Jane tight in the quiet sameness on purpose. So Jane wouldn’t dwell. So she would keep on living. Margaret must have stopped smoking so she could be here for Jane as long as possible. Her daughter. The one who lost everything.
Jane took them down the winding hill and into town, stopping at the intersection of Camino Diablo and Main, the place where Emma had whizzed by just hours before. If Jane had looked away for a moment, answered an email or text, moved the car more to the left than she must have, this day could have ended differently. With noise and sorrow. But it hadn’t. Not this time.
Her turn to go, Jane pressed on the accelerator, moving across the street and up the hill toward home.