The stew meat and I were both sweating our lives out in this pressure cooker of a house. I was trying to make a salad so we could eat something healthy. Lettuce is so hard to wash. Ray was worn out from his last contract installing light fixtures by night and still hadn't got up, and it was irritating me because the damn kids were out front playing "Uncle Harry" again.
"Jonathan! Summer! Get in here! Now!" I wanted to go drown myself. The kids and the July heat bounced neverendingly off the asphalt street outside, making it impossible for me to use a sentence that didn't end in an exclamation point. I'd wanted to take the kids to the beach that weekend, but Ray grumbled about the holiday traffic and the 9-hour drive back from work to be home with us.
Summer spilled out of the front yard onto the kitchen linoleum, her blonde hair fanning out over the dingy tile like a dropped deck of cards. Dammit, I thought, and sure enough she started flailing and gagging just like Ray's idiot brother Harry did when he OD'd on heroin in the middle of our living room last month.
Next came Jonathan, pretending to be Ray. "Oh, God! Oh, God!" Summer went obligingly limp. "Oh, God!" Jonathan cried, dropping to his knees, the two of them barely suppressing their giggles. Summer gave another jerk and let a foamy ball of spit drool out the corner of her mouth. Laughter seized them and they gave in, giving up the game before the dramatic end.
I put down the lettuce. "Kids! Get off the floor! Get over here!"
"What, Mom?" Jonathan said, jumping up with hands on hips.
"Don't talk to me like that." I wrapped the lettuce in cellophane for no good reason, taking a deep breath while I did it. Then, I came away from the counter and sat down on the floor next to them. I reminded myself they were 6 and 4 and had no idea why this game was so goddamn upsetting. "Listen, I know you're curious about what happened to Uncle Harry last month."
"We saw what happened to Uncle Harry," Summer said. She began the gagging routine again.
"Stop that right now!"
"What, Mom?" she said, copying her older brother.
"I need you kids to do Mommy a favor. OK? I need you to stop playing that game. It's not a nice game. A terrible thing happened to Uncle Harry last month, and it would really hurt his feelings to know you made it into a game."
"OK, Mom," they both said. Too quickly. I stood up anyway.
"OK. Now go play in the living room, but play something else. Do you want me to get out your legos?"
"No thanks, Mom," Jonathan said. "We're fine."
I knew they'd be playing the game again five seconds later. Just like I knew Harry was using heroin again five seconds after we dropped him off at Ray's mother's house after rehab. I knew I'd hear them gagging and flailing just like I knew I'd see him nodding the next day at our 4th of July barbecue.
"Forget the salad," I said out loud, and threw all the lettuce in the trash. I went to the cupboard and pulled out two cans of corn.
Ray came in, no shirt, rubbing his eyes. "What's the matter, Retta? I heard you yelling at the kids again."
"I was not yelling at the kids."
I watched him make an effort to smile. He put his arms around me. He was clammy with sweat, and I wanted to push him away, but damn I'd been alone so long this last time that I also wanted to push him down to the linoleum and fuck him until dawn.
"I'm glad you decided to come home for the weekend instead of getting yourself electrocuted. The shit they do there's got to be illegal."
"The job's good money, Retta. We've almost got enough saved up to move somewhere with air conditioning. Just a little longer."
He nibbled my neck, and I did push him away. "Don't. Not now."
"What's the matter? What's wrong with the kids?"
He set his jaw with concern, and in my mind I saw Jonathan, obsessed with copying his father. I grabbed for Ray, pressing my breasts against his chest.
"It's been too long, baby," he said into my hair. "I'm so sorry."
Just then, he noticed the gagging sound and went stiff. "Oh, God!" we heard. "Oh, God!" Jonathan wailed it at the top of his lungs, Summer's accompanying giggles streaming through the notes of simulated panic.
"Wake up! Oh, God, wake up! Wake up, you bastard!" Jonathan wheezed through his own giggles.
Ray broke out of my arms and strode into the living room. I ran after him, knocking over the stew meat.
"Stop it! It's not funny!" I shouted. The kids didn't listen to my exclamation points, but Ray's silence was another story. The giggles cut dead when their father tore down as if from heaven and grabbed Jonathan. He lifted him to eye level and held him there without a word, Summer watching wide-eyed from the floor.
I looked around the living room and got the urge to buy new furniture and a new carpet. Something white, so that if I couldn't get a stain completely off I'd have an excuse to just throw the stuff away.
Ray put Jonathan down very slowly. "I never want to see you do that again. Do you understand?"
We went out to dinner that night. And then we came home and didn't have sex. I lay awake waiting for something and finally got up and took the ground beef out of the freezer so Ray wouldn't have to worry about defrosting it in the morning. Then I worked on the stain on the couch again. The foam stain on the brown couch that only I can see.
I didn't go back to bed. When Ray came out in the morning, tired and confused, I was filing my nails with the TV on. He sat down across from me on the couch and looked at his hands, too.
"Don't worry about it," I said.
"I have to worry about it."
"I did want you last night."
"I don't know why we didn't . . . "
I put down the nail file and looked at him. I wanted to cross the room, but something stopped me.
"Am I—You know I'd never hurt you or the kids?"
I thought of what he must have seen. Jonathan straddled over Summer's belly, pretending to slap her, then pretending to punch her in the head, then in the face.
"I know," I said.
"I wanted to throw him across the room."
"Harry or Jonathan?"
Ray's face closed off from me. "Jesus, Retta," he said, and got up to take the ground beef out of the freezer.
"I know," he said. "I can see."
Harry had a new tattoo. "It's the Narcotics Anonymous symbol," he said, cornering me in the kitchen to pull up his shirt sleeve and show me.
"Don't you think you should wait until you're actually clean?" I said. I looked away as I poured potato chips into a large plastic bowl. "Or was there some girl from rehab you had to impress?"
He turned his body away from me, but his head, too big for his skinny neck and body, tottered toward me. "It's OK, Retta. I know you hate me for bringing a little real life into your living room."
"You don't know nothing about real life."
He came close. His body smelled like rotten crab meat. I could see all his veins, as if his skin were made of tracing paper. I knew in my bones he couldn't really be clean. "I could tell you some stories, girl," he drawled.
"Get away from me, Harry, before I say something it would hurt Ray to know about."
"You shouldn't have invited me here. You should have known you couldn't keep up appearances."
I bit my tongue and held it there between my teeth until he took his blue eyes off me and walked out of my kitchen. I pictured myself crushing all the potato chips, then throwing the bits like confetti, and I took that as a sign that I had better calm down before going near any more food. We couldn't afford to take 10 people out to dinner.
I was just feeling relieved when I heard the sound of gagging and flailing through the window. "Jesus." I ran after the sound, knocking over the bowl of potato chips.
"Jonathan! Summer! Get over here! Stop that now!"
The kids were getting crafty. They had learned to move and play at the same time, so I chased the cries of "Oh, God," helplessly around the outside of the house. I felt the armpits of my blue dress soaking up sweat and stench, but I kept chasing, trying to keep the cursing under my breath.
I had the heart-stopping image of the kids enacting the worst part of the scene for Ray's mother at the picnic table in the front lawn, and I started shouting for Ray to come help me. I rounded the back left corner of the house and saw a man rounding the opposite corner of the house, just as Jonathan launched into, "Wake up, you bastard!" With Ray being gone, the weeds back of the house had gotten high, and I saw Jonathan in the middle of a patch of tall grass, straddling Summer and pummelling in a way that looked all too real. Instead of giggles, I heard wails from Summer, and the anger and distress in Jonathan's voice had nothing to pretend.
I ran full-out, panting like a dog, covered in stinking water, tears falling out my eyes. The man got to the kids first, and pulled Jonathan off Summer with a ragged strength nowhere as smooth as Ray's. I paid no attention at first, gathering up my baby girl. Her bloody nose was staining my blue dress, and she wrapped her arms around my neck and squeezed until I gagged.
"It's OK, baby," I said. "It's OK."
Why did I have to be a liar? I was glad I hadn't been the one to touch Jonathan, or I'd have thrown him.
Then I heard Jonathan still wailing, and another voice. "Is that what he did to me? Is that what he did to me?" It was Harry, shaking my child and roaring at him.
I struggled up from the ground, still bearing Summer's weight around my neck, and strode toward Harry. I must have learned something of Ray's silence, because the entire world went motionless and hot, the humidity going up another ten points thanks to the fall of my foot on the ground.
I reached for Jonathan, holding Harry's eyes with a gaze like a clenched fist. Neither of the kids were crying anymore. Not caring how it looked, I put them both behind me and raised my hand. "The kids have been playing 'Uncle Harry' like that ever since you brought your goddamn real life into my living room. Wake up, you bastard!" My fist connected with his jaw stronger than a bat hitting a fastball. He took it and went down, and I dropped onto his chest and kept beating on him as the kids started wailing again and a collective gasp came from the side of the house.
Ray's mother was there, with her husband and three of Ray's cousins. I stood there in my bloody blue dress, no difference between my sweat and my tears, as my husband ran toward me to pull me off his brother, and I didn't care about the reason he was going to touch me. All I wanted was for him to do it.