Been a Good Week
Along the rising highway a square of carpet lay in the dirt like a dead animal.
Every time she drove to town and sometime with a quick glance in her rearview mirror on her way home, Maurice looked to see if it were something dead.
"I can't believe how much a piece of carpet looks like a dead animal, especially since I know it isn't. Especially since!" Maurice gazed ahead now, face slack and easy, the week nearly over.
"What," said her aunt without the lilt of question. The aunt fiddled with the radio, changed stations before they could be heard. "It's all the same crap." Her aunt's voice was priestly. She turned the radio off and let the sound of the wind sucking through the open windows take over. Both women had long hair that twirled and whipped. Through this the aunt managed to light a cigarette and smoke.
"Be nice to John," said Maurice, loud.
"I'm always nice to Johnny," said the aunt, "I'm his favorite aunt." She exhaled as though her cigarette suddenly disgusted her, pressed it into the ashtray on the dash. The lines of rubber wires between telephone poles dipped and rose, dipped and rose. The aunt struggled with her window-handle, left it part-way down. "I just don't like how much he's sounding like his father."
Maurice jacked her window closed.
"He's not his father and he doesn't want you to think he is." She slowed to a stop as the light flipped from yellow to red. Above the stoplights the trees blackened.
The walk signal was on, though no one passed in front of the car.
"Be nice, goddamn it. I can't fight with you too. You're on my side, remember?"
The aunt sat pretending not to listen, doing badly at it. Maurice leaned her head against the window while the light was red and thought her aunt looked like she was posing for a photograph she knew everyone would laugh at later.
The aunt snapped her large head at Maurice, eyes quick and smiling, her lips pulled tight under wild brown hair. The aunt had started wearing liquid eyeliner again, after many years. Her eyes were smaller, crinklier than they used to be.
"Fuck you," said Maurice, and smiled.
The aunt sniffed. "Fuck you too, Miss Priss."
Maurice accelerated, watched how it tugged the aunt's neck, her face straining not to show strain. "Christ," said the aunt, "Slow down."
Both women grinned out the windshield at the battered three-block downtown. In a corner window, a faceless mannequin with no hands wearing sea-foam green stood at an alarming angle. A Repunzel-like head and torso leaned into the street from the second floor window, the store under her advertised shovels and rope. The barbershop pole continued to turn although there had not been a barbershop in a long time.
"I'll live to see the death of this whole town," said the aunt.
"You're no spring chicken," said Maurice.
"It'll happen soon," said the aunt.
A woman in a wedding dress walked past. Maurice stopped for a red light.
"Do we know her?" said Maurice.
"We know everybody. You're no spring chicken yourself."
Maurice parked the car after the light and got out. The aunt stayed put, pretending again.
"Are you all right?" Maurice called after the woman in white, who turned woodenly to Maurice, showing her face plucked clean of eyebrows. Her eyelashes were gone, too.
"I lost my second husband," said the woman.
"You're in your wedding dress."
"This I wore for my first wedding," said the woman. "And the second."
"Are you all right?"
"What are you saying? No." The woman kept walking. Maurice studied her unwashed hair, pressed flat where she might've slept on it. The hem of the woman's dress dragged over the sidewalk.
"There is no sisterhood," said the aunt as Maurice got back in the car, "Why would you stop?"
"Did you know her?" The aunt continued to face the windshield.
"Yeah, from high school." They drove forward.
"See? No sisterhood." The aunt, even facing away, seemed pleased.
Maurice pulled onto a street with spreading trees and small houses, yellow windows without curtains. She could see the furniture that people owned, striped couches, tables, bookcases.
Maurice said, "Let's do this." She pointed a finger. "Be nice."
"I am nice," said the aunt.
They parked at a square house, colorless in the dimming light. Round bushes squatted on either side of the front door, which had concrete steps and a twisted iron railing Maurice knew was painted bright blue, in lieu of flowers. The door had three small, diamond-shaped windows; most of the houses on the street did.
Maurice saw the head of her son in the middle window, waiting. She saw him there and it felt good. The door opened and he stood on the landing. He kicked at one of the bushes. Maurice went to him with an open-mouthed smile, like she were hiking.
"There you are," she said.
An outside light came on and the boy's father stood next to the boy.
"That's close enough," he said.
"Jesus, Harry," said Maurice. "I came for my son."
"You know the rules," he said. The boy moved away from him, tugging a bag on his shoulder. The father stepped squarely into the light which hollowed his eye sockets.
Shadow spilled down the man's face to the darkness of facial hair. He was a nose and teeth, barrel-chest and arms.
"The rules?" said Maurice. She touched her son's hair as he approached.
"Of etiquette," said the father.
"Etiquette?" Maurice pressed her weight on her heels.
"John," said the father. The boy, at the car, spun back to the house. "Monday. Eight a.m." The boy nodded.
"That's a proper goodbye? That's what your etiquette book says? The short chapter about men?" Maurice laughed her way back to the car.
"A very short chapter!" yelled the aunt, as she found a radio station, turned it loud.
The father said something back, his head bobbed as he said it. No one heard what it was.
The aunt turned the music off once they were back on main street. "I got away with it," said the aunt. "And you did too! He set himself up for it. A short chapter!" The aunt clapped.
"That wasn't supposed to happen," said Maurice.
A full minute passed. "Hi Johnnie," said the aunt.
"John," said Maurice. "It's good to see you."
"I guess," said the boy.
"It's good to see you too, Mom," said Maurice to the rear-view window. The car stopped at a red light, the three of them quiet. Maurice sighed. She knew children hated to hear their parents breathe. "You take your time, John," she said to him. She knew to stop looking at him. The light turned green again. Hopefully the rest would all be green until they made it home. Home was a good place.
"We said goodbye before you got there," said the boy.
Maurice held the steering wheel. It was not enough. "I know you did," she said.
They went down the hill that dimmed then made the lights of town invisible as they left it behind. The sunset on the horizon blazed like distant fires that also diminished. The highway was fringed with corn on both sides, as always. Corn or winter.
The boy said something Maurice could not hear.
"What," she said. The aunt stayed quiet. "What, honey?" said Maurice. They were on a gravel road with farmhouse windows alit in the distance. The last one was hers. All the farmhouses had their kitchen lights on. Kitchens and porches.
"Hi mom," said the boy.
"Been a good week?" said Maurice.
"I guess," said the boy. "Did you get frozen pizza?"
Maurice hoped they were talking about something else. Somewhere a cow bayed.
"We'll get some," she said to him.