Edith’s eyes are wide and focused on something across the carpeted kitchen. Her hands are attempting to float out ahead. She crests like a wave and leans, legs rush into the void beneath her. I want to slow her down, put up all the breakable things, move my todeling daughter to another room. I can’t do any of that. I knew when we committed to this visit I would be entering his mother’s blender but he always wants to stay longer than I do. Sometimes I want to do wicked things to her like putting the plates in the other cupboard or re-parking the minivan backwards. Peter is nowhere to be seen at these times.
Its true that women may choose to be anything they like, but default settings are not part of this choice. My job as a mother is about default settings. When I was pregnant, I was a spaceship, an unbreachable sphere of default. Then all those defaults became choices to negotiate with my disembarked passenger. If you have a nursing baby and a pair of gorgeous tits, the default is you are a human snack bar. As a thirty year old man, Peter's default in the house he grew up in is to rummage through old shit, have meals made for him, call up old friends, and go see the old places. He does not understand the world outside that mesmerizing vortex. He thinks I’m being a pain in the ass. Edith though, she sees my struggle. Her orbit looks as though it intersects Peter but she blows right through him. Is Peter a particle or a wave? He’s a cloud that becomes more probable when compatable particles are present. I thought I was a compatible particle, but I push him out of phase and I pass through, only to collide with Edith.
The house is an unexamined life. A case of refrigerator blindness that spread from the refrigerator to every corner in every room.
Shower knobs are not just reversed, and they don't just turn the wrong way, but they are reversed, and one turns the wrong way. I don't know which one because the part of my brain that can know that is blown up. They are painted in red and blue house paint. They are located in the inside corner of the shower, next to the bathroom door. How did this happen? Why? Peter is not even aware of it, his hands learned to turn the knobs decades ago. These are the questions of a new person. Damaging, victim producing questions. Not really questions at all.
There are three separate liqueur cabinets in the living and dining rooms, each jammed with shot glasses, highball glasses, wine glasses with cut designs. There is no liqueur, no wine. I found a bottle of “chocolate wine” in the garage. And there was a flask of brandy stashed in a picnic cooler we hauled out of the attic, which I also claimed.
There is a highly personalized sofa chair in a primary TV watching position with end tables holding remote controls and fingernail clippers. It is covered in a sheet, underneath which appear to be foam blocks that could separate and swallow my ass. The imprint left by the chair's owner is wide and deep, imparting a sense of intimacy unintended by any party.
Our daughter is enthralled by the endless complexity and hasn't even noticed the unobstructed electrical outlets which would normally be her first interest. Its the cats she wants the most. They are uncatchable but their two litter boxes are placed in the center of the living room, giving her 360 degree access. Children's' toys are kept in a bin next to the sofa.
The two cats are horrified by her and give her a wide berth. They are obese because they are given mint-chip ice cream at 9:15 every night. This happens because Herschel eats mint-chip at nine pm and saves some in the bowl for the cats, calling them like an imam in a minaret and presenting the bowl in the intersection of the kitchen and the living room. Butterscotch materializes instantly. He seems the heavier of the two, but it's hard to say since they are never seen at once. I've come to believe that when one cat is observed, the other exists as a diminishing probability, much as the probability of my own existence diminishes the longer I stay here. Angelina is somewhere in a closet upstairs, eyes wide, listening to our movements and waiting for the chance she must eventually take to use the box and eat before going back on the lam. To enter a room where this creature hides and catch her unawares is to see The Scream rendered in feline expression. If she is seen, it is a subject of conversation for the day. She can only trot frantically, her pendulous belly swinging side to side like a grocery bag hung from bicycle handlebars. I feel a perverse urge to give chase, to punish the ill-spirit, drive it from the home, but this is not my home and she is someone else's ill-spirit.
“Majestic” is the term applied to Butterscotch by Herschel. It's good advice to bend the knees when lifting him. He is self-assured and friendly, greeting Sally on the lawn. Sally pursues Butterscotch across the carpet, behind couches. Evading an 18 month old primate is not a problem, so he takes her or leave her as he feels. But the loss of territory rankles, and I expect there is cat urine in places not normally found. The smell will be startelling at first, then it will blend into other funky smells and fade, as cat urine is designed to do, when the statutes of limitations expire and the claims are not renewed.
Once, during ice cream time, I found a jar of Mrs' Richards' Butterscotch Caramel in the door of the refrigerator. The jar was nearly full, and there was a little coupon tied to the rim with a flaccid elastic band. In impossibly small font, the coupon described an elaborate procedure by which one could get a dollar off the purchase of ice cream by filling out the tiny form and mailing it to Mrs. Richards' representatives in El Paso. I was entertaining the idea of taking Mrs. Richards up on this just to see how far she was willing to go. I searched for an expiration date and read that 1985 would have been the last time I could have mailed it in. It seemed like an ironclad deduction that this caramel sat in the side door of the refrigerator throughout Peter’s high school career, evading his sister’s eating disorder and Edith’s midnight excursions, while in the house outside passed numberless generations of cats, puberty, heartbreak, christmases, the fat part of life, the part where childhood and adulthood overlap and stretch the house. The refrigerator fills and empties like a glacier growing and receding across ice ages. It is emptied and cleaned, by Edith’s hand, the jar is always returned. Everyone had an island of awareness in the refrigerator but no one ever saw everything. It took strangers’ eyes to see the jar. It took the bad taste and base craving for sugar of a human snack bar to overcome its incompatibility with mint chip.
I like my caramel firm and this was firm. No one tried to stop me, but it caught Peter’s eye. For the first time since landing in this place for our christmas vacation, he studied what I was doing. He stared strangely at the jar, as if I had reached up and removed a tile of the sky and held it in my hand. I pushed the spoon down into it and waved the jar around upside down like a bell. “Wow.” Said Peter. He blinked several times, looking directly into my eyes as Edith lumbered to the fridge behind him. For a moment, we exist simultaneously, faces locked into color and clarity, recognition flickering as time itself stutters, slowing to the speed of twenty year old caramel.
-- Steven Hartz grew up running around loose in the California hills. He became, in the following order: an English major, construction worker, maid, ski bum, dishwasher, arborist, scientist, software designer, corporate hack, and finally, writer of stories. His work has been published in Underground Voices.