Late afternoon sun warmed Sara’s feet. They were propped on a plastic cocktail table pushed into the corner rails of her small concrete deck. She had shoved the table to the corner for the added support. With wads of cotton packed between each toe, Sara was admiring the third coat of ‘Black Ruby’ nail polish; it’s deep blood color starkly contrasted against the bright white cotton balls and her colorless toes. Slanting through new green leaves on the southwest side of their bungalow, yellow sunlight brought out the red in the polish.
Sara stabbed the tiny brush back into the bottle as though sheathing a Samurai blade she had just used to behead ten tiny Ninjas. Her eyes crinkled as a flicker of a smile passed over her face. She felt fierce, like Uma Thurman. But that was just a flicker too. And as the sun pulled the redness out of her toes and slid down into the west, that flicker of ferocity became a chill.
She leaned back in her chair and traded the bottle of polish for a pack of Marlboros. The table made no comment on the exchanged. Her mother would have, but she was dead. Sara had not smoked since she was seventeen. She only smoked then because it pissed off her father’s girlfriend, soon-to-be Sara’s stepmother. She quit after the wedding when it seemed obvious that this woman wasn’t going away. Sara didn’t like the way the smoke made her breath smell when she pulled the covers over her head.
She held the box of cigarettes between her thumb and middle finger and flicked it with her index finger. The box ellipsed in her fingers as she vacillated between peeling the cellophane off and lighting one of the last twenty cigarettes in the house, or patiently waiting for Cody to get back home after second shift. Two and a half hours tacked onto the last twenty-eight. The pack circled and from the corner of her eye, the ‘M’ in Marlboro inverted and reverted. ‘M’, ‘W’, ‘M’, ‘W’ right on the edge of her conscious thought. Two letters, two sexes appearing on either side of her thumb. They were Cody’s cigarettes. He left the pack on the kitchen counter when he stormed past her with a dismissive, ‘Woman, you’re going to make me late for work.’ But that was 3:40 pm. . . yesterday.
He hadn’t come home. Sara fell asleep around 2 in the morning. She had been listening for his Ford Ranger. The front axle had a particular squeak when he pulled into the driveway. She didn’t hear it last night. By 10:00pm she realized the fight was stupid; like all their fights. By 10:30, she was considering how she might make it up to him. The sheets and two quilts cradled her as she scraped her cobalt blue fingernail along the crease of her thigh. And she waited and listened and made herself wait. Wet, swollen and chest tight, she waited. At 1:40, she made the mistake of slipping in. For ten minutes, she fought to control her voice and her breathing and by 2:00 am she slept.
This morning the sun blazed against a bleached coral wall. The bedroom had been peach two tenants ago. Their landlord was no decorator, but the rent was fair. Sara squinted herself awake, pulled up on an elbow and listened. No water ran in the bathroom. The toilet seat didn’t creak as Cody lowered himself onto it. The house was silent.
She had dreamed that Cody had come home and made love to her in that unhurried, gentle way that made her tingle. He had cupped her face in his hands and locked his pubic bone to hers. “Hey chickadee,” he had said, and he had rocked her, moving slowly and cautiously into her until she begged him.
Overnight, the springtime air cooled to the mid forties. Sara stretched and roughly rubbed her chest with the back of her wrist. Her nipples were crisp from the cold; not like last night. She quickly pulled on her fleece pants and top, grey with the word ‘PINK’ emblazoned on her bottom. They hadn’t needed the heat for the past week, but she thought about flipping the lever on the base of the thermostat as she walked through the living room.
On most weekday mornings, she and Cody would lay together and warmly poke and snuggle and talk about how pretty their children might be or where they might buy a house. Occasionally Sara would mention how much she liked his last name. More often than not, this ended their idyll as surely as Cody farting and fluffing the blankets.
She fixed him breakfast, or they would go across town to the lake and fish, or out to her aunt’s house just in the next county. Sara and her aunt had become close after Sara’s mother died. When the late winter weather permitted, they worked in her aunt’s garden and tilled up a section of their own.
Cody wasn’t staring out the kitchen window or sitting on the back deck smoking his first cigarette. There was no Mr. Coffee gurgling on the counter. Cody wasn’t there.
She and Cody found this little house together about four months back. Together they could easily make the rent, utilities and had groceries in the kitchen. Between them, they came up with a queen-sized bed, card table and three folding chairs, a chest of drawers and for another $75, they bought a sofa, side chair and an ugly square coffee table. An odd assortment of plastic porch chairs had permanent residence on the back deck, concrete over brick, ten feet by eight feet.
When they moved in, Cody wanted to store his hunting gear in the second bedroom. One whiff of his gear and Sara made him pack it into the storage shed just off the back deck. Cody subscribed to the idea that hunting garments should never be washed to be less of a presence in the wild. He also used deer scent like a high school athlete uses Axle Body Spray. Sara let him know that she was neither a buck nor excited by his choice of hunting cologne. Without a word more, Cody changed the padlock on the storage building and made sure the roof on it didn’t leak. Then he unceremoniously stacked the cases with deer, turkey and wild hog attire and drove two sixteen penny nails into the studs to hang up the self-climbing tree stand he bought at the end of deer season last year.
Except for a cat door put into the storage building about four tenants ago, now without a closing flap, the building was just as secure as any other room in the house. Cody had such confidence in the hasp and lock that he even kept his rifle, shot gun and .38 Ruger stashed in the rafters, just above door. The building had an electric outlet and still had room enough for a small chest freezer.
Between what they canned and what Cody killed, they felt they would be able to take a big bite out of there grocery bills. That was what prompted Cody to suggest that Sara put in her notice and just stay home and keep the house. It helped that he had just been moved up to floor foreman at the bleachery. Cody worked at convincing Sara that the raise covered nearly half her pay and with her home to cook, they could save the rest by not eating out. Since her job ended, it had felt a bit like vacation. She had the house cleaned and dishes put away by the time Cody drove away from the house. She spent the free time pampering herself and making herself something that Cody would want to come home to and never leave. Today, the free time had stretched long and dull and boring. By 4pm she had taken an early dinner or late lunch, both really, into the bathroom and practiced how she’d react when she heard him come in the back door and holler, “hey, chickadee.” Between bites of bologna and cheese on white bread, she alternately gritted her teeth, smiled and roared; this made her laugh bits of her sandwich onto the mirror.
There was this other thing she had done waking up alone. This thrilling, scary, exciting thing. Sara looked and listened in every room of the house and had stood on the back porch and willed her mind to see if Cody were in the storage room. Finally, knowing she was completely alone in their little house, she had pulled out her lingerie drawer and slipped the sealed box from the back of the drawer where she had stashed it. The last day she worked at the CVS Pharmacy, she had her friend, Lora whom she still called Lolo, ring it up for her. Lolo counted the money into the till with her eyes cut sidelong, carefully assessing the color in Sara’s cheeks and the roundness in her breasts. Then, while handing her the receipt, she said, “you ain’t gonna’ be needin’ that thing for a while, girl. You don’ even look ripe.” Sara smiled a nervous smile at her friend and pushed her purchase deep into her shoulder bag.
Everything Sara read said that your first morning pee was best. Her period was never quite regular, the curse of “the curse” on a skinny girl, but it was well over two weeks later than expected. By the time she scratched the wrapper open and figured out which end to hold and which end to wet, she thought she was going to burst open. “Hold the absorbent strip in the urine stream for at least 5 seconds,” the instructions read. Sara felt she was going to pee on it for 5 full minutes, but she counted as she’d been taught back in fourth grade. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi. . .” She could practically hear Lolo in the desk beside hers, hissing the ‘ss’s’ and exaggerating the pp’s. “The word sounds like you could pee a river, don’t it,” Lolo had whispered to her when the class had finished counting ten seconds in unison. The two had giggled so hard they both got in trouble. Sara giggled now and wet her hand.
It hadn’t been easy to wait the five minutes the test needed. Sara set the timer on the stove to make sure she gave Clear Blue® all the time the instructions required. A smiley face or a circle, no guesswork, no going back. The results gave her much to think about. When Cody arrived and called out, ‘hey, chickadee,’ she expected he’d be the one to lay an egg. The anticipation made her draw her feet up under her on the love seat and flip through all the mid-afternoon soap operas.
Now, on the porch, watching her toenails dry and the flip of the Marlboros, M, W, M, W, man, woman, man, woman; smile, frown, smile, frown; she realized what had been at the edge of her thoughts. She could no longer consider smoking. There were cells dividing inside her.
Sara put the pack back on the table and picked up her phone. “Lolo,” she thought, “I’ve trusted her with everything else in my life since fourth grade. And she won’t have to hold the secret any longer than two or three hours anyway,” she rationalized. In two strokes, the number was in and starting to ring. As Lolo answered, Sara spotted the Carolina Wren as it swooped through the open cat door on the utility shed. In reply to Lolo’s, “Hey, girl!,” Sara fairly shouted, “Damn little bird!”
“Whoa, now, who you shoutin’ at? I know you didn’t just call me up to call me a damn little bird,” Lolo knew better than to get her back up with Sara, so she waited a moment.
“Oh, hey girl,” said Sara, “sorry. ‘Bout time you answered that little house wren swooped back into the storage room where Cody keeps his hunting stuff. I got something to tell you that you ain’t gonna’ b’lieve. But, can you hold on a minute while I chase that little wren out’ta Cody’s stuff?”
“You do what you gotta’ do. I can wait.” Before Lolo finished talking, she could hear the phone crash back onto the tabletop.
Sara stepped inside the kitchen and retrieved the key from the hook by the door. There were two padlock keys. One on the hook and one on Cody’s truck keys. Sara stopped by the table and yanked the cotton from between her toes. Polished and perfectly dried, they looked like ten dark red tongues sticking up at her. Sara hurried to the door of the utility room, aware that she had her friend waiting for this news that had swollen up in her, full term.
At the door to the utility room, she stopped. The padlock was not latched. It was blind closed through the hasp, but not locked. She did not need a key to twist the case-hardened steel loop from the hasp and push the door open. The light of the bare bulb clearly showed where the wren had gone. There, beneath the two sixteen penny nails, on a carefully restored nest wedged tightly into the corner of the cross block and the stud, sat the momma wren in full view of the door. She hunched herself down into her nest and turned her beak to the side so that she could keep a better eye on this boney little human standing bare footed in the doorway.
Quietly, Sara took in the scene, this standoff that had been building all day long. The bird, freely building where the tree stand had been. Flying into and out of the room where all of Cody’s ‘man things’ were stored. But there were no cases of deer clothes or turkey camouflage. The box that smelled the worst, the hog box, was gone though the air in the tiny room stank like dead dry blood. Sara didn’t look up. She didn’t need to. The guns were gone. All of it was gone.
For a moment, darkness closed in around her. She clicked off the light switch and softly closed the door behind her. No need to disturb a new momma, she thought; though her hand slid from her own stomach and clenched the key. Only ten steps separated the door from the deck. In the space of those ten steps, she knew.
She sat and took the key and slit the cellophane around the cigarette box. Deftly, she lifted the foil from twenty brown and white samurai swords, pulled one from the scabbard and lit it.
She picked up the phone, “I’m back,” she said.
Lolo had been waiting, “what’s this news I can’t believe?”
Sara blew out a thin stream of smoke, “I decided I don’t want to sit home. I’m thinking I’ll get my job back at the CVS. You know if Mr. Steve has filled my space?”
“What’s Cody gonna’ think on that?”, Lolo asked.
“I don’t care what he thinks. He’s not bossing me around anymore, so I don’t care.” The nicotine made her head swirl a bit. “You think you could drive me somewhere tomorrow morning? I need to wipe a smile off that son-of-a-bitch’s face.”