A Good Mother

by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood

Marjorie rifled through the bathroom trash can with her right hand while using her left hand to grip the bathroom counter and steady herself. She’d had a little too much wine after her late lunch, but she deserved it, frankly. Though it was a cheap white wine from the grocery store, Marjorie felt sophisticated drinking it instead of beer, and she wanted to feel beautiful and sexy, even if she was in her house alone.

She pushed aside the wads of Kleenex in the pink plastic trash can she bought at Kmart a few months ago, just after she decided that a bit of girly color would brighten up the bathroom with its avocado-colored tiles, the dark grey linoleum curling up at the edges. She hated this rental, but it was in a good neighborhood and close to Quincy’s school.

I’m a good mother. This is what we do, Marjorie thought to herself as she rooted through the trash and fingered a gum wrapper as well as three matchsticks, a flattened tube of toothpaste, and then, there it was, underneath all the rest: a tampon wrapper, ripped apart. Was Quincy trying to hide it? Had she pushed it to the bottom of the can along with the applicator? Marjorie never understood her daughter.

She dropped the wrapper back down into the Pepto-Bismol-colored bin and straightened up, turned on the hot water faucet—though the hot water would take a minute or two—and let the cold water run across her palm and fingers, raw and red from gardening. Marjorie had spent hours pulling chickweed and crabgrass and stubborn yellow dandelions rooted so thick into the ground that she had broken out in sweat tugging at them. She had forgotten to pull back her hair before gardening, and when the strands had swiped at her cheeks and stuck to her neck, she had realized she was letting herself get in her own way. She had forgotten all about sunscreen as well, and her hands had paid the price. She always paid for her forgetfulness eventually, at least that’s what Quincy’s father used to say.

Now that she knew her daughter had had her period, Marjorie felt she could go ahead and have just a tad more wine—a congratulations, really, to herself for keeping her 16-year-old daughter from falling prey to some stupid boy and his raging hormones.

Marjorie caught her reflection in the mirror—the slightly burned cheeks, the stringy and thin blond hair, the too-small blue eyes she was always trying to make look bigger with thick eyeliner and a swath of grey eyeshadow—and suddenly she felt as if she had been caught in the act of something shameful. When had she started fearing her own daughter?

Marjorie had, in the last year, resorted to snooping in her daughter’s closet and drawers, though she did not know exactly what she sought and hoped not to find. Marjorie wished Quincy wrote in a diary, but of course Quincy was a physical girl, preferring running to writing, kicking to sitting, shouting and fighting and sweating to whispering, sleeping, dreaming. The girl was too much like Quincy’s father, with his dark eyes, rich black hair, his musky scent, even. Since she had reached puberty three years ago, Quincy had transformed from having a scrawny build like Marjorie’s to a thick one like her father’s, but soft. She was like him, too, in her stubbornness, her ability to pull from Marjorie and exact the things Marjorie hated about herself: her impatience and exhaustion. He had left them both, and Marjorie worried if she didn’t keep her eye on Quincy, she might run off just like him.

 “You’re her mother,” she could hear Quincy’s father say. “Deal with it. By God, get a damn clue. And for goodness sake, stop letting her walk all over you.” Not that he was ever willing to deal with it. He had last called two years ago, the morning after the tornado that had shredded many of the other townhomes, just not theirs.

“Thank God you’re okay,” he had said. “Thank God.”

That was all Marjorie could remember of the call, of his words, though in the months that followed she had tried to remember anything else he had said that day to indicate he would never call again, that he would disconnect his number so she could not ask about the checks he seldom wrote anyway. How could she miss something so entirely big and obvious? She guessed he had lost his job again, or gotten married again, both of which happened with a frequency Marjorie had never anticipated when he convinced her not to legally pursue child support, promising to always take care of her and Quincy.

Marjorie rolled back her shoulders and stood straighter as she held her own gaze in the mirror. She tucked her hair behind her ears and told herself she could talk to her daughter. She wouldn’t let the Miller boy have more power than she did. It was he Marjorie worried about most. Though a year younger than Quincy, Huey had begun hanging around after school. Now that it was summer, Quincy and Huey kicked the soccer ball in the backyard on weekend mornings, and though Marjorie could see and hear them yelling and chasing things, she worried he might want more from Quincy. Her daughter could be wild, though soccer had tamed Quincy, and for this Marjorie was eternally grateful. Marjorie just wanted her daughter to have some nice girlfriends, which Quincy never did. She always buddied up with the neighborhood boys, playing kickball on the street, taking tennis rackets and beating balls against garage doors, and tossing frisbees in the open field a few blocks away.

Marjorie had enrolled Quincy in Coach Luke’s soccer camp this summer, an all-girls day camp that would last six weeks, enough of the summer that it might break the cycle of hanging out that Quincy had fallen into with the Miller boy. Plus the soccer practices had started much earlier this summer than other years: it was only June, and Coach Luke had begun calling for practice on Saturday evenings. Maybe Quincy would make friends with the other athletes in the school, but at the very least, Quincy would be ensconced in a world of girls. Coach Luke, Quincy’s soccer coach since 6th grade, had assured Marjorie that he didn’t even hire any of the boy athletes to assist—“Though they are always asking,” he had said with a chuckle and shake of his beautiful head of soft brown curls. Marjorie had gone to talk to Coach Luke on a lunch break back in May over this very matter—it was important enough for her to make the trek and put on her prettiest white cotton blouse and red skirt, the one with the little pattern of flowers along its hem. Though she could have called more easily, Marjorie was a good mother and would do nothing less than whatever her daughter needed. And anyway, what did it matter if Coach Luke had blue eyes that reminded Marjorie of the wide open skies of her youth? Being around Coach Luke made Marjorie stammer, lose words, and she liked the feeling of getting lost, a feeling she had not had since falling in love with Quincy’s father.

“I’ll make sure none of them touch her,” Coach Luke had assured Marjorie when she had confided her fears about the Miller boy and all the other neighborhood adolescents. Was it her imagination or had he leaned a little closer when he had said it? She wondered how old he was. Maybe 26? He had started coaching just after college. Marjorie was 38, and that age difference did not seem so bad, really. He was practically her age.

Now, standing in the bathroom, Marjorie heard the screen door smack against the wall.

“Mom! Mom!”

Quincy’s volume always made everything sound like an emergency. Marjorie opened the bathroom door and stepped out. “What do you want, Quinn?”

“I’ve got soccer in an hour! What’s there to eat!”

Marjorie trudged down the hall, slowing down as she neared the kitchen and heard Huey Miller’s low voice, which had only changed in the last year. “It’s true,” he said.

“He is not!” Quincy was yelling.

“He is, too.”

“He can’t be gay if he has a girlfriend!”

“He doesn’t have a girlfriend,” Huey said, his tone low and even. “Who told you he had a girlfriend?”

“He’s not a liar!”

As Marjorie rounded the corner into the kitchen, she could see Quincy’s hands were on her hips, her cheeks rushed with a red Marjorie only got when in the sun, and Quincy’s chest was puffed out. Big breasts, big personality, loud volume. For a moment, Marjorie remembered Quincy’s father, who could raise his voice so loudly that sometimes Marjorie had covered her ears. Now, so many years later, having brought up Quincy, she shrugged off the amplified noise.

Marjorie opened the door to the refrigerator, pulled out the bread, bologna, and some mayonnaise and began slapping together sandwiches. “I assume you’re hungry too?” Marjorie said with a look to the Miller boy. Huey was sweating, and his arms were crossed. He was leaning back against her counter as if he belonged there. He had a gold chain around his neck that glinted under the fluorescent kitchen light. His hair was spiked with gel, and he had some fuzz on his upper lip, which looked like exactly the woolly worm she had flicked off her pink petunias this morning in the garden. What in the world did her daughter see in him?

“Mrs. Williams,” he said, “Isn’t Coach Luke gay?”

Coach Luke? Gay?

“How would she know?” Quincy frowned toward Marjorie.

Marjorie felt indignant. Well, she would know, wouldn’t she?

Huey pointed at Marjorie and smirked. “Because she’s an adult, stupid. She’s old enough to know.”

Was that a compliment?

I’m old enough to know,” Quincy said, jabbing Huey in the chest with her finger.

“Who says?” he asked.

Marjorie stopped listening to their silly argument, which sprang off the kitchen walls like wild animals. Marjorie started to go over all the conversations she had had with Coach Luke in the last year. Could he be gay? Her stomach lurched. The bologna, its pinkish color and slimy sides suddenly made her feel queasy. “Quinn, you make the sandwiches. Everything’s here.”

“I don’t want to make them. I’m hot.”

But Marjorie had already set down the knife and was walking out of the kitchen. She grabbed the half-empty bottle of wine she had left on the counter. “I’m tired, Quinn. You’re old enough to make a damn sandwich.”

She could hear Huey and Quincy arguing through her shut bedroom door. She took a few sips from the bottle then lay down and threw her arm over her face.

It was only about fifteen minutes later that Marjorie realized she had nodded off: the slam of the front door startled her awake. The house was so quiet she knew it was empty, that Quinn was gone.

*

When Marjorie awoke again, the bedroom had only trickles of light through the blinds, and she could tell by the slant of it that it must be evening now, that the day would surely end soon.

She rose and pattered down the hall holding her head, which now throbbed. In the kitchen, the bread crusts and crumbs lay scattered over two paper plates, and the bread loaf wrapper was untied, one end askew. As the darkening day fell in the windows, Marjorie tossed the plates and wound the plastic bag of the bread round and round. She hoped that Huey had not walked Quincy to her soccer practice: the school was only eight blocks away, and good lord, didn’t he have anything else to do?

Marjorie was wiping off the counter when she heard an engine roar into the parking lot, but immediately the sound died—someone had killed it with a quick turn of the key. She set the towel down and walked to the living room window and pulled two blinds apart to peek at who it was. Through the last of twilight, she could see that it was Coach Luke in the truck cab, parked at the far end of the parking lot, though there were empty spaces close by. He was dropping off Quincy, which meant Huey Miller hadn’t walked her home. Thank God is what Marjorie thought. She glanced at the clock and saw that it was nearly 9:15. A late practice again. Had Coach Luke given Quincy a ride for Marjorie? Had he hoped to see her? Was he gay? Marjorie let go of the blinds and began combing her hair with her fingers, fluffing it up, determined to go out and say something. As she pulled open the front door, she stopped short of opening it wide, then narrowed the gap so that Coach Luke and Quincy might not see her.

Coach Luke was telling Quincy something, and the last traces of twilight lingered over both of them, though Marjorie had to squint to see them through the windshield.

Quincy sat stiller than Marjorie had ever seen her sit, and Quincy wore a sheepish smile. Coach Luke put a hand on Quincy’s shoulder and then reached up and pushed a stray stand of Quincy’s hair, a beautiful black strand, back behind her ear.

Marjorie’s breath quickened.

She backed away from the door and pressed her back against the opposite wall, bumping a picture frame so hard it swung to and fro like a clock pendulum striking out the time: one year, five years, sixteen that felt like forever. She told herself to go on out there—after all, that’s what a good mother would do. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror opposite her. She could see her shoulders hunched, her skin splotchy, her eyes wide with terror.

“Deal with it,” she could hear Quincy’s father say. “By God, get a damn clue.”

She winced and squeezed her eyes shut, but she could not bring her legs to move.

 

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood has an MFA from Queens University, and her memoir-in-stories, The Going and Goodbye, will be published in 2017 by Platypus Press. Her creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in places such as The Rumpus, Zone 3, Fiction Southeast, and The Louisville Review. You can read more about her writing at www.shulycawood.com.

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