Continued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 1 — The Notebook
A dull ache rested in her knee, pressed against the bathroom floor. The tiles were uneven and mildew collected between their grooves, showcasing Ellen’s proficiency at housekeeping. She bent underneath the toilet and twisted the oval knob that would shut off the water then sat back on her heels. The hissing toilet jerked to a stop and she sighed.
The toilet had been acting up for weeks, running for hours after a single flush and dripping in rhythm throughout the night like the ticking of an unwelcome clock. She was pretty good at fixing it, though, and had even joked with Cooper that she’d make a good plumber some day. Her son obliged with a smile, but she realized he detected very little humor in her jokes. This didn’t bother her. He gave her no sign that he questioned her lifestyle choices—the unemployment, her fixation with the television, their mutual dependence on frozen dinners and processed snacks, her near-reclusive behavior. When Cooper was a toddler, she told herself that she’d eventually tell him about her past, inform him about his own history. But time had slipped by and her postponement of the issue adopted a permanence. He never questioned her choices and it felt more comfortable to leave the reasons in the latent void for nearly fifteen years.
Ellen stood and straddled the toilet, positioning herself like it was a long lost lover she finally captured. The tank surface was cluttered with magazines, spent candles, and a slimy bar of soap. She tried to balance those items while she lifted the lid to perform toilet surgery, but the soap bar was too quick for her. It slid across the porcelain cover leaving a thin trail glistening in its wake, and when she tried to rescue it from falling into the back of the toilet, her knee bucked the lid, angling its entire cargo into the half-filled tank.
“Damn it!” she hissed.
She reached in to extract the items and felt a little queasy. She thought about the dog she’d had as a little girl. His name was Petey, but the family had ended up calling him “slurpy” as a tribute to his favorite pasttime, lapping water out of the toilet. Sometimes he came scampering out of the bathroom, his muzzle dripping wet, and rubbed up against the first person he saw. If Ellen happened to see him coming first, she ran the other way. “All dogs will do it,” her dad would laugh. “He just does it better.”
The thought of drinking toilet water gave her a short dry heave as she spread out the soaking magazines on the floor. One of them was a TV Guide that had expired three months ago and the other was the latest issue of Rolling Stone. A teenage pop star graced the cover, her freshly cropped boobs pushed up like trophies beneath a wire bra. It was puzzling to Ellen that the girl would have her tongue caressing her upper teeth. The pose seemed to tempt rapists and child pornographers rather than new listeners or modern music critics. But it was all about image, she knew, and the moral declination of America fed right into prizing the young slut whether she had any musical merit or not.
There had been a time when Cooper wasn’t interested in Rolling Stone or those wrestling magazines he sometimes brought home from Wilkens’s General Store. He was a kid raised on Dr. Seuss and Roal Dahl stories. She remembered his favorite was Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go! He was completely infatuated with the rhymes in the book even before he had a full command on the English language. “Congwattalashuns!” he’d yell gleefully. “Tuday, yo day. Yo off gwate pwaces! Yo off an’ away!” Ellen would laugh and bounce him on her knee, allowing him to flip the pages. He often smeared the book with chocolate or some other goo that was on his fingers, but all of that was okay back then.
Things that were completely immaculate just didn’t seem real.
She mopped up the water that dribbled onto the floor and left the magazines on the wet towel while she turned her attention to the toilet again. The tiny plug at the bottom of the tank was the source of the problem. It wasn’t catching, but instead landed beside the hole, its rusty chain hitching on a plastic handle connector. She sighed. The same routine continued for weeks and she’d almost gotten used to fixing the skewed plug after every time she flushed the toilet.
“In my day, we didn’t even have flushing toilets,” her father’s voice whispered in her head. “You should consider yourself lucky.”
That whisper was something she never got used to. It was like a rusty iron bar pushing through gravel. She had difficulty imagining the sound of his actual voice, it changed so much during her lifetime—he summoned her to dinner with a baritone call when she was a little girl but his final emphysemic pleas for a cigarette were reduced to sharp wheezes just before he passed on. She always obeyed both of those voices, and the one that now resided in her head was probably her best subconscious attempt to blend the two.
“I’m not lucky,” she screamed. “I’m not lucky at all.”
Her fist landed squarely on a toothpaste tube that coiled on the sink and a glob of the teal-colored gel squirted onto her leg. She looked down at the red mark that blossomed on the side of her palm and flexed her fingers back and forth, trying to knead away the pain. The toothpaste lifted away from her pant leg, but left behind a sticky film on her jeans—another item for the mountain of laundry forming in the corner. But that could wait. She just wanted to get the god damn toilet fixed, re-attach the lid and veg out in front of the television.
Cooper would probably be home soon and there was no dinner waiting for him, but he never expected that anyway. He had his own friends and his own life. She often wished that things weren’t the way they were between the two of them, but then again, how close could the relationship between a teenage boy and his mom really get? She stared into the mirror that hung above the sink and considered, for a moment, what it would be like if she could retrace her steps into the past and make a fresh start with Cooper. Would he be happier? Would she be wiser?
Tears streaked the sides of her thin face but she made no effort to wipe them away. She bunched her sandy hair into a ponytail, remembering the times he was sick as a little kid. One time in particular she’d been really scared. His temperature had been one-oh-three and his body alternated between sheets of sweat and goose bumps. He asked her to read to him, but Dr. Seuss wasn’t the right call. Nobody was in the mood for nonsense words or rhymes. She found a book called The Fourteen Bears Summer and Winter in a used book store, and although it made her sad to read about the happy family of bears, Mother Bear and Daddy Bear and all of the sibling bears, Cooper was calmed by the story and he didn’t seem so afraid to lie there in bed. The bears in the story each had their own individual trees “just like people here at the gate have their own ‘partments”, Cooper said each time she began to read it. And they spent time together having fun, the siblings pushing each other on the swings and walking through the woods paw in paw in the summer, and snowshoeing across trails and skating on a pond together in the winter. Daddy Bear always knew best, and when he was mentioned, she imagined the wheels turning in her little boy’s head. Where’s my Daddy Bear? he was probably wondering.
The toilet was pieced back together and she walked slowly toward the living room. The television was muted on an info-mercial for some sort of juicer. A high strung, red-faced guy ran all over the stage, scrambling to pick up as much fruit as he could gather from the floor. She imagined him dropping from a heart attack while running around trying to sell a machine that was supposed to enhance your health. The idea didn’t amuse her.
Kung-fu fighters snapped one another with high kicks to the head on the next channel and she raced through the cable numbers to find anything suitable to watch. Finally she settled on a made-for-TV movie. She pressed the volume up a few notches and listened to a young woman telling her parents about her lesbianism. The mother held her head in her hand and her knees quivered beneath the old house dress while her husband focused his attention on their daughter. He wanted to know just what she thought she was talking about and did she realize the implications of such a statement. Her whole life could be ruined. The girl did, in fact, realize what she was talking about, although she didn’t agree that it could ruin her life. The mother-daughter relationship, however, probably couldn’t be saved as the shrewish woman scrambled from the room leaving the father and daughter to wallow in silence.
Ellen turned the channel to ESPN where the Sunday Night Football game was about to begin. One of the anchormen assumed that the Redskins would surely kill the Saints, but his partner wasn’t quite sure about that. The two debated the finer points of the mediocre teams and Ellen figured that their argument was probably a scripted attempt to capture viewer interest. Which one of these rickety ex-football players would pick the winning team? She hoped that Cooper would be attracted to the game once he came home. He sometimes watched baseball games during the summer and she savored those opportunities to spend time with him in front of the television.
She sat and waited for his key to rattle in the door.
Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 3 — The Assignment