Fifth Installment of Novel-in-Progress from the Sisters of the Traveling Computers
Sisters of the Traveling Computers
Eight great writers are going to produce a progressive novel -- like a progressive dinner! Each one will write a couple paragraphs, a chapter, two chapters (whatever strikes her fancy) round robin style without discussing it with each other. This novel-in-progress will continue through the rest of the year. The scribes are Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sisters), Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From The Sky), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When The Men Are Gone), Therese Fowler (Exposure), Tanya Egan Gibson (How To Buy A Love Of Reading), Caroline Leavitt (Pictures of You), Sarah Pekkanen (Skipping a Beat), and Rebecca Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters.) All great books for reading groups!
First installment (May 15)
By midnight, he still wasn’t home. Or he wasn’t picking up the phone, which he knew would make her frantic with worry. She couldn’t leave the Martin’s now. Already, Mrs. Martin had told her that just cleaning up after the party wasn’t enough, that she wanted her to also redust (redust!) the figurines on the mantle because “You didn’t take enough care last time.” Should she tell Mrs. Martin how Mr. Martin groped her as she trying to arrange the baby chocolate éclairs on a plate? Should she tell her how Bobby, Mrs. Martin's son, called her a stupid bitch and kicked her out of his room so she wouldn’t catch him doing Jesus knows what?
She wasn’t supposed to use her phone when she was working, but she dialed again. Maybe he was with Bette, his terrifying girlfriend. Maybe he was walking again, clearing his head about what had happened.
Second Installment (June 22)
Maria wasn’t ready to become a grandmother at 42. And that was what she said first when--with his lips trembling—Mark told her that Bette was pregnant. She should have held him. He looked so scared. How could her teenage son become a father before he had a chance to become a man?
That was just five weeks ago, and now she wouldn’t have to be a young grandmother. She wouldn’t have to watch Mark struggle to take care of a family too young. Why couldn’t Mark see the miracle in this moment?
The phone went to voicemail again.
It was a thirty-minute drive home from the Martin’s. Let him be home by then, she thought. Just please let him be safe.
Third Installment (July 1)
“Dammit!” The most ghoulish figurine, the one with the trio of black-eyed children gaping up as if caught forever in the middle of wailing some god-awful song, skittered across the Pledge-shiny mantle and shattered on the floor below.
Maria dropped to the marble and quickly swept the delicate porcelain into the dust rag. Her right knee grinded roughly and she winced, maybe she would have been old enough to have been a grandmother after all.
“What have you done?”
Maria looked up at the doorway and saw Mrs. Martin standing there in that blue dress of hers, the one that had the extra padding in the front and made the woman look top heavy enough to fall on her face. What Maria would give to see Mrs. Martin fall on her face. Though it looked like tonight just might be the night as Mrs. Martin tottered over the smooth floor toward her. Maria tried to judge the distance between the door and the mantle—would Mrs. Martin, who clearly looked like she had finished off every wine bottle in her cellar, notice the missing figurine? Should Maria pretend she was just wiping up a speck of dirt on the marble and get herself to the department store tomorrow to find one of these ridiculous chatkas, get it back on the mantle before Mrs. Martin had finished nursing her hangover and got out of bed at noon? Whenever she had broken something in the past, Mrs. Martin docked her pay a good fifty percent more that the true price of the broken item. Maria knew that vase the cat knocked over, the one she got blamed for, had been a Wal-Mart special rather than any Shannon Irish Chrystal from Macy’s, but she had let it slide.
Now she curled those shattered little goth kids into her palm. “How was the party, Mrs. Martin? Did your guests just love those éclairs?”
“I thought I heard something break in here.” Mrs. Martin seemed unsure. Then she slipped, looked like she was about to do a split and quickly righted herself. That’s what she deserved for wearing those three inch hooker heels, Maria thought. Clear heels! No one could get away with clear heels except… well, hookers. Didn’t Mrs. Martin know that a fifty year old woman had a better chance of keeping her man if she let herself age gracefully instead of buying out Victoria Secret push-up bras and over-botoxing her face?
“Did you say something broke in the kitchen? I’ll get right on it.” Maria rose, again feeling that weakness in her knee. For a moment she felt a rush of sympathy for Mrs. Martin and the skin stretched too tightly across her face, the highlighted hair that only seemed to emphasize her grey, the manic way she held her wine glass as if it’s contents was the only thing allowing her to think that she was still young and lovely in the eyes of her husband.
“The kitchen is a disaster,” the woman sneered, and Maria felt her spine straighten, her sympathy evaporate. The kitchen had been pristine ten minutes ago, all the party’s washing up done and put away. The only thing left should be a few coffee cups from the hanger-ons who pretended to sober up before drunk-driving their Hummers and Mercedes home.
“I’ll take a look before I go,” Maria whispered, eyes down. Then she glanced up, rearranging her face as sweetly as possible. “Oh, Mrs. Martin, I think Bobby wanted you to go on in and say goodnight when your guests left, he seemed like he was waiting up for you.”
Maria left the room, shoving the rag deep into her pocket. She hoped Mrs. Martin walked right in on that little pervert and caught him watching whatever sicko pornos only rich tech-savvy kids had the time and money to become addicted too.
She peeked into the kitchen; the gleaming granite was just as clean as she left it. Two dirty coffee cups in the sink. Two dirty coffee cups now constituted a “disaster.” Maria shook her head and quickly put the mugs into the dishwasher. This family didn’t know the disasters that knocked them upside the head every day: Mr. Martin chasing anything that peed sitting down, Bobby talking to topless girls in Thailand through a web-cam, Mrs. Martin with a liver that wouldn’t see the next decade. Oh no, the only disasters the Martins recognized were the fluctuation of stock prices, a new wrinkle on Mrs. Martin’s rigid face, Bobby not getting into Princeton.
Maria set the alarm system in the foyer and shut the front door without further ado. She was reaching for her cell phone before she was at the end of the driveway and felt a sudden stab of pain. She tugged her hand out of her pocket, heard the chime of glass hitting the asphalt. A shard of figurine had sliced into the pad of her thumb and now jutted out of her flesh. Part of a face hung perpendicular from her finger, and one of the black eyes, souless and cold, stared up at her. It made Maria hesitate and stare back, jolted and afraid. That eye looking at her felt like a bad omen. She tugged it out, threw the piece on the drive, stuck her bloody thumb in her mouth. Then she started jogging to her car, her heart tight in her chest.
Mark, she thought, dear God, Mark, please be all right.
Bette answered the door, looking peeved at Maria for trying to get into her own home. Maria would have naturally apologized for waking anyone up, but the glint of Bette’s eyebrow ring, the twist on the girl’s perpetually red-lipsticked mouth, made Maria itch with irritation instead. First of all, Bette was not allowed to be in the house when Maria was not. Call her old-fashioned or absolutely ridiculous, Maria didn’t care. It was her number one rule. Second of all, there were plenty of bolts on that door that the kids could have locked that Maria had a key to open, but they had decided on using the chain, knowing Maria couldn’t get in, which made her think that they had deliberately locked her out so they could do the sorts of things Maria told herself sickos like Bobby Martin got up to. As if getting Bette pregnant once just wasn’t enough for these two. As if a miscarriage, yes, horrible, but in this case it felt like it was the will of God Almighty Himself, as if a miscarriage hadn’t spared them already.
“Mark’s here?” Maria asked immediately. Bette shrugged in that sullen way that made Maria want to wring her neck.
“Bette, is he here or not? And why weren’t either of you answering your cell phones, I was worried sick—“
“He hasn’t called me since ten,” the girl said. “I don’t know where he is.”
Maria blinked at Bette, noticing for the first time that she was wearing a pair of Mark’s boxers. “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?”
The girl followed Maria’s eyes. “He told me I could stay here, to make myself comfortable.” She put her hand on her hip. “It’s not like I could go home now that everyone knows Mark knocked me up.”
Maria felt exhausted, the room tipping to the left for a moment. It was too much. “Bette, where is my son?”
Bette sighed forcefully in reply, her thick fringe of bangs lifting off her forehead with the effort, and it reminded Maria that the girl was only a teenager after all. Granted, a seventeen-year old, and she lorded that extra year of experience over sixteen-year old Mark, it was part of her strange power over her son, Maria knew. But she was still a girl, at least in calendar years, and she had been through a lot, had been pregnant and lost a baby and now it seemed as if her parents had kicked her out of her home, all before her senior year of high school. If Maria had been a better person, she would have embraced Bette immediately, asked her how she was feeling, offered to make her an ice cream sundae. But Maria didn’t feel like being a better person tonight, she felt the taint of the Martin’s still on her skin, making her impatient and cruel. “Goddammit, Bette, don’t you sigh at me. If you don’t tell me where Mark is I will call the police and tell them to take you with them.”
Bette’s arms dropped limply to her sides. “He went somewhere with Figgy. He didn’t tell me what they were doing but he said not to worry about them unless they didn’t come home by morning. He told me to make up a lie to tell you but… but I couldn’t.” She glanced at Maria and Maria thought maybe there was something scheming in the girl’s eyes, something that didn’t match the poor-little-worried-me story.
Maria sat down at the small kitchen table.
Figgy. That name rang some vague bell. Was he one of Bette’s cousin’s? Yes, that’s right, he was the eldest Figuera boy, eighteen, the one who had repeated his freshman year of high school twice. Mark had never been friends with any of the Figueroa boys before. Before Bette. Maria should call the police right this minute, tell them her son was missing. Mark, her beautiful boy. She thought she had done things right with him, he never missed a day of school, teachers always telling her how good a kid he was with his ‘yes ma’am’, ‘please’ and ‘no thank you’s, his noble attempts at chess club, his weekend work at the Books and Boogie store downtown. And then this girl, this Bette-- who would give a child a French whore name like that anyway? -- always looking like she was laughing at the adults, like she knew something no one else knew, with her lip gloss and frightening piercings and tight black t-shirts that showed the small star tattoo just above her hip, this girl ruined everything. Maria thought of the first time she met Bette, how she was certain she had smelled alcohol on the girl’s breath, how the girl seemed impaired by something more than youth, and when she asked Mark about it the next day, he claimed Bette had had the stomach flu and the anti-nausea pills weren’t sitting well with her. It was the most preposterous thing Maria had ever heard but her son said it with such certainty, so hurt when Maria laughed at him, that Maria thought Mark himself believed the ridiculous story. Now Maria assessed Bette and wondered if she had even been pregnant. She certainly didn’t seem weak or fragile for someone who had miscarried just two days ago.
Maria put her hands over her face. They were only kids. Surely Bette couldn’t have lied about something like that just to tighten her grip. But Mark, where was he? One o’clock in the morning, off with a dumb-as-mud eighteen year old named Figgy, up to God knows what.
Suddenly Maria thought again of the Martins, of Mrs. Martin thickly snoring in her king sized bed, of Bobby on his computer all night, of Mr. Martin sending suggestive text messages to his secretary, and, for the first time in the eight years that Maria had worked for them, she envied them their minor disasters after all.
Fourth Installment (July 22)
The light woke her, curling its fingers gently around the curtains, feeling its way into the room slowly. Squinting against the light, Maria reached out and turned the alarm clock towards her so she could see.
Six-thirty. When had she become unable to sleep in? The night before a day off, she invariably promised herself that she would sleep until some hedonistic hour – eight, maybe – and the next morning, she invariably woke at the same time she did every other morning, feeling, somehow, cheated, but unable to fall back to sleep anyway. Mark, on the other hand, could still keep the nearly-vampirical hours of a teenager, staying up until dawn threatened, and then sleeping happily until the afternoon.
The thought of Mark gave her a vaguely uneasy feeling, and she pushed the clock away. Had he ever come home? She slipped on a bathrobe and padded lightly down the hall, the carpet rough and stiff under her feet, the periodic stains a map of time. In the living room, Bette was sleeping on the sofa, face-down, one hand resting on the floor, the opposite foot hooked over the back, as though she had collapsed in the midst of some athletic event. Her makeup was smudged, her hair messy, and Maria felt a twinge of something maternal as she looked at the girl. Maybe she had been wrong about Bette. Maybe she should trust her more, see the elaborate makeup and aggressive piercings and the tight clothes as what they were: armor against the world, against anyone getting too close.
Mark’s door was closed – still, or again? Maria turned the handle gently, placing her other palm flat against the wood as she pushed. The room was dark, the bed, empty.
She closed the door, the worry in her stomach twisting and growing. Wherever he and the unfortunately-named Figgy had gone last night, they hadn’t come back. She padded softly into the kitchen and looked at her cell phone and the answering machine. No messages.
With a sigh, Maria ran her hands through her hair and rubbed her eyes. She caught a glimpse of herself in the window above the sink, a tired woman with tired eyes and a worried set to her mouth. She hadn’t always been like this, hadn’t always looked this way. Once upon a time she would have been gentler with the Martins, been gentler with Bette, been gentler with herself. But then things happened…life happened, and here she was, with money problems and parenting problems and job problems and a thousand responsibilities as long as her arm, and the gentleness had faded to an occasional guilt that slipped around the back of her mind like a ghost.
And now she had three new problems: Mark was missing, Bette was not, and she was going to have to call Danny and tell him both of those things.
But first she needed coffee. Normally it was the one luxury in her mornings; the ritual that steeled her for the day ahead. When Mrs. Martin had handed her a brown cardboard box to take to Goodwill a few months earlier, Maria hadn’t been able to resist peeling back the tape and peeking inside, as she did on every donation day. Usually, she was lucky to score a nice hardback book or skillet with a scratch on it. She always donated the books to Goodwill after reading them, and gave away one of her own cooking pans as a replacement. But this time, tucked in the middle of the box, was a French Press coffeemaker, still in its original packaging. Probably a gift the Martins had never used and couldn’t return without a receipt.
She’d placed the box in her trunk and had driven off, but she’d stopped a half-mile down the road to retrieve the French Press and put it in the passenger’s seat. That evening, on the way home from work, she’d stopped by the grocery store and had spent ten minutes inhaling the smells of French Vanilla and Dark Roast, Irish Crème and White Chocolate. She’d splurged on a pound, grinding the beans into a little foil package. Now her routine was to spend the first half hour of every day sipping a cup of Hazelnut in silence, feeling her old bones gain strength for the day ahead. Two full containers of Maxwell House, her old brand, were still in her cupboard, and she planned to bring everything full circle by donating them to a food bank soon.
But this morning she slopped the milk into her coffee and sipped before it had a chance to cool, burning her tongue. It didn’t matter. How could she take pleasure in anything, when she didn’t know where Mark had gone, when he’d left such a mess behind?
She heard a noise from the living room and walked over to the doorway. Bette had rolled over sometime in the night, and now her forearm covered her eyes, blocking the faint sunlight peeking in through the window over the couch. Maria narrowed her eyes as she took in Mark’s boxers and the thin white t-shirt riding up, exposing Bette’s belly button. Didn’t the girl own any clothes that actually fit?
She put down her too-hot coffee on the table next to the couch, walked over next to Bette and clapped her hands, hard. The girl didn’t move.
“Bette!” She nudged Bette’s arm with her bare foot. “Wake up?”
“Hmmm?” Bette blinked at her. Without her familiar slash of red, her mouth looked small and vulnerable, and smudged mascara ringed her eyes, reminding Maria of the broken china figure that had lodged in her thumb. The bad omen.
“Mark didn’t come home.”
Betty closed her eyes. “HeswithFiggy.”
“I know. But you said he told me not to worry unless he didn’t come home by morning. It’s morning.”
“What time is it?” Bette had adopted the overly-patient tone of a parent trying to reason with an unruly toddler. Oh, the irony.
“Almost eight,” Maria lied.
“Wake me at ten if he’s not here.”
Heat rose within Maria. “If you’re going to live here –” live here? had she really suggested that? – “then I need your help.”
Bette sat up, her moves exaggeratedly slow, resentment painted over her features. She looked at Maria’s cup. “Do I smell coffee?”
“Have it,” Maria said, handing it to her.
Unfortunately, Bette blew on it before taking a cautious sip. Her eyes met Maria’s over the rim.
“He might not be with Figgy.”
Maria sank into the chair opposite the couch. “You said –”
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
Since when do you care? Maria couldn’t release the words shrieking in her mind; she couldn’t lose Bette, not now. No other link to Mark existed.
“We could go look for him,” Bette said. She shrugged a shoulder, took another sip of coffee.
“Okay,” Maria said. She exhaled, feeling a strange sort of relief. Maybe Mark wasn’t officially missing yet. She could put off the call to Danny.
“I’ll get dressed.” She stood up and left the room, but instead of going upstairs, she went into the kitchen, to make herself another cup of coffee. She heard something from the living room – a rustling sound – and crept to the doorway. She could see Bette, still on the couch, hunched over, holding something to her ear. A cell phone.
Who was she talking to?
The first eight installments will be anynomous as the writers would like to guess who is writing that passage solely on sytle of writing. How fun!
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