July. Atlanta. Well, not Atlanta exactly. A suburb, north and east. DeKalb. In New York, you’d pronounce all the letters, but down here, it’s dee-cab. Our car stops in front of a ranch house. Beige aluminum siding; maroon vinyl shutters. A row of hostas lines each side of the walk leading to door.
His sister, Marjorie, stayed behind in our 13th Street apartment to pet sit our Siamese cat, Dino. So it’s just the two of us, sitting in the car parked in front of his parents’ house. Robert visits at least once a year, but this is my first since Robert and I got married. Marjorie always finds some reason not to make the trip. This time it’s the cat; last time, she’d made plans with a friend; and the time before that, she had PMS.
I want Robert to read my mind: “Can’t we just do a U-ey and head back to New York?” He turns off the car, pulls the keys out of the ignition, and opens the driver’s-side door. A thick, wet, hot vapor wafts in, throwing my head back against the headrest.
I grab his arm, “Come on; put the keys back in.” He’s out of the car by then, definitely not reading the text I’m composing with rapid-firing jolts of acetylcholine. I just sit there, as if bolted to the seat. I despise them already; truthfully, I despised them before we left New York. I never met them before; they didn’t bother to come north when Robert and I got married. But I’ve heard stories.
A knock on the window. I look into a face, powdery from a dusting minutes before. Pearl pink lips moving, smiling, moving again, probably letting me know it’s hot. Grey hair done up yesterday at the beauty shop in the mall, tight curls sprayed so they don’t move when she does or flatten out from the humidity. Bent at the waist, her pink and red flowery house dress falls away to show her cleavage propped up by what looks like a white Playtex Cross-Your-Heart bra, size triple L or something like that. She tries the door handle, but the door’s locked, so she straightens up and starts waving me out of the car with both hands. Her hands just a-going, and then her mouth starts moving, and her head bobs from side to side. I watch her for too long carrying on like that. And then I finally pop the lock, open the door, and step out. She rushes me, arms stretched to either side. Boom; I’m in a tight hold. Head clamped against her neck; breathing talc and lilac cologne. I want to gag. I really do, but I swallow 10 or 20 times before blurting, “Hi, you must be Robert’s mother; I’ve heard so much about you” without blinking or inhaling or unclenching my jaw.
His father’s a skinny guy with a compulsion for telling jokes about a south Louisiana character named Boudreau. His lobbyist friends find them hilarious, so after dinner, when we’re all sitting around the table, he tells one after the other after the other. Must know hundreds of them. Finally, when he’s about to launch into one more, Robert stops him: “She doesn’t think they’re funny.” His father leans back, wiggling in his seat, “Mary, what about some more sweet tea”; raising his hand, he circles his index finger in the direction of the refrigerator.
I stand up from the table after that. I don’t want any sweet tea, so I make an excuse about being tired or needing to call my parents. Something, just to get out of there. After saying good night, I head for the basement stairs. We’re staying in Robert’s old room.
The basement’s refinished, paneled with dark fiberboard. And musty. The wood feels moist, and the green carpet, which probably lost its shag in the 80s, squishes under my feet. There’s a twin bed pushed up against the back wall; two small windows above the bed let in some light. A bathroom’s off to one side, and on the other, a rust-colored couch, shiny and oily from years soaking up the sweat and odors in that basement. A tube television with a bent antennae, a hand-me-down from his parents’ bedroom upstairs, balances on a rickety, three-foot wicker stool facing the couch. It’s a small room, no doors or curtains. When I get to the bottom of the basement stairs, I about trip on the oversized terra cotta planter holding a 3-foot tall plastic ficus that’s placed between the last stair and the wicker stool.
I wake up the next morning to Robert screaming, “I’m taking a shower.” Holding the railing, he faces the closed door at the top of the basement stairs. “I’m taking a shower”; this time louder, emphasizing “taking,” drawing it out: “taaaaakkkkkinnnnnggggg.” He waits, then grunts and tries again, even louder. I’ve never heard him scream like that. “I’m taking a shououououwerer.” This time, his father screams back, “Okay, we won’t flush.” His mother titters, “Oh, Walter.”
Robert turns on the water. I stay in bed, pulling my legs up, drawing the sheet to my chin. It falls down in the back like a hospital gown. Facing the wall, my eyes closed, I hear the basement door open. He walks down the stairs slowly; no urgency, taking one step, then another, until he reaches the last one. By that time, I’m like paralyzed; can’t think, can’t move, can’t cover up; can’t remember where I put my clothes; squeezing my eyes shut, reciting to myself, “pretend you’re asleep; pretend you’re asleep,” all the time hoping Robert shuts the water off and walks out of the bathroom. Then, he’ll know. But he doesn’t. Robert always showers until his skin wrinkles, just like his sister Marjorie. And now, when his father stands there staring at me from behind; my back to upper thigh naked and exposed, forming a perfect fleshy V, Robert’s only about 5 minutes in to his skin-wrinkling ritual.
So his father stands there staring I don’t know for how long, just staring.
When Robert finally turns off the water, his father shuffles away. He moves much quicker going up the stairs than coming down, and he closes the basement door carefully, too, without even a click. Robert never knows his father was there.
But Robert doesn’t seem to know that when they were kids his father went into his sister’s room almost every night. She’s probably ten, the first time; that’s the usual age. “Be nice to daddy,” he says, stroking her arm, the inside of her upper thigh, her breasts. “Be nice to daddy,” guiding her hand to unzip his pants. Maybe she passes out the first time. As a teenager, he used her as his trump card on lobbying jaunts. “Be nice to daddy’s friends,” he says, nudging her toward a group of politicos that he hopes to influence, sitting at the bar or huddling around a table. “Go ahead; be nice to daddy’s friends.”
Getting dressed, I recall a scene I’d forgotten from a few weeks after we get married. At the end of a long night of drinking and smoking, Robert slurs out a story of what he describes as “Marjorie’s part adding pork to a piece of legislation.” The family was in D.C on a lobbying trip. Robert laughs recounting the morning Marjorie answered the phone when his father called a fellow forestry lobbyist’s hotel room. “That’s what she thought he meant when he told her to be nice.”
Robert probably doesn’t remember telling me this; his drunken stories tend to evaporate word-by-word in sour sweat while he sleeps it off. When he wakes up, poof, they’re gone. I don’t remember it, either, until his father shuffles up the stairs. It stares back at me, now, like the mute child she is, as I grab the car keys with one hand, reach for hers with the other.
Carra Leah Hood teaches writing and, also, writes about the teaching of writing, composes poetry and creative nonfiction, and creates mixed-media experiences. Her writing tends to focus on the things women do and see and the ways women live. She has published poetry in Nebula and Montucky Review, creative nonfiction and academic essays in a variety of journals, and a personal essay introducing her dad’s posthumously published memoir. In addition, she has presented essays and mixed-media work at local conferences in Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and Maine. Carra Leah Hood currently lives in southern New Jersey, 5 miles outside Atlantic City, and works at Stockton University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Academic.edu, and by visiting her website (http://carraleahhood.wix.com/clh).