“The Mass is ended. Go in peace.” There was a physical release in the crowd like a sigh, barely audible, as mothers tugged mittens and hats back onto their squirming children and opened purses to fish for keys. On Holy Days, men weren’t expected to attend the Mass. There were a few, of course—retired, white-haired businessmen still wearing suits and hats as they had every weekday for years—but most of the congregation was made up of the women and children of the parish, the understanding being that men had more pressing obligations than holy days.
Maxine followed the children to the door, hoping to get to the car before she’d have to talk to any of the other mothers. But Susan Duffy touched her on the shoulder. “Better late than never!” Susan laughed. “We just made it in time to get the last seat in a back pew.” The jeweled corners of Susan’s cat eye glasses caught the light as they stepped out through the door.
Maxine’s smile surfaced and disappeared. She never knew what to say to women like Susan. She imagined her as one of a type, a category of person that she’d internally dubbed “Good Housekeeping women.” They rolled through domestic life like they were born on roller skates: making cupcakes for bake sales, sewing new dresses for the dance, cleaning the bathroom grout with a toothbrush. Beside them she felt at a loss, always. When they talked about window treatments or teething babies or the relative merits of frozen over canned, she would smile and nod and stay quiet. Maxine looked down at Susan’s suede maroon pumps that matched her suede gloves.
“Cereal spilled. That’s why we were late. Fruit Loops.”
“Oh.” Susan laughed. “It was one of those mornings! Poor you! I know just what they’re like.”
The hell you do, Maxine thought, but she smiled and nodded.
Maxine’s daughter Jenny jogged down the marble stairs and Susan’s daughter, Betsy, followed her. The two moved toward a group of girls from their grade who were standing in a small knot, all pony tails and bent heads and secrets. One of the girls held out a pastel candy necklace that she had just pulled from her patent leather purse.
“Jenny,” Maxine called after her. “We can’t dawdle now. We have to go.”
“Just one minute, Mom,” Jenny pleaded. “Oneteensy tiny minute.”
Maxine felt the flask in her purse bump against her ribs as she reached down again for Petey’s hand.
“And so it begins,” Susan said, looking down at their daughters. “Pretty soon they’ll be pulling lipsticks out of their bags and giggling and whispering about boys just like we did.”
“Dear God, I hope not.” The bitterness that filled her voice surprised her and Maxine watched Susan spin around and stare with eyebrows raised. Maxine corrected herself. “I mean, I just hope it doesn’t come too soon, the whole teenage thing.”
As Maxine pulled in, Rita was walking down the long curved driveway to meet her. She carried two juice glasses with thick red tomato juice and Maxine focused on them and felt herself begin to relax. Bloody Marys. The only good way to observe The Feast of the Immaculate Conception. She imagined Rita saying it, letting the smoke curl out of her mouth and nose, before they clinked glasses and sipped. Maxine lifted two fingers from the steering wheel to wave. Rita raised one of the glasses in return as she picked her way down the drive like a thin-legged water bird on an asphalt stream. She wore red plaid pants with a wide leg and a beige turtleneck sweater with red beads that swung a little with her motion. Her hair, a blond pageboy with dark roots, lifted in the December air, and she lowered her pointed chin against the cold and kicked dead leaves into the grass with the inside edge of her foot. Maxine could see Rita’s breath. She must be freezing, she thought.
Maxine watched Rita move, envious of her hipbones. When she was six or seven, Maxine had found a deck of cards that her father had hidden in the drawer of his nightstand with pictures of naked women on them. One of them, a very tall blonde, was stretched out on a bed, her legs opened, her hipbones jutting out of the dark valley of her spread legs like dolphin fins, geometric, sculptural. Maxine had feared the softness of the breasts, the mossy hair at the crotch, but she’d thought this blond woman was beautiful because of those bones, imagined these long clean lines and the triangles jutting above a smooth flat belly.
Sometimes Rita and Maxine discussed their different bodies, both always self-deprecating, complaining—how hard it was to buy clothes, how much better life would be with bigger breasts or a smaller ass. Rita told her she was lucky to be so curvy.
“At least you’ve got a little something where it counts. Me, I’m the white cliffs of Dover. Flat in back, flat in front.”
But Maxine saw nothing admirable in her pale protruding belly, her round pink arms. She was always vowing to reduce and announcing her intention to eat nothing but cottage cheese for two months.
Inside the house, sitting at the kitchen table, Maxine watched Rita frowning at the clean laundry she folded into piles on the stained and crumb-covered tablecloth, curving her shoulders over her flat chest and jutting her hips out in front so that she looked almost S-shaped from the side. Maxine sat up straighter in her chair as she finished off the Bloody Mary that Rita had handed her in the driveway.
“That’s the problem with these damn Catholic schools,” Rita was saying. “They’re off every other day. St. Stanislaus Day and next it’s Our Lady Patron of Mothers Celebration or whatever. And do you think they’d give a mother a break to show they understood? No way. You’ve got the kids all day on a day that celebrates mothers. I mean, what the fuck?”
What the fuck? There it was. Just one of the many things Paul hated about Rita. “She doesn’t talk like a lady,” Paul had said after the first time they’d met. Maxine had talked him into going to a party at Rita’s on a sweltering night in July. On the drive home he’d given the post mortem as sweat rolled down Maxine’s sides—even with the window open. He’d hated the whole evening.
“Who is she trying to impress, tossing around those words?” Paul never cursed, except when he was furious or drunk.
“And what was with the cigar? What did that prove? Why does she need to stand around with all of the men instead of in the kitchen with the women. And it’s her house! She’s supposed to be the hostess, not smoking cigars with the men, making everyone comfortable.”
Maxine hadn’t seen the cigar smoking, but she’d pictured it as she stood in the kitchen with her back against the counter, listening to Rita’s laughter in the other room when Henry Oppenheimer offered Rita the Cuban. Maxine had pictured the smoke wreathed around Rita’s head and the drink in her hand and all of the men circling her, admiring her, afraid of her. Maxine had heard it so clearly and imagined it so keenly that she kept losing the thread of her boring conversation with Tracy Knight about the problems Tracy was having with her son’s kindergarten teacher.
Paul had been quiet for awhile as he drove into the starless night, heat lightning ghosting the horizon, and Maxine watched the muscle in his jaw working. Finally he’d asked, “You don’t think she might be one of those lesbians, do you?”
Maxine had taken a weary breath and laughed. “She’s divorced. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t like men; it just means she didn’t happen to like that one. She’s high-spirited. Good God, Paul, women have been smoking since the twenties. This is 1969.”
Maxine raised her glass and the last of the thick cold juice filled her mouth with a taste peppery and flat, almost metallic. On the television in the next room, a woman’s voice grew frantic, pleading, “What will you do? Where will you go?” A man answered, “What’s that to you now, now that you’ll be married to him?” Then a great swell of music erupted as they went to commercial. Maxine pictured the three children sitting in that dark den just the way she’d left them, slumped into the overstuffed furniture with the blank looks children reserve for conveying the most inexpressible kind of accusation or anger. Back in the car after church, she knew the children wanted to go home, to play, to have their day together, just the four of them. But then they never wanted to go to Rita’s house. There was nothing and no one to play with; they were bored and uncomfortable. Maxine had tried to cajole them.
“We’ll only be a few minutes. I have some things I need to talk to Mrs. Pyles about and then later we can go do something fun.”
“What, Mommy?” Petey said. “What can we do fun?”
But Jenny threw her head back against the seat and frowned out the window. “I don’t care,” she said. “I don’t want to go. Her house smells funny.”
“Jennifer,” Maxine snapped. “That’s unkind. I don’t want to hear any more of your nonsense and I never want to hear you say that again, especially in front of Mrs. Pyles. It’s a terribly rude thing to say and it would hurt her feelings.” Maxine thought it, too, so Jenny’s saying it made her angrier. The house had a strange, sharp smell, like Lysol and cigarettes and dust. The smell seemed to have cooked down over time, coalesced, as if no window in the house had been opened for years.
Maxine caught Jenny’s eye in the rearview and frowned. Jenny turned toward the window again and Petey slid headfirst into the front seat, the stuffed dog he’d named Buddy clutched in his hand. He moved close to her and looked up into her face until she focused again on the road and then he whispered, “Mommy, what can we do that’s fun?”
“It’ll be a surprise,” she said.
“But what surprise will it be, Mommy?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you, would it?” Maxine laughed and cut her eyes to the rearview to see if Jenny had softened at all, but she was still staring resolutely out the window. Laura sat beside her, turning the pages of her favorite book, Pippi Longstocking, and keeping her own counsel. Her dark hair fell down around her face and Maxine watched the sunlight and shade stream over the curtains of her hair where it made a world for her alone, a world of peace removed from the tension of Jenny’s anger and Petey’s desire.
“Is it ice cream?” Petey asked.
“Mom, will you braid my hair like Pippi’s?” Laura said.
Maxine laughed again, trying to be light, trying to make it a good day. “We’ll see,” she said. “Maybe later tonight.” And to Petey, “Will you be a good boy while we visit Mrs. Pyles?”
Petey nodded solemnly.
“Can I have a horse, like Pippi?” Laura asked.
When they arrived, Rita had barely looked at the children. But once they were in the house, Rita offered them snacks and drinks as they’d settled in front of the television. They each said “No thank you” automatically. After several visits, they had learned to refuse her offers despite Maxine’s frowns. Rita’s kids were older, almost grown, and somehow she’d forgotten—or maybe she’d never known—that things like Brazil nuts or garlic-stuffed olives were not snacks that would please children ages six, eight, and nine. It never seemed to matter to Rita whether they ate the food she gave them or not, just as it didn’t seem to matter to her that the girls never smiled at her unless told to, never said a word to her unless prompted by Maxine.
Rita’s attitude toward children, all children, was another thing that Maxine found impressive. When she was trying to explain it to herself, though, she thought “impressive” might be the wrong word. Interesting? No, it was more than that. Rita didn’t act like any woman Maxine knew around children, and she certainly didn’t act like any mother she’d seen. She’d never exclaimed over Jenny’s hair or noticed anything they were wearing or commented on how they’d grown. She didn’t ask them about school or what grade they were in or if they liked their teachers. Nothing. Rita always seemed surprised whenever any of the kids spoke, mildly annoyed at their presence. She’d apologized one day after snapping at Petey for interrupting their conversation. “I’m just no good with kids,” she’d said. “You probably think I’m terrible.”
But Maxine didn’t find it terrible, somehow—just curious. To say, “I’m not good with children” out loud. It was the kind of thing she would never dare to admit—like saying she had a favorite child, or that she sometimes found them disgusting when they were sick—and it thrilled her somehow that Rita could just say it. Rita had had three sons of her own—big, sullen boys—and the oldest two lived with their father. The youngest son was a ghost in the house, passing through on his way to somewhere else—to lacrosse practice or to meet a friend—grabbing something from the refrigerator, saying as close to nothing as possible. Maxine wondered for a long time why the other boys lived with their father, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask. Rita had only mentioned it once, in an offhand way, when she began a sentence, “When the oldest two decided to give up on me altogether and move to ‘Man Island’…”
“I’m sure they didn’t give up on you!” Maxine protested.
Rita looked at her sidelong and grinned a little. “It’s okay, Maxine, you don’t have to fix it.” Maxine had no idea what to say then. Rita was the only divorced woman Maxine knew.
There were rumors in the neighborhood, of course. Her sons had left because she’d been bringing home other men, sometimes married men. People whispered about cars coming and going late at night. Though Maxine believed this might have been the case, she hated the sharp bright eyes of the people who gossiped about it. The same people said sometimes that the boys left because Rita neglected them, refused to feed them, finally put them out. Maxine knew this charge was false and thought it mean and unwarranted. When Mrs. Palmer, standing in the long line at the Acme Grocery, had suggested this, Maxine had called it “ludicrous.”
“You’re friends with her, then?” Mrs. Palmer’s pink lipsticked mouth settled to a small, pursed “o.”
Maxine felt like the grocery store hushed around her. She lowered her voice and began to dig for her wallet in her purse, but she tried to keep her tone matter-of-fact. “Yes,” she said. “Yes. We talk, that is.”
“Well, I guess you would know, then,” Mrs. Palmer said, and she turned on her heel, putting her groceries on the belt in silence. She didn’t even wave at Maxine when she paid and left.
Rita gathered all the laundry off the kitchen table and into a white plastic laundry basket. The cold sun came slanting through the big picture window behind them and Maxine looked at her shadow, a strange rounded triangle on the checkered tablecloth.
“What’ll you do with them all day?”
Maxine felt the weight of it again. The day stretched in front of her, so many hours until Paul came home and dinner and then the relief of putting them in bed. At bedtime she knew what to do. She had a routine: jammies, brush teeth, one song, two stories, lights out. Peace. In the summer, there was camp, and the swim club, the playground, places to take them. But now, in December, the day seemed so long and she had no idea how she would fill it. She fished the cigarettes out of her purse and pulled the half-full ashtray toward her.
“I think I’ll take them for ice cream.” She inhaled deep and blew a white breath toward the ceiling. “It’s a secret; I promised Petey a surprise for being good. And then I guess I could take them over to the mall with me. I need to do some more Christmas shopping and they could run off and look around.”
Rita topped up her Bloody Mary from the big pitcher on the counter and Maxine began to calm down as she felt the drink softening the hard edge of her fear. It was a good plan. They could go to the King of Prussia Mall and look at all the Christmas decorations, at the big tree in the middle of the plaza. They could walk around the enclosed part and stay warm. Maxine would try to find something to give Paul, maybe even browse through the jewelry and purses while the kids went off to look in the toy store. Maybe she’d even pick up a little car for Petey and some small things for the girls, headbands with flowers or little barrettes. She thought of their faces in the car, their silent accusations. She thought that maybe little gifts could make up for it, could turn the day around. Another swell of music spilled in from the next room. “Like sands through the hourglass,” the voice-over announcer said.
“You watch this one, don’t you? Days of Our Lives?” Maxine said. “Do you want to go in? We can shoo the kids to the living room.”
“Never mind. I can miss a day, God knows. Nothing ever happens on those things. Besides, what’ll they do in the living room? They’ll just break something.” Rita laughed, but Maxine knew she meant it and it made her bristle. They were good kids, after all.
“They don’t mean any harm,” Maxine said, getting up and going to the door to look in on them. A heavy red curtain always drawn over the only window darkened the den, and the children’s faces shifted blue and green with the changing color on the TV, a laundry detergent commercial. None of them looked at her; all seemed transfixed and absent, as a smiling woman holding an iron announced, “Your family counts on you for the whitest whites.”
“I guess I better finish this drink and go,” Maxine said, turning around just in time to see Rita drain hers in two big gulps.
“No,” Rita protested. “Come on, stay a little and chat. Have one more after this. You’re the best part of my day, you know?”
Rita had been Maxine’s best friend since their first real conversation three summers before. It happened on Rita’s back porch, sitting across the picnic table from each other as their cold gin and tonics sweated into the wood and they sweated into the summer night. They’d met just that afternoon at a neighborhood Tupperware party. Those things always made Maxine so sad and nervous. She’d tried to tell Paul what they were like. “You do nothing,” she’d said. “You sit around someone’s kitchen table ooohing and aaaahing and it’s just nothing . . . different sized plastic bowls . . . and it’s all very modern and maybe the astronauts use them or something. Tupperware calls them ‘the bowls that burp‘ because you press out the air and food stays fresh and . . .” Maxine had rubbed her fingers into the corners of her dry eyes. Just talking about it made her feel exhausted. “After awhile it’s just a bunch of plastic bowls.”
“Other women seem to enjoy it,” Paul had said.
But Maxine knew right away that Rita was different. When the first of the cake holders came out, and the other women caught their breath, Rita caught Maxine’s eye and held it, then did a long slow blink that had Maxine stifling a laugh and poking around her purse for a Kleenex. They spent most of the next hours in mute conversation—barely lifted eyebrows, nearly suppressed smiles—sharing the insanity of this ritual, the absurdity of their plight. At the finale, when Denise took out the condiment caddy and everyone broke into applause, Maxine looked at Rita and nearly collapsed with glee at having found another soul who seemed to understand.
When they left, each holding their obligatory purchase, a mustard and catsup set, Rita said, “I’m two blocks away and no one’s home. Come have a drink.”
Two hours later, sitting in Rita’s yard, Maxine felt grateful and oddly comfortable with a relative stranger. The last time she’d talked with another woman like this was the night before she got married when, for the last time, she and Barbara sat up late on the old screened-in porch of her mother’s house. It was a soft June night and the fireflies rose and fell in the tiny row house yard as they talked the way they always had, and never would again—about the boys at the factory they used to date, her wedding the next day, their parents and what they wanted for their own futures. How much better it could be for them than it had been for their mothers. Barbara had been her best friend. How could she have lost touch with someone who had been that close?
Maxine told all this to Rita that night. Another June night, but hotter, closer. The fireflies still rose and fell in the dark yard, but the other houses around them were distant points of light behind manicured hedges, not neighbors she knew whose shapes she watched behind their curtained yellow windows. Maxine told Rita that she sometimes wished she still lived in the city, still had a job. “I miss . . .” but Maxine couldn’t finish the sentence because all of the things she missed came pouring in. They became a kaleidoscope, colored blocks of memory shifting—the house she’d grown up in with the creaky stairs and the blue door, her mother’s striped aprons, Barbara’s upturned freckled nose, being young on a summer night and sitting on the front stoop with bare toes curled around the concrete step and the whole world stretching out from that one cool inch of stone.
Telling Rita her stories, Maxine felt like the world she’d known growing up was right there beyond the manicured hedges and the suburban summer hum—1949 was out there in the dark, and with it the streets and the houses and the people she’d known—the girl she’d been, Clearfield Street and her Aunt Helen’s three-story corner house, the sound of the old Ford delivery wagons. She could see Barbara walking beside her, the lights from the windows of the butcher’s and the five and dime shifting behind her, shadowing her face and lighting up her dark red hair. She remembered faces of boys—they rose from the dark pools of 1949 like strange pale fish—not the ones from their high school, St. Theresa’s, but older boys who’d never gone to college or who left school when they hit sixteen to work at the National Biscuit factory, at the corner of Kensington and Alleghany, where her mother worked. These were the boys she and Barbara sought, the ones they dressed for and talked about.
That was when Maxine had first felt like a real person, like she had a real life of her own, with lipstick and cigarettes hidden in her purse, a flask tucked in the inside pocket of her jacket. Maxine and Barbara would make up some story about prom committee meetings or decorating the gym for a pep rally and then meet the boys behind the factory or in back of the pool hall when the boys got off their shift. She thought again about the hidden bottles, the ever-present rot-gut booze the boys drank.
“Sometimes,” she told Rita, “I imagine talking with Jenny about dating when she gets older and telling her my dating stories and I realize that I’m going to have to edit, erase the whiskey and the lies.”
Coming home after nights out with the boys, she and Barbara would suck a striped peppermint and rehearse cover stories about what had kept them so late. The taste of peppermint still made her think of those nights; every corner felt like an opportunity to see someone new. They marveled at how easy it was to get by their parents and talked about what Barbara’s father would do, especially if he knew about the dark boys in the dark corners of the pool hall parking lot.
Maxine remembered all of it. The sweaty wrestling in the back seats of cars, the furious whispers in her ear, the hands that pushed and pushed—she learned to go absolutely still, to fold in on herself, cross her legs and arms, duck her head, and then they would stop and apologize and she would rehook her bra and kiss them again. “Nothing below the waist,” she’d say lightly, and then she’d turn away before she could see their eyes.
Sometimes, though, when Maxine came home late, her mother would look up from her magazine with eyes so flat and full of defeat that Maxine understood that her mother knew it all and was terrified that Maxine would end up pregnant by some neighborhood boy, end up staying there the rest of her life.
“That was the only thing I ever saw my mother afraid of,” she told Rita. “Me staying there and becoming her.”
That she’d graduated from secretarial school, married Paul, had a house in the suburbs—this was everything her mother had ever dreamed for Maxine. Everything she’d taught Maxine to dream for herself. Just before she and Paul bought the house, Maxine drove her mother out to Bridgewater to see it. The house was on the top of a hill, with a two-car garage and blue shutters and two stone posts at the entrance to the drive. Maxine could feel her mother’s emotion as she turned the car at the pillars and they neared the house; it felt like the air around her was suddenly electrified. When Maxine opened the front door, her mother turned tear-filled eyes up to the high ceilings in the entranceway. “You’ve got the perfect life now,” she said. “Oh Maxine. You did it.”
“The perfect life,” Rita said, dragging her finger through the wet ring her glass made on the wood. “Is that what this is?
Out in the dark yard, cicadas had begun their furious metallic chirring and the crickets’ voices opened and closed like rusty hinges. “What did you really want?” Rita met her gaze then and held it. “Did you have any idea what you wanted back then?”
“I . . . .” Maxine tried to think of a word to describe how she’d thought about her own life, if she ever did think about her life.. “No one ever told me I should wonder what I wanted. I don’t think I even knew how to ask myself the question.”
“Do you ask yourself now?”
Maxine shifted on the wooden bench and laughed a little. “Do you?”
“Nope, my gin, my question. You first. When it’s your gin, you can turn the tables.”
Maxine lit another cigarette and watched the flame bow low as she drew in a long drag. She looked out across the dark lawn and watched the yellow porch light come on in the house next door. Then she did something that she hadn’t done in a very long time. She told the truth.
“Some mornings,” she said, “the bars of sunlight slanting through the blinds look like knives. I open my eyes and I think the day will slice me open, cut me right down to the bone. Some nights, especially if Paul is working late, I wander through the house after I put the kids to bed and I pick up the knickknacks, the books, all the stuff I’m always dusting and arranging, and I wonder who could possibly want this, care about it. I wonder what the hell happened to me that I have a collection of Royal Doulton figurines and a husband who buys me a new one for every birthday.”
The soap opera ended and Maxine heard the music again, the segue into a commercial, and the children shifting and whispering in the den. Just as Maxine poured another Bloody Mary, Laura came and stood in the kitchen doorway. In the smallest voice she could manage, avoiding Rita’s pointed gaze, Laura whispered, “Are we going to go soon?”
Anne Colwell is a fiction writer and poet and this excerpt comes from Holy Day, a novel in progress. She has published two books of poems: Believing Their Shadows (Word Poetry, 2010) and Mother’s Maiden Name (Word Poetry, 2013). She won the 2013 Experienced Artist in Fiction Award for her novel, Holy Day through the Delaware State Arts Council and has been a Work-Study Fellow at Bread Loaf and a MidAtlantic Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.