They were having a guest for dinner that night. Sarah was supposed to set the table, and Amy’s job was to pick out potatoes without spots for Sarah to peel. Mommy flitted around in her ruffled apron, pink to match her cocktail dress. Sarah had to peel potatoes because Mommy hadn’t yet got the hang of her new nails.
The guest was one of daddy’s before-friends from work, Keith. He’d always been nice to them, brought them little presents. He had boys their age, but they weren’t coming tonight. Tonight wasn’t a kids-and-grownups dinner, Mommy said, just a grownups dinner. And they were very lucky girls to even be up this late.
Mommy was seasoning the chicken, fanning her fingers out carefully around the pepper shaker. Her hair, which lay flat and brownish blonde in photos on the wall, was sculpted into a platinum bouffant that looked like a cake. Mommy’s lipstick, goopy and creamy, was several layers thick. Sarah caught her admiring her reflection in several reflective surfaces, the stovetop, the oven door, ever a spoon back. One time she caught Sarah looking and made a moue of annoyance before puffing back up into a smile. Mommy loved making faces now.
At six o’clock sharp she clapped her hands and said, “Time for good little girls to scrub up for dinnertime!” When Mommy spoke now her voice was high-pitched and reedy, a few octaves above her old speaking voice.
Amy plopped down from her chair and trotted straight to the bathroom. Sarah stayed sitting on the counter, chin tucked into her chest. Mommy’s smile grew a few watts brighter. It didn’t touch her eyes. “Didn’t you hear me, sweetie? Mommy says something, she wants it done.”
Sarah peered through dark bangs at her. They locked stares. The corner of Mommy’s mouth wilted.
“Sarah,” she said, voice devoid of sugary syrup now, “move your ass. Don’t make me do it for you.”
Slowly, reluctantly, the older girl slid from her roost and walked to the bathroom, looking deliberately at the floor. Mommy stayed for a moment in the middle of the kitchen, looking after her. The doorbell rang and she flew to get it.
“Oh Keith,” she gushed, “so good of you to come!”
Keith smiled uncertainly, confronted by this vision of pink. He held out a bottle of Chateau de Supermarket, uncertainly.
“It’s…good to see you again Pamela. I’m glad you haven’t…this hasn’t affected our friendship.”
Mommy put her hand in front of her mouth and laughed her new laugh, a sharp, tinkly sound with edges like glass. She gathered Keith against her pink bosom and left air-kisses on each cheek. She wore too much rouge.
“I’m so glad, glad, glad you could make it, Keith dear,” she continued as she led him by the sleeve, “I just feel so comfortable with you, and feel like I could turn to you with anything.”
A stricken look passed over Keith’s face. “I think it’s the least I could do, after Bill—”
“And here’s the girls!” Mommy let out a little squeal that wasn’t quite a laugh and wasn’t quite a scream. “What kept you, princesses? Evil stepmother making you scrub floors?”
In the meantime Amy had changed into the overall-skirt Mommy had laid out on the bed for her. Sarah had not, and stood with eyes lowered, arms crossed over her chest. Out of Keith’s line of vision, Mommy’s mouth crimped in distaste.
“Well, I know at least one of you will be getting dessert.” She sighed and, with a flourish, looked at the watch on her left wrist. “I’m so sorry I don’t have dinner ready yet, Keith, can I get you anything? Soda? Hot toddy?”
Keith, kneeling in front of the girls, seemed taken aback. He glanced up in confusion at Mommy, just missing Sarah’s pleading look. “No I’m…really Pamela, don’t go to any trouble over me.”
Mommy did a little head-tilt and smiled, showing even, white teeth. “It’s no trouble, Keith, no trouble at all. Cookie? Sangria? How about a hot towel.”
Keith shook his head dumbly. Mommy giggled, holding a hand in front of her mouth in a pantomime gesture. The girls mutely looked off into different corners of the room.
“Suppertime.” In some personal semaphore, Mommy directed them to their seats, holding Sarah’s neck in a viselike pinch disguised as a guiding hand. Sarah winced but managed not to rub it when she sat down. Amy plopped in her seat and stayed there like a little doll, not really looking at anything. Keith glanced from girl to girl, then up at their mother, who bustled in an endless loop to the kitchen and back again.
“I’m sorry I haven’t called lately,” he told her as she plopped mash potatoes on his plate, “Lisa’s been sick and all, we didn’t mean to go so long without checking with you, and when we got that call—“
“Water under the bridge, Keith,” Mommy cooed, drowning his potatoes in gravy. Sarah got a similar portion, behind their guest’s back Mommy jabbed a finger at it and mouthed ‘eat’ and Sarah picked up her fork. Amy ate—that is, she shoveled up food and put it in her mouth. Mommy put very little on her plate, she spent most of dinner watching over people’s plates, pouncing on any opening she perceived in their portions.
Keith held his hands up at the fifth offering of bread. “Really, Pam, this is too much.”
Mommy chuckled, deeper than her normal laugh. “Trust me, it’s not. Nothing’s too much for a friend.”
Keith rubbed the back of his neck, laughed nervously, looking around for allies. The girls both studied their plates. “I’m feeling pretty stuffed, thanks.”
Mommy clapped her hands, fake nails making little clicking noises. “I hope you saved just a bit of room for pineapple upside-down cake!”
Keith burst out laughing, and then trailed off when he caught that she was serious. “I…really? Cake? Really?”
“Well, more like a shortbread. A girl has to watch her figure, after all.” Mommy patted a pink hip. Sarah chewed on her fork, teeth dragging across tines.
Keith had stopped eating, instead he watched Mommy like he was trying to find the zipper on her costume.
“Pam,” he finally said, “I know you’ve been going through a lot of stress—”Mommy started laughing, a high-pitched tinkle like a broken chandelier. “And you probably don’t want to hear this but—”
Mommy clapped her hands again. “Clear the table girls. Mommy wants grownup talk now!”
Amy immediately dropped her fork and slid her chair back, after a moment or two Sarah followed. Keith shifted slightly in his chair as Mommy smiled at the girls like a laser. Her gaze followed them to the kitchen, until the door swung shut after them. Then she sagged slightly in her chair.
“Jesus, it’s about time,” she said, in a voice that used to belong to the forty-one year old dockhand who had worked alongside Keith up until a few months ago. “It’s me Keith. It’s me”
Keith’s only response was an undignified yelp. He bumped against the back of his chair so hard the legs lifted—but he didn’t fall.
“Bill, the fuck—what?”
Mommy smiled, and this wasn’t the lip-stretcher she employed on the police, but a real one, bitter and secretive. “The bitch thought she was going to get rid of me. She was going to take my kids, Keith, to add insult to injury. Don’t tell me you would’ve done any different.”
Keith’s mouth hung agape. He jumped slightly when Sarah set a bowl of fruit and cake in front of him. Amy set her bowl in front of her mother, smiling wanly upon receiving an absent-minded pat. Once done, the girls lined up at the end of the table. Mommy stayed looking right at him.
“You want to say good night to Mr. Redding before you go, girls?”
Keith’s brain was still not working at the speed he was used to, and he fumbled with his tongue. “They—they’re not staying for dessert?”
“Nope, bedtime for good little girls,” Mommy’s smile gained a razor edge, “and time for naughty girls to think about what they’ve done. “
Sarah’s lip pushed out slightly. She bit it. Amy stared vaguely at her mother’s face, clenched in anticipation of something. Mommy dismissed them with a grand wave.
Keith felt a sudden trickle of sweat on the back of his neck. “Pam…Bill. Is she…is she still in there?”
Mommy’s smile lost its corners. “No, she…it got pretty rough. I’m lucky to be here, to be honest. If she’s in here too, I can’t tell. Haven’t noticed anything so far.”
Keith sensed he had to tread carefully now. “So you—she— she’s dead?”
Mommy shrugged, sending the pink tulle at her shoulders fluffing out. “For all intents and purposes, yeah. But,” her smile crawled back on her cheeks until her lips looked like a cut in her face, “I do a pretty good job of being both, don’t I Keith? Fooled you, even.”
Keith swallowed with a dry click. “Bill I— this is a lot of information to process. I’ve got work in the morning and I told Lisa I’d be—”
Mommy waved him away with another grand gesture. “Go, go, I know how it is for working men. I used to be one. Go home and tuck the boys in, give Lisa one for me.”
Keith’s body got up from the table, numbly it tried on his coat while his mind was miles away.
He was at the front door when he stopped, turned back. Mommy was still at the table, hands grasped as if in prayer.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I won’t tell anyone about this.”
“I know,” she said, “because, and I think I can say this from experience, no one’s going to take a man’s word over mine.” Her voice was back in falsetto.
Keith nodded, hand behind him grasping for the latch. “Goodn—bye, Bill.”
The door slammed after him. Mommy sighed and waited for a count of three hundred, before walking upstairs with big, heavy steps. She carried a man’s belt with her. Sarah slept on her stomach that night.