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Jan/Feb 2009 Fiction

The After Party

by Jessica Keener

Artwork by Robert Hoover


In the dark hours after my parents' dinner party, a police officer found Mother at the edge of Gooseneck Lake slumped over the steering wheel. The car hurtled over the embankment, a low dirt mound, and drove into the shallow water. The jolt broke her nose and bruised her forehead. Emergency workers removed her from the front seat and took her to the local hospital for observation.

"Very, very lucky," Father said, shaking his head.

He stood at my bedside looking like crumpled newspaper. The early morning sun nudged the windowsill behind him. His hair was askew, his clothes buttoned wrongly.

"I didn't hear the car leave," I said. "Where was she going?"

"The lake. The lake. You know your mother. Full of whimsy. Beautiful night. Party. She went on a drive to get some fresh air, those aches she gets and the point is, she's going to be fine. Took those pills. The doctors don't tell you the effects." He fluttered his knotty hands to illustrate what he meant then turned back to the door. He didn't want to tell me more than that.

Gooseneck Lake is where I spent winter days ice-skating with school friends. On one end, it stretched into a long, narrow shape. We skated on the belly section, where it opened up into a round, plump pond protected by shrubs and scraggly trees, where Mother lost her bearings rounding a curve. I shook my head. I felt angry, unable to comprehend.

"I don't get it."

"She'll be fine, fine, fine. Crazy accident. Damn arthritis. Those pills. You and the boys spend the day with your aunt until we straighten this thing out. Get dressed and come downstairs."

He closed my door.

This word "accident" made him behave in a peculiar, shifting way. His voice trembled. I was accustomed to his shouts, and now as I listened to him hurry down the hall, knocking on my younger brother's door and repeating the word, "accident," in a whisper, I wished he would revert to a louder gauge.

I lay on my back in bed, looking at the ceiling. Robert's reply floated into the hallway, an elongated, eleven-year-old whining question: "Whyeeee?"

Father said something inaudible.

"I don't want tooooo. What do you meeeen?"

My brother was two years younger than I. He sounded scared, which made him defiant.

"Get up."

Father tromped up to the attic and I heard Peter's voice and Elliott, the youngest, then Father stepping heavily back down to the second floor landing.

"Sarah, now, please."

I sat up and got dressed. My three brothers came down one by one and sat on the kitchen stools. Our black maid, Dora, silently poured bowls of cereal and stood at the sink cleaning vegetables, looking stern-faced and military. While we ate, Aunt Annette arrived. She wore a brown and white polka dotted dress that touched the midline of her knees. Her calves looked surprisingly slender, given her girth, wide shoulders and full bosom. Her dark leather pumps tip tapped on the kitchen floor. She smelled freshly showered and powdered.

"Hello, dears," she said, bending down to kiss Elliot. She reached toward Robert, but he recoiled and stepped away. So she took Elliot's hand and assured him that Mother would be fine. Elliot was only seven and snuggled against her thigh.

"What happened to her?" Elliot asked.

"Your mother hurt her nose. She'll be home in a week, so we don't need to be glum," my aunt said.

"How did she hurt it?"

"In the accident."

"But how did it happen?"

Elliot persisted—that part of him that needed to cure all ills, mend animals, fix people, as if his whole being were in a state of anticipation, the hairs on his skin like mini-antennae honing in on what might and could go wrong.

"So many questions, dear. I don't have all the answers right now but when I do I'll tell you. How's that?"

"When will you know?"

"Later, Elliot. Let's think about the zoo."

Father came in shaved and combed, his hair flat. "I'm leaving now. Okay?" He turned to Aunt Annette. "You're all set?

"I'd like to go with you," Peter said. Sixteen now, he spoke with new authority. His lanky body and blond hair tied back in a ponytail gave him a confident, rock star look.

Father stepped back and bumped into the stove.

"Not today, Peter. I mean it. Please." His voice sounded desperate.

Peter started to speak, then changed his mind.

Though accident became the operative word, a simple word pockmarked by carelessness and avoidable travesty, the word infuriated me. Fuming, I got into the front seat of Aunt Annette's car. She pushed the master button on the control panel. All the door locks clicked simultaneously like bullets shooting at targets. This didn't help my mood.

"Everybody set?" She looked into the rear view mirror, then put the car into reverse.

"Do we have a choice?" Peter asked.

The car smelled of my aunt's perfume and had an impervious air, as if nothing on Earth could soil it or her or us, but I knew better. I was the mature one, wasn't I? Isn't that what mother always said? Sarah, you're so mature, beyond your years. We drove out of the neighborhood in my aunt's scratch-free black Cadillac, melon-colored leather seats, ashtrays hidden in the doors, down the hill past hedges dried out from summer heat. I had no spirit for conversation. Elliot played with two of his plastic animals—a horse and a sheep. Whispering to himself, he tapped the sheep's head against the horse's muzzle and walked them up and down his thigh, then tilted them on the ledge of his knees. Robert read his book about time travel, his head in an invisible vice, his hand turning pages with a snap that told me he was fending off our shared dismay. Peter stared out at the highway.

At the zoo, we filed through the turnstile and headed first to the bird exhibit. Despite the sunny day, the crowds were thin, perhaps because of the heat. We found ourselves alone inside the marshland area, a dark, low-lit room that smelled of old rain and bird droppings. In the water tank, a Mallard pecked at a Styrofoam cup floating in the reeds. Robert stopped to look at a school of gold fish. One fish stopped at the glass, hoping for food, I suspected. Its flat eye peered through murky liquid.

"Why was her car in the lake?" Elliot asked suddenly. He spoke clearly, his voice rising in the dankness.

Peter walked away from the snake tanks and stood next to Robert. "It went off the embankment," he said. "The tire tripped off the side. That's my guess."

"It was an accident, dear," Aunt Annette said. "Another car may have blinded her."

That word again. The more I thought about her driving so late at night, bleary-eyed and oblivious, the more incensed I became. The so-called accident. Why not just say my mother was crazy, caught up in something that I couldn't see or grasp. Mother had behaved irresponsibly. We all knew it.

Elliot took my Aunt's hand.

"Let's go see the monkeys. Okay, everybody?" she asked.

We left the birdhouse and followed a cracked walkway to the monkey exhibit, another dark, hollow building. The Gorilla House looked like an abandoned Hollywood movie set with fake boulders, straw piles, a few lean trees. Sky domes let in a hazy light. High on a rock perch, a full-grown male gorilla eyed us disinterestedly. A younger gorilla lingered near the glass front. He picked up a rubber tire and rolled it alongside the glass, then picked it up again and threw it. Elliot crouched down and pressed his palm against the glass.

"He wants to play."

"He must be bored," I said.

The young gorilla walked up to where Elliot knelt on the concrete floor. The two stared at each other. Elliot waved and smiled. The gorilla hopscotched, screeched and ran up the boulders, then down. He thumped on the Plexiglas to startle us.

"Stand back," Aunt Annette said.

"He's playing!" Elliot jumped up and down, delighted by this.

"Gorillas are highly intelligent," Robert said.

The gorilla ran away and came back again, then danced in a small circle.

Peter said, "Yeah, well. That's why they shouldn't be locked in here."

I wanted to get out of the stuffy building. I started to think about the hours spent inside the cage and it depressed me.

"I can't breathe in here."

"But they're protected," Elliot said.

"Endangered," Robert said.

"Not all," Elliot said.

"Shall we keep going?" my aunt said. We were on edge and she didn't want Robert or Peter to start arguing.

We left the building and headed for the giraffes at the opposite end of the park. My aunt walked slowly, stopping to read sign posts that explained animal behaviors and foods. Even though the day was muggy, my aunt wore stockings. I wondered if she ever took them off.

Peter began humming a folk tune, the notes falling gently like a stone down a hillside. Michael row your boat ashore, hallelujah...

Elliot, never quick-legged, hurried toward the giraffes grazing in a large open field. A barbwire fence cordoned off the area. Two elegant giraffes, tall as palm trees, turned toward him as he approached. They began to move in his direction, their necks swaying in unison. I saw a small sign: Electric Fence, Low Voltage.

"Don't touch the fence, Elliot!" I screamed too late.

He grabbed the wire and fell backwards onto the ground, shrieking. Peter raced over. I came up right behind. Elliot rolled over onto his stomach and began sobbing.

"You'll be fine, son." A guard called from the road. He sped over in a golf cart. He turned to Aunt Annette, who looked horrified. "Don't worry now. It won't harm him. It scares them. That's what it is."

"Do you want to explain this?" Aunt Annette asked.

Peter and I both put our arms around Elliot, who sat up looking at his hands. Robert stood with his arms lifelessly at his side, then he began hopping in place. The grey-haired guard assured us that Elliot would not suffer physical harm.

"It's low voltage and keeps both animals and visitors safe."

Aunt Annette dismissed the man, turning impatiently. I had never seen her upset. Her chin shook. Even with Mother's accident, she had been calm, almost expectant.

We watched the guard drive slowly away.

"Let's go home," Peter said.

Elliot whimpered. "I want to go to the hospital. I want to see my mother."

"Yes. Why don't we go see her?" I asked.

"I promise you, she'll be home in a few days. Let's go have lunch."

My aunt put her arm around Elliot. He curled his shoulders inward, pressing his chin to his chest. I wanted to cry, too. I turned back to look at the giraffes. They had loped to the opposite end of the field; beautiful, untouchable beasts.

We got in the car. This time I sat in back between Elliot and Robert.

"Did it hurt?" Robert asked Elliot as we backed out of the parking lot. "What was it like? Was it like fire? Did it burn?"

"Stop it Robert, you sound like a mini-Hitler," Peter said in front.

I held Elliot's hand and rubbed it between my own.

"It was terrible about the sign," I said.

"Did you see it?" Aunt Annette asked me in the rear view mirror.

"It was tiny."

"That place should be shut down," Peter said.

"Shameful. I'd read that it had improved," Aunt Annette said. "It's utter negligence. Low voltage, my word."

"I'm okay," Elliot said.

Aunt Annette drove out of the parking lot. There were no indications of betterment here—faded signs, asphalt buckling and curling at the edges. In the rear view mirror I saw her lips pressed into a straight line.

"We'll have lunch. That will make us all feel better. Who wants clam chowder? Elliot, Robert? And we'll have softie ice creams for dessert."

 

In the evening, I talked to Mother on the phone.

"Are you taking care of the house for me?" she asked.

"Dora is."

"Would you do me a favor, sweetie? The roses need to be fed. In the garage on the third shelf of the metal rack, you'll see a tall can with a picture of roses on it. Take a tablespoon of the white powder and mix it with a gallon of water, then pour the mixture into the roots. Give them a good soak."

I listened. Her voice sounded groggy.

"All right, dear? That would be a big help to me."

"We wanted to come to the hospital and visit you today. "

"I know. Your father told me. Put Elliot on, honey. He had a terrible scare today."

I went down to the garage to prepare the mixture. The powder had a putrid smell of old dung. I dumped a dose of powder in the watering can, carried it out to the garden in the backyard and soaked the dirt beneath the rose bushes. Afterwards, I went into my parents' bedroom and opened Mother's toiletries closet. Crystal perfume bottles clustered on the shelf like miniature people whispering secrets. One bottle looked like a flower vase. Another bottle came from Paris. I dabbed the sweet stinging perfume down my arms, resting my cheek on the shelves, inhaling the mixed bouquets. Upstairs, Peter practiced another Joni Mitchell ballad on his guitar, repeating phrases, playing the song over and over. Mitchell's sweet soprano circled like a bird calling from someplace far away at sea.

Everything comes and goes
Just when you think you've got it made
Bad news comes knocking at the gate
It all comes down to you.

In Mother's clothes closet, I paddled through the hangers, touching one dress after another, her blue taffeta dress next to her red mohair suit. I found matching red silk-dyed shoes in a plastic bag on the floor. The yellow dress she had worn at the party was missing. I imagined it rolled up in a bag, soaked and soiled by the muddy water. I knelt inside the closet and shut the door, fitting my hands into Mother's pointed shoes. The taffeta swished across my face. Protected now, I curled up and listened to the music upstairs. It all comes down to you. When I closed my eyes in the darkness, I saw Mother standing at the full-length closet mirror, turning to view herself, highly critical, unsatisfied; moving away, then approaching her image again like a firefighter trying to battle stubborn flames.

What was burning?

Downstairs I heard my aunt's voice interspersed with Father's voice, then the front door shutting. I hurried out of the closet and slipped into my room.

Father checked in with each of us.

"She's fine. Bruised and swollen. Recovering."

He stood at my bedroom door and talked to my rug, not looking at me. "I'm tired now. Let's just be thankful she's all right."

I wanted him to tell me more, explain her to me, but I could see that he was intent on withholding something. Later that evening, I heard him moving through the downstairs rooms like a giant hermit crab. He walked heavier than usual, back and forth through the house, anticipating her return, not knowing exactly where to go without her, the weight of his life's belongings on his back.


The next morning I woke early and went downstairs. I found Father asleep on the couch, an empty vodka bottle by his feet.

"Dad," I whispered. "Get up."

He opened his eyes, blinking, stirring his brain. He sat up slowly.

"Fell asleep," he said, sluggishly.

He stood up and hobbled over to the stairs. Once he started up to his bedroom, I sat on the couch in the warm indentation of his body and wrapped my robe around my legs. I waited for my brothers to rise. Dora was already up. I heard glasses clinking in the kitchen as she unloaded the dishwasher. Then Elliot came down to watch cartoons on TV. Robert came next and finally Peter. I heard Dora open the cupboard, the carving knife slicing oranges for juice. I took the empty vodka bottle into the kitchen to dump in the trash. Dora turned to inspect me, her arm muscles bulging from pressing oranges.

"Where'd you find that?"

"Living room."

Dora shook her head.

"Glory. My word what I've seen."

I took a bowl down from the cupboard and poured cereal and milk into it, then slid onto the stool. Dora poured me a glass of juice.

"You have some of this," she said, coming over to me.

She stood close. I smelled skin cream and the scent of oranges on her hands. She poured three more glasses and set one in front of each empty stool.

"I hate the pulp," I said, sipping.

"That's what's good for you. Drink it anyway."

She looked at me sternly but I smiled, comforted by her steady, grim demeanor, her incisive talk; her sweet smelling dark skin.

"How come you put up with us?"

She started to answer but changed her mind.

"Drink your juice, Sarah."

She went over to the sink and finished unloading the dishwasher.

Despite another round of pleas, Father refused to take us to the hospital. The doctors had put her in a special ward for observation.

"I'm respecting your mother's wishes."

She did not want us to see her until her swollen face subsided, which the doctors said would take a week. I heard my aunt tell my father that she needed a different kind of help.

A few people who had been to the dinner party stopped by with offerings: a casserole, a box of candy. Shell, a tall man who danced with her at the party, showed up in a red cardigan sweater and green pants and a basket of fruit. He scrubbed my head with his knuckles.

"Not to worry," he assured me. "It's that change of season. Makes you drive crazy."

"What change?" I asked.

"End of summer."

He didn't mention her overdose of liquor and pills. No one did.

My aunt stoked my hair. Her long fingers nudged me to smile.

"What?" I said, accusingly.

"She'll be home soon."

"If she hadn't gone out driving in the middle of the night, this wouldn't have happened."

That night in bed, I floated over the rooftops of the neighborhood. In the darkness I tried to count stars but they had receded like a tide of sand toward another shore. When I saw the quarter moon I fell back on my bed. The crescent light shattered my windows. Mother appeared in the broken pane and smiled. She wore a red woolen skirt and cashmere sweater. A long string of pearls draped around her neck. Her diamond ring was missing.

Mother?

Sweetie.

When are you coming home?

Soon, darling.

I stood in front of her and stared but she didn't say anything else.

Mother returned home after a week, just like everyone said. The first night she came into my room.

"Still awake?" she asked standing in my doorway.

"Sort of."

She moved closer and sat on the edge of my bed, the mattress so thick it hardly registered her weight.

"Homework done?" she curled her fingers around my ear.

"Of course."

"Good."

She got up from the bed and went over to my desk and fidgeted with a pencil, then parted the curtain and looked out. The streetlight scraped against her cheek and made her oval face look empty, like a pretty candy dish. Circles under her eyes cast a greenish, yellow halo.

"Fall's coming," she said. "When I was a child I wanted—" She leaned against the desk and turned up the cuffs of her blouse, exposing thin wrists.

"Wanted what?" I said, propping myself onto my elbow.

"Sweetie," she said, coming back over to the bed and sitting on the end. "My mother used to call me sweetie, isn't that something?" She stroked my bedspread. "She always believed I would be something special, a star. She never liked your father from the beginning. I think she was afraid of him."

"Mother," I said, turning over, tightening the blanket around my neck. "Stop it. You're talking funny."

She looked at me, blinking. Her lipstick had been licked off and only the outline remained.

"Sleep tight, my love." She patted my shoulder and went down the hall to her bedroom.

In the next few weeks, she was apologetic about the accident but distant, becoming wispy again once the bandage on her nose was removed, busying herself with her roses, and taking new pills to help her sleep.

She ordered a custom Cadillac similar to Aunt Annette's, and when she drove it home and parked it in the driveway, it was so big and wide it wouldn't fit in the garage. She looked small at the wheel, frail, I thought.

"Big as a tank," Father said to her.

"Yes. That's what I want. Protection."

After the arrival of her new car, no one mentioned the accident anymore as if we'd made a silent family pact to avoid it. Besides, I didn't know what else to say to her. She'd already left me. What do you say to someone you've lost?

 

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