Fiction Friday: Chapter 13
Read previous chapters here.
As Leda balances the checkbook, she finds many debits after the holiday season and monthly medical expenses. She knows the holiday expenses are past, but expects to see many more bills paid to doctors and nurses. As these numbers swirl in her head, she remembers that Walt Junior has not come to visit. Although, as this thought crosses her mind, she realizes that it is not really something to remember, for Walt Junior has not visited in years. The situation seems to be permanent. A shocking moment would be to find him at the front door, possibly asking to see his sickly father, possibly begging for forgiveness, possibly hugging his mother. These things will not happen, Leda decides, although she would like them to. She has held her grudges over the years, Heaven knows this, but she would welcome her son back if he walked through the heavy, leaded-glass front door.
Walt, however, would not. Even in his helpless state—the diaper surrounding his lower half, his face twisted as Quasimoto’s, his arms flailing—Walt would find a way to tell his son to “Go to hell.” Even if he could not articulate those words, he would intimate it. Leda can see it now, Walt’s arms waving without any grace or rhythm, his eyes bulging as if he’d seen a demon, and his lips moving spasmodically. Walt Junior would recognize this face, the one that meant Dad was angry and you’d better watch out or his leather belt would soon be shaking hands with your bottom. Leda sees the comedy of the moment, the irony of Walt’s message being portrayed without any concrete communication, yet it strikes her as tragic.
Although she would welcome her son, she realizes that she has two Walts on her hands. The one who would stick to his pride and give the evil eye even in his hour of extreme physical limitations and the other who would not ever walk through that door. Walt Junior has no humility, no inkling of his mother’s feelings or inclinations. He would likely rather die than come home to admit that he has missed his parents, to admit that he has been wrong, to admit that he has been a bad parent himself. All of these facts have been twisted in Walt Junior’s head. He does not see them the way the rest of the family sees them.
Leda contemplates a time when her son wanted to be with her, wanted to please her, wanted to make her laugh. There was the incident with the oatmeal when he was no more than three. He figured out that he got a good laugh from his sisters and a stifled laugh with a stern face from his mother if he turned his breakfast bowl upside down on his head. He continued to do so each morning, until Leda finally had to lecture Diane and Janet about not encouraging such behavior in their brother by responding to his antics. Of course, Leda tried to listen to herself as she spoke, realizing that she too smiled when her golden boy did his tricks. The joy she felt almost outweighed the chore of wiping the glutinous oatmeal from the high chair and floor each morning.
Then there was the time Walt Junior hitched a ride to school without anybody knowing. Leda had loaded Janet and Diane into the car, telling Walt Junior she would return in five minutes. She explained that she had to take his sisters to school. She did this, then returned home to find Walt gone. She hunted throughout the house, calling his name, offering candy, pleading desperately. She knew it was not unlike him to play such a game and stay quiet until his mother drove herself to tears or shouting, sometimes both. Just as Leda realized that he may not actually be in the house and she felt a bird-like panic filling her breast, the phone rang. The school was on the other line asking her to come and pick up Walter Junior, that he had somehow come to school with his sisters.
Leda drove back immediately to fetch him, wondering how on earth he had walked so quickly on his small legs. As they drove home, he explained to her that he had hitched a ride with her. When Leda questioned him as to what this meant, for she felt sure that he had not been in the car with her and the girls on her previous trip, he told of how he had held to the outside door handle and put his feet on the tiny groove between the door and frame of the car. Leda felt herself blushing violently, for surely she had not been such an unaware mother, driving a few blocks with her smallest child clinging to the outside of the car. She hoped that nobody had seen, yet if they had, she probably would have been alerted to his circus-worthy feat sooner.
This was her boy. Now, he is a man. A selfish and angry man. A man who will not speak to his aging parents. A man who acts out in anger against his own children. A man who trashes everything he owns. A man without respect or purpose. A man Leda is ashamed of.
He will not come, this she knows. She focuses on the numbers, realizing that she still has to collect the rent checks from their many properties. Walt has shown her what to do on many occasions, before his stroke. For this, she is grateful. She has work to do. She hopes soon that Walt will be well enough to take back over, to be the landlord, investor, and business owner that he is. She does not know if she can handle all of the responsibility herself.
Soledad has many responsibilities, the worst of them being chamber pot duty. She hates this chore, despising the cold walk to the outhouse, the slippery, sloshing contents of the bowl, the smell that surrounds her head and doesn’t cease until at least an hour after the deed has been done. That morning, she had forgotten to empty the pot and has since pushed the thought of doing so from her mind. Instead, Manuel tells them all ghost stories, with Mary and Josefa joining in when they remember one they have heard from school.
Soledad feels shivers up and down her back as Manuel describes the spooky situation. She knows there are no such thing as ghosts, yet she is quite sure that when she is alone and it is dark, something could grab her leg and swallow her before she will be able to scream. As Manuel talks, this same eery sense washes over her body, making the hairs on her arms stand straight and tall amid thousands of tiny goosebumps.
Just as Manuel finishes his ghastly tale, Mama reminds her children that it is time for bed. As Eualalia and her siblings scatter, each heading for their ritualistic nighttime chores, Pilar checks the chamber pot. She sees that it has not been emptied and must be if anybody is to be comfortable during the night. She does not want to walk any of her children out back to the outhouse at midnight.
Soledad and Manuel are the chosen children, the ones who must trek outside to empty the pot. They each take a side, then shimmy through the door, holding their lungs and hoping no smells get through their motionless nostrils. They move quickly and crab-like, moving toward the outhouse. The wooden structure begins to take shape in the dark. They can see the small, high window meant for circulation and the outline of the building against the low-lit sky.
Suddenly, a figure rises in front of the outhouse, her face blue, her hair like Medusa’s, and her gown flapping wildly. Manuel and Soledad gasp, each now smelling their foul errand. They both attempt to fling the pot away from themselves, but with the two siblings putting force in opposite directions, the pot lands between them, spilling its foul contents into the hard-packed dirt.
The ghostly shadow stops flapping and moaning and instead lets out a gut-born laugh. The siblings realize it is just their neighbor, Mrs. Harris. They feel their hearts slow down as if a brake has been hit. They find themselves laughing as well. Relief floods their sense and they begin to apologize for the mess they have made.
Mrs. Harris, her face covered in a beauty mask, reassures the children that she is fine. She tells them she is just glad they didn’t aim the pot better and dump its contents onto her. The three have a good chuckle over this. Soledad vows to do her chores when she is supposed to and never to listen to Manuel and his creepy stories again.