Everyone is gone.
The kitchen is crippled with precipitous towers of dishes piled on counters, garbage bags tied but not removed, and empty wine bottles corralled on the kitchen table. There are spots of something reddish on the wall over the stove. The cabinets hang open, revealing that nearly every dish in the house has been put to use, including the teacups. The saucers, however, remain. Ella worries about this because she realizes she has forgotten to offer coffee or tea to her guests. She thinks it might have been a terrible rudeness--did her guests go home wondering what went wrong? Were they expecting coffee and tea to be served? Did they think she was rude, or just forgetful? And what about the teacups? Had some other wife taken the reins and made coffee herself? Or had Ella taken them out with the intention of making coffee, and simply forgotten?
This is perplexing, and it makes Ella think that perhaps the whole party was haphazard. Distress blooms. What else has she forgotten? She occupies herself with locating her wineglass--they had used little silver and crystal stem ornaments and hers is green--and she replenishes it with red wine, which dulls her concern.
In the next room, the television roars. The Mets are playing and her husband has turned the game on. She knows that this is a Mets-Braves game only because speculation on its outcome devoured a good chunk of the dinner conversation, leaving half the party speechless and bored. She wonders why she wasn't able to divert the conversation to something more entertaining, but at the time necessities pressed around her like clouds: The uncarved roast was squirming under the knife, the temperature of the asparagus was plummeting, there was a sudden shortage of butter for the rolls, and her son was distributing Cheez-its to the other children in lieu of dinner.
Wandering into the family room, she sees that her husband is asleep.
Upstairs, her children are also asleep, or at least it can be assumed so as there is no obvious thumping going on above her head. Her children are allowed to stay up for dinner parties--there is no sense in doing battle with them to sleep while simultaneously attempting not to overcook pork--and are given dispensation to eat in the family room while watching The Incredibles. Her guests bring their children as well and collectively the adults refer to this deviation from routine as a "slumber party" although it is understood that no one will actually sleep until they have been transported back to their beds at home.
Ella looks at her slumbering husband. His mouth is slightly parted and his hands are woven together on his chest. He looks satiated and calm. He will not think of this party again. Tomorrow, in her usual party postmortem, she will ask him how he thinks it went. He will smile and nod before he wonders aloud what their plans are for the following weekend and if they should invite his brother over sometime. If she asks him what he thought of the meal, he will say, "It was delicious," and ask what they're having tonight, likely suggesting that they go out.
She walks back into the kitchen with the intention of putting the dishes in the dishwasher. She turns on the pendant light over the sink. Spotlighted, her hands look rough and chalky, almost geriatric, and she diagnoses the condition as extreme dryness from being underwater most of the day.
She pumps lotion on them from a bottle she keeps by the sink for this purpose. Dryness is a chronic problem.
Thus remoistened, she turns away from the sink, loathe to ruin her treatment with more water. Instead, she finds a bag of Doritos in the pantry and sits at the kitchen table, eating.
She is hungry. This is something she hadn't known and as she devours the chips by the handful, crumbs fall onto her black pants and turn her fingers orange. It is riotously satisfying, and sound of chips being smashed between her molars is crass and funny, like a dirty joke. She slumps back into the chair, enjoying herself as she sucks the orange powder off her fingers. At about the fourth finger, she entertains the idea of sex--it might be nice to have someone else controlling her body for a while--but the house responds with sleeping silence and the TV echoes the roar of a crowd many miles away.
A conversation replays in her head from dinner, one wherein she tentatively agrees to a trip to the Catskills with another family. One wherein they would all ride horses and go hiking and possibly canoeing.
"Oh," she had said. "That would be a wonderful idea! I loved horseback riding as a child. And the kids would have so much fun together."
As if! As if such harmony could be struck among five children and four adults! Her mouth opens and her hand lurches up to catch the laugh that nearly escapes. She could imagine it: docile trail horses going white around the eyes with terror as five children circle them, whooping as they imagine cowboys would, Game Boys in one hand, lead lines whirling ruthlessly from the other.
From the next room, she hears chanting from the TV. She can picture the crowd on its feet, screaming in frenetic unison. She loved baseball. Had loved, when they lived near enough to go to the stadium. She remembers standing in the sloping shell of the stadium, stands vibrating with the insistence of thousands of feet, vertigo seeping like sweat from her pores, the mass of faces screaming an oceanic roar.
The kitchen window is dark and reflects circles of light from the ceiling fixtures. It is not quite ten o'clock. When they were younger, they would just be getting ready to go out. Even this late at night there was still so much of the day left.
She thinks of a time when the veins on the back of her hands didn't stand out like tree roots. She remembers wearing skinny jeans and smoking cigarettes and drinking apple martinis in dark bars with velveteen couches and loud music. She thinks about talking to people she doesn't really know about things that were intensely important for a moment. She recalls how, in the discord of youth, time can stand still and hours can be isolated, closed off, regretless.
Ella picks up her wine and drinks it to the bottom. Beneath the padding of her skin, she feels herself fidget and crave a cigarette.
It has been years since she even held a cigarette, but the thought encases Ella like a sac. There is no reason why she can't run out and grab a pack. She could come home, sit on the deck and enjoy a little youthful decadence. The kids are asleep and her husband, while asleep, is in the house. It is reasonable enough that she could go. He'll wake up if something dramatic happens.
She shoves her feet into a pair of her husband's sneakers that are by the door in the mudroom. She takes her car keys off the hook. She puts her wallet in her pocket. There is a 7-11 a couple of miles away. Not far to go at all. She'll be back in ten minutes.
She steps out the door and feels as if she has grown three inches. The breeze blows her hair and tickles her scalp. She feels a shudder of adrenaline and has an impulse to skip. She backs the car down the driveway slowly--it is rare that she drives after dark and it feels a little awkward. She has difficulty seeing the curbs at the edge of the street in the rear view mirror, but once she turns and begins moving forward her confidence returns. She presses a button, and her window slips down. Fiery fall air washes in and her hair dances across her face. The street is braced between heavy trees that tangle overhead and between their trunks the heavy-lidded windows of her neighbors glow blue with television light. She feels reckless and empty, rocketed back to being nobody important--just a kid sneaking off to buy cigarettes. She desires to turn on the radio and sing, but as she glances down at the knob there is a glint ahead, drawing her eyes back to the road. She doesn't see it again and thinks maybe she should slow down--maybe she's had too much to drink--and then they reappear, washing in and out of the light like coins underwater. When they jump, so does she, and as her foot reaches for the brake, her husband's shoes catch under the pedal, and she feels the car wash away like a tide.
Through tears, she apologizes. She hadn't seen them--not until the last minute. She hadn't even been sure they were real. How many deer? It all happened so fast.
She agrees: It was just dumb luck that she hadn't hit one of them. Just dumb luck that she made it home in one piece.
Ella is sitting in the kitchen chair, the bag of Doritos shattered across the table, the empty wine glass standing witness, the assembly of empty bottles a quiet jury. Her husband pulls up a chair and sits opposite her
"Where on earth were you going?" he demands. "You realize you've been drinking, right?" His mouth is open and concerned, but there is a hint of a childish pout the stiffness of his lips and rage in his rigid hands. The TV is off.
"My God, El. When I heard the car start, well, I just couldn't imagine."
"I'm sorry," Ella stammers. Her stomach tantrums and her head feels bruised, although she can't recall hitting it on anything. She wasn't going very fast. All she did was jump the curb before she kicked off the shoe and hit the brakes. There was some damage--she had ultimately run down a small dogwood tree and the owner of the wounded tree had wanted to call the police--but both Ella and the car escaped serious injury. "I just--it's such a mess in here. I just wanted to get out of the house for a minute."
Ella's husband looks at his wife, who offers no further explanation. He feels tired and thinks he should take a Zantac. He is disappointed that the Mets have lost the game and that he's going to have to spend money on a dogwood tree for someone else's yard. He wonders if he can save the damaged tree--was it really fully cracked in two, or just bent over?--and put it in his yard. He is angry that there is a dent in the bumper of their car and it's going to stay there because he's not going to pay to get it fixed and he's certainly not calling their insurance company about it. "I'm going to bed," he says. "We'll deal with the mess tomorrow."
Alone again, Ella feels a swell of emotion seep into her crevices and then ebb back to something swollen, but level. Yes, bed, she thinks. Sleep will bring everything back to normal.
And yet, when she stands up she goes to the sink and puts her hands under the light. They look dry again, so she opens the dishwasher and begins to load it. As the stacks of dishes on the counter disappear, she notices a comma of teacups in the back by the wall. In the bottom of each one is a thick, milky brown substance. It is sweet smelling and surprises her by making her smile.
Her husband had served chocolate ice cream to the kids for dessert.
About the author:
Christina Kapp lives in New Jersey with her husband and young daughters. In rare moments of quiet, she is hard at work on her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Adirondack Review, SLAB, Flashquake and Beginnings.