In the frock shop that employs her, Justina is considered a treasure, someone who's good for the soul. They call her Brady, after the Brady Bunch, because the stories she tells are so warmly colored. Even if on occasion the subject is sad - an uncle or a pet dying - it's sad in an honorable way; never hopeless or dirty or unspeakably vile. In tone and feeling, this chit-chat of Justina's is like the dresses that come in every summer, the ones she sells wealthy beach-going ladies and wears so beautifully on her lithe Brady Bunch body.
It so happens that tonight, late tonight, Justina has a date with the most important person in her life. It's her Mom, Alana, who's doing something that's SO Alana, going to a kind of Tupperware Party. But anyway, because the party might run late, Alana suggested that Justina come the next night, it would be easier on everyone.
But Justina would hear none of it.
"Isn't this where all the women at the party bake things?" Justina asked.
Alana hemmed and hawed but finally agreed.
"And what's it called, Mom?"
Alana took a full beat to answer. "The Pampered Chef...Isn't that what I said before?"
Justina chuckled. "You think I'd miss something you'd baked, Mom?" I'll be out a little before midnight. I want it fresh from the oven. Yum."
Justina's mind is like a humungous photo album. Infinite space between the covers. The pictures in it are all scenes of happy times in Chadwick, Mass., where Alana still lives, a town just south of Boston, on the way to the Cape. Justina grew up there with her mother, father and brother Theo. Rough-housing in the yard, picknicking in the woods, diving into the pool. Getting the freshest, most wonderful eggs from Winsor's, the farm that's been in continuous operation since Henry David Thoreau trekked the full Cape seashore. In Justina's mind-album, Dad comes home every night. On weekends he plays Frisbee with Heidi, the Bernese Mountain dog. Just the snapshots of Heidi running, jumping and twisting would fill a computer even bigger than the mind-album, if such a thing existed, not to mention the shots of Theo, once a track star, doing many of the same leaps and twirls. In sequence after sequence, Justina's dad Bruno builds masterly treehouses and swing sets and real log jungle gyms. Alana, the baking mom, turns out these amazing grape pies. With grapes she orders from a special place, some farm in upstate New York. If Justina's mind had real pages in it, these subjects would fill volumes, libraries, and that's only scratching the surface. But there are no pictures whatsoever of Bruno or his present whereabouts, which some of the townie riffraff, the ponytailed Chadwick hippies, claim is somewhere along the Alaska pipeline. Of Bruno it's further said by these same nobodies, or alleged, that he works custodially in a far-north hospital. Bagging medical waste, scouring bedpans, pocketing the occasional loose sleeping pill. A miracle hospital, if you believe in such things, where rising radiator steam once alighted on window glass in the shape of the Virgin Mary, drawing crowds from as far as Honolulu. And Theo...he's doing okay, for someone who sells carnations at busy intersections on weekends and holidays and can stare for hours without blinking.
Mind you, Justina gets dates other than her mom Alana. Of course! - she's gorgeous, she models. She gets introduced to boys all the time by the wealthy beach-going ladies who love her frocks. They bring around their sons, all blond and yachty and geeky clean. The sons take Justina to their clubs and luxury condos, where Brady Bunch plays just fine until midnight or so, when the geeky clean stops and the Jaegermeister starts to boil in the toilet bowls and noses bleed and get snow-numb and the floor is all yachty bodies rolling in the Jaeger stench. Justina has fled across iced-over fire escapes and learned to make a fist around the blade of her apartment key, just to get running space.
In the mind-album of Justina, Alana is considered a treasure, someone who's good for the soul.
No one knows this more than Alana.
Alana, the Mom. Who's only human.
As night falls, Alana opens the hall closet and takes out a case. It's long and slim, the kind of case a sportsman might carry. Built like it holds a fishing rod. Off she goes in her vehicle, and soon she joins a small herd of SUVs and minivans rumbling up the driveway of a pleasant colonial home, the lawn illuminated by welcoming lanterns.
Justina is the topic on all the ladies' lips. When will we see her on the cover of a magazine? When will she open her own shop? Who does she date? Who does her hair? How popular is she? Will she marry a billionaire?
Alana listens and laughs. With the corners of the mouth, not the eyes. She says nothing in particular, but winks and nods, acknowledging possibilities. The ladies are book club ladies, more or less, as is Alana. But instead of bringing books, they've brought their long, thin cases. And they open the cases and inside are metal poles.
Brenda, owner of the colonial, is hostessing the party. The ladies gather in the kitchen for a little chardonnay, and Brenda slides a long, sugar-smelling tray into the oven. She mops her brow, removes her apron and declares, "I'm sending you home tonight with banana muffins...and with moves you won't believe."
Brenda leads the guffawing group out of the kitchen, down a Berber-covered staircase to an ample rec room which has stray gym equipment on the sidelines and a big open space in the middle, all in shiny tan tile. She turns down the dimmer and turns up a stereo knob. She gets a black light going in front of the fireplace and strips out of the loose fleece she's wearing to reveal a tight pink t-shirt with bold black letters that say, "Got Pole." One instant later the group, including Alana, does its version of the same outer-top removal, but a little clunkier in its execution. Suddenly there are fourteen women in "Got Pole" t-shirts and black hugger pants who have elongated their spring-action poles to nine feet, and they're standing next to them like troops at attention.
At previous sessions, each has paid Brenda $450 for the pole and another hundred for the case. Tupperware never cost this. As a single mom, Alana's road is no easy one, even with the kids out. No Bruno, nobody but herself, and a Chadwick home in the Winsor's Farm area can't be seen with peeling paint and sagging shingles. If Justina has that lanky Vogue look, Alana, in a certain light - flash blue and red in particular - can still get a Maxim thing going, and she's thinking career path here. Just up in Quincy there's the big shipyard and the Commodore's Club for Gentlemen. There's Posh Pole too, under Escort Outcall in the Verizon Yellow Pages. What Justina doesn't know can't hurt her.
"Let me show you one called The Fireman," says Brenda, wrapping a leg around the pole so sinuously one of the bigger ladies clucks, "she's positively boneless." And a chorus of groans follows as the collective limbs stretch and bend. But not a sound from Alana, who's grimly determined, in her black Nikes, to just do it.
Three hours pass and Alana towels off, aching. She throws on the retro Brady dress she brought along, a Justina thrift shop find, and flees to the driveway, afraid that Justina will get home before she does. A mile down the road she realizes the only thing she's baked all night is herself, and she panics at the thought of faking it with supermarket dough-blobs from the still-open Chadwick Stop n'Shop. Then she remembers Brenda's muffin promise and screeches back just in time to get not one, but two oven-fresh handouts in pink crinkly bags.
"You've earned it," says Brenda, with a sisterly smile. "And I know an earner when I see one."
Alana gets the kitchen lights up and the warmer going not a moment too soon. She throws on an apron, Betty Crocker and Donna Reed all rolled into one, her daughter's gift last Mother's Day.
A blue Miata, borrowed from the frock shop owner, purrs at the breezeway. The blue door opens and Justina emerges, unwinding and extending, like a colt being born.
Arm and arm, nuzzling, from the breezeway to the kitchen.
"It's my Mom. I'm so happy. What's that smell?"
The warmer does its job, filling the air with bursts of butter and cinnamon. Alana stands there in the kitchen, letting Justina hug her. She looks up at the ceiling and notices two blown-out indoor floods. But then Justina stands back, beams her eyes into Alana's and the eyes make up for the bulbs a hundred-fold. Two amazing gems, green as Caribbean sea. Even after all these years, Alana is awestruck. She watches Justina move around, all limbs, touching this and that. So willowy and weightless, yet merry-cheeked and not at all gaunt. Alana can't believe how her own poochy self could have produced such perfection.
She sets out the warm muffins and pours Justina milk.
One bite. "Mom, you outdid yourself. These are incredible."
Alana nods and smiles wordlessly as Justina nibbles and sips. She looks into the green eyes and knows the mind-album is open. Wide open.
"What's your secret, Mom?" Justina taps the muffin's golden helmet reverently, as if the muffin itself might speak. "Whatever you say, I know the real secret. Love. No one loves to bake like my Mom."
Alana pauses to consider the possibles, but speaks the answer she feels will fit best in the mind-album. "Eggs, they make all the difference. No one does it like Winsor's, not these days."
"No factory eggs for my Mom. That's the law." Dainty bite, eyes closed, Justina dream-scrolling back to Easter days at Winsor's. The greenest grass, the bluest skies, the reddest barn. Mom and Dad tall as Lady and Lord. She and Theo deep in a trove of rolling treasure-eggs, each a color explosion, ovals as intricate and different as snowflakes or rainbows. From a wagon-wheeled podium preside Mr. and Mrs. Winsor, the farm couple. At their side, sacks of goodie bags, handmade chocolate bunnies for the children bounding in their meadow.
Alana, from another angle, muses over Winsor's as well. She pictures the Chadwick dump and the rusty truck she saw one raw morning, the truck the townie geezers have chittered about for years. She had missed Trash Day a couple of weeks and her trunk was bursting with thirty-gallon Hefty bags. As she was lifting it open the truck came thumping over the hard-packed ruts and through the twisted chain link gateway, the Winsor's name on the doors nearly rusted off. Neither Ma nor Pa Winsor stepping out of the cab but two of the lesser barn hands, the haulers and sweepers. What they dumped was an odd cargo - not garbage but eggs, the prize product, barrels of them strewn rolling down the humps of landfill into the hollows.
Alana asked and they explained, with a touch of smirk, that these were the eggs that had somehow gotten fertilized, the kind with the little surprise inside, not what the customer wants to see when she takes two from the cardboard carton for the morning's fresh-scrambled with juice and toast.
On Alana's next dump run the air had warmed, the earth with it, but the sky was white and sour as bad milk, ooze from a rotten wound, and she could smell this miasma seeping into the landfill. She threw open the trunk and grabbed the neck of the first bag, but something stopped her. She gaped as a litter-flaked mound of dump dirt seemed to twitch, flutter, then pop a whole new color, a fleck of yellow. It happened again and again, until she could see what was breaking through, emerging, the shell bits, the puny, squirming feather-ball, the hint of beak, and eyes.
An Easter scene. At the dump. A newborn. Alana felt her heart open. And then the searing screech and the strike - the toxic white of the sky forming predator wings and claws - the big seagull bombing down and plucking the chick like a dandelion button. Alana, frozen-eyed, stood and watched the attacker flap and rise into the chalky gulf overhead, until the dead milk-sky erased everything, swallowed it up, a devil's lake taking back one of its own.
For a moment, there in the muffin-warm kitchen, Alana wants to tell Justina this story, just blurt it out. Somehow it seems important, even urgent.
But Justina has just finished her milk. She licks her lips like a happy cat, yawns, and says she wants her Mom to tuck her in.
About the author:
Paul Silverman's stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Minnetonka Review, The North Atlantic Review, Word Riot, and a number of other places. His piece, "Getaway," published by Verbsap, is on the 2006 Million Writers Award shortlist list of Notable Online Stories. He's been a Spotlight Author in Eclectica, which nominated his story, "The Home Front," for Best of the Net, 2007. He has three Pushcart nominations for stories in Byline, Lily and The Worcester Review. New work has been accepted by Konundrum Engine.