It was one and a half days before I had to go to the county courthouse. Spring was the daffodils and no color from the tulips yet and no-high-beams yet off the forsythia. In the backyard: fog. I called the number I hated to call and Miss Salt answered right away. She said, “Hartman-Salt residence.” Ninety percent she had caller ID.
I said, “Hi, this is Sheila. Could I please speak to Will?”
Miss Salt said, “He’s eating his dinner now. Would you like for him to call you back?”
“Yes,” I said and I threw the phone at the plastic hang-up part.
I lowered myself onto the floor and put my head in my hands and saw the floor and closed my eyes. It was like a gate clanging over and over inside my chest.
I reached up, blind, and pulled the phone off the hang-up part and I called the number I loved to call and it rang six times and Ellen said, “Hello?” with soaring clouds of hope. She answered everyone who called. She never checked caller ID. That was Ellen running from the family room, not wanting the person to hang up, even organizations trying to fool her.
“Yes.” She said it with certainty based on decades of hearing this question posed.
“It’s me, Sheila.”
I said, “I have to give my deposition on Monday at nine and I just called to talk to Will and Miss Salt answered and she said Hartman-Salt residence like they live in a mansion and I said who I was and I asked to talk to Will and she said he’s eating and he’d call me back later.” I stopped and I gave Ellen a chance.
Ellen said, “That bitch.”
“She wouldn’t put him on.”
“That bitch. I want to wring her neck.” The way Ellen’s voice sounded was a person from Kansas who knew something about wringing necks.
“Thanks,” I said. “Oh my God.”
“My head hurts.”
“Of course it does.”
“I have to give this deposition. Deposition! I don’t even know what a deposition is.”
“The lawyer asks questions.”
“Holy shit,” I said.
“Do you want to come over?”
“I can’t! I have to watch this video how to give a deposition.”
“Really?” Ellen couldn’t keep it out of her voice: that might be fascinating.
“I don’t want to watch it.”
“Do you have to?”
“My lawyer said yes.”
“Then you better watch it.”
“Why don’t they use regular English? Who the hell knows what a deposition is. You have to be an expert.”
Ellen stayed quiet, polite in the face of my extremity.
I said, “I think I get sworn in.”
“You have nothing to fear. You always tell the truth.”
“You always tell the truth.” She spoke in a magisterial voice.
“Crud,” I said. “It’s very foggy out.”
“It is,” Ellen said.
“It’s creeping everywhere. It’s making everything green. I can’t believe I called to talk to him and I didn’t get to talk to him.”
“I couldn’t even hear his voice in the background. I’m sitting on the floor.”
“I don’t blame you,” Ellen said.
“This floor is so horrible. It has a bulge. It’s fake.”
“Will likes to jump on it, the big bulge.”
“He jumps on it?”
“It’s from the swelling. It’s fake. It’s not wood. It’s laminate. It’s fake and he didn’t leave enough room for expansion so now there’s a bulge. It’s like three feet, bulging up, and Will likes to jump on it. He says it’s his trampoline.”
Ellen laughed and the middle of my chest heated, proud of Will.
“He installed it in winter when we had no humidity and now it’s spring. I have to watch this video. I have to do my taxes.”
“Don’t do your taxes.”
“Don’t do your taxes.”
“Someone has to.”
“Do them tomorrow.”
“Because I’m in a state?”
“One thing at a time,” Ellen said judiciously. She was always delicate and politic. She never said, listen, sister, I’m out of here on this conversation.
I said, “I’m going to watch the deposition thing. I have to go in the room where I found the cell phone records. What kind of person keeps his cell phone records that show everything?”
“He kept them?”
“It felt like I had no legs seeing that. My legs stopped existing. Two in the morning the phone calls? Ninety minutes long? That’s a friend?”
“That’s no friend.”
“Like that’s hard to figure out? Look her name up in the phone book. That’s really hard detective work, man.”
“Why did he keep them?”
“Tax deduction. Because he’s cheap. He uses the phone for business.” I laughed.
“He’s a son of a bitch.”
“Okay,” I said.
I still sat on the kitchen floor, leaning on a cabinet, on this old phone that circumscribed my movement. I sat on one of the rare flat parts left. Our fake laminate had risen into knolls.
I unplugged the line and carried the phone across and plugged it in that TV room and I put the two bed pillows against the wall and slid the legal-advice video in and pressed play and crawled back to my position. I had a notebook. I braced in case this film would recap all my mistakes. The director had explored my case. On the TV screen, the camera panned a modern courthouse, without pillars. There were no courthouse steps. A woman I didn’t know walked toward that yawning entrance with a bemused smile, maybe eight or ten years ago from her coat. Her coat was a primary color. I thought, she hasn’t had the experience.
Things jumped. We jumped straight into a carpeted room where a woman who was not me raised her right hand and swore an oath. The footage had the same embarrassingly low-tech quality as on daytime soap opera but like real life when no one knows what to say. Now the woman wore a suit from twenty years ago, from when women still needed to dress like half men. She seemed serene, rage and passion out of the picture here. Any viewer would agree she’d got unfairly embroiled in this situation with some crazy coincidentally in her court’s jurisdiction.
Answer with the minimal info, I wrote. Don’t give anything extra. Don’t volunteer anything, I wrote. Tell the truth, I wrote. Speak slowly.
The clock said 6:57. Will’s bedtime was eight o’clock. They’d never let me talk to him after that.
I carried the phone back to the kitchen and I plugged it in. I never got used to how long the days lasted here in Kansas at the western end of the central time zone. That sun never seemed to tire. Through the panes of the French doors, through branches of trees with swollen spring buds, a mute, dirty-whiteness controlled the March, middle-of-the-continent sky. At the yard’s back corner, from what my husband said was a rare American elm, hung a swing. One of the young women he brought over to try out for my role had put my son inside the tire swing and tried to snap pictures of him swooping back and forth. I came home and saw that. My neighbor-across-the-road had eventually told me about the others.
I sat back down on the flat part and called Ellen again instead of doing my taxes, instead of adding up my child care expenses for the IRS.
“I need to watch it again,” I said.
“You don’t need to watch it again.”
“They’re going to slaughter me in that deposition,” I said. “I know it.”
“They are not going to kill you, my dear. You simply have to tell the truth.”
“Yeah, that’s what the video said.” I sighed: she had me there. “It’s forty-five minutes until Will goes to bed.”
I stood again and walked toward the back door, rocking on one of the low air bubbles while the sun, a perfect orange circle, dropped toward the other side of the river, that dirty Little Arkansas, a mud brown snake so poisonous the city and the newspaper warned you not to dip your skin in it during the river festival. My house lay in post-four-year-old, knocked-back-and-half-destroyed-by-divorce wreckage. Every other weekend I put everything back: wash his poopy underwear, replace the smashed window pane, patch the holes in the walls, down vitamins. He just kept breaking things. Next weekend it would continue. My lawyer told me to write down what he said, so I did. Daddy has a gun and he’s going to shoot you. I stared at the dark trees with the swelling branches pushing spring to show.
“I can’t call again.”
“You can call again.”
“She’ll say he’s not available.”
Ellen said, “That bitch. She’s got no right. You tell her to put him right on.”
I blew out air. Something terrible called defeat pounded inside my head. “I don’t want to get into a fight with her that Will can hear.” I turned around: 7:12. I had call waiting, so if Will tried he could reach me. I said, “Poor Will. Every time he comes back and says to me, you’re a shit. I hate you. I don’t have to listen to what you say. Daddy and I have the same germs, but you and I have different germs. Daddy says he’s going to move to a house next to yours so that way I can see him anytime I like.”
“My God, you think that’s coming from Steven?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how to ask without getting attacked. Steven will attack me. I just said honey, all people have different germs. I don’t know what that means living next door. Will said Daddy said that would be the best thing! For him to live next door to me!” I gripped the phone and I yelled, “Holy shit, Ellen, the nut case next to me!”
“He’s such a conniver.”
“God,” I said, but my heartbeat moderated hearing her accuracy. “I want to get away from him. He’s like an octopus. He’s so bad.”
“Oh, Ellen, am I ever going to get away from him?”
“Yes, you will.”
“He works on me. This word divorce doesn’t mean anything. I walked out of my lawyer’s that day in my new pink jacket and I was fooling myself, you know. It’s spring! I have a pink jacket! He’s out of my life! I can make it!”
“You will survive this, my dear.”
“Divorce!” I said. “The Catholic Church is right!” I crossed some bouncy areas of the floor and grabbed the dish towel and wiped my eyes. I didn’t know I’d start crying. My chest heaved. I said, “I just want him out of my life. Out! Out!”
“Of course you do,” Ellen said. “Do you want to come over?”
“I can’t. I got to do my income taxes. I’ll never do my income taxes!”
I stared at the dishwasher door. I was drowning in things to do. It was all I could do sometimes to pour the milk. I said, “I won’t think about it, the IRS. Turning him in to the IRS.” I blew my nose. Out-of-control, I thought, because I used the dish towel.
“You can’t do that,” Ellen said. “You’ll be audited too.”
“I’m such a fool. He had me so fooled. I didn’t know he was lying about all those deductions.”
“Ignorance is no excuse to the IRS,” Ellen said. “Is your lawyer going to ask about the pregnancy?”
Ellen’s question shocked me. Ellen saying that word pregnancy out loud about my husband shocked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“He better,” Ellen said.
“I don’t think it matters anymore. No one cares about adultery anymore. Everyone does it now. Adultery’s passé. That doesn’t matter in terms of custody. The court just thinks boom, equal time, boom, no matter what. Steven said to me there’s no way you’re winning custody.” I blew my nose three more times in the dish towel. I said, “So, anyway, I went to the Loony Bin.”
Ellen hesitated. Then she said, “You did.” She said it as a statement.
“Last night. I couldn’t remember if it was on Central or Thirteenth. So I did some circles. Squares, really.” I meant because in Kansas everything laid on a grid. “So finally I was stopped at a light and I asked the couple in the car next to me.”
“Oh, dear,” Ellen said in that quaint Kansas way. “Did they help?”
“Yeah, the guy knew. I said I’m looking for that place, the Loony Bin? The comedy place? I think it’s on Central or Thirteenth. He said it’s on Twenty-first. He was missing a lot of teeth.”
“Maybe they were just crooked. No, I think they were missing. He looked like a surviving hippie and his hair was all askew and the woman in the passenger seat, she had this long, straight, blond hair. She looked like one of those women in The Stepford Wives.”
Ellen laughed: no matter what, no matter when for my jokes. I had used up most of my other Kansas friends, all taking the wrong side in my custody battle.
“You know that movie?” I said.
“I know of it.”
“I only know of it too.” The stove clock said 7:25. I was standing in a no-man’s-land part of the kitchen, between the door and the sink.
Ellen said, “So, did you get to the place?”
“Yes, but wait. Can I make a social observation about Wichita?”
“Please do,” Ellen said. She never took my Kansas attitude personally.
“Thank you,” I told my friend. “When I moved here I expected Ma and Pa and the pitchfork in that painting. You know that painting?”
“The pitchfork’s in the middle and they look so dour.”
“John!” Ellen yelled. Then, to me: “John will know.”
He probably wouldn’t. She was taking a break from me, using that phone near the microwave, yelling over the TV in the family room, calling John so his voice would boost her with love against my sinking,
“Hey, John,” she yelled. “Sheila’s on the phone!” She was giving him an exciting report.
There followed complete, black emptiness.
Nothing on the line.
I waited, unsure if Ellen would return. She wouldn’t mean anything bad if she didn’t. She’d had brain surgery to fix her aneurysm leaving holes in her memory.
I knew where she’d laid that phone, atop their Frankenstein-laboratory microwave, left from another century, next to fruit made of papier-mâché. She might or might not come back but no one in that household would hang it up. They’d leave the phone on its side out of a combination of carelessness and good-hearted determination to never cut off a conversation or friendship. Her grandsons would make Ramen noodles and leave with their bowls and her husband would microwave popcorn and settle back down with Ellen to watch the rest of his horror movie, that phone lying on its side. I dropped the towel on the floor. Then I sat next to it.
“John doesn’t know.” Ellen had come back. “He’s watching a horror movie,” she said.
I knew that already. He watched two every night. The clock said 7:28. Skip telling the Loony Bin story, I thought. Cut straight to legal matters. I said, “Yesterday Diane screamed at me on the phone I’d never win custody.”
“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Ellen snapped.
Thank you, I thought. “She said she’s been to family court and there’s no way I’ll ever win. She says they never give primary custody any more. She said I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. You’re going to lose. She was shouting at me.”
I meant the state of Kansas awarding me primary residential custody as opposed to Will half here, half there, boom, boom.
“That bitch,” Ellen said. “What’d you say?”
“I said, well, I’m just going to try.”
“That bitch,” Ellen said.
Her voice made me get up off the floor. The path to the back door stayed level, the laminate there weighed down by the kitchen table. The first bubble rose just past the table. Our floor lifted after my husband started removing furniture. He took our couch and chair and coffee table with a glass top containing a scene of fish swimming in a North American stream. It was like a mural at the Natural History Museum only inside your house. He had insisted we move to this house, a new house on the far side of town, and then he installed the laminate from Home Depot on our open floor plan but he forgot to leave that half inch for expansion around the perimeter and when spring came and humidity increased and he removed furniture, bubbles rose including one the size of those elephant seals he and I saw long ago on our happy trip to California.
I stood at our back door where the loveliest, just-past-inchoate signs of spring showed in that gray-brown: here a stroke of green; there yellow fur. I said, “Yeah, and Gail Graves the lawyer says I’ll never get primary. You know her?”
“I know her.” Ellen sounded unfriendly.
“Gail said you’ll never win but it if makes you feel better.”
“There’re so many of them against me. All these women. Rachel said don’t you think a child needs his mother and father? I said, yeah, well, you haven’t seen the psychological report on him.”
“What’d she say to that?”
“She got quiet, Rachel.”
We fell quiet on the wires running through our little Midwestern municipality, separated by miles and a web of railroad tracks crossed and re-crossed by the Santa Fe and Burlington Northern and Union Pacific and bulbous grain elevators and rendering factory with its smell that made you frantically close your car windows and, this week, all our ornamental pears planted in lines in street medians blooming off-white suspirations that made you wonder, is this reality?
Ellen was older, women’s lib generation, so I said, “What’s with these women? They’re not on my side. I don’t get it.”
“They don’t want you to succeed,” Ellen said. “It makes them look bad.”
“Whoa,” I said, shocked. “You know, it’s been all the men who are on my side. John.” I meant her John and I told her about Jerry in New York and Mitchell in L.A. on my side but the women against me. “This is terrible,” I said.
“You got that right, sister,” Ellen said. “So now, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to fight for my son,” I said, or maybe asked.
“Sure you are.”
I hung up at 7:39 and looked at the phone, steeling myself, and I pressed my husband’s new phone number, which I had tried not to memorize, but I failed at that.
“Hartman-Salt residence,” Miss Salt said grandly. Miss Salt always answered with a head-of-the-committee statement. Her voice made a moat between me and my son. Her voice wrenched my stomach into a used, wrinkled, squeezed plastic bag.
“Hi,” I said, “this is Sheila.” I spoke like a seventh-grade girl calling a seventh-grade boy. “May I speak to Will, please?”
“He’s having his bath now,” she said as though he were an emperor. “Could I have him call you later?”
Her intonation did not rise for a question.
“Yes,” I said and hung up and stared at the put-back-together phone.
I said, “It’s me again. I did go to that comedy club, the Loony Bin. Yay for me. One point for me.”
“It really was on Twenty-first. I was so lost. In my mind I kept seeing it set back in a shopping center. It’s a good thing those toothless people at the light knew.” I picked up the dish towel from the floor and wiped my face again and carried it to the back door. With my right foot pointed ballet style I tapped at the medium size air bubble. I looked through those nice French doors on the dying spring evening. I threw the dish towel on the floor and I thought of that expression throwing in the towel.
I picked the towel up again and threw it across the floor. I was so tired.
“I’m so tired,” I said. “I’m so tired. Everything’s an appointment. The water filter guy, getting the latchkey deal for Will, my taxes, the deposition. Oh, my God, the deposition is Monday! I don’t want to do this deposition. They’re going to slaughter me.”
“You’re doing your job,” Ellen said. “You’re doing everything you’re supposed to do.”
I checked the clock again. I said, “Why are all these women against me getting custody but the men I tell say you should fight him?”
“They’re used to competition.”
“God,” I said. “You know what Steven said to me? This was in his should-I-stay-or-go phase? When he was carrying around that book all the time?”
“He carried it with the title facing out everywhere? Should I Stay in This Relationship?”
“I forgot about that.”
“He said I used to sit at home on the nights you were late coming home from work and wish you’d be killed.”
“My God,” Ellen said. “He is truly crazy.”
“He came upstairs one morning when I was making the bed and he said I dreamed I raped you and I enjoyed it.”
“Jesus,” Ellen said.
“I wonder if I’ll have to say this during the deposition.”
“Of course you will,” Ellen said.
I said nothing. I had the feeling no one would believe me if I said it or they’d believe me but they’d be mad at me for saying it out loud.
“You will say this,” Ellen said.
A warm sloppy feeling came over me. I didn’t feel tense anymore. Something completely gushed out of me. I was going to say it. I was going to say it.
I said, “One thing I got to tell you about the Loony Bin. Then I got to get off and call Will. The comedians were awful, awful. There was one in a white jacket and one in a black jacket and they were like Will. They thought the funniest thing in the world was to make a farting noise. They were dumb. Dumb. They were racist and sexist and they loved the war.”
“The Iraq war?”
“They loved it. The guy said hey, we’ve got only five-hundred-ninety-six dead now. Hey! That’s nothing! We had fifty-thousand dead in Vietnam. And everyone’s cheering. They’re all cheering as if that’s a reason to go to war.”
“So that was your night at the comedy club?”
“You’re right,” I said. The clock said 7:48.
After I got off I stared at the buckling floor. How would I ever sell this house with a buckling floor? I looked around my house with hardly any furniture left and I pressed the numbers.
“Yeah,” my husband said unenthusiastically. He had caller ID and he knew it was me. He didn’t look forward to talking to me anymore.
I said, “Hi, this is Sheila. May I speak to Will, please?”
He said, “Sure.” Then he said, “He pooped in his pants three times today.” He said it very aggressively, like it was my fault from across town.
“Oh,” I said. I kept my voice neutral.
“It’s disgusting,” he said. “He shouldn’t be doing this at his age.”
Usually I said, uh huh. I kept everything neutral. I never wanted to say anything that would send him into a rage and take it out on Will. He attacked Will for having warts, for snoring. I thought about after we told Will we were separating and I found Will sitting on a log staring out at the dead river and I said, honey, are you okay, and he was three years old, and he said, “Sometimes children need to be away from their people.”
I could feel my husband waiting on the line across town, on the other side of all those railroad tracks, waiting for me to apologize for Will pooping in his pants. But I said something else. I said, “Well, I guess he’s telling the truth.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” my husband said.
“He’s in a shitty situation,” I said.
There was silence on the phone.
“Can I speak to him, please?”
“He’s taking a bath,” my husband said.
“You said sure, I could talk to him. I want to talk to him before he goes to bed. Could you ask him to please call me?”
I slammed the phone down. Outside now was black. The clock said 7:57. I wondered if Miss Salt would attend the deposition with him, giving him moral support. I’d pressed the “end” button but still held the phone. I was remembering an awful telephone moment when my husband had moved out with Miss Salt, but my husband was lying to everyone about their affair, lying to her boss at my son’s pre-school where she was a teacher, lying to his parents, my in-laws, and lying to me, telling me he might get back together with me, implying this might happen if I cooperated with him, which meant me moving out of the house and him having Will for half the time during the “separation.” But I said, you move out, you’re the one that wants the change, and that first weekend after he took Will, Steven called because Will was hysterical in the car driving to pre-school on Monday. Steven put Will on the phone because Will was sobbing and screaming, “I want Mama, I want Mama.”
I sat down on the floor again and put my head in my hands. I was near the fireplace. My heart pounded. The floor bulged under my right leg. I had screwed up. I had thought if I let Steven move out and calm down, maybe Steven would come back and in the long run that would be good for Will. Is he having a nervous breakdown, my mother-in-law had asked me. This very corner of the fireplace was where I’d seen the look on his face when he said, I know I’m the one being the asshole. His face said he knew the truth.
In a little while the telephone rang. I’d plugged the videotape in again. I was going to be ready for tomorrow. It’d just got past the dreamy cheerful music and the calm announcer, the same one I remembered from my childhood, who used to tell me as a little girl my son’s age what to do if we ever had a nuclear attack. On this videotape, once again the camera calmly panned the outside of the courthouse. I stopped the tape and answered the phone.
“Mommy?” my son said.
“Hi, baby. How are you?”
“Guess what, I got a new turtle.”
“A new turtle, wow.”
“Miss Salt gave it to me.”
“Wow,” I said. I could feel myself dissolving. I could feel the rage building inside me. I was having trouble breathing.
“It’s a boxer turtle.”
“Wow,” I said. My breathing came hard.
“He eats lettuce and he can live in a box.”
“That’s great.” I was fading.
“So now I have two turtles.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And two dogs. I have Grace and now I have Miss Salt’s dog Bandit. You know Bandit?”
I breathed out, trying not to cry. “Not really.”
“Bandit’s a German shepherd,” he said. “Now I have two dogs and two turtles. Mom?”
“I really want a bird, Mom. Can I get a bird? I really want a parrot, Mom. You know, like Petey?”
“Yeah.” Petey was a friend’s parrot. I was in a complete rage. They were seducing my son away from me with pets.
“I can get a bird?” His voice rose in hope.
“No,” I said, and my answer surprised me. I didn’t know where that sensible voice came from.
“I really want a bird, Mom. At your house I don’t have anything. That’s not fair.”
I fought with everything in me to stay quiet: they wanted to control my house. My stomach hurt: the injustice for him, having to go between two houses no matter what the court decided, shared custody, half and half, or primary custody with me and visits to his father’s house.
“I really, really want a parrot.”
“I know you do.”
“Don’t you like parrots?”
“Not really,” I said and a weight lifted off me, telling the truth. But I laughed at his clever wheedling. I pictured his beautiful face in front of me.
“I’ll do everything, Mom.” And suddenly the argument was between the two of us, without them. “I’ll clean up. I’ll feed him. We can just call him Petey, okay, Mom?”
I laughed, admiring his argument: calling it by the name of my friend’s bird would seal the deal.
“Will,” I said, “I’m changing the subject now. How are you?”
“Fine,” he said solemnly, recognizing something.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m playing with my turtle.”
“Oh.” I was trying to think. What did I have to give? I said, “Does he play fetch?”
“Mom!” he said. “He’s not a dog, Mom. He’s a turtle. Turtles can’t play fetch, Mom.”
Every time he said Mom my stomach calmed a little.
“I love you, baby.”
“He can’t hold the stick in his mouth,” my son said.
“And it would take two years to play fetch,” I said.
“Not two years. It would take an hour, Mom. He’s not that slow. But he’s pretty slow. Turtles are slow, Mom.”
“Is he a happy turtle?”
“Turtles can’t laugh, Mom.”
“Tell him a joke.”
“Mom! He doesn’t like jokes.”
“He’s just serious, that turtle, huh?”
“I got to go, Mom. I got to go to bed.”
The pain crossed my stomach again.
“Well, okay, if you got to go.”
“Bye, baby. I love you.”
“Love you,” he said, my four-year-old Mr. Seeming Breezy, and the phone went click.
Margaret Dawe is the author of the novel Nissequott, and of nonfiction published in the Antioch Review and Sonora Review. She teaches writing and literature at Wichita State University. Her novel-in-progress is titled Deep Six, about a newspaper reporter, Sheila Gray, who has returned to work in her grandfather’s small town and who comes to remember walking with her grandfather at age five to a murder scene, a crime never solved with a suspect who, she discovers, looks like her grandfather.