Audrey held the motor home steady on the bumpy road. She expertly steered the big vehicle through the construction zone with no fear of hitting the concrete bunkers on both sides that formed the narrowed lanes. She smiled to herself with the thought that she was a better driver than Sam, even though he refused to let her drive him. Sam and all his macho bullshit. She was glad he wasn't with her on this trip -- and glad RosaLee had agreed to come. After all that had happened, she felt the need to spend some time with her daughter. To try to draw closer to her first born. Or maybe she needed to give some of the mothering she felt she'd missed. It wasn't that she'd ignored her duty. It was just that this child hadn't needed as much mothering. In many ways had refused it. And Audrey hadn't insisted. Wouldn't have done any good with this child anyway. RosaLee had always had a mind of her own. Old folks say, when a child matures fast the way she had, they're getting out of the way for another. But Malcolm hadn't come for three years.
Malcolm had been different. Difficult birth, sickly baby, hyperactive kid. Although the art teacher had appreciated his talent, he was misunderstood at school, an underachiever. And now, at age twenty, this. She forced her mind away from it.
"While you're up, would you bring your ol' mama a soft drink?" Audrey called out in a teasing voice.
"Sure, Mom," RosaLee called back from the rear of the motor home.
Audrey crimped her mouth. Mom. She hated that. Too modern. Too White. What was wrong with "Mama"? When RosaLee set the two cans in the console, Audrey cast a disapproving glance her way.
"RosaLee, don't you think it's a little early?"
"Obviously, I don't. And stop calling me that."
"I mean, honey, wouldn't you rather have some juice?"
"No. Thanks anyway." She propped her feet on the dashboard, popped open the beer can, and put it to her mouth.
"RosaLee, I just don't think -- "
"Get off the mother trip, okay? I'm twenty-three years old. I can decide what -- and when -- I drink. And please stop calling me RosaLee. I'm RL, now. Everybody calls me RL."
"But, baby, RosaLee is so dignified. So significant. When we named you after Mrs. Parks, I never dreamed -- "
"It's old-fashioned. I hate it. It's burdensome. Like I have to live up to it. Ain't even any -- "
"Aren't," Audrey corrected, in her schoolteacher voice.
"There aren't any buses anymore," RosaLee said, in resentful concession to the correction. "It's rapid transit now. Dallas Area Rapid Transit. It's a new day. And I'm RL."
Audrey didn't want it this way. They'd had this argument a hundred times. This trip wasn't for arguing. It was for healing.
"Alright, RL. I'll call you what you want, but I'm Mama. That's what I want. You hear?"
"I hear you," she said, with an indifferent shrug of one shoulder.
Just as the accord was reached, the construction zone ended and Audrey pulled onto the smooth slab of the interstate. The pine forest on both sides of the road welcomed Audrey home. Only thirty miles to Lake Texarkana. Lake Wright Patman, these days. She couldn't get used to that. Ol' Wright may have been a great guy, but the lake would always be Lake Texarkana to her.
"Why do you always have to drag me off to the country? I hate this. It's always too hot. Or too cold. And the mosquitoes, and the bugs. And no TV reception. And a bunch of old white people sitting around eyeing us like we don't belong. I hate this."
"But I thought we agreed -- "
"You agreed, Mom. You agreed. I just didn't argue with you. You never listen, so what's the point."
Anger welled up in Audrey. "Bitch, bitch, bitch. Whine, whine, whine," she wanted to say. But she held her tongue. This was not turning out to be the idyllic mother-daughter trip she'd imagined. She didn't want to make it any worse.
Had she really expected to mother RosaLee? Maybe it was she who needed mothering. Maybe even expected it a little from her strong-willed daughter, who never seemed to need anything, or anybody. That's why she didn't have a husband, or even the prospect of one. Didn't need one. She made good money, even as she waited for her bar exam results. Had bought her own condo, cosigned by her parents, of course. She traveled when she felt like it. RosaLee didn't understand that men need to be needed -- even if you have to pretend. And what's so wrong with a little pretending, if you get what you want, and it makes the other person happy? This brutal honesty that her daughter subscribed to was for the birds. In it, nobody got nothing they really wanted. Anything, Audrey corrected herself. She watched RosaLee come back with another beer and held the censure off her face. Held it tight behind the mask that she wore so often now.
The mask was hard as stone. Piece by piece, layer by layer, it had formed over the years. It started that night in college when she was turned away from the hospital. The botched, back-alley abortion had been the result of a dumb mistake on her part, but it shouldn't have been in their hands to let her bleed to death. Then, the day Sam got arrested during a protest march, she added another piece. Watching him ward off the blows from the nightsticks, praying he wouldn't hit them back, knowing they'd surely kill him if he did. Holding herself still to keep from running to block them. Not that they wouldn't have hit her, too, just not as hard. They would strike her out of duty, not out of the primeval hatred against her man that had been inherited, and nurtured, through generations. She could have stood the blows. But her intervention would have lessened him as a man. So she stood still and felt the hardness forming around her mouth.
Then, while he went to law school and she taught school, she was the sole breadwinner. In the face of the whispers, the hardness settled in, then migrated upward to her cheeks. "Ain't she the fool, minding them bad chil'ren all day while he just sitting around on his butt reading. Honey, he gon' divorce her for his first case."
When their babies came and she quit teaching to raise them, "Honey, she thank she big shit now." Watching their savings dwindle away with Sam's "investment" schemes brought it to her eyes. It had hardened into stone by the time she opened her front door to a howling pack of reporters, the bright lights of the TV cameras and the microphones stuck in her face.
"Mrs. Roberts, our viewers want to know how you feel about your son killing the convenience store clerk?"
RosaLee had a mask of her own. There was a certain defiance in the way she held the can of beer, but Audrey refused to be drawn into it. She took a calming breath and slowly expelled it.
"Alright, RL. Pick a place. It's our trip, not mine. We can go anywhere you want -- as long as we're back before your father comes home from Chicago on Friday. You know he and I have that Urban League dinner Friday night."
"Why couldn't Daddy come with us? I can't see why he and Paul both had to go for a deposition. It would have been cheaper to pay that witness's plane fare to Dallas."
"I don't know about that. I'll bet there's a golf course nearby that he and Paul wanted to try -- and you know I only bet on a sure thing."
"Golf course? Hey! Why can't we go to the condo? It's not that far."
"Our condo? In Shreveport?" Audrey asked, thoughtfully, then shrugged away her vision of the trip. "We can go there, if you want."
"That's where I want to go," RosaLee said, perking up, snapping her finger, doing a little singsong. "We can go into town. Do a little gambling. Have some real fun."
"You gamble, I'll watch," Audrey said, laughing.
"Aw Mama. Loosen up some. Just make up your mind, you're gonna lose the first hundred."
"Scared money can't win, Mama. I'll just give you a hundred, okay? It'll be fun."
Audrey smiled, relaxed her spine against the chair back, and loosened her grip on the steering wheel.
At the gate, Audrey had to show her resident card to the security guard. He was new, and she hadn't been to the condo in how long? More than a year, maybe two. It would probably smell musty from being closed up for so long. She decided that when she got inside, she would open all the windows so it could air out while they were at the casinos. It would be safe with the guard and all, she thought, as she shut the motor off in front of their unit. She walked to the back of the RV and stood over the bed where RosaLee was fast asleep, with her fist pushed under her chin. She'd always slept that way ever since she was a baby.
"RosaLee? We're here."
No answer. Audrey'd forgotten. Wouldn't answer to that name. Audrey rolled her eyes.
"RL?" she grudgingly called to her.
Still no answer. Hard sleep, with that fist under her chin. All that beer, making her sleep hard like that, Audrey thought. Let her sleep 'til she took the food in, then.
Audrey turned and reached a plastic bag from under the sink. She opened the refrigerator and took out the steaks she'd planned to grill under the moonlit sky. Have to do it on the broiler inside now. That's okay. Then the shrimp that she'd planned to saute in a generous skillet of garlic butter. Oh, and the rice. She filled two plastic grocery bags.
Audrey pulled on the brightly colored, abstract-print jacket to her silk jogging suit. If the designers hadn't taken so long to discover a market in queen sizes, she wouldn't despise plaids and tiny flower prints as she did now. Those were all that were available when she was a young girl, big for her age. Later, when she was a teenager, the dark colors her mother had insisted would make her look smaller made her feel matronly. Now, a confident and well-dressed woman stepped out of the RV.
Their condo sat on a cul-de-sac. Like the others, it appeared to be one story. But they were built on a slope down to the man-made lake, with the master bedroom downstairs from the main level. Sam had handled the legal work for the developer in exchange for clear title to the condo. He'd gotten a lot of used cars from criminal cases that way, too. Cars they hadn't needed. She remembered arguing with him about it. Then, they'd needed money more than a resort condo, but it had turned out to be a good deal. She had lots of memories of good times with the kids and with her friend, MaryBeth.
When she struggled the door open, she didn't hear the buzz of the security system. She could have sworn she left it on. She always did. Maybe Malcolm had been here since she had, she thought. Probably had brought some girl here to show off. Some silly girl with delusions of marrying into money. Some stupid girl, who didn't realize Malcolm had no money because Malcolm wouldn't work. Lord, now she'd have to change the linen.
The curtain was open to the sliding glass door that led to the deck and Audrey could see the big moon peeking through the tree branches. She set the bags on the kitchen table, thinking she could grill the steaks on the deck under the shadow of the tall pines that ringed the lake. She and RL could both have what they wanted. This was going to work out just fine. Maybe she should listen to her daughter more. She was grown now. About to be a lawyer, just like her dad. Audrey would have been thrilled for her to take up teaching, but RosaLee wouldn't even get a teaching certificate in college. She'd said there was no money in it. While Audrey conceded that point logically, she knew in her heart that RL's real motivation was to gain her father's approval.
The place didn't smell musty, as Audrey had expected. She opened the patio door and stood breathing in the clean, fresh smell of the damp night air. Nestled among the pines, the deck was such a romantic setting. Audrey remembered all the times she'd sat there alone, reading, while she waited for Sam to return from his golf game. When he did, he usually immersed himself in work he'd brought from the office. So, she was alone. The kids were usually gone -- to the swimming pool, or movies at the clubhouse, or fishing in the lake with their newly made friends from around the resort. This was her place. Her quiet, alone place. She decided to wait until morning to uncover the patio furniture and arrange it just the way she liked it. Maybe RL would join her here for coffee in the morning. Right now she needed to wake her up.
When she started for the front door, she frowned at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a faint, flickering light. Downstairs. Couldn't be Malcolm -- he was in jail. She walked to the top of the stairs. Could that be a candle in the bedroom below? Stupid Sam. Hardheaded Sam. She'd told him to take their condo off the rental list. She didn't like the thought of strangers in her house, sleeping on her sheets, using her dishes. They didn't need the money now -- or the tax deduction. And who were these fools who left a candle burning while they partied at the casino?
Descending the stairs, she saw a piece of cloth. At the foot of the stairs, she bent over and picked it up, then realizing it was a pair of briefs, dropped them and shook her hand. Nasty people, too, she thought. The bedroom door was ajar. When she pushed it open, she knew she should turn and leave quietly. But she couldn't. She was mesmerized. She knew they hadn't heard her; they were too absorbed in their lovemaking. No, not lovemaking. Not the tender, rhythmic joining that she longed for. Fucking. Humping. The man humping.
The stark contrast of pale legs on either side of brown ones. Hairy legs, all four of them. Straight hair, curly hair. White toes, brown toes, white toes. Audrey had never seen anything like it. In the flickering candlelight, she couldn't see their faces, only the backs of their heads. Short, kinky hair, surrounding a bald spot. Short, straight hair, surrounding a bald spot. Then, she heard his groaning. A familiar sound. Familiar voice.
"Ou, that's it, Paul. Baby, that's it. Right there."
Audrey stood rooted to the spot, as a wave of nausea washed over her. She knew what would come next. How many times had she heard it?
"I'm coming. Daddy's com-ing!"
Then the shudder. The release. Then the collapse of his weight on her.
"Sam? Paul? What's going on here?" The sound of her voice was muffled, as though it reflected back to her through a wall of cotton.
What a stupid question, Audrey thought. Her mind was a ball of confusion. What should she do? Her first urge was to throw something at them. A biblical-like stoning. But she had no stones. Audrey watched Paul pulling the sheet around himself like a cocoon, and Sam scurrying around, almost comically, trying to put on his robe -- the robe RosaLee had given him for Christmas. Sam rushed toward her and grabbed her by her upper arms.
"What are you doing here?" Sam demanded.
The answer was simple. RosaLee -- RV -- casino. But the words balled up in her mouth like a big wad of stale gum, sticking to each other and her mouth, unable to come out. So many thoughts were crashing into each other, she thought her head would explode. You. Paul. Partners. Chicago last month, San Francisco the month before. Austin. Bar conventions. Golf tournaments. How many years? How long? How could she not have known?
"Go upstairs!" he shouted, pushing her.
Audrey stumbled backward, then regained her footing. She returned his shove, then shoved him again harder, the heels of her fists crashing into his chest. With clenched teeth and an upswing of her arm, she slapped his face. A solid connection that felt good all the way from her hand, up her arm, to her heart. He grabbed for her arm, just as her other hand landed on the side of his head. She'd reached all the way back to East Texas -- to the kids calling her "Fat Audrey" -- for that one. Sam was stunned by the force of it. Before he could recover, she tore into him like a tornado through a trailer park. Pummeling his face, clawing at his eyes, snatching at his ears. Sam protected his face with his forearm and blindly grabbed at her flailing arms.
"Audrey! Audrey! Calm down!"
She couldn't tell which one was calling her back from that wild place. She felt Paul pulling her from behind, his arms clamped around her waist. "Don't touch me! Don't touch me! You bastard!" she shouted, wrestling in his grasp. She jerked her elbow backward, smashing it into his nose. Paul howled in pain as he fell back on the bed, holding his nose. In that instant, Sam uncovered his face and reached for her arms. He got hold of one, but with the other she continued pounding his head. He grabbed her in a bear hug, and in the jostling they fell on the bed on top of Paul. Audrey thrashed out of his grasp, mindless of Paul's painful yells underneath them.
RosaLee! What if she awoke and walked in on this scene? How would they explain it? What would RosaLee think? No child should witness something like this. Protecting her child was a stronger urge than killing Sam. Audrey had to get out. Now.
Her final blow knocked Sam away from her. She scrambled off the bed, stumbled up the stairs, and rushed out the door.
Copyright © 1999 by Evelyn Palfrey