The cake was surprisingly heavy. A lemon pound cake with soft peaks of homemade vanilla frosting perched on a batter bowl green cake stand. Bea fought back the sudden urge to put flowers–daisies perhaps–around the base of the cake or a generous sprinkle of silver dragees or jimmies or something. But she knew Leo wouldn’t cotton to that. She carried the cake cautiously into the dining room as Bobby and Monica burst into a giggly off key version of Happy Birthday.
Instead of singing Jamie was playing a kiddie tambourine and gyrating around the table.
“All right, all right, settle down!” Laughing, Leo shouted over the din. The kids sang louder. He patted my hand as I put the flowerless cake on the table. Leo looked up at me with a bedraggled smile. We looked over at the kids as they launched into yet another verse of Happy Birthday. He lifted his hand to my cheek and the alarm clock went off.
My eyes flew open and I reached for Leo’s side of the bed before I remembered he wasn’t there anymore.
Bea bolted upright and smacked the large display digital alarm clock. She considered lingering in bed, rolling in the sheets, making a fortress of pillows against the day. Instead out of habit, Bea grimly set her feet on the floor. Her legs had been her best feature. She was tall and her legs were once coppery brown long and lean. They were still long but now she stared down at varicose veins in thick sturdy calves.
With quick, efficient movements, Bea made the bed tight as a drum. She smoothed the already smooth sheets and absently patted Leo’s side. Next she straighten up the bedroom wiping away imaginary dust and rearranging the large stack of magazines, journals, and books on her side of the bed. Leo’s nightstand held only a tall, narrow lamp and a snowglobe of a country house from their last trip to Lancaster.
Bea dusted it gently and then held it up to the window admiring the tiny shutters and front porch with a swing. She had grown up in a house like this with six brothers and sisters. As the fourth child, second daughter her chief duties were laundry and not getting in the way. When she was young Bea would steal away to the barn to draw pictures on stolen pieces of butcher paper and stare out at the sky. Bea remembered she had called to attention to the globe in some little gift shop and Leo had secretly brought it for her. She headed downstairs and made breakfast, Greek yogurt with peaches, dry rye toast, two eggs over easy. She looked down at her plate surprised because she had wanted scrambled eggs with sausages. The phone rang breaking Bea’s thoughts.
“Hey, Mom. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, sweetheart, I can always make time for you.” Bea tighten her stomach for disappointment. With the phone cradled between her shoulder and her ear, Bea listened to her daughter weave a tapestry of lies about the trip with her granddaughters planned for this summer.
Frustrated Bea suddenly broke in. “I just don’t understand. I thought this was all arranged. The girls would stay with me the first two weeks after school ended.” Bea tried to control her voice, to rein in her rising emotions.
“I know, I know, Mom, but Taylor has this new tutor and camp is starting earlier than I thought,” Monica stuttered. Her words rushing over one another. “I mean if there was anything I could do.”
“So Aaron wants the kids to go to his parents’ house, right? They have the big house and the pool and of course the beach house. We can forget the beach house. This is ridiculous Monica. We can share the time. Let me talk to him–”
“No!” Monica suddenly snapped. “Please Mom this is not about Sarah and Paul.”
“So what is it about?”
Monica went silent. Bea gripped the phone desperate to catch every word. Monica exhaled.
“Look, Mommy, try to understand. You know what it is like trying to make everyone happy and the girls are getting older and want to make plans with their friends and being caught in the middle and the drive is so long and you know how Aaron gets and you know how it is.” Monica said, biting her lip.
Bea leaned her back against the wall to keep the room from spinning. She twisted the phone cord in her hand.
“Maybe we could do something at the end of summer? I think Aaron has a few days before school starts again.”
Bea let her daughter babble on pretending to understand until the conversation dwindled and sputtered to an awkward stop. She hung up the phone wearily. A card from the French memo board drifted to the floor.
Happy Birthday, hope you have the happiest of birthdays all my love Bobby. She could tell that the card was signed by his wife, Mika. She wrote the same thing every year. Bea slipped the card onto the board with the utility bill and a few yellowed recipes. Breakfast forgotten, Bea walked into the dining room to put away the chest of dress up clothes and basket of arts and crafts that she had set up on the table.
In the late afternoon, Bea polished the furniture. The lemon oil glimmered over the dark veins of wood. She placed a square glass vase in the center of the dining room table. Roses from her garden fell to one side bleeding red petals on to the freshly polished surface. Tenderly Bea gathered the petals in her hand and carried them to the trash. She carried the whole arrangement into the kitchen. In the bright white and harvest gold colored kitchen the arrangement looked top heavy. She thought she heard the mailman coming early. She hurried to the door, peeking out of its small window. Nothing. Bea went through her shelf of vases by the sink and chose a curvy milk glass one with a wide mouth. Carefully Bea transferred the roses from the clear vase to the white one. More petals rained into the sink. Avoiding thorns Bea twisted the flowers into a more pleasing shape. The roses fell over to the other side.
The mailbox lid creaked. Bea hurried to the door and then slowed her steps. Her mail was two advertisements, some bills, and a card from her old school for the upcoming Harvest Festival.
Memories flooded into her of the pumpkin painting, apple bobbing contests, corn husk dolls and the children laughing and the heady sweetness of warm mulled cider and Mrs. Weismann’s homemade bread and butter pickles. She turned the orange and forest green save the date card over. Bea had been on that committee for eleven years and had chaired it for seven before the bitches from Language Arts took over everything. She flung the cardstock into the trash. As she closed the door Bea noticed the oblong box leaning by the door. She didn’t remember what it was at first then realized it was the insect habitat she had ordered for the kids. She hadn’t wanted the summer to be all princess tea parties; she wanted the girls to have science and adventure. What she got was a box of praying mantids.
Sighing, Bea bought the box over to the counter, thought better of it and set the box on the bench by the back door. She pulled the flowers from the white vase and stuffed them back into the clear square vase. Bea returned the square vase to the table trailing scarlet petals all the way.
Scented with basil flowers and rosemary, Bea came in from the backyard garden carrying a basket of roses, cosmos, and herbs. Her knees and back ached from the demands of their sprawling flower beds. Vintage blue and green Mason jars lined the kitchen counters ready for the latest project. This time she was making a few bouquets for her neighbors. Sailing past, she knocked over a long oblong box sitting on the mudroom bench. Startled, Bea picked it up and stared at it. It was the praying mantis farm she had bought for the girls. The words: Open Immediately: Perishable shouted out to her. Bea remembered once Leo had ordered butterfly cocoons for his biology class and they had been delivered accidentally to the cafeteria and left to rot in a corner.
Quickly she dropped the flower basket in sink and rushed the box to the kitchen table. Bea carefully removed the contents scrambling to come up with some neighbor’s child to give the set to. The Browns, no the Schiavellis, no. Bea imagined having to explain why her grandchildren had not come, having to offer a neighbor the wonderful gift of bugs. She would simply throw the whole thing away. Out fell the praying mantis egg sac in its special sealed plastic tube. Golden tan, wrinkled, slightly smaller than a walnut, each sac held approximately 200 eggs. Bea turned the smooth cylinder in her hand filled with a curious mixture of revulsion and delight. Tenderly she placed the tube on her gingham placemat and started reading the kit’s instructions.
Bea wiped down the kitchen counters with brusque strokes. Then she peeked into the dining room. Bea swept the big squares of speckled black and white linoleum. Then she peeked into the dining room. Bea sprayed the kitchen table with cleaner, threw the cloth at it and went into the dining room. She pulled a dining room chair over to the antique sewing table under the big picture window and stared at her praying mantis habitat. Bea misted the egg sac lightly with distilled spring water and watched as drops of water glistened on the tawny brown sac. The habitat was a hideous kelly green with a cheap plastic base and a polyester mesh cover. Leo used to recommend this company, but she suspected the quality had come down over the years. Bea had lined the base with paper towels and spaghum moss based on some videos she had watched on youtube. The sewing table was the ideal choice because it was durable and window was sunny. Was it too sunny? Maybe the dining table was cooler? The kitchen was too drafty. Bea was afraid of temperature changes. She was afraid that she was misting too much? Or not enough? Leo used to do science experiments with all the kids, real Mr. Wizard-type stuff. Bea ruffled in the dry air. It had been two weeks of nothing. She returned to her damp kitchen table.
Navigating the busy shopping center parking lot, Bea carried the wire milk crate of books into the bookstore. The crate was filled with children’s books, some brand new with tight, uncracked spines, others worn and well read from when her own children were small. She had been buying books and saving books for the grandkids when they came to visit but she had finally decided to ship her children their favorites and dump the rest. It was the beginning of August. No visits, no trips, she had even tossed the praying mantis eggs sacs outside and thrown away the kit. There was too much clutter in the house. She had been setting aside boxes of clothes and dishes for a yard sale or Good Will. The kid books were the first step. Bea pushed into The Moving Bookstore.
“Is this the last crate Mrs. Williamson? Are you sure I can’t help you unload the car?”
“Bea is that you?” Bea spun around into Veronica’s outstretched arms. Suddenly she was engulfed in a bear hug.
“I haven’t seen you in a million years. We have to get together. We just have to get together. You remember Sylvia?”
Bea shook her head cautiously, trying to jostle her memory.
“Of course you remember Sylvia. She was short with lots of hair. Her husband has been sick with cancer but he’s doing better and she started a book club. That is right up your alley.”
Bea wasn’t sure to be sad or happy for this unknown Sylvia so she sort of shrugged in a concerned way and waited for a break in Sylvia’s flow of words. She waited a long time.
“Well, Ronnie, I am so sorry to hear about Roberta and Willis but I have to run I just wanted to pick up a book for Taylor, Monica’s daughter. Give me a call with the details on the bookclub. I just have to scoot to the back for that gift and hurry to the post office.” Bea hurried to the children’s section and hid behind a Dr. Seuss display. Veronica was still up at the front blocking the exit. Determined not to make friends, Bea sat on a squashed bean bag chair and began to skim through a thick collection of Frances Hodgson Burnett novels that was being used to prop open a window. She hadn’t read The Little Princess in years. Soon she had a tall stack of old and new favorites.
As her old Pontiac turned up the familiar street of her neighborhood, Bea slowed down. Here were the streets she had pushed a stroller, greeted neighbors, held block parties. Many familiar faces had gone, some houses slightly changed, a new complex crowded in, only the trees seemed the same. Weary, Bea turned into her driveway. She hoisted her milk crate of newly acquired books out of the passenger seat. Shimmering in the back yard Bea noticed a strange emerald light.
Bea headed back towards the light lugging the milk crate of books. She walked past the children’s leftover vegetable garden and Leo’s well tended roses. The egg sacs must have hatched. The center of the backyard was an explosion of tiny praying mantids. On the stone bench, on the hosta leaves, even the windows of the old shed, every surface was covered in shining insect bodies. Lime green, emerald green, a few were a pale glowing celadon. Bea set down her crate and sat on it. Hundreds of small precise eyes turned in her direction each surveyed her patiently, calmly, unafraid. Slowly the insects dispersed picking through the clipped grass and over the carefully selected paving stones. One even crawled over Bea’s leg in its unhurried progress out of the garden. Bea sat staring. She watched and waited until each one had gone. Looking at the garden one last time Bea stood up and walked away.