Excerpt From “Our Love Could Light The World”
Mrs. Dugan came home from work tired. She was often crabby, too. She worked in the sales department for a small company that sold manufactured homes. Her job was to walk clients through their purchase options. The people she dealt with had all fallen on hard times, or were old and looking to downsize. None had the flush of optimism. Mrs. Dugan thought she herself had once been full of hope and ambition, which, over time, had been whittled away. She decided to give herself a kick in the pants, and when the chance came to represent the company at a regional conference, she put in her bid, and even took her boss out for lunch.
She was chosen. She walked on air. Mr. Dugan didn’t like the idea of her spending three days down in Wilkes-Barre. He was glum, and snuck sips of whiskey from a flask he kept on a shelf in his closet.
“Three days, Potter. One, two, three,” Mrs. Dugan said. She couldn’t wait. She loved her family, and she hated them, too, and lately the balance had been tipping towards hate.
“And just what is it you plan to do at this conference?” Mr. Dugan looked like he was about to put his head through a brick wall, something Mrs. Dugan used to admire about him and now found exhausting.
“Attend presentations. Walk around the convention floor. See what other vendors are doing to improve sales.”
“Only a boring person would say that.”
The stone face melted. His mouth turned down.
“I’m sorry, Potter. I didn’t mean that. You’re not boring.”
“Yes I am, or you wouldn’t have said it.”
He took himself off to the small back room he called his den and lay down on the couch. He watched the dust dance in the light. Maybe three days wouldn’t be so bad. Three days wasn’t all that long. He could get a lot of good drinking done in three days. The thought cheered him.
Over dinner, Mrs. Dugan laid out the program.
“Angie, you’re in charge. But don’t you do all the work—share it equally. Start getting ready for school. There’s only another week left. When you’re not doing that, I want you each to clean your rooms. When you’re done with that, take turns weeding the garden.” The neighbors complained most about the garden. “And make sure Thaddeus gets his walks regular. I don’t want to come home to a house full of dog poop.”
Around the table the faces were still. The children had never been away from their mother before. Plans of mischief were being born, right there, as forks were lifted to mouths, and pieces of inedible pot roast were slipped unseen to Thaddeus below the table. Angie knew where her mother kept some extra money. That would come in handy when she took off for the mall. The twins planned to stay up all night watching TV. Timothy and Foster would live on ice cream and candy. They’d been handed a vacation, and they intended to make the most of it.
Mrs. Dugan packed her bag in a state of excitement and fear. She didn’t have very nice clothes, although they were respectable. Which of her four blouses would go best with the brown suit? Or with the second hand lavender one she just bought? Where she’d never given much thought before to her appearance at work, she was now overcome with self-criticism and doubt. She had to look the part. She was an executive on the move. Secretly she yearned for a promotion, more money, and to get the family out of rental homes and into a place of their own. That thought made her sit down suddenly on her bed. The promotion might come, as might the money and home ownership, but the people who lived there would be the same – lazy, unkempt, and bad-tempered.
“Change your mind?” Mr. Dugan asked when he found her there some time later, still sitting. Some strands of black hair had escaped her bun and floated around her small, pretty face.
“No. Just taking a break.” And with that she was up, finished packing, put her bag by the front door so she wouldn’t forget it in the morning, and then shouted for her children to get ready for bed.
The sunlight that first day—Tuesday—said it would be hot. The house was not air-conditioned. If they were lucky, the children could get their father to drive them out to the lake and swim. They all liked going to the lake, except Angie. Bathing suits were devil spawn as far as she was concerned. One look at her father passed out in the den put an end to that particular plan. Angie said they should give Thaddeus a bath. The others agreed. A small, dirty plastic wading pool was put to use. Thaddeus didn’t think any of it was a good idea and bolted from the tub the moment soap was applied and his fur scrubbed. He escaped the yard in no time, an easy feat since there was no fence, and bounded across the street where Mrs. Hooper was trimming her rose bush. Thaddeus stopped right in front of her and shook, sending water and suds everywhere. Mrs. Hooper shrieked and called the dog an ugly name, called the children watching from their porch an even uglier name, and then threatened to call the police when Angie turned around, bent over, and dropped her pants. No one came to fetch Thaddeus. Everyone knew from experience that he’d return eventually, which he did, the moment a can of dog food was opened in the kitchen.
After Thaddeus enjoyed his lunch and dropped soapy water on the floor, boredom returned. Foster applied a Band-Aid to each of his eyes—top to bottom—and groped his way through the living room where Timothy was on the floor coloring.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Angie asked. She was sitting in their mother’s stained easy chair, flipping through an old magazine.
“Want to know what it’s like being blind.” Foster tripped over someone’s jacket, collected himself, and continued, arms outstretched.
Maggie passed him in her ballet shoes. She was practicing standing on her toes. It hurt a lot. She thought of gliding over a dusty wood-planked stage to the silent, tense awe of the audience.
“Watch out, dumbass!” Angie said when Maggie lurched across Timothy. “Jesus, what’s wrong with everyone today?”
Pizza was ordered for dinner. Afterwards all dimes, nickels, and stray pennies were gathered from every pocket, drawer, and stray sock. Mr. Dugan grieved. “Where the hell’s my wallet?” When he couldn’t find it he sat at the kitchen table and stared into space. The children recognized this mood. Their mother was both the cause and cure. She’d called to say she’d gotten there safely. Timothy had answered the phone. There was noise in the background, a man’s voice, the sound of tinny music. Mr. Dugan took the receiver and told everyone to leave him alone so he could have a civilized conversation, for once, which he did for about forty-five seconds before Mrs. Dugan hung up.
At noon the following day, Angie went to dress and had no clean underwear. Foster lacked a clean shirt, and Mr. Dugan’s sock drawer was empty. Monday was laundry day, and Monday was the day Mrs. Dugan had packed her bag. She hadn’t done the laundry. Her oversight was painful to Mr. Dugan, because it strengthened his suspicion that his wife was essentially dissatisfied with her life. He called the children into the kitchen and told them to start washing clothes. Maggie took charge and trotted down the basement stairs. She returned to report that there was no more laundry detergent. A debate ensued. Could dish soap be used? What about shampoo? Angie told everyone to shut up, ordered her father to find his damn wallet, give her some money, and wait until she returned from the store.
“Let me go, let me!” Foster was hopping up and down. The store was a ten-minute walk, yet Angie doubted Foster’s ability to successfully choose and pay for a bottle of detergent on his own. Foster was only eight. She told Timothy and the twins to go with him. Safety in numbers, she figured. With four of them, not much could go wrong.
She jotted down some other necessary items on a list. Milk, bread, eggs, frozen fish sticks, ice cream, chewing gum, and mayonnaise.
“I want a candy bar,” Marta said.
“Me, too,” Timothy said.
“You get this stuff first. If there’s money left over, fine.”
The children left. Angie put the dirty dishes in the sink. The sink was full so placing them was tricky. She passed by her father’s den.
“Angie! Hey, Angie! There’s a guy on TV eating goldfish! What do you think about that?” he called out.
“That’s pretty neat, Dad.”
In her room—which was hers alone after a bitter fight with Mrs. Dugan about who would sleep where—she applied black nail polish with great care. She loved painting her nails. She loved painting other people’s nails. She once painted all the nails of her siblings—including the boys’—a fiery red. The effect was stunning. Mrs. Dugan called her an idiot and demanded that it be removed at once. Mrs. Dugan had lost her sense of humor, Angie realized. There was a time when her mother laughed, danced about in her bedroom slippers, and bestowed gentle affection on her family.
Next she checked her cell phone. It was a cheap phone, gotten at great personal cost of begging and wheedling. Mrs. Dugan had been unmoved by Angie’s repeated statement that all the kids at school had cell phones. Finally a low-end, poorly made cell phone with chronically bad reception found its way into Angie’s loving hands. She liked to send text messages on it. There was one boy she sent messages to. The boy, Dwayne, had been in her math class the year before and she thought he was fabulous. She hungered for Dwayne the way she hungered for mint chocolate-chip ice cream. The messages she sent were bland, non-committal things like TV sucks today. What’s up? His replies were equally bland: nothing, and baseball practice, and cleaning out garage. Yet into each she read a special meaning, a deeper truth that when added up in time would prove that he felt for her what she felt for him. There was no message from Dwayne. He hadn’t texted her for two whole days, and her nerves were about to snap.
She texted her sometime best friend, Luann. no mssg. from D. means what? Luann texted back, phone’s probably off. or battery ran down. Luann’s brutal logic was painful, not comforting at all. If Dwayne cared so little about staying in touch that he turned off his phone, or let the battery die, then what Angie feared—that this relationship was completely one-sided—was true.
She shoved the phone in her pocket and went downstairs. The house was quiet. Her father had switched to a game show, and the sound of clapping and cheers was like a party from another planet. Planet Party, she thought, and wanted to write that down. Every now and then she made notes of random thoughts thinking that they, like the messages from Dwayne, would one day contain a brilliant and tragic truth about the human condition that only she was sensitive enough to see and appreciate.
The children hadn’t returned from the store. The clock said they’d been gone almost an hour. She was furious at the idea that she might have to go looking for them.
“Boneheads,” she said, and ate a slice of cold pizza left over from the night before.
Twenty minutes later, Angie saw the four children walking slowly up the street. Foster was in the lead. Behind him, Timothy carried a single bag of groceries. The twins followed, with an old man in between them. Each girl held one of the old man’s hands. The old man was shuffling along, bobbing his head. His white hair was bright in the sun. He wore a plaid bathrobe over blue pajamas, and bedroom slippers.
“Jesus Christ,” Angie said. She checked on her father. He was asleep on the couch. The television showed a muscular young woman in workout garb jogging through a park. The woman was smiling. Angie felt what she always did when she saw a body like that—deep, gut-twisting envy. She was thirty pounds overweight, and the last time she’d been to the doctor she’d been warned of the dangers of developing diabetes, which more and more young fat people were.
The children came through the back door with the old man in tow.
“Who the fuck is this?” Angie asked.
“We found him,” Timothy explained.
“Found him? Where?”
“At the store,” Marta said.
“Outside the store. On a bench, in the shade,” Maggie said.
“Can we keep him? I think we should keep him,” Foster said.
They put the old man in a chair at the kitchen table. His blue eyes were watery and empty.
“Caroline,” he said, when he saw Angie.
The old man smelled of camphor.
“Why the hell did you bring him here?” Angie asked.
“We told you. He was on a bench. No one came out to get him, so we figured he was lost.”
“Sir, what’s your name?” Angie asked and peered hard at the old man.
“Caroline,” he said.
“Great. Did you check his wallet?”
“Doesn’t have one,” Timothy said. Timothy was the most resourceful of them all.
“He gave me a lollipop. There are more, if you want one,” Foster said.
Sure enough, the old man had three lollipops in the pocket of his bathrobe.
Maggie put the groceries away. Angie saw that they’d forgotten the laundry detergent and the mayonnaise. And the eggs. She sat down. The day had become difficult.