“So how’s it going at the not-home-alone house?” Darci asks Linda. They’re arranging some new dahlias on a two-tiered round table just outside the entrance to Bernie’s Hometown Hardware. Every spring Bernie expands the garden department to the large concrete area in front of the store.
“Going great,” Linda answers heartily though it certainly is not. She picks up another dahlia, snaps a dried bloom, then thunks the plant—a little harder than necessary—on the table. Her grown daughter, Tess, came home from Chicago almost four weeks ago.
“Is she doing hair while she’s here?”
Linda shakes her head. “I keep telling you, Darci, Tess is on vacation. You know how it is—she’s their top stylist. Everyone wants her—there’s a waiting list for her waiting list.” Linda manages a dry chuckle. “She had to come back home here, just to get a few days off.”
Darci nods. “Must be nice. A month vacation.” She runs her fingers through short, limp hair. “I just asked because I need a trim. I know sometimes stylists do a little work on the side.”
Linda slams down another dahlia. Linda and Darci are both strong, tanned women, their denim Bernie’s aprons tied over solid, no-nonsense bodies. Linda’s worked the one-to-nine shift here almost fifteen years. Darci is younger, newer, dependably deferential, but sometimes a little too eager. Linda knows darn well that Darci doesn’t give a hoot about hair. Darci caught a whiff of trouble on the home front and now she’s sniffing around for more.
It’s Linda’s own fault for bragging so much about Tess and that high-end Chicago salon. She should have kept her big mouth shut.
An elderly couple shuffles past, their flat-cart loaded with variety-pack annuals and several large bags of moisture control potting mix. They’re angling toward the checkout.
“You’re up,” Linda tells Darci. Probably not, but Darci trots off after them.
Just as Linda turns back to the dahlias, she spots a young women in the next aisle reading the tag on a hydrangea bush. Behind her, unnoticed, her little boy is plucking all the blooms from a flat of petunias. Linda frowns, clears her throat, and moves with brisk authority.
Something is very wrong with Tess. Linda doesn’t know what or why but since she’s been home she is locked in a cold troubled silence. Thinner than Linda has ever seen her—painfully thin—her once lustrous dark hair is startlingly cropped. It looks like she took to her head with hedge clippers. Why would a stylist do that?
She arrived home, unannounced, on a Sunday afternoon, pulling up the drive in a silver Accord. She brought a backpack, two canvas totes, and her battered old white-box MacBook. She had on black capri leggings and a tie-dye camisole, an outfit she wears—with little variation—every day.
Now Tess spends hours and hours alone in her old upstairs bedroom, the door locked shut. She’s in there when Linda leaves for work, she’s there when Linda comes home. Mornings, occasionally, she’ll waft through the kitchen with a cup of peppermint tea or a plate of the special vegan cookies she keeps on her shelf in the fridge, but even then she’s dodgy and silent. She calls her room her studio. She tells Linda she’s working on art.
If she leaves the house at all, Linda can’t be sure, though twice Tess hurried past with Hobby Lobby bags, like she didn’t want Linda to see.
Nothing Linda tried has worked: the first barrage of baffled questions now more insistent and patently pointed; stops for Thai carry-out on the way home from Bernies; gentle taps on Tess’s door, walks suggested, shopping, movies—all cooly declined. Linda even offered to buy her a cat. Growing up, Tess begged for a cat.
Linda is down to her last bitter dregs of patience. God knows she was never much good at cajoling confidences or catering to delicate whims. But Tess was always such an agreeable girl, easy-going, hardly ever a problem, and though she and Linda were worlds apart they got along in their own way. There were some difficult times—the fiery divorce when Tess was just five, then a few bad months with a guy who drank—but Linda cut her losses and moved on.
And Linda was so proud of Tess—pretty, stylish—how she knew what she wanted and made it happen.
Now Tess is completely unreachable. She says her art is coming along, but she’s not yet ready to share.
If Tess is feeling so artsy maybe she should go back to Chicago and start styling hair again.
It had been a challenging evening at Bernie’s— the registers went down for a panicky twenty minutes and while Linda was dealing with that, two punk kids brazenly jumped into an idling Camry with a stash of jerky and Red Bull. Then, minutes before close, a guy without a receipt demanded full refund for an orbital sander. She told him to take it back to Home Depot.
So it’s in no great mood that she drags herself into the house, wagging a Subway Italian Beef only to discover—surprise!—Tess at the kitchen island swiping her phone.
Linda barely stifles a sigh. She’s certainly in no shape for another tussle—tired, hungry, low on patience and probably blood sugar too, but Tess’s camisole exposes so starkly the sharp jut of her collarbone, the deeply shadowed hollows that Linda’s chest clenches with fear. How much longer can this go on?
She pulls out the stool across from Tess, slowly unrolls the sub from its wrapping. “Want some?” A little meat might do her good.
Tess frowns at her phone. “No.”
Linda struggles for her gentlest tone. “Tess, hon, you have to know that I’m worried sick. Look at me, please—I’m talking to you.”
Tess slides off her stool. “Ma. Just don’t.” She slips past Linda and then quickly toward the stairs.
Tess takes the stairs on a run, her too-thin back tensed tight under the camisole, Linda pounding one step behind. “Don’t you run away from me!”
They almost collide outside Tess’s closed door. “Talk to me, Tess.” Linda pants, out of breath, exasperated. “What the blazes do you do in there?”
Tess doesn’t answer. She doesn’t even look. She’s concentrating on fitting a tiny key in the doorknob.
“Fine, then, don’t tell me. I’ve got a key for that lock, too,” Linda threatens.
Tess draws herself up so she’s perfectly straight. Her head barely skims Linda’s chin, but she looks her right in the eye. “Ma, please. Not yet.” A fleck of glitter sparkles emphatically on the edge of her upper lip.
It takes all Linda’s self-control not to grab the door with both hands and yank it wide. “What is wrong with you?” she yells.
Tess flinches, just like when Linda was a short-fused young mother. She closes the door. The lock clicks.
Linda stands there, reeling with impotent fury.
“Oh my God, you are such a wuss,” Darci wails. “It’s your house, dammit. March up there with a battering ram.”
Employees aren’t supposed to linger after closing—Bernie’s rule is to gather by the front register and leave as a group—but tonight it’s just the two of them. They’re sitting outside on molded-plastic lawn chairs—2/$25—drinking Cokes from the vending machine. Linda’s bottle is cold and slippery.
“I mean, really, Linda. What do you think she has in there? Dead people?”
Linda picks at the Coke label with her thumbnail. Time was Darci wouldn’t dare spout off like that. Meek, timid Darci—May I take lunch now, Linda? Please, Linda, count the drawer, I always mess up. Where do you want these tomato plants, Linda? Linda wishes she could fling back something barbed and wounding, but she can’t even think straight anymore.
Darci, clearly, is riding the crest of a heady new power. “You ask me it’s ultimatum time. Tell her she talks or she’s out.”
Of course Linda never should have spilled to Darci—a regrettable act of weakness brought on by last night’s confrontation with Tess—but where Darci gets the notion that Linda asked heranything is simply beyond imagining and, anyway, it’s easy for Darci to say—her daughter is five-years-old. Just wait, Linda thinks grimly.
Linda takes a long last slug of Coke, lobs the empty bottle into the trash.
“Tess, open up. It’s me.” Tess must be awake. Linda noticed faint light in the windows when she turned in the drive and now she hears music—a woman’s voice—crooning, melancholy.
Linda raps again.
Driving home from Bernie’s, Linda built herself up for this. No more pussy-footing around, scared of what she might find. No questions, no anger. Tonight she’s going to get in that room and see for herself.
Linda shifts impatiently, raises her hand to rap once more, doesn’t. Finally, the music shuts off mid-note, footsteps, the knob turns and Tess’s pale face gazes out from the half open door.
“I’m here for the tour?” Light humor, she’d decided. Now her grin feels like rubber.
“Ok, ok.” Tess sighs, swings the door wide. “Come in if you must.”
The room is dim after the bright hallway but between the two windows, Linda can make out a long worktable, her old portable sewing machine set solid at the center. A jointed task lamp pools yellow on a tangle of fabric and white stuffing.
“Wait a sec,” Tess says. She clicks on the overhead switch. Now the room is bright, clearer—Linda moves close to the table, looks down at a startling cluster of puckish pink faces—unattached, plastic, hollow as masks. Goosebumps prickle her neck.
Still, determined, she stays calm and casual, though her stomach is starting to knot. “So this is your big reveal, Tess? You’re making dolls?”
Tess shrugs. “You asked. And they’re not just dolls—they’re knee-huggers.” She nods toward the bed where a row of them—at least a dozen—sit with legs tucked tight.
Tess is watching her closely. Linda feels a tell-tale muscle flicker near her jaw, but the rest of her face stays still. “What do you do with them?”
“I’m going to sell them.”
“To who?” Crazies?
“Online, Ma.” Tess almost smiles. “It’s kind of a niche. You’d be surprised what people pay for a nice knee-hugger.”
Linda walks to the bed and gazes down. Stuffed, big-faced, arms velcroed over their folded legs, they look like hyper-alert clown fetuses.
In fairness, Linda can see a kind of whimsical effort here—one has a pile of cotton candy hair, one is decked out like an ear of corn, one sprouts glittery fairy wings. But God Almighty—what a waste. Stupid, useless, ugly as homemade sin.
Linda sinks down on the bed and looks up at Tess. “I don’t get it, Tess.” Stop she tells herself, but she can’t. “You were so successful, such a good stylist, doing so well. I was proud of you. What happened?”
“You mean what’s wrong with me?” Tess shakes her head. “I don’t know, Ma. For now,” she waves at the dolls, “this is all I can say.”
Darci forgot again to water the hanging baskets. The geraniums don’t look too bad, but the three petunia baskets are shriveled beyond hope. Bernie’s going to have a fit. Linda could probably dump them before he sees, but why is Darci’s back always her responsibility?
And there’s Darci herself over by the propane, jabbering away at some poor guy who probably just wants to grab a tank and go. “They don’t come here to listen to you,” Linda has told her time and again. “They come here to buy.”
There won’t be much buying today. One-thirty and the sun sizzles down—hot, muggy, a long Wednesday shift ahead. No one shops on these humid midweek afternoons. It might pick up later in the evening but between now and then are tedious hours to fill. She’s been planning to reorganize some of the back shelving in the stockroom. Maybe she could start that today. At least she’d be inside, out of this heat, her hands busy, her mind free to process. Darci can handle the floor.
But those wilted petunias—she’s surprised at how much they bother her. They were such vivid pinks and purples, their big petals flimsy like cloth. Humble flowers, trying their best.
She drags over the hose, triggers the nozzle to a gentle spray.
“So?” Darci’s sudden voice is right at her shoulder. “How’d it go with Tess?”
Of course Darci would expect updates. “OK. We talked a little.” A start at least, in that room last night. There’s a long road ahead.
Darci nods encouragement. Linda triggers the nozzle harder.
“Look, Darci, if you want something to do, all those clearance pots and planters need to get red-lined.” With her other hand, she digs in her apron pocket for a sharpie. “Here. And group them up a little better.” She hesitates just a beat. “You always have a good eye for displays.”
Darci’s grin is surprised and pleased. “Eye-eye!”
Linda grins back, shoos her off. “Dork.”
Linda figures she’ll head to the stockroom in a minute or two. The hot sun feels so good on the tensed muscles in her neck. Soon these summer annuals will give way to rudbeckia, sunflowers, mums. Pumpkins and a brief burst of holiday wreaths. Then winter—tight cold months inside the store.
The stockroom and its cluttered back shelves can wait. For now she just wants to keep hosing these hanging baskets. Water streams out their drain holes, spattering the concrete but she can’t stop. She’s watching, mesmerized, how the spray catches sunlight and breaks into color like a rainbow.
Diane Unterweger lives in Wisconsin. She writes poetry and short stories. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Tahoma Literary Review.