Catherine Zander

Silent and Still

Four children dressed very nicely sit around a kitchen table eating brightly colored cereal.  Four women stand with their heads bowed or crooked slightly.  None of them smile, and none of them speak.  The children kick each other, mostly quietly.  There are occasional yelps and chair schooches, but mostly just unhappy, annoyed faces.  Three of the women are middle aged and hardly distinguishable.  They all have similar faces, hair, and dress. Through the small kitchen window, one of the women has her eyes fixed on the driveway.  The fourth woman is considerably younger, with bright red hair.  All four a women have their eyes fixed on different areas of the kitchen, standing quiet, and unmoving until their individual trances are interrupted by a harsh ringing of the phone. 

“Hello,” The woman who had been looking out the window’s voice is slow and strained.  “…. Yes, hang on just a second.” She lowers the phone to her hip pressing the receiver into her black wool skirt.  “Heather, it’s for you.”

“Thank you Mrs. Mauler.  May I take it in the hall?” Mrs. Mauler nods.   Heather, the youngest of the adults quickly excuses herself.  Tucking her red hair behind her ear, she hurries down the hall.  As she lifts the phone, she tucks her hair again, although it hasn’t fallen out of place. “Hey…I thought it was you…” She smiles faintly as she leans against the wall.  Her hair falls from behind her ear, covering most of her face and the phone. “For the circumstances I guess I’m doing ok.” She jolts up straight and her faint smile turns to a scowl. “He who?    No, he’s not. He’s taking the 10:45 train… I’m not going to do anything,” her voice is becoming hurried and annoyed.  She tucks her hair.  “I’m not his mother and I’m not his girlfriend…”  Heather scows and shaking her head. “Listen,” she says abruptly. “His grandmother just died, it’s not the time.”

In the kitchen, Mrs. Mauler still has her eyes fixed on the small kitchen window, until another car pulls into the driveway.  She excuses herself from the kitchen, into the hall, past Heather, and as she passes, they nod but do not speak. 

Alone in the kitchen, the two remaining middle-aged ladies lean against the counter facing one and other.   They are very close but speak very loudly.   

“I bet it’s her sugar daddy on the phone. You know what Janie, I bet he was married when she met him.”

“It wouldn’t be any surprise to me.  Same story everywhere, if you’re not losing your taking.”  Janie shook her head and gestured out the window, “Remember how her and Duncan would sit and make out in the tree house, and their parents, neither of them did anything.  They just pretended not to notice.”

Back in the hall, Heather's eyes fix on the back of the kitchen door.  A voice still buzzes on the other end of the phone but she isn’t responding.  Her eyes are watering, and the talking still loudly comes from the kitchen.  She slides down the wall, her eyes keeping focus, down onto the floor with her knees to her chest and her back to the wall.

In the kitchen, Janie went on, “I swear Ellen, if I let my kids play like that I bet in ten years they’d be junkies and whores too.  Does Heather even have a job now?  Did she finish school or is she just living off his guilt money? 

Ellen replied, “I don’t know, it doesn’t matter anyhow. Keep your voice down about Duncan.”  Ellen turns and looks out the window.  Mrs. Mauler is helping the new arrivals with their luggage. “Heather had just better find a long term one fast before her looks fade.  Lord knows she doesn’t have anything else to offer.”

Heather jumps as her eyes tear away from the door. “Yea, I’m sorry.  …. Sorry, there’s a lot going on here.  I should probably get going. I’ll call you tonight ok? … I know, thanks…. No, it’s nothing like that. … Hun, Eric, stop, I know…. You don’t need to listen to them, you can’t understand…  Ok, I will. I’ll call you soon… Bye.”

Heather stands by the phone for a moment after hanging up. Then standing straight up she lifts her head, and takes a large breath of air.  Before she has released it completely she hurries into the kitchen.  Mrs. Mauler enters the kitchen a moment after Heather with a dirty dusty Disney movie in her hand.

“Heather, would you mind putting this in for the kids downstairs.  Maybe even keeping the peace for a little while?”

The quiet fighting at the table suddenly gets louder.  The oldest of the boys pushes his chair back so hard it falls over.  He jumps up from the floor and starts yelling at the other boys.

Heather takes the movie and leaves the kitchen with a train of children behind her.  They disappear down a staircase at the end of the hall leaving the last three adults alone together. 

Mrs. Mauler clears off the table, placing the dishes gently into the sink, picks the chair up from the floor she stands it upright, and sits down.  Ellen and Janie leave their positions against the counter and sit on opposite sides of Mrs. Mauler.  Mrs. Mauler turns her head and fixes her view out the small kitchen window, and shaking her head, “It’s just too gray today.  She deserves a nicer day than this, a beautiful sunny day.” At this, Mrs. Mauler lowers her head into her hands and stays very still.

Ellen stands up enough to lift her chair, and she quietly brings it closer to Mrs. Mauler.  “It’s ok Maggie.” Ellen puts her hand on Maggie Mauler’s back and moves it slowly back and forth. “It doesn’t matter what the weather’s like.  Mom would be happy just to know we are all here together finally.”

Janie stuffs fruit loops in her mouth, one after another, putting a new one in before the last is swallowed. She opens her mouth only part way when she speaks. “And we’re all early.  She was so big on punctuality.” 

Ellen and Maggie look at Janie and both nod and look away quickly. Maggie stands and goes to the window to see another has car pulled in.  “It’s George.  I should go. It’s about time for us to pick up Duncan anyhow.  We’ll be back soon.”

When Maggie reaches the car George hugs her tightly.

“How you doing, Hun?” he asks her.

She shakes her head no and he holds her tighter to him.

“C’mon, let’s go get Duncan.”

Maggie and George pull into the train station, where standing on the platform is a very thin young man.  His cheekbones protrude as he takes another drag from his cigarette, and the rain has slicked his black hair to his forehead. 

Duncan!”  Maggie yells at the platform waving and signaling to him to come to her. 

                He carries nothing other than his cigarette that he drops into a puddle without stamping out. 

Maggie hugs him. “I’m so glad your here.”

“Ok Mom. It’s starting to really pour again.  We should get into the car.”

George, who has been standing with Maggie, holding the umbrella, opens the door for Maggie who gets into the car.  He looks Duncan up and down.  “You look like a wet starved stray.”

Duncan who is opening the door to the back seat, pauses, then looks up at George with his dark brown eyes, which are exaggeratedly large from his frailty and wetness, and he smiles sarcastically sticking out his chin. “Thanks Dad, you look stunning yourself.” They get into the car and drive away. 

Maggie stares out the window, George focuses on the wet road, and Duncan is fidgeting in the back, swinging his knees in and out while he fiddles things inside his coat pocket.  The car smells of wet wool, dampness, and cigarette smoke.  Maggie turns her body in her seat. 

“So Duncan, I haven’t talked to you in a while, not since your last promotion.  How are things?”     

Duncan leans forward resting his elbows on his knees, “Well the company is doing so well.  I’ve heard rumors that we’re going to open a new office in LA and from there…”

“But Duncan,” Maggie says interrupting, “what about your personal life, you know.  That nice girl Jessica, are you still seeing her?”

Duncan leans back and turns his head to look out the window.  His voice drops to a touch above a whisper. “Jessica wasn’t a nice girl, and I wasn’t ever really seeing her.”

“That’s a shame, I liked her.”  They both sigh as they look out their respective windows.  She turns one last time, “So tell me what you’ve been doing lately.  You always seem so busy.”

He doesn’t turn from his window. “I’m just busy.  Nothing profound.”

Maggie turns toward her window again.  At a red light, George reaches across and gives her hand a squeeze.

More people have arrived at the house and blocked the garage, so they park on the street and despite the rain, step slowly across the lawn to the house.  Maggie and George hang their coats in the closet while Duncan keeps his on.  The house is full of somber adults dressed in black.  Almost everyone speaks quietly.  Duncan goes straight to the bathroom without stopping to speak to any of the mourners.  Only a few minutes pass when Maggie taps on the door. “It’s getting late, Duncan. Why don’t we all start getting the people we’re taking with us together so we know how many cars to take?  Duncan, you come with me and your Father.  See if you can find Heather, she should be downstairs watching your nephews.”

Duncan walks carefully and slowly down the dim stairs.  He reaches the bottom and quietly stands focusing on Heather, who has fallen asleep with a child in her arms.  He takes a step towards her with his hand outstretched but stops, pulls his hand back sharply, closing his eyes tight and wrinkling his eyelids, and then he stuffs both of his hands into his pockets. 

“Ok guys, go find your respective parents, it’s time to head out to the service.”

Heather stands carrying the same child that had fallen asleep in her lap.

Duncan doesn’t move. “Hi. Mom says you should ride with us.”  Then, he smiles, showing his teeth that are straight and full, but tinted yellow, then he quickly drops the smile closes his eyes tight again and turns his head down to his feet.

 “Hi.” She doesn’t smile back, and then she walks up the stairs with the child still in her arms. Duncan follows her silently, but while he walks, he pushes his hands deep into his pockets pulling his coat down and tighter to his body.

Hours later, when the funeral is over all the cars return to the Maulers driveway, and the people to the house.  Maggie sets out trays of food from the refrigerator, and Janie and Ellen help her lay them out neatly.  Heather whispers to Mrs. Mauler who nods her head, subsequently Heather excuses herself and goes down the stairs at the end of the hall.  She closes the door behind her and turns on the TV, flips through the channels while never stopping for more than three seconds, shuts off the TV, and then puts down the remote.  She picks up the phone and starts to dial but hangs up as soon as she is done.  The door on top of the stairs opens and quietly shuts again.  The lights are off, the only light is from the small basement windows which don’t shine on the stairs. Duncan quietly walks down the stairs and Heather turns around puts the phone down on the couch.

“Who’s there?” she asks.

“Heather?”

“Oh, hi. Why didn’t you turn on the lights?”

“I didn’t think anyone was down here.”

“That was the point of leaving them off.” 

“Running away eh?”

“You’d know all about that.”

“C’mon, don’t be like that.”

“Like what?”

Heather picks up the phone and waves it around in front of her. “I was about to make a call, and I wanted to be alone.”

“Calling Eric or whoever?”

“And what if I am?”

“Just wondering, that’s all.”

“Well, go wonder somewhere else.”

“What the hell’s wrong with you? I just asked a simple question.  Anyhow, it’s my own house.”

“I’ve spent more time here in the past year than you have in the past five.  I do all the things you should be.  I go shopping with your mother, and I took groceries to your grandmother when your dad was too busy.  They’re not even my family and I do all of this. Tell me what the hell have you done?  So, don’t tell me that this is your house.”

“Excuse me, I guess getting a job and making a life for myself forfeits my right to a childhood home.  Good to know, maybe I should quit and move back in with my parents, like who, oh, like you did.”

“I got a divorce, Duncan.  I had nowhere else to go.”

“Like you couldn’t see that one coming.  Marry a man twenty years your senior.  My god, of course that one won’t fail.”

Heather stands and drops the phone. “What should I have done?  Waited for you to clean up?  I’d die an old maid.  You know what? I’ve had enough of this!  I’ve had enough bullshit frowns and snide comments.  Eric loves me, and he cares about me, something I need.  I need that.” She sniffs, and her eyes begin to water.  Her face is red and she tucks her hair and wipes her eyes.

“Don’t yell at me. Not my fault you aren’t strong enough to be alone for ten minutes.  Look at what happened when I left for one semester! You never could be alone, not for one instant, your so goddamned insecure.”

“Me?  At least I choose people to need.  From what I hear you just spend all your money on heroin.  How many times in and out of clinics? Well, how many times?  I listened to your aunts call me a prostitute and you a junky all morning.  And that’s not all of it.  You should hear your dad. Remember on my wedding day when you disappeared and they found you in that girl’s apartment half-dead?  I heard about that. I bet you don’t remember. I spent half my honeymoon on the phone to your mom.  I know about all of it.”

Duncan stands perfectly still. Only his chest moves with shallow breaths.  Orange light shines through the cellar windows leaving most of his face still in shadows.  His face is very still, and very hard.  His brown eyes are narrow, and he speaks slowly, hardly moving anything but his lips. “My grandmother just died.  Always had great timing didn’t you?” Duncan moves from the orange light and out of the room.  He goes down a dim hall in the cellar, only lit by a Virgin Mary night light on the other end.  There are no windows.  He feels his way along the bottoms of frames that line the wall, and finds an old metal door latch half way down, and goes in the room.  He pulls the cord in the center of the room, the light hums for a moment and then flashes on.  The bathroom is tiny, the counter is a dingy tan with blotches of white, and the drain is stained orange.  The seat of the toilet clanks shut and he sits with his head in his hands.  Biting his lip, he starts to cry, softly at first but then harder.  He reaches into his coat pocket and fidgets frantically inside. “Fuck her, fuck home, and fuck this.”  On the counter, he lines up the contents of his pocket.

Heather sits back down on the couch and picks up the phone.  She dials but this time doesn’t hang up.  She is crying, her face is red, but her hair not tucked.

“Hello? Eric, hi…. No, no I’m not ok…  Will you come get me? …Yes, I mean it… please…  Thank you, I’ll be ready...Love you too… Sure.  Please just hurry.”

Heather wipes her eyes and gets mascara on her hands.  She goes to the bathroom down the hall.  She opens the door without knocking.  Duncan is sitting on the floor with his jacket off.  His arms are skeletal, and he looks smaller than Heather.  She sits on the floor with him.

“I’m going back to Eric,” she says.

 Duncan nods faintly. He hardly moves, but he takes her hand.  Neither of them speak and neither of them cry.