She used to stop by football practice, before her parents made her come straight home from school to help in the store. Bobby had dark hair and blue eyes the color of the sky during a summer thunderstorm, eyes hidden behind thick glasses held tightly to his head by an elastic band underneath his helmet. At lunch time, she had seen him take off those glasses and rub the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, his eyes closing with the gesture. Her friends, if you could call them that, would snicker and kick her under the table when she stared. She ignored them. They didn’t understand how she felt about Bobby, Bobby who smiled at her in the hallway at school, Bobby who sometimes stopped by the store to pick something up for his mother on the weekends. He knew her name, called her Maggie when he acknowledged her, reminded her that she was a real person with the focus of his gaze. He had a younger brother who played on the football team with him, and was, everyone agreed, more talented than Bobby, but no one worked as hard during practice as Bobby did. He was a better player than his brother, but Maggie knew that the brother was Bobby’s parents’ favorite. They loved Bobby, this was true, but the mother’s eyes shone more brightly when she spoke to the brother, just the smallest bit. The mother went to football practices quite often, the only woman pacing among the bleachers, and yelled at the players almost as much as the coaches did. She and her husband, a former All-State high school football star, were very knowledgeable about the sport and took it very seriously. Bobby was attractive, it was true, but it was his devotion to excellence, a devotion that translated off the field into schoolwork, into friendships, that impressed Maggie the most. She didn’t want to work in her parents’ grubby little store forever, serving people she knew in this nowhere town that didn’t even allow liquor sales. Whenever any of the kids had a party, usually in one of the many fields that divided the town into neighborhoods, beer had to be bought from the next town over, or someone knew someone who had some shine sitting around in a barn somewhere who wouldn’t miss it. Maggie never touched any of it, never wanted not to be in control of her body, her voice. She went to these parties with her friends so she could watch Bobby, his thick glasses shining in the moonlight, his smile generous and sincere. Since high school began, she had taken more care with her appearance, applying just enough make-up to stand out, she considered, without being trashy, and going to get regular hair cuts and taking the time to style her hair every morning. She didn’t know if Bobby noticed her, really noticed her, because he seemed polite and kind to everyone. She knew, however, that they were meant to be together, that he would take her away from this hole on the map and they would live somewhere clean and beautiful. Bobby would work hard, she knew that, and he would be successful no matter what he did for a living, so she would always be taken care of. She watched him as he stood at his locker one morning, ignored her friends when they nudged her and waved their goodbyes. He was indeed like a prince in a fairy tale, if a princes wore glasses, and she couldn’t imagine why his parents didn’t prefer him over the brother. He didn’t seem to mind, but it bothered her, and she resented the friendship he seemed to have with the younger boy. Once she and Bobby were together, she would be sure that he understood how much she loved him, how she would always prize him above anyone else. She felt herself smile as she watched him, the movement creeping up on her as she watched him walk away from his locker and move down the hall, looking at his friends with interest as they spoke together. When he laughed, Maggie thought her heart would stop, and then it did when he stepped up to her and took her elbow in his hand.
“Are you okay, Maggie?”
He looked at her with genuine concern in his eyes, and she felt her lips curve back into a smile. When had she stopped smiling?
He let go of her elbow and nodded, his own smile returning, before walking away. She brought her breathing under control and noticed that the hallway was clearing. She would be late to class, but it didn’t matter. Her focus remained on Bobby’s back as he began to turn the corner to the next hallway and she saw Joanna, Joanna with long curling hair and a cheerleader skirt, skip over to him out of nowhere and link her arm in his in one smooth motion, as if she had done it before. Maggie had never assumed that other girls hadn’t noticed Bobby, but she had never seen any of them actually touch him. As the bell rang she realized with a sudden and intense fear that her future was under threat. She would have to act soon and decisively. There would be no turning back.
When Maggie had learned to drive – a “life skill,” her father had called it – she had not expected to have use of the car on anything like a regular basis. Sometimes when she was working at the store one of her parents would direct her to take the car to run an errand, put gas in it, or go to the hardware store for repair or maintenance items. She had never asked to take the car for her own purposes and was unsure of how effective such a request might be. After spending both Saturday and Sunday at the store without complaint and completing her homework in the short spare time left, she asked her father if she could take the car to the root beer stand to meet a friend. He blinked at her several times before answering.
“A friend? I didn’t know you had any of those, at least any you’ve bothered to mention. Wait . . . a girl or a boy friend?”
Maggie attempted to act as if it was really of no consequence if she was able to take the car or not.
“Girl. Girls, in fact. We might be planning the prom together, so we thought it would be a good idea to get started.”
Prom? Where had that come from? She held her tongue before allowing herself a small smile. She shrugged.
“Just an idea.”
He looked her up and down before pulling a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his shirt, smacking them soundly against the palm of his hand. He sighed as he continued to pack them down.
“Well, sure. It’ll make your mom happy that you’re doing something so normal, although it’s a little late in the game. Planning something – that’s a practical skill. Hard work, Maggie. That’s how it’s done. You don’t get something for nothing, not ever.”
She should have resented the implication, the implications, of such a statement. Of course she had friends, of course she was normal, whatever that meant, and if she hadn’t had parents who expected her to work all the damn time maybe she could do more ‘normal’ things. She knew damn well too much about work, too. It wouldn’t help to get upset, though, not now, so she held her smile fixed on her face and waited. He stared at her as he unwrapped the pack of cigarettes without looking at them,. His fingers pulled at the red strip knowingly, and once the wrap had come loose, he gestured with his hand, waving it towards the front door.
“You know where the keys are. Just be back by ten. It’s a school night.”
She had to focus on thanking him and stepping away with measured effort, so as not to seem to eager. It’s a school night indeed, as if she didn’t know. She took the keys from the hook by the front door, opened it, and walked out, imagining what it would be like to leave this house forever. Someday, soon.
Maggie wondered how long it would take before the tire went down. She hadn’t thought about it that carefully before she had taken the nails from the pickle jar her father kept on the workbench in the garage and pressed them into the tires. At least one of the four, she imagined, would actually end up piercing a tire, but she wasn’t sure how long it would take for the tire to flat, or if it would pop rather than deflate. She didn’t want to have an accident or to hurt anyone else, but it was too late to worry about that now. When she had covered nearly a mile and was close to the late-night diner, she noticed the weight of the car leaning towards the rear driver’s side. Carefully turning the wheel and easing off the gas, she pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot and found an open space in the back with plenty of room surrounding it. She had a few dimes in her purse in case she needed to call home in an emergency, an event that had never happened but now, those dimes would find use. She left the car, locking it before closing the door firmly, and walked to the side entrance of the diner. There were a few patrons chatting amiably in booths, a lone man at a counter stool holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the fingers of the other. The ash from the cigarette had grown long, and Maggie watched it, hoping it would fall and scatter onto the speckled countertop. The man noticed her staring and smiled slowly, looking her up and down. She turned away and nodded to the cashier, who was the older sister of one of her classmates. The pay phone was past the cash register and candy counter, in the hallway next to the restrooms. She set her purse on the wooden shelf underneath the phone and took out her change purse and a slip of paper. It was a progress report from school meant for her parents, but she’d forgotten about it, and conveniently, too, as she’d needed something to write down the phone number when she looked it up in the phone book at the library. The library was on the way home from school, a short walk and no trouble to run to and look up the information two days earlier. Maggie picked up the receiver and dropped a dime in the slot, waiting for the dial tone before pressing her index finger against each number carefully. She hadn’t thought about anyone but him answering, and wondered what she would say if the younger brother did.
Oh, it was Bobby, his voice a beacon and a salve. He repeated his question again, before she realized that she needed to speak before he hung up on her.
“Hello, Bobby? It’s Maggie. Maggie, from school.”
The line was quiet for a moment, and she held her breath, worried that he would ask, “who?”
“Oh. Oh, hi Maggie. How are you?”
His voice had become friendly, a comforting shift that eased her mind. She followed the script she had planned earlier in her head.
“Well, Bobby, I’m in a bit of a bind. I think I have a flat tire, or the beginnings of one, and I just didn’t know who to call for help.”
Her parents, his parents, they had been disappointed. Bobby was confused. Maggie was elated. Her father had been right – planning was a practical skill. The wedding was quickly planned and executed before her belly began to tell the tale, and she hardly recognized the girl beaming from the photographs as herself.
The first death was not the hardest. Bobby’s younger brother had been a football star but after high school, he had proven himself not much of anything else. By that time, Maggie and Bobby had been married for two years, and Maggie was pregnant, again. Their daughter was nearly two and clearly the love of Bobby’s life. Maggie couldn’t resent the child, as she made Bobby so happy. Maggie knew that without her, the child wouldn’t have existed, so any love Bobby had for the girl was a reflection on her. The brother had dropped like a lead weight without football to keep him busy. He was meant to go to college on a football scholarship until he busted his knee during practice, and it was then that everyone realized he had nothing more to build on. Bobby worried about him, took him to the movies, to baseball games, to the bar. Bobby didn’t like to spend too much time at the bar, as he wasn’t a big drinker himself and worried that the environment was negative.
“All that cigarette smoke, the sticky floors. Just, you know, kind of low-down. He just wants to sit there and talk with the guys, though, and watch the game, so I’d rather be there with him and keep an eye on him.”
Maggie would nod, as she did whenever Bobby spoke. If nothing else, she knew she was a good wife, kept a clean house, took care of the child. Bobby could never complain about her behavior. She would most likely never get used to the bedroom, but she let him do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, and when he asked her if she had enjoyed it, she always said yes. She wondered if he could tell that she usually found it bothersome, sometimes disgusting. The noises, the dampness. It made her shudder to think of it.
Bobby was the one to find his brother, who had taken one of his father’s rifles and pushed it as far into his mouth as it could go before pulling the trigger. The barn on the back of their parents’ property had been unused for decades, and her in-laws had been considering having it torn down for safety reasons, especially since their grandchild had arrived. Part of the loft floor had been crumbling, and they were worried that children might try to climb up and fall through the rotted wood. Bobby’s brother had tucked himself into a mildewed pile of straw so that the brains and blood were soaked up by the stiff stalks. When Bobby had run into the house yelling for her to call the police, she had done so without really knowing what was wrong, then followed him back out to the barn. Her mother-in-law had been holding the child and remained in the house, unaware of what had occurred and worried that since the police had been called, there was some danger, so she kept herself and the child inside.
Maggie wondered how long ago the brother had shot himself. The blood was splattered on the dark wood, and bits of what had been his brain and other parts of his head were in the straw and on the dirt floor. She had never seen such a thing, not on the TV or in the movies, and she was more fascinated than revolted. There were flies gathering around the brother’s head, or what remained of it, and she stared, unblinking, as the buzzing seemed to grow louder around her. Bobby mistook her focus for shock and took her hand, leading her away from the scene.
“You shouldn’t have seen that, especially in your condition. I’m so sorry.”
He was crying, big fat tears rolling down his smooth cheeks. He always shaved, every morning, and she loved to pat the softness of his cheeks. When she touched them now they were damp in the palm of her hand, and she pulled him close to her, enfolding him in her arms wordlessly. He cried loudly and grabbed at the back of her shirt as she struggled to keep the smile from her face. It wouldn’t do to have to explain such an expression at a time like this, she knew.
She produced three girls in succession, almost two years apart, and while Bobby had never seemed disappointed, Maggie knew that a man wanted sons. She vowed not to give up until they had one.
Robert Junior was a large baby and took over a day of labor to produce, but Maggie was overjoyed that she had finally been able to give Bobby what she imagined he wanted most. Her in-laws were thrilled, as they had been with each baby, even the first, and her parents were distant, as always. She figured that they were jealous of the home she had with Bobby, which was larger than theirs, and that they had lost her as a store employee when she married. She knew that they had counted on her labor for some indefinite time, so she understood that undermining their plans had made their tenuous relationship more on edge. It didn’t matter.
Bobby had been at work, the construction site over an hour away, when Maggie was taken to the hospital by a neighbor. Her in-laws came over to stay with the girls, and Maggie called Bobby before she left. She wasn’t the kind of wife who expected her husband to drop everything and focus on her, but he did anyway. She found such women annoying, and never wanted Bobby to feel tied down to or hassled by her. There was no hurry, after all, and he showed up in plenty of time to hold his son minutes after the birth. Maggie had never worried about the security of her marriage before, and knew that now, she never would. The girls had their father’s adoration, but this little boy would fill a place every man had in his heart for a son. If producing a son wasn’t normal, what was, Maggie thought, watching Bobby sway back and forth as he rocked the new baby in his arms. Her parents might come to visit, she considered, but they knew she didn’t really want them around. Sometimes Bobby would ask, and she would explain that they had never really been close, and that the store kept them busy. He had offered to give her parents money to help out, to hire workers for certain projects so that the two of them, who seemed so much older than they really were, could rest a bit. Maggie had held back smiles at their insulted expressions. Charity, her father was probably saying to her mother. You don’t get something for nothing. Maggie didn’t care. They could work themselves to death, it made no difference to her. Her girls were beautiful and well-behaved and she had a son now that would keep her at her husband’s side forever. She didn’t need her parents. She never had.
The second death was a long time coming, and it was the hardest. When the girls were grown and Bobby J (short for Bobby Junior) was still in high school, succeeding his father as a reliable football player with laudable skills in leadership and work ethics, his heart seized on the field during practice. It was quick and painless, the emergency room doctors assured her, which did not make her feel any better about losing him. All of her children had been little or no trouble, but Bobby J was her baby. He was everyone’s favorite, including his sisters’, and he had been given much attention and affection since she brought him home from the hospital after he was born. It would have been easy for him to become a self-centered brat, but it was not who he was or who he was meant to be. He was clever, with questions about everything and everyone he encountered, and developed quickly, hitting milestones months earlier than his peers. There was some talk of him going on to become a doctor, specializing in sports medicine, after college ball. Recruiters had been sniffing around before their time, sweet-talking Bobby J and even approaching Maggie and Bobby, both of whom told them that there was plenty of time for decisions, unaware that there was no time at all. There was a lot of attention at the funeral, the calling hours, the neighbors, extended family (she barely knew some of them, but they had visited after seeing the obituary in the newspaper), and Bobby J’s classmates. He had been extremely popular, and it stood to reason that the funeral home was packed with high school students, girls crying expansively on boys, dampening the boys’ fathers’ suit jackets as the boys held onto the girls, their own tears sliding continuously down their cheeks. They all seemed so young. Maggie knew that there would be a lot ahead of them in their lives that would ease the focus of their feelings for Bobby J, but there was not a lot for her.
All three of her girls married well, and in time, produced children. Bobby talked about retiring, and, as usual, Maggie agreed with whatever pleased him. He had fallen into a dark depression at the loss of Bobby J, and she was sure it had affected his health. They did not speak of such things, and Maggie didn’t talk about it with anyone else, either. Bobby sometimes asked her if she would like to have her parents over for dinner, for a family picnic, and she always shook her head. He didn’t press her for details, but he knew, and she knew that he knew, that she did not like her parents. They had been offered seats up front with Maggie and Bobby and the girls at Bobby J’s funeral, but chose to sit in the back, leaving early rather than following the procession to the cemetery. Maggie suspected that the flowers that appeared on Bobby J’s grave intermittently came from her mother. It didn’t matter. She had left them behind long ago, and had no interest in turning back. Bobby asked Maggie if she was interested in going on a Caribbean cruise to celebrate his retirement, and she found herself cringing at the idea, both of traveling, and of being away from home with him, alone. She suggested that they invite the girls and their families along. After all, Bobby had saved quite a bit of money over the years, being a careful investor and providing for her and the children well while taking care to ensure their long term security. Bobby seemed overwhelmed by Maggie’s generosity and agreed that a family vacation was a fantastic way to celebrate his retirement as well as their lives together. Maggie remembered her father telling her, time and again, that there was a price for everything. You don’t get something for nothing, he used to remind her when she sighed over the hours he expected her to work in the store. She had wanted to tell him that yes, he was getting something, and she was getting nothing but tired and bored and nowhere. She had never repeated the phrase to her own children, but she and Bobby had expected them to do their best at school and sports and whatever endeavors took their interest. When they invited the girls and their families over for dinner and shared their offer to take them on the cruise with them, the girls were thrilled but they and their husbands explained that they would pay, at least in part, for their own tickets. Not all of them could afford it, and Maggie and Bobby paid the difference for them without comment. Maggie knew that the girls were friends amongst themselves and that there would be no resentment about this, which pleased her. She would not want the trouble of dealing with such drama.
The third death was sad, of course, but Maggie felt numb about it more than anything else. She did see her daughters and their families, all of whom lived within a thirty minute drive of their hometown, but she did not feel particularly close to any of them. The first granddaughter was a pretty child, dark hair, blue eyes like Bobby, and seemed to be quite popular at her school. She was always laughing, her head thrown back like a movie star posing for a photo, and Maggie was sometimes irritated by her incessant joy. The girl’s mother told her that boys called all the time, and girls were at her house working on homework and cheers and whatever else teenagers were up to these days. Of course Maggie loved the girl, she loved all her grandchildren, but they did not seem like real people to her. They kissed her on the cheek and hugged her at the dock, thanking her for the cruise. None of their thanks seemed forced, as if their parents had told them to do it. Each child was excited about the trip, and Maggie considered that she would have rather been strung up by her fingernails than go on a cruise with her parents, either as a teenager or now. The first night on the cruise was full of festivity, annoying cruise employees asking again and again if there was anything she needed, a long buffet of food that would most likely be wasted, left on plates, thrown in the trash. Bobby asked her if she was okay, and she caught herself before she made it more obvious that she was annoyed, assuring him that she was just tired from the flight to the port. They retired to their room, and the next few days were a blur of activities that seemed to please her daughters and grandchildren. She vaguely recognized her sons-in-law, only because she cared so little about them to pay them any real attention. Somehow she found a few moments alone, resting her arms on the railing, staring out at the water. It went on for miles and miles she knew, and appeared endless. There was something restful about it, and when she returned to her room to find Bobby sleeping, fully clothed on top of the bedclothes, she smiled to herself.
Maggie and Bobby had been dressing and discussing the plans their daughters had made for the day when the room phone rang. Bobby picked it up and listened for a few moments, then dropped it back into its cradle carelessly. He grabbed her hand and pulled her to the door, saying only one word. The oldest granddaughter’s name.
No one was supposed to be in the pool when a lifeguard wasn’t on duty. There were signs posted, ropes hooked across the steps that led into the water. The ship had turned around and headed back to port, everyone on board aware that they carried the drowned body of a teenage girl back to be buried. Her daughter and the girl’s siblings were devastated, and Maggie did her best to comfort them, although it was not something that came naturally to her. She learned from one of the other grandchildren that the dead girl had been on anti-depressants and it was quite possible that the drowning had been purposeful. Maggie could not understand this. When Bobby’s brother shot himself she had understood his helplessness, but not the action. What did this girl have to be so upset about? She would, of course, never voice her question. Bobby held her in his arms in bed, his tears endless until he fell into an exhausted sleep. She cried as well, mostly, though, because she was tired.
Her remaining grandchildren grew up, several of them moving away to attend distant colleges. One, however, found herself pregnant in the middle of her senior year of high school, and she and the boy insisted on getting married before graduation. Bobby sighed at the news and took Maggie’s hand.
Maggie had blinked at him before realizing that he was referring to them. She had almost forgotten, but apparently he hadn’t.
When the pregnant granddaughter died along with the baby in childbirth Maggie was appalled. How did such a thing happen nowadays? The boy she had married was found dead a few days later, hanging from the rafters of an old barn. Maggie thought of Bobby’s younger brother, long ago dead in a barn.
The next few deaths happened quickly. Maggie thought of them as murders in a horror movie, back to back with no end in sight. Part of her was glad that she had not let herself become close to her children or their children, saving her love for Bobby instead. Two of her daughters suddenly had cancer, one of the breast, one of the ovary. The first had been too young for screening mammograms, and by the time the doctor had discovered the lumps, the mastectomy had been more of a prayer than a resolution. The second had been quick. She had cramps and strange pains that she believed were just part of her monthly curse, but it had not been so. Maggie remembered that the girl had suffered more than her sisters as a teenager when that time of the month came around, and Maggie had sometimes allowed her to stay home with a heating pad and Midol until the worst of it was over. She wondered if it was somehow related to the cancer. Both girls were gone within six months of each other. The third girl had grown hard in a way that Maggie recognized, her back stiff, her breathing controlled and even. Maggie did not see her often, and heard from her only when there was news to tell. She was divorcing her husband. Her son was doing well in college, was offered an internship. Something to do with engineering, Maggie remembered. Her daughter had been the one to die in childbirth. Not long after her daughter spoke with her about her son’s success in college, Maggie’s soon to be former son-in-law called to tell her and Bobby that her daughter had overdosed. Maggie wasn’t sure what she had taken, painkillers, anti-depressants. There were so many drugs available nowadays, she considered, that it was no wonder people were overdosing. No one was sure if she had done it on purpose. The son-in-law believed that it was, and seemed upset that Maggie was unaware of her daughter’s difficulties, as he referred to them. At the funeral, the son-in-law cried more than he should have, Maggie thought, as he had been close to a divorce with her daughter. She remembered that the divorce had been her daughter’s idea, so perhaps the man had not wanted it. Still, she thought, it was a bit of a show when he went on his knees in front of the coffin and sobbed. His son had to help him stand, and the two held each other up as they walked out of the funeral home. Everyone had been very solicitous of Maggie, and she had been polite in return. Bobby kept looking at her carefully, asking if she felt well. She assured him that she did.
When Maggie awoke to find Bobby still, not breathing, beside her in bed, she thought it was a little strange. They weren’t that old, really, and hadn’t he only just retired a few years ago? Certainly it had been an early retirement, but construction was a physically demanding job and could only go on for so long. She sighed. Well, she thought, scratching at the back of her head. Bobby had rescued her that night at the diner, changed her tire, taken her away from her parents and their plans for her. She had, in return, given him whatever he wanted, and he had been a good husband to her. Now, her time was her own. It had been an even exchange, she considered, what she had offered him that night long ago, for her freedom, and now she had it. She pushed the comforter from her legs and stepped out of the bed. She would make a cup of coffee for herself first, then contact the funeral director, who was used to her calls by now.
Alys Wolf is a librarian and has a PhD in American literature and is a published author of poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and professional pieces.