Erica Plouffe Lazure
I am a known heretic in these parts because I mow the lawn on Sundays. I can feel my neighbor’s eyes on my back on the Lord’s Day as I maneuver through my special, signature Square-in-a-Square mow pattern, or when I take out the trash, or clear brush from the swamp. I know they’re watching, and so for the hell of it I’ll sometimes go bare-chested, pot-belly-proud like my Daddy. If I think of it, I’ll up the throttle on the mower right when the neighbors drive by. And I slow and look at them, and they slow and look at me, and it’s like I’m telling them with my eyes: Mowing the lawn on Sundays is not a sin. And the look in their eyes says back: Yes, it is.
And today the child’s eyes are on me, too. She’s my sister Anna’s kid, going on five. Cassidy Penelope. It’s classic Anna to pick for her child the longest, most complex name she could find. It’s also just like Anna to up and leave a situation that doesn’t suit her, and then call one of us to go and comb it all out. Like leaving Cassidy Penelope on a friend’s porch so she could go fight fires in Montana. Then calling our sister Carla from a bus stop in west Kansas to ask if the child could come and live with us instead.
You should have seen Carla when she got the call. She walked all the way from our house to the gas station, all ticked in her housedress, looking like some sweathog’s sister in orthopedic boots, with the curlers all ripped from her bangs.
“Anna told me Cass is my second chance,” Carla had said. “She said, ‘You raised me; Look how well I turned out.’ I could just kill her.”
It is not easy being the brother of these women. Ma always liked to say before she died that each of our fathers was as different as they make men, and she had the kids to prove it. We each turned out favoring our daddies: Carla all stern and round; me, oil-stained hands, sandy-brown all over and sideburns to boot; Anna red-blonde and vixen-trim and always on the take.
And why Anna picked firefighting over child-raising is beyond me. I know some women just aren’t hardwired that way, and, to be sure, Anna got the calamity gene from her daddy. Even when she was a baby, she’d explode at the slightest sign of something gone wrong. I can remember when she was seven, her little lungs blew out the eardrum of a classmate who’d joked about our mother going bald. Later she and her best friend Dora would sneak out braless in suede skirts, taking backseat double dates with college boys. They’d give out names that matched their hair color, like Noire and Rouge. They’d come back late and fight on the front porch with Carla about sex laws and curfews. When Anna got pregnant she’d come over to the house to use the phone and holler long-distance cuss words at her ex-boyfriend Kurt, who left for his station in Germany not long after they split.
It was no surprise that Cassidy Penelope and her twin brother were born with screaming in their cells. I drove Carla to see Cassidy Penelope and Clay at the preemie ward, a few days after they were born, and even then Cass’s mouth was all puckered, her fists clenched and moving like a little prizefighter under a cake tray. Carla claims Anna’s anguish is what made them come two months early, and why Clay died three months later.
“Anger pipes through the umbilical cord. It shows in the milk,” Carla had said as we walked back from the burial in our backfield. “Some babies can’t take it. That child was poisoned.”
“Don’t go looking to lay blame,” I told her.
“SIDS, my foot. Poor lamb. He’ll watch over us now.”
Well, all I can say is, if Anna wants fires to fight, they got plenty here in Mewborn. Like that little time bomb impersonating a lemon on the porch. It’s not enough to say she is a quiet child, because she’s been here a week and hasn’t talked yet. It’s a strange kind of quiet, too. There’s something in that cinch-sac expression of hers that tells you she’s taking in your every move, stockpiling it, like a miser of information, or a little judge whose job it is to clutch an ugly stuffed duck. So it makes me wonder if she’s noticed my Square-in-a-Square pattern, if it impresses her how I hit every corner at a right angle, how I overlap the path by three inches so when it’s finished the grain of the grass holds a striped pattern.
But I don’t see how she could miss any of my signature lawn moves because her eyes follow me with such precision they look like they’ll turn rectangular and at one point I turn off the mower to tell her so. She was supposed to be at church like the rest of Mewborn. I’d planned to mow the lawn in peace like I always do and for a few hours not have to think about Carla, the child, or her little puckered mouth. Carla had made a big deal about getting Cassidy Penelope all ready for church. She’d found an old yellow apron dress from a closet somewhere, got her nails clipped, her face clean. Pigtails. Scrubbed sandals. All of it.
“Your big Red Banks Baptist debut,” Carla kept saying. Cassidy Penelope did look like a real little girl with all the flounces, the kind you’d actually take to church on a Sunday morning, and expect everyone to fuss over afterwards. But when I reached out to scruff-up her hair, I noticed how each strand looked like it was made of copper wire, like her Momma’s, just dying to get out from under the rubber bands and be free.
“So why didn’t you go to church, Baby Girl?” I asked her. “Don’t you want to go learn how to be good? Good with God?” Cassidy Penelope did not respond. I think she could sense that even I did not believe what I was saying.
Even with the yellow dress and pigtails, even though Carla had given Cassidy Penelope her very own children’s picture Bible, when we pulled up to Red Banks Baptist, the child refused to leave the car. She cinched up her mouth and shook her head from the back seat of the Crown Vic. Her arms and legs folded up onto themselves, the stuffed duck trapped in the knots of her body, like an angry pretzel in a yellow dress. The child would not go and Carla did not insist.
“I can’t take a stubborn child to church,” Carla said. “Not today. I’m on schedule to give the host.”
“What about saving her lost soul?” I said, as Carla swung open the door and got out of the car, yanking the static from the ass-end of her dress. “Suffer the children?”
So I told that child a whole string of knock-knock jokes all the way home and she didn’t laugh at a single one. Wouldn’t even say, “Who’s there?”
So there the child sits on the porch, watching me as I push the mower in my special, signature, Square-in-a-Square pattern. Square-in-a-Square, Square-in-a-Square every Sunday morning. You start out at the farthest corner of the lot, and then push the mower along the edge of the lawn, overlapping the path by three inches. When the squares are done, I backtrack over near the swamp, and mow that, too, which is about as unsatisfying as having a remainder at the end of a long division problem.
“Don’t you want to color?” I said. Cassidy Penelope held the duck even tighter to her chest and sat down on the porch steps. I gave up and started to mow the lawn again, thinking about how different Sundays were for me. Used to be, before she left, Anna’s pal Dora would come by in her red truck and after the lawn was done we’d go into the house and get wild like we liked.
Ever since they were kids, Dora and Anna were always more like sisters in spirit than Carla could ever hope to be. And together they were about as dangerous a combination as bleach and ammonia. It was Dora who came up with the schemes they’d try to pull on Carla; it was Dora who’d introduced Anna to Kurt downtown; Dora who pushed me out to the back field one night, where her family’s property meets ours, and with her blue eyes shining made me love her. She was seventeen then, I was twenty-two. The thing is with Dora is her teeth are spaced out and strangely shaped, and yellowed from the liquid penicillin her Meemaw gave when she was a baby. Even then, when she smiled, you didn’t really notice the gaps in her upper deck, the bicuspids below crammed above her jaw like shoppers at Christmas. She’d been taking a few classes out at Mewborn Community after she got her GED, and she’d visit the station every day with some snack from her uncle’s store, some Drake Cake or Lemon Fruit Pie or Hostess Honey Bun. Then there were our wild Sundays, and dinner out at Elm Center Café twice a month. Sometimes she’d stop in when Anna came by the house with Cassidy Penelope.
Until she got pregnant, life with Dora in it for those five years had been all right. And you’d think a baby might firm up the general plan of spending your life together with someone, and I believed until the moment Dora left me to go to Massachusetts that that was the case. But she came to see me with her car packed to tell me she’d gone to see the doctor, and, even though we’d told everyone to the contrary for the past two months, there was no more baby.
“Tell them I lost it,” she’d said. She was smoking a cigarette, leaning against her car in the dark. “Tell them it’s none of their goddamn business.”
My friends down at Duck’s always ask what am I going to do next, when I’ll get out from under Carla’s batwing. It’s like they forget it’s been two years since Dora left and there’s no one else around to take Carla to get groceries, to bring her to church, the doctor’s. And she won’t get her license, even though I told her it’s easier than a tractor, and faster, too. I’ve come close a few times to answering an ad for a vacant apartment in the paper, but I don’t care to spend my money on couches and dishes and all that. And it’s not like I enjoy washing my own clothes, or that I’m some master chef or anything.
Where I live it is not easy to get laid, especially when Sunday morning is my main window of opportunity. I got a Maybe once from a gal up in Falkand who said she might swing by sometime. And even if she never shows, there’s always the lawn to mow. And there’s the church-going neighbors to piss off, and there’s my guitar, and beer, too, as long as I remember to buy it on Saturday. And now there’s Anna’s child to look after. But you can only do so much for a child who doesn’t talk, or cry, or tell you her ducky’s name.
But I got to say, Cassidy Penelope won’t stop watching me. I sneak looks back at her from time to time to see if she does. But all she does is clutch her duck, and ignores all the crayons and the teakettle and the stuffed rabbit and Carla’s Redbook magazine I’d set out special for her. So I figured maybe I ought to give her something to look at if that’s all she’s gonna do. So I start to skip and mow. I mow walking backwards. I duck walk. And I don’t look at her once. Because I know that’s what she wants.
My silly moves made me think back to when we were kids, before Anna was born. Carla would put a parlor doily on my head and make me wear one of Ma’s old dresses. We’d drink sugar water from plastic teacups and play Visitor on the porch. Sometimes Ma would join us, her legs crossed in slacks, feet in slippers, and pretend to sip tea, too, joking how much I must like my big sister cause I let her put me in a dress. And I’d make them laugh, walking around the front yard on my tip-toes with a teacup in my hand, pinkie extended, eyes crossed. And you could catch Anna at any age lying there for hours drawing in her sketchpad, and later, smoking cigarettes in a mini skirt or a tie-dye sundress at sunset. Sometimes, Anna’s daddy, before he left, would get all generous with us and he’d bring home ice cream, and Ma would get out of bed for it and we’d eat it right there on the front porch to keep Carla from fussing at us about the mess in the kitchen. Those ice cream nights made you forget awhile the stench from the swamp, that Momma was sick, that Carla at sixteen was running the show. Anna rarely left Ma’s side then. I guess she needed her more than any of us did. And now here Cassidy Penelope needs Anna. Or somebody.
At one point during my duck walk, I noticed I messed up my mow line. I looked at the child. Her knees are bent, her bottom extended, hands on her hips. Looking like a duck herself. And it hit me that maybe Cassidy Penelope just needed someone who would play with her. She needed something fun like duck walks and maybe ice cream, so she’d know that the people in our family aren’t a bunch of angry idiots who leave each other on people’s porches. So I cut the engine again and called her over to ask about the ice cream situation, her scowl shifted to a grin after a minute and she kicked barefoot at the grass clippings.
“Wait. Does a grin mean, ‘No Uncle Andy, I don’t want ice cream?’” She shook her head like it would fall off, still grinning. “I see,” I said. “I figured a girl looking as pretty as you couldn’t be deaf.”
Instead of returning to the porch, the child followed me as I pushed the mower. After a while, she skipped in big steps, holding her duck by its wing, trailing me as I completed my Square-in-a-Square mow pattern. She turned a few somersaults that stained her dress and showed her underwear. The grass covered her in clippings and I figured I’d let Carla deal with the stains, the blades of green in her hair, stuck to her legs.
When we got to the swamp, I cut the engine and got on my haunches to tell her a few things. First, to stay away from the stone wall. I told her to not even think about catching frogs, or going for a swim in the green gunk that some people around here call a pond because I wouldn’t jump in and save her if she did.
And it took just a moment for me to turn my back and hear her howls over the engine and find her waist-high paralyzed in green water sobbing, her little legs caught in water vines. Her whole body splashed down in the mess when she tried to run. When I jumped in to untangle her I could see the ruby pink swamp flower she probably tried to pick and I held her to my chest. The lily pads had trapped her good. I carried her to the grass and the green clippings clung to us and I smoothed her hair and told her we’d be okay. And she cried for a long time, these loud messy sobs like I’ve never before heard and all I could do for her is sit in the grass and hold her to my chest and wait. Finally she whimpered one little word in a voice so quiet that I had to huddle close to her mouth to hear.
“What’s that, Baby Girl?” I said.
“Holly,” she said. She pointed to the swamp. The ducky.
“I’ll get her.”
Probably the last place I’d want to be is on my knees, elbow-deep in muck looking for a goddamn ducky and instead pulling up an old housedress. Or plastic baby bottles with ratty ribbons around them. Then I found three pacifiers and tiny pairs of shoes and no duck anywhere. And I think the other last place I’d want to be was on that lawn, dumping before the child the mess of bottles and binkies and baby shoes and handing her the pond flower and telling her I couldn’t find Holly.
And I might have gone back to get it right then for the look on her face, but I had my own grief to deal with, because I knew now what Carla had done with the favors she had bought for Dora’s baby shower. Carla had refused to give Anna a shower for the twins, said she didn’t deserve it. She didn’t think Dora did either, but since I was the father, Carla decided to go all out. She came out of the Woolworth’s one day loaded down with bags of pacifiers and bottles and ribbon and such and spent the next three weeks filling the bottles with lilac-colored M&M’s, tying pale pink and blue bows around everything. I told her it was too early to think about a shower, that Dora was hardly showing. But Carla jumped the gun as only she knows how. She said she wanted to be ready. And of course thanks to Carla the whole town knows how Dora went and saw the doctor before she left for Massachusetts.
Looking at the mess of it at my feet made me wonder what else Carla had dumped in that swamp, what I’d find if I went back in there. And the child calmed a little when I told her I’d go back later for her duck with a fishing net.
We were covered in the scum of the algae, the grass clippings, the swamp-bottom mud. But that was nothing compared to the smell of sulfur. I knew better than to even try to get into the house to wash up. I carried the child to the shed, found the garden hose, and took aim.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered even if I had changed the setting to spray. The child screeched when the water caught her in a full-force jet-stream on her chest. She ran back to the front yard, toward the swamp, screaming as though I’d shot her with a BB gun. When I caught up to her she already had in her grasp one of the muddy bottles. I grabbed her by her wrists and told her she had to stay away from that swamp. I sounded angrier than I really was, but she had to understand. She’d already nearly drowned. Her tears cleared paths down her dirty face as she collected the pacifiers, the little shoes, into the apron of her dress.
“I need you to say yes,” I told her. “I need your word.”
She nodded but wouldn’t look at me and I picked her up and carried her back to the shed, and it was then I decided I needed to fill up that sinkhole swamp for good.
I filled a bucket with water and tried to get her to wash up with me, at least our hands and faces, but she wouldn’t. I even put the garden hose in her hands, showed her how it worked. Still she wouldn’t take aim at me. Instead she started to sort into piles all the party favors: the filthy pacifiers and bottles, the pairs of baby shoes. Then she dipped each one into the bucket and set them to dry on the lawn. I tried to distract her with the idea of ice cream. I told her that we couldn’t have ice cream unless we got clean cause they’d never let us in the store elsewise. She did not seem to care. When I wiped muck off the face of my watch, I saw that we’d almost be late for Carla if we didn’t leave right then. I found a plastic tarp in the shed and spread it out across the front seat of the Crown Vic. The swamp gunk had begun to crust our skin and clothes.
I carried the child to the car, plopped her down on the plastic, and drove into town. Her dress looked gray nearly, and that little apron made a filthy nest for the pacifiers and bottles in her Indian-crossed legs and the entire car smelled like eggs gone bad. Even her pigtails looked like rat tails now, all slick and stuck together in a half-dozen stiff points. I looked into the rearview mirror at my own muddy reflection and laughed aloud. We’d looked so regular and clean when we dropped off Carla. Now we had on us the mud and the swamp stench, the filthy clothes, all those binkies and bottles pulled up from the bottom of God knows where. I could see Carla lecturing us both the whole way home about the perils of the swamp, about Cassidy Penelope’s ruined dress. And those shower favors, which, I might add, Carla had said she’d given to charity. I was so worked up about what Carla was going to say I almost didn’t see Cassidy Penelope point up to sign for the Golden Goose Car Wash across the street from the church.
I guess maybe the goose logo reminded the child of her ducky. But I had no excuse for what I did next. I pulled in, fed the machine a few dollars, and hit the button for Basic Wash, and rolled down our windows. I put the Crown Vic in neutral and let the auto track guide bring us through the yellow cement bay. The child clutched one of the bottles to her chest like she had done with her ducky.
“You got to close your eyes, now. Hold your breath when I tell you,” I said.
The green light flashed and the motors inside the car wash bay started rumbling as we moved ahead. The child closed her eyes and I closed mine as the first blast of warm water and suds shot into the car. I whooped when it hit, then laughed so she’d know it was all right.
When I said, “Now,” I felt her little hand reach for my thumb on the steering wheel. She pulled my hand to her chest, and I was glad that our eyes were closed, glad that we’d be clean, or nearly so, for Carla when we picked her up. No doubt she’d be mad about the wet front seat. But I’d coddle her with the promise of ice cream, lay out the tarp on the floor of the backseat to keep from wrecking her special ortho shoes. Besides, even if the backseat were damp, it wouldn’t kill her if her ass got a little wet on the way home from church. Maybe it would help cool her off.
We’d figure it out later.
Erica Plouffe Lazure
is the author of the flash fiction chapbook, Heard Around Town, and fiction chapbook, Dry Dock. Sugar Mountain, a flash fiction chapbook, is forthcoming by Ad Hoc Press (UK 2020). Her fiction has been published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Carve, Greensboro Review, Meridian, American Short Fiction, The Journal of Micro Literature, The Southeast Review, Fiction Southeast, Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine, Vestal Review, Litro, and elsewhere. She enjoys snorkeling, hula-hooping, and guitar, lives and teaches in Exeter, NH and can be found online at ericaplouffelazure.com.