Before I drove to Margaret’s, I called out of work and stopped by Adam’s Mini Mart. I watched my son. Derrick stood in the end aisle and slowly stocked a shelf with plastic jars of peanut butter. He didn’t notice me peeking around the corner, and he never looked away from the shelf, even when he bent and grabbed a jar from the grocery cart beside him.
When the kids were toddlers, I kept a journal of all the funny things they said and did. Derrick was always asking why people said such strange things: Have a good one. I’m all ears. If something amused him, at first he wouldn’t laugh. He’d open his mouth and scrunch his face up, and then, as if he decided it was funny enough, he’d squeal and the sound would cut through the room with such sharpness it felt as if he’d pierced my eardrums. I thought his curiosity and thoughtfulness would always be there, something for him to lean on, to let lead him.
In the produce section, I bought ten Jazz apples, then stopped by Derrick’s aisle before checking out. He stared into the grocery cart where a few jars were left and I didn’t know if it was a good thing—my twenty-four-year-old son careful and methodical with the jars of peanut butter—or if it wasn’t.
Twenty minutes later, I pulled alongside Margaret’s car in her driveway, staring at the tulips in her garden and wondered what she did in her house all day. If there was such a thing as collecting disability from sadness.
The year I had met her, River and Derrick were on the same soccer team. On a Saturday, the first game of the season, I set up my chair on the sidelines beside her and Mark.
I remembered so much about that year. Derrick, eleven years old, was a horrible soccer player and didn’t try to get better. I allowed my daughter, a year older than Derrick, to stay home by herself when he had games. Frank worked weekends, so certain obligations, like carting Derrick to soccer games, were mine. And that year, something had shifted between Frank and me. Did he love me anymore? I wondered at night, through the boring days at my new office job. Did I love him? His sense of humor was what I had fallen for first— his quick sarcastic lines, the kind that didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. On our first few dates, he had made me laugh so easily I wondered if he’d been rehearsing the night before. I loved his body. Tall and strong and in the summers, instantly tanned. He was oblivious to how good he looked. I didn’t know that the attention he gave me, after marriage, our second child, would evaporate. And no one had told me about his mean streak, that his temper would grow like a child, a plant, even if it wasn’t fed.
The soccer game started and Margaret opened a book with a famous Picasso painting on the cover. Her son scored almost every goal and when he did, Mark touched his elbow to hers before he stood and cheered for River. On cue, she set the book across her lap, brought her pinkies to the corners of her mouth and whistled. I thought of Frank and me ten years ago and tried to remember if the newness of our love had made me feel prettier, if days flew by because I couldn’t focus on anything. We didn’t have a secret, familiar trick that lasted throughout the years like Margaret and Mark did.
River scored for the third time, and I watched their routine, laughing. Margaret looked at me and winked. She held her book over her mouth, leaned close to me. “I love my son. But I don’t love soccer.”
We chatted through the rest of the game, and I almost missed Derrick scoring a goal for the other team. I should have felt embarrassed for both of us, but I was too focused on Margaret. I had never wanted to be friends with a woman more in my life.
Our cars were parked beside each other and after the game, Derrick climbed into the back seat, lowering his body so I only saw the top of his head through the window. River and Mark kicked a soccer ball back and forth in the parking lot while Margaret set their chairs in her trunk. Her head was inside, but she called to me as I lingered beside her car. “Grace! What are you doing Sunday evening?”
I loved that most about her—before I asked, she always seemed to know what I wanted.
From then on, every Sunday we walked around Hobbs Lake. Margaret called it the walking club. We mostly talked about our families— the annoying things our husbands had said that week, the strange times our children needed us. Every night for a month Derrick would wake from a nightmare, climb into our bed and squeeze between Frank and me. I could never fall back to sleep. Margaret had studied art history, had been engaged to an artist before meeting Mark, but she had broke it off a week before the wedding. She said it didn’t feel right and that she always trusted her intuition. I didn’t talk much about my past relationships, but told her how, when I was younger, my interests changed every few months. I wanted to become a physical therapist, then an accountant. In a matter of seconds, someone could convince me to do something else. All that time I had wanted to be a mother, but when it happened it didn’t seem right for me. How could that be? I asked Margaret a few months into our friendship. How could someone be meant for one thing and not be good at it?
But Sundays with her, I wasn’t thinking about the life I could have had if I had thought more deeply before marrying Frank and staying in Forest City where I had lived my entire life. I was where I was supposed to be—outdoors, walking around a lake where we didn’t own any property. When the wind blew across the lake, the lily pads folded up so that they looked liked taco shells standing on the water. We laughed at that once, the lily pads looking edible, and one Sunday in the summer Margaret walked down someone’s lawn, took off her shoes, stepped into the water and picked every lily she could reach. I stayed on the dirt road, keeping watch, suppressing my laughter when she ran from the lake with her arms full of wet flowers. Back at her house, we put them in vases, set them in front of the paintings in her living room. She called me that night, the thrill in her voice contagious. “It’s the oddest thing,” she said. “The lilys close at night. Like they’re sleeping. Like they’re people or something.”
Years later, after River got home from Afghanistan, he ran his car into a tree on Main Street. The morning after, I read about the accident in the paper and couldn’t move from the couch, couldn’t tell Frank what was wrong when he stood in front of me and stared at what I imagined was my bloodless face. A few days later, I regained my composure and showed up at Margaret’s every day for a week. She didn’t show her face until that Sunday. She opened her front door and stuck her foot out, considering fresh air. A second later it went back inside. Through the screen door, her face looked yellow—the skin around her eyes saggy— and I remembered thinking that her grief had passed and now she was sick with a stomach bug.
She scratched the back of her head and shouted through the screen door, “Stop showing up unannounced.” I stood by my car, my throat stinging, my heart throbbing for her. I told her I’d left messages on their answering machine. “I don’t want you here,” she said and turned away.
For three years I didn’t try to contact her and didn’t show up at her house until now. Until I needed her. I wanted to tell her about my son. How he’s the only one of my children I still talk to, the only one I have any future with. How I found his journal a few days before, on top of his unmade bed. Single words were written on the thin black lines. Fuck. Mornings. Sorry. Songs. Fuck. Every morning since then I watched him move through the kitchen with the same blank expression on his face, his eyes barely open. For three days I followed him to work and watched him from behind shelves.
I thought about all the years I hadn’t paid enough attention to my children, asked the questions I should have. So many times, I had turned away from knowledge because I didn’t think I had any power over who they’d become, and now I felt it was the worst thing I’d ever done. I don’t know what to do, I wanted to tell Margaret. Tell me what to do.
Margaret opened the front door before I had the chance to knock. Her dark hair hung over her shoulders. Her eyebrows were thick and bushy. She knitted them together and looked at the heavy bag of apples I held out for her.
“Adam’s was having a sale,” I said, my voice smaller than I wanted. “I bought too many.”
She opened the door fully and invited me inside. It took my breath away, how nothing had changed. The ruby chairs positioned at an angle, the matching carpet underneath, photographs of River along the yellow walls.
Margaret sliced two apples and we sat in those living room chairs taking delicate bites of the fruit. I kept my eyes on the apples’ bright skin, unable to really look at her or the photographs of River.
“Your tulips are beautiful,” I said. “I was late planting this year.”
“I always plant tulips. It’s boring.”
She hadn’t taken her eyes off me and the skin on the back of my neck prickled. I looked around the room and into the kitchen where things were perfectly positioned, so clean they could have been new.
She set her forearms on her thighs, leaned closer to me. “Sometimes I think about ripping them up, planting some hideous shrub. See if Mark will even notice.”
We were out there next. Our knees in the garden, ripping the flowers from the ground. The bulbs, covered in soil and dirt, smelled like worms and rain. Margaret grabbed my hand, set it over one of the bulbs I had thrown to the side, and I decided she was happy about my showing up.
“Feel it,” she said, her big eyebrows the same messy color as the soil. “Appreciate it. How many things are this dirty and smooth?”
I wanted to tell Margaret all I had come to tell her, but something as solid as stone stopped me. She held up the last bulb, splotches of dirt covering her pink collared shirt. She looked down and didn’t seem to mind the stains. Touching the roots of the bulb with the tips of her fingers, she smiled.
She threw the tulip onto the pile of flowers we had killed. “Come over this weekend?” She brushed dirt from her thighs, still kneeling. “Mark will be in Florida visiting his parents, so I’ll be here alone.”
When I showed up that weekend Margaret had planted her bushes. I walked by the garden and saw the details she had left for her husband to see. The divots from our knees, from where our fingers had dug into the ground.
She was folding laundry in the living room. Those photographs of River, a school of deadly fish that surrounded her. I started to help, but I wanted to inch closer to the pictures and study River like I studied my son from a distance. I imagined them having the same lifeless stare if I got a better look.
“You did an excellent job with the bushes.” I grabbed a white cotton shirt that was probably Mark’s and folded it.
“It’s not enough. Mark didn’t even notice.”
Margaret sighed and stared at the photo directly across from us. River was dressed in his Army uniform. His mouth was a straight line and his camouflage hat made a shadow over his eyes. I imagined it driving her nuts: What on earth was he thinking when the camera clicked? The last time I’d seen River I’d been waiting for Margaret in the car before one of our Sunday walks. He passed the kitchen windows. His hair had grown out from his short military cut. It clumped together in the back, hair sticking out from the sides of his head. I wondered how he had gone from his soccer obsessed youth, to a young man who appeared in the evening with bed head, his lean boy body hiding under baggy clothing. Some years before, during our walks, we stopped talking about our children.
“You ever think about doing something really crazy?” She held up two socks, different sizes. She tucked one inside the other and set them into the laundry basket. “Like leave the house untouched for a week. Not clean or cook dinner. I don’t know if Mark would make it on his own.”
“Or,” I said, “what if we got haircuts. Crazy haircuts that everyone would just have to get used to until it grew back.”
Her eyes widened. “I did that. After River died, Mark stopped talking for a while. And I mean not a word. One night we had sex for the first time since the accident. He pulled at my hair and I kept hitting his hand away. He slapped mine back and grabbed and pulled. Next morning I shaved my head with his razor.”
She was biting her lip, nodding her head. If it was before, on one of our walks, I would have told her how once, when the kids were little, Frank shook me so hard, I chomped down on my own tongue. I got back at him by almost running away. I drove to the edge of town. I was looking out the window at the Alberts’ farm. I knew their barn, the broken window that had never been fixed, their old wooden fence, by heart. My hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t handle it. I thought of my son’s laugh, my daughter’s blonde curls, and drove back to the house.
An hour later, Margaret and I were at the Hair Zoo on Main Street. She found a photograph in one of the books on the table and tapped the page with her finger. A woman, probably ten years younger, had a short cut, the right side shaved completely.
When it was done, we looked into the mirrors directly in front of us. I ran my fingers over the side of my scalp where the hair was gone. The wrinkles around my eyes seemed more noticable. My light hair looked darker.
“I look horrible,” I said.
Margaret turned her head from side to side, licked her finger, smoothed over her eyebrows that had somehow become chaotic. “Mark’s having an affair.”
“How do you know?”
“He doesn’t care about a thing. The flowers. My haircut now. I bet he won’t say anything. Plus he’s gone to Florida four times this year to visit his parents. He says it would bore me and someone has to watch the house. He’s met someone. I know it.”
“It’s probably in your head, Margaret.”
“Yes.” She found my eyes in the mirror. “And everything that’s ever been in my head eventually comes true.”
The women who had cut our hair were in the back room pretending to make coffee from the Keurig machine. They stood side by side, staring at the machine, whispering to each other. I looked at the long strands of hair they hadn’t swept up yet, healthy and shiny like the tulips we had ripped up from Margaret’s garden. There was something about the soil and the afternoon sun that day. We seemed so similar, so daring and mysterious for those few hours. But when I got home, I stripped off my clothes and did a load of wash so Frank wouldn’t ask about my stains.
I thought of his big arms, his calloused hands, the gray, puffy circles around his eyes during the day even though he slept soundly every night. We hadn’t touched each other in months. Would his arms feel weaker? Had his rough hands gotten softer? I knew I wouldn’t suddenly care enough to find out.
“I would kill for Frank to have an affair,” I said.
Margaret’s eyes held mine in the mirror. She opened her mouth a little, and then she laughed. I did the same, folding my body over while the women finally came out from the back room and swept away our hair.
We walked out of the Hair Zoo. The parking lot was empty and across the street was Adam’s Mini Mart. The lot was almost empty there too, and beyond the store you could see the hills, the trees that turned different shades of red in the fall and brought in photographers from other states. But it was spring and the trees were bright green. Margaret grabbed my hand. “We look good,” she said. “Really good.”
Orange light streamed through Margaret’s kitchen windows, splashed across the walls and countertops. She climbed on top, searched through the cupboard, and took down a bottle of whiskey. She poured our glasses, dropped ice cubes in.
“Mark hides the alcohol,” she said. “It’s like he’s scared the ghost of River will roam around when we’re sleeping, drink all our booze.”
She raised her glass, waiting, but I couldn’t move.
“You don’t drink anymore?”
“I should. Might make things easier.”
She waved a hand in front of her face. “Music,” she said, pointing to the record player on a table beside the television. “Let’s listen to something.” She walked into the living room and her left hand shot up and flung over, holding the glass of boozy ice cubes. I held my breath and watched the back of her hand knock the photo of River in his camouflage uniform from the wall. The frame hit the ground and cracked, the glass shattering.
Margaret looked down and into the eyes of the son I suspected she never knew that well.
“I hate that photo,” she said. “He looks so serious.”
She nodded toward the closet behind me. “Broom’s in there. Throw it away, will you?”
She looked through her records in the living room, and I cleaned up the glass, threw out the frame. In the photograph, River’s eyes looked empty like Derrick’s. They didn’t know what they should be seeing. I folded the photograph in half and slipped it into my pocket. I needed to keep it, examine it when I needed a reminder of the suffering I didn’t know.
I kept touching the right side of my head, feeling the fresh shave, while Margaret moved like there was nothing different about her, nothing odd about our matching haircuts. But later on, when she walked me to the door, she moved her hand back and forth across the scruff.
“Margaret,” I said, finally working up the courage to ask at least one thing I’d been wondering. “Is there anything you regret?”
She looked over my shoulder, maybe at the garden behind me with the new Boxwood bushes, her hand moving along the shaved side of her head. She stopped and took a sip of her drink. “I regret being afraid.”
She closed the door before I could ask anything else.
Before Margaret broke the frame, I didn’t want to leave, walk into my house and have Frank and Derrick stare at my absurd haircut. Now as I drove, I wanted nothing more than to feel my son’s peculiar eyes on me when I walked into the house to him waiting up, maybe worrying, maybe wondering where on earth I’d been. But when I turned into our driveway, the downstairs lights were off. Frank’s truck was in the driveway. So was Derrick’s car. Everyone was fine without me.
Since River’s death, I wondered who Margaret had become. She was unpredictable, and that night, she’d stared her tragedy in the eyes, told me to throw it all away. Just like that. She was drunk and alone back at her house, waiting for daylight when she’d turn wonderfully spontaneous and odd.
When I walked inside my house, I’d do what I imagined Margaret would if she had the chance to be with her son again. I’d find Derrick. I’d sit on the edge of his bed, wait for him to lift his head, his eyes half-opened, and tell him that this life wasn’t what we wanted, what we’d planned, but it was what we had. We could make it that simple. We could be happy, at least some of the time, with what we had.
Sarah Walker is a writer living in Lowell, Massachusetts, originally from Northeastern Pennsylvania. She was a 2017 Dennis Lehane Fiction Fellow at the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College and graduated in 2019. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Burrow Press Review, Cleaver, Colorado Review, Folio: A Literary Journal at American University, and more. She is a flash fiction editor for Lily Poetry Review.