Not in Nottingham by Mary Kuryla
While my hostess sat across the glass kitchen table fanning away the smell of diarrhea exploding from one of two recently adopted kittens mewling on the other side of the screen door, while my six-year-old son, also on the other side of the screen door, finally took the turn he’d never been offered to mount his friend’s toy arrow in a bow, while the boy he’d come to play with, the boy named after the Hindu principal of cosmic order, abandoned my son in favor of his brother, I began wondering why I’d agreed to take a kid like mine on a playdate.
Eddie stepped up to the screen door and said, “Mom, what would it be like to be unaffected?”
“Where’d you hear a word like that?”
Unaffected was a funny word for a kid to use, even for Eddie. Was he asking if things would be different if he hadn’t been hurt as a toddler, if so much of life since hadn’t been taken up with recovery: ICU, long-term hospitalization, surgeries, learning to walk again, ongoing psychotherapy? Was he asking what it would be like if he could just take whatever life threw at him without ducking? Or was it a bid for protection in this, if not
hostile, sort of negligent environment? Eddie shrugged then poked the arrow at the tiger striped kitten, which batted it enthusiastically.
“Where’s your friend?” I said.
“He doesn’t want to play with me,” he said.
My hostess, a woman of marmalade disposition from Orange County, slid open the screen door, slipped past Eddie and padded out to the kitty litter clumping in a box beside the door.
Eddie stared through the screen at the kitchen table dotted with serving platters of organic wheat currant scones, edamame, and a cheese substitute made of almonds, all snacks he’d refused. “Find your friend,” I said. “Say goodbye.” He could be polite even if his friend wasn’t.
Grace Loh-Huntington, raking litter in tailored hippie chic, said, “Isn’t he upstairs with his brother?” She said it like we would know.
I held the screen door open for Eddie, not the kittens — Grace wanted them outdoors with their diarrhea — then trailed after him. Just off the kitchen there was a stairway with wide, wide steps, wide like the rest of the house that spread over two lots a block west of the bluffs above Santa Monica beach, where a personal trainer militia trolled for the out of shape. Eddie trudged up the white, carpeted steps without looking back.
My hostess had not offered to show me around the sunny living room, sunny dining room, or sunny family room that flowed out the kitchen and into one another like a river of gold. Why no curtains on the windows? Perhaps there was nothing to hide. Of particular note was the number of coffee tables dispersed through the rooms. Coffee tables were a sore spot in my marriage. My husband considered them a kind of sacrificial altar of the living room, so we’d never owned one so it was never comfy in our living room so friends and family rarely gathered there. How could I make him understand that the locus of family is in the coffee table? Perhaps it was a Russian thing, decrying coffee tables, but my Russian émigré husband wasn’t that Russian. He never spoke it and avoided the company of those who did.
Bathroom, pantry, liquor cabinet, and a linen closet, thoughtful with plush towels and spare racecar toothbrushes for sleepovers: all this peeking without my hostess’ permission was making me a spy. Besides, Eddie had been gone so long I was starting to wonder if he’d been made to feel welcome. Full of hope, I headed back through the living room to the kitchen and my hostess. Time to lighten up, maybe crack a few jokes. Hear about the kitten that lost all her money? Now she’s paw.
What I saw through the kitchen screen door was my son taking off his tunic. Though by no means his only costume, he’d come to this particular playdate dressed as Robin Hood. But how had Eddie returned to the backyard when I’d watched him go upstairs? In spite of my self-guided tour, all spatial sense of the house slipped away, as if this very moment, behind my back, the entire house was rearranging itself, a device to punish snoopers.
The sound of children’s laughter wafted up from the street. Perhaps the Loh-Huntington boys had not gone upstairs as their mother suggested but out to play with the neighborhood kids. How isolating our home seemed in comparison. My son was more likely to bump into a rattlesnake than a neighbor boy. We didn’t live in a neighborhood. We lived in a remote canyon. My husband said he needed to write without being disturbed. He now locked himself in his studio at night, pulling the curtains on the glass doors, the same glass doors where by some accident of light and reflection songbirds kept breaking their necks. Sergei had taken to lining up the dead birds like casualties of a firing squad. I anticipated coming across the weightless hapless things with little pieces of cloth tied across their eyes.
That must be how my son had returned to the backyard; he’d run down another staircase, into the foyer, then out the front door and around back. That is, if he hadn’t taken some other route. What kind of a protector was I if I couldn’t keep track of his comings and goings? One thing was certain; the bow and arrow were a big draw. There was no denying Eddie had a feeling for accessories. His green felt hat lay at my feet.
As part of our leave-taking, I knelt beside Grace and her sun-kissed thighs so toned in her shorty short shorts it struck me that pet care could be sexy. She raised watery eyes to me. The litter raking was getting to her. Her baby was sick. Why make light of it? I often wished I had the kind of a life that could keep a pet, any pet, even a cricket — they were good for your conscience.
Grace frowned at the green hat in my hand then squinted at me without comprehension.
“Eddie loves Robin Hood. You know, steal from the rich, give to the poor.”
Grace said, “Who said that?”
I laughed and looked over at Eddie, who was tap dancing on the pool concrete and singing “Not in Nottingham”.
“Yeah,” I said, “I don’t think all that ‘Let’s put on a show’ makes Eddie very popular.”
“Dar’s teacher says he’s the most popular boy in first grade,” Grace said. “She told us to be on the look out for signs of stress.”
It took a minute before I figured out she meant her son, which meant my son’s first grade. Then I put it together. Dar was a nickname for her son, and this playdate was just one more stressor for Dar. A wonder that their teacher had orchestrated it in the first place. I guess Dar’s emotional equilibrium was worth taxing in the name of elevating Eddie from playground skid row; after all, this was Eddie’s first playdate this year. I continued to do the calculations. If Dar was the most popular boy in the class then that made his mother the reigning queen, and if raking kitty litter and ignoring the fact that your offspring blows off his guest was the gold standard of mom-playdate conduct, then I could learn from this woman.
“My husband Sergei’s book Mistakes of Memory just won a prize from the Modern Language Association. It’s about Stalin’s terror,” I said.
“Oh, terror’s good.”
“He complains the award makes him feel like an imposter. No wonder. He’s never written anything before in his language. Or ours. I think he’s a spy for the Russian government,” I said. “All this time we’ve been married he’s been a sleeper cell. He’s been activated.”
Ripping into a bag of cat litter, Grace said, “You hear of cases like that.”
Obviously I was joking about the Russian spy thing. The idea had come to me in her kitchen. But lookee here, Grace was up to tricks, game for a bit of what if? “That reminds me of a story,” I said. “This charming guy says to the woman he’s about to get involved with, ‘One day I’ll have to kill you, but this is interesting, what we’ve got going between us now. This thing you’re doing, it’s good.’ So what do they do? They get married. They have a kid. Struggle. Overcome challenges. You know the drill. Then on the very morning they feel most in love, he says, ‘I will have to kill you.’”
Eddie’s cool hand yanked on my forearm. He wanted to show me that the arrow had lost its suction cup. Now it was just a stick that someone had whittled to a sharp point.
I said, “Be careful with it, Eddie.”
“My kids make me jumpy, too,” Grace said.
Whoa, Grace, nobody said anything about jumpy. Time to clear up a few things. First of all, my husband is the one who told me that story, way back when we were dating. Guess it was on my mind because he’d just sort of hinted at it again. On the fridge, on the chalkboard for making lists, for all the world to read, he’d written: Tomorrow morning: kill MOM. Good thing Eddie still couldn’t…read, that is.
“The story is about how you think you know somebody but really you’ve just cut a deal with him,” I said. “Every relationship has an expiry date. It’s like being Scheherazade.”
Grace said, “We were married in Kauai.”
Okay, so she was not paying attention. She was rubbing a kitten’s belly. And, really, what did she need to know about it, this little routine between my husband and me? It was true that in our 19 years of marriage, Sergei had yet to say anything about killing me in the morning. So why write it now? Our fallout over Eddie’s accident was old news. Maybe he wanted it back in the headlines.
“Tell me I’m crazy,” I said.
“Have you asked your husband about it?” Grace turned to watch Eddie fly the arrow across the swimming pool gentrifying the back yard. Good thing his archery was all theater. The arrow soared over the head of a blow-up Buddha to thwick in the ornamental grass clipped shabby on the other side. Nothing good was going to come of Eddie shooting an arrow honed to a point. As he sped around the pool for it, I hustled after him. Time to face facts. My hostess and I had nothing in common. But as I shoulder-punted Eddie to within an inch of the water, I knew that if I accepted this, I had to accept a whole lot of desolation. Grace had been a good sport to take on the playdate. No need to take on our pain, too. Pain isn’t a favor you do somebody. Didn’t she have enough worries with her sickly kitten? She’d adopted the kittens for her boys’ pleasure and now, look at the mess; what we do for our boys. I landed the bow and arrow on the brightest striped towel stacked on a high glass shelf.
“Can I pour you a drink?” I said when I got back. “Don’t mind if I do with that booze bar of yours.”
“I never touch the stuff.” Grace stood up and tied a plastic bag sagging with spooned-out diarrhea.
“Do you have any hobbies?”
While Eddie, with invisible arrow set on invisible bow, stalked the white kitten, I said, “That’s right, Mama. Who’s got time for hobbies? It takes every spare minute to just keep up with dietary trends.” Judging by those healthy and sophisticated snacks for the kids, she knew a thing or two.
Grace strode round to the side of the house lined with trashcans. I was right on her heels, but she stepped back with a look that said, give me a little space, okay, then she raised the bag between us and pointed to the blue/green/brown trashcans framed by grasping bougainvillea. “Recycle, compost, or garbage?”
“Throw it into your neighbor’s yard,” I said.
She slung it into the compost, which seemed cavalier, but then I wasn’t a composter. Garbage disposals still transfixed me. The sick kitten slunk past.
“Will they be outdoor cats when they’re all grown up?”
She snatched up the kitten, wrinkling her nose and holding it with her arms extended. “Can you wash kittens?”
“Don’t they wash themselves?”
She walked back round the house as brown dribbled down the kitten’s lank white legs.
“Because cats fare best indoors, and you have a nice yard,” I said picking my way through the grass. “Cat poop underfoot is a drag. And since we’re on the subject of backyards, I didn’t see you at Jimmy’s birthday party.”
“So many birthday parties,” she said. “We went to Seraphina’s party instead.”
“Since you missed, I’ll fill you in. Jimmy’s entire backyard was covered in mini racetracks.” This was the only birthday party Eddie had been invited to, so we’d shown up. “Young men stationed at each table helped the kids operate the slot cars. Eddie was having nothing to do with it.”
“The doctor gave me medicine for the kitten. Did you see the dropper anywhere?”
No, I did not see the dropper. “A couple parents pulled their eyes off the slots long enough to ask what was up with Eddie,” I kept on. “I told them Eddie was just weak from the fumes.”
“The doctor said parasites.” The kitten was hiccuping in tiny chokes. Grace hurried to the screen door.
“I thought maybe some parent would run with the slot car bon mots but all I saw were taillights,” I called after her, hearing myself.
Eddie stood on the other side of the screen door. When my hostess slid it open, he did not step out of her way.
“Can I hold the kitty?” he said.
Grace looked over her shoulder at me, like she didn’t speak Eddie.
“Can he?” I pantomimed cradling.
She shook her head. “He’s going back to the vet.” She said it like Eddie was going back to the vet, like Eddie was an animal. As Grace inched around Eddie, who didn’t budge, his hand feinting at the sick kitten held out of reach, she screamed.
I pushed between Eddie and her into the kitchen.
Side by side on the bottom step of the kitchen staircase hovered the two brothers, materialized out of the ether like cherubs, except instead of an arrow poised to launch, the younger held his hand over his eye, an arrow sticking out it. Red ran down his cheek.
Grace gaped at her son. “Dharma. Oh god, oh my god.”
“Eddie shot him,” said his brother. His eyes flashed at me.
Eddie started to shake. I knew the signs and grabbed his arm before he could bolt. Then I marched him over to Dharma.
Dharma backed away from us. “Mom! I lost my eye!”
“Get him away from Dharma!” Grace sprung at Eddie, hauling him by his shoulders off her son. In the mean time, I plucked out the arrow from between Dharma’s fingers, spun round, and presented it to Grace. With my other hand, I reached for my son.
Grace stared at the arrow in my hand then at Dharma, whose intact eyes shone bright as he glanced sideways at his brother. He guffawed.
Grace relaxed her grip, hand hovering over Eddie’s shoulder for a moment before coming back down for a quick pat. Her eyes did not meet mine as she gave me back Eddie. Turning to the sink, she reached for the paper toweling and soap. While Dharma wiped the ketchup he’d used for blood from his cheek, while the kitten, growing thinner by the second, meowed at her feet, Grace worked her hands into a good lather.
“You’ll have to excuse us.” She looked at me now. “We wait any longer, the vet’s office will close.” She turned to her boys. “Get in the car.”
Eddie watched them go, his eyes faintly ringed with blue.
“Bye, Eddie,” Dharma called from the door then chucked the paper toweling onto a coffee table.
“Bye,” Eddie said.
Dharma’s brother sprinted after them, hollering, “Mom, where’s my bow?”
“In the trash?” she said.
“Compost, recycle or junk?”
Sergei’s car wasn’t in the driveway when we got home, and I was relieved not to cook beyond toaster oven. Faced with a plate of chicken nuggets, Eddie clasped his throat, choking-on-bone style, and poured himself onto the floor under the dinner table. After subsiding into pajamas, he rifled through his costume box until I lowered the curtain and cut the lights, bedtime.
A sharp crescent moon illuminated nothing. The beam from my flashlight swung across the path to Sergei’s studio at the edge of the woods. The glass door wasn’t locked, but the place was a cave. So much for the shorty short shorts I’d changed into just for him. He wasn’t there. As I stepped back, some brittle thing popped beneath my heel. I snatched up my foot and shone the light on the stoop, expecting the line of birds. The birds were still there, the line wasn’t; they’d had been scattered, wings that had been tucked in, penguin style, were now spread open as if for crash landings. One bird was pretty much decapitated. At first I thought bobcat, but desiccated songbirds seemed such meager fare. That left Eddie. He must have done it after we got back. Maybe he blamed them — something had caused his parents to stop speaking to each other, why not little dead birds? But did he have to decapitate?
Morning was a long way off, so was sleep, so I treaded back into Eddie’s room. Round cheeks, open mouth, high light breaths, Eddie’s peaceful slumber should have reassured. He let out a little cry, turned his back to me, and the blanket fell away. Apparently, he’d sneaked downstairs and changed because he now wore the Robin Hood costume. The short tunic exposed his legs and the scars there, stitched knee to ankle, thanks to the car accident that had nearly killed him.
When did Eddie have time to rough up the birds? There hadn’t been enough between dinner and bed. Could it be he didn’t do it? Might have been anybody. All this not-knowing was jitter-making. Where was Sergei? This was the kind of thing a man should be home for.
My mistake was agreeing to the playdate. Someone once said, more or less, that it’s immoral to act against your own instincts. I wasn’t the only one who had. Grace obliged her kid’s teacher and hosted a child she believed in her gut capable of shooting an arrow into her kid’s eye. Was it Grace’s fault she had kitten-sized empathy? That she lacked the emotional equipment for a playdate with PTSD?
Midnight had come and gone. Time to unfurl bologna for Eddie’s bag lunch. Across the darkened kitchen, the refrigerator loomed like a headstone. Behind the door a plastic bottle of ketchup splatter stood on its head. I slammed shut the refrigerator door, penduluming Sergei’s note. Tomorrow morning: kill MOM.
Perhaps it was Mistakes of Memory Sergei intended to kill. After all MOM was an acronym for the book. He could be planning a book-burning campaign in the morning. Didn’t Grace say terror’s good? But why declare his intentions on the fridge? Maybe he really meant it: kill MOM, me, Eddie’s mother, tomorrow morning, which was today. Now, in fact.
Footsteps creaked overhead. A light came on in the hallway. It was still dark enough for Eddie to throw a shadow across the staircase. He held a bow in his hands.
The telephone rang. I jumped. A hush focused the next ring.
I grabbed the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, it’s Grace.”
“Hi?” I said.
“I thought you should —” Grace hiccupped. “Should know. The kitten is dead.”
“Dead? Like dead?”
“By the time we got to the vet’s…”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Yeah, dead.” Grace slurred. The smell of booze came over the line.
“What are you saying? We stayed too long? It’s our fault?”
“You said it, not me. I’m taking the high road here.”
From the tail of my eye I saw a grappling with an arrow. At least that’s how it seemed. I didn’t want to look. Behind my back there was a commotion, a tensing on that invisible line that attached us.
“Yeah, well,” she said, fumbling the receiver. “I didn’t even want cats.”
“Grace, wait,” I whispered. “Please. Don’t hang up.”
Mary Kuryla’s stories have received The Pushcart Prize and have appeared in Witness, Greensboro Review, Pleiades, The Brooklyn Review, The New Orleans Review, and for the third time in Alaska Quarterly Review, among others. A story is forthcoming in Epoch magazine. Her award-winning shorts and feature films have premiered at Sundance and Toronto. She has written screen adaptations for United Artists and MGM. Mary Kuryla has been a scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She was awarded a 2014 scholarship at the New York Summer Writer’s Institute.