As she walked home, she thought first about a woman she wanted to punch, a woman with one front tooth that stuck out more than its mate, whose face went soft as pizza dough when she looked up at you with her mouth hanging slack. Those thin lips were always gaping open, their owner saying something like, “That was mean, Hawkins.”
Then her mind drifted and she was trying to remember what she had in the pantry because it seemed like a soup kind of night. Though there were still some leaves on the trees, the October twilight was cold. The chill had chased people off the sidewalks, so she was alone for the twelve blessed minutes until she got home.
Everyone at work called her Hawkins, which was her own rule. She hated her first name. It was a soft name that never fit her personality. Even her mother once said, “If I’d known what a mean bitch you’d turn out to be, I’d have named you something like Myrtle.”
“Nice, Ma,” she’d said, laughing.
The two of them could always joke in that way. A friend of hers once asked if it hurt her feelings and that was the first time she ever stopped to consider that it could. She shook her head at the time, said, “No, that’s just how we are. Honest.”
She had to explain that to Denise from human resources all the time. It came up again today when she was called in to talk about the latest report Leslie had filed. Leslie was the dough faced idiot who sat across from her, dusting her resin lighthouse collection with her dirty lunch napkin while she talked to customers on the phone, the wire of her headset vanishing into her neck fat.
As soon as she sat down, Denise adjusted her glasses and opened with a textbook question, “How do we find a way to coexist, since both of you have the right to expect a comfortable work environment?”
Denise was a pretty girl, always wore nice clothes from places like J. Crew or the Gap, tossed her hair-do around the lunch room like a Kennedy at a fundraiser. Hawkins considered herself lucky not to be on Denise’s friend list. If you were, she’d make you look at pictures of her latest bride’s maid gig. All those girls with thin arms and drunken eyeliner, captured forever trying to Dougy with some sass. No, thanks.
Hawkins knew the drill. She knew how to talk to people like Denise. Clearing her throat gently, she put on her smooth customer service voice. “Well, Denise, I think it’s common for there to be friction between folks in close quarters. I also think Leslie’s a bit hypersensitive.”
“She said you muttered…” Her eyes dropped as she glanced at the report. “She said you muttered ‘ugly bitch’ under your breath when she looked at you.”
Hawkins laughed out loud – mostly because it was true and a little embarrassing, but also because she liked to see proper, swing-bob Denise using words like that. She composed herself, decided the game was up. “Look. What you mutter is private.”
“Then why mutter it at all?”
“Because sometimes something is so true and so annoying, you have to say it out loud, but you know it’ll cause problems, so you mutter it. Out of courtesy.”
Denise looked at her for a long while. Her office was small, so the silence was condensed like soup out of a can. Considering her options, Hawkins decided to throw in a little water.
“Well, she does have super good hearing. I’ll give her that. How about I go to the printer room the next time I need to mutter something? Because I promise you, it isn’t in me to suppress it when I get that irritated.”
Whether or not she liked the suggestion, Denise seemed to accept it. Looking a little flattened, she turned back to her computer and said, “Just try to remember why you’re here.”
The walk home took her along the expressway and she paused as always at Mt. Carmel Triangle to light a cigarette. She leaned against the fence while she smoked, looking at the statue of the holy mother and child. The Madonna had been painted badly so that her eyebrows looked like woolly caterpillars. Still, her face wore the calm wisdom that comforted people.
Hawkins shook her head, said out loud, “Right, bitch. Motherhood’s a piece of cake.”
At home, her kids were staring at screens, hunting down gangsters and popping off hookers at a hundred and twenty miles an hour. If she was lucky, the oldest remembered to empty the drainer and maybe, just maybe, wash the coffee pot for tomorrow morning. It wasn’t likely.
“Wonder if Baby J ever got sent home for stabbing a girl in the hand with a pencil?” she asked the evening air. “Maybe he had it coming.”
If her Grammy could have seen her talking to the two of them like that, she’d have made her cut a switch from the forsythia in the back yard and she’d have welted up her ass cheeks something good. Hawkins glanced up into the glowering sky, but her sense of guilt was short-lived as something like a defiant smile played at her lips. Still, she fished into her hip pocket and found some change, dropped it softly on the broken tiles at the feet of the Madonna.
She finished off her cigarette before moving on, glancing back once and catching the last of the twilight making a sort of magic on the statue. They didn’t seem to mind her grilling them. Maybe they knew how much her feet hurt by this time of day. Or how annoying Leslie was in the morning, when her energy was peaking after a breakfast of sugary, whip cream covered coffee from McDonald’s. The thing about people like Leslie that pissed her off was how they pretended that each day was a fresh slate. She always parked it with a bright smile, saying good morning like today they were finally going to hit it off.
She dug her hands into her pockets, leaning into a cold breeze that cut over the island. On the air she could smell garbage and spicy food. It quickened her hunger and she walked faster. Before long she reached their little house with the metal awning over the door, rusted and bent but still some comfort on rainy days. The door was unlocked, like always, so she pushed into the warm hall without breaking pace.
Two of them were playing video games, little boxes of cereal open on the table in front of them. The oldest was sitting in her recliner, Indian style, painting his nails carefully. He glanced up at her when she entered.
“It’s not one you like,” he said. “You said this one chipped bad.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, princess, well that’s good to know. I got a fancy dress ball this Saturday. You mind picking up my diamond tiara from the dry cleaners?”
He laughed. “You have a good day?”
“You clean up in the kitchen at all?” she asked, sinking onto the sofa between the younger ones. They peered at her quickly, then back at the screen. She snatched up a cereal box and gave it a shake. “You little fuckers hungry or did you already eat?”
“They’re good,” Shawn said. “And I did clean up the kitchen.”
“Yep. And Ru-Ru came by and dropped off a pizza, so I put it in the oven.”
Hawkins sat up, “You didn’t turn it up to high, did you?”
“No, Mom,” he said. “I know about the oven. It’s on three hundred.”
She shrugged, eased back into the flattened cushions. As an afterthought she glanced at him, saying, “Well, thanks.”
When she was fifteen, she got pregnant with Shawn. His stupid dad hung around just long enough to stick him with that name. The other two came a good long while later. Hawkins always said she was too smart to want another kid after Shawn, but now and again she forgot herself. In a lot of ways, she and the boy had raised each other. When the others came along, he helped a lot, always seeming to know how tired she was and that her fuse was short. Sometimes he said something smart and it made her see herself. One day she had to get around to thanking him for real, but not until he was old enough to get it.
Just in the last year, since he turned fifteen, he’d changed on her. Most times he wasn’t willing to help anymore with anything. She had to harass him to pick up the messes and get something on the stove. And it took everything in her to make the little fucker go to school. He said they were all calling him faggot and he didn’t need that shit anyway.
“Yes, you do, dummy,” she’d told him. “You need to finish school and then you need to go to college.”
“I forgot about my trust fund.”
She heard him, but she pretended she didn’t. It was true that she had no idea how she’d get him into college. His grades were good, despite his absences, but that wasn’t enough. Instead of arguing about that, she’d taken up the other issue.
“If you don’t want people calling you faggot, stop wearing girl’s jeans and makeup.”
That had made him cry and even though Hawkins liked to pretend nothing ever hurt, seeing his mascara running down his young face was like looking in the mirror when she was that age. It just about broke her into a million pieces. She set her jaw.
“Anyway, why do we care what trash thinks about us?” she said. “When you’re my age, you won’t remember half the cunts you went to school with and whether or not you’re queer won’t matter anymore because by then you’ll have friends who like queers. Get it?”
He’d given her one of his looks. His eyes were exactly like her own, small and brown and really sharp. Her Grammy always said she had a way about her that was worth more than gold. It amused the old woman. “You got that peppery stare that makes bitches sneeze.” Hawkins never got the joke until Shawn got old enough to give her the look. It always made her glance away.
Tonight, while they sat eating pizza in the little dining room off the kitchen, she found herself looking at Shawn now and again. Under his eyeliner and his shaggy hair, he was as good-looking as his father. He was tall and slender and had full lips that were quick to smile, but pretty even when he was sad or thinking hard. Her boy was self-possessed like herself. With him, you only ever knew what he wanted you to know.
In the silence between them, her thoughts drifted to the Mt. Carmel statue. She wondered why she stopped there every night and looked at the mother and son. It had seemed for a long time like it was the perfect place to light her cigarette, the mid-point on her walk home. But since Shawn had started to change, she’d been studying the figures closer. Some nights she had dreams about when he was as little as the Baby Jesus. It was the kind of dream that was so mundane and so real, it felt more like a memory. Maybe it was.
She was sitting on her mother’s sofa late at night. All the lights in the apartment were out, except that the Christmas tree was lit. In the rainbow glow of the lights, she could make out her baby in the bassinet near her knee. She was drowsy and he was sleeping peacefully. The two of them were all alone and outside you could hear the traffic on the expressway and you could hear the wind. Howl.