The doorbell rings and even though she doesn’t want to, even though she’d rather take the boys and hide upstairs, she opens the door. So strange, him standing on the front steps, ringing the doorbell. The doorbell to their house. He looks very much the same, except he’s wearing his hair a little differently, a little longer in the front. He’s still so familiar that she has to remind herself he’s not. His car is parked on the street and she can see the woman in the passenger seat.

    “Did you have to bring her?” she asks. “Really?”

    “Good morning to you, too. She has a name: Kathleen. I thought the four of us could go to the movies,” he says.

    “The movies?”

    “Christ. What’s wrong with going to the movies?”

    “Nothing. I’d just think you’d rather do something with the boys other than stare at a screen for hours. But it’s your weekend. You do what you like.”

    She wants to ask what they’ll see, make sure it’s appropriate, like she is their mother and he is not their father. Only she is responsible now for all the decisions. The big ones and the little ones. She is their protector. She watches the woman, this Kathleen, behind his frame in the doorway, flipping her black, glossy hair over her shoulder.

    “Fine,” she says. “The boys have packed overnight bags. Isaiah’s had an upset stomach for a couple days. So watch what he eats. Nothing sweet. Or spicy.”

    “We’ll be fine,” he says.

    Sure. They’ll all be fine without her. She leaves him standing in the doorway, without inviting him in. On the stairs she passes their family pictures, the wedding pictures, afraid to take them down. Afraid that the missing photographs, the evidence of visiting the ocean and building stout snowmen in the front yard, would upset the boys, that they would think their father was being erased. But Anna is tired of seeing the pictures of all of them, so young and happy. The boys are in Ezekiel’s room, playing Hungry Hungry Hippo on the floor.

    “Daddy’s here.”

    “Cool,” Ezekiel says. He pushes himself off the floor and goes downstairs.

    Isaiah remains seated, fingering one of the pink plastic hippos, which are almost the same color as his cheeks.

    “C’mon, buddy,” she says, kneeling next to him.

    She brushes a stray strand of hair off his forehead. His eyes fill with tears and he clings to her, his pudgy arms around her waist.

    “I don’t want to go,” he says.

    He has never spent the night away from his mother and only a few nights away from this house, either on vacations or visiting family. She tries not to show that she is sad, too.

    “Aw, pumpkin. It’ll be okay. It’s just for one night. Daddy misses you. And don’t you want to see his new house? He has a special room for you and Ezekiel.”

    She is the good mother. The good ex-wife. She won’t tell Isaiah that his father is a cheating bastard who left his family for some 26-year-old home wrecking slut. She won’t tell the boys that their father slept with his secretary for six months before leaving her and the boys. How did they become such a cliché? She won’t tell them that on some days their father would fuck the secretary when the rest of the office was at lunch and then he’d come home and put the same fingers that were inside the secretary inside their mother. She won’t tell them that when he finally did confess, it wasn’t a sorrowful admission of guilt but a declaration of love for another woman. It was a confession that he was leaving them, all of them, because his love for this other woman was so great let no man put asunder what God has joined together, least of all his stupidly devoted, trusting wife or his two sweet, innocent boys. No, she won’t tell them any of this.

    She picks Isaiah up from the floor, telling him only that everything will be fine. Great, even. Daddy is taking them to a movie. He loves movies, remember?

Downstairs, Ezekiel’s bag is slung over one shoulder, his skateboard under one arm. He is telling his dad about a new trick he learned, something called an ollie. Apparently, the key is to bend your knees enough. Just hearing him talk about skateboarding makes her flinch with fear for him breaking a bone or spraining an ankle.

    “Leave the skateboard here,” she says.

    “C’mon, Mom. That’s not fair.”

    “Sorry. It stays here,” she says, even though she knows that he is right.

    That it’s not fair. None of this is fair. In this uncharted territory of agreements and support payments and visitation, the skateboard stays. Isaiah is slipping from her, his feet reaching for the ground and she places him down, feeling the ache of his empty weight in her arms and hip. He reaches for his father’s hand where it slides easily, tightly. She hands over his bag and they are out the door, down the walkway, into the car and away. She waves her hand long after they are out of sight, until a neighbor walks by dragging a puppy behind him and looks at her strangely. She closes the front door and turns to face the empty house; once warm and safe, it now swallows her. She thinks about going shopping, or out for some coffee, or calling her sister, who will say something like “You need to be more independent. You should love yourself more.” But what does she know of Anna’s love? She does none of these things. Instead, she washes the dishes from breakfast, the hot, soapy water wrinkling her shaking hands, and then she knows where she will go.

She purchases her ticket with sunglasses on. Inside the first theater, she pushes the sunglasses on top of her head. Her eyes adjust slowly to the darkness as she scans the room for them but does not find them, nor in the second theater. They are in the third one, a Disney movie—the woman’s shiny hair thrown over her seat. Anna quietly sits in the last row and watches. His arm is around her. Kathleen. The boys sit on the other side of him. Isaiah’s head is barely visible over the top of the seat. It looks like Ezekiel and Isaiah are sharing a tub of popcorn. For twenty minutes she sits, running her fingers over the velvet seat, staring, not sure what she’s hoping to find or see. Some evidence that he’s an unfit father? That he shouldn’t be allowed to see the boys, that they should be just hers? Or what is so special about her, this girl who can’t possibly know anything about life but has managed to dissolve Anna’s? Or maybe she’s looking for signs of trouble between him and this woman, an indication that it’s only a mid-life crisis brought on by his thinning hair and the little crinkles around his eyes, a mistake—one that can be corrected.  He’s coming back to his family; he really meant to buy a shiny, red Corvette. He still loves her.

    She imagines her fate of forever watching movies alone, on the fringe of other people’s happiness. Of his happiness. This is how it will be now - the weekend father and his boys with his girlfriend, maybe soon his wife. And Anna, skulking around, spying on his new life, his new happiness, in movie theatres, restaurants, grocery stores, in his new house. Anna, donning disguises—blonde wigs, gray wigs, hats with feather plumes in the brims, big sunglasses, dressing up like an old woman until one day, the actual transformation has gone unnoticed and she is an old woman. No longer a disguise.

    Ezekiel stands up and hands the tub of popcorn to his brother. Anna slouches down in her seat as he passes by on his way up the aisle, suddenly embarrassed for following them here—like a mad woman, a woman without good sense, exactly the sort of woman whose husband leaves her. Then she remembers a news story from a week ago, about a young boy who choked to death while eating popcorn in a movie theater. His parents performed the Heimlich but the kernel would not dislodge. The paramedics arrived and pronounced him dead in the theater. Anna remembers feeling ashamed because what she wanted to know was: did they stop the movie?

    How can he let Isaiah eat popcorn? She stands up, thinking she will save her son from a violent, choking death. Then she hears Isaiah laugh in response to whatever is happening on the screen and Kathleen laughs, too. He hands Kathleen the tub of popcorn, reaching it across his father’s lap, and Kathleen reaches her hand in and scoops out a handful.

    Anna opens the door into the hallway, flooded with light, and sees Ezekiel walking towards her from the bathroom, through the crowd of a just-ended movie. But he isn’t walking towards her, he’s just walking back to the movie, to his brother and father and Kathleen.

Anna makes an early dinner—baked chicken wrapped in prosciutto—and eats it in silence. She is the envy of many mothers tonight: an entire evening to herself, no husband, no children, no chores, no responsibility. Lots of mothers send their kids to camp just for a night like this. She decides to make some tea and sit on the porch to enjoy the last of fall, the colorful leaves on the verge of drifting to the ground. She picks up Oprah’s latest selection from the coffee table and opens the front door. As she closes the door, one hand on the knob, the book tucked under her arm and her tea balanced carefully in the other hand, she’s aware that she doesn’t have the key. But the routine motion is swift, quicker than the cells in her brain and the door clicks shut. Her heart rate quickens, armpits dampen. Furiously, she pushes against the handle but it does not give. Tapping uselessly against the window, she looks through, into her empty house, with nobody inside to open the door. She removed the key under the doormat months ago, when he moved out.

    She walks around the house to check for open windows and they are all, predictably, closed and locked. She thinks of smashing a rock through one of them and then climbing through but the hassle of cleaning it up and arranging for a replacement window is overwhelming. Sheepishly, she walks to the next-door neighbor’s house and knocks on the door.

    “Hi, Mark. Is your mom home?” she asks.

    “Sure. Is Ezekiel with you?”    

    Mark is two years older than Ezekiel but they like to skateboard together. In the interest of being neighborly, Anna allows it. Mark’s hair is rumpled and his pants are too big, a style Ezekiel has recently taken to.

    “No, he’s at his father’s house. It’s his weekend. The first weekend with the boys since the agreement was signed.” She feels herself saying too much, like she always does when she’s nervous.

    Mark’s mother, Carla, comes through the kitchen to greet Anna and grasps Anna’s hands in hers. Carla says that she’s been thinking of Anna and meaning to stop by but she didn’t want to intrude if Anna wasn’t up for company. I’m divorced, not widowed, Anna keeps herself from saying. She explains her carelessness with the door and asks to use the phone to call a locksmith. Carla pulls a thin phone book from a cabinet and hands it to Anna, directing her to the telephone. Carla brews a pot of coffee while Anna flips through the filmy, yellow pages. She dials four numbers before a line is answered. Carla pours some coffee while they wait. Sitting at the kitchen table, Carla looks at Anna sincerely, in a way that nobody has in a long time. Once her friends expressed their initial sympathy, they disappeared as if Anna were diseased. As if her disease might spread to them and infect their own families.

    “How are you holding up?” Carla asks.

    “Well, you know. Hanging in there. This is his first weekend with the boys.”

    “You feel a little lost?” she asks, gently.

    “A little.” Her pity pisses Anna off. What does Carla know about being lost or unloved? She’s never been left by her husband. Anna tries not to think about what the neighbors must say—about her husband running off with that whore and how it makes her look.

    “I promise you, it will get better. You might need a little bourbon in your coffee for awhile, but it will get better.” Carla laughs and lifts her mug up to her lips.

    Anna tries to let herself be comforted by the company but finds herself looking out the window, wishing the locksmith would arrive so she can escape Carla’s sympathetic stare. In the presence of Carla’s compassion, the dismissal hidden behind her eyes, Anna understands that her marriage was nothing special. Their love was not different or stronger than other loves. The women drink two cups before they see a van embellished with “Eddy’s Lock Repair” pull up outside. She excuses herself, thanking Carla for the hospitality. Carla gives her a half-hug, with one arm. Anna awkwardly hugs her back.

In front of Anna’s door, the locksmith asks her to hold some of his tools, brushing his hand against hers. He’s very plain looking with a long, bony nose and a receding hairline that bares his temples. His tool belt pulls down on his pants and reveals the top of his underwear, which makes Anna wonder what he looks like naked, even though she knows that she’s not interested, that he is nobody she would consider being with. Maybe one day she will have to lower her expectations. A woman with two children is probably not very marketable in the dating field. Neither is a woman who thinly disguises herself behind dark sunglasses and follows her ex-husband to the movies. She tries to picture herself kissing the locksmith, or some other man, and is sure that she won’t. There will be no new life for her, no reincarnation of herself.

    His peek-a-boo underwear makes her uncomfortable so she talks to fill the air. “I feel so silly. I’ve never done this before. I guess I wasn’t thinking. I was just coming out to have a nice, relaxing evening on the porch and then…” She tells herself to shut up. Just stop talking. She knows that if she keeps talking, she will tell him about the movie theater. Maybe she wants to see the judgment that would flicker across his face before he would smile and make a joke of it. Then he would quickly finish the job, eager to get away from the crazy woman obsessed with her ex-husband.

    “Lots of people do it. Or I wouldn’t be in business,” he says, winking.

    “Yeah, you must be right.” Anna picks up her book and the cup of cold tea, which she left on the front steps earlier.

    He fiddles with several long, needle-like instruments and the door opens.

    “There you go,” he says, waving his arm as if he’s giving Anna’s own house to her as a present.

    She invites him inside while she writes a check. He stands uncomfortably in the foyer, waiting, his hands inside the front pockets of his jeans. She sees him peeking at the toys in the living room.

    “Thanks so much,” she says, pressing the check into his hand. “You’re a real life saver.”

    “No problem. Here’s my card, in case you ever do it again. Just give me a call.” He smiles, half of his lip rising higher than the other half.

    She imagines inviting him in for tea but just closes the door instead. She walks up the stairs, pausing at the pictures that cover the wall. She takes the wedding photos down, pictures from thirteen years ago, when it felt like the whole world was in front of her, about to happen. She leaves the ones of the boys and their father, trying to believe that he hasn’t dissolved that relationship too. She places them in the bottom drawer of the dresser, lingering only slightly at his arched eyebrows, his fresh face, his full head of hair, noticing how generic the pictures seem. They could be anybody’s wedding pictures. They could be the display pictures in frames at stores. Down the hall, she checks Isaiah’s room, to make sure he has packed his favorite bear. He has. Only the stuffed frog sits on his pillow, its green fur on the verge of turning brown from being handled by his sometimes-grimy hands. She lies down next to the frog and waits for her boys to call and say goodnight.

Shasta Grant received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in 2005 and was a 2007 writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook. Her work has appeared in Stirring, Flying Island and is forthcoming in the anthology One for the Road. She has taught writing at several women's prisons, Ball State University and The Writers' Center of Indiana. She lives in Indianapolis with her husband and son.

Back to Freight Stories No. 4


Shasta Grant

The Good Ex-Wife