It was a warm May day when the world I thought I knew began a slow, gradual crumbling-down around me. The sun shone in through the blinds in the living room, through the window on the back door in the kitchen. The sound and smell of frying hamburger and onions wafted through our apartment and I quickly remembered exactly how hungry I was. My mouth salivated at the thought – ground beef, onions, canned tomato soup and green beans, ringed with mashed potatoes and shredded cheese. Comfort food. And although I didn’t know it then, this would be a day when I needed comfort food.
I drained the hamburger grease into an empty soup can that sat on the stove’s backsplash. I opened the tomato soup, dumped the broth from the green beans out into the sink. I turned the oven knob to 350 and mashed the potatoes that had been furiously boiling. By hand. I added milk, a healthy slab of butter, salt and pepper. The hamburger, soup and green bean mixture was added to a green glass casserole dish my cousin Carl and his wife Julie had given us for a wedding gift nearly three years earlier. I mounded the potatoes around the border of the casserole, made sure to add plenty of cheese. Bake uncovered at 350 for 35 to 45 minutes or until bubbly and cheese is golden brown.
The chime of the doorbell startled me.
“I’ll get it,” my husband announced, boosting himself off the couch and turning off The Simpsons. “Keep cooking. Don’t worry about it.”
About five minutes later, he came back in. “I’ll be out here for a while.” The door slammed behind him again.
Forty-five minutes later, the buzzer went off.
And just as the recipe had promised, everything was bubbly and golden brown.
I reached into the cupboard and took out two Corningware plates we had found at the Unity church rummage sale, white Corningware with a blue flowered border and served myself. I took the ice cube trays out the freezer, added four cubes to a tall plastic glass of water. I ate.And he had still not come in.
I walked out onto the porch, shielded my eyes from the setting sun. “Dinner’s getting cold,” I told him. “Are you almost done out here?”
“A few more minutes,” he said, arms crossed over his chest. “I’ll be in when we’re done.”
Twenty minutes later he walked back in, and instead of heading to the kitchen, he walked to the bedroom and lie down on the bed.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked, feeling a mixture of worry and annoyance.
“That guy out there,” he said into his pillow, “he’s a detective. And apparently, Rachel told someone at school – they were doing something called good touch/bad touch – that I had touched her improperly.”
I walked to the bookshelf and picked up a handpainted vase – beige, with yellow, blue and green stripes – and threw it against the wall as hard as I could. Instead of breaking into pieces like I’d hoped, it only slipped to the floor, lying on top of a pile of clothes.
What I really wanted was for the vase to shatter when I hurtled it at the wall. I wanted a noise that would cause the downstairs neighbor to start banging on our ceiling with a broom. I wanted a noise that would make our upstairs neighbor come down the stairs to find out what it was that he’d heard. Instead, I got nothing. I saw the vase slide down the wall and land on a pile of clothes near the closet.
In retrospect, I honestly should have sensed something was up. The fact that instead of doing what any normal person would have done – stated his innocence, screamed, threw something, called Rachel a liar – anything other than flopping down and very calmly announcing that he’d been accused of a reprehensible and disgusting crime.
“I need to go for a walk,” I said as he lay there, collapsed on the bed. “Just give me some time to clear my head.”And off I went. I walked past the house a few blocks down, my favorite, a big old Victorian painted a lovely cream with green shutters.
I walked past Hoffman Music, and just kept going. I reached my hand through a cheap-looking fence and rubbed the ears of an adorably scruffy dog of no discernable breed. I walked until the sun began to set off in the horizon, and I realized that I’d gone so far that I wasn’t really entirely sure where I had ended up. I’d gone in a straight line, though…and I took the same straight line right back home. I didn’t think, I didn’t stop. I just walked.
“I was getting worried about you,” he whined as I came through the door. “You were gone for a long time.”
“I’m fine,” I said, picking the cordless phone up off the desk. “I need to talk to Mom.”
I punched the familiar numbers into the phone and listened as her familiar voice filled my ears.
I told her.
It seemed unnatural and weird coming out of my mouth. “Rachel,” I said, “accused James of touching her. He said he never did it. I mean, I believe him – but why would she lie about something like that? He’s been doing this school bus thing for years with an exemplary record…if this was a problem, someone would have spoken up before now about it.”
There was a long silence. “Well,” she said, “did you ever think that she might be telling the truth?”
I was stunned. “No!” I exclaimed. “He would never do that to her. I don’t believe it. No.”
“I’ll be praying,” Mom started gently, “for the truth to come out. Your dad and I love you.”
“I love you too,” I said, hanging up the phone in shock.
And then I heard another sharp knock on the door.
In barged James’s mother Anita, her dog at her heels. She had crossed her arms across her ample midsection and wore an unflattering purple sweatshirt and black knit pants. Her silvery hair was cut short, a mole sprouting white hairs grew off the side of her face. “I just got back from Tony and Marie’s,” she said, referring to an older son and his wife, Rachel’s parents. “I told them that no matter what, I’m on your side and that I believe you when you said you didn’t do anything to her. I’ve seen those girls make up the most ridiculous stories in the entire world! In fact, there was one time when Rachel said that she was going to go into foster care with Josie and Aimee, and we all know damn good and well THAT was never going to happen! I don’t believe any of this, and I know we’ll get this sorted out in court. I’ll get you the best lawyer I can. I’ll get you Bob Cossey,” she said, naming off one of the best-known defense attorneys in town, “because I believe you and I don’t believe what Rachel has said. At all. Tony was crying when I left and he said that he loves you, but he has to stick by her.”
After this speech, she turns to me. “And you,” she says, looking right at me. “I’d advise YOU not to talk to anyone about this. The less people know, the better off it’ll be for everybody.”
“I already talked to Mom,” I said slowly, “is that okay?”
“That’s fine,” she snapped, “but you don’t need to tell any of your friends or anything like that. What happens to this family stays in this family, and it would do you good to remember that.”