An Unholy Mess

An Unholy Mess
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An Unholy Mess

 

Mike stood half-crouched, balancing a cup of hot coffee in one hand while lowering himself into the redwood porch chair.  Right then he heard her.  Rather, he heard the slider open and then the sound of her broom sweeping against the rough boards of the deck floor.  He sighed.  He had come out here specifically to get away from her.

She was muttering to herself.  He couldn’t quite catch what she was saying, but thought he made out the word “idolatry.”

“Mrs. Moriarty,” he called.  “Do you think you could do the porch last, on your way out?”

“I left it for last last time, Mr. T.,” she said, “and that breeze came up off the bay and blew all the dirt in my face.  I better do it now while the wind’s down.” 

She had a thick, strong body, made for work, and there was a finality in the way she moved the broom.  Mike shrugged and settled back against the cushion of the chair.  Her great weapon, he realized, was his own unwillingness to deal with her.

She had arrived just as he was tying on his sneakers this morning, the first day of his vacation.  He heard the heavy smack of a car door shutting out front and recognized the noise at once as coming from her big battered Buick.  He had forgotten momentarily that he’d asked to come out and clean the cottage one day while they were here.

Behind him somewhere, she swept aggressively, making grunting noises as she worked; it was almost as if she were down on her knees with a scrub brush.  He placed the coffee on the armrest and looked across at the parched and treeless California hills, bunched up together like brown fists, a narrow blue pencil of a bay running the length of the valley below them.  The particular configuration of shapes had always soothed him; this was where he felt at ease these days; that is, since Eden’s death.  He came over from Berkeley as often as he could, on weekends or whenever.

A little gust of wind lifted the hair off his forehead and dropped it down again with a tickle.  Perhaps Mrs. Moriarty had felt it, too.  Perhaps it would convince her to go back inside and sweep out the dim rooms of the cottage, leaving him to enjoy these moments when the coffee was still fragrant and the kids hadn’t yet begun their clamor to take them out in the boat or to a beach.

Eden could have gotten rid of her easily; for Eden Mrs. Moriarty would have done anything, waxed the weeds, vacuumed the woods.

“Oh, it’s a mess, it’s a mess, it’s an unholy mess!”  She was almost singing to herself as she swept, closer and closer.  Mrs. Moriarty had been a once-a-week cleaner, and then as Eden had gotten sicker, she had started coming in every day.  One afternoon he had come upon the two of them standing in the laundry, Eden’s forehead resting on Mrs. Moriarty’s shoulder, Mrs. Moriarty making incomprehensible soothing sounds.  He had felt like an intruder.

“She comforts me,” Eden said when they were alone again.  Of course, Mrs. Moriarty had stayed on afterwards.  The kids listened to her, and she packed their lunches and cleaned up and made the dinner before she left.  She could drop Kevin and Maddie off at after-school events and track the movements of the older two.  Still, there was something a little off-center about her, and he wondered if the religious thing might be unsettling for the kids.   He avoided being in the same room with her; he was glad that she always put on her coat and picked up her purse the minute she saw him come through the door in the evenings. 

Kevin straggled out of one of the bedrooms to stand sleepily between Mike and his view of the bay.  He had wrapped himself in an old blanket like an Indian squaw.

“Hello, Boy,” Mike said.  Kevin was the only boy and the youngest child, seven years old.  His sudden appearance had the effect of annoying Mike slightly.  He looked so pale and thin, peering out from the folds of the blanket.

“Hi, Dad.”  Then, “Hi, Cuffy,” with a lilt in his voice as he spied Mrs. Moriarty.  “What are you doing here?”

“How about going back to your room and getting yourself dressed?” Mike suggested as Kevin, dragging the blanket over the boards, made his way to where Mrs. Moriarty stood sweeping.

“Oh, leave him alone, Mr. T.  He’s only a baby,” Mrs. Moriarty said.

Mike twisted around to look at her.  He was about to reply when a gust of air raised a billow of dust between them.

“Magic!” Kevin said.

Mike saw Kevin’s small hand clasping the hem of Mrs. Moriarty’s sweater.  He sighed and settled back in his chair once more.  The sweeping had stopped anyway.  Mrs. Moriarty was conferring with Kevin, leading him back into the bedroom.  “I want to wear my Pokemon shirt,” he heard Kevin say.

She was gone.  He closed his eyes.  On days when the wind swept down the length of the bay, you could sometimes hear the fury of the ocean breakers eight miles away.  It was cool, as summer mornings so often were in this part of California, but there was no fog, just steady sun and these capricious little burst of wind.  He did not hear the breakers today.

Eden had been good at getting other people to do her work for her.  Not just Mrs. Moriarty, everyone.  The accountant had been in love with her.  At tax time he received her checkbook register as if it were a damsel’s handkerchief.  She would listen to the troubles of the garage mechanic and he in return would pick up her car at the house in the morning and have it back by noon, fully serviced.  Even the girls used to make after-dinner tea for her and do the dishes while she sat in her chair in the dining room, sipping.  Kevin’s devotion to her was complete, though he had little to offer in the way of tangible service.  She, in turn, favored Kevin with a special love:  the last one, the boy.

Mike knew full well what it was that made people want to wait on her: an immense charm that she had long since ceased practicing on him.  But that was normal in marriage.  He hadn’t been uniformly charming himself.  Still, he wished she had let him rub her back when she was really miserable towards the end.  Mrs. Moriarty had done that.

Eden had shooed him off to work, saying that he’d be happier there, and he admitted that that was where he liked to be best, in his workroom, making drawings, shutting everything else out of his mind for the time being. In that room he had figured out an intricate way to deliver a rainbow of dyes into pseudo-Persian rugs; he’d made a lot of money with that one, but the delight had always been in the moment of invention.  One of the valves he had designed was up in the space shuttle.

Mrs. Moriarty was back, reclaiming her broom, and so was Kevin, dressed in shorts with an elastic waistband and his Pokemon tee shirt and carrying a button-eyed stocking monkey that he was getting too old to have a need for.  She had set a bowl of corn flakes and a glass of orange juice on the picnic table for Kevin and there he sat, lifting the spoon dreamily to his mouth.

Mrs. Moriarty bought Kevin’s clothes.  The older girls got their own with a clothes allowance, taking the bus together downtown after school; they took care of Maddie’s stuff, too.  But Mrs. Moriarty did Kevin, using Mike’s credit card and leaving the yellow receipts on the dining room table.  The khaki shorts were too big, the puckered waistline reminding Mike of a hula skirt, with the result that Kevin looked even smaller and more delicate than he was.

She sometimes used poor grammar, things like “them” for “these,” and Kevin was picking up on that, too, Mike had noticed.  He could feel her near his right elbow; as he looked up at her she pivoted on her broom and changed course.  The irritation she produced in him was physical.  He felt it particularly in the back of his neck.

Firing people at work wasn’t easy, but it was something you could get up in the morning knowing you had to do, and you could do it.  In the case of Mrs. Moriarty, though, it wouldn’t be half as simple.  She was upon him now, literally sweeping the tops of his sneaker.  “Mrs. Moriarty!” he cried.

She didn’t seem to hear him.

“Mrs. Moriarty, I want you to stop your sweeping until I am off the porch.”

She said something under her breath again; it might have been, “I will wear my righteousness like a breastplate.”

Mike stood up.  “Look, just give me the broom,” he said, standing face to face with her and holding his hands out.

She continued to ignore him.  Exasperated, Mike grasped the broom handle with both hands and tried to wrest it from her.  She was stronger than he expected; she lowered her head like a bull or a goat, and for an instant he breathed in the exhalations of her scalp, a blend of human secretions and supermarket hair products.  She raised her head then suddenly and looked up at him with a prophet’s ire.  Her eyes were a surprisingly tender shade of green, he noted.

Mike sensed Kevin stirring behind him.  He knew what this must look like; he dropped his hands to his sides and took two steps back, drawing in a breath.  “Mrs. Moriarty, you’re fired,” he said.

She gripped the broom and held it across her chest.  “You can’t fire me,” she said with indignation.  “Only the children can fire me.”

Mike heard the slider open behind him, but he did not turn.  “The children don’t pay you, Mrs. Moriarty,” he said.

She made a snorting sound.  Kevin had come close and got hold of her sweater again.

“Oh, Daddy!”  This was a piteous whimper from Cimba, the second girl.  He turned now to see her fighting a downward jerk of the mouth as she drew one arm around her wide-eyed little sister Maddie.  Further off stood Dinah, the oldest, who contemplated him out of the cool, critical eyes of the adolescent.

“Girls, go back in the house.  And take Kevin with you.  This is between me and Mrs. Moriarty.”

“No it isn’t, Dad,” said Dinah.  The two younger girls looked at Dinah.  None of them moved.
“Girls,” he said again, but then heard with relief the heavy thud of the old car door, and turned to behold an empty porch.  Good riddance, he thought.

At that moment Cimba dropped her arm from Maddie’s shoulder and ran to his side.  “She’s got Kevin with her, Dad,” she whispered.

Mrs. Moriarty was backing the old sedan out into the road, kicking up gravel and dust as she made her turn, and sure enough, Kevin’s small head could be seen through the passenger-side window.

As the car sped off, an adrenal energy seized Mike’s extremities and he stood, knees slightly bent, fingers extended, like a man on a basketball court, ready to move in any direction.  But in point of fact, he had no idea what to do.

“She’ll be back, Dad,” Dinah said.

“Will she?” He was amazed at this moment at Dinah’s resemblance to Eden, the slim hips, the hazel eyes, the narrow scrutiny with which she regarded him.

“If she doesn’t come back, they’ll go to her house, and we can go down and get him there.”

“Her house?  Where exactly is her house?”  He had a vague idea she lived in Alameda.

“Oh, Dad.  In Oakland.  She brings Kevin and Maddie over to her place all the time.”

“She does?”

Dinah nodded.  “She takes them everywhere.  Does her errands with them in the back of the car.

“Damn!” Mike said.

Without Cimba’s arm around her, Maddie looked cold, like a child who’s come out of the water after swimming too long.

“How old are you, Maddie?” he asked suddenly.

“Nine.”  Her eyes flickered up, then caught his.  Cimba ran over and picked up Kevin’s fallen blanket, came back and wrapped it around Maddie’s shoulders.

“Nine, of course,” he said, and looked at each girl in turn, running one hand through his hair.  “Well, girls, we have to decide what to do.”  He took a few steps back and sat on the porch railing, pulling the little half-circle of girls mysteriously with him.  All beauties, he thought as he swept one hand across the top board of the railing and picked up a splinter like an arrow to the flesh of his thumb.

“Wait a while,” Dinah said.

“You don’t think he’s in any danger?”

“Cuffy would never hurt Kevin, Dad,” Cimba avowed.  “She’d never hurt anyone.”

“Let’s go right now!  Let’s go down to Cuffie’s!”  Maddie broke into a squall, then stopped again immediately.  There was something touching about her full cheeks, a little too heavy at the bottom to meet the strict conventions of prettiness, though she was lovely, lovely.  Mike had to look away. Her blue eyes were his own. “Oh, Maddie,” he said, and touched the top of her blond head, pulling her towards him.

“Look girls.  Maybe we could start looking for someone new.  Someone like Mrs. Moriarty, only--”  he broke off.  He couldn’t think of any descriptive terms that fit the bill.

“But Dad, Kevin loves Cuffy,” Cimba said.

“I see.”  Mike surveyed their young faces.  “Do you all love her?”

Dinah shrugged.  Cimba pursed her lips in thought.  Maddie, standing close, whispered “yes” with conviction.

He went inside and they followed him.  He grabbed an old phone book to look up Mrs. Moriarty’s address.  “2410 Balboa,” he read.  Dinah sat down at the laptop that stood on the desk and began typing. There wasn’t a printer in the house, so she had to transcribe the Mapquest directions as he watched over her shoulder.  When she was done she tore the sheet off the pad and handed it to him without comment.

He hesitated, glancing down at the instructions and then out the window towards the road.  “Well,” he said after a moment.  “I’ll go.”

“We’ll all go,” said Cimba.

“No,” Mike pronounced, firmly enough that for once no one argued with him.  He picked up his keys from the table.

Maddie touched his sleeve.

“What is it, Maddie?” he asked.

“Just tell her to come back,” she said.

He touched Maddie’s head again.  “The problem is,” he said gently, “that Mrs. Moriarty and I don’t seem to get along very well.  I don’t think she likes me very much.”

“So what?” Dinah asked with a cold shrug.  “Mom didn’t either, half the time.”

“Oh, Dinah,” Cimba said with deep disapproval.

Mike decided to ignore Dinah’s remark.  “Call me on my cell if they show up,” he said.

The three girls stood watching from the porch; the younger two waved as he pulled away.

He crossed over the bare brown hills, gnarled bay trees growing like coarse hair in the cracks between them.  He wound through the lightless redwood groves.  He called the girls twice, but they had nothing to report.  Dinah had made breakfast for them and they were all working on a jigsaw puzzle with Maddie.

His calls to Mrs. Moriarty went unanswered, but of course, if she were on her way home, she wouldn’t be there yet.  He should have equipped her with her own cell phone, but he hadn’t.  He continued on, crossing the bridge and skirting the Richmond oil refineries, their tanks lined up like hat boxes by the muddy San Francisco Bay.

He reached Oakland and got off the freeway in what was generally the right area.  He hadn’t consulted the directions up to this point; he hadn’t needed to.  Now he pulled off to look them over and to call the girls.

Still no word.  Next he called Mrs. Moriarty’s.  She picked right up.

“Mrs. Moriarty, have you got Kevin there?”

“Mr. T!” she shouted into the phone.

The connection wasn’t great.  “Is Kevin all right?” Mike asked.

She made one of her incoherent noises, then bellowed, “Of course he is!  What do you think?”  This was followed by a burst of static.

“You know, Mrs. Moriarty, you can’t just drive off with someone else’s child.”

 “I made a promise to Eden, Mr. T.,” came the voice of Mrs. Moriarty.  “I promised I would take care of Kevin as long as he needs me.  And don’t tell me that you’re up to the job yourself, because you’re not.”

He sighed.  “All you really had to do was give me the broom, Mrs. Moriarty,” he said.

“You could call me Cuffy, like they do.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“We’re not going anywhere. Here, Kevin wants to say hello.”

“Hi, Dad.”  It was Kevin’s voice, clear as a bell.

“Hang on, Kevin.  I’m on my way.”

But Mrs. Moriarty had already grabbed the phone back.  “No rush!” she cried.

As he clicked the phone off, he looked around at where he was and experienced a small shiver of recognition. He pulled out into the traffic then, reversed direction, and following his nose, made his way to a pair of tall inswung iron gates.

St. Agnes Cemetery.  He’d been there twice.  Once on the day of the funeral, of course, and once a few days before.  It was that first day he remembered best.  Eden was dead and they hadn’t done anything about a burial plot, hadn’t even discussed it.  Eden’s mother, who flew out for the very end, was furious at him, at everything he’d done and hadn’t done.  He and she drove all over the East Bay that morning, looking at cemeteries.  Her face as hard as stone, she acted like a woman buying a ball gown.  Nothing would do.  They ended up here, exhausted, neither one caring so much any more what they found.

He had never been back since the funeral, and all he could remember of that day was the unbearable pain of looking into Maddie’s face.  Had Kevin even been there?  Yes, he had, his head buried in Mrs. Moriarty’s coat.

Was it madness to go and stand by that grave before he pushed on to Mrs. Moriarty’s? He had heard from someone that Eden’s mother had bought a very posh headstone.  Maybe that was part of what had kept him away.

But he should have come before.  He should have brought the kids.  He’d been remiss in so many ways, more than even Eden’s mother could count.

He drove in, parked, and crossed the dry grass, past an ugly white mausoleum overhung with ungainly eucalyptus trees.  A single older man knelt by another grave at a distance; otherwise the place was deserted. He quickly found the stone:  Eden Tybie, Wife and Mother, and the dates.

The stone looked more like limestone than granite.  A low relief of Jesus emerged from its surface, holding a cross in one arm and a lamb in the other.  Three more lambs lay at his feet.  The lamb that he held had a small pair of horns; the others did not.  It was his family, Mike saw: one little boy and the three girls.

He couldn’t bear to look at it.  He crouched down quickly, lowering his head.  Grasping two clumps of grass on either side of the stone, he abruptly tore them out by the roots.   She’d done it again, he thought; she’d given other people all the work.  “Oh, Eden,” he whispered through his teeth.  “Just look at the mess you’ve left behind.”

He stood and found himself not crying, but shaking all over, still holding the two tufts of grass in his hands.

He raised his head and caught sight of the other mourner, still kneeling as before, the very image of ordinary, respectable grief.  Mike envied him.  Right now, if he could locate a stick of dynamite, he’d bury it up to the fuse, light it and blow himself and what remained of Eden to fine particles of dust.  Let Eden’s mother and Mrs. Moriarty sort the rest of it out.

The feeling passed.  Unbidden, then, Maddie’s bereft face appeared before him in his mind’s eye.  The sight of it caused him to kneel down remorsefully and pat the clumps of grass back into place. Maddie, Cimba, Dinah, all before him now, gazing in reproach.  And where was Kevin?  He couldn’t even will himself to summon up the image. 

But out of that empty place came a certainty that he couldn’t fire Mrs. Moriarty.  Not yet, at least.  What a mess, what a mess, what an unholy mess.

 

She lived, he discovered, in a single story house half hidden behind a mass of lank camellia bushes.  The property as a whole was in great need of attention.  Was there a Mr. Moriarty?  He had never heard of one.

Mrs. Moriarty answered the door.  There was no great defiance in her manner.  Maddeningly, she was just the way she always was.

“Where is he?” Mike asked.

“He’s in the TV room,” she said, gesturing towards one of the doorways that led from the hall they were standing in.  “Watching Pokemon.”

“I just want to take him home now, Mrs. Moriarty.  You and I can talk later.”

“You know, Mr. T., I don’t know if he’s ready to go with you just yet.”  She took one step closer to him, and Mike began to imagine an awful scene taking shape, with Kevin in the role of the broom. But she stopped where she was, looking up into his face with an intimacy that he knew he would have to resign himself to for the time being.  “Why don’t we let him choose?” she asked boldly.

“Choose?” Mike repeated. How had he come to a place where his son might choose to come home with him, or might choose not to?

“I’ll get him,” she said, and moved off towards the toneless cartoon music in the other room, calling Kevin’s name.   But she re-emerged after a moment alone.  “He only wants to go with you if you’ll promise him you’ll keep me on.”

“He said that?”

“He did, Mr. T.  And if you’re smart, you’ll see that it’s going to work best if he goes with you because he wants to, because he knows everything’s going to be all right.”

 At this moment Kevin edged through the doorway in his ridiculous oversized shorts.  Mike felt the urge to avert his eyes, as he had from the tombstone.

Coward though he might be, he knew that Mrs. Moriarty was right. In a way, entering into mortal combat with her would have been easier.  Now he saw how much of it was up to him alone.

Ahead lay the day when Kevin would judge him, most likely very harshly.  But it could not be today.  Today, when Kevin might well choose against him, Mike knew he must protect the boy from such a choice.  For a start, Mike needed to raise his eyes and look at this son of his.