Author: Pia Ehrhardt
On the drive home from her daughter's house, Margaret stops at the pecan orchard in Picayune. She pays the owner two dollars for an empty metal bucket. He points at the field and says, fill it up, high as you want. Rain clouds gather in the west. Margaret hopes the weather holds. She walks under the trees, picking nuts off the ground. Gusts blow more down from the branches. She isn't ready to go home. There are still four good hours before dark.
Margaret had left her granddaughter's birthday party early. Taken the slice of cake home on a paper plate covered in foil, and when she stopped at the Exxon station, she threw it away. Why did everything involving children have to be so done up? Her granddaughter Amelie was one year old. Margaret had driven two hours for what? To see her daughters' dull marriages. To get her photograph taken. To watch thirty neighborhood toddlers run around. To sit bored. Her children were boring. She loved them younger when she knew them better. Now they talked and talked about exercise, about their husbands at work, their husbands on the golf course, so much talk about husbands like they weren't there. Why didn't they just bring them in from the back yard, let the husbands speak?
“You need to try things, Mother.” The sisters (they were on a team that would never pick her) wanted her to kayak on the lake in their subdivision before she went home. Margaret didn't want to kayak. She said no. The sisters looked at each other, disgusted. Try something new, Jane said. There's a rubber shirt you put on to keep your clothes dry, Mother. She hadn't called her Mom in ten years. Mother: two ugly syllables.
Then Margaret upset Jane by smoking a cigarette in the garage. The weather was windy and turning cold. It was one cigarette. With a fresh cup of coffee. She didn't open the door first. She couldn't find the remote, and besides, it looked like rain. Her daughter was furious and talked to her about second-hand smoke in a voice that wasn't budging. A voice Margaret had taught them, that worked until her children started looking through her, not caring, not hearing, because nothing could happen to them when they were out late with shady friends, drunk, in cars, past curfew. Except to their brother. He'd run into a tree, drag racing down Wisner Boulevard at 2 a.m. He had swerved to avoid running over a big corrugated box. It was empty. He died in the ambulance.
When did she lose the voice they trusted? The one that said I know how to care for you.
Before she left, Margaret had stood in front of the house and smoked some more. She loved her cigarettes. They kept her company seven easy minutes at a time. She smoked two and pushed her butts into Jane's planters, two crosses without the part that crosses. People said you should have more than one child in case something happened. This was a fallacy. She had two girls left, but not her son, and they didn't make up for him, and they weren't much like him. They were like her. She wanted her son.
Neighbors were walking in and out of Jane's. The subdivision was a commune. Every house a two-story ranch with concealed garage, just barely different, like a Highlights quiz where you find what's not alike in these two pictures, and it may only be that one has a chimney made of bigger bricks.
A young man — Robert -- from around the block had pulled into Jane's driveway on a new Harley Davidson. Jane came out when she heard the noise. He lifted his leg high to show how he'd burned his Nike on the exhaust pipe, and Jane made a fuss over him and his bike, flirted and joked. She got on the back, straddled a seat that almost reclined. It was an odd angle. Too relaxed for a moving vehicle. She headed off with Robert to take a test drive. Margaret could hear the sound of them blocks away. Every gear shift. He put the bike in fourth. They were going up on the Interstate too fast. He was showing off for her. They weren't wearing helmets because her daughter loved wind in her face. Jane's husband was in the back drinking beer with his brother-in-law. He couldn't worry about what he didn't know, but Margaret could. Sweat rolled down her back. She was sure they were going 80. That they were racing like fools on two skinny tires. And that Jane was laughing, her arms around his waist, her mind clear of her life and this birthday party, no one's mother, no one's child. Margaret smoked another cigarette. She walked down the middle of the street. People in yards waved.
Robert and Jane came around the corner zigzagging for the neighbors, and Margaret told Jane she was going. Jane jumped off the bike. She looked happy, so grateful Margaret had come, and asked why she had to leave early, why not stay for dinner. Margaret had almost changed her mind. Her daughters were so eager and dear when they were hugging her hello or kissing her goodbye. She loved them in these moments, too, with a heart that was full, but torn, running too fast. It felt right then like they were hers and she was theirs.
Margaret's bucket is so full that the pecans make a mound. She holds it steady in her arms to keep any from falling out. The man gives her some giant Zip-loc bags to store the nuts. He says they freeze well. She accepts the free cup of coffee he offers and drives home, smokes her cigarettes, the window cracked just enough so rain won't get in.