Joyce Leblanc is standing at the central island of her kitchen, regretting her choice of white granite over the composite the contractor recommended. Smack in the middle a red splotch radiates, the result of one of her husband’s buddies knocking over a bottle of Merlot at last month’s Super Bowl party. Now she has this unsightly stain, like a scar after a botched surgery. She blames the contractor for not sealing it properly, but there isn’t much she can do: he’s married to Blondie, her best friend since grade school.
Joyce drags her Kitchen Aid Professional mixer to the middle of the island, where it covers the stain. She fits the Bluetooth earpiece over her left ear, as she always does before making her PTA calls. It’s the same model her husband uses to talk with clients, and wearing it helps Joyce feel that her job, supervising their 13- and 16-year-old children while serving as President of Norumbega Middle School Parent Teacher Association, is as substantial as his.
“Blondie? It’s Joyce.” Not that Blondie wouldn’t recognize her number—they are on each other’s Frequent Caller list—but Joyce was taught in her first job, Administrative Assistant to the Vice-President of Norumbega Five Cents Savings, to be professional in every interaction.
“I’m in the middle of a cut and blow dry. Can we make it quick?” Blondie runs the only decent hair salon in town. In the background Madonna sings “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” while a hair dryer hums backup.
“Just a friendly reminder that tomorrow’s the Teacher Appreciation Luncheon. I’m counting on you to bring something special. I especially want to thank Mrs. Farnsworth. Can you believe she was our teacher all those years ago, and now she’s got our girls?”
There is a pause.
“I’m making my pumpkin spice brownies,” Joyce says. “I know I gave you the recipe when they were such a hit last year, but of course you’ll want to bring something else.” Joyce opens the dark cherry door to her pantry. She collects canned pumpkin, flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves. Everything at her fingertips, exactly where she’s filed it.
Madonna recedes. The dryer drones on.
“Blondie, you still there? We could use an entrée.”
“Sure, Joyce, don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.” A smidgeon louder, she calls, “Be with you in a minute, Liza.”
Liza? That explains why Blondie’s distracted. Liza’s been a troublemaker since they were all together at Norumbega High, when she and that creep Eddy used to snort coke after school till Liza’s father got wind of it. Later she’d dropped out of college and run off to Portland. There was a rumor she’d waitressed in a topless dive when Eddy got busted for dealing. Joyce shuddered, imagining. When Liza got pregnant there was a lot of talk, about whether it was Eddy’s kid or some one-night stand. No wonder the child was so weird.
“Have you noticed anything strange about Jess lately?” Blondie says in a low voice.
Joyce’s daughter Jessica and Blondie’s daughter Chloe are also, as her thirteen-year-old says, BFFs. Joyce appreciates this mirroring of the mothers’ friendship, orderly like her pantry, everything in its place. She thinks hard, is unable to dredge up anything unusual. “She does close her door more. Adolescents need their privacy, you know. Probably primping for some boy.”
“I hope you’re right,” says Blondie. Then she adds, “The girls are working on a science project at our place, something about growing beans under lights. Chloe asked if Jess could stay for supper.”
Joyce would prefer the girls gather at her house under adult supervision. Still, this is a wholesome, worthy activity. How could she refuse? She tells Blondie she’ll pick up Jessica at 8.
Blondie rushes back to her clients, while Joyce returns to her measuring cups and teaspoons. It’s not her daughter she’s been worrying about, it’s her husband. Brian’s been working so many hours these last few months. When she questions his evening absences he says, “How do you think I earn those bonuses?” Brian reminds her they’ll need that extra cash for college soon. Brandon, their oldest, is at football practice, getting a ride home from a teammate after the guys go out for cheeseburgers, so Joyce will be alone for supper again. She’s glad to be baking today. It instills confidence. If you follow the recipe carefully, everything comes out right, and everyone appreciates the results.
She pours most of the brownie batter into a 13-by-9 silicone-coated steel pan. Then, instead of sliding it into the oven she leaves it on the counter, rinses her hands, and mounts the mauve-carpeted stairs to her bedroom. In her bedside drawer, behind her old diaphragm, under a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice she is certain neither her children nor her husband will ever read, is a sealed plastic bag. These are her healing herbs. The bag feels lighter than she recalls, but then again—who trusts such recollections? She carries her healing herbs downstairs, measures out two teaspoons, stirs them into the last of the brownie batter and spoons the mix into four muffin cups.
Now both pans go into the oven. She should clean up but resents her family abandoning her, so she leaves everything out for the moment. She sits at the counter, drinking a glass of Merlot because who cares now if it spills, checking Facebook and reading her e-mail. She follows a link the principal has sent to a report on classroom bullying and its evolution in teens’ social media world, feeling obliged to read the report as it’s the main topic at the next PTA meeting.
The muffin cups are done first. She resets the timer for the larger pan, fifteen minutes more, then eases a hot brownie out of the muffin tin and breaks it open, giving it a minute to cool before taking that first bite. Between the chocolate and pumpkin and all those spices, you can’t guess what else is in there.
Joyce savors the rest of her brownie while thumbing through Good Housekeeping. She’s wiping away a loose crumb when the land line rings in the living room at the other end of the house. She really should put all her ingredients away and wipe the counters clean, but she doesn’t want to miss anyone’s phone call. She’s left so many messages today, all these mothers out working now that their kids are in school. Occasionally she wishes she were one of them; even her old job at the bank would be less solitary. But most days she’s glad to be home. Though it occurs to her that if she brought in a few dollars herself, Brian wouldn’t need to work such long hours.
The caller is not from her PTA list. It’s some vendor she doesn’t recognize, asking about fixing her garage door. Is this another thing Brian hasn’t told her about? She doesn’t remember him mentioning it, but her mind is becoming fuzzy and relaxed. She tells the vendor to call back later when her husband is home.
She hangs up and lies down on the sofa. She’s earned this. The cushions are soft. The cat jumps onto her lap and she pets his back, enjoying the sense of him stretched out on top of her.
Joyce dreams of warm bodies. She’s lying on the Caribbean beach where she and Brian honeymooned, only Brian isn’t there. She has loosed her bikini top. Hot sand glitters in the sun. The waiter has brought a delicious drink, a fermentation of cocoa, spice, and rum. Or is it coca and rum? People are dancing to island music, Conga drums and those cowbell things. The beat is insistent, a ringing that won’t go away. Something about it smells off, like the time they strayed from the tourist beach and discovered teenagers burning old tires.
Wait. That ringing is no cowbell. She rubs her eyes, feels thirsty, and realizes too late that the ringing is her oven timer. She has no idea when the buzzing began, how long she’s been asleep. Before she can reach her hot pads, the stench of burnt chocolate assaults her. On the granite counter, the cat noses her bag of healing herbs, oblivious to Joyce’s cry.
Blondie has just trimmed off the last of Liza’s home dye job. It’s very short now, but at least she’ll look presentable. Blondie understands why this client is perpetually short on cash. When Liza first came back from Portland, broke and burdened with baby, Blondie cut her hair for free. She sympathizes with single moms. Her own mother’s struggle to make ends meet after Blondie’s dad left is a big piece of why the salon is so important to her. Still, she wonders what possesses women to do a crappy job coloring their own hair and then have to live with it for weeks or months. And bright blue, to boot! Liza’s natural color is a striking raven, same as her kid Maddie. Blondie hasn’t seen Maddie in the salon ever. But she’s watched the child exit the school bus and walk the rest of the way alone.
Blondie swivels the chair so Liza can see how great she looks, and asks if she can snap a picture for the salon’s Facebook page. “You should bring Maddie in too. Even if she wears her hair long, I can trim the frayed ends, give it some shape.”
Liza glares at her in the mirror. “That’s ballsy. Considering what your kid and that overgrown Barbie doll Jessica Leblanc are doing to Maddie.”
Blondie suspends her mister mid-air. She wants to ask Liza why, if she feels this way about Chloe, she’s here instead of at the Super Scissors that opened in the strip mall. But she holds her tongue. Everyone in this town talks, and Liza’s got friends too. Blondie listens to everyone’s gossip, but she’s made it a policy to dispense only positive items, the kind of news that will grow her business. “What do you mean?” she asks.
Liza digs into the hip pocket of her jeans, retrieves her phone, and brings up a text-and-photo app Blondie’s never heard of. Someone has posted a shot of Maddie in the girls’ locker room, arms crossed over her pancake breasts. Liza says the whole class has seen it, and that it came from either Chloe or Jess, she’s not sure who.
Lately, when Chloe and Jess hide their phones, Blondie assumes they’re stalking that boy who walked them home last week, a youth still croaking like a backyard frog. She thinks of notes Mrs. Farnsworth confiscated, decades ago, when Blondie would slip them to Joyce. The folded paper fortune teller where you’d lift up the corner to see who you’d marry, super-hot Brian Leblanc or that kid with the glasses who picked at his zits. Blondie wipes her hair-sprayed fingers on her smock, remembering what they used to say about Liza.
With Liza’s permission, Blondie scans the rest of Chloe’s posts. The newest is a photo of the science experiment. Jessica’s reply hints they’re growing more than lima beans under those fluorescents. Blondie has the urge to spray the phone with her mister but knows that won’t help. She realizes now, this is why Liza’s here. She’s planned this moment to shock her, to enlist Blondie’s aid in cutting this ugliness off at the root.
On her way to get Jessica, Joyce stops at the grocery and picks up a dozen frosted brownies for Teacher Appreciation Lunch. When she’s home, she’ll transfer them to her gold-rimmed wedding china platter. She also buys a half-dozen of those little cream puffs she loves. By the time she reaches Blondie’s she has eaten three cream puffs, unaware of the crumbs that look like zits above her lip.
Blondie answers the door. “We need to talk,” she says. But Joyce is not in any condition to talk. She tells her friend that Brian will be home for supper any minute, which she wishes were true. Chloe and Jessica descend from Chloe’s room, giggling. Joyce adores their innocence.
Jessica seems especially cheerful as she snatches a cream puff from the open box and climbs into the back seat.
“I’m glad you’re having fun with that science project,” says Joyce. “Mrs. Farnsworth will be proud of you.”
With her mouth full of cream puff, Jessica is hard to understand. Joyce hears something about a ship.
“Swallow your food, young lady.”
“The sub said Mrs. Farnsworth broke her hip. She’s having surgery and then rehab. She’ll be out a couple of months.”
Relief washes over Joyce. No one will judge her bringing store-bought brownies for a substitute, even after she’s urged the other mothers to provide a home-made treat. It’s too bad about Mrs. Farnsworth, but she’s confident this experienced teacher has left excellent notes for the sub: lesson plans, tests, advice on handling troublemakers.
Teacher Appreciation Luncheon goes off without a hitch. Blondie comes through with a tray of lasagna from Rizutto’s. Joyce’s bakery brownies are a hit; only crumbs remain on her wedding china. Another parent offers to freeze any leftovers and take them to Mrs. Farnsworth while she’s recuperating at home.
As the teachers enjoy their coffee and dessert, the principal, Dr. Martinez, thanks the PTA for providing this spread. Then she tells everyone about Mrs. Farnsworth’s accident in case they want to send a card, and introduces the substitute, a middle-aged former waitress who earned her teaching certificate in a program for career changers, and who student-taught in Jessica’s class last year. The principal adds, “Some of you probably know her from her days at Rizutto’s.”
Joyce and Blondie wipe the tables after lunch, sponging up spilled tomato sauce that’s overflowed the pan. Joyce would like to ask what her friend wanted to discuss last night, but now the substitute, the principal, and Liza, of all people, are heading their way. Despite her new haircut Liza looks grim, lips pressed in a line, though as they come closer, Joyce detects a gleam of satisfaction. Principal Martinez brandishes a cell phone encased in pink, with sequins and gold glitter. Joyce recognizes the case she gave Jessica for Christmas. She knows by heart its inscription: Don’t let anyone dull your sparkle.
Blondie hisses, “Tried to warn you.”
Joyce cannot imagine what warning is needed. Dr. Martinez and the substitute look like they’re about to challenge a customer who tried to leave without paying his tab. They should show their appreciation for the nice lunch Joyce and her team have made. She thought the principal understood this.
Dr. Martinez directs Joyce and Blondie to two chairs in the corner. Only now does Joyce appreciate the principal’s determination. She sits, clutching her china plate to her chest, a fear sown in her that something’s about to break.
Joyce can’t think what to say to her daughter. The whole way home, the principal’s words keep ringing in her ears: You can’t shove this thing back in the bottle. Jessica slinks down in back, only her bangs visible in the rear view mirror. Dr. Martinez raised such a stink over a little picture, suspending both girls for three days, threatening legal consequences if the harassment doesn’t stop. Warning they could be arrested if the girls are growing what Jess has implied.
Joyce would rather wait till Brian comes home to deal with the problem, but she can’t reach him and fears he’ll be late again. If he were around more, none of this would have happened. Joyce thinks longingly of her special brownies, stashed in the drawer beside her bed. She tries phoning Blondie, but her friend doesn’t pick up.
Now, Joyce calls Jessica into the kitchen, steeling herself for confrontation.
Her daughter claims some other girl snapped the picture with Jessica’s phone. “I only sent it to Chloe. I swear we didn’t mean to hurt anyone. We just thought it was funny.”
The phone lies between them on the island, straddling the stain, sequins and glitter scattered like cinnamon. “I’m sure, sweetheart. But how did the rest of the class get it?”
Jessica shrugs and blames automation. “That’s why they call it a sharing app, Mother. Duh.”
Joyce stares at the image, Liza’s child shivering, exposed. Is this how Liza felt years ago? Slinging beers and cheeseburgers, boobs trembling, a Maddie seed already planted in her.
Seeds. Where did they get those seeds?
Jess denies that she and Chloe are growing anything more potent than lima beans. “I swear, Mom. Cross my heart and hope to die.” Her finger traces an X across her chest. Then she folds her arms and aims her chin at her mother. “Anyway, who are you to talk?”
Joyce can’t have heard right. She reaches for her ear, as if she needs to adjust her Bluetooth. “What? What did you say?”
“Oh Mother. Everyone knows about your brownies.”
“I told Chloe it would be sooo funny if you put those out for the teachers.”
For an instant, Joyce panics. Then she remembers that only the store-bought brownies made it onto her china platter.
“That is not amusing, young lady.” She hears Mrs. Farnsworth saying those exact words thirty years ago when she confiscated Joyce’s paper fortune teller.
“That’s it. No cell phone for you for the rest of the month.”
This time, her daughter isn’t laughing. Both of them grab for the phone at once. It slips away and crashes to the floor. “If anything’s broken it’s your fault,” screams Jess.
Joyce stares in disbelief. How can her child have so little empathy?
The cat, who’s been lurking in the doorway, chooses this moment to slip between them. He pounces on the phone, just the way he plays with his toy mouse, shoots it across the room and tears after it.
Jessica glares at her mother. “I should post a picture of your stupid brownies.”
Joyce claps her palms over her ears, but she can’t stop looking at this stranger, her daughter. Jessica strides to the end of the room, picks up the cat, and drops him on the counter where she knows he’s not allowed. He sniffs at the stain. The two of them, Jess and the cat, stare back at Joyce. The cat’s eyes are yellow slits, fortune tellers blinking open, shut, open, shut. Jessica’s eyes are stony gray, unforgiving as granite.
Image: Stain_1 by Sharon Leon; licensed under CC 2.0