Jilleen is in the garden, her narrow bare feet mired in mud. Blackbirds jeer from the twisted limbs of a box elder tree, cocking their shiny heads this way and that. Ignoring them, Jilleen pulls one foot free and straddles a clump of rhubarb that has pushed through the erratic warm-ups and freeze-downs of a South Dakota spring. The cawing stops. Fat-bodied birds rise as one and wing shudders through the still morning air. Jilleen watches them swoop across the alley, across train tracks that segregate west hill residents from Aberdeen’s greater twenty-five thousand, and when they disappear beyond the smokestacks of Cass Clay Creamery, she turns her attention back to the rhubarb. It is knee-high. Sturdy. Daybreak dew shimmers along leaves like dropped pearls, though she pays the gems no mind as she slips a knife from her sweatshirt pouch and severs a crisp, ruby spear.
“Normal, act normal,” she silently chants, in case Rick is awake and spying from a window. Any telltale movement could tip him off. She flings the spear at a bushel basket and starts working down the row, her escape plan twisting like a whirly wind behind cat-green eyes. The rhythm of slicing and tossing sorts details, spins them off one by one. First, she needs Rick’s car. He hardly ever trusts her with it. But last night, after her performance of oh yeses and love spasms, he agreed she could drop him at work today and collect his hard-earned pay, race it to the bank before their rent check bounces. Nazi landlord’s threatening eviction, she told Rick, for insurance.
A door slams. Her gut flip-flops, though she stays on task as she sneaks a peek at a little A-frame house. There’s no Rick charging out the back door but the neighbor’s Doberman is full throttle, teeth bared. She pitches the knife. It arcs up and over the garden, lands quivering in grass centimeters from a pounding paw, and the dog makes a U-turn, bounds back to the neighbor’s yard. It stands there. Watching. Low growl, rippling muscle.
Jilleen picks up the bushel basket and walks sideways toward the house, keeping the Doberman under surveillance but avoiding its glassy eyes. Knees trembling, she trudges up the back stoop.
Dodging Rick won’t be as easy. He’ll be name-calling, face-spitting mad when he realizes what she’s done. Figure she’s hiding out at her parents—like they can offer anything she wants. No. She’ll take the cash and the kids and make a run through the Jim River Valley, mile after mile of flat worrisome fields, sprouting a crop cover so new it couldn’t even hide a rabbit. But once the valley is no more than a snapshot in her rearview, she’ll rise up into the Lakota Hills. A place of coots and coulees and foxes.
By seven-thirty Jilleen is chopping bite-size chunks of rhubarb into a sink of cold water. A dozen dough-lined tins crowd the counter. Every Friday she delivers pies to Fritz Market, rhubarb in spring, lemon meringue and wild chokecherry through the dog days of summer, and come September, pumpkin and spiced apple. Today’s batch is a decoy and, fingers crossed, won’t make it as far as the oven.
Jilleen glances over a shoulder at her seven-year-old son, Tyler. Soft sandy hair falls across his brow as he arranges then rearranges plastic cereal bowls on Formica. The table is a Goodwill find and bears the gouges and chips of the family who dumped it there. Tyler positions a box of Cheerios over a burn scar, then turns to his little sister and says, “Can you count the bowls?”
Maggie-Mae bounces around the table, smearing a thumb-smudge in each bowl.
“Four,” she squeals. “Same as me.”
“Pipe down!” Rick steps from the slant-floored bathroom into the kitchen, his shirt unbuttoned, flaunting a working man’s chest. He gives the radio dial a spin.
“River walleyes feasting,” a voice announces, “biting on worms to red spinners.”
“For every lucky bastard but me.” Rick tugs at his shirt pocket until a Brown County Roadworker logo rips free. He comes up behind Jilleen and shoves it down the front of her jeans.
Spoons clatter across linoleum.
Jilleen squirms, but Rick keeps her pinned against porcelain. He screws his head around and watches Tyler retrieve the spoons. “Go ahead, boy,” he says. “Tell your mamma what I do all day.”
Jilleen stares out the window above the sink. The lawn is awash with purple-cupped crocus, and the barberry bushes she planted around her garden to deter stray cats and unleashed dogs have shed winter’s hold. But the lone box elder tree is half dead, and the blackbirds are back, embedded like locusts along bare limbs. Beaks open and close but she can’t hear their taunt. And then she hears Maggie-Mae recite, “Daddy shovels pot holes full of tar cinder so the rich farmer boys can rip ’em up again with their big ass tractors.”
“At least someone in this house understands.” Rick holds up a hand and Maggie jumps to high-five it. Then he reaches around Jilleen and snatches the phone receiver from the wall, pokes her in the back with it. She knows what he wants. The same thing she does. An escape from drudgery. But she can’t grant him that today—she can’t call his supervisor with another excuse for another absence. Not today. Today she needs Rick tethered under a ten-hour work load.
The phone continues pressing.
“Rent check’s gonna bounce, Hon,” she says.
Rick drops the phone in a doughy tin. Jilleen slumps forward as he backs away, a fall of chestnut hair hiding lips pressed tight. She hears coffee glug into a thermos, the clink of keys that ride from a chain at Rick’s hip.
When the back door slams shut, she swings back her hair and resumes chopping rhubarb. Fiery chunks drop left and right, skip across water and bounce airborne. From the window she can see Rick slide behind the wheel of his ’65 Mustang—his three-hundred dollar steal, a ten-year-old-rusted-out wreck purchased with her pie savings. The Mustang roars to a start spitting yellow fumes, stalls, fires again. At the squeal of tires fishtailing down the alley she winces, her escape exploding in her head like spewed gravel, and her knife slices through fruit into flesh.
“Shit,” she yelps.
“Shit,” Maggie-Mae parrots.
Jilleen plunges her hand in the sink, feels Tyler press against her hip as clear water turns red as the rhubarb.
“You need stitches,” he says.
She holds up a bloody index finger, wraps a dishrag around it.
“That’s not clean. My teacher says you gotta wash cuts with a special soap.”
“Get your butt to school.”
Tyler slips out the back door. Jilleen crosses into the living room, her step sullen, weighted with defeat. She lifts a curtain fashioned from two wash clothes and looks out the front door window, watches Tyler sprint across Fifth Street, then check his pace, keeping well behind a group of jostling boys. One of them turns around and flips Tyler the finger.
Jilleen bumps her forehead against the window, wishing Tyler would just this once bust through their bully-boy barricade and blind them with moxie. The kind her daddy tried to slap out of her. But Tyler has never seen her fierce. Not when it counts. That part went underground when her eyes first rested on Rick. He was sitting on a stool up to the bar at the Idle Hour. She, underage and adrift on Columbian Gold, had stood charmed by a snake inked around his left bicep.
“That’s where a rattler bit me,” Rick said, offering her a closer look.
“Don’t see any fang marks,” she taunted, and the soft molasses in Rick’s eyes fell away, replaced by something dark and thrilling and treacherous as black ice on pavement. He turned on the barstool and she stepped between his knees. She could smell the wind in his hair, the spice of his skin. When his lips swelled around hers she knew, if she wanted him, her tongue had better melt like cotton candy on his.
Jilleen backs away from the window and trips over Maggie-Mae, who is camped in front of the TV, sucking a thumb and watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. She slaps the thumb out of Maggie’s mouth, looks away from tears welling in rounded eyes.
“Mommy will be right back,” she chokes out.
It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood floats from the TV as Jilleen navigates ladder-like steps to the basement. At the bottom, gritty light filters through high windows, and the concrete floor is uneven, heaved up in cracks. She bumps against the clothes dryer, useless since January but a safe place for stashing a garbage bag stuffed with her and the kids’ getaway clothes. She contemplates returning them to drawers, then reaches up and gives the overhead bulb a half-turn. A row of cubicles pops into view. They house Rick’s fishing tackle, meticulously sorted and labeled, rainbow colored lures and red bobbers, rubbery worms, plastic minnows, shiny spinners rigged to hooks that dangle silent and deadly. Rick’s fishing rods hang against the cement wall, snugged like pool cues in velvet-lined nooks. She notes that two of them are missing. Christ. He never intended she could drop him at work this morning. And now she’s supposed to high-tail it upstairs and dial Peek, the giver and taker of sick pay, who buys her lame excuses because once, under a high-top down at the Silver Dollar, she let his sweaty hand creep up her thigh. Rick was there too, his back to her, holding court up to the bar, bragging how he’d hooked a trophy walleye.
“You got to know how a silver-scaled beauty thinks,” Rick said, as Peek’s fingers inched closer to her panties. “When she hits you set the hook.” Rick jerked his phantom rod. “And you let her run out your line to exhaustion.” Then he turned around and stared straight at her, made like he was reeling her in, and she rose, slipping free of Peek. She had put on quite a show, weaving this way and that through the crowd, who toasted her with Bud bottles held high as she snuggled up to Rick.
Jilleen’s hand juts inside a cubicle and pulls out a box of matches. She fumbles it open. Match sticks scatter. And two fat doobies roll out. She plants one between her lips, strikes a match to cement. Inhales the joint to a stub. Sunday, she’s thinking. Rick won’t show up until late Sunday, full of beer and smiles and toting a cooler of walleye for her to gut and fry up for supper. Would serve him right if she didn’t call Peek.
She pockets the second joint, then drifts back upstairs. The phone hangs against the wall like a thick, black commandment. She’s reaching for it when it rings, tolling seven times before she cradles receiver between cheek and shoulder. It’s Rick.
“I already called Peek,” she blurts out.
“So did the kids give me the puking flu or strep throat? Hooting laughter comes from the background, and she figures he’s in some Missouri River dive, chasing tequila shots with red beer.
“Food poisoning,” she says.
“Good one, Jilly.”
“When do you think you might maybe be home?” she says.
“Why? Does Jilly have somewhere she needs to be?”
Her heart skips. But her voice is smooth as whipped butter as she says, “No place other than the bank.”
“Fuck the landlord. I’m taking my Sweet Jilly out tomorrow night.”
“Hang up lover boy,” someone shouts, and the line goes dead.
A tiny grin plays at Jilleen’s lips. A night out means writing another rubber check, even more reason for Rick to hand over his car keys and paycheck Monday morning. And Monday is just as good as today, she tells herself. It’s only another seventy-two hours, and Rick probably won’t be home until tomorrow, so she’ll only have to pacify him for forty-eight. She’s gotten good at faking it, but the thought of Rick’s eyes, those dark pits that once thrilled, another marathon night—there’s not enough weed in the world to numb that task.
The dishrag wrapped finger throbs as she dials Peek and tells him both her and Rick are coughing up green chunks.
“Lot of that going around,” Peek drawls, and adds it’s not her lips but her sweet ass that makes him hard.
She bangs phone back in its cradle and the dishrag falls from her finger. Blood spurts. She ducks in the bathroom and swings open a metal cabinet door, grabs out a bottle of rubbing alcohol, gasping at the burn as her finger dunks into the bottle.
After binding her wound in white gauze and adhesive tape, Jilleen digs Rick’s work logo out of her jeans. It slips from shaky fingers, takes a beeline for the toilet. She thinks about fishing it out. Then flushes. Rick will drink harder than ever once she’s gone. Skip work. And without her as a buffer Peek will can his sorry ass. Her legs go weak, and the toilet slips sideways as she eases down into the empty tub. Cold porcelain presses through her sweatshirt, and the fate she’s forcing on Rick rips like jagged ice through her veins.
“Man knocking! Man knocking!” Maggie-Mae skips into the bathroom.
Jilleen reaches out and clamps a hand over Maggie’s mouth. “Stay put,” she whispers, and scrambles out of the tub. She takes a deep breath, then creeps into the kitchen, hugs against the staircase that zigzags up to the kids’ attic bedroom. She pokes her head out an inch or so, thinking the Jehovah Witness who prowls west hill every other day has come to damn her. But it’s Leo, a bartender down at the Silver Dollar, famous for selling dime bags of weed taped to the bottom of a Budweiser. He has his big hairy face pressed against the backdoor window. She jerks back but he sees her and pounds harder.
Jilleen opens the door.
“The old man still sleeping?” Leo stands in a pool of hard sun. She shields her eyes. He squints at her bandage, and she lets him think its Rick’s fault, though Rick has never hurt her that way. Then Leo tilts his head and peers over her shoulder, like Rick is hiding behind the door or something.
“He’s at work,” she says.
“He was to meet me in front of The Dollar at nine.”
Leo shoots tobacco spit at her feet. “Tell Ricky boy the weed he’s selling those crazy-ass west river cowboys belongs to me.” He steps close, so close she can smell his brown teeth. “Seems you owe me a couple a dimes too.”
“I want a dime.” Maggie-Mae shoots around Jilleen.
Leo grins. “Kid sounds like you.” He fishes a coin from his pocket and flips it in the air. Maggie jumps. But Jilleen catches her mid-leap and shoves her inside.
“Nice save,” Leo says.
Jilleen kicks the door shut. She spins around and marches to the sink, starts one-handing blood-spiked rhubarb into the dough-lined tins. The pies will net thirty bucks. And if Leo should darken her door again before Monday, she’ll zero him out, too.
By two-thirty, fluted crusts are golden brown and pink, syrupy juice oozes from V-slits. Jilleen foil wraps the pies, stacks them in racks. Half an hour later Tyler gets home from school and helps her bungee-strap them in his radio flyer wagon. She dreads delivery. Fritz Market is only four blocks down, but Rick’s sister, Mona, works behind its only counter, scrutinizing everything that goes out and comes in, and Jilleen fears the scent of flight is on her so strong that Mona will take one whiff and somehow, some way, alert her baby brother.
“You’re old enough to deliver these on your own,” she tells Tyler.
“Aunt Mona’s gonna ask where you are.”
“Tell her I cut my finger half off.” She wheels the wagon around to the front of the house, Maggie-Mae at her heels, chanting “Ice cream, ice cream. I need ice cream.”
At the curb, Jilleen hands Tyler the handle. “You can buy a treat,” she says, then watches until he crosses the first intersection, one hand clutching Maggie’s, the other pulling his load.
Back in the house, Jilleen fingers the doobie in her pocket, lights a Marlboro instead. One puff and she stubs it in an ashtray etched with Lightening Motel around its lip. The Lightening is five or six blocks from their house, sandwiched between a used car lot and Speedy’s Tires on Sixth Avenue. The ashtray is a souvenir. Rick is the one who thought to filch it. She’d had her head in the toilet, wishing she was at the homecoming kegger with the rest of her senior class, vomiting beer instead of wedding cake. Rick was leaning against the bathroom door, watching her.
“Thought when you’re preggers you only toss your cookies in the morning,” he said. He pressed a cold washcloth to her forehead, sat with her on the cold tiled floor, tried to distract her with silly baby names—Boy Goop, Tommy Toot, Vince Vomit.
“It’s probably a girl,” she said between up-chucks.
Rick pressed his cheek to her stomach. “Then her name is Maggie-Mae.”
Jilleen stares at the ashtray. Her eyes blur, and one tear escapes and burns down her cheek. She swipes it away and pulls the doobie out of her pocket, allows herself one long, honeyed drag. Then she wraps herself in a green afghan and falls asleep on the couch. Images dart through dream, blend, break apart. A baby shoots out between legs. Blood streaks the horizon, runs red rivers down grassy hills. Lips tug at her breast and a nipple swells, grows purple wings. Bam! Daddy kicks her head. Rick binds it in white gauze and adhesive tape.
Jilleen kicks off the afghan, gasping for breath. A strawberry floats above her. She blinks but the berry persists, morphs into a red pincushion dangling from the ceiling. Rick is the one who tacked it up there, when Maggie-Mae had pinkeye, and Maggie had looked up at it, her body quiet with trust, while Rick dropped medicine in her hot sticky eyes.
Jilleen groans and rolls onto her side, comes eye to eye with Tyler and Maggie-Mae. They are sitting cross-legged on the floor, in a ray of dying sun, Maggie’s mouth a smear of fudge-swirl ice cream.
“I told Aunt Mona you were sick,” Tyler says.
Jilleen jerks upright. “Is she coming over?”
“Naw,” Maggie says. “Green puke too scary.”
Tyler pulls two tens and four ones from his back pocket and fans out the bills on the floor like a lottery win. He is short six bucks.
“Ice cream doesn’t cost that much,” Jilleen says. “Show me your pockets.”
He stands and she pulls his pockets inside out, finds a hole in the left one. “Christ, Tyler! You don’t put money in a pocket that’s got a goddamn hole in it.”
Tyler hangs his head, shuffles into the kitchen. Jilleen dogs him, hating how his shoulders are slumped. “Stupid carelessness,” she says. “Plain old not-paying-attention dumb.
“More ice cream,” Maggie-Mae demands.
Jilleen grabs the bowl out of Maggie’s hands and gives it a hurl. Thump. It bounces off Tyler’s back. He pauses, then darts up the stairs. And she is leaping onto the second step when, from the corner of one eye, she sees a package of wieners and a box of macaroni and cheese on the kitchen counter, Tyler’s offering for his wounded mommy, and she crumples.
Maggie squeezes in beside her on the stairs. “Tyler’s naughty.”
“No, baby, no.”
Jilleen goes over to the stove and boils up the macaroni, adds milk and butter and the powdered cheese, drops in a couple of chopped wieners. She calls up the stairs, “Supper’s ready.”
Tyler stays silent.
Around ten Jilleen tucks Maggie-Mae in the bottom bunk, then climbs to the second rung on the ladder and peers into the top one. Streetlight beams through the window and she can see Tyler is facing the wall. She lays a hand on his narrow back.
“What say we take a vacation?” she says.
Tyler chokes back snot. “Is Daddy gonna come?”
“Not this time.”
“Do we have to stay with Grandpa and Grandma, like last summer?”
“I was thinking of a high place, where there’s deer and raccoons and coyotes. A lake, too. Maybe even fireflies. We can catch them in a jar and they can be your very own flashlight.”
Tyler turns over and looks up at her. “Okay,” he says.
Jilleen goes to bed around midnight but can’t sleep. Her eyes fix on the Christmas tree nightlight Tyler gave her. It burns red up the wall. Minutes tick by slow as eternity, and the ease she craves, that place where her mind stops pacing like a caged tiger, dances beyond her. She jumps out of bed and ties on the fluffy white robe she’d pilfered from JC Penny. She tiptoes through the living room, retrieving the doobie from the ashtray. The back door squeaks as she eases it open and she pauses, cocks her head at the stairs. When no one calls down Mommy, she steps out on the back stoop.
The stars drift high and dim, not like last night, when they shimmered like silver and floated so close it felt like she could grab hold of their shine and ride it to the moon. Once, at a block kegger, a neighbor told her that his people float up the Milky Way when they die, and a crone who lives in the little dipper’s cup throws their ascending asses back to earth. She asked the old warrior if they landed in a better place, and Rick scowled, told her she was full of shit.
Jilleen lies down across the stoop’s hard length, searches the night sky. A cloud boils up and inks out the moon, and the only indication she is even there comes from the red-tipped doobie traveling back and forth from her lips. She imagines zooming towards the little dipper, her little A-frame house fading to a pin dot, and then she’s falling, falling—
Tires crunch on gravel.
She rolls to a crouch, caught in the glare of headlights. A dark silhouette stomps through her garden, through grass. A boot kicks her knee.
“How fucking far did you think you’d get?” Rick’s spit sizzles down her cheek. He stumbles over her, rips open the back door, and she hears him crash down the basement stairs. Instinct shouts run. But she waits, feet frozen to cement.
Whack! Something soft but huge slaps her off the stoop. And she’s on her back, the kids’ jeans and jammies and t-shirts raining down like dead stars. And then she’s tumbling, end over end, Rick’s mouth clamped on hers. Whiskey-breath smothers, chokes down her throat. She bites.
“Bitch!” Rick cries.
They roll faster. Tearing up grass, beheading the purple-cupped crocus. Thorny barberry strips off her robe, digs red furrows up her legs. And still they roll, snarling and clawing like feral cats. Thump. Her back strikes bark, and she’s cartwheeling over Rick’s head, soaring towards stars that wink like fireflies along the shore of a glacial lake.
But gravity spews her nose deep in mud. She heaves up to her hands and knees and starts crawling. Rhubarb stalks bend and snap, weeping raw juice that burns her crimson. She hears Rick sobbing, “Don’t run, Jilly. Don’t run.” And her mind short-circuits to that place where there is no pain, no judgment, just a long, inhale of nothing.
Laretta Andrews Mitchell: “A freshman comp professor once told me I wrote well. That was thirty years ago. I was thirty-three, and, shortly after, I dropped out of college. But nights when sleep eluded I would listen to the coyotes howl, their yips floating from behind the barn, and scenes would rattle in my head. ‘Blood-Spiked Rhubarb’ is my first published story.”
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: For me, writing always erupts from character. I saw Jilleen, in the garden, and I knew she had a secret. Beyond that it came from eavesdropping and observation, of the imagined and the real.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Louise Erdrich, William Styron, A. Mannette Ansay, Wallace Stegner, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tobias Wolff, Susan Power, Pam Houston, Alice Hoffman, Willa Cather, and the list goes on. I’ve spent many hours in pages where time stood still, where I was transported into other worlds, other bodies.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: The Cayman Islands. Or a heated nook in my garage, and, in summer, my gazebo.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: Meryl Streep; she is believable in any role, though I fear I’m not as convincing. My roles bump together, break apart, and then coalesce into an ever changing collage as mysterious and full of fancy as sunrise on the prairie.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A series of short stories that are linked by location—South Dakota—and people who toy with or live on the fringe. Also, I’m thinking of developing “Blood-Spiked Rhubarb” into a novel.