Jill Churchill

Grime and Punishment


The alarm went off at 6:10 A.M.

There had been a time when Jane Jeffry 'hit the deck running.' But that was ten years ago, back in the days when the children were small and she still held the naive belief that motherhood had an achievable standard of perfection.

But since then, she'd learned that children don't necessarily grow up warped just because Mom can't find it in her heart to be peppy and bright before the sun has come up. They aren't exactly treasures themselves in the early hours. The most important thing she'd learned over the years was that there was no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one. 'Hitting the decks running' wasn't a requirement.

She staggered to the bathroom and tried not to meet her own gaze in the mirror. Bathrooms should never be equipped with mirrors or lighting fixtures after their tenants passed the age of thirty, she felt. She peeled off her T- shirt-style nightgown that said 'Somebody in Chicagoloves me' across the front. The kids had given it to her for her birthday.

As she came out she met her daughter Kate coming in. 'I'm out of toothpaste.' The thirteen-year-old's grieved tone suggested that her mother had deliberately squeezed out the last bit just to inconvenience her. 'Mom, aren't you ready yet? I'll be late.'

“Katie, it's only 6:15 in the morning. That's not late by anybody's standards. There's not a single thing of importance that's ever happened this early. Ever. In the whole history of the world,' Jane said, slipping into a pair of jeans.

“Oh, Mother!'

Hold it! Give that toothpaste back. Are Todd and Mike up and moving?'

“I don't know. Are you really wearing that?”

Jane looked down at the sweat shirt she'd pulled over her head. No stains, no frays, no messages, obscene or otherwise. 'Why not? Who's to care?'

“Everybody'll see you!' Katie wailed.

“Katie, 'everybody' is a bunch of other half-asleep mothers who have also stupidly allowed themselves to be dragged into the cheerleading practice car pool. We'll all be ashamed of ourselves. There is no eye contact in the junior high parking lot at 6:30 A.M. Take my word for it.'

“Ellen Elden's mother always has on makeup and a skirt.”

It was Jane's opinion that Ellen Elden's mother didn't have the sense God gave a macadamia nut. If she did, she'd have given her daughter a sensible name instead of something that sounded like a musical tongue twister.

“Put that toothpaste back where you found it. With the cap on,' Jane warned as she hastily dragged the bedclothes back into order. Tomorrow, when she tried out the new cleaning lady, she'd strip the bed. Maybe the woman would be able to do a neater job of putting it together than she could. Somehow the bed had never gotten into this kind of mess when she was sharing it with her husband Steve, not even when they made love. Of course, if they'd made love in such a way as to wreck the bed, he might still be in it.

Seven months now, and she still couldn't get through a day without thinking about him.

She was ready to go downstairs, but paused for a minute before starting down and listened suspiciously to the quiet. She could hear Mike's alarm buzzing faintly and banged on his door. 'Rise and shine, kiddo! You've got marching band practice before school,' she shouted, waited for the answering groan, then went to the next room. This door wasn't closed. It was Todd's room, and he hadn't reached the age where he wanted to shut his mother out. In fact, given half a chance, he'd have just camped out at the foot of Jane's bed and abandoned his own room altogether. During thunderstorms this was, in fact, her ten-year-old son's modus operandi.

She gazed fondly at him for a minute. 'Todd, honey, time to get up,' she said, ruffling his blond hair. Willard, their big yellow dog, was sleeping between Todd and the wall. Belly up, paws the size of coffee mugs stuck straight into the air, he thumped his tail and made a pleasant dog groan in greeting.

“MOTHER!' Katie shouted from downstairs. 'Yes, yes.”

As she flew through the kitchen, Jane noticed that Katie had spilled some milk on the counter (which one of the cats was obligingly licking up), left the donut box open, and hadn't put the carton of orange juice back in the refrigerator. Oh, well, the boys would just mess it up again by the time she got back, she thought as she rummaged in her purse for the car keys.

Katie was in the station wagon, waiting impatiently. The garage door was still closed. Jane got in the car, adjusted the rearview mirror and latched her seat belt, then sat back. 'Someone needs to open that door. You didn't think about that, I guess, as you walked by it.'

“Oh, Mother,' Katie said, getting back out with a world-weary sigh. This was something they had gone through nearly every morning last school year. Somehow Jane had hoped this year would be different.

On the way to school, Katie reopened a too-familiar subject. 'It's our allowance day, remember?'

“Uh-huh,' Jane said, stopping behind a trash truck that was stopped in the center of the road to facilitate loading from both sides. Jane smiled. Once last year her friend Shelley had gotten stuck behind one of these smelly, inconsiderate monsters that was halted in front of her own house blocking traffic. Already running late, Shelley had laid on the horn, and when the driver leaned out and made a rude gesture, Shelley had promptly pulled around the truck, right through her yard, and left the trash men gaping with surprise. Jane had often wanted to do the same, but driving through somebody else's yard might not make her very popular with the neighbors.

“You're giving me an extra ten dollars, remember?'

“I am? What for?' Jane asked, tapping her fingers on the wheel and craning her neck to see what they were doing that took so long. One of the trashmen was riffling casually through a stack of Playboys that someone had tried to throw away.

“The tanning sessions.”

Jane honked the horn. 'No way.'

“But you promised!'

I didn't promise. I said I'd think about it. I have. It's too much money, and dangerous besides.'

“Dangerous!' Katie scoffed.

“You'd have skin cancer by the time you're thirty-five.”

Katie flounced magnificently. 'Thirty-five!Who cares by then?'

“You will. And you'll blame me.'

“Oh, Mother! I'll be the color of a polar bear by November if I don't go.'

“No-go, kid. Sorry.”

The trash truck finally pulled over, and Jane realized it was because they'd blocked a businessman who'd come from the opposite direction. He was worth moving for. 'Male chauvinist pigs!' Jane muttered.

She joined the line of station wagons disgorg? ing girls in front of the junior high. Jane discovered that her predictions about there being no social contact this early were wrong. School had only been in session for three rainy autumn days, and this was the first sunny morning. Today, several of the women were out of their cars, chatting with each other. Two were dressed in sporty tennis dresses and carrying rackets. Katie glanced at them and then raked her mother with an I-told-you-so glare. 'Out!' Jane ordered.

“Think about the tanning sessions, Mom.”

“I have. No. Close the door.”

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