This story is by our newest regular contributor, Angela Largent. Angela decided at the age of twelve that she wanted to be a writer, but then Adult Life had its way with her. She currently lives in Wichita, Kansas, with a squirrelly cat, a cranky cat, and a happy dog. Her story “The Dinner Party” won the Grand Prize in our Winter Writing Contest. Welcome, Angela!
“Mom? Do killer whales get chapped lips?”
I paused in the act of removing the broccoli from the microwave.
“I don’t know. Do you want to volunteer to put lip balm on one?”
Eugene giggled, and I kissed his forehead. He was a quiet kid, usually lost in his own little world. He didn’t have many friends, but he hardly seemed to notice. When he was younger, he used to stare at the sky with this look of fierce concentration, like he was trying to figure out the universe. I had his IQ tested because I thought maybe his genius intellect prevented him from relating to us dolts.
Nope. Average IQ. He’s just a weird little kid.
I put fish sticks, tater tots and broccoli on the table and called Madison to dinner. She walked into the kitchen, nose in her phone, and gave the food a glance of disdain. She got out her carton of almond milk, blueberries and basket of assorted powders that her stepmother, the vegan, had given her.
I washed the damn blender four times a day. This too shall pass, I reminded myself, and she will go back to eating normal food. Meanwhile, Eugene poured ketchup over everything on his plate, including the broccoli, and dug in. Fish sticks always made him happy.
I fixed myself a cup of instant coffee while Madison constructed her smoothie. The carton of dairy milk was nearly empty and had gone sour anyway. It looked like Eugene and I would be eating toast for breakfast. I rooted around in the refrigerator and found a partial bottle of mudslide mix left from New Year’s Eve, and added a shot to my coffee.
“I’m going to go pay some bills. You guys need anything?”
The kids exchanged a look then shook their heads. I have been known to get cranky when dealing with the finances.
In my room, I sat cross-legged on the bed with my laptop and reached into the bedside drawer for my secret stash of cinnamon juju bears. I was in no mood for broccoli.
The monthly bills always inspired anxiety and dread. I have cancelled and cut back as much as I can, without making any crazy sacrifices like organic blueberries or unlimited data. Since the divorce, I have become an expert at juggling money.
Bill and I were never well-off, but we did okay. Then my husband left me for a woman named Trilby. She wasn’t named after the hat. She had been christened with her mother’s maiden name, a tradition in their family. Bill and Trilby had honored the custom with their daughter, Meade. Madison thought that was a fantastic idea and that everyone should do it, until I reminded her of my maiden name. Once in awhile I could get a smile out of her by calling her Wiggins.
Trilby was a lifestyle blogger. If you happened to be curious about whether the consumption of spirulina changes the flavor of breast milk, then she wrote the blog for you. I had no idea how much she brought in, but I suspected it was more than me. I was a customer service representative, that person whom you yell at because you are not allowed access to the rat bastard who is actually responsible for causing your problem.
I bit down on a cinnamon bear and winced. I had a tooth that had been throbbing off and on for a few weeks. Per our divorce decree, Bill carried the insurance for the children and I was responsible for my own. The children had excellent dental insurance; I had none. When I complained, Bill told me to floss.
This tooth already had a couple of fillings and the dentist had warned me that it would eventually need a crown, and probably a root canal. I simply didn’t have a few thousand dollars to spend on a tooth.
Both of my children had birthdays next month. I had resorted to taking surveys online to try to earn gift cards to help with their presents. Eugene would be easy. He had his heart set on a telescope. A quick check online revealed that I could get one for somewhere between fifty bucks and five thousand dollars. I needed to do a bit more research.
Bill is going to take him on a weekend trip to Chicago to visit the planetarium. Trilby thought that was a great idea, as she could go along and do some shopping, so the trip would probably happen without requiring any “gentle reminders” from me.
Madison will be turning Sweet Sixteen. Luckily for me, she wanted a small, exclusive party. I planned to rent a hotel suite downtown. Beyond that, we hadn’t worked out the details. She sneered at every suggestion I offered. I had no idea how it happened, but Madison was that girl who could show up to school in a misbuttoned shirt, and by the end of day, six other girls would have copied her. She would come up with something singular and unforgettable for her party theme. I only hoped I could afford it.
Months ago, without consulting me, Bill promised to buy Madison a car for her birthday. The thought made me ill. Not the idea of my child driving, though that was hard to stomach, but the certainty that Bill was going to back out of his promise and break Madison’s heart. He would find some way to blame me. If only I were more responsible and didn’t allow hail to damage the roof or the twenty-year-old hot water heater to break down, then maybe he would be able to afford a car.
This house was small and old. When Bill and I bought it we only had one child, so it seemed adequate. We had grand plans to fix the place up and sell it at a profit, then buy a beautiful house in an up-and-coming neighborhood. I used to flip through decorating magazines in search of the perfect kitchen and en suite spa bath.
Bill and Trilby lived in my dream house. I was still in the one bathroom starter home. At least it was an okay neighborhood. Not fancy by any stretch, but safe. I was grateful for that.
I opened my laptop and avoided the bills for just a little bit longer by scrolling through the daily news stories. The police had busted up a local prostitution ring. I squinted at the pictures. That woman didn’t look anything like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. She was short and dumpy, with bad skin.
I sat back. Maybe I could be a prostitute. A few regulars at the Best Western. How much would that bring in? I’d have to wax, though. Ugh. I looked at the picture again. She didn’t look like she waxed.
Enough stalling. I watched my checking account dwindle as I made my way through the vultures who thought they deserved my money. I was in the process of paying the electric bill when my laptop decided to reboot itself and download updates. While I waited, I wandered into the kitchen.
The children were both in their bedrooms, probably looking at one screen or another. Neither had bothered to clean up dinner. I put away the leftover food and loaded the dishwasher. After rinsing the blender, I filled it with ice and mudslide mix. Normally I am not much of a drinker, but I told myself that another cup of coffee would keep me up all night.
I had discovered mudslides during my first New Year’s Eve with Bill. He had surprised me with a trip to New York so we could ring in the New Year at Times Square, but it turned out to be so cold that we went back to the hotel and watched the ball drop on the TV at the hotel bar.
We ended up chatting with another couple who had also taken refuge from the weather. The wife asked me what Bill did for a living. He was a financial analyst, but I was never sure how to explain that job to people, so I told her that he laundered money. He overheard and nearly did a spit take. That was back when he still thought I was funny.
Now Bill was a senior financial analyst, in charge of the department. That’s what happens when you marry the boss’s daughter. Sometimes I felt bad for him. I think he got in over his head with Trilby, and now he was stuck keeping her in the style to which she was accustomed. Organic, free range, locally sourced tofu doesn’t come cheap. His new family always got priority over us, but he genuinely tried to keep everyone happy.
I sighed. It was time to make the call. I took my drink back to the bedroom and picked up my phone.
“Can this wait?” Bill answered. “I’m in the middle of something.”
“I’ll make it quick. I was wondering if you had started looking at cars for Madison yet.”
There was a moment of silence on the line.
“About that,” he said. “Now isn’t really a good time for that kind of expenditure. You know that Trilby and I are looking for a manufacturer for her line of tinctures. And we’re also starting to look at preschools.”
“Meade is only six months old.”
“You have to start early,” he explained, like I had never raised a child. “Why don’t you buy her the car? Why am I always responsible for this stuff?”
“Actually, I’m glad you hadn’t started looking yet. I was talking to my father last night and he doesn’t think that Madison should have a car yet.”
“Oh really,” Bill said, drawing the words out.
“He thinks she’s too young. He said that if we wait, he’ll buy her a car when she turns eighteen.”
“That’s probably for the best, since neither of us can afford a car right now.”
“I’m not even married to you anymore and your father is still interfering in my life.”
“Pardon?” I said, surprised. “I thought you’d be happy.”
“Your father never thought I was good enough for you. I remember how he used to slip you those checks every year at Christmas, like I was some kind of loser. He’s not going to buy Madison, too,” he said, his volume increasing with each word. “I can provide for my own family. I will buy my daughter a car. This year. He doesn’t get to decide when she’s old enough. She’s my daughter.”
“Okay,” I said meekly. “If that’s what you want.”
“Tell your father to mind his own damn business. I’ll start looking at cars this weekend.”
“Okay. If you say so. You’re a good dad,” I assured him.
“Damn right, I’m a good dad. I need to go now.”
We disconnected and I took a sip of my drink, settling back against the pillows.
I hadn’t spoken to my father in months.