Broken Down By Barbara L. LeMaster
The cough wracked her delicate body, causing her to shake and almost drop the half- finished cigarette that she held in her left hand. She balled her right hand into a fist and held it over her mouth as she gagged and coughed and choked. Some days she wondered if the sweet rush of nicotine in her bloodstream was worth the pain. But then her throat cleared and she continued breathing in and out, just as she had been doing for almost eighty years.

Her sharp eyes scanned the neighborhood. Her house sat on the corner of two of the busier streets and she knew almost everyone. Except the new people, the dark-skinned people who just moved into Maude's old place. Didn't know them, didn't want to. Their kind always caused trouble. Just look at what they did to L.A. in 1992.

Anyhow, her mother had brought her up proper and respectable and where she was from originally, those dark-skinned people knew their place. And fair- skinned women like her didn't in a neighborhood populate it. She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, feeling the knots and tangles. It had been days since she'd brushed her hair. Why bother? It's not as if she was getting any company. Her family couldn't be bothered with her. Didn't her son say that to her face last Thanksgiving?

--What'd I do? She asked plaintively. Her daughter-in-law turned away from her. --Mom, you have to stop.

--What'd I say?

--Mom, just let it drop, okay?

--I asked a simple question.

--Yeah, you did. But it upset Katherine and it upset me, too. So drop it.

She attempted in vain to catalog Katherine and couldn't. Katherine said she couldn't have children. What the hell was that all about? Can't have children? Honey, spread your legs and let the man plant his seed in you, and nine months later, out pops Junior. What's so hard about that? Children were a gift from God, her mother had said, and she believed it earnestly. She believed it when her son was placed on her breast and when her daughter was placed there three years later. Explain to her how an office, paperwork, and doing lunch could be an equal substitute for the unwavering love of a child.

The sun was high in the sky and shadows fell in crazy shapes across her yard. She'd have to rake the leaves this weekend, or else go a block south and pound on John Harper's door and remind him that he needed money for college and she had a yard that needed mowing and raking. She reclined in the rocker that her mother had given to her and felt sweat bead on her chest. It ran in rivulets between her breasts and onto her stomach. It glued her to the chair and she shifted uncomfortably.

"Afternoon, Miz Wilder," a voice called out.

She looked up. John Harper was riding his bicycle home from school. She nodded at him and gave a perfunctory wave. "Afternoon," she called weakly, her voice husky and deep. Sexy? She thought so. Didn't Lauren Bacall have a similar voice? Bogie and Bacall-now they could make movies: no special effects; no spaceships; no giant mutant monsters terrorizing Tokyo. Intelligent plots and pure unadulterated dialogue, crackling with sexual tension. Why didn't they make movies like that anymore? She fancied herself a Bacall look-alike in her younger years. Even wore her hair the same, although it took forever with hot rollers and a blow dryer to get the Bacall effect. But it was worth it-every second-since she had every boy in St. Catherine's drooling after her from ninth grade until graduation.

The only boy who'd captured her heart was five years older and in college. Their parents introduced them. George Rafkin, heir to a pharmaceutical company and guaranteed a six-figure salary upon his graduation from Wharton. She was eighteen; he was twenty-three. He'd just returned from an African safari and enchanted her with tales of the Serengeti and sunsets seen from a Jeep driving very fast in the opposite direction from a charging rhinoceros. She was enthralled. He loved Bogart. She looked like Bacall. Bogart and Bacall. Perfect. She stretched languidly, and a tear rolled down her cheek. Absently she wiped it away. No use crying now, she thought, it's over and done with.

John Harper sped away on his ten-speed and the afternoon stretched into early evening. She watched the fathers pulling into their driveways and being attacked by children upon opening the front door. She watched mothers pulling into driveways, laden with groceries or children or dry cleaning. She watched children scampering home for dinner or television or to play with that gadget that John had told her about last year: "Nintendo." Whatever that was. Games weren't what they used to be. Monopoly. Life. Charades. These were simple games, easy games, and fun games. Not blood and death and killer robots and whatnot. Why couldn't the simple games be played anymore?

Her cigarette extinguished in the half-full ashtray that she kept outside for such purposes she stood up and stretched. She was shrinking; there was no doubt. She used to stand five-six but now could barely reach the cupboards in her kitchen. She saw the stars twinkling faintly in the sky and the moon glowed in the southern sky. A crescent moon. Like the night that she and George danced. Another tear rolled down her cheek.

"Miz Wilder, can I aks something of you?" John stood in front of her. She jumped, not having seen him walk calmly up her driveway.

"Oh, John, you startled me," she held her heart as though she were having a coronary.

"Sorry, Miz Wilder," John apologized.

"What's your question, John?" she wondered why he was here. He was always polite to her. Not like some of the other kids who called her the Black Lung Lady. Always smoking, always watching. Some said she was a witch. She laughed it off, as much as she could.

"I's been wonderin' about the car in your yard. The blue car? It's for sale?" He looked hopeful. He was getting his driver's license this year. He pointed to the hulk under the red tarp. It had been sitting in her yard for fifteen years. A 1969 Mustang convertible. But nobody knew that. It was George's car. It had been covered ever since that night. The night they danced. And the night she lost George.

"It don't run." She said flatly.

"Maybe it needs fixin'" John said.

She once thought that everything could be fixed. Everything could be made better or improved or refreshed. But George couldn't. His parents had tried, really they had, but even military academies and business school couldn't help him. Too late, she realized that once a man sees how easy it is to rape a woman and get away with it, he'd do it again and again. Oh, she'd pressed the appropriate charges but shamed her family in the process. And damaged her chances for making a 'good' marriage, her mother had said. Damaged her chances, hell, damaged her. She was 'used goods' after that, and everyone in town knew it.

"I know's a guy who could look at it," John continued, eager as a puppy.

The cracks and tears in the back seat of the Mustang, reminders of her attempts to ward off George, were hidden under the tarp. She'd won the car from the judge after George had to sell some of his property and possessions to pay his lawyer. She vowed to follow Route 66 in this car but instead had settled down with a perfectly ordinary man and had two perfectly ordinary children. And her memories she kept under the tarp, buried, repressed and hidden.

"No, John, it's not. It's broken down."

The End