Karen leaned back in her chair, watching a fat black fly circle lazily around the dusty broken fan. She dimly heard her mother's voice above the soothing drone of the cicadas in the field outside. The older woman had her back to her daughter, peeling potatoes into the sink with an old rusty peeler in her right hand. The bright orange sunlight that streamed into the west window illuminated her faded yellow checked apron, making the old cotton look momentarily new.
"Fannie Wright, you remember, from our church? Her son just got married last month and now they're going to Cancun for three weeks"
"Wow. That's cool, Mom"
"Oh I know! It's so romantic! He's in the Coast Guard and his new wife works as a nursing assistant at that home you used to volunteer at. What was it"
"That's right, the Meadows. Anyway, she's just the sweetest young lady. Very smart, too."
Karen didn't have a reply to that. She never knew exactly what to say during these conversations. What could she possibly add? That Taylor Marsh, the girl who'd married Mrs. Wright's son, was an incomparable bitch who'd never known an original thought? That she'd almost been caught with a joint in her junior year at high school but had slipped the weed into Karen's hand at the last moment? That she had long shiny hair that Karen used to covet incessantly, and that she would flip flirtatiously when she talked? Or maybe that she'd spent the whole of her senior prom out behind the school getting felt up by Mr. Lake the Science teacher, who died a year later in his sleep and was found by his six-year old daughter? No, she had nothing to say.
"That's good, Mom. Yeah, she's nice."
The potatoes were peeled and rinsed, the starchy water running off them and down the rusty drain. Karen's mother picked up the green plastic-handled paring knife and began to slice the white vegetables lengthwise, then across, dicing them thinly and plopping them into a cast iron pot of water on the stove nearby. This done, she began to skin a carrot, long curls of violent orange root falling onto the chipped ceramic countertop. The peeler made a metallic sound every time the woman slid it down the length of the carrot.
A peeling fell into the sink.
Another. The fat black fly landed upside-down right above Karen's chair. She wondered if it was watching her. Wondered if it was afraid of her, of the red plastic flyswatter that hung from a nail next to the refridgerator covered in the dried guts of its whole family. Karen wouldn't use it, she hated killing things. But the fly on the ceiling didn't know that. She was just another gigantic sack of hair and meat that couldn't get off the ground.
"It's going to be another hot night tonight. I'll have your father get the fans out of the attic and put one in your window. If we turn it so it's blowing out, it will push the hot air outside"
Karen always let her mother put the fan in the way she wanted, then changed it later on during the night to draw in the cool breeze. She liked the smell of the meadow and the way the thrumming of the fanblades lulled her to sleep. Sometimes she would shut the fan off alltogether and kneel in front of the window, watching the fireflies (her mother called them lightening bugs) moving through the dusk, vanishing for a few moments, then reappearing a few feet farther away. And the stars that looked like them but didn't move. Karen sometimes thought it must be confusing to the fireflies to see those little lights above the trees that could never be reached.
Her mother finished with the carrots and put them into the roasting pan with the side of beef and the little pearl onions, then slid the speckled blue metal coffin into the hot oven. Soon the whole house would be filled with the greasy cooking smell, mixing with the scents of Pinsol and cat litter and the sweet perfume from the little bowls of potpourri that her mother liked to set everywhere. Once in awhile Ralph the cat would eat some of the little wooden flowers and puke on the rug. Karen always had to clean it up, but she didn't mind. It seemed like a small price to pay to have the podgy little grey animal around.
"Well now, we'll just let that cook until your father gets home. Then we'll have a nice dinner all together. How does that sound"
"Good. You should get to that weeding pretty soon if you want to finish it before the rain comes"
Karen let herself out the screen door. It emitted a soft squeak when it shut behind her. The paint on the wooden steps outside used to be a warm cream, but years of storms and sunlight and feet pounding up and down had weathered them to a dusty gray. She walked down the dirt path that led to the ramshackle old garden behind the red-painted shed with the cast iron weathervane on the roof in the shape of a rooster. The garden was more weed than vegetable, but Karen fell to her knees in the crackling brown grass and set to on the impossible task anyway. The green fronds were tough, and they left wet green trails on her hands as she tugged them out of the dry ground. There were small holes in the knees of her jeans through which the sandy earth slipped, making her itch just a little. Karen ignored the sensation. She was careful not to kneel on the small piles of sand near the haphazard tomato plants. That was where the little brown ants lived. Sometimes she would come outside and sprinkle a handful of sugar on the hills just to watch the tiny creatures pour out of their carefully crafted sand-heaps to gather the individual grains of sweetener.
The weeding was hard. Some of the plants had deep roots that did not want to come out of the ground. They'd spent years burrowing down to where the still waters lay underneath the garden. Drinking, growing, thinking dark planty thoughts perhaps. Karen wondered if the weeds envied the tomato plants, if they had minds that could conceive of the care shown to one kind of plant over another. She sat back on her heels, dropping a freshly-picked weed to the ground next to her.
A drop of rain splashed into the dirt, scattering a myriad of tiny grains. Every drop that fell must seem like a meteor to the little ants. But the garden needed the water, craved it. The grass was brown for want of the sweet liquid manna from heaven.
Karen began to work in earnest, pulling weeds out of the ground in a mindless, steady rhythm. A half hour later, she was done.
A car in the drive, and a door slamming. Her father had returned from his carpentry job, smelling of sawdust and drywall and paint thinner and sweat. Just a hint of aftershave that he touched in in the car because he was still in love with her mother, still after all these years, and he wanted to smell good to her when he came through the door at the end of the day. He rarely said more than two words to either of them in the evenings, rarely spoke about his day or the work he'd done or the things he thought about while he was alone with the unfinished wood and the nails and the sound of the power tools. They ate in silence, sometimes not even looking at one another.
But every evening before coming into the house Karen's father opened the creaky old glove box in his battered maroon Ford and pulled out the bottle of Old Spice and dabbed it on. It was a gesture that had become the height of quiet romance in Karen's mind.
Karen stood up, her back to the house, and watched the sky for a moment. The rain was starting to fall regularly now, slamming down on the ant countries and spilling into the places between the tomato plants, the green beans, the carrot tops in their neat rows. The rain fell on the faded paint of the porch steps, her hair in two thick braids down her back, the dry patient grass.
"Don't forget to wash your hands first!"
The rain was falling, falling, falling all over the town. On Fannie Wright's house where her daughter didn't live anymore. On Mr. Lake's grave out past the village limit, and on the grave of Karen's grandmother who was buried there before she was born. The rain was falling, falling, falling on the maroon Ford and the trees where the lightening bugs lived and the black shingles of the roof. It wetted the pavement and made little rivers down the slope of the driveway.
The rain fell, and the clouds rolled over the sky like a thick blanket.
With a last look, Karen turned back to the house, closed her eyes for a moment, and went inside.