“Ava kisses the way she walks,” Matt says about his ex-wife. He speeds down the two-lane highway with no remorse, and as the afternoon light slices through passing trees, it momentarily illuminates the top of his head, creating little halos, one after the other that slip off.
Brenda remembers the way Ava walked. Those kisses must be something. She doesn’t mention to Matt that incidentally Ava developed and refined that famous walk—a walk that contained expectant, miniature hip swoops, as if she thought someone might at any second grab those tiny handles and kiss her crotch—circa 1983. Fenderlocken High. Brenda was there, though she doubts Ava ever noticed her.
With the car windows wide open, Matt must be going seventy, though it’s hard to tell; the broken speedometer of his ’88 Volvo, “The Rocket,” doesn’t budge from zero. They—Matt and Brenda and Matt’s four-year-old daughter, Iris—are on their way, already late, to an afternoon barbecue hosted by Ava.
* * *
Brenda and Matt met a month ago at the bookstore where Brenda works. Matt watched Brenda refuse the return of a book on which there was a faint but noticeable coffee ring. He told her he admired a woman who stood her ground. Brenda was delighted that someone would see her that way.
On their first date, Matt mentioned that his ex-wife went to the same high school as Brenda. “Sure, I knew Ava Hobbs,” Brenda said in a tone of voice that would indicate she knew Ava fairly well—and didn’t quite approve of her. But she’d never spoken to Ava and could barely look at Ava’s feet as they passed in the school corridor.
Matt went on to say that he was in the process of changing his life, changing it for good. Brenda was impressed by such an open declaration. She herself had been in the process of changing her life for good since she was about ten.
“My bed’s too small, and I fall out of it!” Iris shouts from the backseat, where with seatbelt stretched across her chest, she lurks and clutches the front seat, expelling her cheese popcorn breath in willful, ragged sighs.
Iris has two beds, one at Ava’s place and one at Matt’s. Brenda hasn’t seen either. Brenda imagines Iris’s bed at Ava’s, thinks it must be covered in something with a high thread count that incorporates golden rosebuds. Her bedcover at Matt’s is probably nautical-themed and hangs crookedly.
Matt scratches the inside of his right wrist, his driving wrist, the wrist that bears a navigator watch, an inscrutable timepiece, which looks like it weighs two pounds and causes his right forearm muscle to shorten under his tanned skin in a curvy, determined way. Matt told Brenda that he used to be a big drinker. He says Ava used to be a big drinker, too. Apparently they were such big drinkers they had to keep a case of Pedialyte in the fridge for hangovers. But those days are gone. Matt even has a new job. He sells a software program to California sheriffs that helps them keep track of criminals.
“Which bed, honey?” Matt says and reaches behind his seat to squeeze Iris’s ankle.
Brenda turns completely around to listen to Iris’s answer, unlike a real mother. She thinks of the board game Life that she played as a child (“Spin the wheel of fate, then drive the hilarious game path of fortune!”). Brenda recalls loading her tiny car with kids the size of rice and driving as fast as possible around a cardboard square.
Iris flops against the backseat. “My bed at school!”
Iris goes to two different daycare centers, one when she’s at Matt’s place, one when she’s at Ava’s. Ava works at a beauty supply store six days a week; Matt also works Saturdays. The only thing upon which Matt and Ava are united is to call daycare “school.” Brenda has overheard them talking on Matt’s cell phone. “When she gets out of school . . . today at school . . .” Iris has been in school since she was six months old.
Brenda never went to daycare, doesn’t know anyone who did. It wasn’t invented yet. She does remember kindergarten, and there certainly weren’t beds. There was the laying of one’s head on one’s hands at a long wooden table, which smelled of grape juice and Cheese Whiz. And there was the listening to fingers tapping, jawbones clunking, and bang-plastered foreheads thudding all the way down the line, sounds that occur when one asks oneself “What Will I Be When I Grow Up?”—or that’s what Mrs. Gosseltaff would tell you all that racket was, for she often urged her pupils to “give it some thought” while resting. But Mrs. Gosseltaff’s students, each of them in that terrible, alone-forever, face-to-table position, weren’t thinking at all about jobs, for they were beating out with tiny skulls and associated hand bones, the other big question, the bigger big question: Who will I love?
Who will I love?
The inside of The Rocket is now the temperature of a meat locker, and Brenda asks Matt, who has the window controls, to put hers up.
“What?” he asks.
“People like Brenda make the air cold!” Iris shrieks, and this Matt does seem to hear, since he immediately puts up his daughter’s window.
Brenda figures she’ll tough it out. “Iris, do you want to try your coloring book?” The velveteen-covered mythological coloring book, an item for which she paid too much, even with her employee discount, has been shoved off to the side of the backseat, open to a picture of a minotaur whose right horn is covered in a fine layer of orange popcorn dust.
“Do you like the minotaur?” Brenda asks Iris, who pulls at her pale red eyebrows and stares at her lap. “The minotaur was half man and half bull,” says Brenda.
“Who’s the fool?” demands Iris with all the conviction of a hard-boiled D.A.
A chunk of hair blows into Brenda’s mouth, hair she cut only last week. She pulls the tangled lock out of her mouth. “Why are you asking about a fool, Iris?”
“You said, ‘half man, half fool.’” A motorcycle with a broken muffler passes their car.
“I didn’t say that, Iris!” shouts Brenda.
Matt glances at his watch, assessing his heart—its rapidity. Brenda had never seen such a watch before she saw Matt’s. She doesn’t wear a watch herself. Matt accelerates and The Rocket makes a startling, heart-wrenching noise like a woman crying in her sleep.
“Hold onto your dental work, ladies!” yells Matt as the front end of The Rocket visibly begins to shake.
Brenda wants to tell Matt to knock it off and slow down, but she feels she doesn’t know him well enough, and now, due to her infallible politeness, they may all lose their lives. Her hair whips every which way, and she attempts to aim her head in the right direction, the direction that might make it stop, but no such luck, and it occurs to her that she doesn’t even have a comb in her purse, and that when she sees Ava in as soon as fifteen minutes from now, and for the first time in eighteen years, she’ll look like a total wreck.
A truck the deep black color of charred firewood is overtaking them, and it’s unclear why the driver, whose face can’t be seen through his window, is going so fast. And why does he need to race Matt and Brenda and Iris in their poor old Volvo—this mock-up, thrown-together example of a family such as never navigated the Life board—as they speed toward Ava and her amazing walk?
“Who’s the fool? Who’s the fool?” Iris keeps on.
The truck, upon them now, honks or more accurately bellows, like an animal about to charge.
© 2009 Mary Otis
Excerpt from “Five-Minute Hearts” which originally appeared in Yes, Yes, Cherries (Tin House Books), reprinted with permission of author.