The night before the morning that Tracey’s mother left, her dad took the early train and arrived home just past six. It was an event that occurred with less frequency since Tom had become a name partner at O’Malley, Sugarman, Rizzo, and Gray. Usually, on weekdays he was gone before Tracey left for school. She didn’t see him again until nine o’clock, when he came home smelling of single malt scotch, his belly full of New York strip and baked potato consumed at dinner in the city.
Rita, still in her bright-yellow terrycloth kimono, was caught unprepared. She whipped up the only thing in the kitchen that wasn’t frozen solid, Kraft macaroni and cheese. Tracey set the table, taking care to fold the napkins into perfect triangles, fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right. These things mattered to Rita. The looks on other moms’ faces when Rita showed up in dresses that revealed too much cleavage did not concern her. Sometimes Tracey wished Rita could be the type of woman who accepted her role as wife and mother with grace and a pair of sensible slacks. It would have made life so much easier. But Rita had an insatiable need to be noticed and didn’t care if it was the janitor or math teacher with polyester floods who cast admiring glances her way, so long as someone was looking.
Rita tore at a head of iceberg lettuce, tossed the pieces into a bowl and doused it with Seven Seas dressing.
“Voila!” she said. “Go tell your father dinner is ready.”
“Aren’t you going to change?” Tracey asked her mom.
“Why should I? I match perfectly,” Rita said. It was true; the color of her robe was the exact same preternatural yellow as the cheese. She had been wearing the robe all week and finally had a justification for it.
Tracey had to pass through the dining room on her way to the den. She stopped at the china cabinet and admired the collection of antique demitasse cups, each one hand-painted with a unique design. Unlike the wine goblets and brandy snifters on the shelf below, the cups were never used. She opened the glass front door and plucked a tarnished silver dinner bell from its spot.
Tom sat at the desk in his wood paneled office, still unpacking his briefcase. Tracey rang the bell.
“Dinner is served,” she said in a fake English accent.
“That was quick,” he said.
“Don’t get too excited. It’s just macaroni,” Tracey said, taking her father’s hand and leading him into the kitchen.
They joined Rita, who was already seated at the round table. The scene had all the trappings of a normal family dinner. For a moment Tracey pretended that they were normal, even though she knew better.
“This is a rare surprise,” Rita said. She had put on a fresh coat of lipstick to highlight her plastic smile.
“My last appointment ended early and I was able to catch the express,” he said.
Rita put a clump of salad on a plate and passed it to him.
“Maybe we can watch TV after dinner,” Tracey said.
“Sorry, pumpkin. I’ve got work to do,” he said.
Rita took a large sip of her Chablis. A smear of hot pink remained on the edge of the glass. “He can make up for it by taking you to school tomorrow,” she said.
“Can’t,” Tom said. “I’ve got that deposition in Springfield first thing, remember?”
Clearly, she did not remember, but she nodded anyway and took another sip of wine.
“What’s the case about, Daddy?” Tracey said.
“Oh, just murder and mayhem,” he said, “with a splash of kidnapping.”
“Sounds interesting,” Tracey said, grinning at her father.
“Terribly,” Rita said.
Tom let the sarcasm slide. Only Tracey could see that it hurt him, the ever so subtle fall at the corner of his eyes, the droop of his chin. Looking at her dad was like looking in the mirror; she had the same nose, same bushy eyebrows. Sometimes she wondered if her mom saw it when she looked at her – the face of the man she hated – and that’s why she was always so mean.
“How’s the macaroni?” Rita said.
“Great,” Tracey said, even though it was dry and overcooked. What was the use in fueling her fire?
“I’ll get you some more,” Rita said, picking up Tracey’s plate and moving to the stove.
“None for me, thanks,” Tom said, even though he wasn’t asked.
They continued that way, the tension between them as thick as the macaroni and cheese. For months things had been uneventful between her parents, which didn’t mean they were good. But tonight, Rita’s dander was up. Was she angry that Tom had actually come home in time for dinner? Or was it built-up resentment from all the other times he didn’t? Tracey was grateful when the phone rang and interrupted the uncomfortable silence.
She got up and answered the wall phone with the phrase scripted by Rita, “Hello, this is Tracey may I please help you?”
“Put your mother on,” a man said.
She immediately recognized the voice, although she pretended not to.
“I’m sorry. We’re in the middle of dinner,” Tracey said, all business-like. “May I have her return the call?”
“I’ll call back later,” the man said and hung up.
“Who was it?” Tom said when Tracey returned to the table.
“Didn’t say,” Tracey said, which was technically the truth.
Rita smirked; she knew damned well who it was.
When the phone rang again, Tracey stood up, but Tom put his hand on her shoulder to indicate that he would get it.
“Gray residence,” he said. After a few seconds of silence, he repeated, “Gray residence. Hello?” Tom shifted his jaw and flared his nostrils.
A prickly feeling moved from the back of Tracey’s neck down her spine.
“Who is this?” When there was no answer, he slammed the receiver down with all the force of his 175 pounds. He wasn’t a big man, but in a battle between Tom and the telephone, it was clear who would win. A tiny piece of plastic fell to the floor, the piece that held the receiver in place. The phone dangled from its cord. After three more futile attempts to hang it up, he ripped the phone from the wall, opened the back door and threw the mess of dangling cords onto the yard. Then he slammed the door shut and went back to his seat.
“I’m surprised you didn’t just flush it down the toilet,” Rita said.
She was referring, of course, to the night six months ago when he dumped her birth control pills in the toilet. It was Thanksgiving weekend just after another big fight about the house with four bedrooms and only one kid. What happened to their plans for a big family? Rita said one was plenty, especially since that one was about to start high school. Tom said, “What’s the difference? We never do it anyway” and tossed the pills in the toilet.
Tracey looked up to see her father’s reaction, but he was poker-faced. The rage he had exhibited a few seconds ago was bottled back up inside. He took another bite of salad, put his napkin on the table and rose from his seat. “Excuse me, ladies. I need to get ready for my deposition.”
Rita stood up, collected her wine glass and took a half-empty bottle of Chablis from the fridge. “Clean this shit up,” Rita said and went upstairs.
As soon as her mother left, a big grey and white cat with emerald eyes appeared.
“Miss Puff, where have you been hiding?” Tracey said, bending down to pet the overweight Maine Coone. The cat purred loudly, rubbing her nose on Tracey’s leg. “Waiting for the coast to be clear, huh?”
Tracey poured some kibble in the cat’s bowl, and then stood at the sink, scrubbing at the burnt pan with an S.O.S. pad while the animal showed its appreciation by doing circle-eights around Tracey’s ankles. The task of cleaning the dishes, the furry cat’s affection, being alone, this was peace. If only she could freeze this moment. Later, there would be more harsh words between her parents, followed by Tom slamming the door to one of the two extra bedrooms where he slept.
It was 5:04 in the morning, still inky black outside when Tracey heard a low rumble in the alley. She had dozed off just before midnight to the muffled noises of her mother’s moaning and squeaky bedsprings. The sound of sex was never completely drowned out; no matter how loud Tracey kept the television in her room she could always hear them. But her mother’s temporary good mood the next day usually made up for the lousy night’s sleep.
The light was on in the hallway. Was her dad still there? If so, they could have toast while he sipped coffee and flipped through the sports section. He was best in the morning with a clear-cut purpose: prosecuting criminals. His role at home was more amorphous, as were the good guys and bad guys. Tracey tiptoed across the hall to her parents’ room. Tom’s watch and cufflinks were gone from the valet, which meant he had already left. Rita rarely got up before seven. Today, though, her bed was empty, save for the tangle of king-sized sheets, evidence of the previous night’s activity. She emerged from the bathroom in full make-up and with her hair in curlers wearing nothing but a black bra, pantyhose, and high heels.
Rita slid the large pebble textured Samsonite from the closet and laid it on the floor, carefully flipping the latches open. The suitcase was almost completely packed. After all the fights and frustration, the moment Tracey dreaded had finally arrived. Rita was running away from home, with him of all people. Tracey stood there, silently daring her mother to register her presence. But Rita was too focused on the task at hand. She seemed determined to fill every crevice of that suitcase, tucking fresh packages of pantyhose on the sides, sliding a curling iron between lacy lingerie. The signs had been there for the past two weeks, the phone calls, the clandestine meetings, extra trips to the salon. What puzzled her was the timing. Or maybe, that was Rita’s plan all along, to pick a fight, make up, and let Tom think things were okay. Was her mother really that conniving?
Tracey went back to her room, to the safety of her pink flowered bedspread covered with stuffed animals. She was way too old for the décor, but now it seemed comforting to be surrounded by things she loved when she was seven. She put a Shaun Cassidy record on the turntable. Music could cover the sound of Rita’s hot rollers dropping into their box, the latches of the Samsonite clicking shut, the tapping of her heels down the hallway. But it couldn’t mask the overpowering smell of perfume and hairspray when Rita entered a room.
“Sweetie?” Rita called to Tracey from the doorway.
“Yeah,” Tracey said without turning around.
“I have to go.” In a way, these were the words Tracey had been expecting to hear her whole life. Rita was never one for the monotony of motherhood. It always seemed that there was something out there, some shiny object that if the light hit it just right, would be the catalyst to lead her away. “Don’t you want to kiss me goodbye?”
It was a weird question. In truth, Tracey hated the sticky pink lipstick that came off on her cheek when she kissed her mother, the noxious fumes from her Shalimar and Aqua Net, the smell of hunger on her breath. Rita was always hungry, forcing herself to be thin with one crazy starvation diet or another. No, Tracey did not want to kiss her, although she probably would.
Out in the alley someone tapped the horn. One long, one short. This must be their signal, Tracey thought. She felt her mother’s nervous energy.
“Time is not standing still,” Rita said. It was her favorite expression.
Tracey turned to face mother. “Why are you doing this now?” she said.
Rita took a deep breath and adjusted her skirt. It seemed like she was going to say something profound, but she just said, “Because.”
“That’s not an answer,” Tracey said.
“Because this is my last chance. My only chance,” Rita said. Behind the false eyelashes and teased hair, there was a look of real desperation on her face.
For the first time in a long time, Tracey softened. She remembered the mother who would make her a part of a special world where anything was possible. Yes, there were good times. Times when they’d take the El train downtown and have pie at the Walnut Room. Then they’d come back and sing along to Broadway musicals on the big stereo in the den. Tracey listened, full of wonder, as Rita talked about how fun it was to be on stage in front of an audience. How one day, when she was famous, Tracey could come on stage, too.
And suddenly, it dawned on her. “You’re going to Vegas, aren’t you?”
Rita smiled sheepishly, like a teenager who’d been caught with a pack of cigarettes. “As a matter of fact, I am,” she said.
“Just Vegas?” Tracey said.
“And other places,” Rita said.
Tracey took in the full meaning of “other places.” Rita would be gone a long time; by the looks of things, a very long time. Possibly, forever.
“Can I come?” Tracey said.
“You have school. Then camp with Jenny and Sara. A week with Aunt Lorraine. Everything is planned.” Rita said it with such finality it made Tracey think that the other part of the plan had been in place for a long time.
The horn beeped again, one long, one short. “Showtime,” Rita said, fluffing her hair.
Tracey followed her mother into the hallway. The big Samsonite stood there with Rita’s beige trench coat and silk scarf draped over it. Rita slipped the scarf around her neck.
“Wait— Mom,” Tracey said.
“You’ll have to catch the bus to school—“ Rita said.
“No. Please, Mom—”
“Tracey, the answer is no.”
“I came with you last time,” Tracey said.
This stops Rita dead in her tracks. The last time Rita took off on a quest to find fame, Tracey was three years old. They were gone a month before a private detective Tom hired through his connections with the D.A.’s office was able to locate them. He had found Tracey frolicking in the kiddie pool at the Holiday Inn in Tampa while Rita slept on a nearby lounge chair. The detective snatched the toddler. By the time Rita showed up, frantic, at the local police department, Tracey was on a plane back to Chicago. Rita pleaded temporary insanity to Tom and promised to be the wife he deserved. At least that’s the way she overheard her Aunt Lorraine telling it.
They never discussed the incident. Tracey tried once, when she was younger, but her mother shot her a look and changed the subject. Rita was not a believer in looking back. But desperate times called for desperate measures.
“Aren’t you always saying how life experience is more important than books?” Tracey asked. “I only have two more months of school. Let me come with you.”
Rita nibbled on her manicured nail, unsure of what to do. The horn again. One long, one short. Her ride was becoming impatient. The sun would be up soon, and so would the neighbors.
“Get your suitcase. Meet me at the back door,” Rita said.
Tracey ran back into her room and dragged her own Samsonite from the closet, the medium one that was part of the matching set. She slipped open the latches and began tossing things inside, a stick of deodorant, a toothbrush, a compact of drugstore blush. Then the clothes —shorts, T-shirts and sandals. Summer stuff. This trip wouldn’t last longer than that. At some point, she’d have to come home. Tracey didn’t really want to leave her dad and go to Las Vegas. Given the choice, she would have suffered through a thousand macaroni and cheese dinners and broken phones. But she couldn’t let Rita go off alone with this man. It was just too risky. What if they never made it to Vegas but got stuck in one of the “other” places? Or worse, what if, when they got to Vegas, it was everything her mother had hoped for?
The horn beeped again, just once.
Tracey walked over to the turntable where the Shaun Cassidy record spun silently and placed the needle back at the beginning. When the music started, Miss Puff appeared from her hiding place behind the dresser. Tracey scooped up the cat, sat down on the bed, and listened.