Crying blond, young boy.

Agnes stood in the middle of the rental cottage’s small kitchen and slugged down the glass of red wine Marley had handed her not two minutes ago. She smacked her lips. “That’s good stuff. What is it?”

“Cabernet Sauvignon,” replied Marley as she pulled the cork again from the bottle she still held. “More?” she asked, wishing now she’d bought more. At the rate Agnes was chugging it down, Marley should have bought a whole case of the ‘stuff’.

“Sure!” said Agnes, reaching for the bottle. Marley watched wide-eyed as Agnes emptied the bottle, every last drop, into the stemmed goblet—one of a set Marley had just bought—filling it to the brim.

From the other side of the pony wall that separated the kitchen from the living room, a cherubic bundle of hyperactivity jumped up and down on Marley’s new sofa, a massive, high-backed Naugahyde couch that took up nearly half of the room.

“Mom! Look at me!” the cherub called out.

Agnes paid no heed to her four-year-old son, but continued pouring out her woes to Marley as she gulped down her wine: “I mean, if I had a body like yours, or even better, Lina’s, I’d have no problems attracting men either. But I don’t, so I have to find some other way to get them to notice me.” Agnes took another swig of her Cab. “I thought the make-up would do the trick, but Sergeant Garvey didn’t give me so much as a second look. What am I doing wrong?”

“What’s in here, Mom?” shouted the boy, who was now ripping open one of the moving boxes stacked in the living room that Marley had yet to unpack.

Agnes shouted back, “Quiet! We’re talking over here!”

Marley hoped there was nothing important, or breakable, in the box the tyke was now climbing into. “Well,” she started, assessing Agnes’ failed attempt at make-up. “Sometimes less is more.”

“What the hell does that mean?” snapped Agnes.

Treading carefully, Marley suggested, “I’ve read that it’s best to go a little lighter on the makeup during the daytime, for a more natural look, and to leave the more dramatic look for the evening.”

“See? That’s what I’m talking about! I just don’t know how to do this girl stuff. I don’t know how to do makeup, how to walk. Shit, I don’t even know how to dress—look at you. Your outfit is all color coordinated and put together; you look like a model in a J.C. Penney catalog. I look more like I belong in Field & Stream.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Marley said, trying to calm her down.

“But it’s true. Sergeant Garvey’s never going to give me the time of day looking like this.”

“You know he’s married, right?” asked Marley.

“Phhbt! At my age, pretty much every guy I know is married. All’s fair in love and war, that’s what I say, and may the best bitch win.”

“A word of warning, if I may,” offered Marley. “In my experience, limited though it is, affairs with married men rarely work out in favor of the mistress.”

“It worked out pretty damn well for my husband’s mistress,” said Agnes, swilling the rest of her wine. “Ex-husband…now.”

The little munchkin was back on the Naugahyde couch, scaling the heights of the sofa’s tufted back. He pulled himself up and stood upright on it, balancing precariously. “Mommy, look where I am!”

Agnes slammed her empty wine glass down on the top of the pony wall, snapping the stem, and turned on the tyke: “Dammit, Sonny! Get down from there…NOW!”

Sonny did as ordered and dove, head first, off the end of the couch. His head of tight blond curls hit the floor hard, the impact of which knocked the breath out of him. The moment his breath returned, his mouth opened wide and emitted an ear-shattering shriek that shook the room; tears the size of gumdrops poured from his eyes in response to the angry red knot rising on his forehead.

Hands on hips, Agnes stood over the wailing child, offering no solace, only sharp words: “See what happens when you don’t listen to me?” She grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet, a yank so hard Marley feared it might dislocate the little guy’s shoulder. Agnes continued yanking the arm while she screamed at the boy. “Stop being such a big baby! I should have left you at Grandma’s with your little brother!”

But the more she yanked him around and the more she scolded, the more the boy cried. “Stop crying, dammit! Stop, or I’ll give you something to really cry about!”

Marley could stand it no longer. She grabbed a dishtowel and an oatmeal cookie from a pig-shaped cookie jar on the counter and rushed to the boy’s aid. Insinuating herself between Agnes and the child, Marley dabbed his eyes and did her best to soothe his torment with the cookie. After a minute or two, the cookie did its job. With Marley’s intervention and Sonny’s eager acceptance of the cookie, Agnes abandoned the kid and headed back into the kitchen.

“Is there any more wine?” she called out, as she searched through the upper cabinets.

Marley dabbed the last of Sonny’s tears and gave his curly mop a tender pat. “No, sorry, that was the last of it.”

“Well, crap,” said Agnes, pouting.

Marley checked her watch. “We should head over to Sergeant Garvey’s. The barbecue’s starting in a few minutes.”

“Yeah, okay.” Agnes fidgeted with her clothes and looked to Marley with imploring eyes: “Do I look okay? Be honest.”

Her clothes left little room for compliments. She wore a pair of dirt-crusted sneakers and threadbare jeans that cut obscenely into her crotch. Her brown plaid blouse was so wrinkled and dank, it looked like she pulled it out of the dirty clothes hamper. Love handles spilled over the top of her belt and the stringy brown hair that hung in her eyes looked like it hadn’t been washed in a week. And then there was the matter of the makeup. Well, Marley thought, at least she’d had the good sense to leave that gaudy crucifix monstrosity at home.

“You look great!” said Marley.

“Really?” cried Agnes, hopeful and encouraged. “Oh, wait!” Agnes reached to her back pocket and pulled something out. “I almost forgot,” she said as she slipped the crucifix necklace over her head.

Marley’s hand unconsciously went to her own crucifix, fingering it before tucking it under her neckline.

Agnes headed for the door. “Sonny! Time to go! Get over here. Now!” shouted Agnes. “Marley, do you want to drive or should I?”

In her mind, Marley had debated twenty minutes prior, well before little Sonny’s nosedive off the couch, whether or not she would go to the barbecue with Agnes. She’d been searching her brain for an excuse, any excuse, to back out. The incident with Sonny, Agnes’s harsh scolding and cold and cruel treatment of the injured child, triggered in Marley a self-protective mechanism she’d subconsciously developed years ago, a fight or flight response to cope with the abuses experienced in her own childhood. Right now, Marley was in flight mode.

“You know, I just remembered I need to stop by my parents’ for some things I forgot to pack. Why don’t you go on ahead and I’ll catch up to you?”

“I don’t mind stopping by your parents’ with you.”

“No, no, you go ahead. I might be awhile at my parents’ and I wouldn’t want you to miss out on any of the barbecue.”

Agnes shrugged. “Okay. See you later, then. Sonny! Let’s go!”

Marley winced as Agnes roughly grabbed the boy’s arm and began to drag him towards the front door. A pang of guilt shot through her conscience over the boy’s welfare. “Are you okay to drive?” she tentatively asked Agnes. “You did have quite a bit of wine.”

“Shit, it takes more than a couple of glasses of wine to get me drunk. I can drink any man under the table.”

As Agnes reached for the doorknob, Marley gave it one more try: “You can leave Sonny with me if you want. I’d be happy to drive him over later.”

But Agnes, Sonny in tow, was already out the door. She called back. “Nah, he’s fine with me.”

Marley watched from the doorway as Agnes loaded Sonny into a rusted pickup. She waited for them to back fully out of the long driveway and throttle out of sight before closing the door. She set her guilt aside, convincing herself she’d at least tried to intervene on Sonny’s behalf—to have pushed the matter further meant risking an ugly confrontation with Agnes, something Marley was ill-equipped to deal with in her fragile state of mind. Still, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of shame, as if she’d somehow let the boy down.

She buried the shame, along with everything else she was feeling at this moment, wanting only to retreat to her ‘safe’ place. After drawing the blinds and locking the front door, she kicked off her shoes and stripped to her bra and panties, tossing her clothes over the arm of the big couch. Numbly, she made for the kitchen to fetch a corkscrew and the unopened bottle of Cabernet she had stashed away in the cupboard beneath the sink. Ignoring the broken wine glass on the pony wall as she passed, Marley headed into her bedroom and closed the door behind her. Bottle uncorked, she set it on her nightstand and climbed into her new bed, a queen-sized heated waterbed surrounded by a thick oak frame. Her late grandmother’s quilt provided the cloak Marley needed just now—soft, warm and comforting—a cloak she burrowed under to escape the sullen thoughts banging around inside her skull:

Thoughts of Agnes and the wailing, mistreated child.

Thoughts of her own unhappy childhood.

Thoughts of herself—terrible, unkind, and destructive imaginings that bolstered and confirmed her feelings of inferiority and worthlessness.

Marley pulled the quilt over her head to both block out the world and to hide her quiet sobs. And there, under her cloak, she would stay, cocooned, until morning when the alarm would sound, forcing her to crawl back out again, against her will, into the heat and glare of a relentless burning sun that scorched any hope for a better, brighter day.

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