dwight livingstone curtis
the mother of invention
Our daughter Madeleine slammed the basement door and then came the thunder of stairs and the thwok of a ping-pong ball. My husband reached into the kangaroo pocket of his sweatshirt, took out a joint, and held it up for all to see. Paul stood up and hugged him. I helped carry shoes and jackets from the front hall over to the glass patio doors and our guests got dressed on the shoe mat and followed Hal out into the drizzle.
This was Hal’s part of the evening. Mine was the sleepover, which came later, when our friends went home and left their children behind. Many of them, the children, I had helped deliver a decade ago. It made everyone more comfortable that I stayed inside and didn’t smoke, and that I continued to refuse drinks, sipping occasionally from Hal’s in mock secrecy. In fact, I had a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé on ice in the sink of our master bathroom.
We had hosted this party and this sleepover a dozen years running, starting when our older son, Jeffrey, was in middle school. We were all young parents then, and we’d been naïve. We’d allowed the coed sleepovers to go on until the kids were in their early teens. Old enough, it turned out, to be giving each other blowjobs in the laundry room while the others played ping-pong and kept watch. With Madeleine’s group, even when they were seven and eight, we separated the boys and girls by floor at lights-out and made a show of putting masking tape on the doors.
It was the perfect house for the party: a long one-story with a big living room, everything connected and open along a wide central hallway, a wood-paneled den for movies, and a big finished basement for the kids. By now the traditions were in place. Ping-pong in the basement, The Simpsons at seven in the living room, pizza at eight, and Nerf wars and hide-and-seek until ten when the adults went home. At a quarter past ten Hal would bring a tray of milkshakes into the den and we’d start a horror movie—a classic, always rated R. That was Hal’s ticket to bed. The adults had their own evening schedule: cocktails when they walked in the door, a big joint in the backyard during ping-pong, music and dancing, dirty jokes. We were couples on our second and third kids. Only Paul was here without a child or a spouse.
For Hal, it was a chance to get stoned and play his records for a house full of old friends. It was a night of pranks and mischief for the kids as well, of sneaking around and staying up late and normal healthy transgressive young-person behavior. Jeffrey and his friends had played truth-or-dare, had made prank calls, had run up a bill on a sex hotline (which they paid off with yard work), had used the family computer to watch internet porn, had masturbated together (the boys, at least—that seems to be its own specific phase of development), had snuck out and smoked cigarettes and then pot, and had no doubt kissed and humped and eventually blown each other before we put an end to it and they went off to do those things on their own time. I’d had to call a locksmith one year, when Jeffrey was twelve, to remove a pair of handcuffs from a boy’s ankles—real police handcuffs. Where they got them I haven’t the faintest idea. Madeleine and her friends were at the other end of that developmental arc, though I know better than to think I’ve seen it all. Sleepovers are the mother of invention.
I hung the wet jackets on the coatrack in the front hall. When I joined the group in the kitchen Hal was pouring Jägermeister into the crystal flutes.
“Everyone have a drink?” Hal said. He looked at me and gestured with the bottle and I shook my head. “To my beautiful wife,” he said. “Babe, let’s get double the pizzas tonight.”
“To our wives and mistresses,” Paul said. His eyes were red.
“Shh,” Ann said. I remembered, now, how everyone got when they were stoned. Ann looked down the hallway at the basement door, which was still closed, and then leaned in over the kitchen table. She was younger than the rest of us, and I’d been surprised to learn that she was once a Berkeley punk, and occasionally homeless. Now she had a string of degrees.
I shut off the overhead light, leaving on just the Tiffany lamp that Hal had hung over the table. It cast a beautiful rose light. “All right,” Ann said. “Not funny. Listen. You all got the email about the pervert.”
“Come on, he’s standing right here,” Paul said, slapping Hal on the shoulder.
“You hush,” Hal said.
“He got a job at the Blockbuster,” Ann said.
A sex offender had moved into a house on lower Independence over the summer. He’d had to go from house to house informing us, his neighbors, of who he was.
“Have any of you seen him?”
“Not since the block party.”
“Ken saw him near the school,” Ann said. “Right?” When Ken heard his name he opened his eyes. “I love you,” he said, and kissed the back of Ann’s head.
A thundering came from below and the basement door burst open.
“Jesus,” Hal said. “Is it seven?”
We joined our kids for The Simpsons. They were flushed and squirmy. Madeleine and Hal were the true fans, as Jeffrey had been once, and Madeleine turned off the lights and shushed the room for the Couch Gag. They were still young enough to snuggle up, but their energy spurted out in little bursts of action—a sudden repositioning, a sharp bounce on the couch. Ann and Ken stood behind the couch, though there were plenty of seats available. Most of the kids lay on the carpet on their stomachs, some of them holding hands. Ann and Ken didn’t have a TV in their house, and they didn’t let their sons play with violent toys. Their two boys, angels with bowl-cuts, had gone straight for the Nerf guns when they arrived. They lay on their stomachs with their heels knocking, guns aimed steady at the TV.
During the first commercial Hal stood up, muted the sound, and cleared his throat. He reached into his shirt pocket and unfolded an invisible speech and put on invisible reading glasses. Years ago, on a whim, we’d planned the party for the Sunday of MLK Day. Ever since, with varying levels of sincerity, Hal had given a short talk to the kids about the importance of the holiday: that tomorrow wasn’t just a day off from school, et cetera. We’d talked about changing the date, but there was something thrilling about having a party on a Sunday, and it was anchored by tradition and by The Simpsons. When the show came back on Madeleine reached for the remote. Hal kicked it away and continued talking. Madeleine groaned and rolled onto her back. Ann’s younger son pointed his gun at Hal’s crotch and he flinched. He’d lost them and he knew it.
“All right, honey,” he said. “Go ahead.” Madeline unmuted the TV.
Paul had been watching me. I’d caught him several times, and finally I held his gaze. He yawned and put his ankles up on the shoulders of one of the boys sitting in front of the couch. The boy squirmed away without turning around. Ann whispered in my ear: “Does he really need to be here?”
Paul, Hal, and I traveled together after college. We canoe-camped the Grand Canyon, and though we brought two tents, we ended up sharing just the one. It was the men who started it, getting drunk at lunch and kissing in the water. There were things Hal was still figuring out about himself, and Paul, I believe, was mainly interested in me. This continued for several years, always on vacations that we took together, and there were times when I was the one who made the first move, taking off my bathing suit top in the hotel room while the men watched TV, or pulling back the shower curtain while Paul showered and Hal brushed his teeth. I wore my hair short then, and they both wore it long. Hal was tall, soft-shouldered, British-looking and birdlike, and Paul was broad-shouldered, with a man’s chest and gut and huge strong hands. I was the one to end it, when Hal and I got engaged. At a certain point I knew what I knew.
When the doorbell rang Paul stood and stepped over the children’s legs. He and I stacked the pizza boxes on the kitchen table: pepperoni, cheese, and jalapeño-bacon. I cut the slices in half and shuffled them apart. At the far end of the hallway, past the living room, I saw something move in the dark. Paul put his hand on my arm.
“Thank you for letting me be here. I know it’s weird, but I appreciate it.”
“What’s weird?” I said. “You’re our friend. We love you.”
“It is weird, but it’s nice. How’s Jeff?”
“Do you really want to know? He’s doing great. He’s teaching. He’s the hockey coach. Are you talking to Alexander?” Paul’s son had played a role in all of Jeffrey’s troubles in high school: social, academic, legal. They’d always been schemers. Every afternoon, in middle school, they played Magic cards on the living-room carpet. Then they became what Jeffrey called “benchies” and what I’d heard a radio host call “trenchcoat kids,” and they sold their Magic cards to younger boys and began taking long camping trips from which they’d return hoarse and red-eyed, smelling like smoke. We found surprising, expensive things in Jeffrey’s bedroom: silver cuff links, for instance, and several watches. Alex was suspended for stealing glassware from the chemistry closet. Then Jeffrey was caught shoplifting at the Bloomingdale’s with two pairs of designer sunglasses in his coat pocket. They charged him with grand larceny and kept him overnight in a holding cell in downtown Boston. He was too afraid to call me or his father. It was Paul who picked him up and brought him home. Jeffrey had been selling the sunglasses on eBay.
“Alex is in Key Largo,” Paul said. “He started a fishing brand. They make t-shirts. He’s engaged.”
“Nice girl?” I said. I put two pieces of jalapeño-bacon on a plate for Hal and glanced up at Paul. “Nice boy?” The floor rattled and the living room filled with voices.
“Girl,” Paul said. “I don’t know anything about her.” Paul took a step back as the rattling grew louder.
“Form a line!” I shouted as children crowded through the doorway.
Through our bedroom floor I could hear the muffled pops of Nerf guns and the screams and thuds of warfare. In the living room Hal was playing Led Zeppelin. I thought I saw a shadow pass across the window over our dresser. After the kids went downstairs, Paul had put his arm around Hal’s waist and then stared at me until I met his eyes. I’d eaten two slices of pizza and taken two Tums and now I opened my book on my lap and swished wine in my mouth and waited with my eyes closed for the plush feeling of the Ativan I’d taken earlier to rise back to the surface.
The bedroom door brushed over the carpet and I opened my eyes. A child’s face peered through the opening. Just as quickly the door brushed shut. The sounds of battle had gone quiet downstairs and Hal had put on “Immigrant Song” in the living room. I closed my eyes again. I’d rejoin them soon.
We clustered like schoolkids in the kitchen. Once in a while a shape would dart down the hallway or emerge from a bedroom doorway. Ann’s younger boy, Clinton, appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, crying and hiccupping. Everyone went silent, and Paul knelt next to the boy. Ann put down her drink and pushed past us toward her son.
“You know how to get rid of the hiccups?” Paul said. The boy shook his head. “Simple. You just have to tell the truth.” The boy nodded. “So who do you have a crush on?” Ann grabbed the boy’s hand and led him into the hallway.
“What’s the square root of nine?” Paul said, standing up. “Who shot Kennedy? Where’s D.B. Cooper?”
“Cooper,” Ken said, opening his eyes. He was miles away. “No one knows.”
Ann touched my shoulder and I stepped out into the hall. She whispered in my ear. I held the boy’s other hand and the three of us walked down the dark hallway toward my bedroom. As we passed the front hall I saw a shadow move behind the coatrack. I led the boy into the master bath and got out a new roll of toilet paper and showed him how to lock the door.
“No one will come in,” I said. “It’s my private bathroom. Your mom and I will be outside.” Ann glanced at the bottle of wine in the sink and raised her eyebrows at me. I picked up the bottle and dried it with a hand towel and we left the boy to poop.
“Paul’s creepy,” she said. We lay side by side on the bed.
“He’s fine. He misses having a kid. He forgets that we’re hypersensitive.”
“No, I know. But, still, right?” She put her head on my shoulder. “It scares me the way they love the guns. I’m not saying—”
“I know,” I said. “They get over it.”
“No,” I said. “I guess not.”
“I’m worried about the pervert.”
“Do you want? Half?” I rattled the pill bottle. She shook her head.
“I have my own. And Clinton is doing this thing where he smells everything. I caught him smelling my butt.”
“Madeleine touches herself. We had to talk to her. We told her there’s nothing wrong but she has to do it in her bedroom.”
“I used to do that. My mom slapped me.”
“I still do it.”
“You can drink out there with us,” Ann said. “If you want.”
“Stay for a minute,” I said. “I’m going to text Jeffrey.”
“Paul wants to take a vacation together,” Hal said. We were standing in front of the fridge with the door open. Hal touched the labels of different beer bottles with his fingers. He knelt and started humming and tugged on one of his earlobes and then picked out a beer from the crisper drawer and held it against his forehead. His watch beeped.
“We should drink water,” he said. He took two pint glasses from the freezer and filled them from the tap. Over his shoulder, in the hallway, the door to the guest bedroom brushed opened. A small figure slipped out and disappeared into the shadows.
“Chug,” he said, and we chugged. He set the timer again. He liked to keep little schedules: hydration, circulation. When we watched movies as a family he made us stand up every twenty minutes and stretch.
Hal put his arm over my shoulders and pulled me in. His t-shirt was wet under the armpit and I put my face in it and inhaled. I pulled his head down and smelled behind his ear. He was a tall man, but I was a tall woman.
“How do I smell?”
“Amazing,” I said. My phone buzzed in my pocket. I showed it to Hal.
“Send him a picture,” Hal said. “Tell him we’re stoned.”
Paul was the last to leave. He and Hal stood talking on the porch for fifteen minutes. Then Hal came inside and stood in the doorway to the den. The kids and I were wrapped in blankets on the couch and floor. Madeleine, her face too close to the TV, held the remote. The screen was paused on a glowing jack-o-lantern against a black backdrop.
“You the ones who ordered the anchovy sandwiches?”
“Dad!” Madeleine shouted. Small bodies rolled around on the floor. Clinton looked up at me, his eyes glistening.
“Or was it… vegetable smoothies with extra Brussels sprouts?” From the pile of blankets on the floor came a soft thwang and a Nerf dart arced across the room. Hal caught it in the air.
“Carrots,” he said. “I love carrots.” He took a bite of the dart. I gasped. He chewed, swallowed, and put his hand on his chin. “What’s up, Doc?”
“Right. Right! Milkshakes. I remember now. But first—” The bodies on the floor writhed and Madeleine aimed the remote at her father like a weapon. Hal’s watch beeped and he pushed a button to silence it.
“Who can tell me one fact about Martin Luther King?”
Madeleine rolled her eyes back in her head.
Next to me Clinton raised his hand.
“Young man,” Hal said.
Clinton took a deep breath. “You mean, Martin Loofer King”—he swallowed—“Junior.”
“I—well—” Hal said. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. “I stand corrected!” Then he gestured toward the screen. “Greatest opening scene ever.” He closed the sliding doors behind him and I could feel his steps through the floor as he walked into the kitchen, and the pipes groaning as he ran the tap. Madeleine pressed play and the dark room filled with piano music.
Something knocked and I opened my eyes. The room was silent—someone had paused the movie. No one moved. Clinton squeezed my thumb.
“Daughter? Wife? Children?” Something dark moved in the crack and then the doors shuddered on their runners and parted. Hal stood balanced on one foot, holding a tray, and slid the doors open with his toes.
“Maddy, baby, clear off this table for me?” He set the tray down on the coffee table and the children knelt around it.
“Like so,” he said, and picked up one of the milkshakes. It was perfectly frothed. Jeffrey had gotten him old-fashioned malt glasses and metal straws for Christmas. Hal sucked on the straw and swooned. He came over to the couch. Madeleine looked at him and cocked her head.
“Go ahead baby. I’ll leave in a minute.” She hit play. One of the kids reached out and slid the doors shut. Hal squatted, his knees popping, and handed me a milkshake.
“Don’t spill,” he said. “Or we’ll get ants.” He kissed my forehead.
“You’ve done it again,” I said. “Wonderful man.”
I stayed awake long enough to make sure there were no disasters with the milkshakes. In the flicker of the TV the children disappeared into the patterns of the den, and from time to time when I opened my eyes I had the sense that I’d been left alone with the film in this dark, dancing room. Even Clinton had moved from my side. He was now among the other shapes on the floor.
I woke with a start. The screen was paused and the room was silent, and the children’s faces, silver-lit, were turned toward me. The sound came again: a banging on the door—not the slatted doors to the den but the heavy front door of the house. I peeled the blanket off my body and stood up. Through the den window I could see the corner of the porch but not who was knocking. There was a car on the street, parked halfway across the mouth of our driveway. The window was blurry—it was raining, steady and hard. The knocking started again.
I left the den. At the coatrack I stopped to pull on Hal’s sweatshirt. The door to our bedroom, at the end of the hall, was shut. Behind me, small bodies gathered at the threshold of the den. I tiptoed forward, put my hands on the front door, and hunched to see through the peephole.
I stepped back and put my hand on my heart.
“Paul,” I said. “Hold on.” I checked that the door was bolted. Then, louder, I said, “Hang on!” I returned to the den.
“Play the movie,” I said, “and stay in here.” Madeleine nodded. I slid the doors shut and returned to the front hall. On the other side of the door, Paul was saying something over the sound of the rain. I turned the deadbolt and cracked the door.
“What?” I said.
Paul was soaked. He was breathing hard and smelled like cigarettes. “Can I come in?”
“What is it? Hal’s asleep. It’s bedtime. I’m with the kids.”
Paul closed his eyes and put one finger on each temple. “I’m trying to be Zen here,” he said. He held up something brown. It was a wallet, wet at the corners. He pulled a driver’s license out from the plastic window and handed it to me. It was Ann’s license.
“And this,” he said. He handed me a Blue Cross Blue Shield card. It was Ken’s.
“The kids must have switched everyone’s cards,” he said. “Can I come in?”
“You can’t talk to them,” I said.
Paul took a step back and put both hands up in the air. “Woah,” he said. He took another step back. “I’m not here to terrorize anybody’s kids. I just need my ID. I’m flying out tomorrow. Can you get Hal?”
I opened the door all the way. Paul didn’t move.
“God, Paul,” I said. “I’m sorry. Come in.”
Paul and Hal sat in the rose light of the Tiffany lamp. Hal had the cordless phone to his ear. There was no noise coming from the den. Madeleine wouldn’t start the movie without me—I knew this. The cards from Paul’s wallet were spread out on the table: the license, the healthcare card, several Visas, an AAA card, a Blockbuster card, none of them his. Hal hung up the phone and looked at his watch.
“Everyone’s asleep,” he said. Then the receiver rang in his hand. I could hear a woman’s voice on the other end.
“Yup,” Hal said. “Yup. Yup, yup. I’m so sorry.” He hung up.
“All right, buddy,” Hal said. “Ann’s purse is all mixed up, too, except it sounds like she got mostly Ken’s stuff. She’s also got a hotel key. Who’s staying in a hotel?”
“It’s mine,” Paul said. “I mean, not mine. But I had it.”
“Ken’s walking over to Liz’s house and he’s going to try to wake them up. We’ll figure this out. Let’s have a drink.” Paul nodded and swirled his finger in the air. A round of drinks. Hal finally looked at me. He tilted his head in the direction of the den and I shook my head.
“Interesting,” Hal said, putting three flutes of Jägermeister on the table. “They left everyone’s car keys alone. Smart.” He went back to the sink and filled three pint glasses from the tap. I thought I saw the door to the den shudder, as though someone had leaned against it.
The phone rang again.
It had been like this when the sex offender moved in—phones ringing in every kitchen. I’d looked him up in the registry. He had been convicted of “Open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior,” which could have been a lot of things—peeing in an alley in a school zone, for instance. He was nineteen at the time—this was two decades ago. Now he worked at MIT. Hal and I felt similarly about the whole thing. Furthermore, we’d raised an intelligent, resourceful, even overcautious daughter.
I sat down on the stool next to Paul. I put my hand on his shoulder, then on his ear, and pulled his head tight against my chest. His hair was wiry, still thick, and it pricked me through my shirt.
Hal put the phone back on the cradle. “Liz has your ID,” he said. “She’s coming over.”
“She doesn’t have to do that,” Paul said. “I’ll go over there.”
“It’s fine. She’s coming. She’s going to drop off some other people’s stuff too. We’ll get everyone else back together in the morning.”
“Brunch too? You weren’t going to invite me?”
Hal grunted. He was looking at the cards arrayed on the table. Then he smiled. “Well,” he said. “Another year wiser. At least it wasn’t blowjobs this time.”
I stood alone in the dark front hall, feeling around the coatrack for my jean jacket. It had been Hal’s, originally, when he used to go to shows. I patted for the bulge of my wallet and keys. The wallet felt thick and I opened it in the dark.
There were no sounds from the den and I knew the children were listening. They’d heard the phone calls. No one had spoken to them. I wouldn’t allow it. In the kitchen Hal and Paul sat at the table, casting shadows.
In the rose backlight I made out my shiny face, my raised name on the debit and credit cards. It was all there.
I removed the money. Some of the bills had been unfolded, some of them uncrumpled, a fat wad of them pressed into my wallet. Hundreds of dollars. The rain got louder and I felt the bass hum of water in the pipes. Through the wall I heard a thwang and a giggle and then a shush.
I kept to the wall, sliding my shoulder against the paint, and when I got to the den doors I pressed my ear against the wood. There were bodies just inside, breathing, staticky and hot with conspiracy. I lifted the door off its roller and eased it open. In the slatted shadows I saw their moon faces and their toothy smiles, waiting for me. I slipped inside.
Dwight Livingstone Curtis lives in Missoula, MT. His stories have appeared in Chaleur, The Molotov Cocktail, Shark Reef, Pangyrus, Explosion-Proof Magazine, Tuesday Magazine, and the Harvard Advocate.