BY MAIA ROSENFELD
Brown University, ’19
2015 Adroit Prize for Prose: Honorable Mention
Charlotte had heard the doorbell. Her mother had, too—Charlotte knew because she saw her eyes stop moving across the page of the magazine, not daring to look up from the living room couch in case they made eye contact, because then she couldn’t pretend she hadn’t heard it. But she had, and so had Charlotte, and the silence of the unanswered call drowned out the sound they had tacitly agreed to ignore.
There was no pretending that the identity of the person behind the door was a mystery. Nobody else would have braved the winding driveway on a rainy Wednesday night. And anyway, Charlotte had heard his familiar footsteps on the creaky front steps that sat perpetually at the bottom of the list of things that needed to be repaired; just below the faucet in the kitchen sink, just above her mother’s marriage. Charlotte imagined the outline of his figure on the other side of the door, his wide face pressed against the screen. He would stay that way for hours, until the rejection appeared as a checkered imprint on his forehead. It was temporary though, as she supposed everything was, and he always seemed to forget about it as soon as the red gridded lines had faded. He would, of course, be back the following evening at least twenty minutes after seven. Even now, post-divorce—posthumous, as far as she was concerned—he was still late to dinner.
Charlotte stole a quick glance at her mother, still frozen on the couch and pretending to read. She dipped back into an unfamiliar reality, returned to her calculus homework, and almost convinced herself it was only the mailman.
* * * *
The following afternoon when Charlotte’s mother came home from the pharmacy where she worked, she let out an exasperated sigh, dropped her gray wool coat on the hallway floor, and let the door bang shut behind her. Charlotte didn’t need to ask how her day had been. This was how she had come home the day she lost her job at the hospital, that time she was fired from Lacey’s, and when the department store on Fifth Street had let her go. This job had been going well, though, or so Charlotte had thought. She had even believed for a moment that this one might be for good, whatever that meant.
Charlotte’s mother entered the kitchen with a gait that was half-stomp, half-sulk. Her stiff pumps clicked angrily against the linoleum. She took a mug from the cupboard—the one with the family picture from their trip to Arizona printed on it—glanced briefly at the black Sharpie that covered her ex-husband’s face, and filled it with hot water from the tap. Dropping in a tea bag, Charlotte’s mother kicked off her shoes, turned around, and noticed her daughter for the first time.
“Oh, hi,” she said, as if surprised to see Charlotte sitting at the kitchen table, textbook open in front of her, as she sat every afternoon.
“Hi Mom. Bad day, huh?”
Charlotte’s mother sighed and took a sip from the clumsily Photoshopped mug.
“Yeah, time to start looking for a new job,” she replied, as if this were no less ordinary than reminding Charlotte to feed the cat.
“I’m sorry. At least you don’t have to deal with that horrible boss anymore.”
Charlotte’s mother responded with a doubtful “mmhmm,” then opened the pantry and scanned it with blank eyes. She pulled out a box of Cheerios and flipped it over to check the expiration date: two months past. She scooped out a handful anyway; two months wasn’t too bad. Everything in their pantry was expired. Bread was always stale, milk soured before anyone had even thought about drinking it. They hadn’t yet figured out how much food two people could reasonably consume—they still bought “family size” packages. Blueberries sat in the back of the refrigerator, growing mold. Neither of them ate blueberries, but they were his favorite. She continued to buy them, though—maybe out of habit, maybe out of hope.
* * * *
When the doorbell rang that night, Charlotte didn’t even look up from her textbook. She briefly allowed the image of her father, rejection stamped across his forehead, to enter her thoughts. Then the picture dissolved and she tried to focus on her homework. She wondered if her mother would ever grow deaf to the relentless ring.
* * * *
The next morning, Charlotte found her mother sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper. It was flipped open to the obituary page, as usual. She had an odd affinity for obituaries, a strange obsession with the recently terminated. She examined the deceased’s pictures, pored over their life details—wanted to know how many children they had, and grandchildren; Did he like to play golf? Did she enjoy volunteering? Sometimes she filled in the details herself.
Charlotte grabbed her backpack and headed out the door, then squeezed through the narrow space between the hedges and the red Jeep that sat in the driveway. The car hadn’t been moved in months—dead bugs gathered in the windshield, and the pavement beneath the beast was the only dry spot in sight. It had been her father’s car, but now it sat abandoned in plain sight, an obstacle between their front door and the outside world.
Once Charlotte had kicked the Jeep a little too hard, almost unintentionally. Her heavy boots had made a small dent in the front bumper, but her mother either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
A sort-of friend of Charlotte’s—the only kind she really had those days—had once asked about the old Jeep. She wanted to know why Charlotte took the bus to school if there was another car just sitting there. She wondered if they ever washed it, ever drove it, ever acknowledged the way it blocked their entryway, forced them to skirt around its edges. Charlotte only shrugged.
* * * *
The keys to the Jeep were on the kitchen table. This was the first thing that Charlotte noticed when she got home from school that afternoon, unless you counted the fact that her mother’s coat still lay on the floor where she had dropped it the previous day—this had been expected though; the keys certainly had not been. The Jeep keys were usually stowed in a drawer in the kitchen that could best be described as “below and to the left of the cupboard above the stove.” They were about as easy to reach as their location was to label. The keys had stayed hidden there for months, collecting dust and regret. Seeing them exposed on the table felt invasive and almost sinful.
As soon as Charlotte entered the kitchen, her mother’s hand flew to cover the keys. It was too late. She turned to her daughter with an expression caught between shame and guilt.
“Hi,” was all she said.
“Hey Mom. Are those Dad’s—”
“They’re not Dad’s, they’re ours,” Charlotte’s mother replied. “Just like everything else in this house.” She paused and sucked in her cheeks, “And soon they’re going to be someone else’s. I think it’s time to sell the Jeep, Char.”
Charlotte was stunned. The thought of selling the car hadn’t even crossed her mind—she had forgotten that it even had a commercial value. She wasn’t sure what to say.
“We need the money now,” her mother continued. “It will help us get by until I find another job. And anyway, it just doesn’t make sense to keep that thing around. It’s not doing anyone any good just sitting out there.”
Charlotte said nothing, so her mother kept talking to dodge the piercing silence that too often filled their home.
“I know it’s a big decision, but I think it’s the right thing to do. Might as well make something good come of—I mean, at least we’d gain something from—you know, he’d finally be good for—I’m putting it on Craigslist tonight.”
Charlotte just nodded and thought about the emptiness that would replace the Jeep once it was sold. She was pretty sure her mother wanted someone else to see that emptiness.
* * * *
The first prospective buyer came to the house the following afternoon. He was a middle-aged man as bald as he was round, dressed in a plaid button-down shirt and an air of uncertainty. After circling the Jeep like a dog sniffing out new territory, marking new domain, the man walked up to the front door. He noticed a sign that read “The Bakers” above four clay figures—cartoon depictions of Charlotte, her mother, her father, and her cat, Lucy (short for Lucifer).
“Aw, that’s nice,” the man said to Charlotte’s mother, pointing at the clay family.
Charlotte watched her mother tense up—saw movement below her temples, her jaw tightening. She crossed her arms over her chest, drew her shoulders towards her ears, and whispered, “Thank you.”
He didn’t buy the car, said it was not really what he was looking for, thanked the women, and left with a half-smile and a quarter-wave.
The next morning when she left for school, Charlotte noticed that her father’s clay figure was missing from their family sign. It had left behind a faint outline, a footprint of what used to be.
* * * *
What followed was a long string of interested buyers, each leaving unsatisfied and empty-handed. The list of complaints was endless: it was too much of a “family car,” there was a small dent in the front bumper, red cars were statistically more likely to be pulled over by the cops.
They kept the keys out on the kitchen counter, hoping that they would soon need to be retrieved. Instead the keys just sat there in a tentative state of permanence. They seemed to mock Charlotte and her mother, gleaming with the possibility of what once was.
* * * *
One day, Charlotte came home to find a man kneeling behind the Jeep, carefully inspecting it from behind. He ran his finger across the ridge above the bumper, then wiped the dust on his loose-fitting jeans. The man put one hand on the spare tire attached to the trunk and gripped it firmly.
Watching the man reminded Charlotte of the afternoon her father taught her how to change a tire—they had knelt behind the Jeep, like this man was doing now. Her father had handed her the wrench as he removed the hubcap, and she had felt important, holding the tool. She’d even helped him lift the car with the jack, and he had trusted her to tighten the lug nuts once the new tire was on the wheel.
“It’s not new, but it’s really in great condition,” Charlotte’s mother said from the other side of the car, and the man turned his head and stood up. Charlotte hadn’t realized how tall he was.
“It’s just barely older than her,” Charlotte’s mother added, gesturing towards Charlotte, who was still standing in the driveway, watching the man. “Hi honey,” Charlotte’s mother directed to her.
The man smiled and nodded a greeting to Charlotte.
“Well,” he said, “it looks pretty good. I’ll come back with my fiancé tomorrow. Four o’clock okay?”
“Sure,” Charlotte’s mother said, a little too eagerly. “See you then.”
He didn’t come back at four the next day, but the doorbell rang around four-thirty. Charlotte’s mother opened the door to find the man standing beside a pregnant woman wearing a turquoise maternity dress.
“This is my fiancé, Julie.”
Charlotte’s mother shook Julie’s hand and stepped outside to show her the car.
Charlotte watched from the window as the couple examined the car together, looking at it from every angle, running their palms over the dent in the front bumper. They smiled at each other—genuine, real-life smiles like the ones in the pictures of her parents from years ago, the photographs that now sat bundled in boxes, buried in the basement. They had loved each other once, back in the days when the refrigerator was a skyscraper and the tooth fairy remembered the path to Charlotte’s pillow. Their love had long since expired, though—it had grown stale like the bread in their kitchen, and when the first spots of mold had appeared, she’d thrown him away.
When Charlotte’s mother came inside the house to grab the car keys, Charlotte felt a twinge in her gut. She followed her mother outside, watched her hand the keys to the tall man, both of them smiling like Christmas. Then Charlotte’s mother turned to Julie. She paused and opened her mouth, as if to say something—as if to warn her, tell her not to rush, that nothing comes without an expiration date. But she only congratulated the bride-to-be and wished her luck with the baby.
It was painful to watch the car slide out of the driveway. Charlotte couldn’t make herself turn away as they drove it out of sight, and she was surprised by how hard it was to say goodbye to something that had been such a nuisance.
The doorbell didn’t ring that night.