Domestic spying

“Not gonna get him here any faster,” Joe said.

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Audrey said. Standing watchful on the patio, she pointed toward an iron rack under the eave which held a collection of pots and watering cans. “The one on the end.”

Joe followed her gaze to a small brass watering can. Overhead, a pair of Black-capped Chickadees flicked through the branches of the lodgepole pine. A minute of stillness… and one of the birds flew to the edge of the can, then dropped inside.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“A nest!” Joe said. “Are there eggs?”

Audrey wasn’t sure. Joe took his phone from his pocket. He touched the camera icon and held it over the watering can. Mama chickadee burst out and tcheek-tcheeked at him.

“Good job,” Audrey said. “Got her feathers in a frizz.”

Joe got what he wanted: an interior shot of the well-insulated chickadee home. Six speckled eggs lay in a nest of pine needles and twigs packed inside the little watering can.

“Oh, sweet!” Audrey said. She was still looking at the picture when her SUV came down the driveway. She looked up quickly, and without thinking about it she put Joe’s phone in her pocket. She skipped toward the garage where Carl was getting out of the passenger seat. Evan walked around from the driver’s side, his face a mixture of resignation and relief. Audrey couldn’t tell if he was sad or glad. He was both; he’d passed his driving test but now he had to get a job to pay for his insurance.

“Happy birthday!” Audrey said.

On the way to the house, as Joe ragged on Evan to show him his new driver’s license, Audrey nudged Carl to hang back. “Did he talk you you?” she asked.

“Yeah. Did you know funeral processions don’t have to stop at intersections?”

“Really? No, not about driving, about Danni! About her moving to Tacoma.”

“Aud—no. I didn’t want to remind him. He’ll get over it, and the less he has to talk about it, the faster that’ll be.”

She stared at her husband. Oy. “Come on, I want to show you something.” She led him to the patio, put a finger to her lips and tiptoed toward the pot rack.

“A new family,” she whispered.

“Of what? Baby pots?”

“Chickadees! A chickadee laid six eggs in there.”

“Audrey, why are we whispering? Eggs don’t have ears. Anyway, how do you know there’s six?”

“Joe took a picture. Oh—” She remembered his phone in her pocket. As she navigated to the photos, Joe’s phone rang.

It rang with a different photo, a photo of a sexy brunette in a tank top and shorts, identifying the caller: Heather Barnes.


“Not my phone,” he said.

“It’s an L.A. area code.”

“Not my area. Code.” He watched Audrey put the phone to her ear. “What are you doing?”

“Hello?” She listened, waving off Carl’s horrified look. “Oh, no, I’m his mom… yes, he lives with me… uh-huh… sure, okay.” She ended the call.

“I think you just ran a red light, dear,” Carl said.

“What are you, photo radar? She wants him to bring back her wok.”

“Her wok?”

“That’s what she said.”

“Bring it where?”

Over the course of the evening, Audrey and Joe pieced together the few clues they had: the girl, the wok, the phone number, Joe’s announcement that he would drive to L.A. on Friday, Evan’s intention to get a summer job in Tacoma, and Todd’s call from Japan to wish his bro a happy birthday and tell his fam he’d be coming home before being deployed to Afghanistan…

… all at once, Audrey and Carl concluded they were sitting too close to the screen, that the 3D effects were too real, and that perhaps the best view of things they held most precious might have to be from a distance of a hundred, or a thousand, or seven thousand, miles.

©2010 Pam Wells


The takedown

Years later, Evan and Joe would recall fondly The Day Mom Took Jeannie Down.

The path was clear and well-marked on reflection, but at the time, no one was reading the signs. Audrey was trying desperately to disengage. She’d bitten her tongue a number of times during dinner: once while avoiding a fish bone, the rest while listening to Jeannie prattle on about about the price of Bordeaux in Bordeaux and the state of German opera and that tiresome volcano gumming up European airports—

Abra-cadabra-yoo-hoo, that’s what we say on the continent. Not that it matters to you in your padded little corner of America. How do you keep yourselves occupied?”

Audrey kept her mouth full.

“Work,” Carl said.

“I meant the children. What about you, Evan?”

“School,” Evan said.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“Public high school, I presume? Well, it might not be too late for you if you go to university abroad. You’ll find the U.S.A. is not the center of the universe we Americans think it is.”

“Ow! Oh, now, the earth isn’t even the center of the universe,” Carl said. He rubbed his leg where Audrey’s fingernails dug into him. “What do you think, Matt? Are we contracting or expanding?”

Matt leaned back in his chair. “If you mean gettin’ shorter or wider, ah’d say both,” he said. The guys laughed at the only light remark of the evening.

Jeannie turned to Joe. “And what about you? What’s your field of study?”

“I’m a writer.”

Jeannie frowned. “What sort of writer?”

“Screenwriter. I’m writing screenplays.”

“Screenplays? For Hollywood? Well, talk about a foreign country. Good thing you don’t have any responsibilities. My second husband was a writer. Technical manuals or something equally dull. I told him he should murder someone and write about that.”

Audrey took a big gulp of wine.

“I guess he didn’t take your advice,” Carl said.

“And what about Tom? I suppose he dropped out of school, too?”

Audrey tried to swallow but her throat was dry as paper.

“You mean Todd?” Carl asked.

“Oh, I knew it started with a T. That’s how I remember them, J-E-T, the jet set. Which is perfectly ridiculous—”

Audrey shot to her feet, knocking over her chair. “You pompous bag of Botox! Dinner is over.”

“Well! Mother always said you were a bitchy little hothead.”

Audrey leaped.

Dishes, forks and raspberry cheesecake went flying as Audrey took Jeannie to the floor. She went for the woman’s throat but sudden thoughts of prison food caused her to grab the clavicles instead. She clamped down and shook as Jeannie chortled, “Sto-o-o-o-p!!!”

Carl had a heck of a time pulling his wife off her half-sister. Matt was useless trying to calm his screeching spouse, so he poured himself another glass of the house red. Evan and Joe whipped out their camera-phones to document the festivities and sent it all to their brother in Japan.

The Pullets pointed the visitors toward Vancouver and shut the door.

©2010 Pam Wells