Mind over Matter
Did she or didn’t she?
First published by Prick of the Spindle, Issue 8, Print Edition, Spring/Summer 2015.
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Maisie stood on the kitchen deck watching the pickup accelerate to the end of the driveway and swing right. No brake lights, the two in profile: little Carl on the near side, big Carl behind the wheel. Little Carl came to his father's shoulder so Maisie could see both heads of black hair, both noses frontward like hawks after field mice. Maisie knew Carl's driving habits: he liked to go into curves fast, not switching pedals until the last second.
The morning was early spring—fifty degrees, no clouds, sun touching the treetops across the road, snow gone except for patches in the woods, hardwoods budding. Black flies not out yet. Nice time of year in the north country. Maisie was short, five-two, with small breasts and behind, resembling Ma. Years ago, Maisie had dirty blonde hair; now it’s streaked gray, while Ma's was fully blonde.
Ma lived in town, at 10 Pine Street, a colonial owned by Winston, her fiancé.
As for the pickup, any fool could see the front left brake cylinder leaked, could see the stains on the wheel, smell the acidity, say better get that fixed. Instead, Carl bought brake fluid by the quart at Walmart and topped off the reservoir each morning, leading to the first theory of causality—that the wheel cylinder failed catastrophically when Carl jammed the brakes at the last second. The deficiency in that theory was that the other wheels should have caught if only for a second, but no skid marks were evident.
The second theory of causality also had a deficiency, but the police chief resolved it with logic and her knowledge of behavioral science. Two days after the funeral service, she presented herself in Maisie's driveway, a short stretch of tar running up to and alongside the deck, ending at an eight-by-twelve-foot tin shed.
The boys from the state police lab had examined the accident scene and the truck, the chief told Maisie. The chief was middle-aged, mid-sized with dark hair and a round face. Her bust strained the buttons of her uniform shirt, giving a matronly, rather than a sexy appearance. She had a few questions, but Maisie didn't have to talk to the police if she didn't want to.
"It's alright," Maisie said.
Well then, did she know about the problem with her husband's truck?
"Sure enough," Maisie said.
She led the chief past her worn Honda Civic to the shed. Its door hung open on a broken hinge. Inside were metal shelves.
"Right there," Maisie said.
The chief reached in and hefted a quart of brake fluid.
"I got to tell you, there's one thing really bothering me," she said. The lab had found the brake reservoir empty. But the school bus driver had said the hood was up on the truck when she stopped. That was a half hour before the accident. What was he doing with the hood up if not attending to the brake fluid?
The chief said, "Could you walk me through what happened that morning?"
Maisie assembled the events in her head. After breakfast, Carl was bent under the raised hood of the pickup. Beside him was a container of brake fluid. Beyond, the school bus stood until Carl looked up and waved off the driver. Maisie went to little Carl's bedroom and pulled up an earphone.
"You just missed the school bus."
"Don't sass me, woman," said little Carl, pushing her hand away. "Pa will drive me."
"Well, here he comes," said Maisie, and little Carl jumped up.
As little Carl ran to the kitchen, big Carl said, "Get back with your game. I have to take a shit."
To Maisie, he said, "Make yourself useful, woman, and put that brake fluid back in the shed."
These were Maisie's thoughts. For the chief, she summarized.
"Well, he was in the driveway. I heard the school bus. Then he come running in for the bathroom. He was in there a bit."
Now the chief thought. She paced to the end of the driveway, head down. On the way back, her lips formed a small smile.
"By golly, that's it," she said.
She explained to Maisie what must have happened, that the call of nature must have taken Carl from his routine so when he come back out, he forgot he hadn't filled the reservoir. The chief chattered on. She had fretted over the problem of the empty reservoir but now everything fell into place.
Maisie stood silent.
The chief returned the container of brake fluid to the shed shelf. She asked Maisie how she was feeling. Maisie said it was hard; she had conflicting emotions. The chief told her about survivor's guilt.
"You're thinking you should've got the truck fixed yourself, you should've made sure your son got on the school bus, you should've drove him, things like that. But some things just happen."
For the first time since the deaths of her husband and son, tears formed in Maisie's eyes.
The chief asked Maisie if the boys from the lab could come by and look around, if she'd sign a release, but it was her right not to. Maisie walked to the cruiser with the chief and signed a form on a clipboard.
They could come by any time. The door was never locked.
The third theory of causality, Carl's parents had touched on at the service at Moore and Sons Funeral Home and Crematory. Everyone from the lumber yard, the diner where Ma worked, and the school made an appearance. Maisie bought a dark blue dress and took most of the gray from her hair with a rinse.
Ma and Winston stood by her in reception of the mourners in black dress and dark gray suit. Ma lived in town, at 10 Pine Street, a colonial owned by Winston, her fiancé. Ma had started wearing eyeglasses, light blue frames. Winston was six feet, big in the chest but stoop-shouldered, with thinning red hair. He wore round, gold-framed eyeglasses. They had been together for eight months and Maisie hoped it would work, this being a first marriage for both. Everyone—from the lumber yard where Carl and Winston worked, the diner where Ma worked, and the school—made an appearance. Maisie bought a dark blue dress and took most of the gray from her hair with a rinse.
Maisie had grown up with Ma and the occasional boyfriend, queries regarding paternity answered by "not sure" or "best not to know." Ma's own childhood had been difficult, living on squirrel meat and turnips in hard times, as she told it. She still shot squirrels out the window if they were at the bird feeder.
As for Winston, there had been gay jokes, but he was just shy with women. Ma told how he had come into the diner mid-afternoon, no customers around, Ma filling shakers and setting up tables for dinner. He had something to say, in private. He asked her out. Ma thought she'd hit the lottery: college education, salaried job, a house in town. Not a drinker.
Carl's parents attended the service in a side clique, never coming through reception. Every so often, a glance slithered Maisie's way. Carl's uncle, from the mother's side who owned the house on North Road, approached.
He said, “Don’t pay them no mind. They’re saying you cut the brake line for the insurance money.” He laughed. “They’d like to have that money themselves. Don’t pay those assholes no mind.”
Of course Maisie hadn't cut the brake line; the state police lab would prove that. And she had no idea that foremen at the lumber yard had term life insurance, purchased by the company. Never thought about insurance money. But the remark started Maisie's mind churning. She thought about that morning after Carl shut himself in the bathroom and saw herself walk to the kitchen utensil drawer, take out the turkey baster and easy-twist jar opener, walk to the truck with its hood up, go on tiptoe over the motor, and twist the cap off the brake fluid reservoir. She envisioned the bulb of the turkey baster collapsing under her squeeze and its tip entering the reservoir. Then the bulb expanding as her squeeze relaxed, brake fluid being sucked from the reservoir.
Ma's diner had started the most recent round of trouble.
The morning before the accident, Maisie had driven down to 10 Pine for a visit. She remembered finding Ma by the open dining room window cradling her single-shot Hornet, which packed a nice wallop for critters. Maisie lifted a chair from the table where Winston sat, eyes to the morning newspaper, and in silence, joined Ma at the window. Ma flicked the pupils of her eyes, pale blue like Maisie's, at the leafless maple in the backyard. Maisie spotted a gray squirrel bending the end of a branch. The squirrel leapt from the branch to Ma's bird feeder, tail streaming, and the Hornet came up.
Maisie enjoyed watching Ma in this pose of concentration, right hand around the small of the stock, pulling the rifle into her shoulder, cheek resting against the thumb of her right hand, pushing her glasses up a fraction. Ma aimed with her right eye but kept both open. In her peripheral vision, Maisie saw the squirrel upright on its haunches, facing them, oblivious, stuffing Ma's bird feed into its cheeks. Ma let out half a breath and tightened her trigger finger until the rifle popped, a wisp of smoke at barrel's end.
From the dining room table rolled Winston's low-pitched voice.
"Did you get him, sweetie pie?"
"That varmint has stole his last grain of millet," Ma said.
Maisie stared out the window. She asked Ma what she'd be doing with the dead squirrel. Would she be eating him?
Ma gave a hoot. She'd had enough squirrel as a girl: squirrel stew, squirrel pie, squirrel fricassee.
"I'll starve before I ever eat squirrel again."
"You won't starve on my watch," said Winston, whose eyes had yet to leave the newspaper.
Ma told Maisie to bring her chair to the table. Ma stood behind Winston, hands on his shoulders. She wanted Winston to make the announcement.
A flush came to his face and tinged his ears. He smiled.
"Well," he said, "I've proposed to your ma and she's said yes."
Maisie clapped her hands and laughed. It was about time, Winston; it was about time, Ma. The two of them living in sin and all.
Ma said, "Well that's the announcement. Now I gotta get to the diner. We're shorthanded today."
"I'll come along and work a few hours," said Maisie.
Ma's face went dark. Carl didn't like that. But Maisie said she was tired of being cooped up and told what to do. She'd help at the diner until little Carl got done at school.
"Carl is sure to hear," said Ma.
At the diner, Maisie worked for tips. Men from the lumber yard came for lunch, including Tubby Smyth, another foreman. Maisie saw him at one of Ma's tables spooning apple pie à la mode. Once, she caught him looking at her and he flashed his lecherous smile.
Tubby had been a year ahead in school, same as Carl. At house parties, she abided his prurient inspections and sly comments. He wasn't the only one. A year into the marriage, Carl's demeanor changed. Maybe it was gradual; Maisie couldn't remember. It got so the slightest look or smallest comment, from Tubby or any other man, sent Carl into a smoldering fury, and when they returned home, a full rage. They stopped going to parties.
In the beginning, Carl's demeanor had been fine. He was handsome, athletic, attentive, intense. He wanted sex, but what man didn't? When they had started dating, still in high school, Ma took Maisie to the clinic for birth control pills.
After the announcement of their engagement, Maisie was at a party talking with wives and girlfriends, including Tubby's first wife. The men were in another room, and one of the wives asked when she was due.
"I'm not pregnant," said Maisie.
The wife asked why she was getting married if she didn't have to.
"Well," said Maisie, "we're in love."
The wives laughed.
Five years into the marriage, Maisie let the birth control lapse so she could have a little girl to cuddle like Ma cuddled her. The ultrasound confused her: she felt sure it showed a girl but later, Ma said no, it had always showed a boy. She heard everyone saying, "Doesn't he look like his Pa?" and "Spitting image."
From the diner, Maisie drove her Civic to North Road, waited, and followed the school bus to their house, a mile past what the locals called Dead Man's Curve. Coming from town, the curve was not bad, not a dead man's curve at all. Nobody had ever crashed that way. But going to town was different: downhill on a tightening curve with but a bit of gravel before hitting the trees.
Little Carl was off the bus and in his bedroom, headset on, joystick in hand. He favored Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto. Nine years old. Sometimes big Carl played with him. Why didn't he do better at school if he was so clever at video games? His marks were poor through three grades and there were behavioral problems; a recent incident on the playground involved Amy Bouvoir's "pee hole." Maisie remembered it as an incident of grave concern, but Ma told her no, her remembrance was wrong; the incident did not involve touching and was not serious.
Maisie heard Carl's pickup back into the driveway. Little Carl was sitting down for dinner—pan-fried chicken with rice and peas—when big Carl came into the kitchen, green work clothes hanging from a gaunt frame, black hair askew, hazel eyes wild.
"Boy, get with your video game," he said to little Carl, who hastened to his room.
Carl grabbed Maisie by the hair and dragged her toward the bathroom. That was her remembrance, being dragged by the hair.
"Wasn't you told?" he said.
"No, Carl, don't." Maisie grabbed the door jamb but was no match for Carl's strength as she found herself forced to her knees in front of the toilet, a wide American Standard with gallons of standing water.
"Wasn't you told?" she heard again before he drove her face under water past her ears, obliterating sound and breath.
Maisie's arms flapped as Carl held her under. Her face came out of the water with Carl's upward yank.
"Showing off your cunt at the diner are you?" Still grasping her hair, Carl warned: she could be found dead from drowning in the brook out back and everyone would think it was an accident or that she had done it herself. Is that what she wanted?
At the funeral service, men from the lumber yard were in work clothes: dark green polished cotton, jeans and T-shirts, yellow work boots, brown work boots; some had changed to white and light blue dress shirts. Tubby wore a brown corduroy sports jacket and brown quilted tie, whose square bottom rested on his stomach.
"Those are fine caskets you got for Carl and the boy," said Tubby. He wondered about the expense.
Maisie had been looking past Tubby, hoping he would move on. She told him they weren't expensive; they were rentals.
"Sure enough," said Maisie. The end of the casket was hinged. The funeral people slid the body out and into the furnace slick as can be, and the casket was saved for the next deceased.
"Well, I'll be," said Tubby. "Ain't that something. What will you be doing with the ashes?"
"I think I'll scatter them in the brook out back."
Tubby told Maisie she shouldn't be alone. He'd come by—say, the next evening. Maisie felt a flash of faintness.
"Don't do that, Tubby."
He persisted. He'd bring a bottle. What did she like?
"Tubby, if you come near my house, I'll call the police and have you put in jail."
Tubby stepped back. As he said "Well, well" and "If that's how you feel," Maisie turned to Mrs. Mitchell, little Carl's teacher, who presented her with a large, handmade card containing sentiments from his classmates. That night, Maisie examined the card. She found Amy Bouvoir's sentiment, which read, "Good by Carl." A close inspection revealed that "by Carl" covered an erasure. Maisie was unable to make out what was erased even with her magnifying glass, but imagined the original sentiment reading, "Good riddance," or some such true feeling.
Several weeks after the accident, Maisie fancied herself arrested, learning that a spy drone had been overhead the day of the accident. The federal government had taken pictures of her incidentally while going after terrorists. Her lawyer argued that it was an illegal invasion of her privacy but no surprise; the government got away with it and there she was, caught red-handed with the turkey baster and easy-twist jar opener.
At the trial, a jury of six men and six women refused to convict her for big Carl. Her lawyer got her off with nullification. But what could he say about little Carl?
"Your honor. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Here was a boy nonredeemable, bound to grow into a monster like his pa. You know about his pa, who intimidated everyone and beat his wife. Let me tell you about this boy." He enumerated the behavioral problems, the violent video games, the talking back, the "pee-hole" incident.
The jury didn't buy it and Maisie was sent to the women’s prison at Goffstown. There, she met Pamela Smart, who commiserated with her. Pamela had been convicted many years earlier for masterminding the murder of her husband.
She said, "It's so unfair. Even if I did it, they didn't prove it. Look at the transcript. They didn't prove it."
Then Maisie remembered that Pamela Smart had been transferred to a prison in New York years ago and was no longer at Goffstown. Maisie looked about her. She wasn't at Goffstown; she was standing in her kitchen. She felt her arms. She felt her legs. She deduced that the drone, the trial, prison—all of it—had not happened.
It was early evening. Maisie drove down to see Ma. Winston turned off the television news and joined them at the dining room table.
Maisie told Ma about her recollection of being arrested for tampering with the truck. She told Ma about the trial and the women's prison at Goffstown. She told Ma about her conversation with Pamela Smart.
"Oh goodness," Ma said. Her eyes watered. She moved her chair next to Maisie's, put her arm around her daughter's shoulders, pulled her close.
Winston sat open-mouthed.
Ma said, "Sometimes Maisie gets these awful dreams."
"They're not dreams," said Maisie. "They're remembrances."
"Remembrances," said Ma. "But they never happened."
"Sometimes they did."
Ma kissed Maisie on the forehead and got up to close the dining room window. Maisie's gaze followed Ma. The window had a screen and outside, Maisie saw neither maple tree nor bird feeder.
"Ma," said Maisie, "the morning I come over and worked in the diner, was you shooting a squirrel out the window?"
Both Winston's and Ma's faces went from concern to bursts of laughter.
Winston said, "I've heard tales of that squirrel gun."
Ma said, "Honey, I got rid of that Hornet years ago. Why, the police would be at the door if I was shooting a gun in town."
"Well then," said Maisie. "That morning, did you and Winston announce your engagement?"
"Why we did, sure enough. And you made a joke about living in sin."
"Sure enough," said Maisie.
Maisie drove back up North Road, sat at the kitchen table, turned the matter over in her mind. She could imagine killing big Carl, could imagine that being real. Not little Carl, though. That was impossible. Wasn't it? Here was the problem: she didn't miss him; she was relieved he was gone; she was relieved she didn't have to deal with him anymore, would not have to deal with him as a teenager, would not have to deal with him grown up.
Maisie opened the utensil drawer. She would examine the physical evidence. She would know one way or the other.
She located the easy-twist jar opener and examined it under bright light with her magnifying glass. No signs of oil or brake fluid. No grime. She smelled it. Nothing. Of course, she would have washed it afterward, although that wasn’t in her remembrance.
Next Maisie searched for the turkey baster. She dumped the utility drawer onto the kitchen table. She searched the other kitchen drawers. She searched the trash. She went outside and searched the shed. Nowhere to be found. Did she dispose of it? No remembrance.
As Maisie pondered, a text message from the police chief appeared on her phone. Could she drop by the station in the morning?
In the morning, Maisie thought of fleeing. Get her hands on the insurance money and flee, out west, or to the Caribbean Islands. She drank coffee, spread jam on toast. The getaway thoughts passed. At nine, she drove down to the town offices.
The police station had its own one-story brick building with a small public area inside the front door. The dispatcher buzzed her through a second door and led her down a hall to the chief's office. The chief waved Maisie to a chair on the other side of her cluttered desk. Paperwork, a coffee cup, newspapers, folders, more paperwork, a laptop, the chief's hat, and in a clear plastic bag, Maisie's turkey baster.
The chief pushed papers toward Maisie, then caught the fix of her eyes.
"You knew we took that, didn't you?"
Maisie shook her head.
"We left a form. On the kitchen table."
Maisie hadn't read it. The chief apologized. She explained. Two boys from State had inspected her property, with the chief in attendance. She assured Maisie that the inspection was aboveboard and neat. They left a form saying what they had done and what they had taken for lab work.
Maisie was still staring at the plastic bag. The chief said, look, she'd tell Maisie the story in a minute. She chuckled; it was a good story. But first, she needed Maisie's signature for the returned evidence and pushed across a pen. Maisie signed and dated the bottom of three forms, put down the pen, and looked across to the chief's eyes.
The chief pointed to the turkey baster. She shook her head and launched into a tale, how the boys at State watched too many reruns of Law & Order and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, how they decided to investigate the accident as a possible homicide, how the prime suspect, as always, was the spouse. Next, they tried to figure out how the spouse did it. The chief accompanied the story with eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, arm waves, and bursts of laughter.
The boys were snooping around Maisie's kitchen, opening drawers. One of them saw the turkey baster.
"So this state police detective says, he actually says, 'That's how she done it! She sucked the fluid out with the turkey baster.'"
The chief fell back in her chair laughing. She told Maisie the boys insisted on taking the turkey baster, dropped it into an evidence bag for examination at the lab. Said it was almost impossible to have washed it clean. There would be some residue of brake fluid. All they needed was a speck.
The chief looked at Maisie's face.
"I'm sorry. I guess you don't find this funny. It's just those boys at State, when brains were handed out... Well, I shouldn't be talking out of school."
The chief stood. Maisie stood. They shook hands. The chief handed Maisie the turkey baster.
"I guess they didn't find no residue," said Maisie.
The chief laughed and pulled tissues from the desk clutter. She wiped tears from her eyes. She blew her nose.
"I guess they didn't."