Home on the Base

I.

Mrs. Kennedy stood proudly on the porch of unit 1005A with a black menthol in one hand and her engorged stomach in the other. Jet black hair rippled down an oversized t-shirt as she billowed smoke into the crisp morning air.  When she brought the cigarette away from her mouth, her hand made calming circles around her bulging mid section, her hips thrust forward as if showing off to the block. Eyes peeped out from units 1001A and 1002B, flickering curtains moving by the wakeful spirits behind them. With one final drag, Mrs. Kennedy pulled the embers expertly toward her fingers before flicking the stub into an ashtray, her hands unburnt. When she reached for the second one from a pack holstered by her side, Mrs. Morris decided to come retrieve her paper. The garbage truck thundered by, the sun rose higher over the branches of freshly planted oaks, and the women of the street emerged one at a time to watch. Some of them waved earnestly from their drives, others opted for wary looks out of the corner of their eyes, doubtful expressions flashing at Mrs. Kennedy’s distinctive silhouette. Mrs. O’Brien leashed her dogs and strode down the quiet street, stopping abruptly to offer a pointed ‘Morning’ and a stern glare before realizing she had forgotten something and retreating into her home. When the third menthol dangled between her chipped nail polish, Mrs. Martinez finally walked across the street to put an end to the matter.

“Good morning Melissa!” Mrs. Martinez exuberantly announced her presence midway over the asphalt.

A long drag. “Morning Jane.” Another drag.

“And I should wish her a good morning too! Have you thought of names yet?” Mrs. Martinez had stopped right at the cusp of the lawn.

Mrs. Kennedy let silence settle with an impassive stare. She placed both hands on the wooden railing in front of her and leaned forward. “Will and I aren’t making decisions until he is back from his tour of duty.”

Mrs. Martinez’s face eased, her painted on eyebrows receding from her temples. “Oh honey, he wont be back for four months. Are you sure you want to cut it so close?”

“I’ll be fine.” The silence returned quicker this time. Mrs. Martinez struggled to respond.

“Why don’t you come play cards with me and the other girls tonight? It’s always so much fun. Abby makes a mean virgin margarita. You look like you could use some stress relief.”

“Thanks Jane. But really, I’m fine. And I’ll be busy tonight.”

Mrs. Martinez broke her stare as a squirrel flashed past her feet and up a nearby maple. With some determination, she returned her focus back to the porch. “Melissa I know it isn’t my place but I just can’t stand here while you smoke that thing. Your choices are your choices, but there is a child who is breathing right there with you.” She stopped, waiting for the effects of the confrontation. Mrs. Kennedy stood still, right hand fuming, her face inscrutable. Before the silence could completely consume her momentum, Mrs. Martinez continued. “We are all here to support each other. You aren’t the only one missing a husband. Louis and Will are on the same deployment, I know what you are feeling. And it’s all a lot easier when you can occupy yourself. Talk to people, gossip a little, play cards. This is how we survive. But we do not smoke cigarettes around infant children.”

Mrs. Kennedy looked at her right hand with mild interest. She paused, then smothered the cigarette with a twisting motion against the railing. Without a word, she turned back inside the duplex.

 

II.

The game was Texas Hold-em. Before the Martinez’s had joined the base, Bunco had reigned supreme on Wednesday nights, but as Mrs. Martinez said, Bunco was for old ladies. She had had some success in some amateur tournaments, and she was eager to capitalize on the boredom many in the 1000’s block felt toward rolling dice. It had taken awhile for the rules to catch on– Abby Morris still sometimes failed to notice her flushes – but the sense of competition settled over even Mrs. Henderson, widely acknowledged to be the densest of the group. The growing piles of nickels and quarters satisfied some deep appetite within the women, a communal offering to reciprocal cruelty and greed. And of course, it was always presented with a hefty supply of mixed drinks. On this particular Wednesday, Kelly O’Brien was losing badly. She peered at her cards with disgusted eyes, the shame of her short stack painted over her face. Mrs. Henderson grinned gleefully from behind an unsorted mound of loose change, her round face radiating bright red. She showed her cards to Mrs. Morris, seated directly on her left, and the pair giggled in unrestrained peels. When the bet came around to the two, Mrs. Henderson tossed a mixture of quarters and dimes into the middle. Mrs. O’Brien’s already gaunt face stretched tighter, and she tossed away her cards before the bet had returned to her side of the table. Standing from the round wooden table, the crown of her blonde skull almost grazed the low hanging light that lit the entire kitchen area. Fists clenched, she excused herself from the room noiselessly. Mrs. Henderson and Mrs. Morris knew better than to acknowledge this by ceasing their giggling, but Jenny Sanders turned abruptly to Mrs. Martinez upon watching the screen door sigh shut.

“Is she OK?”

“Oh she’ll be fine. She just needs a second.” Mrs. Martinez didn’t take her eyes off of her cards. “Beth, you know you shouldn’t bully like that.” Mrs. Henderson wiped a tear that had trickled down her cheek away with her hand, but nodded through her snickers. Mrs. Martinez place a fresh role of quarters in front of Mrs. O’Brien’s empty seat and jotted something down on a yellow legal pad. The hand finished, and then the next. Mrs. Morris sighed deeply as she tossed her cards in the middle.

“I swear I haven’t seen a face card all night,” she took a large gulp of her margarita, “what about Melissa Kennedy? She couldn’t make it again?”

“Odd woman. And that poor baby,” Mrs. Henderson shook her head.

“Oh I know. Shoot, I should have stayed in,” Mrs. Morris looked plaintively at the flop, “I’m going to go find Kelly.” She excused herself as well. Mrs. Martinez bought the pot with a small bet. Mrs. Henderson sat idly as Mrs. Martinez started to shuffle.

“Poor baby. It should be illegal you know, smoking while pregnant. It doesn’t have a say in the matter while she rots its little lungs out,” Mrs. Henderson said.

“I don’t think that the baby actually inhales the smoke.” Mrs. Martinez arched her thin hands into an elegant bridge.

“Well whatever. You know what I mean. And she is so stubborn. What could she possibly be doing tonight? She just is avoiding us. She’s been here 6 months now, she’s not even the newest anymore. Still, cold as ice.”

“She’s a bitch.” Mrs. O’Brien had calmed down, and there was no malice in her voice. She and Mrs. Morris retook their seats. She continued, “some girls know how to have fun, how to take advice, how to support each other. Some girls are bitches.”

“Kelly, I added five dollars to your tab.” Mrs. Martinez indicated the roll of quarters in front of her.

“Oh c’mon Janey you have to have some thoughts on this. You saw her chainsmoking this morning. 3 cigarettes?! Before 10AM.” Mrs. Henderson’s movements were enlarged with alcohol. Some neon green sludge slopped out the top as she gesticulated broadly. Mrs. Martinez smiled softly and started to deal.

“She’s a bitch.” The confirmation sent all the women into hysterical giggles. Even Mrs. O’Brien snorted into her drink. The next several hands passed effortlessly, thoughtless bets made and called as the women discussed Mrs. Kennedy.

“The crow,” Mrs. Morris declared, “I call her the crow. Just perched on that porch of her, unpleasant as you like. And you can shoe her all you want, but she just sticks around.”

“And that hair of hers. I could grease a baking sheet with it,”Mrs. O’Brien cracked back.

“I really shouldn’t say this,” Mrs. Martinez begun, and everyone leaned in, “it’s something Louis told me.”

“Oh do tell,” Mrs. Henderson’s bright face hung, raptured.

“OK OK. It’s about Will. Louis wrote me that Will has been slacking off on his duty. Sleeping in late, skipping meals, that kind of stuff. He’s probably going to face some disciplinary action.”

“Awful, the pair of them.”

“They’ll be terrible parents.”

“It’s disgusting.”

“We need to do something.”

The last one was Mrs. Henderson, and her drunken frustration seeped over the word ‘do’. It was then that Mrs. Martinez grinned all the wider and leaned forward again. She had an idea. A wicked, delightful idea. The women cackled and chortled and sipped their drinks. They soon left the table, their winnings and losses all but forgotten.

 

III.

Mrs. Kennedy did not emerge on her porch the next morning. The garbage truck rolled through an empty street, papers left abandoned on the drives. Every so often, a curtain would stir, ghostly eyes cringing at the spectacle across the way. The runny yellow patterns of drying egg yolks stained the beige exterior like spit-up. Cracked shells flashed like mica from the colorless pavement. Toilet paper dangled in wisps from sapling trees only able to hold a few pale strands. The ground had been clawed out, flowers and shrubs mauled, the remnants of a bizarre domestic riot. The cheek of the garage blushed with red spray paint, the hastily written word spoke over the muted earth tones of the street. “Bitch,” it informed passerbies. Later in the day the police would come. They would be pleasant and comfort Mrs. Kennedy. Teenagers are cruel. These must have been the kind of demons that destroy children’s pumpkins on Halloween. Of course, this wasn’t the kind of thing to take personally. Such senseless hatred exists for its own purposes, and please, Mrs. Kennedy, please promise that you wont take it personally. You should take the rest of the day to yourself and just rest. Maybe talk to a friend? Your mother? Just let yourself recover. If you think you are in shock, please give us a ring. We are here to serve after all. And then after that Mrs. O’Brien would walk her dogs, strolling past the house without a second notice. And Mrs. Morris would finally get the paper so she could finish the jumble. And Mrs. Martinez would walk over with some cookies, freshly baked, because she would know that Mrs. Kennedy would need some support, and, well, what else are neighbors for?