Toni stood in line at the supermarket, jostling Henry on her hip as she watched the cashier check her coupons with the precision of a corrupt jeweller. The cashier glanced up at her with dull eyes and Toni steeled herself for recognition which came too often to dismiss. She passed a faded coupon back to her between thumb and forefinger.
‘This one’s expired.’ The cashier said.
Toni grimaced and checked the small print, crumpled it up in her hand and shoved it into her back pocket. She considered dropping it but there were people behind her. Toni fought to ignore the impatient sighs and mumbled comments which arose with each second.
‘The others work, right?’ Toni said.
The cashier nodded, her eyes twinkled with pity which made Toni’s stomach churn. She handled indifference with aplomb but pity? Toni felt it like a slap across her face before she handed over her card and paid for the groceries. She turned to one side, grabbed her bags in one hand and went outside. Henry wailed at a volume which felt like nails being hammered into her temples so she hustled across the car park, opened the trunk and put her bags inside. She entertained the exhausted impulse to put him in the trunk and enjoy the silent company of the groceries, but she turned and kissed him on a soft, wet cheek and smelled his hair instead.
Dad was in the yard, in his underwear when she pulled up, staring at her in frightened confusion as he scratched the white hairs on his melted wax abdomen and his yellowing shorts hung low on his hips, ragged and threadbare from too many laundry cycles. Toni swore under her breath as she got out and told him to go back inside. He stared at her, bottom lip flapping like an adulterer’s shirt tails and turned around.
‘Where’s Maria?’ Toni said.
Dad looked at her with the same expression a dog gave if you showed it a card trick before he shrugged his shoulders.
‘I’m hungry.’ He said.
Toni grimaced and got Henry from the child seat. Her dad walked inside, and she averted her gaze from his sallow, sagging buttocks, shocked by how he had degraded since Mom died. She would call the agency and give them a piece of her mind, they cost enough and still hired incompetent carers for her dad. By the time she had soothed them both, the impulse passed and she had dinner to cook. Afterwards, Dad insisted on watching the news even though he wouldn’t remember what he watched. Toni stayed in the kitchen, did the dishes and tried to drown out the bray of her old boss at a press conference before it made her break something.
Her phone bleated and she picked it up.
‘Toni Keating.’ She said.
A sigh came through the phone and the hairs went up on the back of her neck.
David on the phone. The sound of his voice raised the hairs on her forearms, sent a low pleasurable trickle of lava down from her stomach into her pelvis. It lasted for a second before she looked at the sink full of dishes and her dad turned the volume up on the television. Reality tapped her on the shoulder and reminded her of how things were.
‘Fuck off, David.’ She said.
He sighed and told her to calm down which made her disconnect the call and put the phone back in her pocket. She glanced at the television, saw him in a medium close up and giving the killer smile which had done so much harm to her so she called him back. It went to voicemail, and the smooth burr of his voice set her aflame.
‘When I see a fucking dime out of you, then you get the privilege of ringing me up to reminisce. Until then, don’t fucking call me. Ever. I wish you were dead.’ She said.
She disconnected the call, humming with self-righteousness until she heard Henry squall from his cot and she burst into hot, frustrated tears. She dashed through to get him and hustled him into her arms. She pressed her nose to the top of his head, inhaled him like good cocaine and squeezed her eyes shut against the tears.
Henry nestled against her chest and touched her cheek with a soft, sticky hand. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. She walked through to the living room, asked her dad to turn the volume down and saw David on the television stood with the President.
Her lover and her boss, talking like old friends.
She still had a few of the suits in the wardrobe. The shoes had gone in a yard sale, for far less than she had paid. The black housekeeper walked off with a pair of Manholos, grinning like she had won the lottery. It had gone on diapers which was appropriate. No one recognised her anymore, the years had worn away the polish and make up was pointless, even for herself. She had gone from prime time television during the most controversial election in decades to just another aimless, crumpled mother in the streets. Mandy, her neighbour who lent her the occasional menthol cigarette in return for watching her son asked her once why she didn’t sell her story. Toni raised a finger to interrupt her, went through to her bedroom and came back with a thick document in her hands. She let it slide onto the table with a thump which made Mandy cry out.
‘That’s why.’ She said.
Non Disclosure Agreement. She had signed it as the price of the ticket to get aboard and she couldn’t imagine breaching it. Toni came to the campaign wreathed in a belief which resisted the logic and rhetoric of political commentators and journalists. She would have given up an arm for him if he had asked.
She lost more than that.
Henry cried and Dad had fallen into a light doze on the lounger as she stood there, watched the circus go on without her. Toni wept. She threw a blanket over her dad’s legs and smiled at him. Toni remembered how he would babble to his friends about his little girl on the tv, representing the next President until his voice gave out. His mind had beaten his voice now, but in moments of clarity, he gazed at her with bemusement and she had to turn away. She cuddled Henry and kept kissing the top of his head.
‘It’s okay, baby.’ She said.
She kept saying it, over and over.
Over and over.
Over and over.