By John Manderino
After lunching at Applebee’s, Carol and her small, aging mother visited a gift shop in the mall in search of a little ceramic shepherd boy to go with the little shepherd girl on the shelf in her mother’s living room. As it turned out, the shop carried a little shepherd girl but no boy. Carol’s mother asked the overweight shop lady why they would carry a little shepherd girl but no little shepherd boy–did that make sense?
The shop lady explained that the little shepherd girl was in fact Bo Peep and that there wasn’t any mention of a shepherd boy in the rhyme, was there? And she even began to recite: “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep–”
“Stop that,” Carol’s mother told her, and pointed up at the woman’s big round face: “Do you know what you are?”
“You’re an obnoxious, overweight cow,” she informed the woman, then turned around and hobbled straight out of the shop. “Let’s go, Carol. Come on.”
Carol apologized to the shop lady. “Sometimes she just…she tends to get…”
The shop lady touched Carol’s arm, nodding sympathetically: “I understand, dear.”
Carol wished to be held in the shop lady’s lap, and rocked, and told nursery rhymes.
“Carol, are you coming?”
All the way home in the car her mother complained bitterly. She began with the insulting shop lady, moved on to Carol’s failure to remain married, then turned to her own life since Carol’s father died two years ago. “On the moon” was the way she felt, that was how desolate, as if she were wandering around on the moon. So, she concluded, even if they had found a little shepherd boy, that wouldn’t have made any real difference, she would still wish that she were dead.
“I know, I know.”
Approaching her mother’s driveway Carol slowed and was about to pull in but saw something furry shimmying up the drain pipe at the side of the house.
“What are you doing?” her mother asked as Carol continued past the driveway.
“I just…I thought…I heard a funny noise.”
“Funny noise, what’re you talking about?”
“In the engine. I want to drive around, see if I can hear it better.”
“I don’t hear any funny–”
“Shh.” Was it a raccoon?
“Carol, did you just shush me?”
A baby gorilla?
“Don’t ever shush me. Do you understand?”
A midget in a fur coat?
“I said, do you understand?”
“I do, Mother, yes.”
Whatever it was, if her mother saw it she would never go in the house again. She would move in with Carol. So Carol continued driving around, giving the thing plenty of time to climb back down and go away.
“I have to use the toilet, Carol.”
“You can use mine.”
“No. Take me home. You can listen to your funny noise after you drop me off.”
But Carol turned left at the next street and began heading towards her apartment a mile away.
“Carol, turn around.”
“What’s wrong with using my toilet?”
“I can’t relax. I need to relax. Turn around, Carol. Now.”
“Fine. Fine.” Using someone’s driveway Carol turned around and headed back. Whatever it was, it was probably gone by now.
“By the way,” her mother said after a few moments, “not to be critical, but you’ve been looking awfully bedraggled lately, Carol.”
Unless, oh Lord, it got through a window and was now in the house.
“At least try and do something with your hair.”
Or, what was far more likely, she hadn’t actually seen anything. It was the two glasses of wine she’d had with her salad on top of the tranquilizers.
“Get yourself a nice perm, why don’t you.”
She was just hallucinating, that was all. Merely losing her mind.
“You go around looking like some kind of I-don’t-know-what.”
When they got back to her mother’s, sure enough, the thing was gone. Carol pulled into the driveway. “All right, Mom. Well…”
“Aren’t you coming in?”
“I have to get back.”
“Well…to bring the car in, see about that noise.”
“I think you’re hearing things.”
“Probably. Hearing things, seeing things…”
“Seeing what things?”
Her mother set to work getting out of the car. “Call me.”
“Not between seven and eight,” her mother reminded her.
“I know.” That was her Matlock-rerun hour. She had a crush on wise old white-haired Andy Griffith. Carol wasn’t sure if she knew he was dead, and often felt like telling her.
After getting out, her mother spoke through the inch of open window. “We should try that shop over on Forest Avenue. We might have better luck.”
Carol nodded. “I guess we could do that.”
“I’m saying, we could do that.”
Her mother gave a parting sigh and hobbled off towards the front door.
Carol considered yelling Stop, don’t go in, but sat there watching as she got her key from her purse and used it, entered the house, and closed herself in with the Thing.
Carol backed out quickly and drove away.
Over and over she told herself there wasn’t any Thing in her mother’s house. “Get a grip,” she said aloud, shoving in the cigarette lighter. And anyway, she reasoned, if there really was some Thing–which of course there wasn’t, which of course was ridiculous–it would kill her quickly, it would be over in a moment and her mother would have her fondest wish. She took a cigarette from the pack on the dashboard, lit up, and felt better.
But then she suddenly cursed and made a U-turn, front wheel going over the curb, and sped back to her mother’s driveway. She got out, ran to the door, used her key, and went in. “Mom?”
“I’m in the bathroom,” her mother sang out. “What is it? I thought you left.”
“Everything all right?”
“I’m a little blocked up. I shouldn’t have ordered that cheese thing. It wasn’t even very good.”
While her mother went on about the cheese thing, pretty much repeating what she had told the waitress, Carol went around checking every room, including closets.
“I’m sorry, but Kraft American is not real cheese,” her mother declared from the bathroom. “It blocks you up like real cheese, I’ll grant you that.”
Carol heard something moving around in the kitchen.
“Not to be critical,” her mother added, “but I wish you would take me someplace a little upscale for a change.”
Carol tiptoed towards the kitchen.
“If I’m going to be blocked up, at least let it be with actual cheese.”
The Thing was much taller than she had thought, about her own height and badly in need of a perm. It was standing by the kitchen table, eating a banana from the fruit bowl, unpeeled.
“Are you going to kill my mother?”
“If she ever gets out of there.”
The toilet flushed.
The Thing gave Carol a little smile, moving its unplucked eyebrows up and down.
A minute later, still going on about the cheese thing, her mother entered the kitchen. Then she stopped and stood there, gaping.
“Carol? What are you doing? For God sakes, peel it first.”
John Manderino’s latest fiction collection is But You Scared Me The Most (Chicago Review Press, June 2016, $14.99). He lives in Scarborough and can be found at johnmanderino.com.