Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Small Packages

FICTION: Small Packages by Stacey Greenberg
Photo by Melissa Anderson Sweazy

Catherine was barely pregnant with her third child and hadn’t told her husband Tim yet. The pregnancy was unplanned, and although she was sure he’d be thrilled for number three, she was having trouble saying anything out loud.

After having Phillip and James in close succession, it had taken her over six years to lose her “baby weight” and regain her personal identity. She wasn’t really sure if she could do either again. What if it’s a girl? Where will she sleep? Catherine thought as she rinsed the dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher. They had just moved into a two bedroom house on the east side of Overton Park. Two bedrooms!
Right now, Tim was in the backyard weeding his enormous garden and the boys were alternately riding their bikes and skateboards on the parking pad in back. The phone was ringing and although Catherine generally screened calls to the home number (her friends called her cell), she happened to be standing right next to the receiver.

“Hello?” she barked, assuming it was a telemarketer. Tim hadn’t had a chance to re-register them on the “Do Not Call” list.

“Can I speak to Catherine?” A sexy male voice asked. Catherine hated it when they tried to trick her by only using her first name and sounding extra nice. “This is Catherine,” she said.

“Hi, uh, did you ever live at 1009 Central?” the sexy voice asked.

“Yes,” she answered not knowing where this was leading. “In college.”

“I live there now and today I received a package with your name on it.”

“Really? How strange,” she said.

“It’s from Carnival Country,” he said.

Catherine hesitated to admit that she ordered from them often. She couldn’t understand how the package had gone to a house she lived in so long ago. It would make more sense for it to have accidentally gone to the house she and Tim just moved out of. Then she laughed a little to herself realizing that she had lived in three different houses all within a mile or two of each other for most of her adult life. Had she not spent two years abroad after graduating from college, she might think of herself as boring.

“I’m leaving for my yoga class in a few minutes. I can come by and get it,” she said suddenly feeling quite forward. She quickly added, “You can just leave it on the porch if you want.”

“Sure, no problem,” the sexy voice said warmly and hung up.

Inexplicably, Catherine felt a rush. How nice of him, she thought. He must have looked her up in the phone book or called information. She tried to think of what she would do in a similar situation. She’d probably just cross out the name, send it back, and never give it a second thought. Or, more likely, the kids would get a hold of it and they’d end up keeping whatever was inside by default.

Catherine quickly changed into her yoga pants and matching tank. She brushed her silver streaked hair, checked her teeth in the mirror, and sprayed herself with Vanilla Mist. Tuesday was her day. She did yoga and then went out for late night sushi with some of the women in her class. (They had a very innocent, yet fulfilling, flirtation going on with one of the waiters.) If it weren’t for Tuesdays, Catherine might lose her mind.

Soon I’ll have to switch to pre-natal yoga and non-alcoholic beer, she thought as she opened the back door. But I’m not giving up raw tuna. “Honey, I’m going to yoga,” she called out to Tim. “I’m taking your car.”

“Okay,” he said as he gently unwound bindweed from the Roma tomato plants. “See you later.”

“Be good,” she called out to Phillip and James. They came running over for hugs.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said as she kissed them. The best part of Tuesday Night Out was getting to come home after the boys were already sound asleep.

Catherine had never been able to say no to their pleas for “one more book” or “a few more snuggles.” It was often past ten o’clock before she got any time to herself. She pushed thoughts of a new baby permanently attached to her breast out of her mind and headed towards the car.

Her old house on Central looked very palatial from the outside, but inside it was broken up into several different apartments in varying stages of disrepair. She shuddered to think of all the damage she personally caused.

In college, Catherine and her roommate Robin had befriended most of their fellow residents and thrown wild parties on a regular basis. It wasn’t uncommon to see people sleeping on the porch or to find random pieces of broken furniture in the front yard. Catherine and Robin had become popular after a party highlighted by Catherine sitting naked on the hood of Robin’s Civic while she drove around the block honking.

Was that really fifteen years ago? Catherine marveled. Sometimes when driving the boys home from school, Catherine would point at the big house and say, “That’s where Mommy used to live before she met Daddy.” Even though she just lived a few blocks away now it was like living in a whole other world.

Catherine was surprised to see that there were no chairs on the porch, as that was where she and Robin spent the majority of their time. Looking around it didn’t seem like there was much furniture in any of the apartments—just a lot of wood scraps and other debris. She peeked through the window to find that most of the rooms had been gutted. There was no package in sight.

She took a deep breath and gently knocked on the door. She heard footsteps and then felt a blast of cold air as the screen door flew open.

“Catherine?” A man in paint-splattered Carhartts and a moist white t-shirt asked. He had a level in one hand and a small, cardboard box in the other.

She smiled and nodded.

“I’m Richard. Here’s your package,” he said as he held it out to her. He had bright blue eyes and dark hair. Despite his obvious prowess, his scruffy beard and wire-rimmed glasses made him seem more bookish than burly. His voice definitely wasn’t the only thing sexy about him.

“Thank you,” she said, staring. “Most people wouldn’t have bothered tracking me down.”

He gave her a good once over and said, “You weren’t very hard to find.”
Catherine turned her head so he wouldn’t see her already rosy cheeks ignite. “So, are you fixing this place up?’ she asked.

“I guess you could say that,” he said modestly.

“To live in or sell?” she asked eagerly. Am I flirting?

“Both—I’ll live here until I can sell it.”

“Wait, do I know you?” she asked, suddenly feeling like she had seen those blue eyes before.

“Maybe,” he said playfully.

Now she was embarrassed. She had a terrible memory for names and had forgotten many acquaintances after learning a new language and culture in Prague. It was like her brain ran out of room. Several years of baby-induced sleep deprivation didn’t help.

“Did we go to school together?” she asked.

“Sort of,” he grinned.

Nice teeth.

Hot and bothered, she said, “Dammit, who are you?”

“I told you, my name is Richard.”

“And…” she prodded.

“I used to hang out with a guy who dated Robin for awhile.”

Catherine wracked her brain. Robin had a lot of boyfriends. “Bill?” “Bingo,” he said.

She stared at him some more and tried to picture him without the beard. “Oh my god, you are the Egg Man!” Catherine now clearly remembered sitting on the kitchen floor doing Tequila shots with Robin, Bill, Richard and some other faceless people. They took turns microwaving eggs until they exploded. “You were fun.” I wonder why we never hooked up, she thought.

Richard reached up and grabbed the door frame to stretch his long arms. Just under his t-shirt sleeve Catherine could see some small tattoos in a row—a heart, a spade, a diamond, and a clover. He saw her staring, and said, “Those are tricks up my sleeve.”

Coming from a long line of bridge players, she laughed and said, “I really like that.”

“Mind if I ask what’s in the package?” Richard asked, grinning.

She looked down and examined the box. “It’s a marshmallow gun,” she blurted out, not feeling embarrassed at all.

“Really?” he asked, curious.

“I bought it for my kids,” she said.

“Kids?” he asked.

“Yep, I have two.”

He looked impressed. “And a husband?”

“Yep, but just one,” she said.

“Anyone I know?” he asked.

“Actually no,” she said. “Tim’s from Oregon. We met in Prague.”

“And you convinced him to move to Memphis?”

“Can you believe that?” she smiled.

“Actually, I can,” he said.

Is he flirting back?

They stood looking at each other for a minute, not quite sure where to go from there. Catherine was torn between thanking Richard, racing to her yoga class, and giggling over drinks with the girls and inviting herself in.

“You know what? I’ve got some marshmallows,” Richard said finally.

“Oh you do, huh?” she smiled, secretly thrilled at this turn of events. Steadying herself against the railing, she asked, “Do you have any beer?”

“Yep,” he grinned.

Feeling like the Catherine who used to live in that big house, she said, “Get the marshmallows and the beer and follow me.” As she climbed into Tim’s Jetta she knew she could never have pulled this off in her minivan.


By the time Catherine cruised into Martyr’s Park she was starting to lose her nerve. “Let’s go sit on the bluffs and watch the barges go by,” she said.

“Let’s climb on the bridge and pelt a train with marshmallows,” Richard replied.

She looked up at the bridge. Robin had convinced her to climb it a few times, but it always scared her. She took a deep breath and said, “Okay.”

Catherine tried to appear confident as they approached the chain link fence, but her eyes gave her away. Having one last beer with the Egg Man seemed innocent and fun. Scaling a chain link fence in order to dangle on an old bridge above the Mississippi seemed foolish, if not downright dangerous.

Richard held out his hand, “Come on, it’ll be fun.”

She looked at his strong arms and imagined them around her waist.

“Don’t worry,” he said, still holding out his hand. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Catherine took his hand and was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to get over the fence. She ran towards the beams, exhilarated.

They walked over to a spot on the narrow pedestrian path on the side of the tracks. Catherine sat down cross-legged and started opening the Carnival Country box while Richard cracked open a couple of Newcastles.

“Here, see if you can figure this out,” she said, handing him the red and blue plastic gun.

He handed her a beer in exchange. “Cheers,” he said with a smile.

“Cheers,” she said, clinking his bottle with hers.

While Richard fiddled with the gun, trying to get it loaded with marshmallows, Catherine started interviewing him.

“So, why aren’t you married?”

He laughed. “I am…for a few more days anyway.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, mortified.

“Don’t be. I’m not,” he said.

“What do you mean? What happened?”

“Let’s just say that I’d much rather be fixing up that old house on Central than trying to put my sham of a marriage back together.”

Catherine suddenly felt very self-conscious. “Look, the train!” she said, now happy to see it coming. “You got that thing loaded yet?” she asked.

Richard nodded, and quickly demonstrated how to pull back the lever and shoot the marshmallows. Catherine took the gun, one hand on the front grip and one hand on the back, and assumed some kind of Rambo stance. When the train came by she started shooting marshmallows in a rapid fire succession.

“Oh no, I’m out of ammo!” she yelled over the sound of the wheels a few seconds later.

Richard grabbed the gun and the marshmallows and quickly reloaded the magazine. He tried to hand the gun back to her, but she screamed, “You try it!” He held the gun up to his shoulder like a rifle and methodically shot a marshmallow in the center of each passing car.

Catherine watched him until he ran out of ammo, then motioned for him to grab the backpack and follow her. The sun hadn’t set all the way but the wind was starting to pick up. Richard walked up next to Catherine and pulled her close to him. The train was making too much noise for them to talk so they just kept walking.

When the train passed, Catherine gave Richard a squeeze and said, “I think I need another beer.” Richard obliged. They stopped walking and sat down near the railing. They swung their feet over the edge, still embracing. Catherine watched the water rushing by.

“You’re even prettier now than you were in school,” Richard said.

Catherine wasn’t good at taking compliments—at least not on her looks. She decided to believe that Richard really meant what he said. She swallowed her beer fast and felt her head spin a little. “You’re not so bad yourself,” she said, looking up at him.

Richard slipped his hand in her shirt and his tongue in her mouth. Richard’s mouth was soft on hers. His tongue touched the inside of her cheek, then he took the edge of her lip between his teeth. Catherine was breathing fast, leaning into him. She felt Richard’s hand slip inside the cup of her bra; he rolled her nipple gently between his thumb and finger. Catherine made a small, low noise.

“Relax,” Richard whispered and she realized she had been gripping his forearm very tightly, her eyes squeezed closed. She opened them a little, the world coming slightly back into focus.

She was on her back looking up at the edge of the “Welcome to Arkansas, Home of President Bill Clinton” sign hanging above the bridge. I’ve definitely crossed a line.

Catherine thought of the time when Phillip was learning the states in school and very patiently tried to teach them to James. He had his own way of talking and pronounced Arkansas as “arky-saw.” Tennessee was “tennis seat.” The boys would love it up here. Not that I’d let those wild monkeys anywhere near here! she thought. Maybe I should bring Tim...

Richard was kissing her neck now, and it felt good. Even so, Catherine gently pushed him off of her and kissed him on the cheek. She ran her fingers through his hair like she might run them through one of her son’s and smiled.

Richard smiled back as he felt the wind change direction.

“I’m sorry,” Catherine said. “I had the strongest urge to run as far away from my family as I could today, but now they are all I can think about.”

He reached for another beer, and handed her one too. “It’s okay,” he said. “I think I know what you mean.”

“You do?”

“Yeah,” he said, sighing.

“It was fun seeing you again,” she said, hoping to save some face.

“You too. I bet you are a fun mom,” he said graciously.

I am. She looked at the full beer in her hand and remembered what sent her reeling in the first place. “I’m pregnant,” she said, happily, and a little louder than she expected.

Richard looked at her, then at her stomach, and said with a laugh, “Well, that was fast!”

She grinned, thankful that he was being a good sport.

“Let’s get you home,” he said.


Catherine had pretty much decided to erase Richard from her mind. She felt a little embarrassed, not to mention guilty, about their encounter and preferred to pretend that it had never happened. She was sure that he thought she was a total tease. Or prude. Or worse.

Friday, when she came home from work, Catherine was somewhat startled when Tim asked, “Who’s Richard Webb?”

She could feel her face go white. “What? Who?” she asked, confused.

“A Carnival Country package came with Richard Webb’s name and our address.”

“Oh,” she said, exhaling. “That’s weird.”

Catherine walked over to the package to see for herself. Was it just a bizarre coincidence? Did Richard want her to look him up? Was someone at Carnival Country playing a trick on her?

“Maybe he used to live here or something. I’ll send it back on Monday,” she said to Tim, who didn’t seem too concerned about the fate of the package.

Catherine couldn’t sleep at all that night. Maybe she would drop the package off at Richard’s house tomorrow—tempt fate: if he was there she’d go inside, kiss him one last time; if he wasn’t home, she’d just leave the package by the door, try to forget about all of it.

When Phillip and James came running in to her room on Saturday morning, she was too tired to get up. “Go turn on one of your shows,” she pleaded with them as she buried her head under her pillow. She and Tim still hadn’t found a curtain for the window over their bed.

Catherine tried to go back to sleep, but Phillip and James’ rumblings kept her awake. She liked to try and imagine what all the noises were. Clearly they had turned on the television and found an episode of “Ben 10” that she DVRed for them. She was pretty sure one of them was attempting to get cereal. When she heard Phillip say “Get the scissors!” to James, she was mildly alarmed. She hoped they wouldn’t cut up anything too important. As she tried to visualize all the things piled on the entry table, she heard the distinct sound of bubble wrap being jumped on. The package!

Catherine bolted out of bed and ran into the living room. She tried to sound stern when she said, “Phillip! James! What are you doing? That’s not ours,” but she was secretly glad to have a reason to look inside the box.

“Look, Mommy!” Phillip said as he held up a pair of goggles. “Bug eyes!”

“Cool!” said James as he dug into the box and pulled out another pair.

“There’s lots of them!” Phillip exclaimed. “Daddy! Come look!”

Tim came padding in to see what all the excitement was about. James had his goggles on and said, “Look, Daddy! I’m a bug!”

“Me too!” said Phillip, now wearing his goggles.

“Everything is multiplied!” James said.

Catherine loved that her five-year-old just said the word multiplied. She put on her glasses and said, “Look, I’m a bug too!”

Tim was laughing now. “Do I get a pair?”

Phillip handed him a pair and they all stood in the kitchen giggling. “Bugs have compound eyes,” Tim said. “They have hundreds of little corneas. Each one provides the bug’s brain with one picture element.”

“Cool,” James said.

“I have a great idea,” said Phillip. “Let’s get dressed and walk over to the trails and wear our bug glasses!”

Overton Park was the main reason they never moved more than a mile away. Every Saturday and Sunday for as long as she could remember, she and Tim had packed up the dogs, and later the kids, to hike along the old forest trails. Spring, summer, fall and winter. Rain or shine. It was their sanctuary.

James picked up the box and turned it upside down to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. A fifth pair of goggles fell out. “Look! Another pair!” he exclaimed.

Phillip picked them up and asked, “Who’s going to wear these?”

Catherine put her hand on her stomach and looked at Tim. He raised his eyebrow and mouthed, “Are you serious?” Catherine blushed. Then she looked at Phillip and James, said “I bet I can get dressed the fastest!” and raced towards her bedroom in her bug goggles.

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