The way Joy calmly swept up the broken teeth from the kitchen floor would leave anyone with the impression of a woman who didn’t get too upset about things. This was just part of the familiar routine, sweeping up teeth, wiping blood spatter from walls.
That’s what a woman gets sometimes working two jobs after the husband—finally surrendering himself to being a woman trapped inside of a man’s body—runs off with the marriage counselor; four boys raising themselves as wild as a pack of dogs and just as vicious.
Normally at this time Joy would be leaving for work, her shift at the bar just about to start, but her schedule had become unexpectedly obstructed. Andy, her fourteen-year-old, was wailing in the bathroom from alcohol being poured into open wounds.
At that moment Dale, Joy’s eldest boy, careened into the kitchen. There was so much blood on his white T-shirt it didn’t look like he should be walking around.
“Ma, he’s bleeding real bad.”
“Head wounds always bleed a lot, baby. Put some pressure on it.”
Dale nodded, his eyes glazed. Dale was the toughest. Always cool, always calm. Always knowing just what to do. Except for now.
From beneath the thick lashes glued to her lids Joy watched the way her youngest, sitting in his highchair, shoveled Kraft dinner into his face. She sucked on a cigarette, arched an eyebrow at him, and said, “I told those fucks upstairs my boys would go all trailer park on their ass.”
She carried on sweeping, her toenails glowing neon pink, a Chinese silk robe swallowing her pixie body. “They’re keeping God damn elephants up there and the elephants like to move furniture around at six in the fucking morning.”
Her little one stared at her with a quiet fascination as she swiped a strand of fine blond hair from her brow with her cigarette hand and continued the rant. “Me, I’m like a fucking ninja when I move around my apartment. You wouldn’t know anyone even lives here.”
She wondered how the couple upstairs were doing, having witnessed the knock-down-drag-out in her kitchen moments earlier. She’d never seen an old couple fight like that. Grandma too, throwing punches at Joy’s kids like a street fighter, long grey hair flying around her. Then the old bastard picked up a chair—solid walnut—and cracked Andy in the head so bad it knocked him out.
“You know I never once complained?” Joy said, “Never once. I’m used to noise with four boys. It’s no big deal. They got some nerve complaining about me playing Amy Winehouse. It wasn’t even loud. Please. At least the noise I make is pleasant. Not like their elephant circus.”
“Ma! We need some bandages!” Dale yelled from the bathroom.
“Look in the cupboard, baby.”
“Not fucking Band-aides, Ma. Fucking bandages. The bleeding won’t stop.”
“Use a towel.”
Joy bent over to sweep the teeth into a dustpan, the sound like pebbles tumbling into plastic.
“And then they go and get their feelings all hurt because they think I’m poking fun at them for being fat. Well, what the fuck? You’re fat, you’re fat. Big deal. They get all up in my face like I’m so out of line pointing out the obvious? Please.”
Dale stumbled into the kitchen again, tears shining on his cheeks. “Ma? Something’s wrong. Andy’s not breathing. He’s all white and he’s not moving.”
Sirens in the distance altered them, making the drastic turn of events instantly real. Something jagged inched its way up her esophagus—the usual nausea of being alive in the world perhaps? Or was it panic clawing away inside of her? She swallowed it back down, turned to the baby and said, “Did I tell you that old fuck upstairs used to be my Sunday school teacher when I was a kid? Till he started praying to Jim Beam.”
With her painted toes she stepped on the lever at the bottom of the garbage can and the dirt and broken teeth slid into the trash. Joy gazed through the window at the dying sun burning out into a crimson stripe across the clouds, dragged on the cigarette butt and said, “Fuck. Guess I’m not gonna make it into work again tonight.”