Rachel makes a quick visit to Joan’s house and discovers she’s gone out for a spin in the Jag – a risky adventure that often ends with a tow truck. She tidies up a bit, waters the garden, changes the water for the Shirleys, then gathers and disposes of a few fresh turds in the yard. She will sort out the box of receipts and paperwork on the table later. For reasons Rachel can’t explain, she is much better at managing someone else’s personal finances than her own. Joan’s files are in perfect order, thanks to Rachel, while hers are spilling over with Costco receipts and overdue orthodontist bills. On her way out, she sees the note left for her on the table. “Gone out. Come by later. I have something for you. Hugs, Joan.” Rachel feels a rush of affection for her quirky neighbor. Nobody else leaves her notes signed “Hugs.”
The rest of the morning is consumed by chores: tidying up the house, shaving her legs, walking the dog around the block until he out-gases enough not to self-ignite. Rachel makes a few futile attempts to clean her old Formica counter tops, mop down the delaminating linoleum floors, and make a seventeen-year-old carpet look like it belongs indoors.
Since kindergarten gets out an hour and fifteen minutes earlier than regular school, Rachel must collect and restrain the twins in their matching car seats when she goes to pick up Beatrice and then Oliver, who gets out last. The time gap between dismissal of kindergarten, fourth grade, and middle school gives Rachel exactly enough time to accomplish about half of any one particular task. Usually she opts for the coffee drive-thru where she waits for ten minutes for a triple espresso macchiato, sucking in the blue exhaust of any number of Super Duty trucks that frequent the popular caffeine pit stop.
Today the drive-thru is closed. Still, people wait in a line of cars to read the sign explaining why the drive-thru is closed. But Rachel finds all this out too late; once she is in the line, she can’t get out. A to-go espresso is one of those modest pleasures that Rachel depends on to get through the day for the simple reason that someone else makes it for her and she only has to be presentable from the waist up. Waiting without coffee in the pickup line of the middle school makes her feel edgy and deprived. The twins will be disappointed that they won’t be able to get a kids’ hot chocolate and other bribes will be necessary.
As soon as the bell rings she will have to pretend to be invisible to her thirteen-year-old daughter and all her friends and teachers and the world at large. Everything is easier with coffee. Plus, Rachel has been invisible to most of the world for a long time now. She pulls up alongside the curb of the pickup lane at Red Oaks Middle School, is immobilized by two brand new hybrids in the red zone and immediately reprimanded by the principal who waves her forward with large, official looking arm motions. “What is this, ground control?” Rachel mumbles to the windshield.
“What’s that?” asks Juno, who misses nothing.
“The person who directs planes on a runway.”
“What’s a runaway?” asks Juno.
“Runway,” Charlie corrects her.
“It’s like a driveway for planes,” says Rachel.
“But planes fly, they don’t drive,” Charlie corrects her again.
“They can drive,” replies Juno. “They just don’t want to.”
Rachel’s caffeine headache is an expanding mushroom cloud of pain. She inches closer until her tires squeal against the curb, attracting the attention of the other parents in the pickup line. In a sudden jolt, the minivan pops up and lands with a bounce and shudder on the sidewalk. The twins burst into laughter.
“That lady is staring at you,” says Charlie.
“It’s the minivan,” Rachel tells them. “Nobody likes minivans anymore.”
“Why not?” asks Juno.
“Everyone wants a new car, I guess.”
“I want a monster truck,” said Juno.
“Yes but I’m not sure your teacher would let me drive on field trips in a monster truck.”
“She would at a monster truck rally,” says Juno.
Charlie is doing the pee-pee dance in the car seat. “We’re almost home,” she tells him.
Beatrice wanders out of the school in a daze, looking as if she’d just been released from a long prison sentence for a crime she didn’t commit. She stops to talk to the principal who is watching Rachel out of the corner of her eye. Charlie informs Rachel that Juno’s lunchbox is leaking onto the seat next to him and he responds according to standard toxic chemical spill protocol, preparing for bio-warfare with a box of anti-bacterial wipes he keeps in the side pocket of the sliding door. Rachel recalls the time when Charlie’s teacher hung a long piece of butcher paper with the title “When I Grow Up I Want to Be A…” printed on the top for the kids to fill in. Charlie filled in the blank with “HAZMAT Worker.”
Rachel does her best to ignore them. She goes for the emergency stash of Jolly Ranchers in the glove box to buy a moment of silence. Rachel’s head hurts so badly she thinks it may blow up her skull. Not vomiting now requires a sustained effort.
“I want watermelon,” says Juno. “Charlie likes the lime.”
“Nuh-uh!” Charlie protests. “I like watermelon best.”
“Good thing I bought only watermelon,” says Rachel. She indeed bought watermelon-only Jolly Ranchers at Target. People who work for candy companies are geniuses like that. The nauseating scent of artificial watermelon flavor fills the car but for the moment, the twins are silent. The mother in front of her is picking up what looks like the entire girls soccer team in her brand new Nissan Armada; it is the kind of SUV sports girls ride in and sporty moms drive. Rachel can’t move forward or backward, so she just stays put. She daydreams about fifth grade.