A grieving mother, awash in a sea of hurt and conspiratorial thoughts, finds solace through giving herself over to her art…
by: Carolynn Kingyens
“Peggy,” said Anton, snapping her out of an involuntary daydream.
“I need you at the register right now. Zara’s not feeling well and I’m sending her home.”
Anton was Peggy’s manager at Michaels, an arts and crafts supply chain store, even though he was old enough to be her son. Peggy was in the middle of a full stock count on faux flowers, white and green hydrangeas, pussy willows, tiger lilies, and gladiolus. Some of the faux flowers appeared so life-like that she had to fight the urge to sniff them.
Peggy was in the middle of counting when she began to zone out, thinking about a new, QAnon online conspiracy theory she’d just read the night before, when Anton approached her. Reading conspiracy theories made Peggy feel like she was apart of something bigger than herself, those special few who were in on a global secret while the rest of the world remained blissfully oblivious.
“No problem,” she replied.
Peggy looked and acted like a defeated woman. She was someone who’d lost her way somewhere in the eighties who wore her strawberry blonde-gray hair frizzy and long and wore glasses too big for her face. Her clothes consisted of a muted palette, mostly beige, brown, gray, and off-white. Peggy was good at blending into the background to the point of invisibility, a middle-aged ghost. Even her nightly dreams had become bland and colorless as if dreamt by an old dog.
Peggy hated mornings, and would audibly groan whenever her alarm clock would go off. She awoke early to see her two teenage daughters off to school. Dahlia, at seventeen, was older than Marley, who was fifteen going on thirty. Peggy had a third daughter who died from SIDS ten years prior. She named her Mazzy Star after her favorite nineties band, and would rock her to sleep while singing “Fade Into You.” Her premature death had caused Peggy to go temporarily catatonic. Peggy didn’t speak for two months, and would sit very still for long periods of time, just staring off into oblivion.
Her husband, Nico, had turned their garage into a makeshift art studio for Peggy. He knew painting would bring her back to him and their surviving daughters, and he was right. Little by little, she began to speak and make eye contact again. Her limbs became more fluid. Nico knew his wife was back the day she hugged him and their daughters. The darkness had lifted.
Peggy’s first paintings, right out of her catatonic state, were a series of self-portraits representing the five stages of grief. There was the denial stage followed by anger, bargaining, depression and lastly, acceptance. Her self-portraits were different versions of herself holding a blue baby. The saddest self-portrait of them all was the one where her mouth was wide open, the color of a tar pit. She was on her knees with glowing, hazel eyes — wild-looking, almost darting. One could surmise that this particular painting was the morning she’d found baby Mazzy Star blue inside of her crib. Maybe that was the real reason she hated mornings. It harkened back to that fateful day, when she awoke to a grief so powerful it would trigger a temporary state of catatonia.
When she felt strong enough, she applied to work at Michaels while her girls were in school and Nico at work. Peggy didn’t like to be home alone, even though they’d turned the nursery into a home office. The small room had been painted over with a color called “Pebble Gray,” but there was a small patch of peachy-pink paint she could still see above the molding, by the window. If she stared at that patch for too long, she would shiver.
At fifty, Peggy was the oldest employee at Michaels, other than Lisa who worked in framing. She guessed Lisa was around forty, but wasn’t entirely sure. Most of the employees were either high school or college-aged, a few in their thirties.
Peggy liked to listen in on the younger employees’ conversations to better understand the lives of her own teen daughters, who were becoming more secretive. She felt Dahlia and Marley were starting to shut her out of their lives, and it made her feel insignificant as a mother. They’d often give her short, robotic-like answers whenever she tried to engage them in a conversation, or they’d roll their eyes while texting a friend. Peggy understood her girls were teenagers now, and needed some space to assert their independence, but she didn’t think loosening the reins would hurt this much.
Peggy was most friendly with co-worker Monty. His parents had named him after the dry, British parody classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He sold pot on the side, even though his father was loaded, and gave generous discounts to interested employees. Everyone liked working with Monty, probably because he was half-baked most of the time and so easy-going. Peggy was happy to see that he was working the next register over from hers the day Anton had asked her to cover for Zara.
“Hi Pegster,” said Monty, giving her a little wave from his pinky finger similar to Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil. It was one of his many isms.
“Hi Monty,” Peggy replied with a smile. Peggy enjoyed working shifts with him. His kind, nonjudgmental nature would put her at ease. She felt less invisible around him. Maybe it was because he would notice the small things about her, like the time she got her hair cut above her shoulders. “Looking good, Pegster,” he’d say.
After there were no more customers in line, Monty turned to Peggy and invited her to his birthday party that was being hosted at his father’s McMansion that Saturday.
“It’s a pool party so please invite your family as well. It’s not every day I turn the big 2-5. We are going to Par-TAY,” he said, putting his hand up, signaling for her to slap it.
Peggy didn’t leave Monty hanging, giving him a loud high five.
“We will be there,” she said
“You better Pegster. Don’t let me down, girl.”
After her shift was over, Peggy drove home to start a wash. Next, she fed the cat, and unloaded the dishwasher as she waited for Dahlia and Marley to arrive home from school. This was her weekday routine. Just then, she got a text from Dahlia saying that she and Marley would be grabbing dinner at a friend’s house, then they were going to a football game and would be home around eight.
Peggy thought about Nico, her handsome husband of twenty-five years, and how it had been months since they were last intimate. She missed the smell of his olive skin. She missed laying in his big, strong arms, where she’d gently caress the names of their three beautiful daughters, tattooed, in elegant script, on his forearm — Dahlia Rose, Marley Scout and their lost baby, Mazzy Star. She’d go on to credit Nico for getting her through the darkest days, now a blur, even though he and the girls were mourning as well.
She decided to take a shower, banking on Nico to be in the mood when he got home from work. After her shower, Peggy looked through her panty drawer, and the sexiest option she could find was an old slip dress, the color of champagne. She thought, under the right lighting, her slip dress could pass for the sexy vintage look. Next, she sprayed on Nico’s favorite vanilla musk behind her ears, on her pulse points and décolletage. But when Peggy stood in front of the long mirror attached to the back of her closet door, she’d let out a heavy sigh. She knew she was never a beauty, but she always had, what Nico called, “a hot, rockin’ body.” At fifty, she had grown soft in the body, but hard in the face, and knew it should be the other way around.
“Peggy, you home?” called out Nico from the kitchen.
Hearing his voice mixed with the anticipation of making love had caused a slight fluttering-feeling inside her.
“Nico, I’m in the bedroom,” she called back. Peggy tried to muster the sexiest pose she could think of in that moment, which was to rest her bottom on one of the bedposts while simultaneously arching her back. She saw this pose in a Victoria Secret catalogue once. Right before she heard him turn the corner, she’d do a quick hair toss.
“What’s all this?” Nico asked, taken aback by Peggy’s bedroom bravado. She started to snuggle up close to his chest, before she attempted to unbutton his dress shirt.
“The girls,” he whispered.
“They’re having dinner at Mia’s, then they’re all going to the football game. We have three hours to ourselves,” replied Peggy before kissing his neck.
“I can’t do this right now,” said Nico as he bent down to retrieve a folded T-shirt and a pair of gym shorts from the laundry basket that was located on the floor beside their closet. He then stepped inside their en suite bathroom to get changed rather than undress in front of Peggy.
“Why not?” she inquired as they spoke through the closed door.
“I’ve made plans to play poker with the guys. Larry’s buying pizza so you don’t have to make me dinner tonight. I just stopped home to get changed.”
The bathroom door opened and Nico rushed out.
“Maybe tonight, if I’m not too tired,” he said, before kissing Peggy on the forehead.
“You should use this alone time to paint. It has been a while since you painted anything new,” he suggested.
Peggy nodded how she’d imagine a hostage would, slow and deliberate.
She was left standing in the middle of their bedroom, smelling of cheap, drugstore musk. Her ratty-looking lingerie screamed second-hand find. She was losing Nico, the love of her life.
Peggy thought about finishing the painting she started six months ago, the one of Nico’s back. She got the idea from all the times she watched Nico sleep, his broad back facing her. Peggy would study his skin like Galileo studied stars, counting the constellations of freckles. She planned to gift him the painting for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, but became sidetracked by a new hobby, online conspiracy theories.
Peggy got dressed in sweatpants and one of Nico’s T-shirts, then slipped into bed, pulling the fluffy comforter all the way to her chest. Next, she leaned over to open the top drawer of her nightstand, where she kept her laptop. Tonight, she would read about secret societies and their classified hand signals. She’d read how the OK hand sign was really code for 666. Next, she Googled “The Illuminati,” and read how the famed organization hid in plain sight. Peggy paused, thinking about Nico. Were his secrets hiding in plain sight, too?
It has been a year since she had accidentally stumbled upon her first conspiracy theory while on the Daily Mail website. She was scrolling news blurbs, when she stopped on one mentioning “The Mandela Effect.” Intrigued, Peggy read the article and learned that there was a collective false memory phenomenon called “The Mandela Effect,” named after Nelson Mandela, who some swore died in a South African prison in the eighties, and not in 2013 as was the truth.
But Peggy became hooked after reading about The Berenstain Bears. She loved this children’s book series, and read them to Dahlia and Marley when they were little. She remembered the series as The BerenSTEIN Bears, not The BerenSTAIN Bears. Her research led her to CERN, which stands for the European Organization for Nuclear Research that led her to Sally Field’s brother, a physicist at CERN that led her to Sally Field’s famous, 1984 Oscar acceptance speech, where people remembered her saying, “You like me. You really like me,” and not “You like me, right now you like me.” Even her last name was considered a Mandela Effect, with many remembering Fields (plural), and not Field (singular). Peggy’s head would sometimes hurt from trying to connect too many dots at once, some so obscure and out-there that she’d rather keep them to herself.
“Mom, we’re home,” called out Marley.
Peggy looked over at the small digital clock atop her dresser. The time read 8:30 p.m. The last time she looked at the time it was 5:30, right after Nico left to play poker. Three hours had passed but, to Peggy, it felt like only thirty minutes.
She experienced the feeling of lost time once before, during her bout with catatonic depression soon after she discovered her youngest daughter blue inside her crib. Peggy remembered screaming out for Nico, but could not hear the echo of her primal screams. It was as if her voice had been put on mute by a force far greater than her own, without the courtesy of closed captioning.
By the time Peggy had gone upstairs to check in with her daughters, they’d already locked their bedroom doors to her. She knocked on Dahlia’s door first.
“How was the game?” she asked, trying to make a conversation.
“It was alright,” Dahlia replied.
“Mom, I have to get some homework done. Can we talk tomorrow instead?”
“Sure. I love you my Dahlia,” Peggy said to her older daughter.
“OK,” she replied back to her mother.
Across the hall was Marley’s bedroom. Peggy knocked on her door next.
“Would you like some tea before bed?” she asked her younger daughter.
“Not tonight,” Marley replied to her mother. “I’m really tired.”
“OK. Good night my Marley. I love you,” she said through the door.
“Love you, too, mom,” her younger daughter replied.
Peggy made some lemon tea for herself, and petted the cat as she waited for Nico to arrive home. She was trying to remember if he said they would have sex tonight, or may. She looked at the clock on the wall, and the time read nine o’clock.
She was about to go to sleep, when Nico opened the door to their bedroom.
“I’m exhausted,” he said, as he threw his T-shirt into the full hamper.
“How was the game?” she asked.
“Larry won, of course.”
Peggy began to caress his shoulder.
“You really want to have sex,’ he said.
“It has been months, Nico. I miss you. Don’t you miss me?” she asked him.
“I love you, Peggy. But I’m exhausted tonight.”
Peggy let out an audible sigh.
“Then could you at least hold me until I fall asleep.”
Nico smiled, opening the crook of his arm for Peggy to snuggle into. The last thing she remembered before falling asleep was of him spooning her. He would usually get an involuntary erection whenever he’d spoon Peggy, but she noticed, this time, there was nothing.
When Peggy opened her eyes the next morning, she was, again, facing Nico’s back.
She was looking forward to attending Monty’s pool party, even though she knew she’d be the oldest person there, other than, maybe, his playboy father, who was dating a woman the same age as Monty. She decided not to extend his invitation to her family because she knew they wouldn’t go anyway. Why ask? she’d thought. And besides, she’d later learned her children and husband had made plans without her. Dahlia and Marley were going to a basketball game with some friends, and Nico was going to help Larry restore his classic Camaro.
The black bathing suit she’d purchased for Monty’s pool party was reminiscent of the bathing suits worn by female Olympians, simple yet powerful with its eraser back, highlighting Peggy’s strong sculpted shoulders.
Peggy wore her new bathing suit underneath one of her faded, floral sundresses, completing her summer look with Birkenstock sandals, her go-to shoe. She sprayed on some vanilla musk before grabbing her canvas tote bag filled with sunblock, a thick towel, sunglasses, cherry-flavored lip balm and Monty’s birthday gift, an Amazon gift card. She was about to walk out the front door, when Nico snuck up behind her, grabbing her at the waist.
“You’re leaving without a goodbye?” he asked coyly.
Peggy turned around to find herself face to face with her husband.
“I’m sorry. I thought you’d already left for Larry’s.” she replied.
“He called and cancelled our plans today, saying something about needing to help Monica with her honey do list,” he said, rolling his brown eyes.
Just then, Nico began to kiss Peggy’s neck before grabbing her hand, leading her back to the bedroom.
“The girls,” she whispered.
“They just left for the game,” he replied.
The irony wasn’t lost on Peggy. She would’ve dropped everything, even Monty’s party, if that meant being intimate with Nico. The romantic scenario that was being played out before her was the same scenario that she’d been playing out, for months, in her daydreams. The feeling of being desired, of being wanted by someone she loved was intoxicating. But an unexpected defiance had bubbled up from deep inside her at the last minute, and Peggy wanted Nico to feel how she’d felt a few days prior, when he rejected her twice in the same day.
Peggy stopped walking right before they’d reached the threshold of the bedroom.
“What’s the matter?” I thought you wanted this,” asked Nico.
“I do, but I can’t right now. I promised Monty I’d go to his pool party today, and I’m already late as it is.”
“So some pot-smoking, punk-ass loser you work with is more important than your husband. Thanks,” he said.
The irony was lost on him, thought Peggy.
“Maybe tonight, if I’m not too tired,” she quipped before standing on her tippy toes to kiss Nico on the forehead like he’d done to her the night he went to play poker at Larry’s.
Peggy didn’t look back at him, and kept walking, imagining a dumbfounded Nico left standing there, bewildered by their sudden shift in power.
Peggy slowly drove up the long, round about driveway with its large, three tier water fountain and four car garage. Cars from all socioeconomic backgrounds lined the length of the stoned paved driveway, including her ten-year-old Honda CR-V with its “Proud Hippie Momma” bumper sticker. Parked directly in front of her car was a brand new Land Rover with a big, red bow atop its roof. She figured the Land Rover was Monty’s birthday present from his father. The over-the-top gift gestured overcompensation, to Peggy, for being an absentee, shit father. She was thankful that Nico was a hands-on dad to their girls, and understood spending time was more important than expensive gifts. She felt for Monty.
Peggy followed the other late arriving guests to the back of the house, where they were greeted by a tall iron gate with its archway full of green ivy and brightly-colored flowers in hues of fuchsia. The beauty of the flowers in addition to the view of the backyard had taken her breath away. It was more like an oasis with its lush gardens and a stone stairway that led to an infinity pool with more fountains. Peggy stopped by the gift table first to drop off her card with the fifty-dollar Amazon gift card inside, pocket change to Monty.
Peggy turned around.
“Happy Birthday, Monty,” she said, giving him one of her motherly hugs.
“I’m so glad you came. I was thinking you would be a no-show like our boss, Anton. What a dumbass. He’s going to miss a bounty of hot babes coming and going all day. By the way, I would like you to meet my father. You up to it?”
“Sure. I would love to,” she replied.
“Looking beautiful today,” he added.
“You always make me feel good, Monty. Thank you.”
“Just telling you how I see it.”
Just ahead was a ruddy-face man, whom Peggy guessed was in his late fifties, turning over thick steaks on the fiery grill. A gorgeous, young blonde wearing a red bikini was hugging him from behind while resting her chin atop his shoulder. She’d previously learned, from Monty, that his father had earned most of his wealth by being a smart and well-connected real estate developer, naming Donald Trump as one of his friends. Monty currently lived, rent-free, in one of his father’s converted condos that once was a shoe factory some hundred years ago. It was the premiere place to live, if you were either a hipster, or under the age of thirty as Monty was.
“Popster, this is Pegster, the artist-friend I was telling you about.”
Popster reached out his hand to shake Pegster’s.
“Pegster, this is Sean, my Popster,” said Monty, making an introduction.
“Nice to meet, Pegster. I’ve heard a lot about you. Monty tells me you’re an excellent painter. I am interested in commissioning one of your paintings for my new home,” And if I like it, I will commission more paintings for the buildings and businesses I own. The lobbies are pretty bare-looking right now, they need some brightening up,” said Sean.
“Nice to meet you, Sean. I would love to paint something for your new home. And I would also love the opportunity to provide more paintings for your many buildings. Thank you for considering me,” she said.
“Well any friend of Monty’s is a friend of mine,” said Sean. The blonde beauty began to stare down Peggy, making her feel self-conscious.
“Oh, before I forget, this is Leah, my Popster’s girlfriend,” said Monty.
“Fiancé,” corrected Leah, holding up her huge diamond sparkler to Peggy and Monty.
“Nice to meet you, Leah,” said Peggy.
“C’mon Pegster, we’re about to play a round of Marco Polo,” said Monty, grabbing her hand as they headed toward the pool.
Once they were out of ear shot of Sean and Leah, Monty turned to Peggy and said:
“Forget Leah. She tries to intimidate every woman in her presence. The only thing she has going for her is her looks. When they go, she’s over. Pay her no mind.”
“What about your mom?” asked Peggy.
“My Momster loved Popster before he became a wealthy asshole. They were high school sweethearts. After Popster made his first cool million, he traded in Momster for young, hot babe number one, basically a clone of Leah. That was seven girlfriends ago. Popster buys an engagement ring right before he dumps them, call it a consolation prize.”
Peggy took off her sundress, placing it inside her canvas tote bag, along with her Birkenstocks before jumping into the pool with Monty. They joined a game of Marco Polo already in progress with Zara, Lisa, and a few other employees. In those fun-filled moments, Peggy felt young again, back when she was free and hopeful. They played several more rounds of the game.
Before she’d left the party, Monty invited her to warm up by the fire pit as they sat nearby on real Adirondack chairs, not the cheap, plastic renditions she’d owned.
“You’re pretty cool, Pegster,” he said, reaching out for her hand.
“If only my girls thought that,” she replied.
“They will. I promise. Give it some time.”
Just then, Peggy heard her phone vibrate from inside her tote bag, and checked to see who it was. She noticed that she’d missed five calls and three text messages from Nico. She’d imagined him sitting home alone, still fuming.
“I better go. Nico’s been trying to get a hold of me, and it’s getting late.”
“Happy Birthday, Monty,” said Peggy, before giving him a big hug goodbye. Monty held on to her embrace a little longer than she’d anticipated.
“Thanks for being a great friend,” he said.
“And you to me,” she replied, patting him on the shoulder as a mother would.
When Peggy got home, Nico was waiting for her in bed. She told him about the conversation she had with Monty’s dad, how he wants to potentially commission her paintings for his buildings.
“I can’t wait to start painting again, Nico. I know what I want to paint for Sean. This will be my gift to him, no charge,” she said, thinking out loud.
She slipped on a pair of sweatpants, and one of Nico’s T-shirts, tying her long hair up into a top bun. Peggy walked over to retrieve her laptop from the top drawer of her night stand, then gave her quiet husband a kiss goodnight, before heading to her art studio, formally the garage.
She’d always sketch first, then paint. Peggy liked to start with the eyes, the windows of the soul. And the subject of her painting had a wise, kind soul that emanated from his blue-gray eyes. She was planning to paint Monty from a baby to a toddler to a child to a teen to an adult, fashioning the series of portraits like Russian nesting dolls. Peggy had access to Monty’s Facebook page, and was able to see photos of him in all five stages of development, which helped guide her sketching.
Peggy could hear the birds chirping in the early morning hours. She’d spent the entire night sketching out Monty’s portraits. Next, she would paint it. Satisfied with her sketching, she covered the canvas with a muslin drop cloth. Just then, Nico arrived with a cup of hot coffee, fixed how she’d liked it — two creams and one sugar.
“Good morning, my love,” he said, handing her the cup of coffee.
Peggy smiled, kissing him on the cheek.
“Let’s go back to bed,” she whispered in his ear.
Carolynn Kingyens’ debut book of poetry, Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound (Kelsay Books), can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Greenlight, Book Culture, Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop and McNally Jackson. In addition to poetry, Carolynn writes narrative essays, book reviews, micro/flash fiction, and short stories. She resides in New York with her husband and two amazing daughters.