m never going back there again,” Taryn said.
She shivered at the very thought of it and pulled Beth, nestled on her lap, even closer for warmth. Outside the houseboat, the rain beat down, gusts driving the water in sheets against the windows, the boat rocking with the waves.
But in here all was snug, the smell of frying butter rising from the little cooktop as George cooked them pancakes. He’d even gone out in the rain to get real maple syrup, the kind that Taryn loved.
“I’m glad to hear you say that, baby,” said George. He flipped a pancake shaped like a B, for Beth. “I just feel terrible for LaTonya, losing her boy like that.”
“LaTonya! What about poor Tiffany, dumped in an alley?”
Beth twisted around and stared, eyes huge behind her thick glasses, at her mother. “Why was Tiffany dumped in a alley?” the child asked.
Taryn and George locked eyes.
“Oh, nothing, sweetheart,” George said, slipping the pancakes onto a plate. “Mommy’s friend fell down and got hurt.”
“She didn’t get hurt, George. She was murdered.”
It was bad enough that nobody cared about poor Tiff when she was alive. Now they wanted to deny her existence when she was dead too.
“What’s murdered?” asked Beth.
“She doesn’t need to know the gory details, Taryn,” said George, setting the pancakes on the table.
“What’s gory?” said Beth.
“There are probably three people on earth who give a shit about Tiffany, and I’m one of them,” said Taryn. “She was from Texas: Did you know that? Her stepfather got her pregnant when she was 13. She has a kid somewhere she’s never seen, but who she thinks about every day. Thought about. How can you just act like nothing happened to her?”
She slipped Beth off her lap, but the little girl clung to her, breathing noisily.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” said George. “It’s just that….” He cast his eyes meaningfully toward Beth. “Can’t we just eat our pancakes?”
“My friend died,” said Taryn, pushing her plate away. “I’m upset. Do you think I should hide that from my daughter?”
“Maybe I do,” said George, setting down his fork. “She’s four, Taryn. We have to put our daughter first, not indulge our own feelings, no matter what they are, no matter when they happen.”
“Oh, is that what you were doing, putting our daughter first, when you went out in the middle of the night to take care of some drunk old man, or to give science lessons to some black lady?”
Taryn’s arms were crossed over her chest. She could feel her heart pulsing against them. Everybody thought George was such a saint. He thought he was such a saint. But he wasn’t always so perfect.
Why had she thought it could work out, being back here with him? How could she live with somebody who thought he was right all the time?
“Yes, I think it’s my duty to help people, so sue me,” said George. “If you had been here, I would have left Beth with you.”
“Fuck you, George.”
She’d take all the pills from the safe, sell every single one of them, make enough to get her own place, a nice place too. She wouldn’t even have to go back to work at the Go Go, not for a long time, three or four months, anyway. And something else, something better, might come along by then.
“What’s going on with you, Taryn? Are you really here? Do you want to be here? Because Beth and me, we can’t take very much more of this.”
Taryn noticed then that Beth was crying softly by her side. Shit. She was so out of practice. She was such a terrible mother. There had been that time, after Beth was born, when she was nursing, when she was clean, absolutely clean, for so long, and she had grown so attuned to the little girl, each cry tearing at her own heart.
Remembering what she’d done then, she gathered her daughter into her arms, held her tight and rocked her, waited to feel what she’d felt — that maternal thing — when Beth had been an infant.
If they would all leave her alone for a little while, if George would stop pecking at her, if she just had a chance to gather her strength together, she’d be all right.
She could do this, sit here, hold her daughter, eat pancakes, not think of Tiffany, not need to get high. She could watch the rain hit the windows and not need to run out into it.
“Of course I’m here, George,” she said. She kissed the top of Beth’s head, felt the thin silky hair against her lips, breathed in the scent of pillowcase and maple syrup. “What about you? Are you here? Or are you out there somewhere, with LaTonya, or with Cora McAdams, or with God knows what other woman’s been sniffing around?”
“I’m here,” said George, reaching for her, his hand pinning hers to the table like a magnet. Like gravity.