Braving traffic on the highway after a long, dry day at work left Molly feeling drained and dehydrated. She leaned on the horn and shouted, "Move your fat behind, you darn fool!" Spoiled rich people with their perfect lives and their pretty cars. Her own car was ten years old and dented all over. They should make way for her because they all had more to lose than she did. She punched at the horn, producing a series of short, staccato beeps. She felt dry as a bone.
A shapeless woman, she wore sunglasses and gloves. Her wide coat collar was turned up and she wore a kerchief around her hair. Overdressed on this hot summer day, she huddled within her protective clothing as if afraid that the sun would dry her up like a raisin.
Swinging the car into her driveway without slowing down, she hit a small pink bicycle with pink and white tassles hanging from the handlebars. The bicycle bounced once on the driveway and then became embedded in a weedgrown hedge. Hardly noticing, she slammed on the brakes and emerged with some difficulty from the car. She hurried up the front walkway and climbed the cement stairs, stepping on each with both feet. A small boy with melted chocolate on his face sat on the top step, in front of the open door. "Mommy?" he asked, "Is that you, Mommy?" He peered at her face, squinting. His shoes trailed untied laces, he looked dirty and undernourished. She hurried past him, saying, "Yes, Donny, it's Mommy. No time to talk, I have to go to the bathroom."
She swept into the vestibule and stepped out of her shoes without slowing her pace. Inside, the house looked like a hurricane had passed through. More than a dozen children between the ages of five and fifteen ran around in sugar shock. The living room furniture had all been converted, permanently it seemed, into forts. One small girl slept unconcerned in a filthy sleeping bag under an overturned armchair, while from a pair of barricaded sofas at either end of the room several small- to medium-sized boys hurled missiles at each other in the form of tennis balls and rolled up socks.
As Molly passed by the open door of the kitchen she caught a brief glimpse of what seemed to be a cooking party involving a few teenaged girls and cheese macaroni, and the toaster, and chocolate cake. A smaller girl rode a plastic tricycle with an oversized front wheel around the open part of the kitchen, near the back door. She rode in tight circles at top speed. She had knocked over the overflowing garbage bin, and now the wheels crushed and squished over a mass of soggy tea bags, egg shells and pungent cedar shavings from the hamster cage.
Down the hall, from the open doors of two bedrooms issued loud music of contrasting styles. The children holed up in the bedrooms had alternately cranked up their respective volume controls in a futile attempt to drown each other out. Hip-hop and grunge metal waged war in the hallway, and Molly rushed through this no-man's land with her hands over her ears. As she passed the door that led into the basement, she heard a loud, hysterical argument coming from downstairs. At last she reached the bathroom door. She cradled the combination lock that held it closed and rapidly spun the dial to the well-remembered secret numbers. The lock popped open with rusty resistance. A large heap of soiled clothing lay on the floor, blocking the entrance to the bathroom. She pushed it aside with her foot and it tumbled down the stairs, momentarily interrupting the shrieking and shouting. A petulant preteen voice drifted up the stairs, "Oh, gross!" But Molly did not wait to hear what came next, she slipped into the bathroom and slammed the door. The din was muffled. She popped the hook through its eyelet and leaned against the wall, breathing a sigh of relief.
Not all of those children were hers, of course. The friends of Molly's children had the run of the house, and made good use of it. They all liked the state of anarchy and lack of parental supervision. At Molly's house, children could do what they wanted, eat what they wanted, and brutalize each other with impunity. There was only one rule: at Molly's house, only Molly was allowed to use the bathroom. Period. Children must go to some other house, or use the back yard.
Numerous wall hangings and the strong oak door filtered out most of the noise coming from the rest of the house, but some of the frantic sounds made it through. Molly had armed the bathroom with an old compact disc player and a few favorite discs. She hit the play button and Chopin's Nocturne filled the air, at medium volume. Molly relaxed and began to strip down. She used the same clothing every day, and there was time-worn ritual in her movements. She hung the heavy coat from its peg and stuffed the sunglasses, gloves and kerchief into the pockets. The green stretch pants and beige nylon blouse were placed into the sink, and were soon joined by the yellowed bra and the gigantic grey underpants. She topped up the sink with hot water and poured in a quarter cup of laundry detergent, then stirred the resulting mixture with her hand. Freed of the familiar but uncomfortable garments, Molly fished in the pocket of her overcoat and retrieved the morning paper. She sat on the toilet and leaned to the right while simultaneously pulling her left buttock upward and outward with her left hand. Then switching the folded newspaper into her left hand, she performed the same maneuver in adjusting the position of her right buttock. Having thus effectively created a more appropriate interface between bum and toilet, she released the latch on the inside of the bathroom door, allowing the ironing board to fold down into its open position. She unfolded the newspaper and spread it upon this convenient flat surface, then settled in for a good long read, scouring the paper from first page to last.
When the Nocturne CD was finished, fifty-one minutes later, Molly had at last achieved a state of true relaxation. She quickly read through a last obituary, glanced without interest at the business insert, and turned the last page over with a sigh of contentment. It was just about time for her bath. She crumpled the newspaper into a ball and flipped the ironing board back to its upright position.
Opening the door, she flinched as her eardrums were assaulted by the din, then yelled, "Kids! Mommy needs somebody to run up to the store. Who wants a chocolate bar?" While she waited for a response she tossed the balled-up newspaper onto the floor of the hallway so that it bounced over to the staircase and rolled down the steps.
Presently an eight-year-old boy with a runny nose approached the room. Molly held the door open only half an inch, and pushed a twenty-dollar bill through the crack. "Benny, go to the corner store and get Mommy two packs of cigarettes. Ask the girls if we need milk or bread, and get it if they tell you to. And you can have a chocolate bar or a bag of chips."
"Chips," said Benny.
"Whatever you want, dear. And Benny, eat the chips on the way home, so the bigger kids don't take them away from you. Okay? That's a good boy."
Molly was a kind mother in her own way. Although her children had not seen her for five years, except as an overcoat and kerchief rushing from bathroom to car every morning and from car back to bathroom every evening, she loved and cherished them, and was proud of them. But she needed her baths. She needed this time to herself; she needed to pamper herself.
Molly put the plug into the drain and turned on the hot water. While she waited for the tub to fill, she looked at herself in the mirror. It was sad, she thought as she examined her reflection, how her body suffered from the long day at work. The huge rolls of skin had shrivelled due to dehydration until deep wrinkles and folds formed, running vertically along her body. One such wrinkle had formed so deeply on her chest that her left breast had actually been swallowed up between the folds of skin. Only a strict regimen of bathing, in warm salty water, for at least twelve hours a day, would allow her body to absorb enough moisture to bring back the robust, smooth surface of the skin. The doctors did not approve, they stood there in their examining rooms with the silly, shocked expressions on their faces, blustering nonsense about healthy eating habits and the dangers of hyperobesity, but they did not understand. It was clear that they could never understand; clear in the way they squeezed the precious water from her arms, clear from the way they insisted she see a specialist. No, she had given up on doctors years ago.
Opening the cabinet under the sink, Molly chose from among the cases of bath cubes, bath oil beads, bottles of bubble bath and bath salts. For tonight, a dozen beads of mandarin orange would do, and a cube of lavender. Then a cup and a half...no, two cups of mint-scented sea salt. There was enough hot water now; she turned on the cold.
She went to the door and, opening it a crack, yelled, "Lillian! Come here." After a few moments a teenaged girl appeared.
"Would you bring me my dinner, please, Lillian?"
Minutes later, when Molly had tested the water and found the temperature to her liking, there was a knock at the door. When she opened it and peeped through the crack, she saw a plate lying on the floor, with a mound of macaroni, a pool of beans in tomato sauce, and a pile of miniature egg rolls. Beside the plate were the two packages of cigarettes. Making sure nobody could see, she pushed the door wider open, grabbed the plate and cigarettes, and closed and locked the door. She climbed into the bath with a sigh of relief, and devoured the food hungrily.
Molly lay in the bathtub for hours, occasionally rolling over to immerse a different part of her body. When the water cooled down she would use her feet to turn on the hot water tap, until the temperature was pleasant once more. She listened to Mozart, Vivaldi, the Temptations; she turned on the television and watched the game show channel, her favourite. And while she lay in the tub, something wonderful happened. Molly's body began to grow. The wrinkles and craters slowly disappeared as her skin soaked up the life-giving water. The rolls and folds expanded and swelled, as when one puffs air into a wrinkled air mattress, until her skin inflated to its full capacity, and by this time Molly had grown so large that her buttocks, calves and feet completely filled the bathtub.
Refreshed and reassured, Molly slept. Outside the room childish wars were fought, insincere treaties agreed to, then broken, messes were made, expeditions were launched, and Molly snoozed on. A little girl of about seven years stayed up all night, doing load after load of laundry on the orders of an older sister, occasionally lapsing into temporary unconsciousness, slumped like a rag-doll in a smelly laundry basket, only to be awoken by the buzz of the washer or the ding of the dryer and, gummy-eyed, replace clean with dirty or dry with wet. The noise of juvenile activity diminished but never stopped and at seven in the morning, some grumpy teenaged girls began to make the family breakfast. After a heated discussion as to what would be an appropriate meal, they began to make a large batch of french fries. The lobster pot was placed on the stove and a pair of little boys were rousted from their beds and set to work peeling and slicing potatoes. Soon the oil was subtly boiling, and plates of french fries were passed to the far corners of the house, where tousled children crawled from various nooks and crannies to devour them.
But the making of deep-fried vegetable products has its hazards. A handful of raw potato was hurled too boisterously into the lobster pot, a dollop of oil splashed out, and soon the stovetop was in flames. With a lightning-quick assessment of the situation, a teenaged boy grabbed a tea towel and began to swat at the fire. The tea towel was joined by a soiled apron, wielded by another pair of eager hands and, amazingly, the flames were soon extinguished. But the tea towel was now on fire. With a gasp of mixed surprise and pain, the boy tossed the tea towel toward the back door. It landed on the patch of spilled garbage, and soon this mess, tricycle tracks and all, was alight and burning merrily.
The mishap had been promoted to a disaster; it was now beyond the scope of the children to deal with it, and they began to run around in a panic. Some of them ran outside to safety but, confused, ran back inside. Their sharpness of mind, normally well-honed due to too much independance, lost its gleam and they ran around in circles, willy-nilly, occasionally bumping into one another. All, that is, except Donny. The youngest at five and a half, perhaps he was too small to realize the danger of the predicament. He did not panic. He marched determinedly along the hallway to the bathroom, pounded on the door and shouted, "Mommy! The kitchen's on fire!"
Molly did not hear him at first. She mumbled in her sleep and tried to roll over, but was too tightly wedged in the tub to move. Her right arm flopped against the edge of the tub and knocked the ashtray to the floor. The sound of the ashtray breaking woke her and, blinking wearily, she heard Donny thumping on the door, and slowly perceived what the small, muffled voice was saying.
"Fire in the kitchen, Mommy. Mommy? Kitchen on fire. Mommy!" Then she heard him coughing.
Molly snapped awake and sprang into immediate action. She tried to get up, realized she was stuck, and pushed downward on the edges of the tub. Her buttocks emerged with the sound of two champagne corks popping, and she was free. Leaping to her feet, she rushed to the door and unhooked it. As the door swung open, Molly saw Donny rush crying into a nearby bedroom. Her sudden emergence had frightened him. The next thing she saw was smoke, filling the top half of the hallway. At this point Molly began to scream blood-curdling war cries. She sprinted along the hallway towards the kitchen, thinking nothing about danger to herself, driven only by the need to protect her children.
The run along the hallway happened as if in a dream. It seemed to take forever to get there, as if time had slowed. Molly's feet crushed toys that lay in the hall. The telephone table got in her way and was reduced to splinters. As she rounded the corner, still whooping, her knee banged into the wall and took out a chunk of plaster the size of a watermelon. When the children saw her coming they shrieked in terror and ran wildly to get out of her way. And wherever Molly touched, she left behind a splash of water. Deep puddles showed where her feet struck the floor. In the cavity in the wall where her knee had gone through the plaster, a splash of water penetrated the worn insulation of some wiring and, with a flash, the ceiling light in the hallway went out. Simultaneously six radios, two stereos, three televisions, and both washer and dryer fell silent. All that was left was the unfamiliar morning light from outside and the splashing sound of Molly's feet landing on the faded hall carpet, punctuated by her hysterical screeching.
She skidded to a halt at the end of the hallway, where she could see through the open doorway into the kitchen. For a moment there was silence, except for the quiet crackling of the fire. The children, shocked motionless by the appearance of Molly, huge, naked, and bloated with moisture to the point of bursting, stood there with their mouths hanging open, staring at her, unable to believe their eyes. Molly gazed with horror at the pile of burning garbage, and her eyes roamed about the room, searching for something with which to smother the flames, but towels and tablecloth had already been burnt in futile attempts to put out the fire. There was no fire extinguisher.
Desperate, Molly ran across the room, whooping and crying, and threw herself bodily upon the flames. The children gasped in anguish as they watched their mother roll on the burning trash. As Molly's flesh pressed against the fire, water poured from her skin like from a soaked sponge, putting out the flames. A great cloud of steam rose into the air, temporarily blocking the children's view of the terrible scene. As Molly fought the fire, still screaming like a banshee, she realized the power of her bloated body, and began to stamp and crush at stubborn patches with her forearms, her calves, her breasts. For a few moments she worried, feeling a rapid depletion of the precious moisture, built up over so many hours of careful attention, but her efforts won out in the end. Using her buttocks to squish out a last patch of burning rubbish, she then sat and slowly caught her breath, as the steam began to disperse.
The fire out, her panic gone, she finally stopped shrieking and took stock of her surroundings. The kitchen was damaged, but not as seriously as she might have feared. Some scooping, some sweeping, and maybe a carefully placed carpet would be enough to hide the burnt patch of floor. The walls and ceiling were stained a sooty silver by the smoke, and that highlighted and carefully outlined all of the cobwebs, which were embarrassingly plentiful.
The children now stood motionless in a semicircle around Molly, their mouths hanging open, their eyes dilated with shock. They seemed to be somewhat overwhelmed by her physical appearance. She looked down at her steaming body, and was horrified at what she saw. The gradual dehydration that built up over a normal day at work was nothing compared to this! Though unburned, her skin had seemingly lost every ounce of moisture it contained, and hung in drooping folds, which were prevented from drooping further by the presence of more drooping folds, and on and on from her neck to her ankles. Why, she looked like a bald Shar Pei! Upset as she was to realize this, she was suddenly aware that she was sitting on the floor, totally naked, in front of all of her children who had not even seen her face in the previous five years, not to mention that there were at least a dozen children there who were complete strangers to her! She squeaked, and tried to cover herself with her hands.
This inadequate display of modesty seemed to trigger the children into action. Most of them withdrew from the room. Others fainted. Some just politely turned away. Molly climbed clumsily to her feet, and with dignity walked out of the room and down the hall to the bathroom. She pulled the plug and allowed the tub to drain. Replacing the plug, she turned on the hot water and rummaged around in the cabinet, choosing vanilla bath cubes and lemon-scented bubble bath.
While the tub filled, she thought about the disaster the family had so narrowly avoided. For a moment she wondered if it was the right thing for her to come back in here and take another bath. Perhaps she should not spend so much time in the bathroom. Maybe she should be out there, supervising her children and making sure they did not get into trouble. But then she held up her arms and examined the parched folds of dry skin that hung underneath. No, she thought. What a silly idea! She clearly needed a marathon bathing session right now. She opened the door a crack and called for Lillian.
The girl approached the bathroom warily. "Lillian, please call the office and tell them I'm sick. Tell them I won't be in until Monday."
"And, Lillian? Bring me some breakfast before you go off to summer school, okay?"
"Sure, Mom. French fries okay?"
"That sounds lovely, dear. Bring me a jar of mayonnaise with them."
Molly closed the door and climbed into the bathtub. Today was Thursday. By staying in the bath until Monday morning, her skin would not only recover from all it had been through, it would be healthier and more full of life-giving moisture than ever. With a sigh of contentment, Molly reclined against her bath pillow and rocked gently in the tub, splashing water over her neck, chest and tummy.