Mother's gritty voice, from the kitchen just beyond the archway, stopped her; Claire clutched the banister, one with the eavesdropping shadows.
"Well, you have to preserve their self-esteem; that's what all the books say," the gritty voice gargled. A coil of smoke unraveled into a gray veil over mother's face; clouds of earlier smoke lingered, muting the yellow light into a bilious choking haze.
"Hmm," the man grunted, his back a murky silhouette in the smog.
Earlier that evening, Claire had danced into the kitchen, caressed by the aroma of simmering spaghetti sauce, the golden light twinkling off brass lamps, and her teacher's praise. She hadn't colored completely within the lines, hadn't drawn uniform patches of color as the older kids were able to do. But she'd copied from Christine, the best artist in the class, drawn scalloped circles for the clouds and foliage, added billowy pink curtains to all the windows, and it was good. The teacher had said so, had tacked her picture in the center of the bulletin board with a gold star beside the yellow sun.
"Look what I made!" she exclaimed as she leapt into the bus.
"Ah, let's see," the old driver drawled, "Very nice; you're a real artist."
"Look what I drew!" she shouted as she clattered into the house.
"Don't slam the door," her mother growled. "And hang up your coat."
"Look at my picture!" she sang a few minutes later.
Mother glanced fleetingly at the neighbor lady and crushed her butt.
"OK, let's see," she sighed.
"Oh, honey, it's marvelous!" the neighbor lady caroled as she squinted through her bifocals. "If you were my child -- why, I'd put it in a frame and hang it in my living room right over the sofa!"
"Yes, very nice," mother grunted. "A gold star too, the teacher liked it. Yes, very nice indeed...why don't you tape it to the refrigerator, so that everyone can see."
Mother lit another cigarette, waving it like a baton as she turned to the neighbor lady.
"Like I said before," she muttered, "I'm all against this new zoning. I don't care how much revenue it brings in, it'll bring in the riffraff -- trailer parks and modular homes that fall apart in 10 years. It won't be a nice quiet town anymore, you'll see; we'll have to worry about bikers and beebee guns and..."
Claire had pressed each strip of scotch tape carefully along her picture's margins, each aligned parallel with the freezer's sides and top. She'd pushed the brashly yellow and screaming red magnets far to the right, where they wouldn't clash with the timid pink of her breeze ruffled curtains. She'd pushed the calendar, with its grimy winter sky etched by twisted branches, down, far from her lawn of sun stroked clover. She'd scrubbed away fingerprints with her knuckles and scratched away a streak of dried tomato juice as the adults jabbered about something boring, something she couldn't hear anyway as she soared into the sky's unblemished blue. Gleaming white porcelain sparking gold highlights, the sweetly lulling scent of brewing basil and the hum of contralto voices murmuring incomprehensible nothings had framed her latest creation.
Now Claire, heavy from so much pasta, shuffled towards the archway through the shadows.
"So," the gritty voice continued, "If you want them to be confident later, you've got to feed their self esteem when they're young. Dole out some praise when they try hard."
"Mmmmmm." A rumble from the silhouetted back.
"So, even if it's not an A+ performance, you've got to encourage them. The books say that low self-esteem is the biggest cause of depression in America today."
"Look, Jeanne," the man interrupted, "Why don't you just throw all those books away? Who ever heard of parenting by recipe? Isn't there some instinct involved?"
Claire stole closer. A snake of smoke meandered through the archway, tickling her nose.
"What I'm trying to say, if you'd listen, is that I don't like the thing any more than you do." Mother's coffee cup clattered shrilly against the saucer. "I don't like looking at the kid's scribbles either. So, we'll just leave it up a day, the self-esteem thing. Then we'll take it down tomorrow; she won't even notice."
Encased in smoke, Claire coughed; she couldn't suppress it.
"Oh, there she is!" mother stammered. "Uh, I was just telling your father all about your lovely picture. Right, Sam?"
Claire turned towards the refrigerator, popped open the door and stared at the shelves. The air in the room seemed so heavy and thick with words, muggy with warm phrases and the vapor of dissolving promises, putrid with praises that crumbled to ash like the silvery smoke. The cool refrigerator air felt refreshing against her sweaty neck.
"Are you looking for something, honey?"
Claire held up a Coke. Squinting over the can as she sipped, she noticed the glazed eyes above a lipsticked smile, the jiggling knee beneath the elegantly arched wrist. She memorized the slump of her father's back and the parched folds sagging under his hooded turtle-eyes as he grunted through his part. She wondered when his body had begun folding in on itself, and when her mother's face had split in half, the bottom fixed in a pink smile while the top shifted between frowns and squints and laser stares; she wondered when legs had begun talking more honestly than the mouth. What she wanted couldn't be held up, couldn't be described to these people, couldn't be found in this room, perhaps couldn't be found anywhere at all.