There’s a man who sits outside his house with his radio blaring, a smile tacked onto his face like he believes it’s good for him. Al tries her best not to push the stroller faster when he’s in sight. Tries not to make it obvious that she is beaming DANGER DANGER at her oldest’s helmeted head. Because why assume this man is trying to lure? (It’s mostly the smile. A real eat-your-leafy-greens kind of smile. No one enjoys it.) He’s old, not elderly. In another life he’d be retiring soon from the bank, drifting into death a couple decades later. In this life, though. In this life he sits on his steps and makes too much eye contact while he dances to George Michael or pumps his fist at a baseball game. Worse, he hollers at them over the blaring radio. Conversation! Al dreads it in the best of circumstances. It’s not easy to discern what he’s yelling, but it’s easy to catch on that he wants to be noticed. Sometimes he is shirtless, a plucked turkey roasting itself even though there are no takers at that dinner party. (Shut up, Al! Maybe there are! Maybe there’s a jolly, thick-wristed girlfriend in his apartment, currently enjoying his Wifi and gearing up for their daily argument over who has to rub whose feet—hers soft and pale but acrid, his wizened and yellowy and nearly inflexible. God, it truly should be Al alone on a stoop!) But, still. Why not assume he’s simply tired of being alone and using the tools he has access to—radio, voice, gleaming, slouched torso upholstered with white, prickly hairs like balding floor mats, stiff and yet fuzzy—in order to make some kind of connection each day? The same way Al liked to feel she’d accomplished something. (All too often, making the bed felt like something. Amazing how the days fly by! she’d hear herself explain, a sliver of apology in it, unwelcome as a bit of onion that got into the cookie dough.) This man, though, same thing. He could turn in feeling like he’d done something. (Al imagined his bed was a twin, so ruined by his heft and his tossing and turning that it was practically a hammock, a child’s twisted bedsheet its only bedding. OK now, that’s enough, Al!). He’d made the day matter.
Not an easy thing to do! Making something matter, that is.
(Oh, but what you’re doing does matter! You’re doing the most important job there is! Yes, that’s true, Al agrees agreeably.)
Overcomplicating it, that’s what she’s doing. He’s just a guy sitting on a step doing whatever. The sky is wooly and gray, the air plump and Octoberish, though it is still August. The kids in T-shirts, oh well. What’s that man saying? her oldest asks, his voice somehow louder than the radio, louder than a sonic boom, perhaps because it is tinseled with fear, disgust. Al can’t help it, a clawed pride is there, slicing all her plans to ribbons. By God, this kid will be just fine out there. In the world, if it still exists, fingers crossed! HE’S WEIRD, RIGHT? she wants to shout, slapping her child five. (Because you see, kids know. Is what she’s always believed. None of this waffling, no self-flagellating guilt and shame and titter titter no judgment! I mean who am I to judge? Girl, I ate buttered pizza for breakfast! Girlfriend, I haven’t washed my bra in months! Oh, girl, you should see what I look like! You don’t have to worry about me, I let my kids watch TV and eat sugar and pick their noses and sass me and color on the walls and strike the dogs and I mean I don’t let them, but you know.)
Instead she says, He’s just saying hi! Say hi, sir!
As if this man is a sir. Everyone deserves dignity! Is what she’s teaching her children. Because you just never know!
Go ahead, say hi! HE’S SHY, she screeches at the man.
The man bellows and points and chuckles. Al forces her face into an approximation of mm-hmm, you totally get it! I mean it’s just ridiculous. Just a man sitting and here Al is with a hand cupped to her ear like he’s choppered down with a crucial message just for her. What the hell, she brings her hand around to her forehead and salutes him. And can’t help but notice his pectorals look like half-empty pastry bags. Objectively, objectively.
OK, let’s keep going! she chirps at her oldest, who has actually already moved on, is one and a half blocks down, in fact, leaning over his scooter with one foot behind him like a devil-may-care flamingo and not even looking back. Her heart papooms with love and admiration. That’s right, kid, leave that mom in the dust! It is your birthright! PaPOOM! It boggles the mind how they become people so quickly. Her oldest with his high, flat cheekbones and enormous blue eyes, so clear and satisfying to look at, and her youngest, already cursed with the rear end of an old man but great with a soccer ball! Confident. Walking around the world belly first. As seems every male learns from an early age. When meanwhile Al can remember sucking in all the way back to preschool, can recall with a full-body singe how she lied about eating two M&M’s, two! in second grade. Well, they’d all learned from their mothers to apologize for various desires.
Wait for Mommy! Al yells, as mean as she could get away with. Her oldest looks a bit stricken. When she catches up, she cups his chin in her palm and says, her voice all caramel, Pumpkin, you scared Mommy, that’s all. And of course that’s part of it. But also his guaranteed freedom, his fearlessness, his adventuresome soul, all nurtured by society and its dummies when such things come at such a hefty price for girl children!
Overcomplicating again. Is she anything but the sum of her assumptions? Her pickled memories? She’d been hit in the face by a zestily kicked soccer ball at age eleven and had not cried, despite her stinging eyes and their threat of spillage, and still she’d been dismissed to the sidelines. What would it take, she often wondered, to be taken seriously? A penis isn’t a magic wand, for Christ’s sake! We all forget that!
I tooted, her child informs her. I tooted again.
Cool! is her answer, because it truly is the only answer.
Her youngest’s ankles are crossed, neat and dimpled. It’s all she can see of him and that’s just fine. Is it true other mothers believe strollers that face out are cruel? I mean the ways in which we torture ourselves. SWEET BOY, WAIT! she yells, for her oldest has taken off again, is hurtling toward an intersection, brandishing his death wish like a large rock he’s holding over her prone body. He stops, though. Adrenaline can feel like excitement, she reminds herself. But it doesn’t mean anything. Give yourself a break!
You’re a great mom!
You got this!
You’re not ruining their lives!
You’re too hard on yourself!
You should feel proud!
At the end of the day, when you get into bed and the sky is dark-washed denim and the cicadas dirge in a strangely comforting industrial buzz and your husband’s face is as familiar as a clock and your heart beats in your ears home-home home-home you can let go, drift off, sink-sink sink-sink, it doesn’t mean you’re dead!
As she used to think years ago, trying to fall asleep or waking from a nap to the sound of a lawn mower, someone out there doing something, when here she was practicing for death. And I mean, to hell (heck!) with that guy! Mowing his lawn in the middle of the day!
A man, of course.
Imposing himself, that’s what it was. The man with the radio and the man with the lawn mower, both of them imposing themselves on the world because why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t she?
They’d arrived at their yard. Her husband would be home soon, sauntering down the road. She herself was always speeding along. Scooting, half-jogging, whiplashed hips, but hey, she always had somewhere to be, unlike some people. Did that sound bitchy? Well sorrrrrryy! (Her best comeback as a child, and it still felt delicious to say.) The sky had removed its dingy sheet and it was now a rude kind of blue, like that cheap candy her oldest begged for at the Walgreens. It’ll stain your teeth, dovey! When what she meant was, we are not white trash! The ancient hawthorn tree, gorgeous and thorned and mean as dirt, had started dropping its ferns: tidy, drifty combs all the hellheck over the deck. Well, sorry. Her oldest plucks one from his shoe and aims it, gunlike, at her youngest. No, no, she murmurs, too wimpy to be heard. Guns are everywhere, their simple arithmetic irresistible. Fear plus gun equals no more fear. I’m glad you’re dead! her oldest yells, and the baby chuckles. What a world! Two yards over, Al hears the neighbors’ child singing her letters. She’d once watched the child grinding―I mean what else would you call it―the seat of her tricycle, staring at nothing dreamily, at peace in the dogged chore of pleasure.
Children are car crashes of human innocence and animal instinct. (Humans are animals well, yes, Al knows that, of course! Just the other day she’d been unable to adequately express how she was feeling about spilling a whole box of spaghetti noodles onto her own feet until she’d bared her teeth. And actually grrr’ed. And it felt like exactly the thing. What was next, scooting her asshole across the rug in the dining room? She could see it, she really could.)
There was the dog, staring out from inside the house, watching Al in a yeah, yeah, yeah, lady, I’ll believe it when I see it kind of way. They were like friends who’d recently had a fight. The dog positively wry with Al now, and Al overcompensating whenever she could by whispering You are loved over the dog’s cream-soda-colored fur. You wah go sieeeee? Al mouthed at the dog.
Yeah, yeah. What a treat. The yard.
Al had read an article once, or at least she’d read part of it, and it was all about how mothers keep the entire household’s needs in their minds at all times, from the status of toilet paper in each bathroom to scheduling various appointments and maintenance to ensuring the psychic and emotional bonds of the family as a whole. It just comes naturally to women, was the gist of the bit she’d read.
Unfair, Al thought and thinks. And lately she could feel herself expanding to include more than just her home. She’d heard a child call frantically for its mother in the Target parking lot the other day and had answered I’m coming, sweet boo! the way she would respond to her own child. (And had also had that flare of Oh come on, what now. Mother of the year!) She’d felt moved to hug a woman silently weeping outside the grocery store, but hadn’t, because not everyone wants to be touched, Al! Had just moments ago, it must be admitted, briefly considered stopping over after the kids went to bed and giving her body to the man on the steps with his radio. You’re not alone, she would whisper. And feel herself spreading and widening and enveloping it all, not like a black hole, which is a lazy way to think of a vagina, but more like a well, OK, like a womb. Come on inside, she felt capable of saying. The bed is made.
Her oldest is pinwheeling wildly at the baby, and her husband’s blond head would appear bobbing above the fence line soon, and there was dinner to be made and cleaned up and bed for all. And then tomorrow, always tomorrow, empty and contagious as a yawn, its long jaw slowly uncurling, the day assembling into green and blue and asphalt and web, everything just everywhere and Al like a jar desperately, because the truth of it was that she was actually just growing and growing to keep up with herself, her ability to be anything at any moment, like a witch, like a mother, desperately trying to keep it all in. So that she could say to herself, Look at me, keeping it together! That way women say something true as if it were a joke.