Sara Lippmann's debut collection of short fiction, Doll Palace, is now available from Dock Street Press.
Billy Monroe was stuck in the plastic fun tunnel at Gator Grotto.
Thankfully, this was my only problem. Everyone else was accounted for. The birthday was over. Gift bags had been handed out, choking hazards made in China promising minimal play value and maximum clutter: squish balls, rubber snakes, number puzzles whose pieces never quite fit. Justin’s party had gone off without a fistfight or allergy breakout or knuckles lodged in coin slots. The boys had all struck Bonnie & Clyde poses with Everglade, singing alligator and mascot of the popular themed play space, who lugged over the mesh wire shoe bin like a dead body and dumped it onto the floor for a final mad scramble. Muddy shoelaces looped into ears then bows, Velcro crushed together. We were just waiting on pick-up.
I told Justin to grab Billy but Justin wasn’t doing me any favors. It was his seventh birthday. He bolted across the stained swamp of a carpet with the Bottom twins and a handful of stolen tokens. Justin McNamara! I hollered into the frenzy, my hands a megaphone, but he just flashed his gummy grin and tugged on the knob of a pinball machine. It’s only so long before they want no part of you. For an instant, I saw him as a man. I turned to Richie Dew, the neighbor’s kid, an obligatory invite with a runny nose, who threatened to sue if I so much as encroached like the branches of my willow tree so I flagged down another who cried, Lady, I’m claustrophobic. He belonged to another party.
Ed? I said to my husband. Eddie? He walked off. This was not his department. My husband was strictly transactional. He whipped out his checkbook. He shook the furry mitt of Everglade, who slapped him congenially on the back. My husband left to bring the car and to start making trips, first for the presents and leftover paper goods, and then for his elderly parents, who he escorted gingerly to the curb then strapped into the back seat, with whom he then stayed, passing out tissues and mints and diddling on his phone while catching the ballgame on public radio.
Billy’s tube was connected to a series of tubes that spanned the ceiling like snap circuits. Everglade approached, flopped his bulky head against my neck. Its heft and costume smell delivered autumn comforts in April: mischief, night skies, apples caged in galvanized tin. I patted in turn. We surveyed the system for options. Chutes reaching like vacuum cleaner parts availed the only way down.
Man all exits? I asked. He shrugged. His suit like Justin’s favorite green footie pajamas, now outgrown. Static from his scales tickled my cheek. Divide and conquer? What do you say, are you with me? But Everglade skipped off to another party, plush tail flapping, the center of everyone’s fun.
I was alone again.
Billy! I called up the mouth of a slide. It was painted to look like a newt or salamander, if there’s a difference. I held onto the plastic frame and started climbing but lost my footing and slipped, burning my chin on the fall. I regarded the slide with newfound respect, which was silly: it was no portal or transporting device. It was an orange kiddie tube. The sides had been decaled with bulbous white eyes, which had partially been scraped off but still managed to give the lizard a dumbstruck look, as if it were seeing birds or stars, as if it were in love.
Haven’t you had enough? My voice echoed into the hollow.
Recently, Justin had stopped playing with Billy over a bad trade but I’d insisted Justin include him regardless. What’s another action figure in the grand sea of toys? Justin said I didn’t understand - some things are not up for grabs! – as if I’d never possessed then lost anything. Trust me, I whispered. Let it go. Through my only son’s protests of one of a kind! and irreplaceable! I nodded, drawing his sweaty brow toward me. I ruffled his hair, his scent now sour. He squirmed against my chest then broke free.
Sweetie bear, I called to Billy as if he’d just dropped in for Sunday pancakes. Come down, now. Your mother is coming.
I poked my face in expecting erasers plugged in nostrils, I don’t know what. Billy was an impulsive kid. Instead I felt vibrations through my grip, Billy humming Sounds of Silence or Scarborough Fair, I couldn’t tell which. Maybe it was The Boxer. The bright network of tubes had distorted sound. With my head in the hole I stood there staring at the gray soles of his socks and listened. Commotion stilled. Even I found myself lost in the music. Everything was nice for a song.
Then the mommies arrived.
Immediately, they set to work. That’s the deal with mommies. We can’t help it, give us a scene and we make it our destiny, we infiltrate every nook and airspace as a unified front, chanting what can we do without waiting for an answer, we flourish hands like a lotus goddess tossing cups mopping spills stacking plates compressing empty pizza boxes; discreetly we run cake knives thick with blue frosting along our fat outstretched tongues, all the while hugging, kissing, inquiring after each other’s overscheduled kids.
Guys, I said, indicating the ceiling. The mommies closed in as if they smelled blood. I lowered my voice. We have a situation.
Billy’s mother swung through the door. Eight months pregnant in black leggings and black ballerina flats and a clingy black tunic, Casey Monroe looked like a rat snake that’d ingested her kill. Typically, we envied the knocked-up mommies who still looked fuckable.
Hot blooded! Everglade sang, popping out from an archway of green and yellow balloons. I stop the world and molt for you! Hand on his heart, he gnawed the tip of his tail and faked a swoon, accosting her with a neon egret stamp to mark the toddler she’d dragged in wearing slippers and a baseball jersey, curls a ragged hive. Casey clutched her daughter, Sadie, tighter and plowed past him. Sadie snapped her hand – open, shut – at Everglade.
We’re not here to play, Casey said.
A stack of cut-out alligator masks fanned the table. In silent unity we passed them around, the mommies, huddling closer, erecting a wall of shoulders, as if what she had – cheating husband, third child on the way – was something you could catch.
Fidelity may be quaint in a marriage but we’d stayed loyal to Jack. A playground dad, an afterschool dad, an everyday daddy, Casey’s husband was the one we called when our kid missed the bus or we got snagged in traffic, the one at pick-up with his soul patch and flannel shirt harvesting a fragrant crop of wood shavings. What Jack did in his spare time eluded us, but whatever it was involved his hands, a muscular river of veins, and a private shed in the back of their house where he made stuff, and not, we believed, drawing from our limited memories of high school wood shop, napkin holders or cutting boards shaped like baby pigs.
Casey, I waved her over. She stared at my wedding band.
I said: You look a-mazing!
People are creatures of habit. At soccer games Jack wore Sadie in a pouch, chewed on a pen cap, and whistled that campy Al Jolson tune: Swanee, you’re calling me. He could pinch up a nosebleed with a flick of his thumb and was the first to sign-up as school chaperone. For wine and cheese play dates he furnished the beer, and in the early years when the Monroes first moved down the block he brought his guitar for spontaneous sing-a-longs. He even helped out with potty training, demonstrating for our boys time and again what it looked like for a man to stand up.
Now that he was gone we blamed her. Who else’s fault could it be? On Halloween Casey Monroe handed out toothbrushes dressed like a slutty Kelly McGillis in fishnets and an unzipped Air Force bomber, aviators raised on her head. At the annual Christmas concert she wielded her camera in a full business attire, not the least preoccupied with who was in attendance or who’d lost weight and when to arrange the goods for the bake sale in matching wicker baskets. Afterward, in the school’s lobby we’d slurp juice boxes and avoid her. Her presence highlighted the food on our sleeves. Where our lives fell short on imagination Casey’s had gone according to plan: three kids in rapid succession, done done and done, a solo plane ticket to an exclusive Aruba resort as a push prize for each delivery. Within six weeks Jack took over the diapers and bottles so that Casey could return to the office, hook up to her award-winning breast pump, and tightly swathe fists in white tape for weekly kickboxing instruction.
Her blonde mane, even in pregnancy, retained its luster, making her highlights appear natural.
I said, I’ve been meaning to call you.
I’m double-parked, she said. Where is he?
When the news broke last month we gathered at the coffee shop, picking croissant flakes with the pads of fingers and eyeing the bottoms of our teas. No mommy was innocent. Had anyone not else wished her body nailed to Jack’s worktable, wrists fixed up in the lathes? There were Little League concerns to address, sure enough, but it seemed futile to vote on whether losing teams deserved gold-painted trophies or to reserve them for winners only.
Forget about Casey’s loss: What about us?
I haven’t seen him, I played it offhand then understood she meant Billy.
You’ve got to be kidding! Casey said. From the mess on the floor she plucked Billy’s shoes, blue plastic clogs like the kind worn by gardeners, studded with superhero charms. She clapped them against the base of the slide as if that might dislodge him.
Give him a minute, I said.
I gave her Billy’s goody bag and windbreaker and bent before her two-year-old, spoke in the high voice favored by preschool teachers.
Would Sadie like a party favor?
Sadie coiled herself around her mother’s leg.
Fair enough, I said. When it comes to manners girls are no better. I straightened up for a quick scan of the Grotto. The hangar had once housed airplane parts for TWA before it was picked up and moved adjacent to a shopping mall. Rotating floor fans blew metallic saw grass and vinyl mangroves along a shallow wishing stream. Stuffed turtles in ascending size lined the shelves behind the ticket cash-in.
There were reptiles in every direction.
Mommies were constructing masks. They popped out perforated holes for eyes, circular scraps dusting the floor. They folded creases along the dotted lines, pulled out triangular tabs for teeth. They wore them like visors. Maybe mommies and daddies can’t be friends but I waited for Jack. In the rearview of my minivan I waited, behind the growth of my willow, scooting in a helmeted pack, pushing love in a swing. With Jack there was no being too tired at day’s end. Once I picked the lock of his windowless shed, drizzled the insides of my wrists with his glue gun, organized damp planks of wood into a makeshift bed, but he never came. That afternoon I pocketed a small belonging of his in the hopes he might call. Only Jack was different than the rest of us, who take whatever we can get. If that’s called settling then Jack expected nothing in return.
I mean it, mister, Casey stomped. Don’t make me come after you!
She shook her fist like the hat peddler from Caps for Sale. I almost answered as the naughty monkeys of Justin’s beloved story he no longer lets me read to him. Tsk, tsk, tsk.
Now, now, I said instead. After all, without decency we’re beasts. Boys are full of shenanigans. Pushing boundaries, testing limits, I said, it’s entirely age appropriate behavior.
She laughed. What was funny? Here I was, trying to be helpful. We were mothers. Moisture collected around her eyes. Her concealer streaked in pale lines. I pretended not to notice. I checked my phone as if it was a part of me. Ed’s text read where are you? as if I could be somewhere else. Casey scooped Sadie into her arms.
Well, then, I think you have everything, I said. Her nails were shaped like the candied almonds tossed out at bridal showers. What more could I ask for? My husband went to work and came home and didn’t balk at the cost of fair-trade organic coffee from the health food store. I hooked the flimsy mask flaps around my head.
Want one? I offered.
My paper snout caved in.
All at once the mommies surrounded.
Put a fork in it!
Goodness, look who’s popped!
Are you using a doula?
Have you considered a home birth?
Let us know if there is anything -
How did you convince him to go for three?
I can make a dish!
You’re all too, too kind, she said weakly, defending her stomach.
Janice Bottom was the first to step forward.
Let me help. Small and mole-like in fleece and a padded cloth headband, she slipped up the chute before we knew what to make of it. Janice was the mommy who did things like give up caffeine and sugar, who had spent thousands on fertility, enduring dashed dreams and bruised upper thighs and never complained about her hyperactive twins. She was the mommy who’d wanted everything we had that much harder, who shamed us for wanting more. Next went Valerie Issacson, followed by Sharon Dew, and Bettina Jones until all the mommies had vanished inside the play space.
I turned to Casey. What’d I tell you? Mommies to the rescue!
Cake, cake, cake, Sadie chanted. She drummed on her mother to the beat of top-40 pumping from all speakers, her face wide with the sudden awareness of her power to hurt.
Gentle, baby, Casey shushed but Sadie kept pounding.
I pressed the tips of my pointer fingers together until they formed a bridge.
So, Casey said, with a look. Do you know anything about a watch?
She studied the freckles on my wrist.
Casey’s navel strained through her shirt like an under bite.
Cut the pickle, I told her kid.
That morning before his party Ed and I had given Justin a chemistry set for his birthday, with test tubes and a Bunsen burner, but he’d shown no interest. I mixed up a clear concoction of household products and stoppered it with a black rubber plug, dissolved it with a shake then hooked it over a sterno leftover from my catering days to watch what would happen.
Justin said if I thought he’d really be more into boiling points and chemical reactions than a hockey stick I didn’t know the first thing about him.
Listen, Casey said. Whatever happened –
I tried to explain. My ears felt hot. A minor hang-up, you know, the way boys are with their stuff - but Casey already had her eyes on the door.
New parties were starting. Small hands fed dollars like long tongues into temperamental machines. Women and children cracked fresh rolls of tokens as they wove through velvet ropes. Everglade greeted them all with hugs and high fives, but he seemed shorter and rounder, almost feminine, possessed by a different body. Husbands trailed behind listlessly. A crowd had gathered to claim our designated space.
Time’s up! I called out over the sensory overload of arcade bells. Justin shrank farther away from me. Up the chute I shouted ollie ollie oxen free! as if all along it had been a game Billy was playing. All I could see through the hole were mommies. What were they doing? The room stank of feet and sweat, teemed with color wheels and whack-a-mole paddles, sirens whirling atop glass cages whose enormous claws came up empty no matter how many times you lowered it into the toy pit and tried to catch hold of a prize.
Now the mommies want out. Trapped in plastic, their arms become sledgehammers. Legs, scissors. There is a cracking sound. There are words as well, but they remain undecipherable, almost primal. I watch their shadows against the orange curvature of the tunnel. It is like a scene from a nature film. Hair and fists. Bodies crouched into hearts.
Suddenly, I’m hungry.
Casey lets out a slight cry.
I know how you feel, I say, my mouth crammed with leftover pizza. Again I am checking my phone. It’s not that I am hopeful but you never can be sure. My pictures are five years old. There was a time Ed would call just to say I love you.
Oh, Casey says. And oh. On the third oh I look up. The mommies have crawled out, masks torn and mangled, a high-stakes heist gone bust. They don’t even make eye contact. They just straighten their jean skirts and brush their blouses and skulk off to claim their children. Casey is red in the face like how my son Justin gets underneath his catcher’s equipment.
Billy Monroe: black curls, puck eyes, fists shoved in yellow track pants pockets as if he’d been here all along. Gleaming from his wrist is my one and only keepsake: his father’s metal chronograph, the little crook. No wonder. Children know everything. Beside him is a man in a buttoned French cuff shirt and beige trousers. His hair is slick. I try searching over their heads for Justin, but all I see is that chin glistening like a new egg. This man looks so much like a husband I barely recognize him. He rubs Casey’s back.
Ready? Jack chirps.
I mean, he’s practically singing.
Casey flicks a speck of green off his collar.
Baby, she says.
They look down. Water gathers at their feet.