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. Tommy’s party had gone off without a fistfight or allergy breakout; no 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 Tommy to grab Billy but Tommy 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. “Tommy 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 perennially 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?” No matter what I called him he walked off. It’s not that he didn’t hear me. 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 shaped like vacuum cleaner parts provided the only way down.
“Man all exits?” I asked. He shrugged through his suit, which looked like Tommy’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 resemble a newt or salamander, if there’s a difference. I held on to the plastic frame and started climbing but lost my footing and slipped, burning my chin on the fall. I guarded the thing with newfound respect, which was silly: it was no transport or portal to somewhere. 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 dumb-struck look, as if it were seeing birds or stars, as if it were in love.
“Don’t you think it’s time to come down?” My voice echoed into the hollow.
Recently, Tommy had stopped playing with Billy over a bad trade but I’d insisted Tommy include him regardless. What’s another action figure in the grand sea of toys? Tommy 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 milk scent now sour. He squirmed against my chest then broke free.
“Sweetums,” I called to Billy as if he’d dropped in for Sunday pancakes. “Your mother is on her way.”
I poked my face in expecting erasers plugged in nostrils, I don’t know what. He 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. I guess that’s what it means to find oneself lost in the music. Everything was nice for a song.
Then the mommies arrived.
Immediately, they set to work. That’s the thing 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 lacquered 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 proudly fuckable. She sighted us before anyone said her name.
“Hot blooded!” Everglade sang, popping out from an archway of green and yellow balloons. “I stop the world and molt for you!” 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, Lizzie, tighter and plowed past him. Lizzie snapped her hand – open, shut – at Everglade.
“We’re not here to play.”
A stack of cut-out alligator masks fanned the table like fancy napkins. Silent conspirators, 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 – could somehow become contagious.
Fidelity may be quaint in a marriage but we’d stayed loyal to Jack. A playground dad, an afterschool dad, 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 shop, napkin holders or cutting boards shaped like baby pigs.
“Casey,” I waved as she approached. I touched her shoulder. She stared at my wedding band.
I said: “You look a-mazing!”
People are creatures of habit. At soccer games Jack wore Lizzie in a pouch, chewed on a pen cap, and always trilled 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 and 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. It was obvious. On Halloween Casey Monroe handed out toothbrushes (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 dark suit and heels, 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’d spent the last year growing mine out.
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 suspiciously eyeing the bottoms of everyone’s teas. No mommy was innocent. Hadn’t we all wished our bodies pinned 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 to reward losing teams with gold-painted trophies or to reserve them for the actual 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, feeling oddly protective of her son.
I handed over Billy’s goody bag and yellow windbreaker and bent before her two-year-old, spoke in the high voice favored by preschool teachers.
“Would Lizzie like a party favor?”
Lizzie shut her eyes and coiled herself around her mother’s leg.
“Can Lizzie say ‘No, thank you’?”
She thrust out her lip like a slug.
“Fair enough,” I said. When it comes to gratitude honestly 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 the shopping mall on 476. 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.
Nevertheless, reptiles were everywhere.
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. Who wouldn’t extend themselves to Jack? We were friends! I waited for him. In the rearview of my minivan I waited, behind the wild growth of my willow tree, 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 hot ribbons of glue, 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 what we can get. He expected nothing in return.
“I mean it, mister,” Casey stomped but the carpet muffled the force of her dainty shoe. She shook her fist like the hat peddler from Caps for Sale.
“Don’t make me come after you!”
I nearly answered for the naughty monkeys of Tommy’s beloved bedtime story he no longer lets me read to him.
“It’s all good,” I said reassuringly. After all, without manners we’re beasts. “Boys are full of shenanigans. Pushing boundaries, testing limits,” I said, recalling my son’s latest laundry attack bomb from the morning, and adding (because it felt somehow necessary to distinguish from that of my husband) “it’s entirely age appropriate behavior.”
She laughed but it came off thin. What was funny? Here I was, trying to be helpful. We were mothers. Moisture collected around her eyes. Her concealer streaked in pale lines, like the points on a clown. I pretended not to notice, checked my phone as if it was a part of me. Ed’s text read “where are you?” as if I there were any place else in the world I could be. I ignored it. Casey scooped Lizzie 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 on time and didn’t balk at the cost of fair-trade organic coffee from the health food store. I hooked the flimsy flaps of my mask around my head.
“Want one?” I offered, attempting a smile.
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 water birth?”
“Let us know if there is anything -”
“Is it his?”
“I can make ratatouille!”
“You’re 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 was happening. 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.
“What’d I tell you?”
I thought she’d be relieved by their gallant rescue mission. Instead she winced.
“Cake, cake, cake,” Lizzie chanted, drumming on her mother to the beat of top-40 pumping from all speakers, her sticky face gloating with a sudden awareness of the power to hurt minus any desire to stop it.
“Gentle, baby,” Casey shushed but Lizzie kept on pounding.
As a distraction, I pressed the tips of my pointer fingers together until they turned white.
“You know,” Casey said, with a look. “He returned once for a watch.”
She studied the freckles on my bald wrist.
Casey’s navel strained through her shirt like an under bite.
“Cut the pickle,” I told her kid.
Before his party Ed and I had given Tommy 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.
Tommy said if I thought he’d really care more about boiling points and chemical reactions than a hockey stick I didn’t know the first thing about him.
“Listen,” Casey said. “Whatever happened –“
“It was nothing,” I tried to explain though I could feel it in my ears. “A minor hang-up, you know, the way boys are with their stuff - ” but Casey 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 new body. Husbands trailed behind listlessly. A crowd had gathered to claim our designated table area.
“Time’s up!” I blasted into the arena over arcade bells, the rhythmic pop and slide of balls brown as coconuts. Tommy just 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, but it was clogged with mommies. I no longer understood their purpose. Casey’s face was pinched. The room rank of feet and sweat, tortuously loud with fake hoses and fake shotguns 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 teeming toy pit and tried to catch hold of something.
It is too much. 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. Casey and me, we stop everything now and watch their shadows against the orange curvature 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 cold pizza. Again I am checking my phone. It’s not that I am hopeful but you never know. 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 my Tommy after he removes his catcher’s equipment and I rush toward him with icy blue Gatorade.
Billy Monroe stands there: black curls, puck eyes, fists shoved in yellow track pants pockets as if there’d never been a problem. Unmistakable metal chronograph on his wrist, the little shit. No wonder. Children know everything. The man beside him is buttoned into a pressed French cuff shirt and beige trousers. His hair is clipped. I try searching past him for Tommy, but the only thing I see is that chin glistening like a new egg. He looks so much like a husband I barely recognize him.
“Ready?” Jack chirps. He’s practically singing.
Casey flicks a green speck off his collar.
Water rises at their feet.