They were confused by and curious about the empty bottle. That I would buy an empty bottle, they didn’t believe, and so the bottle was evidence of a sugary deception. One of the boys moved the bottle to a more prominent position on the counter so he could examine it while he interrogated me. Why? He asked and flicked the plastic cork. What’s it for? He lifted the metal clasp.
He rotated the bottle looking for traces of soda or chocolate or an ice cream so soft it could be sucked up with a straw—that I’d sucked up with a straw. He’d missed the arrival of the most delicious treat, he feared, and it all seemed rather a shock. But what was the liquid sweetness I had disappeared? That I had slipped a delicacy past the security of their senses must have felt like a failure, and it left open the possibility of other vulnerabilities—the possibility that there could be other delights hidden from their taste buds.
Why do you want an empty bottle? he asked again, giving me an opportunity to reconsider my response, spill the sugar—so to speak—confess to candy and possibly pull another bottle still full of delight from hiding and offer it as an apology, a sort of huckster prank.
The twelve-year-old had been observing the interrogation and now, in a neophyte version of good cop-bad cop, he stepped forward and picked up the bottle in a show of sympathy and understanding. He tilted it and saw it could be useful—why not an empty bottle! He could see potions and poisons and something shatteringly sweet. When did you get it? He swung his arm as if for a toss, but didn’t release, and imagined an explosion. A bottle bomb, he could see!
I’m going to use it. I said.
What for? They both wondered, they had their ideas. The older of the boys carried the bottle across the kitchen and placed it on the counter out of my reach, a territorial sort of move.
I am making something to put in it. They looked doubtful.
I’m making drinking vinegar, I said. The older boy flicked the cork—now his sympathy lay with the bottle.
He gave it a long look before he abandoned the kitchen.
The younger boy stayed at the counter and asked, Can I have a treat?
He called it his armor and wore it proudly over his shoulder, a spindly branch with a fistful of sticks like long bony fingers poking in several directions. He stretched a piece across his chest and discussed it’s protective value, and I could see if he was walking through a boy-sized spider web the branch might poke through a string of silk, fitting as it did like tumbleweed attached to a bottle of ketchup or a cat at the end of vacuum tube—that is, not at all.
I said no, but he sat at the table and fished for a piece of mango by moving his chest from side to side and whipping the longest branch across the plate. Eventually he grabbed the fruit with his fingers and chewed with the casual tree arching around him.
He stood over the cat and again twisted his trunk from side to side, and the cat stood on his hind legs and lifted his paw to a branch on the boy and was delighted.
A lifetime ago a friend and I were wandering the streets of Bangkok when an enthusiastic citizen of the city attached herself to us and offered to show us some of the more reclusive sights. And maybe it’s because we were young and women, but enthusiastic native tour guides seemed the norm in those days. Strangers discovered us on trains and buses or in hostels and offered advice or services or a moment of friendship, and some insisted on showing us sights. In India, we spent several days trying to elude the tour guide who’d attached himself to us at the hostel we’d made our home base. He placed himself in the isle at the front of a bus wearing a lungi wrapped around his ample belly, blocking the Bollywood musical blasting on the television as I recall—he was as much a tourist as we on this particular bus—and remonstrated to the other passengers in our defense about the volume of the video and the seating assignments and he lectured on sights and the safety of women in a bullhorn voice. He was an ambassador, he claimed, or a dignitary, or a friend of an ambassador or dignitary or someone of import, and he ballyhooed and ordered and aggrandized and we withered in our seats and giggled because we were young and conscious of the stares of the other passengers and wanted to blend in despite our blinding white skin and blond hair, or at least not position ourselves as obnoxious Americans. In those days, I suppose, we had a habit of ditching the men we found annoying, or crazy, or terrifying, and our ambassador—well he made us nervous. So we plotted various disappearances, but he found us with a belly laugh amongst the thousands of tourists near the reflecting pool of the Taj Mahal, or outside the ladies’ room at the Red Fort, or even on a random bus we jumped back to New Delhi. No doubt our constant fading into the touristscape confirmed our Ambassador’s belief in our helplessness and our need for his supreme and knowledgeable guidance. As I recall, we evaded his hound dogging about the time we escaped the country.
In Thailand our citizen guide bounded up to us on a street corner and took us to a temple. The enormous Buddha in this particular temple could be lifted by the faithful, she said, and asked us to give it a try. We each took a turn, wrapping our arms around the massive statue and of course it wouldn’t budge, and we laughed.
She offered us something, probably food, we were always famished on our $15 or $10 or $2/day touring.
Take what you need she said and it seems like she offered a basket, the details are fuzzy and I’ve no memory for detail. And traveling was like that. We became friends with strangers and found wisdom in the angle of the sun, or a turn of phrase because we were looking for wisdom, or magic, or a knowing of the world.
This stranger’s words pierced me and I’ve thought about them often over the years. Her simple advice was wise and full of humanity and established a landscape between asceticism and excess. Our needs and therefore existence are not at the whims of a government or religion—self-determination is a birthright.
But it’s need, not want, the curbing of appetite, the built-in restraint of the sentence that makes it a jewel. Of course, need and even take are ill defined, blurred lines, swamps several miles wide. This geography too dry and brittle for pythons and gators is not addressed by the turn of phrase but it is implied—you are not entitled to take what you don’t need.
I suppose it’s easy to infer anarchy in this little nugget, and I’m not suggesting nabbing a coat off the rack in Target because it’s cold, or rushing your neighbors grill because your famished after an ubber workout and that steak smells amazing! I’d rather apply this philosophy like an old-style transparency sheet over a social context or condition—take is an action word—what you need will not be given and so there is also personal responsibility.
On the other hand, take what you need does not mean take your friends flip-flops and give them to the Sherpa guide, though he may need them more than she—didn’t you have your own to give? He was pounding up the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal carrying heavy backpacks on enormous bare feet—his feet had pancaked from years of shoeless climbing—I’ve seen photos of Sherpa feet measuring twelve inches across the base. Kari was doing better than I but we were both huffing pretty heavily at nearly 2000 meters (about 6200 feet). We stopped for a break and sat on some rocks and we talked with the guide about the trail. Other Sherpas ran by with large baskets and we could see the toilet paper and bottles of Coke jiggling over the top—all to serve the booming tourist industry—and in a moment of compassion, Kari reached into my pack and pulled out my flip-flops and she gave them to the guide and he seemed delighted. He wore those cheap shoes for the rest of our trip up the mountain, I don’t know how he kept them on his feet. I like to imagine those slivers of shoe climbing up to the sky.
Later when we were cleaning up in a shower carpeted in fungus and filth in some hostel or inn, I took Kari’s flip-flops (she may have offered them). Traveling was like that.
Sure she was crouched down in the isle and I didn’t see her, but that doesn’t explain why I wound up patting her on the head like a dog.
I’m so sorry, I said when I realized what I was doing and she took it well. She laughed and I sheepishly laughed, and I may have reached out for another pat, I don’t know.
I must have defaulted into mom mode. We were rushing through the grocery store because we’re always rushing—the boys to the bulk candy isle and me gathering milk and produce and whatever else, and then to cut them off before they emptied the candy bins. And they were well on their way to emptying bins—at least Jake was. He had the scoop in the Jelly Bellies and a plastic bag nearly full and Viggo was gazing anxiously at gummy fish, the wrong kind it turned out. And my arms were loaded and I was scurrying and then I tripped but I didn’t fly. And I felt bad because I bumped her and she was communing with the chocolate and probably didn’t like the interruption.
It was just one of those clumsy days with a few recoveries. I knocked over the most intricate Lego ship, 4000 pieces, in my zest to move furniture and scour the floor after our love-struck house rabbit went territorial and, in what I can only imagine was a fit of passion, exploded her business card over the room in an attempt to draw the feline object of her obsession’s attention. Bunny poo failed as an aphrodisiac as far as the cat’s concerned, and I don’t personally care for the rabbit littering all over the house (I had thought her successfully potty-trained!) so I wanted to clean.
The Lambda class T 4A shuttle tumbled slo-mo onto the floor as I imagined all sorts of ways to stop time. I sat for an eternity gazing at the shattering—how to explain to your son you may have destroyed his favorite Christmas toy, the one he’d bent over from three AM Christmas morning until it was finished many hours later, the ship he’d paraded around to all the family members demonstrating the raising and lowering of the condor-like wings and displayed proudly amidst his clutter of ships on the too-small dresser because there wasn’t another Lego-free surface in his room. It was a low mom moment when I told him, and there was the outburst and tears. But amazingly he pulled the ship back together with mom shamefacedly locating pieces.
It is these larger off-balanced moments that illuminate the smaller falls and splashes: the dropped place settings, food scraps on the floor rather than the compost or trash, the spray of water over the counter and my shirt when I’m rinsing dishes. Some days, I’m happy to end, which is what I was doing when I realized, I’m not the only clod. I’d read to the youngest and he got up to fetch some essential downstairs and was talking and looking and walked into the wall. He smiled before rushing to me for a cry and I hugged him, and I probably patted his head.
Late that night, or 3:30 the next morning, I was walking the dog when a teenager from the neighborhood came rushing toward his home. He seemed to be talking to himself or his phone and bounding at the same time, which is what got my attention. He rushed and leaped and fell over a hedge and some pottery crashed and there was silence. He pulled himself up and slipped into his house and if there is a lesson it must be about slowing down, the dangers of multi-tasking, the funny of falling. Probably, there is no danger in occasionally stopping to pat a stranger on the head.
I lived a full life during my visit to the Lego store. There was joy and sorrow, laughter, love, and anticipation—of course—because we were going to that place. We arrived doe-eyed and drooling, or at least they did. I was the reluctant driver. Just a note, I warned ahead of time. I’m not loaning you money—Christmas is coming and my toy budget is allocated. But just to look, they said, curious about the new models and there was the symptomatic searing of their allowance like a hot virus in their pockets. And the pain made it essential to eliminate the ache, the burden, of funds.
And cash heavy as they were, there was a certain confidence, a joie de vivre and tire-kicking stride as they eyed the boxes on the shelves. But what they had was really only a little and they wanted more, and the two oldest negotiated and decided to consolidate and buy a Ninjago model, and the young one was jealous and scanned the shelves and picked something he had to have and I shook my head. There’s a lesson here about managing money. Why! He cried, and I told him about the holidays and I had to consider cash flow, and he asked again and we went back and forth and I put the box in its place on the shelf. And the middle boy came to me teary-eyed and said the eldest betrayed the bargain and picked something from Star Wars not Ninjago, and he always does this he said, and I said, yes, so don’t make deals, and he cried and the youngest threw himself at my feet and grabbed my ankles and the oldest said, I’m bored. And he went back to the car because he could. And he’d already blown his money that morning and really didn’t have any to contribute to the grand bargain in the first place, but I didn’t reach this conclusion until later. And so it was the two and I, and I said let’s go and they said no, and their feet were planted and with all the crying they were rooted deep.
The middle boy drew his money from his pocket and counted. Ok, I said, because I felt bad about the broken pact and dashed hopes, and we’d been wandering the store for nearly an hour, and I was tired and having fantasies about boarding schools and valium. I’ll loan you next week’s allowance. Of course, in fairness, that meant doing the same for the little guy. When I said so, his face was a sun. And then, what was it I wanted? he asked and he began to panic.
And so redemption came in a plastic bag. And when we walked from the store it was sunshine after a storm. Of course I felt I’d lost something: control—absolutely—a little cash, the opportunity for that lesson on financial management as well as a little dignity when I’d managed one or two mermaid steps with a seven-year-old dragging from my feet. But then, what is parenting if not the obliteration of self, which some call Nirvana. That said, I can only conclude the Lego store is a little bit of heaven.
The boy’s legs were long and skinny like popsicle sticks shooting out from under the bed. (I was reminded of Dorthy’s red-slippered witch in a more permanent rest as a consequence of bad weather.) I don’t know why he chose to sleep on the carpet under the bed without a blanket, without pajamas, without clothes to speak of unless you consider the grundie undies, as we like to call them, clothes—it must have been cold. I suppose he wanted to commiserate with the cat who vacationed on the floor in a corner by the wall, no doubt to escape the crowd of two boys that lived in the room. But the cat was no ascetic and the carpet was rough—he found his way pretty quickly to the boy’s deserted bed and snuggled in with the pillows and down quilt and slept quite well.
I remembered stuffing it in the closet under some shirts, or in my gym bag, or was it in my boots? I dug through my drawers and the linen closet and beneath the sink in the bathroom and I visualized a bowl in the kitchen, but it wasn’t there (in reality), and it wasn’t in the pantry or the basket where I kept the bread. And the problem with the hiding is the finding, which is of course the point, and I’ve got to keep a step ahead of them but then I’m flustered and they stomp impatiently mumbling, you lost it.
No. I didn’t, I say and I’m defiant. If you didn’t keep finding my hiding places, I wouldn’t have to keep moving things.
You don’t have to hide it, they say and they seem like the rational ones.
I do. Because you keep sneaking.
You lost it, they repeat for effect, for a dig, and they appear to be right and they sigh and stomp and I think maybe I have.
Go away. You can’t see my spot, I say, and it’s true, but mostly I don’t want them to see me throwing dishtowels in the air to search beneath. I have my pride. And this is an old movie we’re replaying. I’ve become a wizard at making things disappear. Mostly treats and electronics for the simple reasons their stomachs are sink holes and they know no limits.
Today it’s candy I’m seeking. The neighbor gave them a bucket and they thought it would taste good at midnight, so I took it away because they were beginning to gorge.
There’s that, and I hide granola bars and cereal bars or fruit snakes to save some for school or tomorrow or maybe for in a few hours because they’ll inhale a box within minutes. They’re locusts, swarming the pantry leaving trails of cracker and pretzel crumbs and the counter is littered with wrappers and I’m hungry I hear as they pass with chips spilling from their fists to the refrigerator and they swing the milk in a low arch up to the counter, sixteen plus gallons a month, and I grimace but they don’t spill. Dinner’s almost ready I say, no more snacking. But they’re starved and I shovel them out of the house anyways though someone sneaks back while I’m chopping carrots because I hear the rustling of packaging and so I turn.
I pull some chips from a corner and I cover the bag with a potholder when I hear the door slam because there’s really not much left and I want a few. And the truth is, I hide things because I want to eat, and I too am an addict—I have my stash of chocolate or licorice for occasional nibbling only because I keep it moving like live game into new hid-away. And sometimes they find it and I find the wrappers ripped and worn at the bottom in the place where I left them, or in the pockets of their jeans or stuffed in the crack between a dresser and the wall.
And it’s not just food. I hide the electronics when the boys don’t respect time, when they’ve passed their limit and I’ve put the IPods away only to have the devices reappear under pillows or in pockets with their stolen sugar. Or maybe the boys cling to the laptop watching a zombie videos and they haven’t finished their homework or they’ve lost the gaming privilege altogether after beating on a brother.
And so it’s cloak and dagger but the dagger part is a little dull because there’s not so much deduction and the IPod has been gone for months and it’s your fault Mom! And I think maybe it is, then I find it under the seat in the car where they sit and I gloat.
For today I’ll keep seeking whatever I hide. It’s just a game I play.
She hesitated, she couldn’t say why. There was something horrifying in the way he grasped at his throat and she felt her own breath stall in her chest and she froze with her hand on her glass and a trickle of something like relief melting in her brain. And for a moment the brume that clung to her like Spandex or a coat of metallic paint rusting in the humidity of a godless place lifted. It was curious, the fear in his eyes where she’d never seen fear. And for a moment she imagined something different and bright but specifics were vague and it was really only a feeling. And then the waiter came and the urgency in his voice brought her to now and panic.
Are you all right? The waiter paused at the table with a bottle of wine and two glasses for another table, and he shook his head and his face was reddening. The waiter found a free hand and tapped his shoulder, then passed off the bottle and stemware and executed a perfect Heimlich, dislodging what had blocked his airway. He gasped with his hand still at his throat and the waiter waited and she reached her hand to him.
I’m all right. Thank you, he said to the waiter and his voice was hoarse. The waiter recomposed and nodded then slipped away. He grasped Fern’s hand and the two sat silent, having bypassed a crossroads to some place foreign and the silence was time and distance from that exit. He regained his color and his breathing evened out. He pulled his hand back and took hold of the stem of his own glass and held it up.
I couldn’t breath, he said, and she nodded and her eyes welled up.
I know she said. They both drank and they were again silent and they were often but this was a silence of shadows, and they imagined endings, and he saw his wake with sobbing women and the men were shocked and still admiring. And she imagined different endings. And then the sounds of the room gathered at the edge of their saturnity and breached their quiet and their imaginings faded slowly like a tide.
The waiter took their plates and poured the rest of their bottle into their glasses.
How’s your mother? He asked because he was feeling generous for his extra days, because at that precise moment every day felt like an extra.
She’s doing all right, considering. Some days she remembers and some days, not so good. It’s the nature of the disease. . . . The nurse seems to be really good. Thank you for that, by the way. I don’t know what she’d do. . . .
Of course. Family. Anything for family. There was a tenderness in his eyes.
Is Josh happy with the restructuring? She asked about another executive.
He should be. He’s going to make a fortune, and he has his own team.
Good for him. He’s earned it.
I don’t know if he’s earned it, Kyle snorted. But he’s kissed every ass there is to kiss. And he’s a ruthless son of a bitch. He’ll do all right.
Just what they need. There was only a touch of sarcasm in her voice, but it felt familiar. Comforting. Well, she retracted. At least he’ll fit right in.
He always fit in. . . . At least the stock prices are up. Kyle’s smile was cool and he finished off his wine.
For now. I can’t imagine they’ll stay up.
Always the optimist, aren’t you.
I’m a realist. Always have been. It’s a global problem. So you guys rearranged the furniture, got a facelift. You look nice for the short term, but the gold rush is over.
Wait until we unleash the magic. He leaned back in his chair and motioned for the waiter, his eyes sticking to the hostess with hair dark and shiny as an oil slick. Fern watched his smile when the hostess turned, the winking without winking, an opportunity to exercise his boyish charm, she supposed he had it though he was growing puffy with age. The hostess glanced from him to her and her smile was for Fern, apologetic, and Fern was grateful for the wine and drained her glass as if donning a veil.
We should go, she said and he nodded without looking, scrolling on his phone.
Just waiting for the check.
They stood outside the restaurant in a circle of light waiting for the car, an opportunity to answer email. The breeze that blew off the nearby river was cool and smelled like fish.
Later than night he watched her undress as he lay in bed.
Is that a new dress? He asked, closing his laptop. She hung her dress up over the back of the door and smoothed it along the shoulders.
It’s the one bought for the company dinner last fall.
That’s right. . . . It’s pretty.
It needs a cleaning, she said.
He watched in the bathroom as she carefully dotted her face with cream, a ritual that seemed to require excessive concentration given the small area. He supposed she had aged relatively well, but it’s futile, he concluded, and for a moment he felt his throat tighten and a flash of panic.
I almost died tonight, he said into the open door of the bathroom. He could see her searching through drawers. The pill she slipped into her mouth was a sleeping pill, he knew, she’d always been an insomniac. And he was impatient and she was taking too long.
I know she said and she came into the bedroom and stood in front of the open bathroom door and she was framed by light, and the distance to where she stood seemed enormous.
But you didn’t she said when she crawled into bed. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tight as if to draw the heat and light of her to the deepest parts of him. And she felt the ancient rhythm of his heart beat between the blades of her shoulder. And eventually, they slept.
“You have to do this perfect,” the biggest tells the smallest, then adds, “I’m going to go downstairs for a while. . . . Make sure you dry them off.”
They’ve been up there nearly an hour, working and devising strategies for clean. Big brother is, of course, the captain, directing and assigning tasks as they scrub, strain, and sort thousands of Lego bricks from Kinex, KRE-O’s and Halo bricks. There’s a steady clunk of plastic and industrious conversation interrupted by bursts of enthusiastic humming and occasional song.
All this a bit shocking because the three can’t spot a six-foot pile of dirty socks in an otherwise empty room. And when I ask them to clean their room, they do the sweep, moving a book or two from one pile or another, pass by the unmade beds and the clean clothes I’ve asked them to put away, stumble over the action figures and Lego pieces—because everything here is Lego—pick and toss one of the many granola bar wrappers stuffed in corners and littering the dressers, and wonder if I will pay them for their work.
But now that big brother suggested washing what he sees as their most prized possessions, they’re attacking the job like ice cream sundaes. But time has a way of killing enthusiasm, and an hour later, with six inches of Legos still submerged in the bathtub, the Tom-Sawyer charm fades . The middle boy decides first the game is not a game, and sneaks out the front door to look for snakes or frogs or just elude the tedious tasks big brother assigned him. And then the Captain decides his ship is not ship-shaping as easily as planned, and takes a respite, leaving the smallest boy elbow deep in water scooping plastic into a colander with clear orders to keep working.
“I’m tired,” Viggo says when I go upstairs for a status check.
“You can go,” I tell him and the tub smells like fish.
The bathroom is a mess. All the kitchen-straining devices are strewn in the sink, on the toilet and on the rug loaded with bricks, and there’s an enormous stack of Halos and odd bits of broken toys and trash on the bath mat. But most of the work is still floating, and the smell, I can’t figure it out. Maybe the sand accounts for the oceanic odor, or something rotten or dead. I start to scoop but I can’t tell which is Halo and which is not, and it doesn’t take long before I feel had.
So I go round up the boys and do what moms do. I put them back to work, and now the task is a job, and they heave and they ho and the humming is no more. And eventually, I let them drift away and when the last of the Lego’s are shiny clean, I got to work cleaning the bathroom. I didn’t do it perfect.