From my rocker on the porch, I hear the cheerful twittering of spring birds, no doubt happily nesting in our gutters. The neighbors still run their furnace but I sit outside in my pajamas, listening to its mild hum, watching our new flag sway in the wind, gazing at the quiet street and the greening yard. Spring seems finally to have completely embraced our neighborhood, though my bare feet cringe from the cold.
Our scruffy boy cat sat on the porch chair this morning when I came out for the paper. He stretched, eyed his empty dish and hopped to the ground. He skirted the delivered water which no one has bothered to bring into the house and crouched expectantly. I let my hand graze his fur, then snagged the dish and spoke to him, assuring him of my imminent return with food. I went back inside, set the paper on the table, let the dog out, started coffee, and went back out to the porch where he waited. He cast his eyes up at me; though we speak different languages, I got his message: "What took you?"
I like feeding critters. Human ones, most of all. Yesterday I taught my son to make lentil carrot soup so he could feed himself cheaply and well, once he's ensconced in his new life in Evanston. But sometimes the boy children need me to fix their dinners, or their midnight snacks. And as this thought occurred to me, standing in the dining room last night listening to the music from Patrick's laptop. I thought of two little boys whom I babysat many years ago.
Robbie and Wade. The sons of a nurse, whose name I confess to have forgotten. I met her at Incarnate Word Hospital in St. Louis, where I worked as a unit secretary. She needed someone to watch the boys during her Saturday shifts. She brought them to my home in Laclede Town, slipping through the patio door with Wade's hand in hers, Robbie's carrier held firmly by her side with her other, strong arm. She'd give five solid minutes of instructions for every minute of the eight hours they would spend with me, while Wade stood completely still.
The first time they came, I lifted Robbie from his seat and held him to kiss his mother. She raised one hand and touched his nose, but wouldn't move towards his face. She walked briskly back out of my townhouse, across the patio, down the sidewalk to the street. Wade and I waited until her compact form could no longer be seen before we closed the screen and went into the living room.
"What shall we do?" I asked. I hadn't babysat in years, but my last gig, in high school, had been considerably more challenging: I watched nine children from 3:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m. while their parents ran a restaurant. I figured, two years later, that I could summon my latent skills and amuse two small boys.
Wade looked around my living room. I followed the sweep of his gaze. Plain couch, table for four, rocking chair. My roommates had gone their respective ways earlier and the house waited some new source of noise. Wade walked, slowly, to the table. "Do you have any books," he asked, in a tone which told me that he would not be upset if I didn't. I returned the baby to his carrier and crouched in front of the bookshelf, extracting my childhood Christopher Robin set. "Indeed I do, young man," I announced. I led him to the couch and for the next several hours, while Robbie slept, I took young Wade on a tour of Pooh Corner.
By eleven, I had completed the first two volumes. Wade had sat next to me on the couch without complaint, one small hand on my arm, occasionally tracing the lines of a picture or asking a question. His small body barely dented the couch; his feet did not touch the carpet; he scarcely moved. I realized he must surely be hungry. The baby had awakened, and seemed to be watching everything I did with something resembling guardedness.
I stood. "Goodness, you must be starving," I ventured. I watched the boy. He wore a white, short-sleeved shirt, stiffly ironed with each button engaged clear to the collar. I leaned down, rummaging in the backpack that their mother had left, hoping to find something less fussy for the child to wear. But the bag held several diapers, the baby's bottle in a thermal storage container, baby wipes and talcum powder. Nothing for a four-year-old to don for rough play; no rattles; no board books. I began to wonder about the mother, but pushed the thoughts aside.
"What would you like for lunch?" I asked the child, and he tilted back his head to bring his eyes to my face. I saw his brow pucker, felt the intentness of his contemplation. Finally, he lifted his small shoulders in the tiniest of shrugs.
"Whatever you fix," he said. "Whatever you pick out." A long moment passed, in which nothing more came, except a small noise from Robbie. I raised the baby, checked and then changed his diaper, and brought both into the small kitchen to see what there might be with which I could feed a cooperative young man.
Robbie and Wade continued to spend their Saturdays with me for many months. Robbie gave me no trouble. He slept, mostly. Wade and I ploughed through all of my childhood books and moved on to some that I bought at the thrift store just to amuse him. I acquired crayons and coloring books; water colors and paper; and looted my mother's basement for leftover Fischer price animals and alphabet blocks.
When I moved from that apartment, Wade and Robbie's mother kept bringing them, to the new place, a second-floor flat on the south side of town.
One Saturday, Wade and I decided to build a cave out of blankets, chairs, and my dining room table. Robbie had gone to sleep, surrounded by pillows on my double bed, and the little boy and I created a make-believe world in which we huddled in the dimness of the under-table waiting for the dragons that would storm our hideaway. He shrieked and stabbed at the monsters with his imaginary sword, and we danced around the room, victorious, when he slayed the dragon and saved me.
And then I realized that the baby had vanished.
Frantic, I tossed the pillows aside and pulled each cover back, fearing what I might find, scrambling to get to him before he suffocated. But no Robbie to be seen, no crying baby to be heard. I stood next to the bed in complete dismay, Wade by my side. His hand crept up my leg and held one of my fingers. His eyes found my face. Neither of us spoke. Helplessness overcame me.
I noticed, finally, that the bed stood several inches from the wall. I couldn't recall if I had moved it while looking for the child. I walked slowly to its foot, and pulled it further out. The baby's still form lay on the floor under the window sill. My heart stopped. I lowered myself down, on my knees, and reached out to touch him.
Warm. His skin felt warm, not cold. I put my hands around his torso and lifted him from the floor. His eyes opened, and he smiled. I held him against my chest and sank back down, leaning against the wall, feeling him mold his body to mine and snuggle his head on my shoulder. I felt a long shuddering sigh course through him; felt his body relax back into sleep; heard the soft whisper of his breathing.
Wade and I spent the rest of the day in the rocking chair, reading books, holding Robbie. We left our cave structure untouched, abandoned the lunch dishes, didn't change Robbie's diaper. When their mother came, she looked around at the mess. In her immaculate nurse's uniform, her hair pinned securely, her face smooth and clean, she beheld the scattered books and pillows and did not even ask how our day had been.
She never brought the boys back.
From 1976 to 1991, I had a total of four pregnancies. During the one which resulted in the gift of my son, I had the most intricate of the prenatal care at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. There, I participated in genetic testing and had my amniocentesis. The technician asked me if I wanted to know the gender. "No, I don't," I admonished, right before she said, "It's a boy." I had been sure it would be a girl; I had convinced myself that I would never have to fight another dragon, nor worry about the motionless form of a little boychild lying under a windowsill while I neglected him.
But I had a boy. We slayed dragons. We climbed mountains. We rode bikes. He scraped his knees, earnestly swung a small bat at a T-ball, strode with heartbreaking determination out onto the floor at a martial arts school week after week, had his heart broken by little girls, and listened to me read about the House at Pooh Corner. He's a man now; done with college; about to embark on his own life, pursuing his MFA, and he knows how to make lentil soup.
I find myself wondering about Wade and Robbie from time to time. They would be middle-aged now; Wade must be 42, Robbie nearly 40. I wonder if Wade remembers me, and the macaroni from a box that I made him on that first day. "From a box," he said, wonder in his voice. "My mother says that kind isn't good for you." He ate three bowls full, with great scoops of cottage cheese, and peaches from a can for dessert.
I wonder, what did he feed his own children? And does he remember the crazy lady who bought T-shirts for him to wear, while he played at her house, careful to have him change back to his button-down shirts, before his mother came to get him.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.
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