The phone rang and the mommy answered it. She walked into the bathroom and leaned into the vanity, twisting the phone’s cord around her wrist until her hand went pale. Her unclasped bra hung from her bony shoulders like a pair of sneakers from a telephone wire. She listened into the phone, she twisted the cord, she opened her mouth but said nothing.
The home was a modern home, designed by the daddy, who was out of town, and the master bedroom led directly into the bathroom with no door or wall separating the spaces. Just inside the bedroom door stood the boy, recently five years old, who had come into the room to ask if he could use the computer to play Backyard Baseball, a computer game he had been given at his birthday party. The party was Aladdin themed, his favorite movie, and the mommy had handbuilt the Cave of Wonders and the tunnel leading up to it out of cardboard boxes and a camping tent, which the boy and his friends crawled through to
find the genie’s magic lamp.
“Should I schedule that now?” the mommy said, rubbing at her stomach. The boy stood there watching her, sensing in his developing mind that something was wrong but not knowing what or why exactly, and mostly wondering how long mommy would be on the phone because he needed the telephone line to access the internet. The mommy leaned into the vanity, bent over and bracing herself against it like she was trying to push it away. She leaned in deeper and her shoulder blades popped up, loosing one of the bra’s straps, which slid down her arm.
Her body heaved.
She breathed in quick little spurts.
“Mommy,” the boy said, and she shot upright, startled, and fixed the bra with one hand while holding the phone against her chest with the other. Her face was wet and heavy and the boy had never seen his mommy like this before. His mommy was the tallest mommy he knew, and she was strong, stronger than daddy even, and when she shook Father Brad’s hand after mass on Sunday mornings she would look him directly in the eye and say thank you father and he (the boy) would do the same without having to be told. She had that kind of effect on him. She had that
kind of effect on a lot of people. But this trembling woman standing in front of him now? Who was this?
What the boy was looking at was raw, unfiltered adult pain for the first time. It was a look he would later see on his daddy’s face the morning the towers leaked that horrible black smoke and collapsed in on themselves like sand castles, and again on Mr. Beckman’s face when the rifle shots snapped and echoed across the campus courtyard, but this moment with mommy holding the phone and her face all wet and him standing by the door, this is the one he would later cite as his first real memory, a moment of terror and confusion and almost cruel serendipity between an unsuspecting mother and her little boy, a moment capable of launching somebody from one world into the next. The mommy wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and sort of shooed the boy away by flicking at him like git, git.
“Mommy,” the boy said again, but this time like a question.
The mommy put the phone down. She went over to the boy and put her hands on his shoulders and led him out of the room. Then she shut the door and twisted the lock.
When the boy turned eighteen he would take a train across the country to Eugene, Oregon, a small hippie town that the mommy only knew from the Joni Mitchell song, and he would notify her that he had landed a job on a farm and would be staying there. He would finally come home for Christmas when he was twenty-two and the mommy would find out that he worked on a marijuana farm, causing a two-day fight, and then she wouldn’t hear his voice for three years, until one night she was woken up by a call from the Lane County Jail. By the third call from the Lane County Jail something in her would shift. She would post the bail but after that she would stop being a mommy. She had had enough. She would tell this to the boy over the crackly phone and she would keep her word, despite herself. And every once in a while when she was loading the dishwasher or clipping her toenails or kneeling at mass she would be reminded of that time in the bathroom and her little boy by the door. She would remember how in her greatest moment of loss, the moment she learned of her unborn, lifeless daughter floating around in the sick fluids of her womb, the moment she needed her little boy the most, and he needed her, she would remember how she shooed him away, flicking her hand at him like a bee buzzing at the back of a sweaty neck, and would wonder if his entire life was contained in that one mindless act.
Second Prize in Flash Fiction
2020 Stubborn Writers Contest
Teddy Engs is a writer and musician living in Portland, Oregon. He writes stories and songs from a drum stool in his basement. Chestnut Review is home to his first-ever published story, and he is eternally grateful.