the youngest son
There is this woman who refuses to believe in imperfection. Life always works out, if you know how to live it.
With her third and youngest son she is always talking in Spanish because she knows he will have an advantage. She herself is proudly fluent in two languages besides English.
“Sweetie, would you like fish sticks or chicken nuggets for lunch?”
It is morning and he is outside in front so he can kick the soccer ball. She bends downs, smiles into his dark eyes that are also her eyes, and gently touches his shoulders. He must always know he is loved and treasured, plus she’s a firm believer, as the counselor in the local elementary school, in practicing what she preaches. She’s also a firm believer in a perfectly happy life, and why not?
“None!” he frowns and pushes away her hand with his little shoulder.
He is all dolled-up for his pee-wee soccer game after lunch; shin-guards all the way up to his knees; polished cleats; crisp jersey that she managed to get off him yesterday so she could stick it in the washing machine. For the past month, he has only been eating ground beef hard shell tacos with lettuce and shredded yellow cheese. A glass of milk. He can eat three in a sitting. Lately, she’s been finding it hard to admit that it’s getting just the slightest bit tedious. It’s always the rest of the family, this, and him, that. She sure would love to get some fresh veggies down his throat. Oh, but it’s just a phase, she tells her husband when he loses his cool about it, as he usually does like men usually do.
“Beef tacos again, love?” she asks in Spanish.
“Yes,” he says in English, like a proclamation, still frowning, his dark eyebrows scrunched up and quivering over his slit eyes, commandeering his little pale face as if they had places to go and they sure as hell were going to take him with them.
“Got it!” And she brings her hand up and over his curly, dark hair, it’s so soft and warm. Her youngest, her baby. She is a mother of three sons!
The oldest is at a mid-morning soccer game; the middle son is reading Sports Illustrated for Kids on the couch, but will soon suit up for his. They are also baseball fiends in the spring, and basketball stars in the winter. When the three of them grow restless and bored during those rare blank hours of a weekend, when they haven’t the faintest idea what to do, they wrestle each other and give each other small, deep bruises and head bumps and dislocated fingers, and she simply leaves them to it and inwardly chuckles at their spirit, their adorable “boyness,” only once saying, in Spanish, to let the youngest win. Please?
She kisses the youngest son’s soft, fat cheek, and he immediately wipes it away; he thinks it’s wet and gross and dumb. Her smile to him is close-lipped and squint-eyed; underwhelming and especially tender and respectful, the way boys like it, she thinks. Besides, smiling close-lipped brings out the dimple in her left cheek, and highlights her cheekbones. It also gives her an air of calm. This is the smile she gave Ms. Lee, the youngest son’s teacher, when Ms. Lee said he was throwing his math work, undone, in the recycling bin during math hour. That not once, but twice, when she asked him to retrieve it, he simply said “no.” That he was pushing kids, roughly, on the playground, and was becoming the kind of “leader” out there, after lunch, that only made Ms. Lee and the other teachers worry. Could they talk about it? “He’s a high-energy boy,” she, the mom, had smiled. “Why don’t you try redirecting his energies? I could give you some suggestions? And don’t worry.” She had reached over to cover Ms. Lee’s hand comfortingly, soothingly, as she has done with countless patients over the years. “It will pass. Don’t we know!” And she released one of her laughs that was meant to reassure and calm and give the luster of perpetual inner happiness.
“Lunch will be ready in ten minutes,” she gives her youngest son a firm hug, because hugs should be handed out liberally, and walks back inside to start browning the ground beef.
He is now left alone in the front lawn, and having grown bored of the soccer ball, he grabs the basketball left lying on the ground from last night’s play, and begins shooting up to the 6-foot hoop his dad had bought for them last year. Annoyingly, all the other kids in the neighborhood wanted to use it too, so he had to tell them, at the kind urging of his mom, that they could have ten tries each. He’d stand there, arms crossed, and count. “Come onnnnn!” they’d whine afterwards. But they’d just keep on going, wouldn’t they? They were stupid and annoying, and dumb mom was too into sharing and kindness. It was his hoop, not the whole world’s. The problem with the hoop was that it was just too goddamn high, and he could very rarely make a sink. If his brothers were out, they’d lift him and help because after school when mom came home she was always watching them, making sure they were good big brothers, and made the nanny keep an eye too. He’s so frustrated he can’t sink the ball! He takes it and throws it as hard as he can against the house door. Bang! He imagines the entire house shaking and his family inside quivering in fear. He hates his dad for buying the hoop and his mom for insisting he share it.
He finds a big rock in the bushes instead and notices its colors, reddish, silver, some crystal-like things riding a jagged crevice. This could do some damage.
When the silver car approaches, he walks a few steps closer across the lawn. It’s going slowly as it should on the residential road. His dad has yelled at speeders before, and he would too. He waits until the car passes before taking aim, squinting his eyes, and throwing. He had wanted to hit the back windshield, but he got the bumper instead, which is when he runs. Back to the house, throwing open the door and slamming it shut. He dashes into the living room with his cleats on and jumps onto the couch, throwing a pillow over his head. “God, what’s up with you?” the middle one says, his feet up on the ottoman, now watching a show on Nickelodeon.
When the knock comes, the woman at the door is angry, but controlled and firm, speaking without any rise in her voice, which frightens the youngest son from his spot on the couch, but also kind of makes him want to take the woman on, whoever she is.
“Your kid threw a rock at us.” The woman also has a slight tremor in her voice. Things like that don’t happen in their neighborhood.
“What?” The mom, she honestly can’t believe it, thinks this decent-looking woman is crazy, but still must appease her, must show understanding. “Just now?” She feels her face getting warm. She hates how her cheeks flush high on her cheekbones during times like these, and knows that soon the hives will pop out on her neck. Just center yourself, she tells herself while trying to maintain the calm in the compassionate gaze she’s giving the obviously irate woman before her. She takes a couple quiet breaths, feels her chest rise slightly, and immediately feels better.
Suddenly, the youngest son’s dad is there too. “What just happened? Isaiah, come here!” He turns his head and throws back his voice, loud and low.
“It’s ok,” the mom says slowly to the dad, patting his forearm. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“I think it’s something,” the woman says, her voice going up just the slightest. “We could have been really hurt.”
The youngest son is there now hiding behind his mom. He watches the woman with one eye and sees that she is a big woman, bigger than his dad. What would it be like if he could knock people dead with his unblinking gaze?
“Let’s see,” and the mom leads the way out across the short lawn and to the idling Silver Honda Accord, a family looking wide-eyed from inside, the dad in the passenger’s seat, unbuckled as if he were ready to hop out at a moment’s notice. What kind of a woman orders her husband to stay put? she thinks and chuckles.
“Where?” She’s standing a few feet from the car and swiveling her head with only the subtlest exaggeration, searching for the damage. She wants the woman to pick up on how silly she thinks this whole thing is, but doesn’t want her to think that she’s not a loving, caring person. She’s figured out that the key is to oh so carefully give the essence of one’s true thoughts of the offensive party, which might be less than loving, which might not give an iota at all, without having to take the blame for them. To make the other sense that unlovingness without taking any responsibility for those feelings at all.
“There.” The woman is right behind and then right there at the car, kneeling and pointing. She’s quite large, the mom thinks as she watches the woman bend down, her thighs grotesquely widening her jeans.
There on the bumper is the tiniest mark ever, a flea bite, the mom thinks.
“You did that?!” The dad has the youngest son’s upper arm in his hand and has dragged the boy to the car. He is yelling and his voice carries in the quiet morning. “Goddamn it!”
“David, that’s not necessary.” The mom feels those hot circles on her cheeks, brings her hand to her neck.
“Oh, this is necessary, Julie. Your son did this!”
“Of course he’s our son, of course I know that.” She is trying so hard to keep the tremble out of her voice, to keep her throat from closing up. Too many times to count she has felt as if she has four sons, her husband just another one of them. She will head to the tennis court after this. She will hit her anger out against the wall so that her sons won’t see it.
Now, though, she must use her calmest, quietest voice. She knows how to handle conflict and unruly people; she will model it for her youngest since his father cannot. “He will apologize for that. Certainly.” She looks at the, yes, fat, not very pretty, out-of-control woman kneeling before her silly mid-grade silver car, and smiles her close-lipped smile, showering the woman with love and compassion. “He’s just a kid. You know boys! I’m sure he didn’t mean it.” And she attempts to wrap her arms around her youngest son, though he has jerked from his dad’s grasp and is taking cover behind her. She wonders, then, if she should hug the woman instead, simply gather all the woman’s ugly, flabby largesse into her arms and bring the whole crazy thing to a nice, comfortable end, establishing her expertise.
But the woman stands up and crosses her arms over her large bosom. “I saw him. He did mean to do it. I saw him take aim.”
The mom feels blood in her ears and the skin of her neck, itchy and hot. She wants to pick up that vagrant rock and pitch it precisely at the woman’s ridiculously large, pale forehead. Wants her to bleed and lose bits of scalp and skin and grey matter; wants to take a whole chunk out of the insolent fuck and then enlist her son to pummel the rest of the car with rocks. Finish the job!
“Well how could you? You had your eyes on the road, right?” And she smiles instead. She feels David looking at her and knows that he has that look on his face, the one that is equal parts shocked, incredulous and tired. She has never deserved that look. Ever.
The woman stares at her, sighs loudly, and then shakes her head, turns to the car and says matter-of-factly, “You’ve got trouble there. Better keep an eye.”
As the family drives off, calmly, something momentarily breaks in the mom, but later she acknowledges that it was simply defense, of herself and her son. The defense her husband wasn’t and never is willing to give.
She picks up her knees, hurdles the low curb; feels her feet slam against the pavement. She reaches the car and hits the trunk with her fist. Again. She’s screaming as it speeds up and turns. “No! YOU better keep an eye! YOU! YOU! You and your stupid family!” She runs after it until it is gone, and then she stops. The middle of the road. A mourning dove, a crow. A leaf blower somewhere. Her heart is pounding. Her forehead and upper lip are sweaty, her armpits damp. A single drop of sweat is sliding down her chest between her breasts, under her bra. Her neck is so very itchy.
When she returns, her husband and son are standing in the lawn, watching her. The middle son is there now too, back a ways by the door. David’s look doesn’t surprise her, but she thinks that her youngest son will smile at her in awe and admiration when she reaches them. She is instantly, uncontrollably sad to see that he looks surprised and a little scared, which quickly turns into the insolence that she, at least, recognizes and that comforts her with its familiarity. We are back, she thinks. All is well. I have done what I had to do.
“Wow,” David says quietly and turns back to the house. She kneels and hugs her youngest son.
“These things happen.” She leans back and smiles at him, regrets for a quick moment that he must see her face a little sweaty. She rubs her forefinger over her upper lip. He squints his eyes and pushes out of her arms. He scowls. She’s hot and smells. “But it’s ok. It’s all ok.”
When she arises she takes her deep breaths, closes her eyes for a second to find her center, dusts off the dirt from the knees of her jeans, and tells herself that now it’s just another beautiful day; unfortunate beginning, but so be it. She, at any rate, is better, trying harder, more powerful, than that woman and her puny little family sitting like dullards in their silver Honda Accord. That she can forgive and move on and smooth over and not create turmoil where none needs to be. That life is simply a matter of choosing the high path, of positivity and right action. At all costs, of love and joy and perfection.
Sommer Schafer received her MFA from San Francisco State University in 2013. She has stories in Frigg, Fiction, Ninth Letter, Hobart, Glimmer Train, Santa Monica Review, Room, and others. She lives with her husband and two children in San Rafael, California, and co-edits The Forge Literary Magazine. Visit her at www.sommerschafer.com.