Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Sympathetic Creatures

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Sylvia was tugging at Heather’s sleeve, little insistent tugs that pulled the sleeve bit by bitoff her shoulder, revealing her red bra strap to the lushly-tattooed twenty-something FedEx guy who stood before her, waiting for her to finish signing her interminable name. Hyphenating had seemed like a good idea at the time, was the way she usually put it, whenever any well-meaning family member asked why she hadn’t just taken Hernandez, maybe kept Siegundich as her second-to-last name, like the Spanish did. “Theo’s not Spanish,” she would say incongruously, receiving, for the hundredth time, the same blank stare. It seemed that in the past few years, everyone looked at her that way—as if they couldn’t really see her anymore, as if she’d somehow grown dim, difficult to make out.

“Just a minute, Sylvia,” she said, squishing the final “z” to make it fit. She handed the computer back to the FedEx guy, who gave her a flabby, perfunctory sort of grin, the kind of grin that indicated that he had seen the red bra strap and found it pathetic rather than enticing. She closed the door behind him, hard.

“Mama,” Sylvia said, when the man was safely gone, “I am quitting this house.”

“You are quitting this house,” Heather repeated, a habit she’d picked up when Sylvia was a baby and she’d read that repeating a baby’s babble helped improve language development, that the repetition of the baby’s chosen syllables formalized phoneme formation while simultaneously strengthening the child’s sense of self. It seemed to have worked; Sylvia was now four and spoke like a well-read ten year old.

“I am quitting this house because you and Daddy are not sympathetic creatures.”

“I just let you squirt a mountain of honey on your cereal, didn’t I? Isn’t that sympathetic?” Heather brought the package—which was large, but light—to the kitchen table, where she examined the return address label. WASTE NOT, WANT NOT, it read, in green minimalist font. The package was addressed to her. She took a scissors from the pencil jar on the kitchen desk to slice through the tape.

“Yes,” Sylvia conceded. “That was. But just now you said you would not bring me to the pool, even when all I can feel is that my days are plodding along, and there’s nothing to do!” Sylvia gave a final vicious tug on Heather’s sleeve, sending the scissors flying. They landed, with a dull thwack, point-first in the couch pillow that lay in the middle of the living room carpet.

Heather closed her eyes, adjusted her shirt, inhaled, exhaled, and finally turned her fiercest glare on her daughter, who received it with coin-shaped eyes. “Don’t tug on my clothes, please, Sylvia,” she said, in a tone of voice that implied that if Sylvia were to ever tug on her clothes again, she might end up like the couch pillow. Then Heather retrieved the scissors from the pillow and finished slicing open the package, while Sylvia huffed to the pantry and began filling her purple wheelie suitcase with handfuls of Newman’s Own Organic Crème Sandwich Cookies and individually-wrapped fruit leathers.

Inside the package, surrounded by inflated plastic squares, was a white box. Heather removed the plastic squares, slid out the white box, and tossed the exterior cardboard on the floor. “Here,” she said. “You can make this your new house, if you want.” On the white box was a picture of a gleaming stainless steel pop-up trashcan.

Sylvia, leaving a trail of fruit leathers, rolled her suitcase over to the cardboard box and climbed inside. “This is perfect, Mommy! I am so grateful for your consideration!”

“To keep your kitchen running smoothly,” the gift note said. “Your ever-loving Theo.” The packing receipt noted that the total, including shipping and handling, had cost $134.99. She opened the white box and pulled out the new trashcan, which was encased in plastic. She pulled off the plastic, balled it up, and threw it in the old trashcan, which was a slightly bigger version of the new one, only the pedal no longer worked. They had to lift the lid manually, a practice that had slowly built up a stratified crust on the lid’s edge, a crust made up of olive oil fingerprints, cilantro choppings, smears of peanut butter, constellations of bread crumbs. Every once in a while, Heather would scrape it off with a Brillo pad, only to start creating a new one as she touched the lid again and again, hour after hour, her fingers sticky with jam or maple syrup, dusty with flour, ripe with tiny bits of minced garlic. The tacky lid had become a reminder to her of the passage of days: here was their history, their own personal geological formation. She took a perverse pleasure in it each time her fingers grazed its textured surface.

But Theo never remembered that the pedal of the trashcan was broken. He would step on it without looking and drop the banana peel or the wet tuna-juicy baggie directly on top of the still-closed lid, and then walk away, leaving the garbage there for Heather to clean up, a habit that had finally caused her, just last night, to spit at him, in a voice that came straight from her spleen, “Pay attention, for Christ’s sake! Why don’t you ever, ever pay attention!”

This was his apology, then. An express-mailed, blindingly-bright stainless-steel trash can. She knew what Theo would expect when he got home that night. He would walk in the front door with his knowingest smile, sweep Sylvia up in his arms and muscle her over to the new trash can—which he would expect to see, glinting like shower-wet skin, in its usual place by the oven. He would step ceremoniously on the new pedal, lifting a squealing Sylvia over the open bin. “Huh?” he’d say. “Much better, huh?” and then he’d swing Sylvia to the ground and wait to receive Heather’s grateful kiss. Later, after she’d bathed Sylvia, read to her, and lay down with her until she fell asleep, he’d intercept her on her way out of the darkened room, put his hand on her ass and smash her into his crotch. “Let’s make up,” he’d breathe. She knew just how it would go, word for word.

Heather slid the new trashcan back into its white box. She carried the box over to the old trashcan, which she opened with the tips of her fingers. The box just barely fit in the can—she had to force it down, crushing the corners, which made the trash bag sag and tear—but she did it. The lid closed. She thought about how, when Theo came home and stepped on the pedal, nothing would happen. She imagined him lifting the lid with his fingers and seeing the shiny white box, soiled by then with used coffee grounds, cucumber peelings, splashes of strawberry-kiwi yogurt shake. And she considered what she might say, when he looked up at her, all the smugness drained from his face. How would she put it, exactly? What words would be best?

She should ask Sylvia. Sylvia always knew just what to say.

Heather got on her hands and knees and crawled halfway into the cardboard box, where her daughter huddled, gripping a half-eaten fruit leather.

“Can I quit the house with you?” Heather asked.

Sylvia smiled, her teeth black with cookie crumbs. She grabbed Heather’s wrist, and tugged.


Amy Hassinger is the author of two novels, The Priest’s Madonna and Nina: Adolescence. She teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program through the University of Nebraska, and lives in Illinois with her husband and two children. You can find her online at www(dot)amyhassinger(dot)com.

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