Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Girl at the Side of the Road

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I spotted her when I rounded a bend. She was by the side of the road, in the shadow of trees which line old Route 19, a slow narrow route into town. The road itself has swelled and cracked so many times as to be beyond repair. I use it as a shortcut because there are no traffic lights and no real traffic to speak of. The tree branches overhead have grown so close, their leaves an awning from the hot sun.
I slowed the van almost to a stop both because of the oncoming truck and the surprising sight of her. She was walking toward me, but not against traffic like I've taught my own two girls. She was on the other side of the road. Her lips were painted deep red, her eyes outlined in black. It was early June, the air already thick and sweltering, almost palpable, and she had on short shorts and a skimpy black shirt, so tight I could see the outline of her breasts beneath the cloth.

The truck driver honked his horn, and she stopped and turned to follow his path, angling her head so that her long, dark hair swung across her face in harmony with the tilt of her hips. A flash of red as she smiled and waved. The leaves moved ever so slightly and she stood for a moment in the mottled light. A sway of her hips and she began to walk again. Despite the heavy make-up and the well-developed breasts, she appeared still a child, no older than my own twelve-year-old.

"Isn't that the girl on your soccer team?" I asked Kate.

She was in the back of the van, a spiral notebook on one knee and an open math book on the other. Her sister Ellen bounced from seat to seat in spite of my earlier warnings to sit still and wear her seat belt. Kate leaned into the glass and peered through the window. "Yeah, that's Sarah," she said.

I heard the sulky displeasure in her voice. "Why do you say it like that?" I asked.

"It's just that she thinks she's better than everyone else," Kate answered.

I debated with myself. Should I stop and offer her a ride or just drive by? I looked through the window at this Sarah, my eyes searching out hers for a hint of what I should do, but the girl outside tossed her head away from my van and avoided my gaze.

I was left with a parting glimpse of her in the rearview mirror, a child playing at being a woman. A dangerous game. All the words of warning that should be spoken came into my head, all the things I would say to my own Kate if she were on the side of the road flirting with the drivers of passing trucks. I drove into town, windows closed, protected by the air conditioning from the heat of the day.

~

Kate is such a good child, an obedient child, who rarely gives me a moments grief. She does as she's told, I always know where she is, and she doesn't test the boundaries of our rules to see how far they'll stretch, the things that cause a parent real grief.

Ellen is only seven, but already I worry about her. She has far more energy and friendliness than can be contained in such a small body and releases it in all the wrong places. She fusses in church and when I ease my hand onto her shoulder, she reaches up and yanks it off as if even the slight pressure of my touch is too much restraint for her to bear. She cannot sit for an entire meal in a restaurant, not even McDonalds, and roams the aisles while the rest of us finish eating. I find her sitting with some lone diner who seems cheered by her presence, chatting away while nibbling on her new friend's French fries. Once again, when we're back in the car, I try to explain to her about strangers.

I pulled the van in front of Rowe's Department Store that day and we went inside in search of a few things for Kate. She had grown so quickly over the past few months, nothing she owned fit anymore. But it was difficult to find new clothes for her. She was too tall and a bit wide for the larger girls' sizes, too straight for juniors.

Kate and I headed for the sale rack while Ellen went to play with the stuffed animals at a nearby display. She was rushing back within minutes to show me the dark green turtle puppet she'd found and slipped over her hand. In her excitement, she bumped into a woman studying price tags at the other end of the rack. The woman was one of those middle-aged types who have forgotten what their own grown-up children were like when they were younger, remembering only their perfection. She eyed my imperfect child through a disapproving scowl. Ellen glared back at her.

I made my way to where they stood and mumbled sorry, adding something about her high energy level which I always hate myself for afterward. I pulled Ellen to me, repeating that tired, worn-out phase that always passes between us, "When are you going to learn to watch where you're going?" As we turned, I felt the woman's scorn on my back. She had to overhear me bribe my youngest daughter into submission.

"Ellen, if you can stand here quietly, without moving, for just five minutes, I'll buy you some ice cream."

I knew she wanted that ice cream, but she couldn't stay put even for the small amount of time it took me to figure out there was nothing in the store suitable for Kate. It explodes out of her in small, uncontrollable impulses, and she's no longer by my side but elsewhere. I rescued her from under the rack where she was crawling around, clothes falling from hangers in her wake.

"I thought I saw a dollar bill," she said as we were leaving the store. I knew I was going to buy her the ice cream anyway, like I always do, because I want to believe she really tries.

We placed our orders beneath the pink and white striped canopy at the window outside Sally's Ice Cream Palace, then seated ourselves at one of the tables on the sidewalk. Ellen licked the chocolate ice cream leaking over the top of her cone and onto her hands, while Kate contemplated the colored sprinkles in her cup. I sipped my coffee and found myself searching my memory through the line-up of parents at the Saturday soccer games, trying to pair the girl on old Route 19 with the adults she belonged to.

"How well do you know Sarah?" I asked Kate.

She stirred the sprinkles into her ice cream, then piled as much of the mixture as was possible onto her plastic spoon and popped it into her mouth. "Why do you want to know?" she asked through puckered lips.

"Just curious."

"Why?" she repeated.

It amazes me, although it shouldn't, how children always seem so protective of one another, even when they don't like each other. "I was just wondering, that's all," I said. "I mean, she's on your soccer team, but I don't know anything about her. I don't even remember meeting her parents."

"She's one of the popular girls at school," Kate said.

They're in seventh grade. I'm not too old to remember what popular meant in seventh grade. "With the boys?" I asked.

"I guess," Kate said. She spooned another huge glob of ice cream into her mouth.

"Kate has a boyfriend," Ellen said. She clutched the soggy remains of her cone in one hand, raised it above her head and slurped the leftover drips of chocolate ice cream out the bottom with a satisfied sound.

"Shut up," Kate said to her sister.

"You do?" I asked, truly surprised. Too surprised to remind her how much I disliked her using those two words. "Since when?"

"Mom, it's no big deal," Kate said.

I watched her raise another spoonful of ice cream to her lips and thought about Kate having a boyfriend, a nameless boyfriend who was no big deal.

"How come I didn't know you had a boyfriend?"

She looked annoyed. "I said it's no big deal."

I took a sip of coffee. "Well, does he have a name?"

"Mom, I don't want to talk about it, okay?" Kate angled her head and gave me a sidewise, arrogant look, eyes defiant, which lasted just a few seconds, before she turned her attention back to her ice cream. I watched her finish eating, all I should have said left unspoken, silenced by the window of trust she'd closed between us.

~

I missed the first half of the soccer game on Saturday. It was the last game of the season and Kate's team was undefeated. So was the other team. The winner would be the league champion.

I was locking the car door when Ellen took off ahead of me. I followed the trail of her footsteps over to the soccer field, the limp blades of grass flattened by the soles of her sneakers. The sun shone above my head through a haze of midday heat.

The girls were scattered along the sidelines, some drinking water, others pouring it over their heads. I scanned their faces searching for Kate and spotted Ellen's short blonde hair, someone's water bottle already lifted to her lips. I saw Sarah talking to a woman I had never seen before, her mother I guessed, and headed their way. The woman wore knee-length tan shorts and a loose-fitting, white cotton, button-down shirt. I'd pictured someone taller and younger, in black stretch shorts and crop top perhaps, not this shapeless, older mother with salt and pepper hair and spidery varicose veins creeping up the back of her legs.

Kate was standing beside the coach, and I waved at her so she'd know I was there. The coach called the rest of the girls over. Sarah said something to her mother I couldn't hear, tossed her water bottle onto the ground, and joined the team for some last minute instructions. This Sarah bore no resemblance to the girl I'd seen at the side of the road. Her black baggy Umbros hung halfway to her knees, in stark contrast to the tight jean shorts which had barely covered nor concealed the curve of her from behind. She looked like the child she was, scrub-faced, dark hair pulled into a pony tail, face flushed from the heat of the game.

"Do you know the score?" I asked her mother.

"Zero, zero," she said without looking my way.

"I'm Joan Adams," I said and waited for her reply. She turned toward me, but didn't say anything. "Kate's mom," I added, but it was clear from the blank look she gave me she didn't know who Kate was.

"Susan Wilson," she said, extending her hand. "Sarah's mom."

"Nice to meet you," I said. The girls were lining up on the field, our team in red, the other in yellow, ready to start the second half of the game. "How'd the girls play first half?"

"Well enough, I guess."

"I hate missing any of the game. I promised Kate I'd be here, but my little one is so pokey and uncooperative . . ." I had that apologetic tone to my voice that I dislike so much.

"I work at the hospital most Saturdays," she said, with warmth and understanding. "I don't get to see many of the games myself. My husband usually comes." I tried to visualize her husband, a graying man, slightly overweight too, but I couldn't recall having seen anyone who fit that description.

The referee blew his whistle, the other team took the kick-off and with a swiftness that always catches me by surprise, the girls and the ball were all in motion at the same time. Sarah intercepted the ball and ran toward the goal. A girl in yellow came at her from behind, and Sarah kicked the ball across the field to one of her teammates.

"Sarah's a real good player," I said.

"Is she?"

"She's one of the best players on the team." Susan didn't say anything. It was clear she didn't know this either. We watched the game for a while. Sarah was all over the ball. My own Kate wasn't nearly as fast or aggressive. She played left fullback and tended to stay back, waiting for the ball to come to her.

"She's our youngest," Susan said. "None of the others ever played." She stated it as fact, without excuse. I felt comfortable with her and found myself liking her.

"How old are your other kids?"

She laughed. "Oh, hardly kids anymore. My two oldest girls are married. One of my boys is at Cornell and the other's in the army stationed over in Germany." She looked at me and in a confessional tone, one mother to another, added, "Sarah was a bit of a surprise, as you can imagine."

Sarah had the ball again and was running with it up the field. She took a shot on goal, but the ball hit the corner of the goal post and bounced out-of-bounds. A player on the opposing team ran to get it and their goalie took the kick, a nice high one. The ball flew halfway up the field.

"Five children. I have a hard enough time with two. I couldn't imagine five," I said.

"It was a lot of work. First four were real close in age. Of course, I was a lot younger then," she said. Sarah had possession of the ball again and was outrunning the other team's defensive line up the field. "Hard to keep up with that one sometimes."

I thought about whether I should tell this woman I'd just met, who'd successfully raised four children, about Sarah. "I saw your daughter the other day, on old Route 19," I ventured. I figured I'd work my way up to the waving and flirting.

"Yeah, it's a good hike into town from our house, about a mile or so, but she's at that age where she wants to go shopping, and with work and all, I can't always be there to drive her." She looked at Sarah who was running free of interception toward the goal. "They have to spread their wings before they can learn to fly, I always say. Before you know it, they've left your nest and are off building their own."

Sarah was just outside the goal box. The other parents on the sideline were screaming "shoot, shoot," but Sarah waited and her timing was perfect. When the goalie came out, Sarah dribbled around her and shot the ball into the corner of the net. The parents cheered and, out on the field, our girls jumped up and down, one by one high-fiving Sarah as they took up their positions again. I looked at Kate. She gave me a triumphant smile.

"Okay, just hold them off," the coach yelled. "There's only five minutes left. You just have to hold them off."

And they did. When the referee blew his whistle signaling the end of the game, the score was still one-nothing and our team had the league championship. The girls came flying off the field, ablaze with victory, yelling and screaming and hugging each others' sweaty bodies.

It was a league ritual for the parents of the winning team to congratulate the girls by making a human tunnel for them to run through. We took our places on the center line, two parallel rows of parents. I stood facing Sarah's mother. Arms held high, we reached across and clasped our hands together, the heat of the sun pressing down on our bent backs. Her grip was strong, sure of itself. As the last girl ran under our arms, yelping a celebratory cry, and the coach asked the girls to meet him under the large oak tree at the top of the hill to hand out the trophies, I realized I had no idea where Ellen was.

I missed hearing the coach praise Kate's performance that season and seeing her get her first place trophy because I was walking the park, looking and calling for Ellen. And though she always turns up somewhere, I can't help but feel those moments of fear, moments when I think that this time she's lost for good. When seconds drag into minutes and soon the notion of time itself begins to lose all meaning, and the sound of panic becomes audible in the quiver of my voice, I swear to myself I will never, ever get impatient with her again if only I can find her.

This time I found her at the other end of the park, sitting on a bench by one of the baseball fields, watching a little league game. She sported a baseball cap that she swore someone gave her for keeps. At any rate, nobody claimed it as I took her hand and led her back to the hill overlooking the soccer fields where one of the mothers was passing out ice pops from her cooler.

The trophies were huge, more than two feet high, each with a marble base and the figure of a girl kicking a soccer ball perched on top of a gold cup. Susan stood with her arm around Sarah, their faces beaming, Sarah's trophy held high between them. I went over to admire Kate's and give her a hug. Her skin felt hot and sticky, but her arms remained cool and limp by her sides. I pulled my arm from her shoulder. "What's wrong?" I asked, and at the same time felt Ellen's hand slip from mine. She darted to the front of the line of girls, elbowing a few aside, and grabbed a handful of ice pops from the cooler.

"Nothing," Kate said in that voice a mother knows means everything.

Ellen handed me the crumpled wrappers from her ice pops and went to run down the hill. Kate rolled her eyes and stuck out her foot. Ellen stumbled and, in recovering her balance, dropped one of the ice pops on the ground. She shrieked and Kate said "sorry" in the most sarcastic tone imaginable.

"What's gotten into you?" I said.

"Like you don't know." She slapped the trophy into my hand. "Here, take it."

"Kate . . ." I started, all I should say coming into my head.

"I don't want to hear it, okay? I'll meet you at the van," she said and stomped off. Even in her baggy soccer shorts I could see that the thickness of her waist had moved downward and was settling in as budding hips. I'd been missing a lot with Kate.

I sensed this lull, that pause in activity which accompanies these confrontations. A few of the mothers turned and watched Kate. Susan merely caught my eye and winked. Then she and her daughter turned and headed toward the parking lot, the grass below their feet already flattened from the footsteps of all the parents and children who'd crossed the field that day.

I should have told her about Sarah. About how she'd looked and acted at the side of the road. I could name so many reasons why I hadn't. Who was I to tell a woman with four grown children, who surely knew better than me, not to let her daughter walk alone on a little used road into town? Who was I to judge her mothering when she hadn't judged mine?

Ellen ran over and wrapped her skinny arms around my waist. "Come on, come on," she sang and grabbed my empty hand. She pulled on one arm and the weight of Kate's trophy pulled on the other. Halfway to the parking lot, Ellen let go and skipped off ahead, the sticky remains of her ice pops clinging stubbornly to my palm. I made my way to where my two daughters waited, unlocked the van, and we climbed inside. But when I started it up, the air conditioning wouldn't come on. We drove home in silence, the afternoon heat through the open window like a fresh bruise rising against the side of my cheek.

~

That's an image that will remain with me always -- their faces beaming, Sarah's with success and her mother's full of pride. Because three months later, on a hot and humid August afternoon, when the mercury hit a high of ninety-six, Sarah disappeared. According to the newspaper account I read and the gossip that spread with suburban speed, she'd last been seen around noon walking on old Route 19.

I asked around and found out where Susan lived. I let a few days pass before I drove over alone late one afternoon, a freshly-made chili casserole on the front seat beside me. I came to offer solace and hope in the only way I knew how, although the general consensus by then was leaning towards hopelessness.

When I pulled up to the house, there were cars in the driveway with out-of-state plates. Her older children, no doubt. I sat in the van, gazing through the window, thinking about what I would do and say when she answered the door. I hadn't seen her since the day of the soccer game. Would she even remember me? Yet I felt a kinship, a sharing of grief and guilt with this woman I didn't really know. I could imagine her pain, the moment when panic gave way to fear and that timeless sense of loss.

I'm ashamed to admit, I had judged her. When she told me she allowed her daughter to walk alone into town, I'd viewed her with that same self-righteous eye as those women who watch me with Ellen, forgetting for the moment what my own children were like. Because it could just have easily been Kate, not only Ellen, at the side of the road, testing the boundaries, seeing how far they would stretch before they might burst, like hips pushing against the side seams of a pair of shorts.

What was it Susan had said that day?

They have to spread their wings before they can learn to fly.

Yes, I would tell her, but they learn to crawl before they walk too and then they can get up and walk away. How long do we hold on to them, and how tight, and how do we know when to let go? Perhaps we never do. All we can do is watch, hands clenched over our hearts, praying they find their way back.


Peggy Duffy‘s fiction and essays have appeared in numerous print and online publications, including The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Main Street Rag, Brevity, Octavo, Drexel Online Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, So To Speak, and Tattoo Highway, where this story first appeared. Two of her short stories were selected by storySouth for the Million Writers Award, Notable Online Short Stories for 2003. She is the mother of two adult daughters and one teenage son.


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