Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Live Another Year

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I could have been spending my afternoons shelving library books or organizing groceries at the food pantry, but no, I had to sign up for the cat shelter: sift cat shit, sweep and mop floors. I was expecting to be nursing the sick ones and feeding the orphans, like a veterinarian's assistant, but they don't give those jobs to middle-aged women working off community service hours for a DUI. The judge makes me attend AA meetings too, even though I'm not an alcoholic. I go along with it all for Philip's sake. Philip, my son, my missing limb.
The work's never done. Soon as I finish the last box, here comes the big orange tom, scratches away in it. A lot of these cats are skittish, stressed out from overpopulation -- the place reeks. But the tom rubs up against me when he's done, purring and making his rear end quiver. Despite myself, I rub his ears before moving on to the front room. In my life, I have an under-population problem: it's just me in my apartment, no pets allowed and Philip only there alternate weekends. Bill has custody of him.

When he was two, Philip got his pinky stuck in the car door and pulled so hard, he left the tip behind. I knew enough to put it on ice. With the snip of flesh in my lap on a pillow of ziplocked ice, I rode to the emergency room in the passenger seat while Bill drove and Philip screamed from his car seat. You have to know what you're looking for to notice the funny bend in the finger now that he's six. The doctor said he might have reduced sensitivity in the tip, but it wouldn't be an impediment unless he wanted to be a clarinetist.

Maxine is settled at the desk in the reception area, busy at some paperwork. These old ladies that run the shelter are so damned sanctimonious. Sanctimonious: that's one of those words I memorized from "Word Power" in Reader's Digest the last time I was on a self-improvement kick. Funny how the useless stuff sticks with you.

Just as I crouch before the row of litter boxes along the back wall, the buzzer rings. The shelter's not open for adoptions Thursday afternoons so I look to Maxine for my cue. She weighs about 300 pounds and isn't about to budge. "Go ahead, unlock the door, Denise," she says without looking up.

Standing so quickly makes me woozy for a minute and I have to catch myself against the wall. Maxine probably thinks I've been drinking. Her opinion of me is clear from the way she draws out my name so deliberately it sounds foreign. Well, live and let live. That's what the AA folks would say. A scruffy-looking man and a girl young enough to be his daughter barge right in when I unlock the door. The girl is holding a carton against her stomach, her arms wrapped underneath it.

Maxine gives them the once over and says, "We're not taking new animals right now. No room at the inn." Then she's back at her paperwork.

Mewing and the sandpapery sound of cat paws brushing cardboard come from the box. I lean close, but can't see anything through the towel draped over the top.

"What if we was to leave it outside the door?" the man says. "You'd take it then, I reckon."

Maxine's all business. "You'll have to try the Humane Society. We're a no-kill facility and we're filled up right now. Can't exceed capacity."

Setting the box down on a chair, the girl peels back the towel and lifts out a pure white kitten, probably not three weeks old. I don't know whether she puts it in my hands or I reach for it. It's always the same story with me: I'm drawn to anything little, weak, sick, or needy. Already, I imagine feeding this tiny thing canned kitten milk with an eye dropper. The creature has the same idea. When I hold it to my chest, it digs its paws as though nursing. My breasts actually tingle at the sensation, one of those muscle-memories, I guess, even though I only breast-fed Philip for a few weeks. Bill couldn't stand me smelling like milk and spouting like a geyser every time the baby cried.

As soon as I'm holding the kitten close, the man yanks on the girl, saying "Come on." They bang through the doors so fast the cats don't get a chance to make a run for it. From the parking lot, I hear him say, "You're lucky I didn't put it out on the road."

Maxine heaves herself out of the chair. "You can tell a lot about a man from how he treats animals. That one's no good. And that girl doesn't have a whit of backbone."

Bill believes houses are for people, not pets. When I left him, a year into our marriage -- what turned out to be a temporary separation -- I got a dog. At first he seemed to like her, but it didn't stick.

Maxine's coming at me. She's so big, I instinctively back away, cupping the kitten in my hands. "I could feed it," I offer.

But Maxine is already pinching its little neck, taking it from me. She sits it in one of her fleshy hands, strokes it clumsily with the other. "You're just an itty bitty one, aren't you?" she coos.

I feel usurped. Another one of those stupid vocabulary words. But I do. It's so lonely in my body, all of a sudden, I don't want to go on. Not with any of it. The volunteer hours, my job at the Pack & Ship, the visits with Philip that only make me more aware of how I'm just tacked onto his life now.

~

When Philip climbs into my car Friday afternoon, I'm surprised like I always am at how small he is. While we're apart, he grows bigger in my mind. When I kiss him, he pushes me away and reaches down on the floorboard for the plastic monsters from the fast food meals that have sat there since his last visit, starts them right in hammering on each other like the time between was just a commercial break.

He didn't have school today -- one of those professional days. Pack & Ship wouldn't give me the day off so he's been at Bill's office until now, probably playing Gameboy while Bill was wheeling and dealing, the phone an extra body part attached to his ear. So, I'm already feeling guilty. When we drive past Galaxy Lanes, Philip asks if we can play and I agree, even though we usually wait until Sunday afternoons when the games are half-price. Galaxy. The bowling alley with the cosmic name is the closest I get to travel. All day, packages pass through my hands on their way to exotic places -- Buenos Aires and Kodiak, Alaska, today -- but I stay in place.

Philip jumps out of the car as soon as I've pulled into the parking space and dashes for the front door without looking for traffic. I know he can't hear me but I yell anyway: "Stop, look, and listen." When I catch up to him, he's already at the counter getting his shoes. He asks for size ones, even though they'll be too big.

I dish out the money before noticing that the place is full of children; it must be the Salvation Army day camp for all the kids out of school. No bumper lanes available.

Before we even find our lane, Philip gets into it with a boy who's a good head taller than him. The boy -- they must know each other from school -- leans down into Philip's face, spits out, "Jerkhead."

Philip throws it right back at him: "Stinker." Stinker, now where did he come up with that one? That's not a word Bill or I use, not since Philip was a baby with a full diaper and it was an endearment. My hands are on his shoulders, steering him toward our lane.

"Leave it alone now, buddy. Let it go." Philip can't stay out of fights, even though he always comes out on the losing end. He's small for his age. Neither Bill nor I is particularly tall, but Bill's one of those thick-muscled men, just looks strong. He bought Philip a set of boxing gloves to teach him to put up a good fight, but Philip's style is to kick and run.

Lane six. The noise and commotion getting on my nerves, I type our names into the electronic score pad. All around us, kids are running and screaming, the boys doing that dance they do, that feint and thrust, the soft punch on the arm. I've gotten in the habit of coming here at night sometimes when my apartment feels too small. I don't play, just get a cup of coffee and watch from a table in the concession area: the bounce of the ball when it hits wood, the smooth advance, the surprising-every-time whacks of pins falling, and then, magic -- they're standing again, ready. League nights are best. The lanes filled. The rhythm unbroken.

Philip's up first, his P blinking. After the fact, I realize that I listed myself as D for Denise instead of M for Mom.

Lugging a ball that's much too heavy for him, Philip looks pathetic. He limps across the approach and drops the ball at the foul line, from where it spins into the gutter and comes to a standstill. Pivoting toward me with his hands on his hips, looking combative and puny, he says out of the blue, "Sandy moved in with us."

I've known about Sandy. Sandy was the reason Bill wanted out of the marriage, not the DUI he said was the last straw. Still, the announcement floors me, just like Philip knew it would. He has this instinct -- to go straight for my heart. He says it when he's down, when my heart is laid open. All I can think is: will he call Sandy Mom?

He's still standing there facing me, waiting for my reaction. But I'm on ice. I push the help button and snap, "Don't go get that ball; the wood's too slick," even though I know he knows better.

What comes into my head is this old Jewish woman I sat next to on the bus to work when I'd lost my driving privileges. She went on and on complaining about her son, how since he'd gotten divorced, he never visited and she never saw her grandchildren. Then she started on some religious service she'd attended the day before, the day the Jews ask to be written in the Book of Life for another year -- but what do I have to live for? she asked me. Then, stepping off the bus, she called out, "I hope you live another year."

Alcoholic or not, I'm still on the one day at a time end of it. Not that I dwell on suicide any more than the next person. What I fantasize about is packing myself up at work in the largest shipping box available with the address label made out to Bora Bora. Philip's dropped his hands now, indicating a truce. I move toward him and he hugs me the way he does -- hard, grinding his head into my stomach. Bill claims he turns into a mama's boy around me. Maybe so. I long to save him from himself. He's pushing against my stomach, but I feel it in my heart, which is squeezed tight.

A scrawny teenager with bad skin comes our direction, straddles the gutter, walks on the edges to where Philip's ball sits. "Hey," I say, breaking free from Philip's grip, "why don't you try one of the orange balls?"

He goes off to get one and then it's okay again between us. Philip knocks over five pins on his second bowl and the scrunched-up expression on his face relaxes. When he gets another gutter ball, he raises his hands in that win-some-lose-some gesture he's copied from Bill. I get a spare on my last frame, and let Philip take my extra bowl. He tumbles seven and grins.

On our way out, I give him a couple of quarters for the arcade, which he uses for this battle game that pits one souped-up superhero against another. Apparently, there's no skill involved. All he does is press the fire button non-stop and move the joy stick in endless, jerky circles and his guy wins each match.

Leaving the bowling alley, I turn right instead of left. I have this vague idea about getting a cat, something to make his visits with me special, something I'll have over Sandy. I'll keep it confined to the apartment. The landlord doesn't need to know.

"Where are we going?" Philip asks. "This isn't the way."

"I want to show you something."

At the shelter, I let Philip ring us in. The lady who admits us isn't anyone I recognize, so I resolve to work up to the adoption slowly. "I volunteer here," I tell her. "We want to check on one of the kittens." Taking Philip by the hand, I head for the back room. His head swivels at the cats that are all over the place -- perched on top of bookcases, asleep on chairs, hiding inside the scratching post cubbies. Every so often, they swap places.

The kittens are in cages stacked against the side wall. I look into each, trying to find the white one. Meanwhile, Philip runs after one of the heavy-weights, a one-eyed tabby with a gut that hangs to the floor.

The woman who let us in has a mouth that turns down and leathery skin. I can feel her watching us from the doorway.

"What happened to the tiny white one?" I ask, afraid it hasn't survived -- but I have to know. The phrase "failure to thrive" occurs to me. That's what the nurse said about Philip at his one month check up when he still weighed less than seven pounds, although he was fine, just small.

From close range, Philip grabs the tabby around the middle and the cat twists back and bites his arm. Philip lets go and rubs the bite mark with his fist but doesn't cry out.

The woman smiles unpleasantly. I can see this notion of adopting a cat won't work. We would never qualify. She turns back to me. "Don't know about that one," she says. "When'd it come in?"

"Thursday."

"Oh yeah, Maxine's day. She sent it out to be fostered. Wouldn't nurse from the mothers we have in here. Lady's bottle feeding it until it starts taking solids."

Ridiculous as I know it is, I feel it again: that sense that something's been cut away from me, like I'm less whole.

Philip's holding his nose. "It stinks in here."

~

Back at my apartment, I fix Philip's favorite meal -- made-from-scratch macaroni and cheese. Philip digs out my photo album. I'm not much for pictures, not one of these parents who memorialize every milestone. But I did claim my half of the photos when I moved out -- ten years that take up hardly that many pages.

"Mom, who's this?" he asks, right when I'm drizzling the milk into the roux.

I glance at the page he's holding open. It's me, but nothing like I am now. My hair is long, light brown, and sun-streaked, and my arm is thrown over a dark chocolate pointer-lab mix. I kept her about a year. Gentlest dog. Would lay her head in my lap when she wanted attention, not ask for any more than to stay there a bit. I stir the sauce so vigorously globs fly out of the saucepan.

"Who's this?" Philip asks again.

"It's Belle." I gave her to the first person who responded to my ad, didn't even ask what kind of pet owner they'd be.

"I never heard of that for a name," he says, his finger stabbing my face on the photo.

I move the pan off the burner and pull close. "That's me. The dog's name is Belle." But he squirms out of my embrace.

"That's not you," he says, and shuts the album, leaves it in the middle of the floor. He goes off to play super heroes and bad men.

When I start to pick up Spiderman in order to set the table for dinner, he yells. "Hey, don't move him." So I leave the toy alone, set our places off to the side.

Philip complains about the meal. He doesn't like broccoli anymore. He doesn't have to eat food he doesn't like at his father's. And Sandy's macaroni is better -- mine is mushy. Kid stuff, I know, but it still hurts. I should have just bought him fast food.

I turn on Wheel of Fortune without bothering to clean up. Sometimes Philip watches with me and acts impressed when I get the answers before the contestants.

The camera pans tonight's crew. "Who do you want to win?" I ask. "How about that lady, with the horsey smile."

"I guess," he answers, sending one of his bad guys careening across the room.

The horsey woman lands on "lose a turn" and the round passes to a slick-haired man who racks up $4,600 when he supplies the phrase: change of heart. I had it figured out as soon as the vowels and the Hs were turned up.

~

I take Philip home early on Sunday. His hostility is getting under my skin. I can't seem to do anything right and it doesn't help to tell myself it's not my fault: I didn't cheat, I didn't walk out. Because, it is my fault. I screwed up by picking the wrong guy in the first place, going back to him, having a child. I'm the one who drove when I had no business doing it. No wonder the judge sided with Bill when I hardly make enough money to support myself, let alone a kid. When it comes down to it, I'm the one who isn't there anymore, even if it wasn't my idea.

A silver Grand Am is sitting in the driveway next to Bill's van when we pull up in front of the house. Sandy's. I can't face her answering the door. "You go on in," I tell Philip.

He's slumped in the bucket seat with the seat belt cutting too high across his torso. I want to hold him tight, breathe my love into him. But in the shadow of this house that used to be my home, the car that isn't mine, I can't move an inch.

"Go on."

He doesn't look at me. He releases the seat belt, pushes the door open with his foot and drags his duffel out behind him.

"Wave if it's all right," I call as he slams the door shut.

There are a few cigarettes left in a box stashed in the glove compartment. Lighting one -- telling myself I'll quit again tomorrow -- I watch him struggle with the front door. It takes him forever to depress the latch and get it open. He doesn't glance back.

When the cigarette's down to the filter, I pull away. Here's where I could just keep driving, stop wherever I run out of money, start over.

~

That next week, I quit working at the cat shelter; I tell the probation officer I can't take the smell. I'll finish my hours shelving books at the library. At Pack & Ship, I'm so surly my supervisor talks to me about my attitude.

Wednesday afternoon during my break, a cigarette between my lips, I pick up the phone receiver, start punching in Bill's office number to let him know I can't make dinner with Philip tonight. One of those suspended moments.

Before Sandy was in the picture, I took Philip to the pediatrician for his kindergarten check-up. While we waited for the doctor, he insisted I help him get on the latex gloves he had taken from a box on the counter. His fingers had gotten stuck in the wrong parts. I pulled the glove fingers free and refitted each of his too-small fingers individually. The crooked pinky was the trickiest. Finally, he was satisfied. "Lie down," he ordered. "I'm the doctor." He plunged his hands to my chest, twisted them against my sternum, and announced triumphantly, "There, I cut your heart out."

Now, in that gap between punching the final digit and making the connection, I imagine my heart beating on without me. I imagine it lying on ice in a styrofoam box, on its way to a transplant recipient.

But I'm just feeling sorry for myself. Kvetching, that's the word that comes to me.

Enough. At the same time, I stub out the cigarette and disconnect the call one ring in. I put my hand on my chest, rub hard against the bone that covers my heart.


Jenny Dunning’s fiction has been published recently in the South Dakota Review, the William and Mary Review, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Talking River Review. “The Far” was published online at Slow Trains. Her story “Reva” received a Special Mention in the 2008 Pushcart Prize anthology. She lives with her family, including four chickens and border collie, in Northfield, Minnesota, where she teaches at St. Olaf College.


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