Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
When, Not If

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The line at the Dairy Queen in Bethany, Missouri, seemed absurdly long for half past two on a Thursday. Laura fanned herself with her hand and peered around the couple in front of her in line. Their order was complicated, and the girl behind the counter looked overwhelmed by the number of buttons on the register. The couple had approached the door of the restaurant the same time Laura did, but she held the door open for them and let them pass. Her boys were still in the parking lot, taking their time, running diagonally from one imaginary point to the other. She hadn’t minded letting the couple go first so the boys could get some energy out. Now she wished she would have hurried them inside.

Jon Paul, the oldest at eleven, stood near her in line. Almost too near. The day wasn’t hot, but the humidity was high. Laura’s forearm felt damp where Jon Paul stood within an inch. He turned away from the counter, watching his two younger brothers run up and down the aisles between booths. "They’re running, Mom," he said. He hit the middle boy as he ran by. "Michael, stop it. Mom, they’re running all over."

The high pitch in Jon Paul’s voice made her turn. She caught Michael by the elbow. "Stop, or no ice cream," she said and let his arm go. "Take Christopher and find a seat." The two boys wove to the back corner of the restaurant and took the booth with the windows facing the interstate. Laura stepped to the counter—finally, she thought—and ordered. While the girl behind the counter turned her back, Laura looked out toward the gas station next door for the camper and her husband. She thought she saw the off-white and brown of the camper at the far pump. Jon Paul carried the tray of ice cream to his brothers while Laura paid. They slid into a booth across the aisle from the younger boys, and Laura periodically checked for the camper at the gas station.

They were on a vacation, a combined road trip and camping trip. The family drove from campsite to campsite where they would stay for a couple of days, check out the surrounding sights, and leave again. They planned on being on the road for about two weeks, though Laura was starting to think they would have to cut the trip short. The boys simply weren’t used to being in the van for long stretches of time and were running out of ways to occupy themselves. Especially Michael. He didn’t read or study maps like Jon Paul. Unlike Christopher, he grew easily bored by watching movies on his DVD player, and he insisted on keeping the volume on his video games up even though he wouldn’t wear headphones.

The morning had been particularly tense. Evan, Laura’s husband, had been in a bad mood most of the trip, though he was trying to hide it this morning. Michael picked fights with both his brothers. Laura made him move to the middle seat and put Christopher and Jon Paul in the back seat of the van. He spent ten minutes kicking the back of the driver’s seat before her husband reached behind him, grabbed one of Michael’s legs, and shook it as he yelled, "Stop it before I rip your leg off and throw it out the window!" Michael pulled his legs up on to the seat and tried not to cry; all the boys became very quiet.

"Evan," Laura whispered.

"Don’t," he said. His hands were tight around the wheel. "Don’t defend him. He knows better."

She glanced backward at Michael to give him a small smile, but Evan said again, "Don’t." They drove in silence until Evan took a sudden exit off of I-35, crossed the overpass into town, and swung in to the parking lot of the Kum & Go.

"Boys, bathroom," Laura said immediately. "Jon Paul, you’re in charge. Boys, go with your brother." They scrambled out of the van, Jon Paul holding Christopher’s hand and Michael trailing slightly.

"I know," Evan said before the boys reached the building. "You don’t have to say anything. I know." They sat side by side in the front seats, careful not to look at each other.

"Do you want me to drive?" Laura asked.

Evan shook his head. "It’s windy. You’ll have a hard time with the camper. I’ll be okay. I just need a minute. I should check the tires and stuff anyway. I should have done that this morning before we left."

Laura nodded, looked out her window, and saw the Dairy Queen next door. "I’ll take the boys over there to get some ice cream. We’ll give you a break. Do what you need to do with the van. We’ll be in Dairy Queen until you’re ready for us again."

Evan nodded. "That would help."

She put her hand on Evan’s arm. "Just let me know when you’re done." She went to wait for the boys in front of the store. Evan started the van again and pulled around the parking lot to one of the pumps.

Laura could still see the van from the booth in the Dairy Queen. The boys licked their ice cream. Chocolate and vanilla trickled down Christopher’s fingers and knuckles, and he switched his cone to his other hand, clenched his napkin in his hand to remove the melted ice cream, and switched back. His hands and face would need washing. She would make all the boys wash their hands and faces, wet the backs of their necks to clean up and cool down before getting back on the road. They would protest, but for now they were quiet. Laura wished Evan could see it, their quiet, their concentration, their pleasure at an unexpected treat. He would love the boys in this moment.

Not that he didn’t love them all the time, but his quick anger, especially recently, sometimes overshadowed the pleasure and pride he took in his sons. Evan was stressed. They both were. There were rumors of layoffs at the plant were Evan worked, and though Laura reassured him, Evan thought his job could be at stake if the layoffs did come. He’d been with the lawn care company since they were married. He did an internship at the plant as an undergraduate student in engineering, and the manager had liked Evan so much he was hired immediately after graduation. But Evan seemed to think that no job was safe, not really, and he started obsessing more over their finances. Laura taught German to junior high students, so she didn’t work during the summer. Evan wasn’t sure they could live off her salary alone during the school year, and the summer would be especially difficult. "We can cancel the vacation," she suggested. "We’ll save that money. And I’ll find something part-time."

Photo by Lisa Lopez Smith

Photo by Lisa Lopez Smith

Evan dismissed the idea. "If you work, we’ll have to pay a babysitter. We have to do something for a vacation," he said.

"We’ll take a couple weekend trips just to get out of town," she said. "That will be less expensive."

"The boys are set on this," Evan countered. It was true; all the boys were planning some aspect of the road trip. Jon Paul had maps spread over the kitchen table while Michael searched the Internet, and Christopher talked about what he wanted to see, mostly a baseball game and dinosaurs. They started a family vacation wish list, and Laura wrote, "baseball, dinosaurs" on it.

"They’ll understand," Laura told Evan. But Evan waved her comment off and insisted there would still be a family vacation, a family road trip, despite his financial worries. But his patience was waning with the boys, with her, in ways she hadn’t anticipated. He snapped at the boys and gave sarcastic responses to her suggestions. The previous night, in the camper, she put her hand on his chest. "Stop," he whispered. "You’re like a goddamn heater." He rolled away. But he apologized that morning, kissed her to the boys’ protests, and took her through a Starbucks drive-thru. He had always been good at apologies. He had always been sincere. His threat in the van this morning was the worst Laura had heard from him in a long time, and the first specifically directed at one of the boys.

~

"What’s Dad doing?" Jon Paul asked. He sucked at a hole in the bottom of his cone.

"Oh, he wanted to check some things on the camper," she said. And, because Jon Paul wouldn’t stop staring at her, she added, "The tires."

"Are we driving to Iowa tonight?" he asked. "Iowa’s next on the map. Are we staying in Iowa?"

"Iowa’s dumb," Michael blurted. "On the map at school, Iowa looks like corn. We can see corn at home."

"Iowa is not dumb," Laura said. She was glad for a chance to talk, to stop thinking about Evan’s anger. "We’re going to stay at Saylorville Lake. Our campsite will be in the woods, but we’ll be close to a lake so you boys can fish with Dad. And we’ll go to the State Fair one day."

"Are there rides?" Christopher asked.

"Yes. And lots of animals, and some tractors, and a cow made out of butter," she told him.

The boys talked to each other about what kind of rides there might be at a State Fair and what a cow made out of butter might look like. They were all finished with their cones, and she watched Christopher lick his hand and fingers methodically while Jon Paul and Michael discussed rides that spun them upside down and if they could convince their father to go on them. There was eight years between Jon Paul and Christopher, five between Michael and her youngest. Christopher had been her surprise, her sweetest baby. He was still the sweetest, the one who always wanted affection.

Laura stood, turned to face the windows fully, and looked for the camper. This whole thing was taking longer than she imagined it would. Maybe Evan was more upset than she thought. She patted the table in front of Jon Paul. "Watch your brothers for a minute," she said and walked to the restroom, watching for Evan the whole time.

The restroom was dirty, too big for the one toilet and sink that it held, but too small for multiple stalls. The lid of the tank was secured with a chain and clamps that wrapped multiple times around the tank and the lid of the seat, which was held open against the tank. She turned on the tap and washed her hands, then wet a paper towel and washed her face and neck and stared at herself in the mirror. She looked old. There was no denying it. She was 35, but no one would think she was less than 45, not with the crow’s feet at her eyes. The corners of her mouth were starting to turn downward on their own, and deep lines creased her neck where her skin rolled together when her chin was tilted downward. She touched the skin under her eyes, the dark circles that were growing darker every day on this trip. Her hair was thin and limp on her shoulders. She found a ponytail holder in her pocket and twisted her hair into a low bun. A shower would be nice, she thought. A real shower. Not that she minded the camper or the shower houses at the campgrounds, but a real, hot shower with a floor she knew to be clean. Yes, she wanted one of those.

Maybe she could convince Evan that they all needed a night in a hotel, that it would do them good. There were no major fights thus far, just the usual arguments from the boys, but she knew they were due for one—a fight where they all shouted and someone tried to slap another and in the middle of it Christopher would start crying because he didn’t know whose side to be on or who was on his side—that kind of fight was coming. And the camper was cramped, Laura and Evan in one bed and the boys in another. Most nights Christopher would come to their bed or Jon Paul would pull blankets off the bed to sleep on the floor. But they could get two adjoining hotel rooms, maybe a room with a king next to one with two queens. The boys could have their own room, and everyone could have a proper shower. And there would be air conditioning. She could do the laundry in the hotel. Maybe they would order in pizza, and she would order the boys to bed early. When the boys were asleep, and if they were quiet and careful, she and Evan could make love. Afterward she would sleep, instead of lying awake wondering what each branch snap or leaf rustle or animalish-noise might be. She thought she could get Evan to agree to that. And even if it wasn’t in the plan, he would be happier the next day after some better sleep and a more satisfying breakfast than she could manage from a propane grill, a campfire, and whatever was in the cooler. Everyone would be in a good mood, and they would all drive to Des Moines where they would take a family picture in front of the butter cow.

As Laura walked back to the booths where her boys were sitting, she thought she saw the camper parked along the back curb of the gas station parking lot, but she didn’t see the van. She didn’t see the van at all. She turned around to look out the windows on the other side of the Dairy Queen to its parking lot. Maybe Evan thought it would be easier just to drive the van over? She realized how silly that was even as she thought it. The van wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. "Hey guys," she said. "Have you seen your dad yet?"

The boys looked up at her without surprise. Michael and Christopher were tearing apart a napkin and rolling the pieces into little balls. Jon Paul was looking at a tourist brochure she could only imagine he got from the entrance or carried over in his pocket. "Is he supposed to meet us here?" Jon Paul asked.

"Oh, I wasn’t sure if he’d come over when he was done or just give me a call," she said. She lowered herself into the booth next to her purse. She rummaged for her hand sanitizer. "Did my phone ring?"

The two older boys looked at each other, but Jon Paul answered. "We didn’t hear it."

She poured some sanitizer into her hands, rubbed them together, and stared into her purse. "Why don’t you boys go to the bathroom while I check with your dad? Wash your hands please. Faces too." Christopher followed a scowling Michael. "Jon, faces too," she said again. When they disappeared into the bathroom, she looked for her phone a little more frantically. There was a good explanation for the camper sitting there, she thought. She unlocked her phone, and the text message notification was blinking.

"Getting a new blinker light at the Wally down the street. Sorry taking so long."

"It’s okay," she typed back. "We’re done. Think 10-15 more?" And she waited.

Laura was used to waiting for Evan. She waited for him to notice her through high school, waited for him to ask her on their first date, to ask her to marry him, to decide he was ready for children. But she didn’t mind the waiting; she admired his need for certainty. And every time he made up his mind, each time he asked her to commit to something else in their life together, the pleasure she found in acquiescing was exquisite.

Once, early in their marriage, Laura read a book describing the death of the main character’s husband. The man had swallowed pills to kill himself while his wife was out. He was dying already, and they had talked about his death and the alternatives. The wife found herself upset, shaken, though his death was planned, and Laura found herself thinking about those inevitable days when she or Evan would have to suffer the death of the other, and as she thought about their deaths she thought about their lives, and she cried into the book so that the pages it was open to were soaked through. When Evan found her and asked what was wrong, she shrugged and held the book up hopelessly. "I can’t return it to the library like this," she said, as if the damage her tears had done was the cause of her tears, but she couldn’t tell him, couldn’t figure out how to say that she was mourning the passing of the lives they had together right then, in that moment, that she already missed it all and felt the dread of change even though no change seemed eminent. She didn’t know to call it grieving because it felt like no grief she’d experienced before.

Evan’s return text came quicker than she thought it would.

"Not coming back."

She immediately felt tears. She blinked and looked at the text again. There had to be a second part to it, a second half of the sentence that hadn’t arrived yet. She closed her text messages screen, waited a second, and opened it again. The text was the same.

"Not coming back when?" she replied.

"Mom!" Michael said, running out of the bathroom. "That place is gross. There’s pee all over the floor. All over it."

"Hands," she said, and all three boys automatically held out their hands, cupped together as if they were scooping up water to drink. She poured hand sanitizer in each small cup.

"Where’s Dad?" Jon Paul asked as they all rubbed the liquid over their palms and fingers.

"Oh, he’s not done quite yet," she said brightly. Jon Paul narrowed his eyes at her, and she reached for Christopher to help him rub the sanitizer in. "There’s a bit of a problem with the van, so it’s taking a little longer than he thought it would."

Christopher slapped his palms together and waved his hands. "I want a drink," he said.

Laura’s phone began to buzz on the table on front of her, the text message indicator blinking. All three boys looked it at, and she knew the message was from Evan. "Here," she dug in her purse and handed Jon Paul her wallet. "Waters only." And she grabbed her phone and dashed outside before the boys could speak or question but she knew she could not look at whatever was in that message in front of them. She stood in the grass on the far side of the parking lot on the other side of the building from the gas station before she opened the message.

"At all."

"What are you talking about?" she typed back. Then, "This is not a conversation to have via text message." She held her phone against her leg and waited. She had read one of those messages incorrectly. She had to have misunderstood, given his typed words an inflection, a meaning that his spoken words wouldn’t have.

She could see the boys through the mini-blinds. They stood in front of the fountain soda machine, all holding small paper cups, and Jon Paul lifted each cup one by one to the machine. In another time, she might imagine they would use the unsupervised moment to fill each cup with a swallow of soda, enough that each might have a taste—Pepsi, Mountain Dew, the extra-sugary sweetness of Sunkist—a treat she would never let them try. Now she stared at them and couldn’t decipher one thought from another. This was her life, those three boys. She wondered if she would cry. She wouldn’t yet. But she wondered if when she told the boys what she thought she knew, what their father said, who would cry first.

There was a small part of her that prepared for Evan’s departure, that kept her aspirations of a happy family life and 50 years of marriage in check. Sometimes, unbidden, she would find herself planning her next moves when Evan left. Either Jon Paul or Michael would tell her that a certain friend couldn’t come to a birthday party or Vacation Bible School or some other activity because that friend was spending the weekend with his father, and Laura would imagine her weekends alone when the boys were with Evan, seeing him a couple of times a month as the boys would climb out of her car and into his, and always a shadowy figure, a woman with long hair, that stayed in Evan’s car and never showed her face. You’re being practical, Laura would tell herself when she realized what she was imagining. He’ll stay, of course, but you can’t be sure he’ll stay. No one could be sure anymore. Last year, her own sister was surprised with divorce papers, and no matter Laura’s questions, her sister swore that she didn’t see it coming, no, she just never imagined he would leave. So I have to plan, Laura would tell herself. Even if it won’t ever happen. I have to be ready.

She watched the boys carry their cups back to the booths. She unlocked her phone, scrolled to Evan’s name, and pressed send. She counted the rings before the call went to voicemail. "Evan, come on," she said. "What’s going on? Talk to me. Answer your phone."

She hung up and almost immediately her phone rang. "Evan?" she said, and she heard the click of the call ending. Her phone rang again, and again he hung up when she answered. On the third call, she didn’t answer, and he left a voicemail.

"Look, Laura. I just can’t do this. I can’t do it. The camper is in the parking lot of the Kum & Go. I talked to the manager, and it’s safe there. Do what you think you need to do. I won’t be back."

She dialed his number again, but the call went to voicemail. "Can’t do what? So you’re just leaving us here? What about the boys, Evan? What about your sons? Come say all this to my face. Come look at their faces and tell us you’re leaving."

Laura turned and walked further into the grass toward the interstate. She didn’t know which direction Evan had gone, or when. If he left almost immediately and driven south, he’d certainly be back in Kansas City by now. He could take any exit, as many turns, find a cheap motel and get a room. He could find a casino and gamble like he loved and she hated. If he went north—she didn’t know what was north. Iowa. Corn. Corn and their plans. She watched semitrucks passing on the interstate below and considered how much cash was in her wallet, the balance of their joint checking account, the space left on their credit card. Could she call the bank and cut him off? They wouldn’t do that unless she was present. She could call the credit card company and tell them that his card had been lost and could they decline any transactions on it for the next few days, just in case? He could be so far already, so many miles between him and this Dairy Queen where he left his family.

She watched the cars at the intersection. The couple with the complicated order was in a car—a small, black, two-door—at the stoplight. The woman glimpsed Laura across her partner, leaned forward, and stared. Laura watched her looking. The woman pointed in Laura’s direction, her mouth moving, the man now looking. Laura read sympathy there. It enraged her. "What are you looking at?" she said aloud and raised her middle finger to the car. Screw them. They probably already saw her as a single mother, probably didn’t see her wedding band, just her kids and her exhaustion.

She felt her phone ring more than she heard it and let the call go to voicemail again. That’s what he’d want. "I can’t handle those boys, Laura. Not right now. Not with all this. This isn’t what I signed up for. I need a break. I need time. I need no demands. Look, I’ll call you later, and we can figure this out."

Her boys.

Not with all this? What did that mean?

"You fucking coward," she typed into a text message.

All three boys—Jon Paul, Michael, and Christopher—kneeled in the booth next to the window, their fingers parting the blinds, and stared at her. Christopher waved when she noticed them, a grin breaking out across his face. She waved back and turned in a circle. There was a Russell Stover store across the street and a Sonic next to it. Behind the Dairy Queen was a local pizza place and video rental store in the same building, and behind that, down a slight slope on a service road, was a Super 8. She felt the lengthening of the day though it was not yet dark.

They could not stay in the Dairy Queen. She would not let her boys remember this day as they day their father left, would not let them think of it every time they ate vanilla soft serve or a future girlfriend requested a Blizzard. She would make up a story about their father and the van and an errand he was doing that would make them all safer. They would walk to the Super 8 where she’d rent a hotel room with double beds and, while the boys watched TV, she would walk back to the camper to gather what she could. Because their suitcases were in the van, she would find a way to get to a Wal-Mart and buy them all new pajamas and bathing suits and inflatable toys. She would order in pizza from the place next door, and they would carry the pizza to the pool area where the boys would eat slices in between cannon balls. She would let the three of them split an orange soda or a root beer. And when Evan realized what he’d done and tried to call again, she wouldn’t answer. And when—because it would be when, she decided—Evan turned around and drove back to Bethany, he wouldn’t find them moping and waiting in the dirty, sad Dairy Queen. They would be having an adventure, an adventure she’d let him join again. And the boys would never know what almost happened.

And if—a very small if—he did not turn around and she was alone with her boys in the morning, she would decide what to do then. She would decide what to tell them and how much.

She would not mourn now. This was not yet a time for grief.

Her first step, her next step, was to rearrange her face, to look excited, and to create a story for her sons. She waved at them again and started for the door.


Jessica Fokken’s work has previously appeared in Midwestern Gothic. She recently earned her PhD from Oklahoma State University and teaches at Coastal Carolina University. She lives in Conway, SC, with her husband and son and their dogs.


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Canadian born but currently living with her family in rural Jalisco, Mexico, Lisa López Smith is a writer and artist. Her upcoming debut novel, Butterfly Rain, is set in Mexico and is due to be launched in early 2017. When she's not wrangling her two active sons or any number of rescue dogs and cats, you can probably find her riding her bike.


The pace of the story was excellent, very somber and surreal. Great piece!
Mom is always left to clean up the mess and try to preserve a facade of love from the missing parent. Anything to shield the children from life's complicated realities. This was a very good read.
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