Saturday, June 5, 2010

"At the End of the Month" by Alex Myers

Janet reassured herself that she wasn’t a bad mother; she was just a little busy. All week, her son had been pestering her to get him a costume. “A pirate costume, Mom, with an eye patch,” Mike had begged on the way home from school on Monday. But she’d put it off, kept telling herself she’d get it tomorrow when she had a little free time, when work wasn’t so busy. Tomorrow, tomorrow. She’d even written herself a note at work: get Mike’s costume. She could picture it, scrawled on the back of one of those pink “while you were out” memos. It was probably trapped under a pile of invoices, bills, or receipts, lost in the sea of paper that swallowed her desk at the end of every month.

She wasn’t a bad mother. She had meant to get the costume. But now Mike had come downstairs with the weightless hops of a six-year-old, his hair wildly sticking up, holding the imprint of a child’s heavy sleep, and was on her case again.

“It’s Halloween, Mom,” he said, “where’s my costume?”

“Halloween’s tomorrow,” Janet said. “Eat your breakfast.”

“But Mom. We wear our costumes to school today. It’s Friday, remember? You said I could be a pirate.”

He slid to the table, began cramming spoonfuls of Cheerios into his mouth, and Janet knew he was hoping for a costume that she didn’t have. She turned to the fridge to pour him a glass of juice, and the orange-hued calendar from Mike’s first-grade classroom confronted her. “How could I have forgotten?” she thought to herself, feeling a flush of anger and embarrassment creep up her neck. It wasn’t her fault. She thought she had another day.

“Go get ready, honey,” she said, not turning around.

“But Mom…” he began.

“Just get dressed.” She heard his feet hit the floor, the light tapping of his steps on the stairs. Now what was she supposed to do?

Upstairs, Mike was at the bathroom sink, standing on a wooden stool to brush his teeth, then drag a wet comb through his hair. On the chair in his bedroom was a set of clothes his mother had laid out the night before – an act he’d regarded from his bed, the covers pulled up almost to his nose, with a degree of silent skepticism, not believing he would actually wear those jeans, that shirt, because the next morning was Halloween. But he didn’t say anything, decided to play along, like this was another maternal ruse, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy: transparent to him, but seeming so important to his mother that he believe. He watched from bed as she pulled the door shut behind her, almost closed, and then fell asleep gradually, his dreams of ship’s rigging, sails billowing beneath a fluttering skull and crossbones, the lurch of the deck beneath his feet, his hand gripping a fiercely curved sword. Master of the ship, feared by all who crossed his path.

When Mike came back downstairs, having reluctantly pulled on the quotidian jeans and plaid shirt, Janet had dug out a brown garbage bag from the cupboard below the sink and a roll of packing tape. Stretching the bag on the kitchen table, she cut a hole on each side and one hole in the bottom. Mike watched her hands work the scissors, precise yet hasty, as if she were confidently performing an act that was repugnant to her. Janet lifted the bag with a half-hearted flourish, and before Mike could react, she tugged it over his head. She pulled his limp arms through the side holes, smoothed his still-damp hair, and then taped up the loose opening around his legs. She measured off a length of tape, bit it, the glue bitter in her mouth, and wound it loosely around Mike’s leg, trapping the hem of the bag against his pants. His arms stuck out, like a scarecrow’s, like Jesus’s; Mike pressed his chin to his chest, regarding his plastic-covered torso.

“Mom?” he asked, with a quaver that suggested and hoped for everything.

“You look great, honey,” Janet said, with false lightness.

“What am I?”

“You’re a raisin!” She tried to sing a few verses of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” thinking of the advertisements from her youth, but then Janet realized that not only were these ads off the air long before Mike was born but also she had got the melody all wrong and she couldn’t quite remember the words. Abandoning the attempt, she picked up the car keys in one hand, Mike’s backpack in the other.

“But I don’t want to be a raisin. I want to be a pirate.”

Janet took a few steps towards the door, heard the upturn of her son’s voice, the whininess that crept in. “Well, you’re not a pirate. You’re a raisin. Let’s go.” This was her son, who woke up as soon as she yelled his name from the kitchen, not even making her walk upstairs, who brushed his own teeth, and sometimes, when she was tired or had a friend over, read himself to sleep. And he was a plastic-coated raisin – a boy who dreamed of ships and treasure was a piece of dried fruit. Janet thought of this, of all the paperwork on her desk that lay ahead of her today and the cleaning and cooking that lurked behind her in the house, waiting for her return, as she pressed the button that raised the garage door, watched Mike buckle his seatbelt over his trash bag, and headed out into the clear day, the second to last day of October.

She’d make it up to him, somehow. It was just so busy, every day a strain to get done what had to be done that there was no way to do anything else. So Halloween came along – out of nowhere really – and demanded a costume and, Christ, candy for tomorrow’s trick-or-treaters, when really it was just another day at work that still had all its own demands clamoring to be met.

They must have passed through streets lined with maples that were still hanging onto leaves flaming red and orange, but Janet couldn’t remember such scenery as she pulled the car up to the curb in front of Mike’s school. The crossing guard had donned her usual orange vest over a witch’s robe and a tall, pointed hat that quivered slightly in the breeze. From a bus in front of her, Janet watched a long line of princesses, clowns, and robots disembark and dissolve into the playground, a mass of colorful costumes, shimmering fantasies. Her own rumpled son met her eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Goodbye, Mom,” he said to her reflection, the garbage bag sliding easily across the vinyl back seat. He pushed the door shut behind him, not big enough to slam it emphatically, and drifted through the opening in the chain-link fence. Janet could follow his progress, the one dark shadow amidst the rainbows, the flashing armor, the magic wands.

As she pulled away from the curb, muscling her car back into the morning traffic, she felt a rush of frustration and a sickening sense of embarrassment. She slapped the wheel with her hand, coming up short at a red light as she watched the car ahead of her sail though. How was he even going to go to the bathroom with that bag on? There would be time after school, she thought, to get a new costume for tomorrow, to set things right, to prove that she was a good mother.

From the sidewalk, Mike made his way across the playground, the crowd growing, engorged by each bus’s discharge. They had until the first bell rang, shrill and metallic, to play outside. It wasn’t the best recess because everyone still had their backpacks and lunchboxes and you couldn’t run well. Besides, you never really knew when the bell was going to ring, and you didn’t want to get too far away or too involved. So Mike headed towards the school’s front door, pushing past vampires and girls dressed as cats. The poor kids in class, the ones who got free lunch and lived in the trailer park, all had cheap store-bought costumes: plastic masks of cartoon characters and chintzy capes that barely hung half-way down their backs. But none of them was wearing a garbage bag. Mike made it to the top of the steps, surveying the world of the schoolyard, the older kids filling the playground’s perimeter, the younger kids crowded around the swings; he saw his friends, a gang of pirates with eye patches and swords, swinging from monkey bars that had momentarily been transformed to a ship’s rigging. And just when he thought he might run down and try to join them – be a stowaway – he felt something dig into his ribs. Turning, he saw an older boy, dressed in the camouflage fatigues of a soldier, his hand held like a pistol pressing into Mike’s side. “You’re dead, trash boy,” the soldier yelled. The kids clustered around the doors laughed loudly; then the bell rang and Mike was pushed inside, like a stick or a leaf caught up by mistake in the rush of a river that had places to go.

Janet turned in to the parking lot of the contractor’s office where she answered the phones and helped with the paperwork. She had what they called “Mommy’s hours,” 9:30 to 2:30, which were supposed to be convenient for her so she could drop off and pick up her kid from school. But in reality she thought they held her to that shift to keep her just under the hours needed for benefits. When she got to the office, a large room with three desks – the bosses’ offices were down the hall – the other women on the Mommy shift were already at their desks. Janet checked her watch; she was on time, barely. The other women had come early, making her look bad. Lorraine, who was the crew dispatcher, smiled as Janet walked by. “Good morning,” she said. She was wearing a pumpkin pin with flashing eyes on her chest. “Happy almost Halloween!” Janet smiled back, determined to look happy, confident. At least Darcy, who did the books, wasn’t sporting any Halloween flair. And at least no one had dressed up in costume; it was just another day to get through, and there was no sense pretending they were something else. The phone rang before Janet sat down, and the day began in earnest, pink memo pages filled with precise cursive, the men outside the windows swaggering in their hardhats, chatting next to the bulldozers and bucket-loaders. Big guys with beer guts playing like little boys in a sandbox.

The girl in the desk ahead of Mike had wings. Even though he could see the straps that held them tied around her shoulders, he was still impressed by the shivery luminescence. They were almost translucent, shot through with gold and silver, like a fairy’s wings or a butterfly’s, hardly seeming substantial enough to support flight. When he was fairly certain that Mrs. Morse wasn’t looking, Mike reached forward to touch the wings, but his garbage bag rustled – plastic and artificial – and the girl turned around, gave him a scornful look. Her face was painted with green and gold curlicues that suggested feathers, magic, flight.

She looked at him, raking her eyes up and down. “What are you, anyway?” she hissed.

Mike opened his mouth, defensively, but then couldn’t remember. Was he an M&M? A jellybean? He looked down at the crinkly plastic of his stomach, felt a trickle of sweat -- the first of many that would flow all day down his chest to soak into the waistband of his underwear – and tried to remember what his mother had told him at home that morning. “I’m a raisin,” he said. But the girl was no longer listening, and Mrs. Morse, having turned from writing on the board, lifted her eyebrows sternly at Mike’s interjection.

Barry, the foreman of one of the crews, had swaggered into the office ten minutes ago and was perched on the edge of Janet’s desk. He held his hardhat in his hands as he made small talk. He’d come in asking her for some form he claimed to need, but Janet knew he was just there to flirt. “You got plans for tomorrow tonight? A Halloween party?” he asked.

Janet didn’t look at him as she replied, “No. Just hand out candy to the neighborhood kids.”

Barry pushed at one of the piles of invoices on her desk to make room for his leg so he could settle in more comfortably.
“Yeah, I don’t see much point to putting on costumes. I’d rather take things off, if you know what I mean.” Janet looked past him to the clock on the wall, 2:15; she would be able to escape this jerk and his fantasy world soon. Darcy came over to Janet’s desk, handed her the envelope with her paycheck in it, and flashed a quick smile at Barry as she gave him his envelope as well.

“Janet, honey,” said Darcy, “you look awful tired. Why don’t you head on out now? It’s almost time to go. Me and Lorraine can cover the calls.”

“Thanks,” said Janet, too grateful for the chance to escape to reflect much on Darcy’s slight criticism. How tired did she look, she wondered. She shoved the paycheck into her purse, pulled on her coat and went out to her car. As the office door closed behind her, she wondered what Darcy and Barry were talking about now that she was gone. She imagined Barry offering to trick-or-treat at Darcy’s in nothing but his boots and tool belt, some macho version of what sexy was. She didn’t have time or energy for these games, to amuse men who thought they called the shots, who thought they could make the world conform to their dreams.

The wind blew a few leaves around, chasing them into the corners of the parking lot, stirring them against Janet’s legs as if to remind her that it was autumn. She looked at her watch, thinking about what she could get done. She needed to pick up Mike, cash her paycheck, get him a costume, and buy candy for the trick-or-treaters. She did not want her windows soaped or whatever prank it was that kids pulled these days on “mean ladies” without candy. As she drove her car out of the parking lot to head to Mike’s school, she felt a wave of annoyance at all these petty demands, all these various tugs at her attention.

At the front of the classroom, Mrs. Morse used the last fifteen minutes of the school day to remind them of safe trick-or-treating practices. Don’t wear masks because they block your vision; use face paint instead. Only go to houses where you know the residents. Don’t eat any opened candy. Mike’s stomach itched under the bag, and the witch sitting next to him chewed on the fake gray hair of her wig. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead as the clock ticked closer to 3:00; there was still a chance that tomorrow he could be a pirate. Even if he couldn’t be a pirate, he could go as a farmer or a baseball player, anything that didn’t involve wearing this garbage bag.

Janet pulled up in front of Mike’s school, joined the line of waiting minivans and station wagons. She tried not to pay attention to the other mothers who stood at car windows chatting, feeling in their presence an impending sense of guilt, the suggestion that she could be better, be more like them. The school doors opened and a flood of children rushed out, propelled by the promise of freedom. Mike, in his brown wrapper, was just as easy to spot this afternoon as he had been in the morning. He pulled the car door open, tossed his backpack in, and buckled his seatbelt. Looking at him in the rearview mirror, Janet saw in his sullen, sweaty expression resentment, an accusation. She tried to smile, but her words still came out short and sharp, “I need to go to the bank and then we can get your costume.” She had meant to have more patience, to tell him that she was sorry, but then the car ahead of her was pulling forward and it was too late.

The bank parking lot was fairly full, a typical Friday paycheck crowd. As Janet swung the car into a spot, she took a quick glance in the rear-view mirror at her son, his face slightly flushed, the garbage bag sagging pathetically around his body, and felt embarrassed about bringing him into the bank. Everyone would stare, wonder what was wrong with him or with her. And what could she say in his defense? “He’s a raisin. Quit gawking.” Or on her own behalf? “I forgot about Halloween. I meant to get him a costume.” She realized there was no good explanation, but she couldn’t very well leave him in the car. So they walked into the bank lobby, Mike trailing listlessly at her side, and Janet kept her eyes firmly on the teller at the head of the line, determined not to see anyone staring at her son, making assumptions.

She felt Mike tug on her arm and then she saw the teller’s face fall, her jaw dropping open in surprise. The voices came from behind her, muffled and unpleasant, like a slide projector that is out of focus, but still loud, “Get Down! Get Down!” Janet turned to see, bumping up against Mike, registering the two men who wore masks, rubbery facsimiles of some movie character or politician, so cheap and distorted she couldn’t tell who they were supposed to be. She saw the guns in their hands, sweeping across the room, pointing at her, before she sank to the floor, a near collapse, as if she had lost control of her limbs.

Mike wriggled out from under his mother, who had nearly crushed him, dragging him down with her. The men were still shouting, one of them telling everyone to get down or stay down, Mike just heard the down, down, down, pressing him to the ground, and the other shouting more words. He knew that he should be afraid, his heart was pounding, but instead he dared to raise his head and open his eyes, which somehow made their shouting not so loud. He peeked quickly, seeing at first only other bodies on the ground, lying still, they could be dead, then he looked up more to see the only men standing, their backs to him. He could see guns in their hands, small and black, they looked just like the toy guns that he and his friends played with, making noises with their lips like shots, flinging their arms wildly. But these men just shouted, held the guns steady, and radiated a sense of danger, power, and control. Down, and everyone goes down. They looked funny in their rubber masks, tufts of hair sticking out below, and Mike wondered if they were sweating under there, like he had sweated all day in his garbage bag. The men were moving now, and he wanted to see the money being handed to them, the way they shoved it into sacks, like they do in movies, but he had to stay down.

All Janet could see was the bank floor. She lay there, thinking that any minute they were going to grab Mike or kill her. She couldn’t really hear the robbers’ voices, distant and muted by the masks, but she imagined their gruff orders, “Hurry.” “Hand it over.” She imagined the teller too, her surprised little mouth, hustling to meet their demands. Beside her, Mike rustled in his garbage bag, and Janet wanted to tell him not to move, to be careful, but of course she couldn’t talk, couldn’t budge, nothing that would draw attention to her and her son. Because now, she was certain she heard footsteps moving around, the robbers coming to take jewelry, wallets, purses, her son, and she pointlessly kept her eyes open to gaze, as good as unseeing, at the hard, milky stone a millimeter away. Any moment they would be shot.

Janet thought of the guns in the robbers’ hands. She squeezed her eyes closed, felt tears leaking out, pressed to the corners. She thought of praying, of promising something to God if she and Mike got through this. “I’ll be a better mother,” she thought. “Give me another chance.” The stone of the floor felt cold against her forehead, and she felt herself shiver; this robbery was a reminder, a warning, she felt, like a bolt of lightning from God: powerful, dangerous, but also – for just that instant – illuminating. And in the guns and the masks, the threats, she thought there was a chance for her to make it right. If she made it through, she would hug her son, tell him she loved him, protect him from another moment like this, make everything okay.

Mike wanted the robbers to turn around so he could look at them; he knew this wasn’t a game, and he kept his head down, but he couldn’t stop peeking, trying to see what they were doing. But the robbers were on the other side of the lobby, their backs still to him, and now they were moving towards the door, one clutching two black gym bags, which seemed strange to Mike; he had imagined them carrying burlap sacks, looking like Santa Claus with bundles over their shoulders. Gym bags seemed mundane, uninspired, but in an instant they were through the doors and out into the unconcerned afternoon.

Mike was the first one up off the floor and for a second he got to enjoy what the robbers had left behind, this silent bank, all these people lying down before him, prostrate on the ground. His mouth turned up in a smile for the first time all day, and he stretched out his arms, imagining that all this was his, that he could make the world obey him.

But then the others started to get up, and his mother was kneeling next to him, hugging him, crying a bit, shattering his moment, the peaceful power in the defeated bank, the world brought to its knees. Suddenly he was aware of his garbage bag again, of being just a little kid, and his mother was telling him it would be okay, they would get the costume as soon as they could, that she was sorry. He closed his eyes, not wanting to look at what he had lost, trying to find the words to tell her that being a pirate didn’t matter anymore.

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