When you tell people that you have all boys, they want to know if you tried for a girl. If you are still trying.
Once, in line at the grocery store, a woman said to me, “Why don’t you just quit already.”
When you tell people that your oldest son is sixteen, they want to know how old you are. If you’re as young as you look. When I tell them that I’m thirty-three, I have to look away while they furrow their brows. I know they’re thinking it through; they’re doing the math.
When you tell people that your oldest son is sixteen and your youngest son is almost a year old, they want to know if all your kids have the same dad. Sometimes they ask outright, which still surprises me, even though it seems like it shouldn’t by now. Sometimes all the kids are with me—one with skin the color of café au lait, another with my pale, freckled skin, skin that was the bane of my existence at one point, skin that couldn’t hold a tan to save its life—and then people don’t even ask. They just look from one kid to another and purse up their mouths.
You might think that a person like Angelina Jolie makes things better, but her family is too public—it’s no secret where those kids came from—and anyway, she’s an unmarried woman who gets tattoos and holds a gun. The people who don’t judge her weren’t judging me in the first place.
So I drive home from work at night thinking about the mysteries of genetics and how all these boys look so different even though their father, who left me when I was pregnant with the baby, who finally just couldn’t take any more, was always the same man.
I’m driving home early, thinking about how work is the only place I get any peace at all, because when I’m there all people ask me about are window treatments and color swatches, and they don’t think about me as a person, as a mother. Without a baby in my arms, I’m as neutral as one of the mannequins in the window of the store next door.
The lights are all off when I get home, and it takes my eyes a long time to adjust to the dark. I don’t remember it taking so long, and I don’t know—is it because the prescription for my glasses has changed again, or because I am getting older? Is it just a natural change?
This is what I’m thinking about when I start to hear the rustling. In the living room, the baby is standing in his playpen, silent, and my eyes meet his.
The other boys must be asleep in their beds, but the oldest one, Michael, is babysitting. I’m sure he’s still awake. And I’m aware suddenly of the scent of the house, which has changed. There’s a sweet smell that I know is from his girlfriend, and then of course the rustling coming from his bedroom down the hall.
When I went to work, I left my purse at home by accident, and I’m relieved to see its faint outline on one of the top shelves near the TV, but when I walk closer I see that the purse is open and my old faux leather wallet is open and two twenty-dollar bills are gone. I don’t remember whether they were crisp, new bills or whether the paper was worn and faded or even repaired, at some point, with a bit of Scotch tape. What I do remember is that the elderly lady next door gave me exactly forty dollars in cash after I repaired her fence where the posts were falling down, and now the money is gone.
The baby is reaching for me, so I walk into the middle of living room. I pick the baby up and sling him onto my hip. My heart is beating hard and there is a loose feeling in my hands that I recognize—that fine combination of anger and adrenaline.
At the same time, I am so calm. I am seeing everything very clearly, as if my vision has been shaved down to only the most essential items.
I am picking up the baby. I am walking down the hall. I am knocking on the door of Michael’s bedroom.
The rustling stops, and I can hear whispering. He opens the door wearing only a pair of faded jeans. He is much taller than I am, but I stare him down. The light is on in the room behind him and I can see his girlfriend, in a bra and a pair of pantyhose, sitting on the bed behind him. She has her head down and the dark curtain of her hair obscures her face.
“Where is my money?” I ask. “There was forty dollars in my wallet when I left for work.”
Michael shakes his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“My purse was wide open when I got home.”
I can hear my voice rising, and two doors down, on the other side of the bathroom, the little boys’ door opens and my six-year-old stumbles into the hall, rubbing his eyes.
“The rent is due on Friday, and we need groceries.”
Michael starts to look angry. “I didn’t take it. I swear.”
Sleepily, his little brother says, “Maybe they needed it for the baby clothes.”
On Michael’s desk, under the gooseneck lamp I bought him when he was eleven, on top of a pile of papers and unfinished projects, there are three little onesies—a yellow one, a pink one, and a white one with a pattern of tiny pink rosebuds.
I look back at Michael. His girlfriend is still sitting on his bed, chewing one of her fingernails.
I can’t stop thinking about the money, the theft. “I know for a fact that I had forty dollars in that wallet,” I say doggedly. “The little kids aren’t tall enough to reach that shelf. It doesn’t make sense that anyone else would have taken it.” I pause, thinking. I know that if I think long enough, I will be able to come up with the proof.
Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens and two chapbooks. Her individual short stories, poems, essays, and articles have previously appeared in a variety of publications including 42opus, Halfway Down the Stairs, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Blood Orange Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, Salome Magazine, and Per Contra, as well as on a broadside from Broadsided Press, on postcards from the program Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, and in several anthologies. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review. Her personal website is located at www.leahbrowning.com.
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