They're good boys, but that doesn't mean I owe them squat. Certainly not a puppy, even though they're the perfect age for a puppy. That's what Ron, my husband, said, choosing to make this observation at the dinner table last night, right in front of them. Ryan is seven and a half; Blaine is six; Ron vacillates.
The boys will work hard to care for the puppy, my husband assured me. The boys nodded like bobble-head dolls with the innocent eyes of Dickens street urchins. Like I've had time to read a book in the seven years they've been around. Oh, they're good boys -- very good at sensing when goodness will reward them. They're getting a puppy. Daddy said so. This is how they think, all three of them.
Daddy also said, as he was tucking the boys in to dream of the new puppy that'll soon make my clean linoleum tacky with its excited pee, that in the morning, Mother's Day, Mommy will get breakfast in bed. He'd help his boys make it.
Mom doesn't think so. No one asked Mom. Mom thinks that the boys' work -- their sense of what work is, which will enable their puppy to grow into a dog -- begins this morning, when they awake to discover that Mommy isn't in bed. If they want to spend Mother's Day with me, they'll have to find me first -- here in the basement, under the beanbag chairs. We own a pair of them, one for each of the boys, deep red vinyl like shimmering drops of giant's blood. They press me gently to the floor behind the television with a weight that makes my lower back feel good. The bags yield to my head, torso and curled legs, cupping me. The vinyl dampens with my breath.
The floorboards creak two stories above -- my sons' room -- and the sound travels through the skeleton of our home. I hear their good-boy feet padding down the hallway. And then a pause at our bedroom door, behind which Ron sleeps in briefs and a grayish T-shirt, sweat-stained in the armpits even after several bleachings. I'd throw it out, but he'd complain. At the end of his workday, which he spends in an office, interacting with adults -- adults with whom he also converses over lunch in restaurants where they don't have to prepare or clean up after meals -- he can still summon the energy to complain about unimportant things, such as ignorant managers. I hope a promotion soon makes him a manager, so we can send our boys to a private high school. The way twilight yardwork interferes with men's league softball practice (which usually leads him to Hooters and then into bed smelling of beer and chicken wings). Items that have gone missing around the house because, in his absence, I've returned them to their proper places from the random places where he dropped them. No matter how many times I tell him, he forgets that my days here are endless streams of such complaints, translated into a child's vocabulary.
But not today.
For another year I've made our home well: Our pantry is full of juice boxes and cookies, my sons' bedrooms with professional sports memorabilia; a pumpkin graced the front steps at Halloween, a wreath the front door at Christmas. Slips came home from the elementary school to be signed; sometimes a ten-dollar bill returned in an envelope -- zoo admission and a snack.
Murmured words two floors above, indecipherable. Ron's heavier feet on the floor. Little boy and large man-child laughter. Quick feet slapping down the hallway, thumping on the stairs, shifting above in the kitchen. A pause. "Mom?" Blaine calls as one of them walks to the door leading out to the garage.
Ron's heavy footfalls on the stairs lead to more animated murmuring in the kitchen. His voice -- the upward inflection of a question. The boys run, Daddy's words enough to send them racing through every downstairs room -- bathroom, study, living room -- the rooms a puppy will soon paint with its nervous stool.
The basement door opens. Feet move tentatively on the stairs, as if I might leap out from hiding. With each step, each squeak of hand on banister -- little miners working their way down a tunnel -- my heartbeat quickens. The boys reach the floor and move around me. I imagine what they see: their playroom, their domain. Can they even fathom me, much less see me -- provider, conveyor, administrator -- here amidst the balls, the height-adjustable basketball hoop, a television the size of a small billboard sprouting wires connected to consoles and joysticks and components?
I hold my breath.
"Mom," Ryan says in a flat, declarative tone that suggests he's certain I couldn't be down here. Not without his knowing it. Not without his permission.
"Where is she?" Blaine whines.
For what does my baby whine? Today isn't Christmas or Easter or anyone's birthday. There are no presents for him that my absence has delayed his opening.
The coffee grinder gnashes above.
"I want Mommy," Blaine says.
"Stop crying," Ryan hisses. "Baby."
"Baby crap gets a slap." A dull strike -- hand on head. An infraction usually worth an hour in timeout today isn't worth the breath it would take to issue a reprimand.
Retreating feet. The faint, high-pitched whine of a full-on cry working its way up the little one's chest. Feet on stairs. Hands on railing. Blaine crying.
Let him cry. Let them both cry. Let them all cry and pace and worry if they're too blind to see me. Let them call the cops if they're that stupid.
The crying drifts upward, into the kitchen, where someone else can turn it into laughter for a change.