Jon Fain

Sharon stood at the door, close to its screen. The guy, Philip, was saying, “Your brother Jimmy said you were doing some painting?”

Out in the driveway her son Anthony stood on tip-toes and pressed his palms against the hood of the strange car. He jerked his hands off and shook them—the car’s engine was still hot. He reached up and put them back again. Men, she thought, including even her own son, who wasn't yet five.

“What I mean is... if you need any help?” said the youngish, dark-haired guy. Philip. He dressed nicely: a blue golf shirt, and pressed black pants. “Maybe I could come by this weekend sometime.”

Sharon looked at the flowers he had brought, wrapped in light green tissue. They lay on the counter next to her small electric fan. Pink and white carnations. She didn’t bother cutting the ends off since they were already half-dead. No doubt he’d bought them in the “garden shop” of the supermarket down the street.

“So, Philip, you’re a painter?”

“Anybody can paint,” he said.

“Think so?”

“Sure,” he said, smiling. “Just stir it up and slap it on. Is it inside or outside?”

“I find it’s usually a little of both,” she said. “Don’t you?”

She got a vase from a top cupboard and went to the sink. As the water ran, she reached over to turn on the fan. Caught up in the breeze, the multi-colored streamers attached to its front grate snapped to attention. The fan swung from side to side. She went back and forth too: leaving it on, shutting it off. It stirred the heat but couldn’t get it out of the kitchen, let alone the house.

Through the window over the sink she got another glimpse of her son. The boy ran in circles in the backyard, jumping the piles of freshly-cut grass that he'd made after Grandpa had mowed the lawn. Anthony got a running start and slid into the piles, like a baseball player. Then he threw grass up so it drifted down and landed on top of him. Later, following him as he ran from room to room, she would be picking it off the floor and furniture, trying to brush it out of his hair, eventually washing it out of his clothes.

Anthony’s frantic activity sent her pulse racing, and she held onto the edge of the counter. As Philip moved around her kitchen, Sharon thought of a balloon let loose—drifting on unseen currents, bumping against its limits. Now he was over by the telephone, looking at the shopping list she had tacked to the wall.

“I should do these dishes,” she said, even though they were running late for this supposed date of theirs. A day and a half’s worth filled the sink, but with it too hot to cook, no pots and pans; it was glasses and cups, bowls and spoons. No doubt Philip wondered why she wasn’t ready. On the phone they’d agreed to a time, though not a specific movie.

“Would you like a drink?” she asked. The last man who had come over at her brother Jimmy’s insistence had brought a bottle instead of flowers.

“No, thanks.”

Philip pulled out a chair. He had large hands, which he clasped in front of him on the table. Sharon could feel him watching her, after she'd turned and started in on the dishes. He asked again what movie she wanted to see. He told her what a great guy her brother was.

She thought he might have offered to dry at least. Sharon wiped her hands on the dish towel for longer than necessary. “It’s still hot in here, isn’t it? Let’s go outside.” She wondered how to put it. “You and Anthony can meet.”

“I already saw him,” said Philip, as he stood up. “Your boy? He ran away from me.”

“Oh,” Sharon said, “aren’t you the lucky one.”

Out in the yard, Philip stood close to her as they looked back at the house. His cologne was strong, and oddly familiar. She took a step back.

“Nice place,” he said.

“Yes, isn’t it,” she said, then added, “we bought the lot from my parents....” She waved over in the direction of her parents’ house: her father, alone now, with her mother gone. “And my husband built—”

“I know, Black Ford King Cab with red lettering.” Philip smiled. “T&S Builders, right? Aren’t... weren’t you the S?”

She looked at him, figuring Jimmy had told him all about it. But he seemed very earnest. Maybe he was one of those who did research—just read a girl’s shopping list and have her figured out.

The T, Tony, was the original friend of Jimmy’s. She should have known to be careful around such a beautiful man. When she got pregnant, they decided what to do next without thinking it through. A quick town hall ceremony with her brother Jimmy as best man; Kristen, the other art teacher from the high school standing by her side, and, out on the front steps, her father throwing rice in her face.

If nothing else, she'd thought they were in it together. The T and the S, right? Her job was to create the logo, order the supplies, lease the office equipment, set up the books. Establish accounts with the lumber yards and the other vendors.

Then, another task—what she should have realized was a problem right away—taking and dealing with the calls that started coming in from the suppliers and the subcontractors about money. Surprising her, because she thought she could add and subtract well enough to know when she was writing good checks. When she'd asked Tony if he was taking money from the account without telling her, he told her not to worry, he'd had some unforeseen expenses to take care of.

She still was too dumb to see; instead of grasping the full depth of his deceit, ignoring what was turning out to be a still-born business—and marriage—she instead became obsessed about the low-level radiation from the computer she used, its effect on the baby. She rubbed herself incessantly, feeling for deformity on the taut surface of her spreading belly.

She later realized it was Anthony’s arrival that scared Tony—finally scared him off. Tony was there at the hospital, proud papa, but that was only for show. She even started coming out to the sites to help show off his new son, she was willing to hang in there, even after he’d disappeared with someone else. And then one afternoon Sharon found herself in her car in front of a construction-stalled house, a teardown morphing toward some monster home. The wet blue tarp was flapping loose over its skeletal frame, captain and crew gone with the wind.

When Anthony came out from wherever he had been hiding, erupting into nonsensical screeching, he ran past Sharon and Philip, then across the yard, waving his arms, holding them out like wings of an airplane, jumping from the edge of the lawn onto the driveway. “Twin tallers!” he shouted.

He made explosion noises, rolled on the ground, and quickly got up. Then he squatted down and placed his palms flat against the asphalt—like he had done with Philip’s car—and then brought them up to look at them. What was he looking for? Sharon felt the familiar sharp pain right behind her eyes, as if Anthony had taken his hot gritty little hands and pressed them there.

“It’s really nice,” said Philip after this show was over.

What is?” she finally said. It was anything but nice. Was he playing too?

“What you’ve done with it.”

Sharon supposed he meant the dead or dying foundation plantings, the weathered brown shingles black with dirt rebounded up from the rain, the window missing a white shutter, which left a gap in the face of the house like a pulled tooth. Or did he especially admire the cheap plastic swing set, the broken marble planter? The place under the pair of ornamental apple trees where she’d planned for Anthony’s sandbox, back before she needed to worry about the price of sand? It was an area worn down to dirt, where toy trucks and cars, soldiers, plastic balls, and his bike were scattered.

“I should see... call... what happened with the sitter....”

The fan in the kitchen was moving its colored plastic streamers and not much else. As hot as it was outside, coming back inside was like being shoved into an oven, the house holding a week’s accumulated, unrelenting heat. It would be a relief to go to an air-conditioned movie. But at what cost? She had to keep her perspective here.

She went down the hall and opened the door into what Anthony called Mommy’s Painty. In her own mind she needed no name for it; hot or not, she liked to keep the door closed, whether she was in there or not.

In theory, it was defensible space, but Anthony was relentless, he always found her. He banged and kicked on the door. Even when she tried to work at night, even after she thought he was safely asleep, even while he was asleep she couldn’t find a place for peace or to gather the calm she needed.

Halfway through a cigarette, she caught herself staring at the painting on the easel. Trees. A forest she was trying to grow with meaning.

It should have been simple; she wanted to identify and capture the instant one thing turned into another. Here, it was to be the dance of sunlight and shadow, their perpetual, ever-changing, tight embrace. She was attempting to capture the instant when such change occurred—the exact moment of transition within the depths of a stand of woods.

In her inner vision she had settled on an early fall, when the leaves have not quite begun to turn, and the sun, lower on the horizon, tries to shoot its weakened rays through the full growth of the trees. Light, struggling to change places with dark, as she pictured it, when defeated, falls in patches to the forest floor.

She looked at the painting, embarrassed by its amateurish everything. The grim secret revealed was that it was not a particularly pleasant way to spend one’s time, that something worthwhile was rarely achieved. For all her running to this room, where had she gone? What was so special about Mommy’s Painty, This Fucking Room of Hers? A place to smoke and hide out was all—the journey to which got her nowhere.

She had been too hard on Philip out there. Not bad looking. Nicely dressed, nice car. Presumably, gainfully employed. He’d even offered to help with her painting.

There was the little problem as to the sitter, since she hadn’t called one, and her father was proving unable—and unwilling— to handle Anthony for more than twenty minutes at a time these days. And Jimmy and his wife had three of their own.

Leaving her room, closing the door behind her, she thought the only way it would work would be to find a movie that Anthony might sit through. Or get the nice young gentleman to go get them some take-out and a video. Sit him down on the couch in a 100 degree living room and give him a full dose under fire. See how long he thought it was nice.

She came back into the kitchen, then heard Anthony’s high-pitched terrified screeching outside. She banged open the screen door. Anthony rode on Philip’s shoulder. Philip spun in a circle, and Anthony, kicking his legs, screamed for her again. Sharon ran at them. As they spun, she punched Philip on the arm as hard as she could.

“Hey! The fuck!” Philip said to her, and slid Anthony down to the ground. The boy ran to his mother, hugged her legs. Philip looked at her like she was crazy, escaped, and on the loose. “Hey,” he said to the boy. “Tony the Tiger, just playing around, right? Airplane spin, wrestling, like on TV?”

Anthony wasn’t crying and he didn’t seem to Sharon as if he was hurt, but he wasn’t letting go of her either. It had been a while since they’d held each other this tight. “He doesn’t like to play rough,” she said, her voice sounding normal. “And he doesn’t like to be called Tony. His name is Anthony.” She thought she guessed that look she got back: was she worth it? Philip rubbed his bicep, lifted the edge of his blue short sleeve to gauge the damage. “Maybe we should try again some other time,” Sharon said. She looked at her son when she added, “Turns out the sitter isn’t going to make it anyway.”

She wondered what Jimmy would say to her this time, how well he really knew this one, how much this one would tell him about what had happened. And it pissed her off that her brother drank at the local bar with Tony, who was back in town as if nothing had happened—the prick was so sure of himself he didn’t even bother to run off the right way. She had begun to imagine a bar filled with the men her brother had sent her way over the years, the cast of a recurring bad dream.

“Tomorrow?” asked Philip. Maybe this one was different, she thought. Anyone could make a mistake. Anthony could be insistent, relentless; she knew that better than anybody. Things could whirl out of control. Anthony, although he was really getting too big for her to do it easily, tugged at her to pick him up. Sharon considered ignoring him, but lacked the energy.

“Do you... if you leave your number...,” she murmured. Philip said his phone number twice. She nodded like she got it, and, with an effort, lifted Anthony up. She watched Philip stride to his car. She let Anthony suck his thumb.

Philip backed out into the street. He spun the steering wheel first in one direction, then the other, and sped away. Feeling safe, she waved her punching hand, which hurt.

Sharon had to put Anthony down. She looked around the yard that Philip had pretended to admire, and decided not to ask Anthony to pick up his toys. He went over and kicked at the remaining piles of cut grass, scattering them. She stood by the back door and waited, then followed him into the house. In the kitchen, she turned on the light. Anthony went over and dragged a chair from the corner of the room. He climbed up on it, then stood up, carefully steadying himself, and opened the cupboard in front of him. Sharon began trembling—the sudden violence outside coming back to her.

It wasn’t quite the same as a few days back, when she’d burst out of Mommy’s Painty, grabbed hold of Anthony by the arm and dragged him across the house, after he’d screamed and kicked at her door over and over again, when all she needed was just a little more time, just a little time and space, all right, not get all the attitude from the crybaby, not be bombarded by demands, smothered under a siege of senseless screams.

You want to scream?

“Be careful, Anthony,” she said now, as he pulled a near-empty bag of cookies out of the cupboard, and rummaged through, pulling out two whole ones. “If it’s empty, Anthony... please take it and throw it away.”

He put one of the cookies into his mouth and put the other back into the bag. He put the bag in the cupboard, went from standing on the chair to kneeling, and jumped to the floor with the cookie in his mouth. He went past Sharon to the refrigerator, opened it and stood so he blocked the door. He ate the cookie, took a half-full glass of leftover milk from the top shelf, and had a drink before turning to look at her.

“Is it all right to drink this now?”

“I guess so,” Sharon said. “If you want. Come here and sit with me though.”

Sometimes she did love his spasms of independence. And she loved the easy flow of his emotions when he got happy, his sudden, beautiful smile, starting to fill with tiny white teeth. His thick brown hair, that when kept long, as she preferred, curled at his shoulders. She laughed when he came out with a line of adult-speak he'd picked up, such as “I have no idea” or “I do declare.”

But she hated the way he lazily still peed his pants.

She hated watching him stick his tongue out into a glass of milk or juice as he drank, that sucking sound he made.

She hated his insatiable energy, his unrelenting demands, everywhere at once, always there.

He brought his milk and sat at the end of the table beside her. He finished the milk in one long final drink.

Without thinking, and before he could pull back, Sharon took hold of his arm. She lifted it up, as if to examine the dirt and grass stain, a brown and green smear on his elbow. She wanted to see if the bruises where she’d grabbed him were still there. He wouldn’t let her; she couldn’t hold him; she let him break free of her grasp.

“Who was that man, Mommy?”

“A friend of your Uncle Jimmy’s.”

“How come he got all the friends?”

“He called you Tony the Tiger,” Sharon said. “Did you like that?”

On the one weekend a month Anthony was going to be with his father and his other grandparents, he was going to be called Junior. Sharon was glad she wouldn’t have to hear it. When the T—thanks to some judge with his head up his ass—would pick their son up in a few short days for this first visit, she knew he would ask her why Anthony’s hair was getting so long in back. Maybe the T would notice any bruising; maybe not.

Now Anthony was getting over-animated again. “Anthony, stop shaking your head like that. You’ll make yourself sick. Go get into your pajamas.” The boy jumped up and ran out of the kitchen, through the house, toward his room.

Sharon took his glass and went to the sink. That day’s newspaper was still on the counter, untouched from the morning, still rolled with a red rubber band. She slipped the band off. Later, once Anthony was asleep, she’d try to read a bit, or at least cut out some coupons.

Jon Fain has fiction online at Small Spiral Notebook, The Fiction Warehouse, and Verbsap, including the winning story from their recent Burning Books competition. His novel-in-progress is "The Conditions."

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