She can hear that rock station he always listens to, drifting down the hallway.
He’s at that age now, those small moments of pushing away, of distancing himself, becoming more frequent. It breaks her, but she carries on as if nothing is changing, as if he’s still the same little boy who’d collapse into her soft arms to have his head petted, to have her whisper everything’s OK, everything’s just fine.
She doesn’t like Stanley Jr spending all his time in his room, doing who knows what.
But she could’ve been stuck with—God forbid—a boy who wanted to run around causing havoc all the time, who she had to watch like a hawk. Let the boy have his peace, that’s what she says.
Hamburger patties are frying. She pulls tomato and onion out of the fridge, remembers to add laundry detergent and Kleenex to her shopping list.
That boy, Ricky, no longer comes around. Filthy boy, that’s what she says. She caught him and Stanley Jr looking at one of those magazines in the garage several months ago. After she chased Ricky off, Stanley Jr came clean. Said Ricky had brought it over. Said he didn’t want to look, but Ricky kept sticking the pictures in his face. Stanley Jr was so distraught she knew of nothing else to do but pull him to her and remind him good boys don’t look at bad girls. Stanley Jr had sniffled. Said he’d be glad when those horrible images were out of his head. After he went to his room to lie down, she called up Ricky’s mother and gave her an earful.
She pauses at the stove, strains to hear over the pan sizzling and popping, the music drifting down the hallway.
She thinks she hears him clearing his throat again, a terrible hacking. She’ll remind his father to check the air ducts into his bedroom one more time. His spells are worse in there. She’s determined to get to the bottom of it.
She calls for him as she gets a knife out for the Miracle Whip. He appears in the doorway. He’s now almost as tall as his father is, angry red acne on his cheeks and forehead, little whispers of stubble above his lip.
He slides onto his seat, tips back until his head rests against the wall. She whisks a finger along his hairline, studies his face.
I’ll add more blemish pads to my list. And set that chair back down.
Oh, you, she laughs, turning back to the frying pan. Good mothers help good boys be their best. That’s what I say.
Her panties—a word Stanley Jr hates but constantly ping pongs around in his head—cut into her dimpled hips as she shifts to reach for the salt and pepper shakers, as she bends down to retrieve the cutting board.
Sometimes, in the fresh and clean morning air, she hangs their clothes out on the line, his tube socks draped just so, like the little hand towels she keeps on the decorative rod above the toilet. His father’s white T-shirts gently swaying like flags, then fluttering and lifting, showing his mother’s white nylon panties—there’s that word again, making him shudder—hidden on the back clothesline, suddenly flashing, and he’ll rush to pull his bedroom curtains tight, punch his legs, rock back and forth until the image disappears.
Look at you, a million miles away. I said, That’s what I say. She settles down next to him, her ass hanging over her chair.
He stares at his plate, Miracle Whip dripping down the bun. MoTHER. GOD.
What? A mother can’t look at her own son? One day you’ll leave me, Mr. Smarty Pants. You’ll find a nice girl. Give me lots of grandbabies. How do you like them apples?
Her breasts jiggle when she laughs. Breasts, tits. The words linger in his mouth, mixing with half-chewed hamburger. He tamps down another shudder.
You’re sounding much better. I hardly heard you coughing at all this morning. She kisses his angry-red cheek before he can pull away.
He forces himself to not run out of the kitchen and down the hall. He feels sick to his stomach, ass panties tits sticking in his throat with the last of his lunch.
She tidies up the table and counters, then heads downstairs to bring up a load of towels. She dumps them on the couch, sticks a butterscotch in her mouth just as her show starts. Some song heavy on drums that seems to play every hour these days seeps from under Stanley Jr’s door. She turns the TV volume up, stacking folded towels on the coffee table as she keeps one eye on her show.
During commercial break, she gathers the towels and walks to the linen closet next to Stanley Jr’s room.
She stands, holding her breath. He’s rasping, as if he’s trying yet again to clear the congestion from his lungs.
She reaches for the doorknob. She knows that sound, of Kleenex being ripped from its box, one after another. Hears it whenever she pauses outside his door. To check. Always just to listen, to check, before she turns and tiptoes away.
Yes, everything’s ok. He’s got it out now. The congestion’s cleared. She can relax now. Everything’s ok. Everything’s just fine.
She lets her hand drop. Turns.
The squeak of the metal bedframe. The heavy boots he likes to wear, hitting the floor. A zipper pulled.