The American Mother

by  Tanya Perkins     

On Halloween afternoon, I climb to the attic and drag down Joseph, Mary and the boys and lay them on my bedroom floor. Christmas is more than a month away, but I can’t help it. They’re jumbo-sized, in bright molded plastic that lights up. I got them from one of those crazy little storefront churches that blink on and off on downtown side streets. The sign was handlettered: Church of the Hidden Ghost. How can you not love a name like that? Once I was stopped at a light right in front and this guy in a red shirt and bolo tie ran out and stuck a carnation under my wiper. Later, at their going-out-of-worship sale, he sold me the holy family for a steal. They were from a shrine in Tulpetlac, site of the fifth apparition, he told me sadly, then held my bill up to the light.

Tomorrow, or maybe next weekend, I’ll arrange them on the lawn around a mound of hay (the crush, Stacy calls it), even though the same thing happens every year—Jesus ends up missing or worse, dangling from a branch or buried headfirst in a neighbor’s window box. Kids can’t resist him. And every year, I buy a replacement baby from Walmart or Goodwill and Stacy says Oh God, mom, not again, and begs me to replace them all with willow branch reindeer, wrapped in tiny white lights.

Now she’s at the stove making mac and cheese, the new boyfriend leaning back against the counter. He’s tall, a babyish face with a manly chin, a face that grew too fast. Round glasses, a black t-shirt with STRIVE in white letters. Up close, his ear lobes hold corks, like in wine bottles, if you can believe it.

“Mom, this is R-R-Roberto,” Stacy says, rolling her R’s. “We’re going to watch The Shining. He’s never seen it.”

“Hey, your store,” says the boyfriend. “Second Axe? You know that’s a video game, right?” His fingers tap against the counter, knobbly fingers, knuckled with rings big as drawer pulls.

“It was supposed to be Second Acts, as in a play,” I say. “But there’s a thrift store in Indianapolis with the same name, so I went with a homophone. You should come by sometime and see if there’s anything you like.” “Homophone” puzzles him; he smirks a little, some joke forming in his mind, I can tell. I’m about to say something else but Stacy says Mom! so I retreat to the dining room to start opening bags of candy. If I’m quiet, they might start talking again. But after a few minutes, the side door bangs and they are gone.

Somewhere she’d stopped saying good-bye, had become costumed beyond my fathoming—stubby, short-fingered, with pampas grass hair. Well, her father (long gone, the bum) was alienated from his own parents, so what do you expect? For the longest time, I thought by some parthenogenetic glitch she only bore my DNA. Alas, no. One day, I’ll run into his mother and see my own daughter’s face and form, aged by fifty years, which will only deepen my sense that we have lost track of each other across this vast country called adolescence.

*     *    *

I sit on my doorstep, candy-filled bowl on my lap. Halloween is like feeding tame deer at a game park, being mobbed by tender mouths. Tiny Spidermen, grubby fairies. One kid swims up, sporting a white plastic mask, matched with a full body costume and white gloves. Impossible to locate eye holes but the kid has no problem snatching a fistful of mini Twix bars and then dashing off.

At a break in the flow, I put the kettle on for tea, open more bags of candy and remember the silent figures upstairs, the holy family, the wise men, and I think of closing the front door, turning off the lights and joining them. Oh, holy night.

Which is when a tall vampire bursts through the front door, holding a bundle, calling out, and I come running from the kitchen. Behind him, a woman in a makeshift Elastigirl costume, stricken. They’re both talking at once, apologizing for the onslaught, but I see the panic and point the way to the living room, to the couch.

He lays the child down. Then I see the mask.

The vampire speaks over me. “We already called 9-1-1,” he says, his white make-up half-sweated off. “Gotta get that mask off. Get the kid some air.” They don’t know the kid but saw him collapse, they tell me, right in front of them.

Later, when I’m telling the story to Stacy and the boyfriend, this is where I lower my voice. It was surreal, how they’d stormed the place. The kid at my door just moments before, how I’d wondered about eye holes. And then, reappearing like that. And no way to get the thing off.

“What’d you mean, no way?” Stacy demands. She and the boyfriend had returned by eleven and now we’re all laying around the family room, watching TV.

“We couldn’t get the mask off,” I say. No openings, no seams, no breaks in the plastic. I’d knelt by the kid, had run my fingers along the underside of the mask, feeling for a zipper, snaps, anything.

“We’ll have to cut it off,” the vampire had said, opening a pocketknife. He’d steadied it against the side of the mask. But it was disconcerting, as if he would slice the child itself.

“That’s the uncanny valley effect,” says the boyfriend. “You’re not sure if something is real or fake. I mean, you know it’s fake but part of your brain isn’t sure.”

But what happened next: the kid just up and ran out. Gone, kaput. Like everything was fine. It had happened so fast, the kid immobile one moment and zipping away the next. Silently, shoving through our adult barriers. We’d stood there, agape, the vampire, Elasticgirl and me. They’d left right after, irritated, I could tell, especially the vampire. An annoyed swing of his cape.

“See, that’s why I hate masks,” Stacy says. She’s in my old brown recliner, her feet up. “God knows who’s behind what.” She unmutes the TV and we sit like that, for a while, the great mystery of the masked kid floating between us. I get up to make hot chocolate just as the headline flashes: No Progress in Missing Girl, and the kid is swept away by another mystery. This is the story that is filling the airwaves now, a freckly woman weeping while the CNN reporter grips a microphone and looks concerned. The woman’s husband, an Arab national who claimed membership in the royal Sauds, had ditched her in Boston and whisked their six-year-old daughter back to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi or somewhere equally unreachable. Then he started pimping the girl out on ads.

The boyfriend nods at the TV. “You know that Target billboard on the corner of 40 East? That’s her in the corner, holding the puppy. But mostly she’s in online ads.”

“No way,” I say. “Target has a whole marketing department that tracks their ads. They could find her.”

“Yeah, but she’s with her legal guardian,” says the boyfriend knowledgeably. “They weren’t divorced or anything.”

“I hope the mother sues their capitalist asses.” Stacy says. “Serve them right.”

“If I was the American mother,” says Roberto. “I’d blast my way into that guy’s place, know what I mean?” I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. He extends his phone toward me and I see a small girl in a green dress, pressing forward, as if against the screen. Like it might give, somewhere along the edges.

*     *    *

I’m in the store by eight, Monday morning. No sign of Stacy since Halloween, two days ago. For now, I sort through a new consignment from an estate sale, holding garments up to the light to detect flaws, perspiration stains, traces of past wearers. This is what I know: empty sleeves and trousers retain the residue of their old lives, scarves and belts long for their own tightened knots, a past lifetime of secured notches. I have a theory that vestigial memory lingers, waiting to impress itself upon the next wearer who will suddenly stop drinking or start, or fall in or out of love and never know why, never trace it to that particular silk t-shirt from Goodwill, or the garish kimono plucked from some last-chance rack.           

The backdoor slams and sudden as a grass fire, they blaze up in front of me. The boyfriend’s wearing a toque pulled low over his forehead and it’s like I’m seeing him anew. He’d seemed taller before, filled out. Now I see how his skin is that of a boy, not a man, and we stand eye to eye, the same height exactly.

“Hey, cool,” Rob says, and “Pretty!” Stacy says at the same instant. I’d placed some vintage rings—amethyst, peridot, a stunning opal, two citrines—on a velvet-lined tray by the register. I’d been about to lock the rings in a case, but now they slip them on, trading them back and forth. The boyfriend’s fingers are slender, tipped with navy nail polish. He admires the opal, holds it up to the light, slides it onto his little finger.

“Too bad it doesn’t fit,” he says.

“Rings can be sized,” I say. “Metal stretches, to a point. Then it has to be cut and new metal added. Of course, there’s no guarantee the ring will have the same integrity, the same proportions.”

He holds his hand out to me. “You think this could be sized okay?”

I can’t help myself. “You know it’s a woman’s ring, right?”

He wags it from his right ring finger. “Arbitrary gender norms aren’t my thing.”

“Unless you buy it for a girl,” I reply and immediately, Stacy says, “God, mom!” Her cheeks and neck flush red.

“What, you pressuring me already?” The boyfriend says.

“It’s just a joke.” I hold his hand to look at the ring more closely. “I think they’d have to cut it to make it fit, to be honest. You can see how the circle could be distorted.” I let go of his hand. I hate the idea of the beautiful ring being cut. But what do I know? Things do stretch, often beyond what you might imagine.

I turn to answer my phone. When I finally hang up, they are both gone.

*     *    *

Friday afternoon, I lug the nativity set outside (the Day-Glo Gang, as I’ve come to think of them), then dig around in the garage for an extension cord. Power is always a problem. One winter, a squirrel chewed through the cord, stupid thing, and I found it the next day, stiff, blackened, its tiny paws extended in helpless shock. The only cord I have is bright orange, which will look raw across dead grass but how else can I get the set to light? And that’s what I want, the circle alight, whole and brilliant. Glowing through the darkness.

I set them up on the lawn and then remember the missing infant. Mary kneels, gazing down at an unoccupied manger, looking, weirdly, like an effigy of the American mother. Last night, CNN showed her camped out in front of a senator’s office, literally camped out, in a bright blue pup tent, the image re-tweeted millions of times, morphing into a globally recognizable avatar of loss. Staffers bring her bran muffins and coffee from the commissary on their way to work. Her daughter’s face suddenly started appearing in online ads. At first the mother thought grief was driving her crazy. She’d be reading email when the sidebar would flash her daughter, holding a toy or modelling some new kind of sneaker. Calls to her internet service provider were a dead-end. Customer service was stymied. What do you do when the web throws up phantoms?

The crush is set, the colossal figures ablaze, but the manger still empty.

*     *    *

When I look back, I try to make sense of the order in which things happened so I have something to hang on to. It’s how we move toward understanding, isn’t it? What happened was, right after this, the opal ring went missing. Now, missing is not the same as lost, just to be clear. I’d just sold two others—the citrine and a diamond. And there on the tray, three empty spots instead of two. I asked Stacy about it, as soon as she showed up for her shift that day. She’d appeared at the store, heavy-eyed but serene, hair in a mussy knob on top of her head.

“You know, that opal. It’s gone.” I was steaming the creases out of a silk blouse left in a heap in the dressing room. That’s the thing about natural fibers. They wrinkle, just like people.

“Are you sure?” She peers at the display case, like I didn’t have the brains to check it already.

“Well, I’ll check the security video,” I say. “Thank God we have it.”Later, as we’re locking up, she asks, “So when’re you checking the thing again?”

We sold three more rings that afternoon, which makes the missing opal even more of a weight. “Tonight, tomorrow. I don’t know.” We climb into the car and I get it going, crank the heat up.

“You must have time to waste,” Stacy says. “You know how long that will take? Especially since “Did you know that the Stegodyphus lets her young consume her own body? They live in Mexico. I think.” Or was it Costa Rica? The Mojave Desert? Alberta? “It’s a spider,” I add.

She gives me a sideways glance. “I’ll do it. Tomorrow’ll be slow. I don’t mind.”

“It’s true, when they’re about a month old, she just rolls over and they climb all over her, sting her till she’s dead, then eat her.” I’ve been watching nature shows at night, alone in the dark. Just me and Attenborough.

Stacy sighs. “You need a boyfriend. Why don’t you let me set you up? Rob works with this guy that would be perfect for you. He’s your age, into fitness, super smart—”

“And works at a bowling alley? How smart can he be?” I know who she means. She showed him to me on a video she’d taken at Knock ’Em Down, when she surprised Rob with Fall Out Boy tickets. Gangly, whiskery, in a Hawaiian shirt. Eclectic was the word she’d used but he looked more the kind of dude who hadn’t worn socks since the nineties.

“You know, Rob noticed that about you the first time he came over. I didn’t agree at first but now I do.”

“Notice what?” I reach over and joggle her arm a little.

But she jerks her arm away. “That you’re a snob! God, you have no idea how you come across. ‘I went with a homophone.’ Who in their right mind says things like that? I hate bringing him to our house, because you always say something pretentious or self-involved and then he always asks later what you meant and half the time I have no idea.” She’s staring at her phone, endlessly scrolling bright images.

“Which means you do know what I mean half the time.” I’m gripping the wheel so tightly that the plastic almost bulges between my fingers. “That’s pretty good, all things considered.”

Then I add, meanly, “Maybe Rob should read a book once in a while.” But she ignores me, her thumb flicking through Instagram and I turn the radio to news, crank it loud, so that it fills the car all the way back home.

*     *    *

Later, I ask my own mother, Frida, her opinion. Stacy had emailed her a jpeg of the boyfriend and now Frida’s scrutinizing him on her phone. She’s past eighty; I pick her up once a week, for groceries and lunch. Today we’re having lunch at Knock ’Em Down, the bowling alley where the boyfriend works. Admittedly, this is not well-thought-out on my part. I’ll confess: I want to spy.

“Oh, he’s darling, just darling,” my mother says. “What is Stacy now, eighteen?”

“Twenty. And the corks in his ears? Did you notice that?”

“Oh, for earache. He should be on antibiotics. You tell him.”

“In the lobes, mother!” I pinch both my own. “They’re called plugs. They put bigger and bigger ones in until you can drive a truck through them.”

The bowling alley is noisy and packed. The café, as it is grandly called, is set back from the lanes, up a short flight of stairs, redolent of industrial floor wax, ketchup and dirty socks. We sit in sticky booths overlooking the lanes, and await our cheeseburgers.

“Rob’s over yonder,” my mother says. “I spotted him as soon as we sat down. He looks like he’s giving instructions.”

“Let me borrow your glasses.” I’m not sure if I’ll use them to see or for disguise. I can’t believe she spied him before me; she’s got to be seeing things. I slide out of the booth and move toward the stairs, casual as anything, scanning the lanes. Then I fall.

It’s a leisurely plunge down the stairs, like a slinky flopping downward, tread by tread. The kind of quiet fall that attracts a crowd fascinated by humiliation but too disinterested to intervene. I splay across the bottom three steps, dazed, thinking get up get up get up.

Gradually, someone grasps my waist and helps me sit up.

“Just relax,” a man says. “Do I need to call 9-1-1?” He’s oddly familiar, brisk and huge, like a thumbnail image magnified by some cosmic trickery. Dimly, my lizard brain utters his name as he presses a glass of water to my lips. He speaks in a weirdly gentle tone, as if I am a wounded calf. “Here you go, that’s it. Just relax.”

“Roberto?” I say.

The boyfriend is in a black shirt and tie, his hair slicked to a mirror finish, peering at me through black-rimmed glasses (really, glasses!), close and alarmingly intimate, a spiny Norwegian pine blotting out everything else from my view. It’s this moment that will stick, later, when I think about the fall, reliving it: this alien version of the boyfriend, known and unknown. I will eventually figure it out, that it was the Roberto of twenty years from now who materialized at my side, bigger, heavier, spectacled, a concerned soul.

“What’re you doing here, anyway?” asks the boyfriend.

“You must be Roberto,” my mother says, shaking his hand. “I recognized you right away from the picture Stacy sent.”

“We just came for lunch,” I tell him, heaving myself up. “We heard the cheeseburgers were great.”

“What I want to know,” says Frida. “Is whether they’re real or that Impossible stuff?”

“They’re real,” he says, straightening his tie. “Oh, absolutely the real thing.”

“Then again,” she says, “It’s hard to tell real meat from fake nowadays, even up close.”

*     *    *

Later, at the store, when we are alone, Stacy wants to know everything.

“I told you!” I tell her. “Your grandmother wanted to go out for lunch and I’d heard the cheeseburgers were great.”

“They’re shit,” she says. “You were spying. Just admit it.” She’s at the counter, folding t-shirts. I refuse to acknowledge her audacious statement, nor do I tell her about the comfortingly mature Roberto who had appeared at my side, disguised as his future self. I still had not watched the security video but I’d downloaded and saved it in the Invoices folder, where Stacy would never look. Then I deleted it from my online archive.

The opal ring is still missing. I’ve combed through the receipts, in case it actually was sold. I’ve called the consignor who’d brought in the whole estate allotment. I’d returned a few things to her and there was always the possibility that it had somehow become mixed up in that package, had slipped into a pocket. That it would re-appear, somehow.

*     *    *

Frida beelines to Daytona Beach in mid-November, so we do early Thanksgiving at her house, including Roberto. She can’t stop talking about him, how mature and confident he is, how lucky Stacy is. Of course, all Frida knows is the fully mature version, teleported in from the future. She’s dazzled.

Now we slice carrots and boil potatoes in her kitchen. Through the oven door, the turkey glistens brown, crackling.

“He likes my slippers,” says Frida. She’d crocheted him gold and green checkered ones and he’d immediately unlaced his boots and put them on. We all wear them at her house. CNN is showing the American mother cross-legged in front of her blue tent, laptop open. Her daughter is being used to sell Little Me Footwear; she’d recognized her feet from the online images, the blurred freckle on her left instep. Little Me Footwear bought their ads from some marketing outfit in Kuwait but are refusing to divulge the name. The American mother is calling for a boycott.

“Fucking capitalism,” Rob says. “That’s what it gets you.” I wait for my mother to object to his language but she opens up a bottle of Merlot instead.

At dinner, I ask him to tell us about his family. “Do you guys do the whole turkey thing?”

“My older sister usually does,” he says. “We go to her place in Columbus. Her husband’s from Mexico City, so we usually have enchiladas or tamales or something like that, along with turkey.”

“Oh, you should ask him if he’s ever heard of the shrine in Tulpetlac, site of the fifth apparition.” I skooch mashed potato onto the back of my fork. “That’s where my Nativity is from. It’s the real thing.”

“Just ignore her,” Stacy says to the boyfriend. “She’s showing off again.”

“Well, I think everything is just ducky,” Frida lifts her glass. “Especially the carving. What an artist.” She’d asked Rob to carve the turkey and he’d risen to the occasion.

When he lifts his glass, there it is, on his left hand. The opal ring.

Of course, I should have noticed it before. Had it been there the whole time, as he chiseled the bird? I want to grab his hand, but everyone is enraptured by the food—the perfect bird, the mushroom gravy, the garlic potatoes. Rob refills his plate for the third time, then clears dishes once we are through. When he reaches for my plate, the opal glints like a portable moon.

For some things, there is no playbook. I pull my mother aside. “Can you ask Stacy to help you with the dishes? I need to talk to Rob.”

“Future son-in-law conference,” she whispers. “I get it.”

“Rob,” I say, intercepting between table and wall. “Let’s go for a walk.”

“You do that!” My mother calls from the kitchen. “We’ll take care of the dishes.”

Stacy goes thunderous but Rob says, “Sure,” and shucks the crocheted slippers.

Outside, the freezing rain has stopped, leaving the air metallic, the houses and cars purpled silhouettes. We walk down the middle of the road, dodging potholes. I wonder if he will speak first but he seems content to walk apace, hands shoved deep in his pockets, grey toque pulled low over his head. Unexpectedly companionable.

“Nice ring,” I say.

“Oh, you like that?” He pulls his hand out and shows it off, fingers wide.

I grab his hand. Despite the darkness, I can still make out enough detail—there it is, the silverwork, the phosphorescent depth of the stone, the shapely base. “Roberto,” I say. “This is my ring.”

He laughs, then jerks his hand away.

“No, I mean it. This is the opal ring that I had in my store last week. Did you buy it? You’ve had it resized.” I’m giving him an out. I mean, it is possible that he bought it and Stacy processed the payment and decided not to tell me and somehow I’ve missed the receipt. If he takes the out, we both might leave with things intact. Take the out, take it, take it.

“I got this at a Goodwill in Baltimore last summer.” He tucks both hands in his jacket pocket, still companionable.

“You remember trying on those rings a while ago? And there was an opal that you both tried on. Well, it disappeared sometime after that. So I just need to know, you know, for my own peace of mind, about the payment. Your word is good enough for me.”

“Sure, I paid for it. I paid the guy behind the counter at the Goodwill in northwest Baltimore.”

“You see how it looks, right? Turning up on you, right around the time it went missing. Oh, come on.” I don’t want to be a fool, someone from whom you can steal and then pretend like everything is okay. Fighting has its own risks—haven’t I seen it on the face of the American mother in every CNN close-up, how the battle is withering her?

“What, you think I’d steal it and then wear it to dinner? What kind of asshole do you think I am?”

“I don’t know!”

He stops and turns to me, flinging his left hand in my face. “This is mine! Okay? I’m not a thief.”

“I didn’t say you were! I don’t think—” But then I stop. “How did they resize it? Were they able to stretch the metal? Or did it need to be cut?”

I have one hand on his arm but he jerks away. I call his name but the sound is deflected, flattened, battered back at me in the form of emptiness. He walks quickly and I jog to keep up but he keeps his back to me and I trail him, calling his name, around a corner and down another street, which is overgrown and narrow, with vehicles parked along broken curbs. Finally, I stop and he disappears into the dark and I retrace my steps through the alien neighborhood, where I bump against strange shapes, my losses aggregating against my shins.

When I finally make my way back to my mother’s house, she and Stacy are hunched together on the sofa. My mother is teaching her how to crochet. My vision blurs in the sudden moist heat.

“Where’s Rob?” Stacy asks.

“He’s not here?” All the way, I was convincing myself that he’d just beat me back, that he’d ducked into an alley and found his way to my mother’s house and maybe he wouldn’t say a word and I wouldn’t either and we’d take too much leftover turkey home with us, worst case.

“What happened? Where did he go?” Behind her, my mother has two different balls of yarn on her lap, yellow and garnet. Crochet hook poised.

“He just took off—I thought he was coming back here. Look, we’ll go in the car—”

But Stacy races upstairs, coming back down with a coat on. “What did you say to him? You said something!” In her excitement and anger, she’s pulled on my own shapeless black coat. Her eyes are wet with anger.

“Stacy, he was wearing the opal that went missing from the store. Didn’t you notice? I was very nice about it, I just asked him—”

“You’re just looking for a reason to hate him, I know you are—”

“Well, where did he get the ring? You tell me!”

“Baltimore.” She’s buttoning the coat sloppily, mismatching buttons to holes. “Before we met. He was living there with some girl.”

I take off my mother’s coat and carefully hang it up. My mother is still clutching the yarn, the crochet hook, watching us, wide-eyed and rabbity.

“Well?” Stacy demands. “Are we going to go look for him? It’s the least you could do.”

“Just tell me the truth. Did you guys take the ring? I just want to know. I won’t be mad or anything.” I want to take her face in my hands, search her wide, light eyes for something familiar. But she just pulls on her boots, then fumbles in the closet, finds an old woolen hat of my mother’s. She doesn’t look at me. The door slams behind her.

“Oh, it’s not safe for her to be out there alone,” my mother finally says. “Don’t let her out of your sight.”

But it is not her safety I am thinking of. She has her phone—she’ll text Rob and they’ll meet up, at the corner or on the front steps. Or maybe they will walk all the way back to where he left his car and they will go to his place, commiserating about me, comparing notes on my vileness, which will bring them even closer together.

I sit beside my own mother and watch TV. It is unbearably hot. My mother picks up the yellow and garnet and starts crocheting again, a new pair of slippers that will fit no one.

“You should go after her,” she murmurs but I ignore her, scan the channels quickly. She’s been watching the Food channel, but I slip past it, past PBS and Fox, looking for CNN and the American mother.

I’ve never met her, but I know that she’s imagining the same thing, that she’s replayed this scene to herself over and over, during wretched nights in the blue pup tent. The daughter will turn up suddenly, in some unexpected way, and everything else—the sickening anxiety, the slop of chaos—will dissolve like salt on a wound. They’ll find her, they always do. She’ll be intact, though not unchanged and, in time, they will learn to recognize each other again.

Tanya Perkins’ work has appeared in numerous journals including Tupelo Quarterly, The Woven Tale Press, Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, The Forge, The Raleigh Review and others. Her chapbook People are Naturally Attracted to You was published in March 2018 by WTAW Press. An MFA from Murray State Univ., she teaches writing at Indiana Univ. East.