A Moment, Please

By Catherine Munch

Thank goodness for a baby’s laughter, though it was a little disconcerting when it occurred while the baby was nursing. Those big gray eyes smiled up at her. His mouth opened and great huffy silent giggles shook his entire tiny body. The nipple shook too. Blonde fuzz warmed the crown of his head. The baby was happy. Mary Randall lightly touched the tip of her finger to Henry Randall’s chin, to his raspberry nose. She tasted his forehead with her lips.

There were no normal days, though, with a newborn. There’d been little sleep last night as colicky wails forced walking the floor at two a.m. The crying couldn’t take away from the heady essence of baby skin at the crook of his neck. The baby’s convivial nature wouldn’t let him return to slumber until five a.m. Then Jack was up, showering, thundering down the stairs, burning toast, off to work, all starting at six thirty. Though in an unusual hurry, her husband paused to give his son smooches on the tummy. He enveloped Mary in a bear hug, burying his face in her hair, and murmured, “I hope you have a marvelous day.”

The lapel of his suit coat was rough against her cheek. She smelled his soap and the perfume the drycleaner used in his shirts. She hugged him hard. Jack stepped back to look at her.

“Bring Henry downtown at noon? Everyone at the office wants to get a look at him. I’ll take the two of you out to lunch.”

Mary considered. “I think Henry and I might be more comfortable eating in your office, since I’m packing his myself. I’ll pick up something for you and I.” She opened the front door.

Jack paused on the threshold. “There’s so much to get done at work, I shouldn’t be taking a break for lunch.” He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck, tilting his head to look down at her with that little boy smile. ” More than anything, I wish I could stay home with the two of you.”

Laughing, Mary pushed him out the door.

She hadn’t yet had her shower. Here it was eight fifteen, and she was just sitting down to orange juice and cereal with the great baby comedian. Henry tucked in again, nursed vigorously, and fell asleep. Sunlight played across his face as she held him. Dust motes danced in the rays from the window over the sink, and around the kitchen table.

After her shower Mary began to feel half human, she even had time to dry her hair. No wail yet. So, like all first time mothers, she went to make sure he was still breathing in the crib. Yes. She wondered, how could a baby’s sleep be so intense, and yet so abandoned? She noted the perspiration on his upper lip, his arms flung wide, his little fists each holding on tight to its own tiny thumb.

Henry awoke slowly, his milky mouth pursed as it had been when he fell asleep. Mary felt underneath him to see if he needed changing. He was dry, and he felt heavier. She smiled to herself and then stopped, checking again. Henry might be big enough to watch clouds drift by while lying on his back in a pram. We should go to the park today, she decided.

She changed him out of his sleeper. None of the other onesies fit. While attempting to get his legs into an outfit she hadn’t expected him to wear for another six months, Henry suddenly rolled over, got his knees under himself, and almost scuttled off the table. Mary thought he was far too young to be able to do this, she’d have to check the baby book when they returned. What a smart baby, she thought. A blue knit cap and small sweater she tugged on to a happily tussling, kicking Henry. When she transferred him from her arms to the car seat in the driveway, he smiled up at her and burped.

An almost Disney light poured across perfect pecan trees, lawns with bordering shrubs, modest homes. Other mothers and fathers loaded babies and small children into car seats in neighboring driveways. They piled strollers in the trunks, made sure there was enough juice and crackers and spare diapers in pastel baby bags. As Mary pulled out, the Donahue-Murrays were driving their children to daycare. Laura Aguilera walked her daughter up the street to playgroup. The fellow at the end of the street, the one with the ponytail, had his twins in a double stroller, ready for his run.

The drive to the park took only a few minutes. Last night’s rain dissolved into early morning mist. Through the open car window she smelled dew rising from grass, trailing ribbons of spring. The town of Childress was washed clean

The playground at the back of the municipal green was best to visit before the southern sun heated up the metal equipment. Not that Mary and Jack’s baby was big enough to ride the teeter-totter or hit the tetherball. Mary planned to hold Henry up on top of the kiddy slide or swing with him in her lap. She loved to lift the baby above her head and sing, “Look at that baby fly!” He’d be a dark outline against the sun behind him, his face obscured. Usually he laughed, sometimes he shrieked, always he drooled.

Pulling into a parking space, she released her seat belt. Stepping out, she turned to get the baby from the back. A little face with curly brown hair peeked up at her through her own reflection in the car window. Giggling, he ducked down, then raised his head again. He watched her, trusting and mischievous. She opened his door and released the car seat’s buckle. Henry raised his arms to be lifted down, half-moon tummy rounding between tee shirt and shorts. He kicked his sneakered feet and made running motions in the air. When she put him down on the pavement he toddled off pell-mell towards the kiddy carousel. Mary shut the car door and ran to catch up with him.

“Mommy late,” Henry said. He started talking to another mother of a toddler, a woman whose husband worked with Jack. Mary sat down beside Henry on the ground to catch her breath. She felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her, by this first speech. He held a crumbly cookie in one hand, which the other mother must have given him. Two perfect pearls descended from his upper gums, another two rose from the lower. He chewed with satisfaction.

His babyhood was only days old and it was ten o’clock and she was in the park with a child. When she saw herself as a mother, she was cradling an infant in her arms. Other mothers seem to handle these changes with more grace, Mary thought. She abruptly realized Henry no longer stood in front of her. Brushing off her skirt she got up and went looking for him. A spiky vivid green rolled out around the playground equipment. Two little girls in cotton dresses sang as they pumped their swings in unison. When they arched their legs forward, their skirts blew up like flowers in the wind. Henry was attempting to pull himself up the ladder of the slide, though hardly certain on his own legs yet.

She swooped down on him, lifted him off the ladder and up above her head. “Baby flies” came out as a grunt, his weight too much for her to extend her arms. Henry shouted, “No, no!” Mary put him down, and her son ran up to another little boy and shoved him flat. A howl, more of outrage than pain, rose from the miniature carrot-top face down in the dirt.

Horrified, she went to brush off and comfort the victim. Henry ran on, and delightedly tore buds from a pink rose bush. When he pricked his hand on the thorns he howled, threw the buds on the ground and stomped them. Mary sat down on the ground again, and took Henry into her lap. Carefully she picked both petals and thorns out of each little palm.

“Sweetheart, you mustn’t pick the flowers, that hurts the rosebush. That’s why the rosebush hurt you back.” Mary wiped the tears off of his cheeks with the sides of her thumbs and set him back on his feet.

Henry was eye to eye with her as she sat cross-legged on the grass. He threw himself across her lap and hugged her hard around the neck. Then he pushed away, having spied the sandbox over her shoulder. Two little boys and an older girl were already there, digging. Henry climbed in and joined them.

Mary perched on the edge of the sandbox with the other mothers, chatting and refereeing struggles over the brightly colored pails and shovels. One woman smoked, exhaling and flicking her ashes as far from the children as possible. The mothers talked excitedly, often finishing each other’s sentences. We all hardly know each other, it’s the rare opportunity to visit with other adults, Mary supposed.

Eleven o’clock. The sun circled high, tamping the scents of mown bluegrass and burning tobacco into the humid air around them. Even the ground radiated heat. The children became cranky and thirsty and the mothers’ conversation languished. Only so much can be said about whole foods, toilet training and whether or not to inoculate. Mary’s mind wandered…Everyone says babies grow up too fast… Time flies… Probably fatigue, or my imagination.

Mary remembered promising Jack before he left the house that morning that they’d bring him lunch at the office. He wanted to show off his new son. Time to get going.

Henry didn’t fit into the car seat so Mary removed it and stowed it in the trunk with the baby bag. She seated Henry on the back seat, with a very shortened shoulder harness and seat belt. He wasn’t big enough to see up and out of the window, but he was large enough to kick the back of the driver’s seat. She asked him to stop. He said, “Silly Mommy,” and kicked again. Again she asked him to stop.

The third time she asked him to stop, she yelled at him, which surprised them both very much. She felt terrible. Henry stopped the kicking, until they were in line to order their lunch through the clown’s mouth. Then the kicks against the small of her back started up again. After paying for their hamburgers at the drive through window, she pulled the car over in the Jack in the Box’s parking lot. Turning around in her seat, she put on her best stern face and said;

“Henry, it’s dangerous to kick the back of my seat. I have to pay attention to the road while I’m driving.” She held his gaze. He stared right back.

“Okay, Mommy.” Mary felt as if she could fall right into those dark blue eyes looking up at her. She knew he absolutely meant to be good.

She also knew, from some surprising inner wisdom, there was only a fifty-fifty chance his good intentions would hold. She fished the bendable green spaceman out of the kid’s meal she’d just purchased, and gave it to him. Then she pulled back out on to the highway to go to the city. Jack had only a ten-minute commute to his job. Lucky, thought Mary, as that was about the limit that toy would hold Henry before boredom and hunger had him kicking the back of her seat again, or worse.

Jack’s office was on the sixth floor of the high rise. Henry recognized, and was able to reach, the right elevator button. Jack blanched when he saw his son come running in the door. The secretaries fussed over the little boy and gave him candy from the jars on their desks. Jack’s boss shook Henry’s hand and told him what a big little man he was. Then Henry accidentally locked himself in the washroom, and one of the secretaries had to call down to maintenance for the key

The Randall family ate their lunch at the conference table in the meeting room, their son up on his knees on a chair. Henry chattered about the toys in the sandbox at the park. He proudly showed Jack how to tie the spaceman into a knot. The child’s meal was not quite enough for him. His father gave him change for the snack machine in the hall. Henry bought M&Ms.

When the parents finished eating, and all the wrappers were in the waste paper basket, the boy took off running for the elevator. “Wait for me.” Mary called after him. “Haven’t you forgotten something?”

Henry ran back and gave his father a hug around his gray trousered legs. He leaned way back, still holding on to Jack’s legs, and beamed up into Daddy’s face. Then Henry waved goodbye to each of the women in the office, and took off again to push the button.

As Mary prepared to tag along, Jack took her aside. They stood in the hallway, outside the glass walls of the accounting offices. The secretaries turned back to their keyboards, pretending not to see. Jack didn’t say anything for a moment. He blinked quickly as if holding something back. His shoulders slumped, a sudden change in the weather from when he was playing with the spaceman and tickling Henry during lunch.

They both faced down the long hallway. Henry danced in place at the end of it, as he waited for the elevator to come. “It’s time for school now.” Jack had his arm too tightly around Mary’s shoulders.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She patted his back, and then pulled away. “Henry must be getting tired. I thought I’d take him home and put him down for a nap.” She started to search through her purse for her keys.

Jack faced her, rested his hands on her shoulders. When she looked up at him, he spoke. His voice sounded gruff, as if his throat was tight.

“There’s no time for that. Take Henry to school. But you be sure to stay with him, okay?” He pulled Mary into another hug, whispered into her ear. “Humor me.”

“I don’t understand. Could you tell me what’s bothering you?” Mary felt a knot rise in her own throat.

“I’d do almost anything I could for the two of you, you know that don’t you?” He stroked her cheek lightly and she felt his hand tremble.

She blinked back tears. For goodness sake, she thought, in front of God and everyone. Mary stood on tiptoes, held on to his shoulders and kissed him. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck, the way Henry had hugged her earlier. When she let Jack go he didn’t say anything more, just turned and hurried into his office.

Mary drove back to Childress. The afternoon sun slanted through the trees and across the streets of their neighborhood. She drove past their home, from there it was only two blocks down and three blocks over to the elementary school. Henry had his seat belt unbuckled almost before she came to a stop. He flung open the door, jumped down, and skipped into the one story brick building. There was no question he knew his way to Mrs. Day’s third grade classroom.

Mary found a place to stand at the rear of the room, next to the art easel. Twenty-three smiling stick people jumping-jacked across the newsprint, and “My Class” rainbowed over them in crayon. Mary watched Henry’s tousled head bend over the paper on his desk. He carefully wrote his signature in the upper right hand corner of the page, in cursive.

Mrs. Day joined Mary. “He’s such a good student. I wish I had more like him.”

“He’s doing all right?” Now Henry was copying arithmetic problems from the board.

“All right? I’m recommending him for the gifted program. He’s not only succeeding academically, he’s a talented and considerate child. You and your husband should be very proud.”

Mary was proud, and more than a little confused. She felt she held a twisted lanyard of brightly colored string in both hands. Though she tried and tried, she couldn’t tease one particular string out. A memory of Jack, watching her lovingly, she held on to instead.

The school bell rang for an assembly. Mrs. Day’s class lined up and marched into the auditorium. Mary sat in the audience with the other parents and listened to all the children sing “This Land Is Your Land”. Next to her sat Laura Aguilera. Laura’s daughter, dressed in a rose floral jumper and white patent leather shoes, stood next to Henry. He wore a white button down shirt with a green clip-on bowtie. They were on the third row of risers at the front of the stage. Henry only occasionally scratched himself, or pulled at his collar. He grinned, proud as punch to be up there, and sang loud. Mary’s eyes filled with tears as she applauded. She blew into a Kleenex.

I remember standing on risers and singing that song for my mother, she thought.

As the children filed from the risers and then the stage, Mary gathered up her things to go. Surely I don’t need to stay until the end of the school day, as Jack suggested, she thought. If I scoot home now I can get a little work done. Or better yet, put my feet up for a while.

Without the baby bag she was very aware of the sheer number of items she had to carry home with her. It began at the playground as Henry discarded his cookie, and there was the souvenir from the kid’s meal. She had those in the pocket of her denim skirt. The tiny plastic feet were digging into her thigh. The keepsakes really started to accumulate in school. She had an armload of them. There were birthday party invitations, finger paintings and misshapen clay “statues”. Some of the stuff was stuck in a big red construction paper envelope, with “I LOVE MOMMY” markered on the outside. A drooping dandelion hung its head from the buttonhole of her shirt, a presentation at the park. Mary wore several macaroni necklaces and a chocolate frosting kiss on her cheek.

The other parents sidled out of the rows of auditorium seats and shuffled up the aisles. A teddy bear and a gerbil Henry had outgrown, a struggling small dog he’d forgotten, squished together in Mary’s arms as she prepared to follow. A special little friend from the park, met again in school, held on to Mary’s skirt and leant against her hip. Mary also carried a huge stack of overdue library books. She was ready to go home. She spotted Henry leaving school under the “EXIT” sign, to the right of the stage. Where does he think he’s going? Mary followed him, pushing against the uphill flow of adults climbing the aisles.

The exit led out into a large field. Mary put down the gerbil and the dog, let go of the little girl, hoping they’d find their way home. She hurried to catch up with Henry as he walked faster. She couldn’t keep up with him. Henry cut through the field, crossed the road (giving very little heed to traffic), and entered the consolidated Childress Junior-Senior High School. She had a feeling that, as to junior high, he might cut through that quickly as well. No one really wanted to linger in junior high.

Inside the high school Mary stopped by the teachers’ lounge to use the bathroom and check her reflection in the mirror. Where had that gray come from? It wasn’t that it looked bad, she just hadn’t expected to see it in her hair. And those wrinkles around her eyes were not particularly welcome, even if Jack did kiss them and call them “laugh lines”. The shrill period bell rang. She dried her hands and tried to remember where Henry would be in his class schedule at two o’clock.

The bell must have marked the beginning of the next period, no one was in the pale green hallways. The corridors echoed, though. Cello music flowed beneath a civics lecture, the coach’s shouting outside mingled with the Latin teacher’s declensions from down the hall. The familiar rhythms moved Mary.

She stepped along quickly picking up Henry’s sweatshirt, locker combination slip, assignment book and thermos. Yellow butterscotch wrappers she left for the custodian. There was so much to carry, she gathered the hem of her skirt in her hands and used it as a big bag. At the bottom was the appointment slip for her son to have his wisdom teeth removed. A baseball bat and glove were the lumpiest items. They kept company with a report card containing a higher grade in calculus than either of his parents had ever earned and a pair of size ten dress shoes. A snapshot from Henry’s two weeks at summer camp when he hadn’t missed them, was stuck to a postcard from a trip he took when he had.

Mary passed his locker, the one with the deep dent. That’s right, she remembered, Henry punched the door when he was failing history. Their next-door neighbor came over every night for two weeks, to tutor Henry, and wouldn’t take a dime. Henry’s favorite teacher strode by, and gave Mary a wink and a smile. She helped Henry squeak by Spanish. Henry started the year making fun of her accent and finished it by bringing her roses from Mary’s garden. So many of the people Mary thought of with affection, were actually friends through Henry. The pebbles in her shoe were few and far between. There was that bully, who tormented Henry his freshman year. But he confronted the bully, and came away the winner, giving Henry the confidence to do so much more.

Swallowing hard, Mary realized she was walking too quickly, not paying attention. Her heart, she could feel it when she rested a hand against her chest. This is not like me, she thought. Her head swam. Mary leaned against the door jam of the girls’ room, giving herself a moment to catch her breath and get her bearings. The pink antiseptic odor from the bathroom was as good as smelling salts.

Why couldn’t she locate her Henry? A queasy feeling was forming at the pit of her stomach. She thought, he needs me and I can’t find him. The bell shrilled again. Out from the classrooms and through the halls poured happy, snarling, bored, worried, restless teenagers. All on their way between classes. It was twenty minutes past two o’clock, in another forty minutes school would be done for the day. She needed to find Henry, she didn’t know his plans afterwards.

Maybe they could go for a slice of pizza and a soda. She loved his funny stories about the cut-ups in science class. Henry would tell her how he’d done on that English test, and whether or not it was true the teacher expected them to read two Shakespearean plays next semester. A new interest popped up for him each week, there was so much he wanted to explore. He must have heard everything she had to say by now, and yet there were still so many things she wanted to tell him.

The sun shone full through the windows in the cafeteria, full through the double doors open from gym to playing fields. Each classroom’s blinds and windows were raised and the warmth could be felt all the way into the corridors. The smell of lilacs, of patchouli, of the burning gas from the Bunson burners in the lab, swirled around her. She wanted to sprint up one hallway and down another until she found Henry, but her skirt was full of important things and her legs refused to do her bidding. She continued instead on her matronly way, politely peering into each open door.

The big front doors of the school were wide open when the final bell of the day rang. A sea of young people pushed past her, gently joking and jostling each other. With the wave between them, Mary saw Henry. Head and shoulders above the rest, he had a blue backpack slung over his left shoulder. In a moment he was out the door and striding away from her. The surge of students picked her up and carried her with them. There was so much laughter at this age, and private worry. And the friendships…The students will disperse soon, Mary thought. I’ll catch up to Henry and have a word with him then.

Beyond the entrance to the high school it was hot, a bright summer hot. But the wind whipped a cooling breeze through the trees. The leaves were left dancing. He was ahead of her. Suddenly she noticed he wasn’t alone.

The young woman’s head came to Henry’s shoulder, and he had his arm around her. The girl’s arm was around his waist. Long ribbons of hair, as though just released from a braid, flowed behind her, and she was laughing up at him. When Henry looked back down at her, Mary knew he was telling her about his day, about something that had caught him off guard. An occasional word, buoyed by his warmth, floated back to Mary on the breeze. The girl listened attentively. As they walked together, Henry leaned over and lightly kissed the young woman on the top of her head.

Mary stopped by the flagpole in front of the school, tipped her forehead against its coolness. The sun so bright a moment ago was beginning to dip behind the trees, a silvery aura blurred the edges of Henry and the girl. When the two reached the sidewalk, Henry stopped and looked back. He saw Mary and raised his arm to wave, smiling broadly.

“Bye Mom!” Then he turned, reached for the girl’s hand, and they headed off up the street.

Mary walked slowly out to the sidewalk in front of the school, lost in thought. That pit of the stomach feeling was worse. A black sedan, driven by Jack, pulled up to the curb and parked. He climbed out and came around to open Mary’s door for her.

She was surprised. “Why are you here?” she asked.

Jack didn’t respond, his smile a mere compression of his lips. He gestured for her to get into the car. She wanted to ask again, but thought better of it.

Mary fastened her seatbelt. Outside the maples shivered their leaves as the breeze wove through them. Jack walked around to the driver’s side, got in behind the steering wheel, shut his door. That slump was back around his shoulders, the skin on his face had a tired gray cast.

“Jack, what’s wrong?”

Starting the sedan, Jack flicked on the left blinker, and waited for an opening in the stream of cars going by. He touched her arm without looking at her as he scanned traffic. “A moment, please.” It was very busy going in their direction.

Jack pulled out into the road. Mary glanced down at her hands folded in her lap, twisted her wedding band, noticed her wristwatch had stopped running. She thought, I don’t want to lose sight of Henry, and looked out.

The houses and stores of the town, the trees, all seemed to be melting around her. When she looked back at Jack, there was a tear on his cheek. His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel as he struggled with the effort of not meeting her gaze, of continuing to drive. She felt like running or shouting or crying. But they were only going home, weren’t they? She closed her eyes and rubbed them gently with her fingertips. The ache in her chest was so strong.

The black sedan passed their son, walking. Henry saw them, smiled and waved again. Mary opened her eyes in time to see him wave, saw that he and the girl were surrounded by a group of friends. Mary recognized two of the sandbox children, the rest she didn’t know.

Traffic grew heavier but the sedan’s speed did not diminish. They seemed to be driving straight into the sun and Mary couldn’t see where they were going through the glare. Jack took his right hand from the wheel and momentarily placed it over his wife’s. She patted Jack’s hand, turned and tried to catch a glimpse of Henry through the rear window, but they were way ahead of him and he was gone. At the next intersection Jack turned left, down a road marked one way. The trees lining this narrow street met above it, their shade allowed only an impression of warmth. Mary saw that their road curved and then disappeared ahead of them. The breeze and the sunlight continued behind them, as they made their way into the dark.

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About Catherine Munch

Catherine R. Munch is working on a novel. Its setting, Texas, also provides her with all the characters and conflict she could possibly need. An interpreter and teacher of American Sign Language with a background in theater, she has translated Hamlet as well as The Little Prince, and lives in Bangor, Maine.

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