No fever, yet, but the body aches rendered me useless most of the day. I managed to get some chores done, but the one I needed to do most — wash Pete’s pants — was delayed. I told him to meet me outside the grocery store at 4 p.m. but I didn’t get there until almost 5. I circled the parking lot several times, his jeans, still warm from the dryer, folded on the console beside me.
I felt puny and really didn’t want to get out of the car. So I drove slowly past the stores, checking the aisles and the people. I drove past the metal bench three times. A woman standing just outside the grocery store doors, stared at me. Did she wonder if I was trying to abduct a child? She had three of them herself — one in a stroller and two more at her side. Her cart was full of bags, as was the space just behind the stroller seat. She seemed to be waiting on someone.
I drove past Big Lots, past the Dollar Store, past 24-Hour Fitness and through the length of the parking lot again, to check the bench. I watched as the mother pulled her sacks out from underneath the stroller and reached for a blue coat for her oldest boy. The setting sun blushed the blue sky pink and turned the air shivery.
Rolling down the passenger side window, I called out, “Have you seen a man with a green blanket?”
“Yes,” she said. “He was at Big Lots earlier but I don’t know if he’s there now or not. I heard the clerk call for the manager.”
“Were they running him off?”
“Maybe. Is he your friend?”
“Kinda. I have his jeans,” I replied. “I was trying to get his pants to him. Are you waiting for someone? Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“Yes,” she said. “I was waiting for a taxi but if you don’t mind. Do you have room in your trunk for a stroller?”
“Yes,” I said. “Lemme park.”
Liz is 40. She has three children, the oldest, a boy, is 10. There’s a girl in the middle and then a toddler boy, who looks nothing like his older siblings. His ethnicity proof positive they don’t share the same daddy. After putting the groceries and stroller in the trunk, Liz buckled the boys in, while I buckled in the girl. In true princess fashion, she wore a bright pink glitter ring on her writing finger. “That’s very pretty,” I said. She smiled sweetly. Her dark lashes like an artist’s brush strokes against a white canvas.
“We’re staying at the shelter house,” Liz said, moving my wallet and some papers onto the console with Pete’s pants.
“We have a shelter here?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, and gave me the address.
The youngest boy found the magical power buttons in the Honda and was raising the window up and down.
“Stop that!” his brother yelled at him.
“It’s okay,” I said, clicking the lock on the windows and the door.
“How long have you been at the shelter?”
“I’m staying at the one in Pendleton,” she said. “But they are spraying it for bugs this weekend, so they sent me down here.”
“Do you mind if I circle the lot one more time?” I asked. “I hate for Pete to be without his pants.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Are you from around here? I asked.
“No,” she said. “We came to town earlier today to take my girl to the doctors.”
The Oregon Health Plan provides coverage for uninsured children. We don’t get a lot of things right in this state but that is one thing we are trying to ensure — health care for children.
“A cold,” she replied.
The oldest boy held in his hands a yellow matchbox car that the youngest boy desperately wanted. As I headed North on Highway 395, the youngest boy began punching the oldest.
“STOP IT! STOP IT!” the older boy yelled.
At the red light I turned to the youngest, who had worked up a good fit, and placing my hand between him and his brother, I said, “No hitting. That’s not nice.”
“MY CAR!!!” he screamed, grabbing his brother’s hand, who then began to fight back. Slapping. Hitting.
“I’m so sorry,” Liz said. Her face, puff-fish round, flushed.
“No, don’t be,” I said. “I had four kids. I understand. Completely.”
“Does your brother have his own car?” I asked the oldest boy.
“No,” he said.
We were blocks past the Dollar Store now. Had I known earlier, I could have run inside, bought the boy a car for each hand. Now it would teach him the wrong lesson. He’d only learn that fit-throwing gets a person what they want. So when he ratcheted up the screaming a notch, I told Liz again, “Don’t worry. Really.”
“He’s ADHD and autistic,” she said.
Lord. Have. Mercy. Upon. This. Woman.
And. All. Those. Teachers. To. Come.
The chubby toddler splayed out in the back seat, the better to power those cannonball feet of his. He kicked his brother full on in the mouth as I made a turn down Main Street. Brother let out a wail that would have made Charlie Sheen smile in admiration.
Their mother broke into a full-on sweat. “I am so, so sorry,” she said. Then turned and spoke sternly to the boys.
“He’s tired and hungry, huh?”
“Yes,” she said.
The older boy began screaming at his younger brother: “SHUT UP!!! SHUT UP!!! SHUT UP!!!”
“Don’t say that!” his mother instructed. “I don’t want to hear you say that again.”
“SHUT UP!!!” the boy continued.
Diversion, an old military tactic, I thought as I considered this is the kind of behavior you get when domestic violence is the accepted norm.
“Hey kids,” I said, “Look up here. There’s a funny looking man in the road.” I pulled up alongside the man dressed as Abe Lincoln with the mailbox in his belly and rolled down the window.
“Is he real?” the little girl asked.
“No, honey,” I replied. “He’s not real; he’s just silly.”
“Did he swallow the mailbox??” the oldest boy asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
The youngest boy climbed on his knees, and it occurred to me that I was driving illegally. He needed a car seat. Oh. Well. Too late now. I pulled up next to the gated lot that provides the only protection women like Liz and her children have.
“Is there someone else here? A security guard?” I asked. The place looked dark and foreboding, like those empty castles that Victoria Holt wrote about in the twisted Gothic romances with titles like The House of a Thousand Lanterns that I used to devour as a teen. Holt wrote about the mystery of romance, she never really dealt with the kind of terror Liz and her children have experienced.
“I hope to get into an apartment next week,” Liz said. “And maybe a house after that. I never thought I’d be in this situation.”
Who does? Who plans for that? What teenager sits under a tree on a hot summer day and dreams of the day when she, too, can grow up, fall in love, and subsequently experience enough disappointment that the only place she has left to turn to is a domestic shelter that’s being treated for bugs?
“Put my number in your phone,” I said. “And call me if you need anything.”
“Who do you work for?” Liz asked.
“No one,” I said. “I’m just a writer.”
I thought later that perhaps I should have told Liz that I’m leading a domestic revolution.
My message: “Quit kicking your brother and your sisters. Be sweet to each other.”
If you happen upon Pete, tell him I have his pants.