She sees him curled in the shallow lee of the door, his little legs tucked under him, his eyes closed, and thinks for a blinding half second he's dead. When she realizes he's sleeping, she's furious.
"Why aren't you inside? Are you locked out? Are you all right?"
Visions of abuse spin through her head. Abuse by the cabby who drives him home from school on days she can't pick him up. Abuse by a spaced-out homeless dopehead who's found his way into her neighborhood. The boy's face as he opens his eyes is so woebegone she feels a thud in her chest. Anger leaks out of her. She kneels and gathers him into her arms. Oh lord, his pants are drenched.
"Junior went home," he murmurs into her shoulder.
She pictures a hulking pock-marked youth, a ghastly perverted Junior, then remembers the gray cat from up the street.
"I was giving him milk and the door closed."
So, no assault.
"Have you been outside long?"
She won't mention his wetting his pants. They've had a problem with that, though not during the day for a while. Nights are another matter. He's only six.
"A little long," he says.
She kisses him. His hair smells sour. She can't remember when they washed it last.
"We'll go inside and have something good for supper," she promises, trying to remember what they have in the house—Fruit Loops, frozen fish sticks, a zillion boxes of that macaroni and cheese he used to like but now won't touch. The heck with it, she thinks. "Listen, duckie, why don't we order pizza for supper? And I'll go get chocolate milk. Does that sound good?"
The little boy studies her solemnly, his skin pale as paper, his dark eyes opaque. She is always surprised by his noble little face, delicately square with a thin aquiline nose and small rosy lips, mercifully no feature invoking his father except perhaps his eyes—hers are light blue.
As she watches, his eyes take on a familiar crafty glint. "No smelly-smelly?"
"No pepperoni. I promise."
"Double cheese if you want."
He pokes out his lips in satisfaction. Poor little shrimp, she thinks as she helps him up. His legs are streaky with pee.
She reaches for the key in her bag. "Let's go have a bath, and I'll tell you about the people I just showed a house to. They were real Arabs."
"Arabs from the desert?" he wonders, looking up at her.
"Yeah, but they wear clothes like ours." As though she wears Armani suits, Rolex watches, Chanel sheaths. She opens the door and scoops up the mail from the floor, circulars, bills, notices from competing house agents. "I'll run your bath. Then I'll go quick like a rabbit to the market for milk. Okay, duckie?"
And Gucci shoes, she remembers. The Arabs were wearing Gucci shoes.
Obediently, the little boy follows his mother up the stairs where he goes into his room, takes off his soiled clothes, and puts them in a pile behind the door. Briefly, he remembers the moment when he knew he couldn't hold it any longer and had to sit down in the doorway and let go. That was after he tricked Junior into their house with a saucer of milk and the cat slurped up the milk; then, when he reached out to hug it, it dashed out the door. He ran out, too, and the door slammed behind him. Wham! Oh!
"All set?" his mother asks. "Do you have your toys?"
His toys are lined up along the edge of the tub, a submarine, a broken paddleboat he no longer plays with, and a yellow plastic duck. He carefully lifts a foot over the side of the tub and touches the water with his toe. His mother sometimes forgets to check the temperature. He eases down into the tub. The water comes to the middle of his chest. He lifts a foot out to see if his skin is turning that funny shade of pink. Oh, it is!
He begins moving the submarine around on top of the water. The sub is looking for the duck that floats on the other side of his knee. "—absolute idiot!" he hears his mother exclaim. She is in her room talking out loud the way she sometimes does. He asked her once who she talked to, and she said, "To myself, duckie. I tell myself all those smart things I wish I'd said to somebody else." Usually he catches only phrases, like "Tell me another one!" or "Who do you think you are—Superman?" She has never spoken to him in that way, only to the person she addresses when she talks to herself. He feels sorry for that person—his father maybe, though his father lives somewhere else, now, and his mother no longer mentions him as much as she used to. The Prince of Darkness she likes to call his father. The Prince of Darkness was late with the check again, she'll say on the phone. Or, No, we haven't heard from the Prince for a while. The boy paddles his legs up and down, making waves so that the duck floats around behind him out of the reach of the submarine. "Why, thank you. I'd love to," his mother says in an entirely different tone.
He lets the submarine go and turns over on his stomach. He lowers his face into the water, then draws it out quickly, gasping. He dunks his face under the water one more time, then sits up. The duck is bobbing in front of him. He steers the submarine toward it.
"Are you using soap?" His mother comes into the bathroom wearing jeans and a yellow T-shirt. Her hair is loose and fuzzy, the way he likes it, not the way she wears it to work, pulled back tight in the shape of a football. She looks soft and pretty now. He has an urge to hold out his arms to her, but he knows she won't hug him when he's wet.
"We really need to wash your hair," she says, frowning.
His hair! He opens his mouth to wail. He rarely makes loud sounds, and when he does, they frighten him. They frighten his mother, too.
"We'll do it tomorrow," she says quickly and leans down and kisses the top of his head. "Will you be okay if I go get the chocolate milk now?"
He nods his head yes. He is watching the wily duck trying to slip around his knee to escape the sub.
"You won't drown or anything?"
No. He shakes his head. The submarine is closing in. His mother is going downstairs. He paddles a little with his legs to make the duck move away as the submarine comes closer. He wonders why his mother is in a good mood. They have not had pizza or chocolate milk since his grandmother came to visit and they had treats every day. His grandmother loves treats. It's too bad pizza isn't his favorite food as his mother believes, but he doesn't want her face to go saggy as it did when he told her he hated, hated macaroni and cheese. The chocolate milk will be good. He will try to trick Junior with the milk if there's any left tomorrow. He hears the front door click. The house is suddenly empty in a way that scares and excites him. She will be back soon, he reminds himself as he always does. She is only going to the store on the corner.
She walks quickly past the brick townhouses with their small, mostly well-kept gardens. Houses sell well in this neighborhood, or they did before the bottom dropped out of the real estate market last year. It is an older downtown neighborhood, trés desirable, where a renovated carriage house has been known to go for five-hundred grand, and where she can't really afford to live since the divorce. She had a good run of sales before the market collapsed; lately she's had to dip into her savings to pay her rent. But she can't imagine living anywhere else. Her little boy took his first steps in the park up the street and later rode his Big Wheel up and down the graveled paths while she and her girlfriends sat around a picnic table talking and laughing themselves silly. Those were great years, when she and her friends, smart, goodlooking, in-your-face women, got together with their kids in the park. Nearly all of them have money troubles, now, men troubles, you name it. She isn't the only one.
She tries to speed up her pace, but her clogs slow her down. Of course, she shouldn't have left the boy alone in the bathtub. She's done it before; still, if anybody found out, they might haul her into court. The District of Columbia is known to come down hard on single mothers. The boy could be sent to live in Manhattan with the Prince, who is so hot on his great journalistic career he doesn't have time to go to the bathroom. But nobody will find out and nothing will happen to her precious little duck. She forces herself to walk faster. She feels her chest tightening, that nervous crazy feeling coming back. What is wrong with her? A second ago she was thinking about the park where she and her little boy have had so many good times. King high! he used to scream as she pushed him on the baby swing. King high!
She is out of breath when she arrives at the corner. It's the smoking. One day she will quit, after she has her life under control. The light turns green and she crosses. She wonders whether Ng is working at the market today or whether it's the unpleasant woman who owns the store. She draws a breath and coughs, hoping it is Ng.
The little boy sits still, holding the submarine trapped under his thigh. The duck comes floating innocently from around his back. He waits, not moving, until the duck drifts far enough forward that it can't easily float back to safety, then he lets the submarine pop up. It hits the duck directly from below. "Got him!" he whispers and grabs the duck and tosses it over the side of the tub onto the floor where it lands with a plop, plop, and lies still. He closes his eyes and smiles. His mother thinks he doesn't like his duck because of the way he treats it, but he does like it, he does.
He takes the soap and begins moving it over his skin, over his legs and tummy and shoulders. As he moves the soap around, it keeps spurting out of his hands and sinking to the bottom of the tub and he has to feel around to find it. After a while, he gets tired of searching and decides the soap should stay down there and drown.
The air feels cool on his skin. He slides down so that the water covers his shoulders. Then he turns over and pretends to swim, moving his legs and arms the way he saw people doing at the pool his mother took him to last summer. Water sloshes out onto the floor. He raises his head and looks over the side of the tub. There's a lot of water on the floor; the green tiles shimmer like the surface of a swimming pool. In the middle of the pool, the duck lies on its side.
He listens to see if his mother has returned but hears only the hollow breathing of the empty house. He sees a shadow on the bottom of the tub: the soap, now slim as a finger. He grabs at it but it gets away. He puts his face under water again. The water covers his ears and blanks out the emptiness of the house, filling his head with the sound of gentle drumming. The sensation is peaceful, not scary at all.
"Those Arabs spent two hours looking at the house," she tells Ng. "We're up and down the stairs, checking out the pool, the garage. I'm blabbing about the insulation, the new pipes, the copper wiring, then the guy goes, `Infrastructure is not a concern, madam.'"
Ng nods. He is wearing a University of Atlantic City sweat shirt, trying to look American, she guesses. Is there a university in Atlantic City?
"They obviously have more money than God," she goes on, and tells him about the big Lincoln parked in the no-parking zone and how the Arabs talked to each other in low voices, speaking English with a snooty Brit accent, acting as though she were just there to open doors.
"You think they buy the house?" Ng asks.
"They said they'd get back to me. We're talking 10.3 mil asking price."
"Big bucks." Ng eyes the quart of chocolate milk, Camel Lites, and roll of mints she has put on the counter. "That all you getting?"
"I need this sale, Ng."
"Hey, you're a bigshot, Mrs. Kemper. I see your name on For Sale signs all over the neighborhood. Picture, too."
"Nobody's selling right now. Top agents are spending their Sundays showing condos to twenty-five-year-olds."
"Maybe it's your turn for luck. You sure you don't want anything else?"
"No-o-o. Just put these items on my bill."
"Sorry. Can't do that, Mrs. Kemper. Boss says no more credit."
"Come on, Ng." Hasn't she always paid in the end?
Ng shrugs and looks out the window.
"Okay, okay." She reaches in her bag and pulls out the five-dollar bill left from lunch and puts it on the counter. "I've got to hurry. I left my son in the tub."
God, she thinks, why did I say that?
But Ng acts as though he didn't hear. He's toting up her bill. "Cigarettes three-sixty, milk one-thirty, mints eighty-five. With tax it comes to five-ninety."
"I can't believe it! I'm going to have to put it on my card."
Ng shrugs again. She fumbles in her bag. There's the zippered pocket where she keeps emergency cab fare, but she won't touch that. She feels a heaviness in her chest.
"Too bad you're low on cash," Ng says. "I got some good shit today."
For a moment they are silent. She glances around. The only other customer is a middleaged woman in a blue pants suit bending over the cheese compartment.
"You got an extra twenty?" Ng asks. "We forget about the extra on the groceries."
She's been clean for two weeks. The heaviness in her chest seems to expand into her arms and legs, weighing her down, while her brain is zinging out into crazy zone. It's the fear, always the fear that something will happen to her little boy. Finding him on the doorstep like he was dead! That's what has put her over the top.
"Excuse me." It is the other customer, brandishing a wedge of Brie. She smiles apologetically. "Do you mind—?"
"Go ahead," she says and moves off down an aisle, her clogs thumping the wood floor.
Excuse me. Do you mind—The woman reminds her of her mother, apologizing but butting in just the same. The woman even has those brown beauty-parlor curls like her mother, and her clothes might have come from the Junior League Shop. Oh, I got the cutest Calvin Klein today. Cuffed pants and just my shade of blue. Only twenty dollars—
She hears the woman chit-chatting to Ng, hears the register chime, hears the woman say, "Thank you so very much," and then the door bangs.
She returns to the counter.
She dangles a bill in front of Ng, the twenty from the zippered pocket. A new twenty that looks like Monopoly money.
"Well?" she says.
Ng reaches under the counter.
"I'm in a hurry, Ng." She's still short on the groceries and she doesn't want to owe the chink. She reaches out and flicks the roll of mints with her finger. It shoots off the other side of the counter onto the floor.
"Whoops. Sorry." Excuse me.
Ng ignores the mints. He puts the milk and cigarettes and a plastic envelope into a paper bag.
"How's your kid anyhow?" he says.
She doesn't answer. Her son isn't his fucking business. She picks up the grocery bag.
"'Bye, Mrs. Kemper," Ng says, but she doesn't answer. She walks out of the store holding her bag against her chest.
"I'm back," she calls in a croaky breathless voice. "Duckie?"
"Answer me, Duckie. I have the milk. Are you okay?"
She fumbles with the bag, shaking powder onto one of the circulars that came in the mail, breathing it up, breathing it in, taking a deep deep—
The little boy still doesn't answer. She drops the paper on the table. "Duckie!" She begins pounding up the stairs. It takes her forever to get to the top, as though she were on a treadmill. As she labors up, she promises herself never never never—Please God, never never never. Please. God. Never. Never—
He looks at her with eyes that seem both sad and loving. Such a noble little face. Her heart beats frantically as though it will leap out of her chest. She'd been clean for two weeks. She and the Prince used to zone out on weekends, then forget about it. Since he left—
Silently, she picks the little boy up out of the water and wraps him in a towel, then kneels on the sopping floor, holding him against her. His skin is shriveled like a newborn's. She loves him so damn much. Oh why was he ever born? Her heart thuds, thuds.
"Duckie," she says. "I'm so sorry."
"Don't call me that," he murmurs in a thin stuffy voice.
"I said don't call me that."
"Duckie? I always call you Duckie. Aw, you're just mad at me for taking so long at the store. Duckie."
She feels lighter now, lifting off. Man, it's good.
"Don't!" he whimpers.
She laughs, she can't help it. He's so funny when he is mad. "Duckie," she says.
He wrenches himself out of her arms and slides down onto the cold, wet floor. The duck bobs up beside him, grinning. His yellow duck, alive and well. He wants to reach out his arms.
His mother is looking at him, her eyes huge. He glares back at her. She shouldn't tease him. Teasing is bad.
She gets to her feet. "Damn. I'm soaked. Where are your pajamas?"
She shoves her fingers through her hair and goes out.
The little boy shivers. He looks at the duck with its grinning beak. He reaches out and flattens the yellow face with his hand, then lets go. Pop! It's back. The boy smiles. "No I won't excuse you," he hears his mother say in the next room. He scrunches the duck's face again, then drops it on the floor. "I will never forgive you" His foot shoots out and, wham!, the duck flies across the wet floor and hits the wall. Plam! "You have ruined my life—” It lies there on its side, motionless, but he knows that the duck really really really is okay.