Issue Forty-Three - Winter 2024


By Lena Fultz

Parker’s caked himself in applesauce again.

Jamie had asked her mother to stop giving him the stupid squeeze packets each time they visited, now that he’s started refusing to eat applesauce from a spoon—only from the packets, even if they cost more at the grocery store. But today, again, as she was buckling her one-year-old son back into his car seat, her mother had come rambling down the front porch steps and shoved another into his grubby hands.

“Just one for the road,” she’d insisted, a semi-innocent smile on her face. “He didn’t eat much dinner.”

By the time they get home, Parker’s squeezed half the applesauce into his hands and smeared it all over himself, over the headrest of the seat in front of him, and wiggled it down into every crack and crevice in the bottom of the car seat. He palms it through Jamie’s hair when she unbuckles him, drags it in coiled fists down the front of her shirt.

Jamie’s so exhausted that she doesn’t even react, face remaining blank as she frees him from his car seat. She doesn’t even look at him as he continues to grab at her hair, grimy palms smearing more of the gross half-liquid through her braids. She just carries him inside, up the three steps into the trailer, and kicks off her shoes at the door.

Ronnie’s left his dishes in the sink again, and the realization has her rolling her eyes. Her husband works nights—police dispatch—and even though he’s home all day, somehow nothing gets done in the time she’s gone. With Parker on one hip, she uses her free hand to pluck the empty dishes from the sink, shoving them aside and running the warm water. Parker chews on his fingers.

He’s almost too big for the sink. The shower in the trailer lacks a tub—Jamie’s first complaint when they’d rented it—but Ronnie had assured her it was fine, that they’d only be there for a few months, max. She’d been pregnant with Parker, then. He’d turned eleven months two weeks ago and Ronnie stopped talking of moving after he’d lost his second job.

After undressing Parker, she lowers him into the sink and smooths his white-blonde hair back, feeling it give under her fingers. It’s still growing in sparsely, like the downy feathers of a chick, and the tiniest bit of water has it slicked back flat against his head. He cranes his head back to look at her, but Jamie looks away before their eyes can meet, out the window.

Outside, the wind slaps a plastic bag across the dirt pathway between the trailers. Everyone else is home for the night—the Burnsides’ truck is parked outside, two bikes are propped up against the Gellar’s shifty homemade front porch, the lights from inside pressing against the dully-golden night. Despite all the signs of life, the trailer park still feels like a ghost town.

When Jamie turned twenty-three last week, Sandra Burnside had stopped by with a handful of her son’s baby clothes for her to pick through. She’s got two boys—three and seven— but she’s one of those women who are made for motherhood, Jamie thinks. Sandra laughs as she tells stories of how her three-year-old spilled an entire bottle of glue into the carpet, the hours of scrubbing it took to get it out, while Jamie struggles to keep a straight face just hearing about it. Sandra always wants to have conversations about their children, but Jamie never lets her talk for too long, not without becoming overwhelmed with a fear that she can’t name. It’s not striking— but it’s there—the weight of a blanket over her shoulders, growing heavier and heavier.

Once the warm water fills up, she turns off the sink with the back of her wrist. The kitchen quiets, though the trailer is never truly silent. The fridge hums all through the night, the light above the sink flickers and buzzes, slowly roasting the dead bugs that have gotten trapped inside, and every step she takes has the floor gasping beneath her. Even when Parker thumpcrawls from one end of the living room to the other, Jamie swears the room shakes, like it’s taking its last, shuddering breaths.

With one hand on Parker to keep him from standing up, she cranes over to grab two plastic cups from the cabinet. She tries to shut it gently, but the wood still slaps back closed, and the sharp sound grates on her nerves, shoulders stiffening up toward her ears.

One cup gets handed to Parker so he can entertain himself. With the other, Jamie shields his forehead and pours the lukewarm water down his back, letting it trickle over his hair, slicking it against his soft head. Parker slaps the surface of the water and it splashes back up in his face.

For a second, he blinks, stunned, droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes.

“Don’t.” Jamie catches his wrist as he moves to repeat his actions. Her words are pleaded through half-gritted teeth. Parker stares up at her, wide-eyed.

Sometimes, it’s hard for Jamie to look at her son. He’s always watching her, silently asking, waiting for her to do something. She’d been twenty-one when he was born—too old to be a teenage mother, but still young in her sense of the world—and she still feels like she was waiting for the moment when it all sinks in. Everyone had told her it’d been happy tears she cried when he was born, but she wasn’t so sure. There’d been so much fear. They’d placed him in her arms and there was nothing—no burst of light, no chorus of angels, no instant transformation. She loves him, but he terrifies her all the same.

At nights, when neither Ronnie or Jamie are working, Ronnie will scoop up Parker and relax back in the starchy recliner with his son in his arms. If Jamie ever tries, Parker wiggles and struggles and fights against her grip. But with Ronnie, Parker just rests right up against his bare chest and falls asleep, his heartbeat like the white noise that lulls him into slumber. Jamie hates it—hates how she does everything, and still, somehow, Ronnie’s the one who Parker squeals for when he gets home from work.

“He can sense your anxiety,” Ronnie always says when he catches Jamie glaring at the two of them across the room. Parker’s the most peaceful he’s ever been, asleep on his father’s chest.

Jamie hates it, but she knows it’s true. And as he gets older, she knows he’ll only see her more. Now, when she puts Parker down for a nap, she keeps the room dark, places him in the crib like she’s defusing a bomb, and quick-toes herself out of the room before he can realize she’s gone. As soon as he does, he bursts into tears, and the sound is so grating and metallic as it echoes through the small trailer that Jamie has to go outside and sit on the front step until he cries himself to sleep.

Right now, Parker’s quiet, as Jamie takes one chubby wrist at a time and scrubs the applesauce from the folds of his arms.

“You’re a mess,” she mumbles halfheartedly, just because Ronnie’s told her she needs to talk to him more. (“How else will he learn?” he’d said. She’d just shrugged.)

The sound of her voice excites him and he kicks his legs, lurching his body back so that she has to grab the back of his head before he can slam it against the faucet. Water surges over the edge of the sink, sloshes over her shirt and soaks her socks clean through. She stares down at them and closes her eyes.

Jamie doesn’t react beyond that—just purses her lips shut and looks out back out the window, one short breath out through her nose. The curtains at the Burnside place have been pushed aside and the youngest boy drives his toy car across the streaked glass. Before he can look up at her, Jamie tugs the curtain above her sink shut. The room falls even darker than before.

In a few hours, Ronnie’s shift will be over and he will come home. Jamie will already be asleep, only half-waking as she feels the stirring of the bed under his weight. He’ll groan and lie on his back, leaving a body’s worth of space between them. Then they’ll both drift back off to sleep, knowing that the first sound they’ll wake to is the sound of Parker’s crying. It almost haunts her. Tomorrow is hours away and yet she’s already exhausted by the thought.

Jamie has to shake herself out of the feeling, only to find she’s been staring blankly at the dull curtains, eyes unfocused. With a breath, she straightens herself, fishes the cup back out of the water, and rinses the soap from Parker’s pale skin.

She glances at the clock on the microwave. It’s close enough to bedtime. Ronnie usually urges her to put Parker down later so he won’t wake them as early, but tonight Jamie wants to be alone. She’ll take a shower, maybe. Smoke one of Ronnie’s cigarettes on the porch. She doesn’t want to sit and wait in stasis for another hour while Parker blindly bumbles around the living room. She wants to put him to bed and be done with being a mother for the night.

“Alright.” She clears her throat, drains the sink. Sometimes it feels like she goes so long without speaking that she’s startled to hear her own voice, to feel the way it moves along her chest. Parker’s watching her, again, and she swears he must have figured out that she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing. She can see it in his eyes.

“It’s bedtime,” she says, just because she wants to hear her own voice again. When she lifts Parker from the sink, his head wobbles, and the back of his skull just pings against the metal faucet. They both freeze. She watches him, he watches her, and when he registers the pain and starts to cry, she almost does, too.

“It’s all right.” She tries to soften her voice the best she can, even as she looks away from him. Her eyes feel unfocused, his wailing like ringing in her ears. She can feel her body bouncing to calm him down, her quick steps taken down the hallway, but she’s far from it, somehow. One hand smooths over the bump on his head as she gently shushes him, trying to imitate the way her mother—his grandmother—always seems to hold him so naturally. He’s felt heavy and odd in her arms since day one. She takes a breath. Fingers brush once, then twice, over his skin—his powdery hair already drying under her touch.

The hallway is dark as she quiets his crying, holding back her own, trying to hum a song she remembers from her own childhood. The more he grows, the more she feels herself shrink. She keeps the lights off as she places him in his crib. Somewhere, outside, the moon is rising, but she doesn’t see it.

Copyright Fultz 2024