NOVEMBER 2008

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Mother of the Year
By Robert Swartwood, Sep 20, 2008

Around two o’clock in the afternoon, I get a call from Customer Service who says a customer just came in and said that there’s a child in a van out in the parking lot.

Despite the title of Grocery Assistant Manager, I stand in the soda aisle, stocking gallons of water. Not the most ideal place for a college graduate to be, but with a wife and a two-year-old at home, one needs health insurance and can’t be too picky when it comes to employment.

“A child?” I ask.

“Yes, and apparently he’s alone.”

I stand there a moment, the portable phone to my ear, thinking briefly of my son. “Do you know which van?”

Moments later I’ve set my U-boat aside, hurried up the brightly-lit aisles to the front of the store. I pass the Customer Service desk, the girl behind it slowly shaking her head at me, and then I’m outside, passing one of the kids collecting shopping carts. He’s wearing shorts and his short-sleeved uniform shirt, but it still looks like he’s dying of dehydration as he’s stooped over the carts, this being one of the hottest days of the summer so far, almost one hundred and two degrees.

It’s easy to spot the van. Even easier to spot the child sitting in the passenger seat. He sees me coming and ducks down.

I slow my approach, not wanting to scare the child. Slowly the top of his head appears, then his face, and then I see him smiling at me.

I walk up to the van and smile, motion for him to put down his window. It’s already cracked about an inch or two, and I think about the man who left his dog in his truck two summers back, how it had suffocated to death.

The boy looks to be five, six years old. Obviously he can’t put down his window manually—this is a newer van, power-everything—and so he opens his door.

“Hi,” he says simply.

“Hey there, buddy”—forcing enthusiasm into my voice—“what are you doing out here?”

“Just waiting.”

“Oh yeah? Waiting for who?”

“My mommy.”

“Did she go inside the store?”

He nods. Then his lower lip begins to tremble, his eyes start to water.

“What’s wrong?”

He looks down, wipes the beads of sweat off his forehead. “I peed myself.”

I open my mouth but don’t speak. Can’t speak.

“Mommy said I couldn’t go in because I peed myself. She said I’m a bad boy.”

I close my mouth. Clench my teeth.

The boy stares at me for a moment, the tears still threatening. Then something changes in his face. His eyes actually light up as he smiles and points at my grocery manager tag. “Hey, that’s my name!”

“It is?”

“Yeah! My name’s Jack!”

“Well that’s awesome, buddy.” I smile at him, still trying to let him know nothing’s wrong here even though I myself am having trouble breathing in this oppressing heat. I think a moment. Then I say, “So, Jack, what’s your last name?”

A minute later, after having called Customer Service on the portable phone, after Customer Service made the announcement for a Mrs. Dexter to please come to the front of the store, after Customer Service politely asked her to come outside, the woman appears.

I’m ashamed to think it, but despite everything I expected her to be a trailer trash piece of shit. At least then it would make more sense to me, help me understand how a woman in her late-thirties, clearly educated and upper middle class, could do such a stupid, careless thing.

“Mommy!” Jack says when he sees her.

“Oh, honey, are you okay?” She even speaks like the perfect mother, the kind who brings nutritional snacks to the playground, who cuts the crust off his sandwiches and smiles as she pours him a glass of milk. She leans into the van, gives her son a hug like it’s normal that he’s sweating buckets, then steps back and looks at me.

I say, as professionally as I can, “Jack was by himself out here.”

“Oh yes, I know, I’m sorry”—speaking quickly, apologetically—“but we were at the park and he had an accident and before we went home I needed to pick up a few things, and I can’t just bring him in with me, not with his pants...well, I’m sure you understand.”

She smiles at me, showing white straight teeth, and these are what I aim for when I punch her in the face.

She goes down, crying out, and then I’m standing over her, kicking her in the ribs, shouting, “Who do you think you are?” Kick. “Mother of the Year?” Kick. “You’re no fucking Mother of the Year, lady!” Kick. “You’re nothing!” Kick. “You’re worthless!” Kick. “You’re—”

“Sir?”

I blink and look up at her, this woman who’s still giving me her fakest smile, trying to act like what she’s done is excusable. I clear my throat. “Maybe you should pay for your groceries and take Jack home to get him changed.”

For a moment something shifts in her face, the fake smile dropping, the light in her eyes fading, as if she takes insult by my suggestion.

“Yes,” she says after a moment, “of course.”

I stay with the boy as the mother hurries inside, then hurries back out with a plastic grocery bag in each hand. She even has a cold bottle of Aquafina with her, which she gives to her son with a peck on his sweat-soaked cheek. She offers me one last fake smile before she gets into the van, and then she has it started and is backing up.

But before she can drive away, Jack looks back out his window.

He waves at me, smiles as he holds the bottle of water up like a trophy.

I force a smile, raise my own hand in return. And I keep my hand raised until the van disappears and I’m left standing there, sweat stinging my eyes, completely alone.

The last four books Robert Swartwood read were (in this order) Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Coronado by Dennis Lehane, and Lush Life by Richard Price. He recommends them all. Visit him at his blog.

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