Julia Lichtblau’s work has appeared in the American Fiction 13 anthology, Narrative, The Florida Review, Best Paris Stories, The Common, Ploughshares blog, Temenos, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for the American Fiction Prize, the Narrative Winter and Fall 2013 contests, and won the Editorial Prize of the 2011 Paris Short Story Contest and 2nd Prize in the Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Contest. She is book review editor for The Common and has been a visiting writer at New York City’s Harbor School. For 15 years, she was a journalist in New York and Paris for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones.
My stepson, Mikie, moves his police car. Now, the fire truck, the ambulance, the Maserati, Cobra, Mustang, Corvette, backhoe, bulldozer, dump truck, pickup, Cadillac, model-T, mini-van, Hummer, etc. When he gets to the end, he starts over. Takes an hour to go three feet. Like real life.
I’m watching a home-makeover show. Couple’s got a handicapped kid, no room for the wheelchair, no money to fix the house, carrying the kid up and down stairs. Terrible situation. You can understand why they start to hate each other. Then they get a call from the show. I love stuff like that.
Lola looks up from her Barbie and gives that drama-queen sigh. “How come I can’t have a play date?”
“You gotta learn to make your own fun,” I say.
“We never have fun.”
“You want the truth? I’m sick of asking for you and getting turned down.”
“Oh,” she says.
“You think it’s a coincidence whenever you want a playdate, the kid has ciliac disease or gluten intolerance or ballet or Carmelo the Science Fellow? Their mommies don’t like me.”
“I like you, Mommy.”
“I like me too, honey,” I say. “They don’t.”
The TV hostess shows the couple their house. They pour champagne. It foams on the new carpet. They’re so happy, they don’t care. Kid’s popping wheelies in the living room. I choke up, honest.
“Look, Mommy,” Lola says, toasting with her Diet Dr. Pepper. “Aren’t I doin’ good? Like them.”
“Can we go to the playground?”
“He’s gonna go batshit. You want that?”
Mikie moves Police Car. It’s always rush hour in his head.
Last year, I put his cars in the garbage. I felt free. I walked barefoot in my own apartment. Scream, little bastard, I said. It’s my house, too. Five hours. Neighbor called Child Protective Services. They took them away for two weeks. Foster parents do that shit purely for the money. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
Angel bought fifty bucks worth of cars to welcome him back. I could have killed him.
Lola likes to give his cars a lee-tle shove when no one’s looking. “Don’t even think about it,” I say.
“Huh?” she says.
“Don’t play dumb. I know your evil heart.”
Angel says he was slow, too, when he was little. Runs in the family, he says. I’m not racist. But red hair, green eyes, white skin, freckles--on a kid who’s half Puerto Rican? Lola’s the spitting image of Angel, brown skin, black hair, except hers is straight, like my mom’s, and she’s Italian.
Angel and I started dating senior year in high school. I was, like, wild. I got pregnant with Lola. Does he marry me? No, girlfriend. He freakin’ enlists in the Army and ships out to Iraq. Year later, he comes home minus one leg from the knee down, moves back with his mother, and starts dating this Irish chick, who’s seeing other guys, and P.S. he’s the only one in Red Hook who don’t know. That summer, whenever I take Lola out to Valentino Pier to watch the cruise ships, I see her kissing some other dude. She was after Angel’s disability.
One night, I look out my window. It’s November, but he’s rocking the shorts so he can give people shit for staring at his legs—one brown plastic, the other tattooed red, green, and blue. “Sump’ wrong? Huh?”
Lola’s got a cold. I run down and put her in his face: “Here, asshole, kiss your baby.”
He goes: “Uy. What kind of mother are you? Can’t you wipe her face?”
The Irish slut laughs and hugs Angel’s arm like he’s so funny.
“Watch it, bitch,” I say. “Your time’s coming. And you, Mr. Ahn-hell. What kinda man are you? You sure you didn’t leave some other body part over in Iraq?”
A couple of homies drinking beer in brown bags kill themselves: “Oh, shit, oh, shit. Dude got confused over in Iraq. Thought it was O.K. for him to have more than one wife.”
If I hadn’t been holding Lola, I don’t know he would have done.
After Mikie was born, I saw them out on Van Brunt. I say: “Don’t you think you ought to get that kid a DNA test?”
“Can’t you see he’s got my exact nose, bitch?”
“If he’s got your exact nose, why are you afraid of a little spit?” I said.
P.P.S. She dumps him. He shows up on my doorstep with a ring and the baby. “I’m so sorry, honey. I was messed up. PTSD, blah, blah.” What am I gonna do? I wore a white dress to Borough Hall. Made my parents happy.
“Vroom.” Four years old. Five words. Vroom, carro, Lola, Papi, and calls me Dodo, for Delores. How’s he know I’m not his mother? I never told him.
The school psychologist tells us there’s an eight-month wait for evaluations. “But you can always get a private one, Mrs. Martinez.”
“And how much?” I ask.
“Two to three grand.”
“Where the hell are we supposed to get that kind of money?”
“Mrs. Martinez, please don’t get confrontational,” she says.
“Answer the question,” I say.
She says, “I’m calling the security guard.”
“Don’t bother. If you find a pot of gold to pay for that evaluation, call me.”
I didn’t sign up for this, I always say to Angel when the other parents leave parent-teacher conferences all smiley, and we look like we come from a funeral.
Oh yeah, you did, he says. For better/for worse, remember that shit?
I might quit.
Don’t test me, I say.
One night, she calls: “I’m coming for my kid, and don’t you try to stop me.” I put on the speaker phone and say, “Hear your baby, hon? Hop in a cab. I’ll have his bag packed before you hang up.”
She says, “I’m in Albuquerque.” That’s the last I hear from her.
I gotta do something about this room. I let Angel slap on this pink after his papi died, and he got homesick for Puerto Rico. I said, “Pretend. There’s no work down there. You’d hate palm trees without money.” The power of paint. My dad was a painter. He taught me the tricks of the trade.
Pink is a color for poor jerks.
Clotted cream is for lucky people. The makeover house is clotted cream.
“Mommy, his car is touching my fairy palace,” Lola says.
“Mikie, back off,” I say. His eyes go tick-tock. Scream/no scream. Scream/no scream. Wow. I have never seen him think before.
Lola sticks out her fat little hand like one of those prize-grabber claws and closes it over the car. Ooh, I smack that hand. She drops the car, rolls onto her stomach, sobbing. “I hate you, Mommy!”
“For once, he does the right thing, and you gotta stir the pot. How much shit do you think I can take?”
She’s got one cheek on the ground, the other facing me. “You hit me again, Mommy, I’m gonna call 911.”
I breathe like they teach you in anger management. “I’m gonna tell you a funny story. Once upon a time, this lady who’s got twenty kids has to go to the store. She says, ‘I’ll be right back. Whatever you do, don’t put beans up your noses. ’Course, it never would have occurred to them to do such a thing if she hadn’t given them the idea in the first place. She comes home and finds them all with beans in their noses. They go to the emergency room, and the doctor cuts their noses open to get the beans out. Kapeesh?”
“You’re scaring me, Mommy,” she says.
“That’s the idea,” I say.
Mikie gets up and walks out, his butt wiggling like he has to go potty.
“You are a lucky little lady, Lola,” I say. “Put his cars back exactly.”
The doorbell rings. It’s my mother-in-law. Typical Spanish. “Por favor, mi amor, could ya do this, do that?…” She beat Angel and his brothers with a belt. Hopefully, the kids will remember I treated them better when my time comes.
She plops down on a chair in the living room. “M’hija. You gotta move. I can’t take these stairs no more.”
“I’ll get you a glass of water, suegra.”
I’m at the sink, when Lola comes in dragging Mikie by the hand. “Mommy, look.” Mikie stands, head bowed, arms loose, like a perp before the arraignment judge. One nostril’s all puffy.
“You got a bloody nose?” I say.
He shakes his head. Lola says, “It’s a bean! Like in the story!”
“How the hell did he get hold of a bean?”
“Nobody knows,” says Lola, shaking her head so hard her braids whack her cheeks. “It’s a mystery.” Her eyes are all spooky. I notice the chair next to the counter. Even on a chair he can’t reach them by himself.
“Jesus fucking Christ Almighty,” I say. I pick him up and take him into the living room.
“You got my water?” my mother-in-law says.
“I need your help. He’s got a bean up his effing nose.”
“Ay, Dios mío, el bebé!” (Mikie’s still el baby to her.) I swear, she loves him better than Lola. Must be the hair. “Why djou do that, huh? Tell Granma,” she says. One eye has a cataract, so she has to turn her head like she was peering down a tube.
“Lola gave it to him,” I say. “Don’t deny it, Lola. I see everything you do. Like God.” She starts to blubber.
“Hold his feet,” I tell my mother-in-law. But her hands are too weak.
Angel walks in, hair grey with plaster dust. He’s working at the projects on a Hire a Disabled Vet gig.
“Your kid’s got a bean up his nose.”
I hold his hands, my mother-in-law holds his head. Angel straddles Mikie’s legs and tries to massage it down.
“Stop,” I say. “We’re going to push it into his brain.”
We drive to the hospital and sit in a curtained-off rectangle in the pediatric emergency room, with kids who’ve fallen God knows how many stories from a window with no bars; kids who pulled pots off the stove; babies left in the bath when the phone rang. You hear every word. “You got insurance? Why did you wait to call? When did it start? Where were you?”
Mikie’s nose is cauliflower-shaped. I dig a toy car out of my purse. He goes into his trance. Lola won’t look at me. Hey, I should run away to Puerto Rico. If I never saw Brooklyn again, I’d die happy. You hipsters want to live here? Be my guest. Welcome to the Borough of Fucked Up-ness. The Vegans shall inherit the earth.
At midnight, we see Dr. Ramakrishnan. He talks low, feels around, looks up Mikie’s nose. “How’d he get it up that far?” For a moment, I think we’re in for another bout with Child Protective Services. Did I hit Lola hard enough to leave a mark? Where was I when the kids got into the beans?
I try not to incriminate myself.
“Happens all the time,” he says. He pulls out his tweezers, and Mikie turns into a writhing sea monster.
Two nurses wrap him in a sheet. Even straitjacketed, we can’t hold him still.
“I’ve got to give him a sedative,” the doctor says. The nurse brings the tray with the IV needle in its cellophane package.
“Chill, little man, you gonna be OK,” Angel says, and goes green.
“Put your head between your knees,” Nurse says. She brings him apple juice and animal crackers.
“You the mom?” the doctor says.
“O.K., the rest of you go out. Mommy, stay with me. I need someone steady.”
The nurse unwraps Mikie enough to get an arm out and slips the IV in. He digs his nails into my hand. The liquid wobbles in the bottle. He’s out. His gold eyelashes lie against his white cheeks. The doctor inserts an instrument into his nostril and pulls out one snotty black bean. He puts it on a piece of gauze, and the two of us bend down to inspect, as if it were a diamond on a satin pillow.
“I’m going to take this home to my wife,” he says. “She doesn’t believe how often this happens.”
“No, you’re not. I’m keeping it as a memorial.”
“Someone died?” the doctor says. Get this. An Indian guy’s making fun of my English.
I almost say, “Yo, you talk funny, too,” but I have a mini-crush on him. “Not someone, wise guy. My perfectly nice day.”
“Consider yourself lucky. One case I had, the bean was up there so long it sprouted.”
“How’d you know? A leaf grew out his nose?”
“No, he had chronic headaches. It showed up on a CAT scan. Now I check every headache case for beans.”
“Any idea how much this little prank is gonna cost?”
He does that Indian side-to-side head-wiggle. “I don’t deal with money, thank God.”
I carry Mikie out asleep, head on my shoulder. Angel’s alone. He put his mother and Lola in a cab. We walk to the car.
“O.K.,” says Angel. “Give it to me straight, hold the mayo, the lettuce, and the fucking tomato. How did he get hold of the bean?”
When I get to the part where Lola says, “Just like in the story,” I start laughing.
Angel’s face goes scary serious. “Lola gave him the fucking bean?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see.”
“How could you let them outta your sight? You know she messes with him.”
“If I hadn’t of been waiting on your god-damned mother… ”
“Fuck it,” he says.
We’re at the car. Angel puts Mikie in the back and buckles him in. He flops on his side, snoring out of his swollen nose.
Angel starts the engine, pulls out onto the street with a squeal of tires.
“I got a call from her today,” he says. “Says she got her life all straightened out, enrolled in community college, ready to take over. Says thanks for all I done for him.”
“You tell her he’s your kid, too? Courts won’t let her.”
We’re heading down Atlantic Avenue toward the water. A big ship is unloading at the pier under these extreme lights that make everything out of range look black as hell. I turn to check on Mikie. I can just make out his little white ear.
“Maybe it’s for the better,” Angel says. “He’s killing you. You got grey hairs already.”
“She’s a stranger.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Get a lawyer.”
“I did the test. It came out negative.”
“Shit. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I figured you’d put him on the next plane.”
“What’s that expression your mami always says? El que cría es más padre.”
“The law doesn’t give a shit quién cría.” He’s crying. “What do I do?”
“Paint the apartment a nice cream color, papi,” I say. “She’s full of it.”