“How hot is it in this hell hole dump anyway?” I sounded a lot like a bitch, but so what?
The fat guy behind the counter looked over the top of his bi-focals, silent, sweating, letting that one pass. We stared each other down. He was this close to calling me little lady. They say things like that in the Heartland. Just one reason I hated it. I didn’t have time to pick a petty squabble, so I carried on without pressing.
My son gripped my sweaty hand with his sweatier one. We looked a sight. I was too young to be his mother, but still I was. He was too smart to be only a four year-old, but still he was. We spent all our time together, just the two of us – so we made the best of it. There we were, new in town (again), poor (still), and shopping for shoes on the only street with stores. Freakishly, we looked exactly alike back in the day. I was taller.
The August humidity beat us down, its assault relentless. I wanted to get out of the blistering store, quick. As usual, I had more need than money. But, I’d grown skilled at account juggling when purchasing anything that couldn’t get eaten or didn’t keep the roof over our heads. What bill would go unpaid so I could buy shoes?
My son had no such worries. Happy to be out of our basement apartment with no windows, he talked a blue streak, his still dimpled hand tight in mine. We lived like moles. We’d hit daylight, blink-blink-blink, hard and fast, getting used to the sun. It occurred to me this was not, necessarily, a normal way to live. I knew there was a better way. Just not for people who couldn’t keep the phone turned on because they had to buy Payless shoes.
Daniel was a shoe guy, even at four. He led me, arm stretched out like a leash, up and down the aisles. The bubble gum smashed on hot rubber aroma crept up our noses. We sped through the cheap inventory like K-Mart Dollar Days veterans.
“Mother (he always called me Mother, but would’ve preferred first names), you won’t believe it.” He hopped up and down, his floppy, worn sandals almost mute on the cheap carpet. He lunged, grabbing up the shoes his dreams were made of like they’d been surrounded by a pack of pleather loving, bargain hunting jackals.
There they were – tacky in a lidless box – two toned, brown and white cowboy boots with fringe.
Ecstatic, Daniel whooped, elated, pogoing like a jumping bean. Wondering about the ruckus, the fat man behind the counter waddled over. By the time he lumbered down the aisle Daniel yanked his sandals off, leaving his socks on pulled up to his knees (that’s another story) and jerked the boots on both feet. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen him so happy, his cocoa colored eyes took up most of his face, glistening with wonder at his luck.
“Well, Mama, looks like you gotta little Roy Rogers on yer hands there,” the fat man winked. They say things like that in the Heartland.
I smiled, nodded, my face blank as rice paper. Roy Rogers? Dale Evans, maybe. They don’t say things like that in the Heartland though, so my lips stayed sealed.
Daniel swiped at his damp brow, skipped, then ran and kept on running, up and down every aisle.
“Daniel, stop,” I hollered.
Fat man put his hand on my arm to shush me. “Now, Mama, boys will be boys and he’s gotta try out them thar boots, get ‘em broke in.”
Boys will be boys - unless they want to be girls.
Wouldn’t this porky cowpoke choke on his beef jerky if he knew?
Daniel loved those boots because they were the closest things to high heels he could get – boy pumps. He loved their look, the clack-clack sounds, and the added height. Not to mention the fringe that swung in hysteria every time he moved - the closest he’d been to heaven.
Even at the tender age of four, it was clear that in the poker game of life my son had been dealt a full house, queens high.
But, they don’t say things like that in the Heartland, or anywhere that I knew of, so no one said it. But, like all elephants in the room it weighed a ton or two (tutu and pink feather boa notwithstanding) and we ignored it. Daniel and I pulled it around like the frozen pig fat Oprah plopped down in the wagon on her first weight loss show.
It was our secret.
He was too young to know much about it, other than he thought other boys acted dumb and he’d rather try on his mother’s clothes than play with guns. He had masculine toys. He loved the He-Man action figures. But, Princess Teela was his favorite. He’d gotten the Castle of Doom for Christmas and Teela always beat the shit out of He-Man and sent him to the dungeon. Daniel knew, in his little boy gut, that I didn’t mind and wouldn’t discourage him.
Maybe it was my youth, my blissful ignorance, but I didn’t expect he would be someone else. I didn’t know that I should try to influence his personality, lucky for us. I didn’t love him less or feel disappointment. That was our bond, and the way it went, for years.
From the bottom of my scraggly purse, I scraped up the $6.00 to pay for the boots he still had on and we left, fat man grinning and waving us out. Still on his boy pump high Daniel kicked one of the several metal poles holding up the awning running the length of the sidewalk…then the next one…and the one after that.
It was unlike me not to stop him. I was hard on him. I didn’t have the slightest clue what to do with him. His wicked intelligence made him seem older and I expected him to act it. When he behaved like a child it annoyed and embarrassed me. After all, at seventeen, I was a child when he was born. If anyone was going to act like a baby, it was going to be me.
But, for those few moments, I let my son act like a four year old.
A four year old in boy pumps with fringe.
He galloped down the sidewalk kicking poles. All dark hair and eyes, plump fists at his sides, his round face broken by his smile, legs askew, kicking up and out, fringe flying.
His giddy happiness made us both forget about the stupefying heat. Soon the poles lost their allure and he moved on to the parked cars. First he kicked a couple of tires. Not such a big deal.
“Daniel, don-” I couldn’t finish the admonishment. What I wouldn’t have given to kick stuff. How did I get here? Well, I knew how I got there. The problem would be getting out. Dwelling below the surface of the earth, eating Rice-a-Roni only on special occasions, and watching Eight is Enough reruns every night was the same life I’d rebelled against and here I stood, living it. Good move.
WHAM! The sound of a plastic cowboy boot toe hitting the metal side of a car door rang loud. Probably time to act like a mother – something I struggled with. Still, I couldn’t fake anger. I hated this town, this life. I had no idea who owned that car but I felt sure I’d hate them too. What did I care? He whacked two more doors before I grabbed him by the arm and went through the discipline motions.
“Mother,” Daniel’s gaze bore into mine, tears about to run over. “Are you mad at me? Don’t you like my boots?” He searched me. Like always, he tried hard to read me, gauge my moods to intervene with a quip, a joke or a kiss if he saw sorrow. He hadn’t gone to school yet but he made me laugh harder than anyone I’d ever known.
“No, I’m not mad.” I always spoke the truth to him. Another not good parenting plan. “I’m happy for you. And yes, those boots are…fantastic.” He grabbed my hand again. When he held it he really held on, and seemed as he rarely did, like a little boy - at my mercy and small. Like we were the only survivors on the island and he knew for certain holding my hand was the right thing to do, that I could save him.
Didn’t he know I was the one who needed saving?
When he got older, and things changed, his hands could still break my heart. When his words were bitter, his hands were still sweet.
I held his palm up to my mouth and kissed it a bunch, loud cartoonish kisses. He laughed his belly deep, little boy laugh and galloped ahead toward our mole hole, me a little lighter than when I started and Daniel thrilled to wear the most hideous boots this side of Liberace on the 4th of July. Every few steps he’d check behind to make sure I was still there. He feared I’d get lost or fall and hurt myself. He was a worrier, a thinker. I’d smile, nod, and he’d skip on, comforted that all was well.
I couldn’t see the future that day, or any other, and I’m not sure what I would’ve, or could’ve changed if I had. But it was all before…the drugs, the alcohol, the disappointments, and the heartbreak - his, mine, and, ours. Before the better angels of his nature got their asses kicked by the darker ones, before our bond severed, brittle and worn, our relationship swirling into a tailspin, both of us in freefall, without the aid of the other.
I had my opinion, he had his, and they were not the same.
I didn't know what an objective observer would say because I was not one. But I knew this - on that one sweltering day in Junction City, Kansas Daniel was the best little boy in the world and I was his mom.
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