My sister’s eight-year-old Alfie is incontinent. She says it’s normal for kids like him who have disappearing daddies and fifteen different aunties to watch him on the weekends and nothing resembling a stable homelife. I’m okay with the wetting part; I’ve still got tarps from when me and Jerm first moved in and painted every wall a different color.
Nancy drops Alfie by early Friday morning. When the doorbell rings, I’m about to leave for yoga and then work. “When you said six,” I say, “I figured you meant six at night.”
She gives me that flicker of a smile that means she’s got better places to be, like the backseat of her new beau’s car with the top down, the stars spread over them like a crazy quilt featuring the constellations. And then she trips away down the stairs to her sideways parked car.
Alfie’s clutching this threadbare stuffed stegosaurus and his hair is a cowlick eruption. “How do you feel about yoga,” I say, because someone’s got to take the kid in. We’ll go for breakfast afterwards and get the kid some sausage. He needs to bulk up. I think about taking him in for real sometimes. My shrink would say the kid just needs a little consistency. I could be good for him. Anyway, Alfie shrugs so I bring him along in his footie pajamas.
He used to curl up next to me when he stayed over at night, but after I got soaked the first few times I started setting up a cot in the spare room where Jeremy used to pump his iron and other workout accessories, like our Spinning teacher from Gold’s. I’d already rigged the thing with a tarp and bought a box of extra-large pullups. For Alfie shitting his pants at yoga, however, I was not prepared.
I’d parked him in the back with a handful of crayons and a flier for an Ashtanga class. He’s drawing away with that stupid stegosaurus leaking stuffing next to him through its pitiful last-legs stitches and we’re in downward dog when out of nowhere, two women in the back row sink to their knees, muttering and wrinkling their noses. I see this through the triangle of my own legs: their hands coming up to cover their faces. Then others sink to their knees—Sweaty Lady and Spandex Fat Guy and Unibrow Girl.
“Excuse me,” the teacher’s tapping my shoulder, leaning upside down to do it, her frizzy hair floating and swinging like some kind of undersea plantlife. “Is that your child?” she says.
So I stand up and fix my ponytail, snap the straps of my sports bra, because I smell it now, too. He’s eight years old and wearing a pair of pants full of last night’s Mac & Cheese. Alfie’s red in the face with everyone looking and this class is the only thing that makes it so I can breathe during the day instead of strangling my emptyheaded secretary or taking my Swingline and stapling the mail guy right between the eyes, and now, thanks to Alfie, I can’t come back.
“You little shit,” I say, which makes some people snigger. “Why didn’t you go to the bathroom?”
Alfie’s got big tears in his eyes, twin sparkles like jewels he glued on. It’s Nancy’s fault, probably, that he’s incontinent. Or bad genes from his mystery daddy, but it sure feels like Alfie’s fault right now. What I want to do is bend the kid over and put him in downward dog so he gets a good whiff of his own shit, but instead I reach for the dinosaur, meaning to get us the hell out.
“Stevie,” he cries, making his first official sound of the day. And then, crying: “Mama.”
I’m the one about to empty his superman underwear, but he wants the woman who dropped him on my doorstep this morning like a stork eight years too late. I take a step towards him because maybe he’s called me Mama by mistake, but the kid cowers back and I slip on the flier I gave him to draw on and see it’s just a mess of hearts on hearts on hearts of every color.
“Mama can’t help you now,” I say, blood strangling my veins, and I dig my lacquered nails into the doll’s worn green plush at the battered seam and tear and hear it tearing—a great unzipping and rending of green, velvet flesh and guts plopping out in little cottony clumps and Alfie’s on his knees, squishing around in his poop-filled pants, collecting all the stuffing while the rest of the class is on the other side of the room in one big huddle, their giggles dried up and spent. His fingernails scrabble at the hardwood floor. “Don’t bother,” I tell him, because Stevie’s as extinct as they come, but the kid just keeps on going, filling his pockets with fluff, as if any of this is fixable. But maybe it runs in the family, because when Jeremy comes knocking once a month or so I haven’t turned him away yet, which is a little like sitting in my own shit.
“Get up,” I tell him. “Get up,” and I dig my fingers in his birdbone shoulders. His face comes up, inches from mine, eyes wide as walnuts, and he lets out a high-pitched, lingering squeal that forces my fingers to release. My apology comes out all vibrato and instead of this woman with her shaking hands in fists and face red as a rose-colored crayon, I want to be anyone else: my sister in the leather bucket seat of that open-top car, my old self in Jeremy’s arms, Alfie sitting scared and blameless at my feet, the victim instead of the victor.