The boys are setting up a tent in the dining room. Margaret, in the kitchen, can hear the chairs squeaking and moaning against the floors, Wesley’s exaggerated grunting as Matthew directs the boys to push. After she puts the chicken in the oven, she goes to check on them, rinsing her hands in the sink beforehand. Indeed, the dining room table is now crooked against the far wall, the chairs lined up like executionees on the perimeter. In the middle, a tent she and Ian camped in a long time ago, sun bleached and ratty, at half-mast. The boys rigged it to the legs of the dining room table; it worked well enough to hold them. Its opening faces the window, outside which snow steadily falls. It has been snowing for three days, through the weekend, and now, Monday, a snow day from school.
Wesley’s socks are unmatched, and one of them, likely belonging to Jonas, flops off the tip of his toe. Wesley scratches his nose, surveying the scene. “I don’t think that’s right,” he says, pointing to a corner whose poles bend in the wrong direction. Wesley is the baby, and he has just discovered that he can correct his brothers, and sometimes even be right.
Matthew crawls out from inside the tent on his knees, inspects the corner to which Wesley is still insistently pointing. “Huh,” he says, as though it matters, and goes back inside to perform some other operation.
Margaret takes a seat on one of the chairs, and instinctively, Wesley comes to her, pulling himself back onto her knees. She can smell the sweat gathering under his turtleneck, from the thrill, perhaps, of a day spent with his brothers. They watch the other two boys work around the misbehaving pole. Jonas works silently, but Matthew mutters to himself, little huhs and ohs that don’t indicate anything to anyone but him. Both boys push and prod the fabric, its metal parts clanging against one another, against the floor, as the tent is raised and lowered and raised again. Wesley gets up occasionally to stand over Jonas and Matthew, but Margaret can see there is no place for him to insert himself.
Margaret wants to be able to help, to lay the tent on the ground and direct the boys step by step, as she directed Ian so many years ago, but she wouldn’t know how to put it together anymore.
When Ian comes home in the navy blue darkness of evening, he slides open the dining room’s pocket door; Margaret can hear it moving along its rails from the study, where she is checking her e-mail. No news yet of when the new pages for the cookbook she’s testing will arrive, the messengers delayed by the current chaos of public transit, the book’s author too temperamental, too paranoid to send it over e-mail.
“Hello in there,” she hears Ian call out.
“Hello,” the boys reply, each greeting tripping on the end of the one before.
“Whatcha pretending in there?” Ian’s spent all day at the airport, trying and failing to get on a flight to Atlanta for a meeting, and she can hear the dislocation in his voice. “Pretending you’re out in the tundra? At the North Pole?” he tries. In the moments of the boys’ silence an e-mail comes through from the editor: Tomorrow, she’s promised, they’ll get a messenger to her.
“Yeah,” says Jonas, finally, and Margaret envisions her son shrugging as he does so, the tent’s fabric bulging out with his shoulder.
The boys came one after the other, a little flood of children that was neither a choice nor a concession. Four years ago, when the boys were little, they lived in Manhattan. She always knew they’d leave. They’d agreed on the move; they’d always agreed on those kinds of things. Ian says he remembers the moment he decided it was enough, when they had all three on the subway one spring morning, the boys sliding around the concave orange seats, the feeling that there weren’t enough hands to keep them all in place. They tell these stories for the first year or two after they move to New Jersey, which is barely less expensive, and then they stop thinking of themselves as refugees; they stop explaining. At first, she felt relief: at the just-right amount of space between her and her neighbors, at the fenced yard and the one perfect little school and the other defectors from Brooklyn and Washington Heights, New York City a mistake they’re all supposed to be recovering from. A community reformed; a life, easier in the ways they had wanted it to be during the boys’ early childhood years, took shape.
Margaret has always been able to let go. She doesn’t keep things from their past: not their little hospital ID bracelets, or first shoes, or the old MetroCards Jonas used to run along the walls of their apartment, which she’d find in his jacket pockets. Not her wedding invitation or clothes that don’t fit anymore. Margaret doesn’t keep things but Ian does. That night she’s in their bathroom, looking in the vanity for a bar of soap someone brought as a housewarming gift all those years ago, when she finds the box of teeth in a drawer. There are two of these boxes, actually, orange square plastic containers, with hinged lids that snap into place, though there are three children, all of whom have lost teeth, exchanging them for dollar bills they would often lose a few days later.
She walks out into their bedroom, both boxes in one hand. “What the fuck is this?” she asks Ian, laughing.
“I didn’t want to throw them out,” he says, undoing the buttons on his shirt.
Down the hall, she hears Jonas hacking, a cough he hasn’t been able to shake for weeks.
“And what are we doing with them?” She rattles the boxes one by one. “Shit, they’re all mixed up, aren’t they?”
She can’t stop laughing.
He turns a light pink.
“They might want them . . . one day.”
“And you’ll separate them out?”
“Come on,” he says, and turns away from her as he takes off the rest of his clothes.
She bites her lip to keep the laughter from coming, returns to the bathroom. She is about to drop the boxes into the small wastebasket under the sink, but instead puts them back in Ian’s side of the vanity, in a drawer with travel-size shaving cream cans and an unopened package of dental oss.
He’s under the covers when she gets into bed, turned on his side, reading a work report. If she were feeling kinder, would she suggest they go camping? They used to strip down to nothing in that tent, their skin papery in the cold. He always offered to be on the ground, sliding under her.
Fun, is what he says when people ask what it’s like to have three boys, the inquirer giving Margaret a sympathetic look, as if wildness cannot be what she is after, too. But she chased Ian, who was older and so confident, even at twenty-five, when she met him. And he always called her that, fun. So maybe she’s the one who was chased, domesticated. She wanted this. She chose it.
In bed, she puts her hand on the back of his neck; he murmurs his good night, shimmies his body closer to the cast of the bedside light.
Jonas wakes up in the middle of the night, hungry. This happens every few months. He’s at their bedroom door, the hall light on behind him. Ian wakes up just to wake her, pokes his fingers into her back. She swings out of bed and takes Jonas by the hand to the kitchen, where both of them recoil at the bright light of the refrigerator. He eats leftover spaghetti, barely warmed in the microwave, in gulps, and then says, “I feel better,” before they walk upstairs together and get back into their own beds.
Last week it was Wesley who woke up. When it isn’t the growing, the hunger so deep it hurts, it’s the blood. No one told her about the blood—not of childbirth, or the return of her period, earlier with every baby, just as she’d had enough of the bodily fluids of others; those cycles women know. News: the split lips, the scrapes, the bloody noses—that beautiful red a Hansel and Gretel crumb trail from the boys’ bedroom to theirs, Wesley screaming, his face pressed into her nightshirt till they were both covered. The next morning, she woke up and walked the path back to his bedroom with a damp washcloth, useless against what he’d smeared with the back of his hand on the grain of the wallpaper they’d always planned to remove. At least, she thinks, she does not have girls, will not have waste- baskets overflowing with bloody pads. But girls are taught to be discreet. Boys, who shout their own terror, make a mess of it, take you down with them.
She learned in her sophomore biology seminar that attachment is just another way into survival, another of biology’s brilliant tricks. Then, that understanding that the female body is designed for reproduction, for sustaining at its own cost and peril, for simply carrying on that set of cycles, drove her to the campus health clinic to request birth control pills. She had no boyfriend; there was no casual sex. No, she wanted to say to her body, to work against it. She was nineteen. And then, only ten years after that seminar, a shift. A yes.
By the second and third pregnancies the magic was gone but not the power. The power felt more natural by then. Ian used to say, especially in front of the boys, that a pregnant woman would do anything to keep a baby alive. “Even kill the daddy,” he’d joke, Matthew delighting in this idea, asking Margaret if she really would.
“Probably,” she said one morning at breakfast, considering. She touched her belly under the lip of the table, reminding herself. It was easy to forget at five months in, with Wesley then, that she was pregnant. The body took over. It didn’t matter at that point whether she wanted the baby, if she’d care for him after, if she would love him. The baby would grow and be born and either of them might die in that—especially she—and then everything within her would go to keeping the baby alive, to keeping herself alive, to healing, so she could do it again.
But every few months, Margaret leans into Ian’s ear and says of one of the boys, “Look at what we did. We made a fucking person,” remembering only the miracles of biology, what to be grateful for.
At breakfast the next morning, before they sort through the pile of hats and gloves and boots for the walk through the snow to the bus stop, knee-high where it’s been plowed to the sidewalk’s edges, the boys eat their cereal and toast quietly, as if still in the land of dreams, as if still in the tent. Matthew and Jonas can break back into this world, but not, Margaret sees, Wesley. He is the sleeper of the group, and she had to rouse him over and over again this morning. The other boys are done with breakfast, with getting dressed and packing their school bags. Ian left for the airport in darkness, his alarm, though it vibrated, waking her, too, at 4:15, but she wasn’t able to fall back asleep.
“Come on now,” she says to Wes, who has only pushed his fingers into his toast. “Time to start eating.”
“I want to stay home,” he says, his face crumpling, the tiny bite of toast he conceded muf ing his sentence. She looks away from his open mouth, sips her coffee.
“You can’t,” she says, calling him honey, apologizing. “I have to work.”
“I can be quiet,” he says, through tears.
“You have to go to school,” she says.
He slams his fist on the table, screams, “I! WANT! TO! STAY! HOME!”
“It’s not a choice.”
“Yes it is,” he says.
“You have to go and you have to stop crying,” she says.
“No!” Wesley pushes his plate across the table. “I will not stop crying.”
“Then out,” she says, pointing to the yard. “You can’t do that in here.”
He goes; he’s always followed instructions. She picks up his plate and lets it land, loudly, in the sink.
She’s harder on him than she was on the others, because he’s the last one, because he wasn’t really wanted, because she is harder because of that fact. And she knows, she believes five-year-old boys can cry. That they should. But that kind of grace isn’t hers to give this morning, and she leaves him out there, in a protracted weep, shutting the glass door on him so she hears him less as she loads the dishwasher. She needs to use her hands, even as they are clumsy, as last night’s wineglasses feel slippery and fragile between her fingers. They don’t break. Outside, Wesley stomps his feet, throws his head back, but she barely looks in the direction of the yard. The neighbors can hear, she is sure. She leaves the door unlocked, and goes out to get him when he bangs on it so hard she thinks it might break. They have to go, anyway.
They’ve missed the school bus by now. After she drops them off, she finds herself driving, mindlessly, around the jagged outline of the town park, past the houses they admired and quickly learned they couldn’t afford. The train station wasn’t close enough, anyway. She has tried this before, going for a drive, but it does not help. There is nothing mind clearing about knowing you could drive forever, for days, for weeks, and not land anywhere far enough away from your own life to pretend you can even imagine other choices.
In the city, they didn’t have a car. When she needed to be alone, she would undo all the locks and sit outside in the building hallway, just outside the door, the chain stuffed between the door and the frame. The floor was dirty, but it was cool, and it was outside. If one of the boys asked her where she was—always Jonas—she’d say she was throwing out the trash and wash her hands at the sink when she was discovered missing. But they rarely did. When she did go out with the trash or recycling, really, did they worry she wouldn’t return? The thought never even crossed their minds.
A day after the boys go back to school the tent still stands in the dining room. She dismantles it late in the morning when she should be working, but the power is wonky, and she needs the kitchen outlets. The lights flicker on the south side of the house; in Manhattan, the lines were buried, and she is not used to this pausing, still, after four years. When she goes into the garage she turns the circuit on and off, but it doesn’t help. She leaves it alone. She puts the tent on the hood of the car to do this. Her car lives in the garage; Ian’s is at the end of the driveway, near the small curb. He shovels it out every winter without complaining, at least to her. The hood of her car is cold but clear of snow; they got it in on time. The trick was shoveling the pile in front of the garage door so there would be a path to drive out into.
She puts the tent in the trunk of her car — not in the attic, where it was, or in the basement, where it will be easier to find when they need it next. But what if she needs it next? It’s a just-in-case move, in and of itself ridiculous; she wouldn’t go live in a tent. But she might. She could. The important thing to remember is that she could. The tent folds up so nicely, sits so unobtrusively in the top left corner of the trunk. You can put groceries on top of it. A pile of ice skates or jackets cast aside because it’s too warm inside or outside, because you have miscalculated. The jackets with the names of their brothers written in on the neck. Their shared last name, not hers. The tent sits so unobtrusively she will forget about it. Then it’s Thursday, and she picks them up at school in the car because she’s already out, getting a set of ingredients she forgot to buy yesterday, and she’s close to school. How the boys love to be picked up; how they love to get in a warm car, though at first she insisted, after the move, that they’d walk to school. That was why they moved to this town, wasn’t it, to pretend they were not giving up all that much.
She takes their backpacks into the front seat next to her. Matthew is in the middle, Jonas behind her, Wesley behind the passenger’s seat. She waits for them to buckle. She asks how their day was, and two of the three mumble, “Good.”
“Nothing exciting, huh?” she asks as they wait to exit the carpool line.
Jonas says, “There was a lockdown today.”
Here they all are, unharmed, behind her. No phone calls, no news vans.
“A drill?” she asks. Twice a year they do these, practice playing dead in the classroom. Before the older boys can answer, the little one says, “They were looking for a thief.”
She catches the older one’s eye in the mirror. “Do not,” she says. And he doesn’t.
“They had to check the whole building,” Wesley says, making his hands large in his lap.
“Big building,” she says.
“It took, like, four hours,” he says.
“And then we had gym,” says Jonas.
Gym class, the second-to-last block of the day. Some days, his face is still a touch pink when he comes home.
“They didn’t find him,” Wesley says.
She takes them to the bakery in town, where she buys herself a coffee and each of them a doughnut; feeding everyone is the only thing that comes to mind. It’s already dark, not even five o’clock. The coffee will keep her awake tonight. Half-decaf, she remembers to ask for. Wesley keeps asking why they’re getting specials, which is what he calls sweets, a word Margaret and Ian tried to use to talk around the older boys some years ago, negotiating their quiet and calm over their heads. No one answers Wes to his satisfaction. He doesn’t finish his doughnut, offers the rest of it to Margaret and the other two boys, who both shake their heads no. Matthew knocks his lukewarm hot chocolate across the tabletop onto both his brothers, soaking Jonas’s pants and Wesley’s coat, which he crumpled next to him.
“Let’s just get home,” she says to them when Jonas starts to whine about the mess, gagging over the smell of the sugary milk, even as the word feels false in her mouth. Margaret is from California, and nothing has felt close to home in decades, not New York, where they both wanted to live but neither loved, and not this sensible town in New Jersey. Home is just the house, with its shiny black door and brass knocker that no one is permitted to use for the way it echoes throughout the first floor, for the noise they want to make for the sake of making noise. She doesn’t regret the choice to stay east but wishes she might, that there might be another opportunity they haven’t taken. She holds the idea of that open the way she used to hold open the possibilities of her and Ian’s future together: what they’d do, where they’d live, their children, how many and when and their names, all the banal facts of their family. What she misses is that feeling of possibility, the unknowing.
Now the unknowing is for the boys, their futures, lives she wants them to take over as soon as they can. But she does not want to go back to the before, even into the illusion of it. She understands she is owed nothing.
That night after the boys are in bed, Margaret tells Ian, back from his trip, about sending Wesley out into the yard the other morning.
“I feel bad,” she says as they pull fresh sheets on the bed from opposite sides of the mattress.
“He won’t remember it,” he reassures her. “You did fine.”
She knows he is right. Wesley would remember the things that make him want to be with her, again, tomorrow.
“More snow tonight,” Ian says in the dark bedroom. He’s exhausted, asleep in minutes.
Everyone sleeps through the night, even Margaret. The snow comes, but school is still on, though Ian’s office is closed; it’s worse, apparently, in Manhattan. He takes the boys to the bus stop, not even wearing a coat. He works from home, pacing the study while on a phone call, arms crossed over his chest at the window. She watches him from the hallway, a stack of recipes in her hands, notes the way his tongue rests on his bottom lip, waiting for a way into the conversation. She never gets to see this part of Ian, the working part, the thinking, the strategizing. The parts she doesn’t need to hold in herself to be with him. He doesn’t notice her in the hall, and she leaves before he can. In the kitchen, she scrubs three pounds of potatoes for a gratin she’s certain no one will like but that she’ll serve on the side of dinner; the weather hasn’t moved her deadlines. She takes an afternoon shower while the gratin’s in the oven and offers to be the one who waits out at the corner for the bus to show up, though her hair is still wet, though the bus is taking longer than it usually does.
She touches each of the boys as they come off the bus, but Wes is the only one who takes her hand, though he releases it shortly after so he can scratch his nose.
When they come in the house it’s as though she hasn’t seen Ian all day, and she hasn’t, really. And he looks new and unfamiliar, home in the afternoon light on a weekday, his sweatshirt hood pulled up as he, too, comes into the kitchen looking for a snack. She shows the boys how her hair has frozen out in the afternoon wind, encourages them to crack the strands into warmth again, into wet. A few hours after she falls asleep that night, she wakes up, imagining she hears the boys, asking for her, but it’s another house noise; four years and she hasn’t learned all of them yet.
Late Saturday morning, Ian drives her to the train station, the one a bit farther from the house, because it’s a better line to be on. The boys are headed to a movie at the library, out to lunch, the day packed with plans while she spends hers in Manhattan with a friend.
“Stop!” Jonas says from the backseat. “Stop!”
“Four! Fivesixseveneightniiiiiine!” shouts Wesley.
“He’s counting!” Jonas whines.
“So what?” says Ian. “Let a dude count.”
Wesley rambles on, numbers falling from his mouth at random.
“It’s annoying,” Jonas says, smacking his own thigh in frustration.
“Flower sign!” Wesley shouts as they pass a highway memorial. She is glad he doesn’t ask what they are. Ian doesn’t like to lie to him, and his brothers know. When Matthew first heard about death, it was months of night wakings and tantrums, of impossible questions: Will you be with me when I die? Who is going to die first, me or Jonas or Daddy? Will the dirt get into my eyes?
One of her friends who stayed in the city takes every opening to remind her of the danger of driving. Be careful, she says, as though Margaret is not.
Margaret doesn’t say anything as the boys continue to argue. She should have gone to the other station, the transfers now seeming worth it. She waves good-bye to the boys in the backseat (“Where are you going?” Jonas, only now, asks), touches Ian’s knee as she gets out of the car. “Good luck,” she says in parting.
Lunch with her friend, Caroline, is gossip about their old neighborhood, where neither of them lives nor visits anymore, discussions about who has stuck around too long, who is doing better than expected, who is leaving for a job or school or the Mid-western city they grew up in. They write down the titles of books for one another, the names of doctors, brands of mascara. Caroline makes inappropriate jokes about the waiter working the other side of the restaurant, blond and chisel jawed. She asks after the boys. Margaret waves the talk of them away. The usual. They drink coffee and Bloody Marys.
Caroline is considering, again, quitting her job, whether she can, what could be next.
“You thinking of doing something from home?” Margaret asks.
“I don’t know. That’s hard, still, right?”
“Always,” Margaret says.
It’s been so long since the neighborhood playgroup where they met, and they don’t lie to each other, not then, especially not now. On her last trip into the city Margaret ran into one of the other women from that group, Amy, who still lived in the neighborhood, but she confessed as they rode from 23rd Street downtown that she, too, was curious about New Jersey. She asked about the real estate and the schools, which Margaret described as honestly as she could: the work of a house, the unevenness of the classroom teachers, the evening traffic something she forgot existed. “But you’re happy,” Amy insisted as they were squeezed closer together by another pack of commuters. For Amy, who’d had so much trouble breastfeeding she’d endured bleeding nipples for the first two months of her baby’s life, Margaret answered yes that day on the train, because it was the answer she wanted, because Amy must be someone else beyond those first feral months they spent together in rooms full of toys and half-eaten bagels, someone else she doesn’t really know, and this is how you talk to strangers.
Margaret relays the story about Amy, whom she and Caroline called Saint Amy, after Catherine or Agatha, whichever saint it was who bled in the same way, torture. Caroline rolls her eyes.
“She’s sweet,” says Margaret.
“She’s always heard just what she wants to.”
Margaret’s phone, resting on the table, vibrates three times. “Go ahead,” her friend says. She still has a baby at home, and a husband who counts the hours she’s away, one of the ones who keep score.
Boys want to put tent up again.
Looked in basement/their room. Did I miss it?
Margaret quickly taps out: Don’t know, sorry love, and puts her phone back into her coat pocket. “Ian, looking for something,” she says to her friend.
“Dear God, every last one of them does that, don’t they?” Caroline says.
Then, while her friend is in the bathroom, Margaret, a full Bloody Mary in her, types: Try the trunk, my car. Long story.
She holds the phone in her hand, waiting. She licks the salt, pink and expensive and mineral, from the rim of the glass, rubs it into the pockets of her cheeks with her tongue.
He sends back a face with its tongue out, its eyes closed. Weirdo, he says.
The server takes her empty glass before she can take more salt. She orders two more for her and Caroline. “Catch up,” she says, when her friend returns from the bathroom.
When are you back? he texts half an hour later. She pretends she doesn’t see it, not till she is already on her way home.
On Sunday, after the boys have been tucked in bed, Margaret does the dishes, the warm water an antidote to the drafty window over the sink, to the cold tile floors. Ian calls her name from the study. She keeps washing, waiting for him to come to her. She can hear the boys still settling into bed, the floor creaking as they turn off the lights, pull blankets up over their shoulders, down to cover their feet. The house already feels small; sound carries.
Ian calls her name again, and she turns off the water at the sound of worry in his voice. In the study, he’s standing away from the computer, hands on his hips, like how he watches Matthew’s flag football games.
“Did you read that e-mail,” he asks, pointing at the computer, “from the school?”
“The one about the lockdown?”
“The boys told me, when I picked them up.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was already over.”
The e-mail is three days old. One line about a false report of a perpetrator on campus, the rest an assurance of a plan. Margaret deleted it when it came through, seeing it was a slightly modified version of the one they received with the safety protocols — fire, weather, shooters —at the start of every year.
“You’re on the list,” she says.
“They’re never important.”
He presses his fingers to his forehead, exhales loudly.
She thinks of all the things he has not told her: the time Wes lost a sneaker to a muddy pond, and she’d looked for it at home for nearly an hour before calling him at work, thinking she was losing her mind; his uncle’s bone cancer; parties he promised them to and groceries they ran out of. But, really, had she wanted to know those things? Did they seem, once she did know, like secrets? She knows so well the burden of being told, of knowing, and how impossible it is to unknow, to forget. The tent and gym class and thieves.
“It’s so fucked up,” he says.
She could say, You didn’t think we’d be safe here, did you? but he’d think she was calling him a fool, which, really, she is. But she understands, too, that someone in the family has to be the one who forgets just enough every now and then, so they can keep moving forward.
She pulls his hand from his forehead, closes it in both of hers. “I know.”
They stand like this, in front of the old couch in the study, till his thumb starts to move against her palm, and she steps toward him, and takes his other hand, too. ●
Danielle Lazarin is the author Back Talk: Stories. Her award-winning short fiction can be found in The Southern Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Glimmer Train, Boston Review, and elsewhere. She lives in her native New York, where she is raising her daughters and working on a novel.
For more information on Back Talk: Stories, click here.