“Fresh Air” by Laurie Loewenstein
Are you a parent going through the Terrible Twos? Did you live through them and survive? Terrible Twosdays is a place to commiserate over the unending shenanigans of your Darling Children (as the online parenting communities say). Nonfiction stories will be considered, so long as names have been changed to protect the guilty. Inspired by our best-selling gift book for parents, Go the Fuck to Sleep, Terrible Twosdays joins the roster of our other online short fiction series. Unlike Mondays Are Murder and Thursdaze, we’re looking for stories with a light and mischievous feel, all about the day-to-day challenges of parenting. As with our other flash fiction series, stories must not exceed 750 words.
They stood off to one side of the excited throng who were cheering and holding up hand-lettered signs as the Trailways Bus pulled into the church parking lot. Val chewed at the skin around her nails. When she saw Mark watching her, a tight smile crossed her face.
“It’ll be okay?” Her eyebrows raised in question. “He’ll be a good kid. Right? The Fresh Air people wouldn’t send him if, you know, he had problems.”
“What problems could a grade-schooler have?” Mark asked. He pulled his hand out of his pocket to reach for hers, hesitated, then tucked it crossways under his armpit, doing the same with his other hand.
With a whoosh of compressed air, the bus driver braked and within seconds, dozens of shouting children pushed through the doorway and into the waiting crowd. Mark watched the bobbing sea of Yankees baseball caps and tight braids tied off with colorful plastic balls and wondered which one was Lamont. Lamont was seven, according to the form from The Fresh Air Fund. Most of these kids looked older, but he couldn’t be sure. Unlike the other families hosting inner-city children for the summer, Mark and Val didn’t have kids of their own.
“That’s him!” Val’s voice rang out. “I see his nametag.” She ran toward a thin kid in an oversized pinstripe jersey with a neon nametag partially covering the number “2” on his chest. Val squatted down and hugged him to her.
“You must be Lamont,” Mark said in a light tone as he approached with his hand outstretched. “Jeter fan?”
“Yeah, guess so,” Lamont said in a low voice. The boy’s hand in his made Mark think of a baby robin he’d once scooped up from the ground until his mom screamed at him to “Put that filthy thing down!”
The next morning, Mark found that Val had arranged three boxes of low-sugar cereal on the kitchen table before driving off to her job at the call center. He worked nights at the printing plant.
When Lamont appeared in the kitchen doorway an hour later wearing shorts and a T-shirt, Mark was relieved. He hadn’t been sure if he was supposed to help the kid get dressed or not.
After breakfast and a couple of hours of cartoons, Mark suggested a swim. “You know how, right?”
“Sure do,” Lamont said, his little boy chest pushing out, his dark brown hands fisted at his waist, Superman-style.
A huge white oval, the town pool had been built by the Works Progress Administration in the ’30s. There was a diving board and slide in the deep area. Swimmers had to walk through a dim bathhouse with moldy shower stalls to reach the pool. Screams and splashing sounds echoed off its concrete block walls.
Emerging from the dark bathhouse and into the glare shooting off the water, Mark was blinded for a second. He shaded his eyes with his hand. Where to sit? Suddenly he became aware of the flailing arms and legs churning in the shallow end; of the moms sitting at the side of the baby pool, legs dangling in the tepid water; and of the lifeguards. All white. White as white bread. He glanced down at Lamont, who was jumping up and down and shouting, “They got a slide! Cool.”
“Let’s set up over here,” Mark said, walking toward the edge of the compound, under a couple of evergreens where no one ever sat because of the needles.
“I’m going in,” Lamont announced, throwing down his towel and trotting off.
“Just a sec . . .” Mark stooped to remove his shoes. He was unstrapping his watch when he heard the lifeguards sounding their whistles simultaneously. He turned to see Lamont thrashing in the deep end just beyond the bottom of the slide.
Mark froze for a second, then charged toward the slide as two lifeguards dove in. By the time Mark got there, they had Lamont out on the concrete, coughing up pool water. The EMT arrived—“Anything like this, we got to call the EMT,” one of the lifeguards explained—checked Lamont out, and left.
“Swimmers may now return to the pool,” intoned the PA system.
Lamont hung his head. Something churned up in Mark’s gut. He realized, with a start, that it was the kid’s humiliation he’d taken on. It was as if somehow his own skin had stretched to absorb Lamont’s feelings.
“It’s okay, buddy. Not your fault. I didn’t know any better. Come on.”
He and Lamont picked up their towels. When they got to the bathhouse doorway, Mark started to put his arm around the kid. He hesitated, then let his hand rest on Lamont’s knobby shoulder and they walked together into the uncertain light.
LAURIE LOEWENSTEIN grew up in the flatlands of western Ohio and now resides in Rochester, NY, where Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in 1872. Unmentionables is her first novel.
Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Terrible Twosdays flash fiction series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines:
—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should focus on the challenges of parenting. Ideally, stories should be about children aged 0 to 5, but any age (up to early teens) is acceptable. Stories may be fiction or nonfiction.
—Include the child’s age at the time of the story next to your byline.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—E-mail your submission [email protected] paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.
Posted: Dec 10, 2013
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