“How would you like to go to Bonzo’s,” the tired mother asks, and little Felix’s big red eyes light up a little. The tired mother has to do something, and a singing gorilla and dancing bananas are just the thing to take away little Felix’s tears. She turns onto the main road with its strip malls and fast food, off Grandma Imus’s street, away from the wicked molds, angry wrinkles, yellow nicotine walls.
A few moments ago Grandma Imus was hissing at the tired mother, and little Felix had to hear the old woman’s vulgar accusations. Grandma Imus pointed out that Felix doesn’t look like an Imus boy, and called the tired mother a tired old whore and blamed her for her own son’s unemployment and general bankruptcy. The tired mother immediately regretted taking Felix into the smoke-choked little house. She just needed to get the spare key to her own house before leaving the old woman alone to her Tareyton menthols and bitter grudges. She told Felix to go wait outside.
Before Felix got to the door, Grandma Imus said to the tired mother, “I always knew you’d be sleeping around with trash. You were never any good for my boy.”
The door opened and closed, and the tired mother said she was taking back her key and leaving. She didn’t tell Grandma Imus her son was trash, or that he drank too much and was never a father to little Felix anyway. She didn’t mention that maybe if he’d been around instead of out drinking and whatever else, she wouldn’t have felt that desperate emptiness alone in her house with a sleeping child, and that fear of someday turning out like Grandma Imus. She didn’t ask what makes one piece of trash any better than another. She said nothing. Grandma Imus kept hissing and breathing smoke, and the tired mother held her breath as she crossed the kitchen’s cracked tiles and tried to drown out the old woman’s crackling voice, reminding herself she was done with the Imus family for good this time. On her way back to the front door she said, “Sorry it had to be this way.”
As she opened the door Grandma Imus said, “You’re not worthy of my boy and you were never part of our family.”
“Don’t you ever come near my son,” the tired mother said. “And you tell your boy that too.”
She went outside, and the fresh air rushed into her lungs, and she felt light, like she was rising into the air, until she saw little Felix’s wide eyes by the car door, felt his gravitational pull reining her in. She opened the passenger door and Felix got in without a word and fastened his seat belt.
The tired mother got in and started the car.
“Mommy, do you sleep with trash?”
“Shut up! Please.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
Her stomach felt sick, like the stale smoke and dust from Grandma Imus’s house had stuck to her insides, and little Felix made a little gulp and tried to swallow his tears.
She pulled out the driveway then drove toward the stop sign. Felix sobbed once and her stomach tensed as he tried to stop himself. The car joggled over potholes, past scruffy little houses and straggly lawns. What the tired mother craved and little Felix needed was air — not fresh air, just something breathable to wash out the angry sickness they’d caught. Sugary marinara and chewy glops of oily mozzarella on doughy crust and a colorful robotic jungle swaying to lilty jingles now seemed a more nourishing option than boxed mac ‘n’ cheese in front of the TV in their cinderblock apartment. Tomorrow she’ll have to explain why he doesn’t have a daddy now and what a whore is and what’s the difference between mommy and a whore, and she’ll have to find a way to make her love real to him, and find a way to sustain it, but for right now what she needs is to distract him with a roll of tokens, a pit of colorful foam, and pizza and ice cream.
So when she came to a stop at the intersection she made her offer and looked over at her little son for just a moment before turning the car toward Bonzo’s without waiting for an answer.
“Mommy,” little Felix says. She looks over and sees the setting sun’s orange light cast over his face. “I love Bonzo’s more than anything.”
Mommy swallows hard and turns back to the road, drives toward that jungle of bright colors and oily food, away from the sickness.
Justin Eells lives with his coffee pot and two bookshelves in Mankato, Minnesota, where he teaches composition and is working on his MFA at Minnesota State University. His Twitter handle is @justin_eells.