HOME WORK • by Madeline Mora-Summonte

Page crosses the playground. She holds her notebook over her head to avoid four little girls and their soapy bubble wands. She waves to “Betty”, who sits with her back against a tree trunk; everyone waves to the homeless woman in the Betty Boop t-shirt and the sombrero, but no one talks to her.

Page heads for her usual bench on the park’s fringes. No one ever sits there. Most mothers like to be near their kids. She opens the notebook to her homework — LIST TEN THINGS YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR MOTHER.

1) She lets me have sips of her beer

2) She paints my toenails fire engine red

3) When she notices I’m in the room

Page taps the pen on the paper. Fifth grade is tricky. Mrs. Dougal doesn’t let much go. If Page writes the truth, Mrs. Dougal will call the house — again — and Page’s mother will not like that at all.

Page sighs then looks up. Kids dash through the water jets arcing from the ground. One little boy, wearing bright blue trunks decorated with green robots, spins, arms open wide, in the water’s spray. He makes sputtering noises like a helicopter. A mother calls out, and two girls run over to her. They lean against her as they drink their juice boxes. She smiles, not minding their sticky, sweaty skin against her own.

An ache Page is unwilling to name lodges in her throat. She starts a new list — TEN THINGS I WISH MY MOTHER WOULD DO.

1) Read me bedtime stories

2) Smell good, like cookies or flowers — not cigarettes

3) Like me

She bows her head and underlines #3 hard enough to rip a gash through the paper. One hot, angry tear streaks down her nose and dives into the gash as if to fill it. Other tears splat the paper. Page swipes the back of her wrist across her eyes. Snot leaks from her nose. She digs in her pocket for a tissue but comes up empty.

A shadow looms and a stained, yellowed lace hanky flutters in her face.

“Go on,” Betty says. “It’s for snot. How clean does it have to be?”

Not wanting to be rude, Page uses it.

“You’re done crying.” Betty parks her cart then holds out her hand and wriggles her fingers. Page places the balled up hanky in Betty’s palm. Betty thrusts it deep into one of her cargo pants pockets.

She plops down and pulls the notebook off Page’s lap. Too stunned to protest, Page watches Betty read both lists. Betty, lips pursed and lined with deep wrinkles, plucks the pen from Page’s hand. As Betty scribbles, her wild gray curls bounce beneath the colorful sombrero stamped with the name of a Mexican restaurant Page doesn’t know. When Betty gives the notebook back, the scents of sunbaked asphalt, sharp green grass, and unwashed flesh, all tucked beneath a veil of stale violet perfume, waft over Page.

Betty has drawn lines through each item on Page’s second list and written in new ones:

1) Read to yourself

2) Rub those magazine perfume samples on her once she’s passed out

3) Like yourself

“Don’t count on anyone, not even your mother.” Betty’s voice is gruff. “Count on yourself. That’s what I told my girls, a long time ago.”

Page looks into Betty’s pale blue eyes. “Where are they now?”

“Don’t know. They left home as soon as they finished high school. I heard they both got through college, though. Got good jobs. One’s married.”

“Do you miss them?”

“Every damn day. But I was a lousy mother.” Betty sweeps a fat finger down Page’s original list, pausing on “sips of beer” and “notices when I’m in the room.” She clears her throat. “I loved my girls, but I needed men, red wine, and the Indian casino more. I tell you, that need made my love look as piddly as a raindrop in a thunderstorm.”

Page takes a deep shuddery breath then leans in closer to Betty. “My mother doesn’t love me.” The words she was terrified to say aloud because to speak them would make them true, are out, and it’s too late to take them back. Page trembles with regret. And relief.

Betty is quiet a moment, respecting the power and the pain in Page’s words. “Maybe she can’t.”

“But…why not? I try really hard to be good. I do all my homework. I clean my room. I….”

“Maybe it’s not you. Ever think of that? Maybe it’s all her.” Betty sighs, the sound hollow and sad. “Some women just… can’t. It’s like the piece of them that’s supposed to love their kids is missing. Or broken.”

“Can I find that… piece? Or fix it for her?”

Betty’s silence is Page’s answer. Page slumps on the bench. They sit, quietly, watching the families. Betty’s stomach grumbles, and Page uses the last of her allowance to buy a sandwich from the food truck for her and Betty to share. Betty produces two colas from her cart. Together, they watch the world from the edges, ghosts in other people’s lives.

Mothers gather toys, and fathers give one last push on the swing. Little ones hold up scraped elbows and knees, expecting a kiss, wanting a cartoon bandage and hoping for ice cream on the way home.

Page stands and hugs her notebook to her chest. “I… I don’t know what to do now.”

“You go home. And you deal. My girls did, and they’re good, strong women. Just like you’re gonna be.” Betty pulls her sombrero down over her face, as if pulling a window shade down against the night. She waves Page away. “Go on. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

At home, Page finds a stack of perfume sample cards tucked inside her notebook. She inhales the scents of roses, oranges and musk, but she also smells warm asphalt and green grass, body odor and tired violets. Page smiles.

Madeline Mora-Summonte reads, writes and breathes fiction in all its forms.

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