The Mother Isn’t the Problem31 May 2017
Continued from ‘The Boy in the Marigolds’.
“Anton, it’s not that you’re doing poorly. Your grades are fine. I just worry about your attendance, and – ”
My mother cuts Mrs. Stewart off, “You see what I have to put up with?” She turns on me, “Anton, I thought you were done skipping classes?”
Mrs. Stewart barely misses a beat before she’s droning on again. I’m surprised mother’s even here. She’s never shown the least bit of interest in me before, but there’s nothing quite like a parent-teacher interview to drag out a neglectful parent. I stare at a pit in the glossy surface of the table, crossing and uncrossing my ankles. My mother, Tamara, a raven-haired firecracker in her youth, has since softened around the edges. Her cheeks have filled out, her hair aggressively permed to bounce as she rebukes age. Wild at heart, she is no longer content with her life with father and me, and has begun to drift away from us. She’s there, but she’s not. We barely speak to each other at home, and she never speaks to my father any more. They’ve been sleeping in separate rooms for a while now.
Mrs. Stewart clears her throat, she’s wringing her hands on the table. “I wanted to ask how everything’s going with the other boys in your class. I noticed you were chatting with a few yesterday. That’s really great progress!” She punctuates each word with balled hands. “If you don’t mind me asking, what did you chat about?”
Four boys were playing down-ball in the courtyard in front of our home-room. I knew Mrs. Stewart was watching. Her gaze is always dancing frantically around me and those I speak to. But with her stuck behind that window, all I had to do was smile and pretend. I know it’s concern that plagues her, but honestly, I wish she’d take an interest in someone else. I’ve seen her chatting with the other kids, imploring them to include me.
James, the boisterous leader of the boys, hesitated on his serve when he saw me approaching. The others, facing away from me, sniggered as he messed up. The ball bounced in my direction and when they noticed me, they fell quiet. An unspoken rule around the schoolyard was that I was to be avoided at all costs. I wasn’t oblivious to this fact, and used it to my advantage. I never had to wait in line at the canteen. No one calls me out on my obvious flouting of the rules as I stroll to the front. It’s not that I don’t want friends. They just seem like so much effort to establish and maintain. The boys that I don’t like, those like James who epitomise the phrase ‘a waste of space’, are there to be toyed with. James saw past me to Mrs. Stewart and her ever-present gaze, and begrudgingly invited me to join in. I didn’t move.
They waited, watching me, as I stared them down.
“Do you have any pets, James?” I asked innocently after a long silence. I already knew the answer. I’d seen his dog numerous times, as a matter of fact. His mother brings their Dalmatian to school at pick-up, leaving it tied up to a post outside.
“Why the hell do you want to know?” he snorted in response.
“That’s a bit rude, James. I wonder if Mrs. Stewart would approve?” I retorted, suppressing a smirk. James clenched his jaw.
“Yeah, I have a dog.” It was wonderful to watch him squirm.
“Do you love her, James? Her name’s Macy, right?”
I dropped to my knees and picked up the rubber ball, rolling it back to near James’ feet. I’d pushed my luck, because he suddenly became agitated, grasping the ball firmly in his hand as if to throw it at me. I let loose a small grin. He glanced hopelessly over my shoulder where Mrs. Stewart was still watching. He tempered his anger. The rest of the boys shuffled, impatiently shifting their weight whilst listening in, all the while glancing toward the window behind them. One of them started puffing his chest, standing taller, preparing for a fight. It isn’t often that I speak to anyone, I’m sure they must not know what to expect.
“Look, do you want to join in, or not?” James demanded, clearly having endured enough of my ‘pleasantries.’
I walked away. That was enough socializing for one day.
“What a weirdo.” One of the other boys muttered under his breath. The four chuckled in my direction before returning to their game.
Mrs. Stewart smiled at me through the glass.
In the parent-teacher meeting, Mrs. Stewart waits for a response.
“Oh, you know Mrs. Stewart, just young people things. Nothing too Earth shattering,” I flash her my I’m-a-good-boy smile. My mother shoots the teacher an apologetic glance. “And if there’s nothing else,” I conclude, “I think we’d better go.”
I push out my chair, leaving my mother to scramble after me.
“I’m so sorry, he’s normally quite introverted, and I know you’re doing all you can, if he’s ever a bother. . .”
At this point I tune her out. Amazing, that nurturing voice she’s putting on. It’s almost as if she cares for me. What a joke. So I leave. She catches up as I walk the halls back to her car. We depart in silence.
Our home is a gash in an otherwise beautiful neighbourhood. The dark red bricks are weathered and crumbling. An old shed sits alone in the backyard with chopped wood which father stacks against its walls. This shed is where father spends most of his time. And slowly, where I’ve been spending more of mine.
I hesitate by the doorway, peering in. He sits, smoking a Marlboro, flipping through some papers. I move towards him and he looks up, startled, almost dropping his cigarette as he stashes the documents. He can’t meet my eye, and I know what he’s doing. I had caught him looking over Alexander McKenzie’s file a few days after he’d murdered him before my eyes. It’s been a week since that night, and nothing has changed. I’ve been trying to broach it with him, but he changes the subject, shuts me out. It’s not fair, I’m losing him.
“Maybe you should leave, Anton. Stay in the house with your mother.” Even just spitting out her name provokes a change in him: he sinks his shoulders and runs his hands through his thinning hair. The smell of smoke clings to the walls, creeps over everything he touches and lulls me into a haze within the shed.
“What I do is complicated. Everything is set in motion for a reason. It’s measured, controlled and executed cleanly. I’m sorry you saw what you did.”
“But I’m not.”
I walk over to him and drag out a chair. He looks at me for a long time without saying anything. He stares into my eyes, searching for something. Hesitation? Fear? Father takes a long drag and squashes the near-expired butt into an ashtray on the table. Whatever he sees in my face seems to satisfy him, because he places the papers back onto the table where I can read them.
Three days later, as I’m walking out through the school gate on my way home, I see Macy – James’s dog. She perks up when I move closer, panting and sniffing excitedly. After a few seconds of hesitation, I give her a good scratch behind the ears. I untie her leash from the post and walk her by my side, slipping through the throngs of parents picking their kids up. They are too distracted to notice. She didn’t want to go at first – not that she sensed anything was particularly wrong. That came later.
‘Lost Dog’ signs went up that same night. James fastened them to fences and posted them around the school with flimsy tape. It wasn’t long before they were taken down, pasted over or forgotten.