A short, short story
Suzie rests her fingers on the glass between us, adding her streaks to the greedy marks left by the other lost women, all of them hungering to reach through to someone they love. She pushes her face close to the glass and grins at Danny in my arms. I turn so Danny’s facing her, but he buries his face in my neck.
“Look who’s over there,” I say to to him. “Mommy’s saying hi. Don’t you want to tell mommy hi?”
Danny nods but looks at his hands gripping my blouse, instead of at her.
“Say, ‘Hi mommy!’” I pick up his hand and wave with it, but his fingers remain curled in a limp fist. Twice a month we get to look in on Suzie; I take turns with her brother, Pete. But Danny only comes once a month because he’s a minor. Prison rules.
Suzie lifts the receiver on her side of the glass, her eyes fixed intently on her son. “Hello my sweet baby. Gramma tells me you’re being an awful good boy,” she coos, “always minding the grownups!”
I try to get comfy with Danny on my lap while holding the receiver up to where we can both hear. The plastic seat of the folding chair is cracked, and it spreads a little under our weight, threatening to pinch me.
“Aren’t you growing up to be my little man?” she says. Suzie shares Danny’s round, hazel eyes and straight brown hair. Her bangs are puffed up nice and her makeup looks good, considering she has to make it from Skittles and Crystal Light. But it hurts to see how hard she tries, even though there’s no men in here to see her.
I suppose it’s part of a mother’s job to believe her kid is innocent, no matter the evidence against her. The only two witnesses in Suzie’s case would be herself and the deceased, her ex-husband, Jake. Suzie says it was an accident, that he was stumbling around drunk in the dark outside a bar, and stepped from nowhere out in front of her car as she was driving away. So maybe she was driving a little too fast—only because she was mad. But who wouldn’t be mad right after finding out her ex- had taken his jailbait girlfriend to Cancun instead of paying his child support? That two-timing louse never even took Suzie to Cancun—or anywhere else.
But the jury looked at the hard facts: the way the parking lot had been lit up bright as a baseball field; the unobstructed views and open spaces around the spot where the car and the victim had collided; the distance between the point of contact and the start of the skid marks, just before the car hit the wall of the adjacent drug store; the reports that she remained seated in the car, head up, staring at that concrete wall, while the bar customers came rushing out after they heard the explosion of twisting metal and breaking glass; the fact that the dead man’s small life insurance trust was in her son’s name. The coroner confirmed Jake had been drunk when he was hit, like Suzie said. But Suzie knew that was a given, in any case.
“Yeah,” Danny whispers.
“Did he buy you some popcorn and hot dogs?” She stares with such intensity, like she wishes the beams of her eyes could pull him to her. Lately, too, she always talks to him in this drippy sweet voice. It grates on my nerves, to be honest.
“Yeah.” Danny speaks a little louder this time, and Suzie starts to nod really fast, like she might coax more out of him by being super–positive.
“Aw, that sure sounds like fun! Hey, come on, momma’s big boy can give momma a smile, can’t he?” Suzie’s grin is stretched so thin, she looks a little crazy.
Danny nods, but doesn’t look at her or smile.
“You look great, Suzie,” I say, hoping to ease up her seething attention on the boy. “How are your classes going?”
“I’m acing them, Mom,” she says, her voice a little shaky, like it scares her to admit it. “Who would believe it?” The moment she shifts her gaze to me, the wild gleam vanishes from her eyes, her brow furrows. This is a different look of desperation. “I don’t know why it wasn’t this easy back when I was in school.” She laughs a little.
“You were just too popular for your own good.” I laugh to make light of it, like we’re sitting across the kitchen counter drinking lemonade. You might not guess it for such a free-spirit, but somehow Suzie had always been a wiz at math. After school she’d worked for years at an industrial warehouse out on Route 7, keeping their books, and doing a great job of it. And since she had nothing better to do now, she figured she might as well study up to become a certified accountant. She said with that little piece of paper she could make a lot more money when she got out. So Pete found some distance-learning courses on the internet, and we’re splitting her tuition costs.
Pete says he believes his sister’s story about the accident. Hard as it is to swallow, he says, he might understand how they could get her for manslaughter, but not for murder two.
Right after it happened, Pete was the one to tell little Danny that his dad was killed in a car accident. But Pete left it at that. No one has told Danny that his mom was the one driving the car. Let alone that a jury was convinced she’d rammed into his dad on purpose. After all, what good is going to come out of us telling Danny horrid stories about his mom, especially right when he just lost his dad?
Somehow, Danny puzzled it out all on his own that his mom went to prison because of the accident, though he can’t figure the whole of it. Danny says the judge must’ve got mad at his mom and locked her up because she couldn’t save his daddy’s life after a car hit him; he tries to decide if that was fair, if he should be mad at the judge or at his mommy or someone else. I never know what to say to him. But I know we won’t be able to shield him forever. And in the long run, I can’t guess what he’ll learn from our example—from any of us grownups in his life. Though God knows, we try to do right for him—just like I always tried to do right for Suzie and Pete. For a parent, the way isn’t always clear.
Two weeks ago, Pete came to pick up Danny for a weekend camping trip with his boys. We watched them a few minutes playing basketball in the driveway, Danny struggling to dribble like the older boys. But the thing kept getting away from him. Pete shook his head. “It’s tough being a kid.”
“They have no idea why grownups do what we do,” I said.
“Most of the time grownups have no idea why we do what we do,” he snorted.
Pete’s oldest son took Danny’s hand and tried to help him dribble, but the ball bounced and rolled onto the ragged lawn.
“Jake was an asshole,” Pete hissed. But after a second, he said, “Then again, I’m not sure Danny is better off without his dad, even if his dad was an asshole. If only Suzie would’ve thought about that before losing her head like she did. She’s always been such a loose cannon.”
Little Danny is growing up fast, too. The other day he asked me why his mommy and daddy didn’t love each other like other mommies and daddies do. What was I supposed to tell him? I said that daddy wasn’t really a big boy, like the kind mommy wanted Danny to grow up to be, and mommy could only take care of one little boy at a time. He thought about it a minute, and then nodded his head. This morning, when I was helping him dress up for our visit to come here, he asked me why mommy didn’t save daddy from the accident. I just sucked in my breath and told him I didn’t really know. He said he’d ask Uncle Pete.
Danny studies his mom from the corner of his eye while she talks to me about her classes. She stops talking, knowing he’s watching her, aching to look into her boy’s eyes. But when she flicks him a glance, he looks away. “Eight more years, mom, before I’m eligible for parole,” she says plaintively. “My baby’ll be in middle school by then.”
“It’s never too late,” I tell her. “Main thing is you be good and come home. We want you home.” My throat feels tight. I pull Danny closer and I see his mom on the far side of the bullet-proof glass bunch her shoulders and cross her arms, like her body thinks she’s the one hugging her son.
“I swear, I never meant for any of this to happen,” she whispers. “It’s not what I—I didn’t mean it.” A tear leaks out and she swishes it away. The Skittle-blue of her eyelids is smeared.
In my arms, Danny fidgets and squirms. He slides off my lap and stands behind my chair, his arms stretched around my shoulders. “Let’s go, Gramma,” he insists.
“Hush now, Danny. Let’s sit with mommy a few more minutes. You know she misses you so much.”
“I do baby,” she says, this time not drippy-sweet. “You can’t believe how much I miss you.” Her face is moist. Her voice is thick. She brushes her loose hair behind her ears and looks at her son, her face open and sad.
Danny peers around my shoulder to look at her. “Mommy?” he says.
“Yes, baby,” she says.
But Danny stays quiet, his gaze moving across her face and hair, his face unreadable. He walks back around beside me, both his hands gripping my arm. “Tell mommy about the game,” I coax him.
“It’s fun to go with Uncle Pete and Aunt Jenny and Zack and Alex,” he says, looking down again at the countertop, still not smiling. “They bought me this Giants hat.” At this, he touches the top of his head and lifts his chin. He looks up into his mom’s face, patting the top of his head. Two pats. And then he drops his arm and looks down.
“That sounds fun, baby,” she smiles. “Who won?”
“Giants won! Giants are my favorite team. And daddy’s favorite team.”
“I know, baby,” she whispers.
Danny gets quiet again and after a second he clambers back up into my lap. Suzie looks at me, her eyes shining, her mouth open and forehead knotted with an unbearable ache that can’t yet be lifted or absolved.
We sit in silence, but not for long, because soon the guard tells us our time is up and leads us out the door. “Bye, mommy,” Danny says, solemnly, sliding off my lap. We head out to the parking lot where the brittle sound of gravel underfoot makes the morning sun seem cold, too much like the cracking heart under yellow light of the room we just left. I wonder if I should take Danny for ice cream after this, or to the park. He can see me thinking. He asks me, “Now what, Gramma?” But I don’t know the answer.