Gravel crunches under her flip-flops as she navigates the edge of the driveway, looking both ways out of sheer habit down the empty street. It’s 87 degrees near midnight, but she clutches the light robe over her slip, lest any sleepless neighbors note her lack of proper clothing. It’s too hot for layers, and a sheen of sweat beads on her neck and lazily trails down between her shoulders and the straps of her slip.
Why is the mailbox across the street? she wonders again. These days she retrieves the mail maybe once a week- there is seldom good mail anymore- only bills and people wanting things she cannot deliver. Mail stops being fun when you live on the edge. Last week a postcard came from Pennsylvania. That was a happy trip- this time she is hoping and absently praying there will be something mixed in with the junk and bills that she can put on the table to surprise her son.
Boys don’t turn ten every day, and a boy should have something to surprise him when he bounds out of bed to celebrate his first decade. Fishing deep into the dark mailbox, she grits her teeth and hopes no spiders have made a home amid the crunched up letters and folded junkmail- perhaps more than once a week is necessary. It’s dark, and she’s not sure, but it feels like there might be a birthday card mixed in there. Clutching the pile of mail to her chest, watches the sky as she flip-flops back towards Little House.
Dry lightning sparks across the sky, matching the disquiet in her heart. Tipping her face skyward, she hopes for rain, but catches little hope on the hot night air. The kitchen light twinkles through the open window, and she pulls herself up the steps back into the cumulative contained heat of the day held inside her small kitchen.
There is not one card, but two, for her boy. She exhales relief, and adds the two cards to the pile of M&M cookies on the cake stand she decorated earlier. The banners she uses for each birthday are strung across the kitchen, and a small sign says “Happy Birthday” in pink and orange circles. It has to be enough for now. Tomorrow she will try harder.
Tomorrow she will make him macaroni and cheese from scratch, per his request, and whatever he wants for breakfast. She will bake a cake and add the oppressive heat of the oven to the un-air-conditioned Little House. She will run to the store and find him a small gift that won’t satisfy the cravings for X-Box, or iPods, or Wii games, but will hopefully please him nonetheless.
She hits the lights on the now happy-looking kitchen and makes her way down the small hallway to her boys’ room. Bare feet feel their way around the landmine of Lego pieces, and she bends down to kiss the rosy cheeks of her giant sleeping boy. How did a decade pass and her cherubic copper-headed baby turn into this giant man-child who shares clothing sizes with her? She brushes the haystack of red curls from his face and presses her lips to his freckled forehead. He doesn’t stir, deep in the arms of sleep.
Stepping back she lands on a Lego and smacks her head on the top bunk. She stifles a cry, but the boy stretches and rolls and cracks one eye at her. She smiles and rubs her head, and he mumbles, “Love you too, mom” as he rolls over and sprawls on his stomach in front of his whirring fan.
She stands in the darkness looking at her boy. Lightning flashes outside, and the hum of fans floats in from all rooms. She had never said a word… but he had seen her and assumed her love. Maybe she’s doing something right after all.