Fair Trade

 

(This piece was written in March, 2004)

He told his wife the boy had fell.

She came home and saw the child, his eye nearly swallowed by the bloated, bruised flesh of his toddler face. She saw him sitting there on the sofa, with a grape soda and Snickers bar, watching Sponge Bob as if nothing had happened different that day from the last.

He turned towards her as she entered the room, a tender grin tugging at the corners of his chocolate-kissed lips. “Got four stitchies,” he said, pointing to the injured eye. “Four stitchies at the hos-pittle.”

His mother dropped an armful of shopping bags on the kitchen table, her keys scratching the finish in her haste to reach the boy. She prayed it would polish out and made a mental note to tell the housekeeper.

“Are you okay, Buddie?” She gathered the boy in her arms, squeezing until his shoulders knocked against his ears. She kissed his cheek underneath the wound and drew his head to her chest.  He smelled of chocolate and fabric softener. “Does it hurt real bad?”

Probably not as bad as the broken wrist, she thought to herself. Oh, the screaming and hollering he’d done that day.

“Nah, Iokay now, mama.” The boy held up the half-eaten candy bar. “See what daddy got me at the store? We went there after the hos-pittle. And I got a beanie baby from the doctor for being such a good boy. He said I was the bestest big boy he ever knowed.  It’s a gray kitty, with green eyes and white wick-ers. Nippy the Kitty, mama. See?”

The cat sat on the boy’s lap, its green-glass eyes fixated on Sponge Bob.

The mother kissed the boy’s forehead, careful not to touch the tender eye.

She said nothing to her husband as she walked into the kitchen, passing him with her eyes downcast to the floor. She began to put away the groceries. Her back was to him as she settled things into the refrigerator. She heard him coming up from behind, but did not turn to face him. She hid her anger in the cool air of the icebox.

Her fingers trembled with rage as she set the new jar of mayo in the door compartment. It took its orderly place between the jelly and mustard, and she turned the jar so that the label faced out.  She checked the row of condiments. P before S, she calculated, switching the pickles and the syrup. God forbid something be out of place around here…

"That boy is so clumsy." Her husband reached past her for a bottle of beer. "Can't walk a straight line without hurting himself." The sharply creased sleeve of his oxford brushed against her shoulder as he pulled back. The edge of the bottle cap nicked her forearm.

She rubbed the scratched skin absentmindedly, studying the carton of eggs.

She would leave this time.

She had worked it out on the way home. Her mother would take them, at least for awhile. She figured she could pawn her wedding ring. The ring…well, the ring would not be missed. She had never wanted such a vulgar token, with its 2 carat diamond and channel cut emeralds. It had not been a gift of the heart.

The few things worth bringing would fit in one suitcase. She had no desire to take anything that his money had paid for, except a few items the boy would need.

They could leave tomorrow after he left for work. She just had to get through this night, and then they would be all right. They would leave, and he wouldn’t bother coming after them. She was sure of it. He didn’t care enough to give chase.

She turned towards the sink, closing the fridge door with her foot. She would make the boy’s favorite tonight: spaghetti. They would watch a movie after dinner. After her husband retired into his office with a fresh beer, she and the boy would snuggle together on the couch under the tattered afghan he’d had since he was a baby. He would fall asleep in her arms-the one safe place in this house.

She put water on to boil and began chopping fresh tomato on the granite countertop. The tap-tap-tap of the knife against the cool stone, slicing through the plump red flesh, gave her mind something to focus on while she worked the details of their escape in her mind.

“I’ll be home late tomorrow night,” her husband said between commercials. “I’ve got a meeting with one of the senior partners about this case…”

“We’ll eat without you, then,” she said smartly. He mumbled something under his breath, then took a long swig from the bottle.

The boy offered Nippy the Kitty a saliva-drenched peanut. Forever fixated into a cheerful ‘meow’, the cat’s thread mouth refused the morsel. The boy ate it.

She watched the water in the stainless steel dutch kettle tremble. Tiny blisters began to break away from the bottom. They raced towards the surface of the water in angry waves, desperately trying to run from the heat of the pan’s bottom. When the water began to quiver in its fury, she added the pasta.

She was thankful her mother had forced her to finish school before they had gotten married. She had thought then that she would never need her education. Her husband was just finishing law school and had been offered a good job at the firm. “We won’t need your money,” he had assured her. “I don’t want you working.”

But her mother had insisted. She had, after all, mortgaged her house to pay for her daughter’s education. How grateful she was for the gesture now. She thanked God she had finished before marrying and getting pregnant, before she was sucked into the cyclone of terror that ravaged this house.

Her husband lay back in the recliner, the bottle of beer dangling from his fingertips like a motionless pendulum. The boy slumped when he turned the station from Sponge Bob to the nightly news, but knew better than to protest. He swaddled Nippy Kitty into a dishtowel and silently rocked him.

“Did you pick up my watch from the jeweler’s yet?”

“Yes.”

“Did they replace the diamond? How much did they charge? You didn’t let them screw you over, did you? Did you read the fine print this time? You didn’t sign anything, did you?”

“It was still under warranty.” She drained the water from the pasta, mesmorized by the swirl of cloudy water dancing around the drain. She watched as a few random strands of pasta managed to wiggle their way through the confines of the colander. For just a moment, she thought of herself.

The watch had been fixed the same day the cast had been removed from the boy’s wrist.

“Make sure he doesn’t play with it again, understand?”

“I’ll be sure of it.”

After dinner, the boy nestled into the crook of her arm, Nippy the Kitty held tight in one hand. She touched a finger to the bruised eye, where the swollen flesh would soon turn shades of purple and yellow. She counted the stitches: one for each birthday.

She kissed the boy's forehead and snuggled close to him.

Maybe I’ll pawn the watch, she thought to herself. He owes us.

There was, after all, a price for everything. She had learned that over the years. There had been a price for every slip of the tongue, every miscalculation of the checkbook, every social faux pas in the presence of colleagues and friends.

And now, in this house, there was even a price for being a child.

Leaving his beer and his dirty plate on the footstool, her husband left for his study. He didn't bother to tell them goodnight or to check on the boy. The room breathed with his absence, the walls exhaled and softened. 

 Yes, she thought. We’re taking the watch.