She’d been saying it to herself like a mantra: try to get out of the house today. She pushed the stroller like every step was uphill. Occasionally she would forget her wiggly, red-faced son, her third ,that lay inside of it. At six weeks her breasts were shiny and taut, strained against the maternity top she still wore. Two milk spots, the size of egg yolks were blossoming over each nipple. Soon they would spread like wide, gaping eyes that said ‘hello world!’ Her body was a force beyond her control.
It was dark and humid, every year, on the day St. Monica’s held their fair. Her sons, five and six were hungry and wanted to go on rides. They needed tickets for everything, even cotton candy and soda. The line at the ticket booth was long and snaked across the length of the playground. A priest puffing on a cigar was taking money and handing out tickets. He nodded to her when he saw her, his eyes on the stroller. She acknowledged him without a smile and tried to remember why she thought it was a good idea to bring the boys here.
They bought some cotton candy and soft pretzels and sipped from the same jumbo Cola, snot and saliva no barrier to a thirst hard to satisfy. Afterward she stood with her large hands on the bar of the stroller, rocking herself back and forth out of habit while she watched her boys, both of them small for their age, dip and swirl on the gigantic teacups, their paint old and chipped. She thought how once they must have looked bright and shiny.
She recognized a mother from her son’s t-ball team. The woman came over, wagging a long, French tipped finger at her newborn. “Wow. You’ve got your hands full!” She’d have cut a woman like that off at the knees before she had kids, but that seemed like such a long time ago and she knew that a leaking woman had no leverage.
She clutched the long length of tickets in her hand for the lifeline they were. The pickpocket lady stood alone, smiling, occasionally tipping her head back and closing her eyes. She looked like an old version of Strawberry Shortcake in her funny little hat and little square toed shoes. Her patchwork dress had pockets of various sizes, trimmed in different colors, concealing prizes that were nothing but junk. She led the boys to the woman, and handed her four tickets. The woman smiled like they were the sweetest things she’d ever send and told them to “go for it!” The boys were shy and took some time to decide, but chose from opposite sides of her skirt resulting in a small package of blue army men and a neon green rubber ball the color of antifreeze. She let them choose again holding her hand up when the mother tried to hand her more tickets. “It’s on me,” the lady said.
The sky grew darker and the low clouds began to spit. “What the hell,” the pickpocket lady said, peeking into the stroller while the boys shoved their sticky hands into her pockets, pulling various small toys, all made of plastic.
The two women stood watching the boys, now on the ground playing with their small toys. The baby stirred. “You’re lucky,” the pickpocket lady said.
The mother crossed her arms over her heavy breasts.
The pickpocket lady put her hand in a small hiding place in the hem of her long skirt and pulled out two cigarettes, jamming them in her mouth, lighting both of them. She offered one to the mother. “I shouldn’t,” she said, looking at the boys, but taking the cigarette anyway. “We shouldn’t do a lot of things, but we do them anyway.” The mother thought how she’d been too tired to give the kids breakfast. She heard the hearty laugh of the priest and smelled the stink of his cigar. She enjoyed her cigarette without guilt. She took the smoke into her lungs and blew a strong stream.
The pickpocket lady emptied her pockets, offering the boys who were happy and oblivious to everything else around them, whatever was left. “Be good,” she called to them, gently touching one, who barely noticed, on the top of his head. She walked away from the crowd.
The mother finished her cigarette and peered into the stroller. The baby was awake, though he hadn’t made a sound. He smiled at the mother, drawing a tiny, red fist to his mouth, sucking hard. She called to her son’s to gather their toys before it rained. The teacups were still spinning despite the ominous sky and she would have loved to curl up in one. She would phone the boys’ father when she got home. She’d tell him they’d had a decent day. Not a great day. Just not a bad one.
Michelle Reale is an academic librarian on faculty at a university in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her fiction has been published in Word Riot, elimae, Rumble, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly and others. Her fiction chapbook, Natural Habitat will be published by Burning River in the spring of 2010.
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