Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.
Joshua Johnson stopped hauling the garbage can towards the bins and watched the Kindergarten children laughing, jumping and skipping on the playground.
“What a sweetie,” he thought, looking at a child with ribbon tied pigtails flopping on the side of her head like rabbit ears, as she ran playing freeze tag with another girl. “She’s just too cute.” He smiled to himself, picked up the can of discarded lunch plates and food and walked without haste towards the trash receptacle.
Joshua and smiles went together like popcorn and warm butter. He was one of those folks that could drive you nuts with his pleasant disposition. It could be the coldest, wettest, dreariest day of the year and he’d find something nice about it.
Just as you ran into the hallway, pulling your child in out of the storm, drenched and shivering, he’d walk by and say, “Good morning.” If you looked at him frowning, wondering what was good about it, he’d nod out the window and add, “Sure is a God- send for the trees.” As you forced a crooked smile, he’d be off, whistling some cheerful tune that sounded familiar, but he’d made to be quite his own.
Mr. Johnson, who was fairly good looking at fifty-one years of age, with short, curly gray-black hair, skin like rich dark earth and a prominent dimpled chin, had a gift for remembering names. He knew almost every child in the school. On his way to dumping the trash, Joshua realized he didn’t know the name of the little girl he’d seen playing tag and resolved to find out first thing in the morning.
As the bell rang, announcing the end of the school day, Leslie King made her way through the swarming hallways and met her son, Sevon, outside his fifth grade classroom.
It was only the second week of school and she and Sevon had hastily moved to the area a month ago. Though she’d known about the move ahead of time and prepared all summer, it had taken them much longer than she’d anticipated to find a decent place to live and a school district she found acceptable. It had just been their luck to move to an area of the country that had one of the highest costs of living and the lowest vacancy rates.
As a marketing manager for a major software company, she was required to relocate when needed. She was fine with the traveling, but didn’t like the impact it had on Sevon. She’d decided that this would be their last move. She was already looking into starting her own consulting firm and had some good leads on a few venture capitalists who might be interested.
Her mother, a professor of literature at the University of Texas in Austin, said she’d pitch in a couple grand if she needed it. She’d been able to keep her head when her mother had offered and simply said, “Thanks Mom. I’ll let you know.”
Yeah, her mother would give her some dough alright, but she’d have to pay some painful penance, hearing about how she was an idiot for dropping out of graduate school in her final year. And knowing herself, as she did, she knew that that sickening childhood shame, of never being good enough in her mother’s eyes, would once again creep under the door of her watchful radar and infect the healthy self-esteem she’d struggled to develop and protect.
Since Sevon’s father had left, over four years ago, Leslie had been too busy simply surviving to concern herself much with dating or meeting anyone new. he’d gone out a few times, usually with executives or colleagues, but found them to be conceited or consumed with accumulating material goods. She didn’t see herself as knocking guys out with her looks, but knew that for someone thirty-seven years old, she could easily strike a pose with her high chestnut cheekbones, accentuate her firm hips and legs and still turn some heads.
A few years ago she’d straightened her kinky black hair and had liked it so much she’d continued to torture herself with the weekly process to keep it that way, though it had now become more habit than enhancement.
She didn’t really care about how she looked anymore, just enough to keep appearances and have Sevon be proud of his mom. He was all that mattered. Any men in her life were a sideshow, at best a momentary pleasure, at worst a nuisance.
“Hey little man,” she said, carefully restraining herself from giving him a big luscious hug, knowing that would embarrass him beyond comprehension in front of his classmates. “How goes it?”
“OK,” he replied, smiling.
As they walked towards the exit, Leslie bent down slightly and whispered, “I missed you today.”
Sevon glanced up, frowned and looked around quickly to make sure nobody had heard her. “Mom!” he hissed.
He’d grown so much in the last two years that he came up to his mother’s chest.
“It won’t be long until you’re a big man and I’ll be looking up at you,” she would tell him fondly, when they were in the privacy of their own home. He would try to act like he didn’t hear her, but she could see his pride burst like fresh seeds from a pod and would have had to take sandpaper to wipe the grin off his face.
One of two women, standing in front of the school office, talking loudly, glanced at Leslie as she and Sevon started to walk by. The woman, wearing shorts and a bright yellow-orange jogging sweater, stopped mid-sentence and said, “Hello. I’m Eloise, Eloise Jacobs. Alex’s mom.”
Leslie stopped, shook Eloise’s pinkish-white outstretched hand and wondered if she was supposed to know this woman.
“Our sons’ are in the same class with Mrs. Rios,” she explained. “Your son’s name is Devon or Givon . . . I’m sorry I don’t remember.”
Leslie turned to her son. “This is Sevon,” she pronounced clearly, accentuating the short e.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Eloise exclaimed, reaching out her hand to Sevon. “Glad to meet you.”
Sevon shook hands quickly and he and Alex, who had just appeared, both scurried down the hall.
Leslie called, with a little anxiety in her voice, “Where are you going?”
Sevon yelled, “We’ll be outside Mom, by the basketball court.”
Before Leslie could say another word Eloise started talking. “Alex has gone here all his life. It’s a great school. Sure, there’s a few teachers that are so so, but most of them are good. And the parents really help out.”
Leslie noticed the other woman Eloise had been talking to start to leave, as did Eloise.
“I’m sorry,” Eloise said quickly, grabbing the other woman by the sleeve. “This is Linda Chang. Her daughter’s in the other fifth grade class. She helps out with the tutoring program in the library.”
Linda shook Leslie’s hand. “Is this your son’s first year?” she asked, a solid silver necklace around her throat and an aqua blue suit adorning her medium frame. “I don’t remember seeing him before.”
“Yes,” Leslie said hesitantly, still looking for Sevon out the window. She saw him playing with Alex, relaxed a little and turned back towards Linda. “We just moved here last month. Is it always so hard to find a place?”
Both women gave knowing nods.
“Where were you living before Mrs. um . . .?” Eloise inquired. “You do have a name besides Sevon’s Mom I presume.” All three women smiled, understanding how they often were referred to as someone’s mother instead of by their own names.
“It’s Ms. King, but please call me Leslie,” she replied. “We were living on the East Coast until I got transferred.”
“Transferred?” Linda inquired. “What do you do?”
“Well,” Leslie explained, “I have been working as a marketing consultant but I’m looking into . . .”
“Hey! What’s up?” yelled a short woman with long braided hair, high heels and bright red lipstick. A little girl that looked like her miniature was pulling her by the hand.
“Go play with Stacey,” she told the little girl. “She’s right out there.” She pointed to the playground. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
The little girl looked outside and took off running.
“Don’t run in the hallway!” the woman said and joined Eloise, Linda and Leslie.
“She’s such a doll,” Eloise told the woman.
“Yeah,” the lady replied, “a wind-up doll that never stops.”
They all laughed.
Eloise made the introduction. “Mrs. King, I mean Leslie or better known as Sevon’s Mom.” They all chuckled. “This is Marina. Marina Higuera.” They shook hands.
“Marina is the queen of the PTA,” Eloise continued.
“And about everything else,” Linda said satirically.
Marina lifted her chin and sauntered a few steps.
“It’s a good thing our husbands don’t attend PTA meetings,” Eloise smirked, “or Marina would have hijacked them all.”
They all laughed, as Marina batted her eyelashes playfully.
“Welcome,” Marina said sincerely.
“Thanks,” Leslie exclaimed.
Joshua entered the hallway, pushing the empty garbage can on a handcart and walked past the front desk whistling. He was reminding himself to find out the name of the new kid he just saw playing outside with Alex Jacobs.
Leslie, in the midst of explaining once again what she did for a living, stopped mid-sentence and watched the handsome, seemingly distracted older gentleman walk past whistling. The other women saw her eyes wander.
Suddenly, Marina called out, “Hey! Mr. Johnson!”
Joshua tipped the handcart forward, so it stood by itself and turned around to see Eloise Jacobs, Linda Chang, Marina Higuera and a lovely woman he didn’t know. With his easy, “I’ve got all morning” attitude, he walked over and nodded hello.
“Good afternoon,” he said, trying to keep from staring at Leslie. “Beautiful day out today, isn’t it?”
“Yes, indeed,” Marina exclaimed, and without much hesitation introduced Leslie.
“Pleasure to meet you Ma’m,” he said with pleasure, unable to hide his admiration.
Leslie shook his hand gently and felt a warm strength returned.
Nodding his head towards the basketball court he said, “And that must be your boy out there?”
“Yes.” She smiled. “Sevon.”
“Well well,” he said, not sure what else to say with all the ladies staring at him. “I ah, better get back to work.” He nodded over at the can in the middle of the hallway. “I can’t leave that standing there now, can I?”
“Take care Mr..Johnson,” Marina cooed.
“You all have a good night now,” he replied.
As he turned, he flashed a quick smile towards Leslie, but not enough for anyone to notice. He started whistling as he walked away from the desk and through the door to the cafeteria.
“Now wasn’t she something,” he told himself, as he replaced the trash can and put in a new liner. “Whoever she’s fixed up with is one lucky man.”
It had been a couple of years since Joshua had even considered getting involved with another woman. He enjoyed their company and was just as drawn to the opposite sex as most men, but things never really worked out and he’d decided it was better to leave things alone, considering his circumstances at home and all.