Mid-August in the Central Valley of California means crying for popsicles. Not some sort of mission to chase the cold, nothing so poetic. No amount of idyllic analysis can change the frank truth. He wants popsicles, nothing more. He wants me to smear away the sticky red streaks on his chin afterward. A mess. I get groceries at Lucky once a week and I take him with me this time so he can watch me disregard his requests for popsicles.
He doesn’t have a car seat, not since growing out of his infant one. In any case, he does not need it; he uses the car seat granted by God—hot, grey vinyl. He cries when I set him down there in the back, his exposed, pink legs kicking in pain. His feet: the only extremities that hang off the edge. The 110-degree sun shines directly in his face. California dust in his every crease.
I will not buy popsicles because I do not like him. This aversion arose only a year ago, when he started sharing his thoughts with me in complete sentences. As I deliberated my apathy for his words, I realized I shared nothing in common with him. Right now, he has nowhere else to go.
Often I think of the September morning I left my first home. Seventeen years of living with a parent who didn’t talk to me left no threads to bind me, save breakable ones that seemed to burn themselves after that summer. September mornings filled the footprints of summer and I sweat a lot under that sun.
My pregnancy was a fluke, and then I determined to put in the time before I realized that I didn’t owe it to anybody to put in the time.
The sun beats with a vengeance, like a butcher slaughtering the same cow over and over. I herd the kid out of the car and to Lucky, but I can’t help but feel as though I am herded too, by something I can’t see. Or something like the sun.
“Keep your stupid mouth shut,” I say. Revulsion writes itself in my head, things I can’t say to a four-year-old. He’d never understand. Four years ago my own blood caked his new eyes shut and coated his throat while his weak lungs battled to suck in new air. This, after nine months of my own blood bringing him life. Now he gives me nothing in return. Any and all words worth saying, wasted on limp weeds-for-brains. Lucky’s air-conditioning freezes droplets of sweat to my face. I grab a grocery basket and set the pace.
Last week he wanted a red box of cereal. So easily tricked by every can and carton. He cried for the red, “Red! Red!” in the aisle, in the next aisle, and the aisle after that. His best trick on wretched repeat; stripping all meaning from language, one word at a time. The only thing he knew to do.
Heat marries my penchant for hearing his displeasure and together they drive me through the freezer aisle, still with no intent to buy any popsicles. I imagine him walking through the aisle after me—I imagine his whimpers, calm at first, maybe a look, look, followed by more pleading cries, followed by a tantrum. I fantasize walking away. He’s left with no choice but to follow me. I’m the only person he knows.
When I hear his scuffing behind me still, see his reflection in the glass doors of the freezer, it’s clear he doesn’t understand how close he is to the popsicles. Still, loud like an irregular heartbeat, his scream resonates in my ears. Inside of my chest it feels like the sun is burning, like the sun escaped the sky by hiding in me. The kid shadows me into the next aisle.
“That?” I hear him ask. His uselessly small finger points to something on the shelf.
“Olives?” the scholar in me responds. The mother in me remains mute.
“Olives!” He wants a jar of olives. Unprecedented, but of course he wants handfuls of Muppet eyeballs. He laughs: blackness behind the pink of his tongue. This draws the attention of a bag of wrinkles. Some old lady. Flour face. She holds her shopping cart tight. Like she believes she’s tricking people into thinking she’s not using it for a walker. I smile at her, the kind that doesn’t get a smile in return.
And then I slap the four-year-old in front of me. My child. Now, silence never as dazzling as when the smoke of a four-year-old is snuffed. Now he’s forgotten what olives are, he’s forgotten his presence in a grocery store, he’s forgotten all of the seven things he knows about his insignificant life. He has been slapped. The bag of wrinkles, startled, lets out a small squawk.
My mouth fills with spit.
“You want olives? You want olives.” My voice feels like a machine gun in my throat.
I hurl a glass jar of olives at the red face three feet away from me. A jar only the size of my hand. With a thud it slams against his cheek, thrusting his head back. It drops to his feet and shatters, glass spilling like tears.
He looks up at me and clutches his cheek on instinct. Crisp grocery store air whooshes into his lungs: fuel for a howl. In the split second between the end of the breath and the release of a scream, his eyes shift down and fix on the mess on the ground. Olive juice in a swamp-water puddle. Glass shimmers everywhere, making a halo around his feet. And motionless after a moment of rolling are a million green olives, round and wet and juicy. His hand drops from his face.
“Olives,” he says under his breath, soft like bubbling water. He squats, picks up an olive, and rolls it between his fingers.
August Edwards is attending University of New Mexico to pursue a degree in English. Before New Mexico, she lived in Indiana, Connecticut, and California; it has been fun for her to find out people are weird everywhere. She has been published in 101 Words, Entropy, and Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s annual literary magazine.