Wash and Ready
From The End of Music. Published by Breakwater Books in 2017. Jamie Fitzpatrick is a host and producer at CBC Radio. His first novel, You Could Believe in Nothing, won the Fresh Fish Award for Emerging Writers in Newfoundland and Labrador. He lives in St. John’s.
The telephone rings, and Sam responds, singing nonsense words from his perch at the kitchen nook. He’s ignoring his toast, though it’s been cut into shapes, the way he likes it. Another ring.
“I have to pee,” says Sam. He scrambles to the floor and strips off his pyjamas. Sprints up the stairs using hands and feet. At the top of the stairs he shouts, “Daddy! Answer the phone!”
It’s Howley Park. What if they want to shift Joyce to the place down by the lake? He can’t blame his mother for fearing the prospect of diapers and spoon-fed tapioca and bodies slumped like dead infantry in the TV room.
The third and final ring. Carter watches through the window as a car hits the dip in the street and creaks like an enormous mattress. He can imagine the stream of invective from the driver. Locals know to slow down when they approach 19 Vickers Street, with its nasty hollow. The subdivision is barely a decade old, but its roads are sinking in spots where they weren’t properly graded.
Upstairs, he finds Sam in his favourite underwear. Nautical blue, patterned with whitecaps and orange fish. “Sam, where did you get those?” “Where’s Mom?”
“She had to go to work early. Tell me where you found those underwear, please.”
“In my room.”
“In your laundry basket. What have we told you about taking clothes from your laundry?”
Sam turtles, face down and rear end raised, the curve of his white back shielding the unsteady heart. The fish on the underpants swim front to back, around the side and across the cheeks.
“Sammy, you wore those underwear yesterday. They have to be washed.”
Squirming and sliding, the boy dangles his head over the side of the bed. “My other underwear are fake.” “Fake how?”
“Fake on my bum.”
“Come on, Sammy. You know better.”
They’re calling it his defiant phase. Though Isabelle suggests it might not be a phase at all. Maybe it’s the real Sam. “It’s gone on so long now,” she said. “It could be part of his personality coming to life. A contrarian streak.” How might they explain this in the child development books? When your boy acts like an asshole, the parent might assume it’s a passing phase. But we should consider the possibility that maybe he’s just an asshole.
“Time to go see Miss Kristen.” “I have to pee!”
“You just went.”
Any mention of Kristen sends him dashing to the toilet. He has loved her unconditionally since his first day in the three-year-old room. It was never this way with Miss Tricia, though he adored her as well. When he switched rooms, the shift in his affection was quick and absolute, and went straight to his bladder.
Carter leaves him to the bathroom and returns to the kitchen.
A message on the phone.
“Herbert? Could I speak to Herbert please?” His mother’s voice begins loud, then softens. The swish and rustle of a hand against the mouthpiece. “This is Joyce Carter and Herbert Carter is my son. He was raised on Alcock Street. My husband Arthur is passed away. There are no other children.”
Someone interrupts her. A man nearby. “What?” says Joyce, her voice drifting. “Talk right into the phone, my love,” says the man.
A delay. Then she speaks slowly, measuring her words. “Can I speak to Herbert, please.”
“Daddy!” shouts Sam. “Daddy!” Muffled voices. A tumbling hangup, his mother struggling to match receiver to cradle.
Carter saves the message. Sam crashes into him, face to crotch. Tugs at the zipper of his jacket. “I can’t. I can’t.”
Carter fixes the snag. The zipper runs smooth up to Sam’s throat, prompting Sam’s first smile of the day. “Who you talking to, Dad?” “Nobody.”
“Was it Mommy?”
“No. Where’s your knapsack? You still need pants, Sam.”
When Carter leans in to buckle the car seat, Sam exudes a mild stale-water scent. Not only has he escaped the house in his orange-fish underpants, he’s pulled his entire wardrobe from the laundry basket.
“You’re dirty,” says Carter.
“You’re dirty,” says Sam. “We didn’t brush teeth.”