By late morning the cramped apartment has become intolerable and the three of them escape, at last, to the street. Even outside, though, the baby — toddler now, she supposes — will not settle, and Leo refuses to hold on to his sister’s stroller. Today, he declares, is the day for walking backwards. By the time he has tripped (backwards) over a crack in the sidewalk, Norah is roaring, full-throated.
Miranda, steely with patience, picks her up and carries her, ordering Leo to hang onto the empty stroller and help push. He seems to be asking her a question but over the baby’s roar she cannot hear him. She starts to sing softly, noting the quaver in her voice. Five blocks on and all the muscles in her back and right arm are burning, her mouth is dry. Norah yanks her hair hard and Miranda can bear it no longer. She swings her daughter down, dumps her in the stroller and straps her in despite her wild protests. Ignoring the stares of passersby, she marches her shrieking girl and her panting, scurrying boy along the street. They will go to the library.
Norah, bucking rigidly against her straps, screams on and on, determined to escape. Miranda — deliberately ignoring Leo’s poor grazed elbow and his struggle to keep up — pushes faster and faster over the bumpy sidewalk, praying that the rhythmic jarring will bring blessed sleep. Up and down the sidewalk they go, until at last, with one last cry of outrage, Norah’s head flops sideways and she is quiet. In the sudden silence the world is returned to Miranda — pigeons scratch at the fallen leaves and in the distance the garbage truck screeches along its morning route. She breathes out, feels her head clear. Free at last. But Leo, breathing hard, pulls her arm, Norah stirs, sobs convulsively, and Miranda is once again aquiver, every cell alert.
She carries stroller and baby up into the stillness of the library, and panting cautiously, sets her load down in a dusty corner. Leo needs help finding a picture book about dinosaurs, and she is after the Doris Lessing autobiography discussed in last Sunday’s paper. Apparently Lessing left her first husband and abandoned her two young children; the essayist made it sound like a necessary step on the road to becoming “Doris Lessing, Renowned Novelist.” Miranda needs to know how a woman would explain such a decision to herself and the world.
She answers Leo’s questions about the relative merits of the triceratops and the stegosaurus, her responses becoming more perfunctory as she leans in to scan the adult shelves. There! She pounces on the autobiography and riffles avidly through its pages: Lessing ancestors, childhood on a failing farm in Northern Rhodesia, early marriage to a decent, boring man, baby son, baby daughter, but all of a sudden Doris is spending all her days writing or at Communist Party meetings with her new lover. Babies John and Jean have vanished from the narrative. How? When? Where is the explanation? Norah whimpers and Miranda reaches out to squeeze her smooth, plump knees. “Mama’s here,” she whispers, searching backwards, frantically, through the pages. She must hurry. Norah won’t sleep for much longer.
“Mama, look! A pachycephalosaurus being attacked by a velociraptor!”
Leo’s urgent yell wakes Norah. Norah begins to cry. The librarian purses her lips. Miranda closes her book, gets heavily to her feet and prepares to leave.
At the check out desk, she picks up a red flyer with a drawing of smiling children on it. “Come to the Creature Feature at the Community Center,” it demands.
“Look, Leo,” says Miranda, “something for us all to do today. Let’s hurry home for a quick lunch and then we can go and see some real, live animals.”
Back in the tiny apartment the children are all over her; inside her head, eating her brain, an invasion of small, grasping hands and piercing painfully clear voices.
“No. OFF! Crusts OFF. NOW. I don’t like soy milk. I want REGLYER milk. Clean bagel — no raisins, no raisins! Why does she always get the red bowl? Diaper off, take off, take off. I can’t find my shoes. You look funny. Where are my shoes Mama? Look, Norah is taking her diaper off, now she’s peeing. ON MY SHOES! Get them, Mama, get them. No dress. I don’t. No. no. no. no. no. no. no.”
Miranda’s hands shake as she pulls all the raisins out of the bagel and spreads the peanut butter. She cannot speak. Her throat is clogged again — with tears, or fury, or perhaps peanut butter — she can no longer tell. Thank God there is somewhere to go.
At last, impossibly, they are in the car and on their way. They drive over the bridge, pass the warehouse district, start to make the familiar turn into the parking lot and stop. An enormous eighteen wheeler blocks their way, filling the Community Center’s front lot. Its painted sides are hectic with lurid flowers and animals. “Creature Feature!” is emblazoned in gold down the length of it.
“Wow,” says Leo.
In the hall, the children sit cross-legged in front of the stage — pressing close together, faces grave. The mothers sit behind, perched on small, wooden chairs. Miranda takes the only empty seat — next to Cyndy, Sandy, and Cindi, a trio she knows slightly from the La Leche League, which she joined after Norah’s birth. More for the company than anything else.
“My kids don’t get any red juice,” Cyndy is saying. “Nothing red. Ever.”
“The sugar. The red food coloring. The stains. I don’t think so.” Sandy flicks her bangs efficiently behind her ears.
“Right, right, right” Cindi nods eagerly, “I tell Brad over and over when he goes to the store — NO! RED! JUICE!”
Miranda smiles weakly — her society face, as she has come to think of it. Here she is — one of the gals. That’s what they call themselves — these three — the gals.
All the children start to clap and “Bob the Creature Feature Guy” bounds on to the stage, opens the first of many huge plastic tubs, and produces Godzilla, an eight-foot water monitor who smells with his tongue, eats dried chicken and fish purloined from Indonesian villagers, and is soon writhing so energetically that Bob is forced to return him, scrabbling frantically, to his plastic bin.
“Whew,” says Bob, “he’s just showing me that he’s kinda overwhelmed and I gotta respect that and put him away.” The mothers nod approvingly.
The children watch a pygmy hippo eat its lunch, pet a baby ostrich, stroke the soft fur of a yak, and tilt their faces up for a kiss from the Australian blue-tongued skink.
“Now,” shouts Bob, “I need two volunteers.”
The children sit blankly.
“Bob needs two helpers,” Cyndy calls out.
And there, surprisingly, are Miranda’s own two, eyes downcast but straight-backed and resolute, on the stage in front of Bob.
“Well, Little Lady,” he booms at Norah, “Just how old are you?”
“One and a half,” answers Leo importantly “and I’m four and three-quarters.”
She watches them. Breathing is easier now and her heart no longer hammers in her chest. Her children “help” Bob stretch out Annabelle — a glorious yellow and white albino Burmese python. Miranda notices the sweet curve of Norah’s cheek and the serious, deliberate way Leo lays his hand on the rippling flesh of the snake.
Oh, let the show go on. And on. But now Bob is taking a bow and her children are stepping carefully down from the stage, their eyes seeking her out. She feels their urgency, their relentless will, overwhelming her, negating her, and her eyes flicker to the door.
“Time for a quick sing-song,” says Bob, starting to clap loudly.
Thank God. She is not ready for them yet. Miranda closes her eyes against the unbearable sweetness of the children’s voices, leans back in her chair and exhales.
The animals went in two by two
The Elephant and the Kangaroo.
And here behind her eyelids is Bob. “Now folks — or should I say ladies — I don’t see any dads today — how many of you are signed up for the ‘Creature Feature Super-Duper Summer Program?’ ”
Miranda looks around. All the mothers have their hands up. Cyndy, Sandy and Cindi, smile at her. She raises her hand.
“Well, come on then and follow me,” says Bob and he leads them, women and children too, out of the hall and around the side of the building, to the eighteen-wheeler in the parking lot. There is a tang, a whiff of brine in the air and some of the mothers sniff, puzzled.
With a showman’s easy grace Bob springs into the cab of the truck and turns a switch, pulls a lever. A judder, a metallic whirr and all the sides and back panels of the truck roll up.
Behind them is an enormous glass tank, as wide and as long as the truck bed, and inside it, massively lolling, is a whale.
“Meet Barnabas the blue whale,” shouts Bob. Barnabas is not really blue, more a kind of speckled gray. Bleached, dried out barnacles cling to his flippers, or are they fins? Miranda isn’t sure. Does he have enough water, she wonders, worried, but Bob is saying something about a sprinkler system in the roof.
He claps his hands. “Come on kids, line up at the ramp in pairs if you please.”
The ramp, Miranda sees, is at the back of the truck. It leads up to a small door in the glass tank. The door opens into the huge mouth of the whale. Above it is his kindly eye.
Bob gives the children slow and careful instructions: They should step through the door, balance on the fleshy bottom lip a moment, squeeze between the small gap in the baleen plates, be very careful not to slip on the tongue, then make their way through the expanding throat and deep into the belly of the whale.
Her boy and girl are first in line, clutching each other’s hands, eyes bright with anticipation. And in they go, two by two, until only the mothers and Bob are left in the parking lot. Bob rolls down the sides of the truck, hops in the cab, and with a cheery wave steers the behemoth carefully onto the road.
The mothers leave too. Their minivans pass the Creature Feature truck one by one and accelerate onto the freeway. Quite alone in her van, Miranda drives into her endless, unimaginable summer.
“Mama, did you see us, did you see us touch the snake?” Leo is tugging at her sleeve, pulling her back from the endless highway she has been speeding down, her foot pressed hard to the gas pedal.
“Tell me Miranda, are you still nursing?” Cindi’s eyes look alarmingly blue, magnified as they are behind her glasses. “You are? Oh, well done!
“It must be nearly three years now,” puts in Cyndy approvingly.
Miranda’s right knee, she notices, is trembling. Slowly she relaxes her rigid leg, eases her foot off the imaginary accelerator, makes a lap for Leo and Norah who are clamoring for her attention. They pile onto her and she put her arms around them, breathing them in. She squeezes their sweet limbs, smelling herself transformed, milk into flesh. And such flesh: tender, absurd, delicious.
“Perfect,” says Sandy, “we could use you at our next League meeting. We’re looking for some of the more experienced moms to come and reassure the new gals, tell them all about the joys of motherhood, that sort of thing. You’d be great.”
Miranda feels herself smiling, nodding. She stares, dazed, as the trio move purposefully towards their children, scooping up belongings as they go. Leo and Norah fidget in her lap, push against each other. Leo’s small, bony elbow catches Miranda sharply under her ribs and in the hot flash of her anger she gasps — fighting the urge to fling them from her.
Biting her lip she lifts them down and sets them carefully on their feet “Oh my darlings,” she murmurs, “what would I do without you?”