Pulled hair, poked eyes, thrown toys – what six year-old version of violence prompted the principal to call Mandy today? Jordie’s tiny reign of terror waged on despite everything Mandy, the family therapist, and a series of teachers and administrators had done and said to help her stop. Mandy pulled into the horseshoe entry in front of Mills School, parked in the lot beyond it, and leaned over the steering wheel for a minute, hoping to summon some kind of help.
It gets easier. That was what someone told Mandy at one of her new support group meetings, so that’s what she told herself at times like this. It wasn’t easier yet, but one day it would be. Mills was a small, private school, and this was the campus for pre-K through 2nd grade. After all the trouble Jordie had with public school, this smaller school with its calmer atmosphere and more personal attention appealed to Mandy. She had hoped these things would help.
Mandy let out a long breath and sat up again, testing out her smile in the rearview mirror. Then she adjusted her bangs over the scar that jutted just beyond the part in her hair. A few more months and the doctors said you would hardly notice anymore. She had tried parting her hair on the other side to let her bangs cover the mark, but a cowlick sent the hair springing back in the same direction no matter what.
Walking toward the building, she zapped her BMW locked as another mother cris-crossed her path, rushing toward the school entrance, her arms overloaded with double-decker trays of cupcakes. Mandy sped up to open the door for her.
“You’re a lifesaver,” the woman said. Her hair fell neatly to her shoulders, and a light perfume drifted off her.
“No trouble,” Mandy said, imagining a day when having too many cupcakes could be her worst problem.
Pamela didn’t want to be late for work again. Dr. Bradshaw’s Tuesday dental clinic hours were oddball, starting at eleven a.m. and going until eight at night. As his office assistant, her hours had to match his. She should know how to judge the traffic to get there on time after a year of working there, but Tuesday’s late-morning rush continued to surprise her.
The bottleneck always happened along Preston Avenue, near where she used to live. You were stopped at one light, watching the next one stare greenly back at you only to turn red as soon as you were moving again. Idiots had planned these lights.
Pamela’s shoulder blades bunched toward each other. It felt like the traffic lights were plotting against her. Instead of keeping straight when the light turned green, she turned left to cut out a couple of stoplights. Going this way sometimes took an extra minute or two, but it felt faster.
After she’d made that first turn, she figured why not take a few more? Down Oxford, onto Wellford, then Westwood. Over the past few months, she had found plenty of excuses to make this same detour. Her old house wasn’t exactly on her way to work, but it wasn’t far out of the way either.
She pulled over across the street from it – the brick bungalow with the boxwoods at the edge of the yard. In the short time Pamela had lived there, she had re-painted the shutters a darker shade of red to accent the brick. Now the paint color was all she could see to prove she had lived there at all.
The concrete birdbath standing in the front yard was new. So was the bird feeder. From her perch in her car, just across the street, Pamela watched a cardinal couple land on the feeder and a scruffy cat trail its lithe body along the outer edge of the boxwoods, tail twitching. Then the woman who lived there came out, a baby on her hip. She spoke to the cat. She had to balance the baby and squat to scratch its cheeks.
What kind of asshole puts up a bird feeder when they have an outdoor cat?
The woman gathered a bundle of twigs from the ground, brush that must have fallen in the last thunderstorm, and eased herself and the baby back upright. That yard was what Pamela and Ray had liked about the place, how it seemed to mix country and city. They had both grown up without much – Ray on a farm in the mountains near the West Virginia line and Pamela in subsidized housing outside Norfolk. They were looking forward to living American-dream style in this cute little Charlottesville neighborhood.
The woman in the yard faced the road now. She must have caught sight of Pamela’s car idling there. The ancient Honda Civic – dented, blue paint peeling down to the primer – looked like the embodiment of bad intentions. Pamela had been planning to replace it before Ray got deployed. Then she thought she would wait until he came back. But he never did.
Foreclosure – it was legal theft. What made people, like that woman –with all her sunshiny hair tumbling around her face and her fat, wide-eyed baby twisting it in its fists – what made them deserve this house more than Pamela? The apartment Pamela moved to from here was in a noisy building that reeked of other people’s cooking and echoed with their arguments. You couldn’t relax there.
The woman squinted toward Pamela’s car, and the look of composure drained right off her face. She braced her baby more closely to her chest, still clutching the twigs in her other hand. “You know you can’t come around here anymore,” she called out.
Pamela had only banged at the door a handful of times after the new people had moved in. All she wanted was to look around. She kept thinking she had forgotten something. If they had let her in, she would have been perfectly nice. But after the first time, when they told her they hadn’t found anything of hers, they didn’t answer the door anymore. Maybe they thought she would go away if they pretended she wasn’t there.
But she was there. She would knock harder, shout at them. Sometimes the baby would cry. At some point, they always called the police.
“There’s a restraining order,” the woman said. “You have to stay away from here.”
Pamela powered the window down and shouted back, “I’m keeping a hundred feet back.”
“It’s a hundred yards,” the woman corrected. That was what fear looked like – the way the twigs shook in the woman’s hand, the expression on her face.
“Oh,” Pamela said, “a hundred yards. Oops.” She gave a fake-apologetic smile and quick little wave as she drove away. And, for a minute, Pamela felt better.
The principal’s office was cramped, her desk and the floor around it crowded with extra tissue boxes, huge bottles of hand sanitizer, and buckets of crayons. The walls were papered in cutout mosaics from the pre-K classrooms, trembly-lined stick-figure drawings of families from the kindergarteners, self-portraits in distorted proportions from first- and second-graders.
“Thanks for coming, Mandy,” Mrs. Marshall said.
Mandy knew the drill. An act of aggression caused expulsion from class for the day and a meeting between the parent and principal. Repeated acts got the student switched out of the class altogether. Mandy tried to remember if this was Jordie’s first offense in her latest classroom.
Knees bunched against the principal’s messy desk, Mandy waited through a couple of phone call interruptions before someone produced her daughter from a waiting area nearby. Jordie came and stood next to Mandy, her forehead level with her mother’s shoulder.
She looked about the same as she had this morning – her smooth, dark brown bangs hanging in a slash just above her dormouse eyes, two perky ponytails holding the rest of her hair out of her face. But some days, a dullness radiated off Jordie. A tiredness so much bigger than the child, a certain unasked-for knowledge of the world.
“When children witness violence firsthand,” the family therapist had explained, “it affects the way they relate to people for a long time. Some get nightmares. Some cry when a parent is out of their sight. Some wet the bed. Some hit.”
It had only happened one time, Mandy had wanted to argue. One incident shouldn’t give her daughter so many after-effects. But that one incident had been as recent as six months ago. Mandy’s mother had to hire a special cleaning company to scrub the blood stains from the kitchen while Mandy recuperated in the hospital. And, for years before that day, Mandy’s husband had taken out his rage on inanimate objects – breaking dishes, smashing chair backs, kicking television screens to smithereens.
“Do you know why you’re here right now?” Mrs. Marshall asked Jordie.
“Yes, Mrs. Marshall,” she said, “because Mommy’s here?”
Mrs. Marshall pressed her lips into a tired smile. “No, Jordie. Remember? Your mommy came because we had to call her.”
Mandy understood that nobody wanted to tell her Jordie was a problem child. Not after their private tragedy had blazed across local headlines for months. Not after Mandy’s husband had gone from county supervisor to county inmate. Nobody wanted to look Mandy in the eye and say anything but that they were sorry.
But Mandy had heard enough of “sorry.” Why couldn’t people call instead to see how she was? Offer to take her and Jordie out for supper? Invite Jordie for playdates? What good was saying sorry if everybody disappeared after they said it?
“Now, Jordie, tell your mother why we had to call her today,” Mrs. Marshall said. “It’s important for you to understand. Tell her what happened on the playground.”
“Leah wanted the shovel,” Jordie said. She tugged at hair escaping from one of her ponytails, smoothed her cherry-print dress. “I had it first.”
“Then what?” Mrs. Marshall prodded.
“She took it.”
Mandy had thought of leaving. But what if leaving would make it worse? What if staying made it better? You never believed you were in trouble until something happened. He wasn’t that kind of man. You weren’t that kind of woman. She pulled her fingers through her bangs, arranging the hair over her scar again. Mandy hadn’t known what would happen. She was sorry, too.
“And then, Jordie?”
“I pushed her.”
“And do you understand that what you did hurt Leah?” Mrs. Marshall said.
Jordie had walked into the kitchen that day just as her father pummeled Mandy’s face, once, twice, three times. Mandy’s head had thwacked the corner of the granite countertop on her fall to the floor. Before she lost consciousness, she had heard Jordie screaming at him, saw her throwing her little body against her father’s legs, thrashing him with her tiny fists until he kicked her away from him, cursing, and walked out of the kitchen, leaving Jordie breathless and Mandy lying on the kitchen floor, blood pooling at her head. A passing neighbor had heard the screaming and called 9-1-1 on her cell phone.
These days, Mandy’s neighbors walked by her house, averting their eyes. The woman who made the call didn’t even come down Mandy’s street anymore. No one wanted to believe a thing like that could happen in such a nice neighborhood.
“It wasn’t me that made her bleed,” Jordie said, scrunching her nose at Mrs. Marshall. “It was the sandbox. I didn’t mean to hurt her.”
“Not meaning to hurt someone is good, Jordie.” Mrs. Marshall tried to sound encouraging, but this was the same answer Jordie always gave. It didn’t seem to stop her from hurting someone else. “But you hurt Leah even though you didn’t mean to, and all your shouting scared the other children on the playground, too.”
“I didn’t mean to scare anybody.” Jordie blamed the sandbox again. Leah’s head had landed hard on its wooden edge. There had been a lot of blood. “I didn’t hit her that hard,” she said.
Mandy winced. “Jordie,” she said. She couldn’t think of anything else to say, but she took Jordie’s hand in her own. The way Mrs. Marshall talked, the other children had to be protected from her daughter. But Jordie needed protecting, too.
Mrs. Marshall had an assistant take Jordie out of the room for a few minutes at the end of the meeting so she could talk more to Mandy about what had happened that day. School protocol for head injuries required them to call an ambulance. The paramedics had said the wound was not serious, but, understandably, Leah’s parents had insisted Jordie switch out of Leah’s class.
“This will put Jordie into the last of our first-grade classrooms,” Mrs. Marshall said. “If she doesn’t try harder this time, we’ll have no choice but to ask her to leave the school entirely.” She folded her fingers together on her desk, gave Mandy a grim look, and added, “I’m so sorry, Mandy.”
Mandy collected Jordie from the room where she had been waiting and helped adjust her tiny plaid backpack over her shoulders. As soon as Jordie was situated, her hand tucked into Mandy’s again, Mrs. Marshall gave a finishing smile and said good-bye.
Mandy did her best, but in returning the good-bye, she could look no higher than the center of Mrs. Marshall’s nose. Mandy was sick of eye contact, of all the ways she was expected to receive the sympathy that never extended far enough to be of any help to them at all.
Back out on Preston after Pamela’s detour, she was running later than ever. And the traffic had gotten no better. She had ten minutes to get to Dr. Bradshaw’s office. Last time she was late, he had said, “Are you sure this position is working out for you, Pamela?” – a nice way of saying, “Next time, you’re fired.”
The delivery truck in front of her stopped abruptly, and Pamela had to slam on her brakes. Then the truck wouldn’t start again. A stoplight ahead of them went from green to yellow and back to red before it shuddered to life again. Pamela hated traffic.
She hated Tuesdays, too, ever since the Tuesday Ray’s shitty email came. “Am fine. Need to talk.” The rest came out over the phone, on some nameless day of some nameless week, all about the woman he had trained with from his platoon, how they read each other’s thoughts, how a roadside IED had exploded in a crowded marketplace on their watch, how no one else would understand them after that anyway.
The truck ahead of Pamela had run fine while the light was red, but it stalled again as soon as the light turned green. She blasted her horn. The truck stayed still. She blasted her horn again, held it down and kept it blaring.
Whenever people asked about Ray, Pamela told them he wasn’t coming back from Afghanistan. She would look sad and change the subject. Maybe they walked away thinking he was dead. She didn’t care.
Mandy stole glances at Jordie in the rearview mirror, buckled into her carseat, sucking juice from her sippy cup. The breeze from the partly open window pushed at Jordie’s bangs, and she pulled one animal cracker after another out of the circus-animal box, looking out the window and seeing whatever she saw.
The therapist talked to Jordie about things like breathing exercises and counting to ten for the times she started to feel out of control. Mandy was never sure if she should remind Jordie about these techniques when it was already too late use them. Waiting at the light to turn from Park onto High Street, all she could think to ask was, “Are you trying, Jordie?”
The turn signal clacked, and the engine rumbled quietly. Mandy wasn’t sure Jordie had heard her. The light turned green. Most of the cars ahead of them turned left. Mandy waited, waited, turned right.
“I try,” Jordie finally said, her voice as dull as the look on her face. “I try as hard as I can.”
This time, the truck in front of Pamela stayed stalled, and traffic extended behind them in a long, idling tail. Pamela hadn’t even made it to Fourteenth Street yet. Dr. Bradshaw didn’t like her anyway. He was probably waiting for his chance to get rid of her. Why stop at foreclosure? She could go for fucking eviction, too.
The truck’s engine chugged alive again. Finally. Pamela pressed the gas.
But now a car cut into the lane, right in front of her – some silver BMW, glowing in the bright sun – then slowed way the hell down. Pamela smashed her palm against the horn. Every asshole on earth was in her way today. But being late would be her fault. Everything was always her fault, no matter how hard she tried. And she tried so hard.
Now the Beemer was braking? To go even slower? The driver’s hand fanned at Pamela from outside her window, waving for her to drive past.
Fuck work. The Beemer turned onto Grady Avenue, and Pamela followed. A thrill bubbled up in her chest. Getting rid of Pamela was not that easy.
That car had been going faster than Mandy realized, and now it stuck to her bumper, seeming only inches away. Flashing your brake lights a couple of times was supposed to get a tailgater to back off, but not this one. Waving her on didn’t work, either. So Mandy swerved to an empty parking spot along Grady, giving that hothead plenty of room to pass, and she waved out the window one more time.
Why wasn’t that enough? What more could that nutball want than to pull past her? Instead, the driver swerved to the roadside right in front of Mandy’s car, then stomped one foot after another onto the pavement, slammed her door.
Now she was coming toward Mandy, shouting.
Mandy powered her window back up. In the rearview, there sat Jordie, her eyes narrowed to points. The woman from the other car kept coming. Mandy had pulled over, gotten out of her way. What more could she want?
The woman’s voice got louder, nearer. There was dark, curly hair, a huge pair of sunglasses, a bright pink flash of fingernails, her red, red face filling the driver’s side window, spittle flying from the edges of her lips.
Many times since that day in her kitchen, Mandy had imagined grabbing the sharpest, biggest knife from the knife block that had been right in front of her. She knew exactly how she would have gripped the handle, how she would have aimed it, how much force she would have used to thrust it up and into his chest. Right now, Mandy could slam her car into drive, jam her foot to the floor. She would plow that woman over if she had to.
Everything Pamela saw was the color red – the road at her feet, the Beemer, the woman, the sky – and all the noises blended into one single noise, like metal screeching. The Beemer seemed to suck Pamela toward it, and she had to make that woman hear her. “I’m right here, bitch!” she shouted. “Look at me! Look at me, asshole!” It felt good to let all that crap spew out of her. It had been so long since Pamela felt like she’d let anything out at all.
Inside her car, that woman was trying to wave her away again, like Pamela was a fly or a hornet. “I’m not going anywhere!” Pamela shouted. She ran at the Beemer, one hand on the door, one on the hood, and lurched her face into the driver’s window. “You hear me? Can you hear me in there?”
She pounded as hard as she could.
The pounding rocked the car.
Through the slit of the back seat’s open window, Mandy could hear the woman’s loud breaths in between her thrusts against the car. Mandy fumbled to put the car into drive, to get them out of there even it meant striking the woman with the car. You could tell from the savage look in her eyes – her sunglasses had shifted halfway down her nose – that she wasn’t seeing anything, not anything real.
But Mandy hadn’t gone for the knife that day in the kitchen. In the instant she had to make up her mind, she just couldn’t put Jordie through watching her mother hurt someone that way.
Mandy shifted the car back into park, let her hands fall into her lap. Instead, Jordie had watched someone hurt her mother.
The pounding and noise stopped abruptly. So did the frantic panting. Mandy jerked toward the window. Had the woman gotten inside to Jordie somehow?
But she was still there just outside the window. Her sunglasses had fallen away altogether. Her whole face had lost its color. Her hands drooped at her sides, making her look as still and strange as a life-sized paper doll.
Mandy checked Jordie in the rearview next. But her booster seat was empty.
“Jordie?” Mandy pivoted, trying to find her. She had unbuckled herself, slipped out of her booster, and slid toward the window, closer to the woman. She seemed mesmerized in her new position, snugged up to the glass.
Outside, the woman seemed as transfixed as Jordie, slackjaw and staring back into Jordie’s dark, wounded eyes.
“Hey,” Jordie said, her voice soft. “Yelling is scary.” Mandy watched the woman’s expression change. She was listening. “It’s supposed to help if you count to ten.” Jordie placed one palm flat against the window. “One. Two.” The woman placed her own palm on the outside to mirror Jordie’s and began to count along.
When they reached ten, the woman’s arm relaxed and went back to her side.
“Did it work?” Jordie asked.
“Maybe?” the woman said.
“Yeah. It’s not perfect.”
The woman took a step away from the car, and Jordie swiveled toward Mandy. Her face was a stiff plastic mask, no emotion at all. She looked exactly like her father.
The woman turned toward Mandy, disoriented, a vagueness in her eyes, as if she were coming out from under anesthesia. She took a few careful steps backward, then broke into a run, sprinting off down a sidestreet, away from them, away from her own car.
Air pumped into Mandy’s lungs again as if she hadn’t taken in a breath in hours. Out the back window behind Jordie’s head, the leaves of a nearby tree shivered in the wind, and a blue jay scolded. Then Mandy noticed the stopped cars. People who had pulled over to watch, craning out their windows, staring at her.
“You okay, Jordie?” Mandy asked. She checked her own face in the rearview mirror, used quivering fingers to poke her hair back over the scar again.
Jordie didn’t say anything. What would she say? I’m never okay? I’m always okay? Her face still showed nothing. Her eyes, blank and dull.
The cars that had pulled over merged back onto the street again. One slowed at Mandy’s window. A passenger, a woman Mandy’s age, stared meaningfully her way, squinting her face into a look of compassion. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed. “So sorry.” So certain she would never be Mandy.