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All the little pieces, p.7
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       All the Little Pieces, p.7

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  And then she got pregnant.

  It had now been eight years since Pomp and Circumstance had ushered her out of Gainesville and into the real world. She’d missed her midterms at UF because of the DUI, and for months after that it was impossible for her to concentrate on anything. It had taken her an extra year to graduate and cost her a small fortune when she lost her Bright Futures scholarship and had to take out student loans to finish up. Of course, she’d ended up meeting Jarrod that extra year, so some amazing good did come out of God-awful horrible. In between researching and writing compelling articles for Gold Coast that questioned whether the South Florida art scene was suffering from a dearth of true artists, she’d managed to fire off a few chapters of a manuscript that was currently residing in the bottom of a desk drawer. But that’s all she had accomplished of the original plan: a few chapters. She’d had a baby, yes, and that was definitely an achievement, but the fantastic ideas for a fantastic thriller had never come to her; a visit to the office from race-car driver Hélio Castroneves was about the most exciting thing that ever happened at the magazine. After Maggie was born, Jarrod had suggested she stay home at least for a couple of years. So she did, and tried to kick off a freelance writing career by penning articles about motherhood for Parenting and Baby Talk and Family Fun. That’s when she’d first realized her experiences with child-rearing were altogether different than the average mom’s.

  As she closed the PO file, Vivian burst into the office. Burst, because Viv could not do anything quietly. She wore lots of makeup, jingly jewelry, oversized purses, flashy clothes, and sky-high heels that you could hear coming a mile away. And even though she’d moved to Miami from Hoboken when she was six, she had a thicker accent than a star on the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Vivian smiled at Faith and continued her conversation with Albert the baker through the office wall. ‘Fruitcake! That’s what she wants!’ She sat on the edge of Faith’s desk, pointed at the wall, and made a spinning ‘He’s crazy!’ motion with her finger.

  ‘No one’s gonna eat that!’ the wall yelled back.

  ‘So make one that someone will! We’re gonna give her what she wants; it’s her frigging wedding! Enough; we’ll talk later, Al.’ Vivian flipped her long, thick, black hair off a shoulder and said to Faith in a voice that was low for Vivian: ‘Just bake the cake, right? If I wanted an argument, I’d go home and talk to my husband. I think you’re gonna have to help him with the fruitcake, hon. You can make something tasty – put enough rum in it, nobody will give a shit what flavor it is.’

  Faith smiled. ‘I’ll talk to Al. When’s it for?’

  ‘December eighteenth. Cupcake tree with fruitcake cupcakes for two hundred and fifty. It’s a Christmas-themed wedding, so you have lots of time to help him come up with something. Soooo … I was at the bank with the weekend deposits for the past hour and it was a friggin’ zoo! Like everyone picked today to go to the bank. They had a flood with all this rain and all the ugly bank furniture is stacked in a corner. It made me think, ya know, for all the money Bank of America’s got, you’d think they’d pick nicer furniture, right? Not Costco shit that peels when it gets wet. So how you doing?’

  Faith sat back from the computer screen and rubbed her eyes. ‘I finished the purchase orders and the ad copy. I’m gonna take on payroll next.’

  Vivian frowned. ‘I’ll do payroll; I hope you didn’t rush back here for that. You look like shit, honey. No offense,’ she said, as she reached over and examined Faith’s ponytail with a long, red fingernail. ‘What’s with the hair? You didn’t want to do it today?’ Vivian was always perfectly dressed, coiffed, manicured, and made-up. Always. Even when she went into labor, she looked hot on the delivery table.

  ‘Do I look that bad?’

  Vivian nodded. ‘Yes. Well, you looked tired, is what you look. Those circles … I can fix them if you want.’

  ‘You’re too kind.’

  ‘Please,’ Vivian replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. ‘So what the hell happened at Charity’s yesterday? That’s why you’re stressed, I bet. And why does your sister have your phone and purse? What is she sorry for? Huh? Don’t spare details.’

  ‘Long story.’

  ‘I got time. When did you get back?’

  ‘Last night.’

  ‘Last night? You drove up to Charity’s and back in one day? What’s that about? Oh boy, this is gonna be good,’ she said, getting up and grabbing her coffee off her desk. She rushed back and settled a butt cheek on Faith’s calendar. ‘What did Charity do now? No – what did Nick do? Why’d you leave early? What is she sorry for?’

  ‘That’s ice, you know,’ Faith said, nodding at the cup.

  ‘I know,’ Vivian replied, sipping it. ‘So what happened?’

  ‘We had a fight when she let him talk to her like she was a nobody,’ Faith replied softly. ‘He basically called her fat and stupid. I couldn’t watch any more, so I left. That’s it.’

  ‘What do you mean “That’s it”? No way is that it.’

  ‘Like I said, it’s a long story. By the end of the night they were … holding hands, and I couldn’t stay. I said some things that I probably shouldn’t’ve and so did she. It got heated. I took Maggie and left. I forgot my bag in her bedroom and didn’t realize it till I was halfway home; there was no way I was going back.’ She wanted to tell Vivian everything that had happened in the kitchen but feared she might break down if she did. It was hard to open the door on only one part of the night – all the ugliness that followed wanted in, too.

  ‘And you just drove home? In the middle of that crazy storm that has flooded the bank and ruined the ugly bank furniture and cancelled my brother’s flight back from Chicago – and I have to tell you as a side note that he’s driving Gus crazy – and you just drove home? What time did you leave?’

  ‘Eleven.’

  ‘Eleven? How long did it take you to get home?’

  ‘Don’t ask. I was doing thirty the whole way.’

  ‘No wonder you look like shit. You should’ve called me; I was up till three with Lyle, anyway. He had a tummy-ache. Gus slept great, though. Why do the kids always want their mommies when they gotta puke? Why’s it never Daddy?’

  Faith wanted to tell her best friend. She wanted someone to nod and tell her she was right, that she’d done the right thing by leaving, the thing they would’ve done too. She wanted to feel better. But she feared that’s not what Vivian would say. Or she might say it, but she wouldn’t think it. Vivian probably would’ve opened the door. She would’ve let the girl in and asked questions later. And she definitely would’ve called the police, even if she had been drinking, which she wouldn’t have been with her kid in the car. She would’ve told her husband Gus what happened. She wouldn’t have had Lou fix her truck. No. There were some secrets she was going to have to carry alone. Faith bit her lip. ‘Oh no. Is Lyle OK?’

  ‘Oh yeah. Too much chocolate ice cream. Thanks, Daddy. Charity … that girl,’ Vivian said with a shake of her mane. ‘She just keeps jumping back into it. I love her, but … I mean, after all you’ve done to help her and show her that there’s a life out there for her without that idiot in it, offering to let her live with you and all. You’ve got more patience than me; I’d tell her she was on her own after the eighth rescue mission. Maybe when he beats her ass she’ll finally leave.’

  ‘Jesus, Viv, I hope it doesn’t come to that.’

  ‘Me too. I mean, I love Charity, but I’m thinking that might be the only thing that gets her to see the light. You’re a saint, Faith. You’re a really good person, honey. And I’m sorry I said anything about your hair; I didn’t realize the night you’d had.’

  The tears started. So did the wave of nausea that was about to bring up her coffee. ‘I’m not feeling so hot,’ she managed before running into the bathroom.

  After reassuring Vivian she was fine through the door and that she wasn’t mad at her, she rinsed her face with cold water and stared at her image in the mirror. Like she s
aid, the woman staring back didn’t look so hot. She was pale, her mouth and lips tensely drawn. Circles were visible under bloodshot blue eyes. Normally she would have put on a full face of makeup, but this morning it was only a touch of mascara. She’d pulled her honey-blonde hair into a ponytail this morning, not blow-drying it and styling it like she usually did. Like Vivian said, she looked like shit.

  The girl’s face was back in her head, staring at her with those crazed brown eyes. The diamond in her lip was trembling. Raindrops rolled down her face, carving pale white rivers in her dirty skin.

  Faith shook her head but the image wouldn’t go away. ‘I’m no saint, Viv,’ she whispered at the mirror, wiping her eyes. ‘I’m not a good person.’

  The woman looking back at her just kept on crying.

  13

  The playground at St Andrew’s was empty. The rain had stopped, but the ground was still a sodden, muddy mess, dotted with puddles you could sail boats in. Faith spotted the forlorn faces on a few of the preschoolers staring out the window at the slides and jungle gym, wishing either they could play on the swings or jump in the mud. Seeing as those faces belonged to boys, the wishing was probably on the side of making mud pies in the sandbox.

  She opened the door slowly so as not to take out a kid. Or let one escape. Maggie was sitting by herself playing with a My Pretty Pony. Ms Ellen, one of the volunteer moms, sat at the opposite end of the table watching her carefully while cutting out ghosts from a white sheet of paper.

  ‘Hi there, Magpie!’ Faith called out.

  Maggie didn’t answer. She didn’t even look up. She was intensely trying to dress a pony in a Barbie gown. It wasn’t working and her face was growing red.

  Faith tried again and got the same reaction: none. Not even a tilt of the head to acknowledge that she’d heard her. Ms Ellen looked at Faith, smiled awkwardly and shrugged. More guilt. Faith had wanted to treat Maggie to a movie or to something special today but the time had gotten away from her. Lou had managed to fix her car, but hadn’t finished till close to six. She’d had to race here from three towns over to make it by six.

  Mrs Wackett, the preschool teacher, was hanging up Halloween decorations around the chalkboard. In her seventies with poofy, marshmallow-colored hair, she had a cherubic face that belonged in an AARP ad. She smelled like rose-scented hand lotion and always wore a bulky purple sweater that she had hand-knit herself. Always. Even when it was ninety. ‘Hi, Mrs Wackett,’ Faith said softly after Maggie still hadn’t acknowledged her. ‘How was she today?’

  The news, she could tell, wasn’t good. Mrs Wackett put her cardboard witch down and went over to the inbox on her desk. ‘She tried, Mrs Saunders,’ she began with a frown and in a disapproving voice as she looked over at the clock. It was five minutes of six. ‘But this is a very long day for her. Very, very long.’ She handed Faith a slip of paper with a traffic light on it. It was colored red. ‘We tried time-out, but she had to go to the cafeteria with Sister Margaret because she didn’t want to listen to Ms Ellen or me. She has been somewhat better since the cafeteria break; I’ve been letting her do her own thing. She’s been working on the pony for a while now. Longer than I’ve ever seen something hold her attention, so I suppose that’s good.’

  ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t expect to be this late, Mrs Wackett. I had some car issues.’

  ‘I understand. Things happen,’ she replied, but her scowl did not match the words coming out of her mouth. It was like the audiovisual wasn’t properly synced. ‘We’re working on boundaries, like you and I have discussed, and respecting other children’s feelings, but Maggie shoved Melanie, one of the girls, and when she was reprimanded she, well, she ran out of the room – right out of the room and down the hall, heading for the exit door. One of the janitors stopped her, thank God. We simply can’t have that, Mrs Saunders; she has to be able to listen to teachers and adults. That’s why she received a red light today.’

  Faith nodded somberly. That’s why Maggie had received a red light today. The ‘get all green lights for a week and pick a toy from the treasure chest’ motivational system was obviously not working for her – she got more red than she did yellow and hadn’t seen a green since the first week of school.

  ‘Perhaps she didn’t get enough sleep?’ Mrs Wackett tried.

  God bless Mrs Wackett for continuing to try and find a simple, organic reason for why Maggie was … well, the way Maggie was. While she had been polite enough not to come out and say it – not yet anyway – Faith suspected that, like most people, Mrs Wackett attributed Maggie’s behavioral issues to bad parenting and a lack of discipline and follow-through at home. Today, though, unfortunately her question was right on target. ‘We did get home late last night,’ Faith admitted, sheepishly.

  ‘Maggie did say that she was at her aunt’s house and that there was an argument and she had to leave in the rain. She was quite upset.’

  Faith swallowed hard. ‘She was, but then she fell asleep in the car,’ she replied slowly. ‘My sister lives in Sebring, you see, and it was a long drive home. Maggie slept the whole way back. I would have kept her home today, but my husband said she wanted to come in.’

  There was a long, uncomfortable pause. What else had Maggie told her about last night?

  ‘Hopefully tonight she’ll get to bed early.’ Mrs Wackett nodded curtly. She didn’t have to say what she was thinking: keeping a child out late and then dropping her off at school the next morning so she could be the teacher’s problem was not acceptable. Especially not a child with issues like Maggie.

  ‘Come on, Magpie,’ Faith said, bracing for the embarrassing fight she knew was coming. ‘It’s time to go. We have to hit the grocery store.’

  Maggie shook her head.

  Faith sat down next to her, feeling the judging eyes of both Mrs Wackett and Ms Ellen upon her. ‘I like your pony; she’s pretty,’ she said in a low voice.

  ‘It’s a boy!’ Maggie gave another vigorous shake of her head, stood and walked over to the toy bin.

  ‘We have to go, Maggie; Mrs Wackett wants to go home. School’s over.’

  Again the shake of the head. This one was even more defiant. The ponytail whipped about like the stinging tail of a scorpion, hoping to find a victim within its reach. ‘No!’

  It was the same thing most every day. On red-light days, it was guaranteed. Faith felt her cheeks go crimson. She followed her over to the toy box. ‘We have to go now.’

  ‘No!’ Maggie screamed.

  Next would be the pony, thrown across the room. Followed by half the toy bin. Then the stomping feet, the crying, the pacing of the room like a wild tiger. And then Maggie would go to the place in her head where she could not be reasoned with.

  At this very moment, Faith didn’t care what anyone thought about her or her parenting skills – she just wanted to go home. She leaned in close to Maggie’s ear. ‘Do you want to go for ice cream? Huh? Would you like that? Chocolate? You can get marshmallows, too.’

  Maggie’s face calmed to pink. ‘I don’t want to go to ballet. I don’t like Cecilia.’ Cecilia was another little girl who, for some reason, Maggie despised.

  ‘We’re not going to ballet; we’re going to Publix. You can help me pick out dinner.’

  ‘I want ice cream.’

  ‘OK, then let’s go for ice cream, but only if you’re good. And we have to go now. No screaming. No tantrum. Best behavior.’

  Mrs Wackett shook her head in disappointment.

  With Maggie’s hand firmly in hers, Faith walked to the door. In Maggie’s other hand was the My Pretty Pony. ‘I’ll bring the pony back tomorrow, OK, Mrs Wackett?’

  Mrs Wackett nodded. ‘How’s therapy working out, Mrs Saunders? Is she still going?’

  Faith nodded. ‘Very well, thanks. See you tomorrow.’

  Then she and Maggie walked out the door and across the dark parking lot as the sad-eyed boys looked on from the other side of the window, waiting for their parents to come for them.

  14<
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  ‘I don’t like her,’ Maggie said as she licked her cone and played with her pony on a table outside the indoor gym at A Latte Fun. ‘She’s a mean lady.’

  Faith sighed. ‘Why? What makes Mrs Wackett so mean? I think she’s very nice.’

  ‘She put me in time-out.’

  ‘Did you do something bad to that new girl?’

  Maggie shrugged. ‘I pushed her.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘She called me a mean name. And she pulled my hair.’

  Faith frowned. ‘She did? When was that?’

  ‘When I pushed her.’

  ‘Well maybe you shouldn’t have pushed her, and then maybe she wouldn’t have pulled your hair and called you a name.’

  Maggie’s face grew dark. ‘She shouldn’t call me names. That’s not nice.’

  Faith sighed and sipped at her water as she watched Maggie draw circles in the puddle of ice cream that had dripped on the table. She had the face of an angel – creamy white and round, with a sweetheart chin, apple cheeks, big, pouty pink lips and light blue eyes, that often looked like they were off dreaming about somewhere else. Her unkempt blonde hair had natural highlights that women would pay big bucks for at a salon. She didn’t like Faith to brush it, so it was usually up in a pony or pigtails. A splash of sprinkles across her nose completed the look.

  The diagnosis, if one wanted to call it that, was ‘developmentally delayed’ – an evasive, catch-all condition that made Maggie sound stupid, which she wasn’t. Most of the time she knew what she was doing was wrong, but she did it anyway. ‘Poor impulse control’ was the name of that symptom. Then there was her ‘short attention span’, her ‘forgetfulness’, ‘anxiousness’, and, of course, her ‘anger management issues’. She’d hit some developmental milestones right on time, but not others: rolling at three months and sitting up at six, but she never crawled and she didn’t walk by herself until she was almost fourteen months. She lacked some fine motor skills, but mastered others without any apparent difficulty. The behavioral problems, which were the real worry, began after her second birthday. Maybe earlier, but Faith and Jarrod hadn’t seen the signs – no parent wants to think their child is different from other kids. It was only when Lyle, Vivian’s son, who was almost a year younger than Maggie, toddled up to Faith with his sippy cup and asked for ‘mo moke, peez’ that she started thinking something might be wrong with Maggie. She hadn’t yet said a word. Not ‘mama’ or ‘da-da’ or anything and she was two and a half. She’d point if she wanted something, and shake her head if she didn’t, so they knew she understood and that she wasn’t deaf. In hindsight, what made it both ironic and sad was that stay-at-home-mommy Faith had been churning out articles for the parenting magazines, writing pieces like ‘Important Milestones for You and Your Baby’ and ‘Why Crawling Is So Important’ and didn’t realize her own kid was missing all the marks – and for that she still felt incredibly guilty. In her defense, as she had assured other moms in her articles, most every developmental milestone was scaled: kids ‘usually’ started walking ‘between nine and eighteen months’, and babbling ‘around twelve to eighteen months’. She herself had written advice like: ‘But don’t worry if your baby doesn’t start right on time. Every child learns to walk at his or her own pace. Some children skip crawling altogether and go straight to walking!’ She hadn’t seen the problems because she hadn’t wanted to. She’d wanted to hold out to the absolute last second hope that Maggie was just in the bottom of the milestone class, and that everything would eventually work out fine.

 
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