This story is by Gayle Woodson and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Smashing peas is not Samantha’s idea of a dream job. Nevertheless, here she is, shoveling green mush into a tiny mouth. A spoon is useful for scaping off stuff that winds up on her baby’s face. Her mind drifts to Jamaica, to a honeymoon that was supposed to follow the whirlwind romance and fairy tale wedding. Joey grabs the spoon and grins. His smile is so much like his father’s. A wave of contentment splashes over her. Then his sippy cup tumbles to the floor and apple juice explodes everywhere. Her head throbs as she jumps up to fetch the mop. A glance out the kitchen window stops her in her tracks.
That woman is out there again, standing on the lawn, staring at the house. A white leather purse on her elbow makes her look a bit like Queen Elizabeth. But only a little bit. The frumpy pink floral dress is hardly royal.
Samantha closes her eyes and wishes she could have a long nap. Cleaning up the place would be doable without the backache and brain fog. She glances out the window again. The woman is still there, now closer to the house and single handedly pulling weeds from the flower bed. (Single handedly because her purse is still dangling from the other arm.)
This trespasser seems harmless, but enough is enough. Samantha plunks Joey onto her hip and storms out the front door. “Hello. Can I help you?”
The woman stands and smooths her dress. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you.” She beams at Joey. “What a sweet little baby.”
“Thank you.” Samantha spits on a corner of her t-shirt to wipe residual peas from Joey’s face, and struggles to think of a polite way to ask What the hell are you doing in my yard?
The lady approaches the front steps and plucks a couple of dead leaves from a droopy hydrangea. “It’s grown so tall since I planted it.”
“You used to live here?”
“Oh yes.” She scuffs her shoe on the sidewalk to clear away some dead leaves. “See? My sons’ handprints.”
Samantha squats to touch the time-worn depressions, where long ago, two little boys pressed their hands against wet cement. Barely visible letters spell out names: Vincent and Victor. “Two sons, eh?”
“Yes, Vinnie was four and Vic was two when we moved in.” She squares her shoulders. “I guess I’ll head home now.”
Samantha waves a hand toward the door. “Want to come in? Have a look around?”
“I don’t want to impose. I’ve been enough of a bother.”
“No bother at all.”
“Well, if you insist. “My name is Barbara. And you’re . . .”
“Samantha. This is Joey.”
“Can I hold him?” She sets her purse on the sofa.
Samantha hesitates. “He doesn’t usually take to strangers.” But Joey lunges into Barbara’s outstretched arms.
“Maybe I look like his grandmother.” She hums a tune as she strolls around the house with Joey on her hip. “You’ve done some nice things here. The yellow walls really brighten up the place.”
“It’s a little junky right now. I’m not the best housekeeper.”
“You have your hands full.” A wistful smile blooms as she touches marks and dates on the kitchen wall. “They’re still here.”
“I couldn’t bring myself to paint over history. You stopped marking their growth when they got to be teenagers. Is that when you moved away?”
“I guess they didn’t think it was cool anymore. They must be big guys now if they were that tall in junior high.”
“Yes, they both took after Arthur.”
Samantha reaches for the baby, but Barbara carries him into the living room and sits down to play pat-a-cake. Joey grins as she claps his hands together, and cackles when she pokes his tummy. “Pat it, and prick it, and mark it with a B.”
“Look, Barbara, it’s been a nice visit, but I’d like to get him down for a nap.” She sighs and rubs her eyes.
“You look exhausted yourself.”
“My mother says I should sleep whenever he does, but he’s kind of a non-stop baby.”
“Does she ever watch him for you, to let you rest?”
“No, she lives in Oregon.”
“I see. You should have a rest right now. Maybe a hot bath. I can watch him for you.”
The offer is very tempting. Samantha’s back aches and her head is pounding.
“Are you sure?”
Samantha kisses the top of her baby’s head. “I love you sweetie. See you later.”
She doesn’t waste time filling up the bathtub. A hot shower is a sufficient luxury.
Maybe a good nap will improve her mood and she won’t be so grumpy when Chet comes home. Things haven’t been going so well between them lately. For the jillionth time, she wishes they had gone on their honeymoon right after the wedding, instead of putting it off for a year. Now they have Joey and Lord knows when they will be able to get away, just the two of them. She slips into bed and drifts away to a beach in Jamaica. All the baby fat has vanished. She is lean and lovely and wears a green bikini. Chet rubs suntan lotion on her back. Such a lovely dream. Until her mother arises from the sea and thunders, “What about Joey? Where is he?”
Samantha startles awake from a deep sleep with her heart pounding. Where is Joey? She recalls that some woman who just appeared in her yard is supposed to be watching her precious baby. A stranger. What was she thinking?
The house is silent. The living room is deserted. So is the kitchen. There is no car in front of the house, Did Barbara come in a car? She can’t remember. Maybe she flew in on wings? Should she call the police? A vise of fear squeezes her chest. She can barely breathe, let alone remember where she put her cellphone. Sobbing, she plops onto the sofa.
And lands next to the white purse.
She hears footsteps padding down the hall. A soft voice asks. “Did you have a nice rest?
Samantha sits up and wipes her eyes. “Yes, it was lovely. Thank you.”
“I rocked him to sleep.” Barbara pats her shoulder. “Poor dear. It’s so stressful, looking after a baby by yourself all day.”
All Samantha’s woes tumble out. She tells Barbara they didn’t expect a baby so soon. She can’t go back to work. Day Care is hard to find. She has to hold on. It will be better when Joey is older.
Barbara hands her a tissue. “Don’t wish any of your time away. Every moment is precious.”
“I should be happy. My best friend struggles with infertility. She would give anything for a baby like mine. There must be something wrong with me. My mother says happiness is something you choose.”
“It’s hard to be happy all the time. Seems there’s always something to worry about. You know what makes me glad?”
Samantha shakes her head.
“Making someone else smile.”
They tiptoe into the nursery. The sight of her sleeping baby and the sound of his gentle breathing fills Samantha with profound peace. She strokes his fuzzy head and whispers “Sleep tight, my sweet little boy.”
Back in the kitchen, Barbara declines a cup of tea. “I must be going now. But I worry about you. You aren’t getting enough rest. Can’t your mother help out once in a while?”
“No, she lives in—”
“Oregon, that’s right, you already told me that.” She glances at her watch and picks up her purse. “Would you like me to help? I could come by for two or three hours a couple of times a week. Tuesdays and Thursdays?”
Samantha rubs her eyes. It sounds too good to be true. “Oh yes. Thank you.”
“Okay. See you next Tuesday.”
Barbara rides the bus, then walks two blocks to her apartment building. The slanting afternoon sun lights up a gallery of photos on her living room wall. Barbara and Arthur on their wedding day. Baby pictures of their boys. A photo of Vinnie and Vic, arm in arm, taken just a few days before the bus crash that claimed both their lives.
A woman in a starched white uniform, greets her. “How was your day? Hope you did something fun. Arthur’s out on the balcony. I was just about to bring him.”
“I’ll get him. You go on home now. I’m sorry to be a little bit late.”
“No problem. See you next Tuesday.”
Arthur has good days and bad days. Today he doesn’t seem to know his wife as she wheels him into the kitchen. She ties a bib around his neck and feeds him split pea soup. Some of it dribbles down his chin and she catches it with the spoon. His eyes light up with recognition and he reaches for her hand. They both smile. For a moment, they are happy again.