by Sarah Bowen
“I never get to choose what we play,” his sister Angie said. The past few afternoons, Mark and his sister had built houses out of Legos which had once made-up the grey body of a Death Star.
So today Mark let her pick. He didn’t want to clean up the Legos, anyway. Or else Daddy tripped on them when he came to shut the bedroom window and the next day Daddy’d be mad. Didn’t Mark understand how pointy the corners were? Didn’t Mark think it was important to keep a floor clean? Didn’t Daddy tell Mark to pick-up the toys many times before? And Mark’s voice would come out all squeaky-like when he said I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry and then Mark had to scoop the pieces into grocery bags or plastic orange bins or Angie’s miniature purple purse or the empty fish tank so Daddy wouldn’t get more mad.
Plus, Mark realized, they had run out of purple flower pieces for the gardens.
Angie wanted to play dolls today.
“Dolls?” said Mark.
Angie normally liked sword-fights or pillow-forts or racecars on tracks which went upside-down.
“Make me into a doll!” she said.
Grammy had given Angie a doll, once. It had mustard-yellow hair, which stretched instead of broke when Mark pulled on it. It didn’t have underwear or private parts. It lived in the pile of dress-up capes under Angie’s desk, and sometimes its eyes reflected the moon onto the ceiling. The tag, never removed, dubbed it ‘Jess.’
“Make me into a doll!” Angie said. Her overgrown eyebrows pulled together. “Make a doll factory!”
Mark buzzed his lips for the assembly belt and hit two Nalgenes together as he pretended to hammer Angie’s head onto her shoulders. She giggled, half-closed her eyes and declared that he had put the head on sideways. He spread red watercolor paint over her lips and drew pink circles on her cheeks with the ‘Razzmatazz’ crayon. He raided his Ancient Egypt mummy kit of the plaster-wrap strips.
“Hold still!” said Mark. He wet each strip in the bathroom sink and ran back to their room before the whitish water could dry. He stuck the plaster on Angie’s leg. She flinched.
“It tickles,” she said.
“Dolls don’t get to move,” Mark said. “Hold still.”
Mark ran out of strips; he had only coated one leg up to the knee. Angie sat still and upright, unblinking. Jess watched from under her desk.
“I don’t like being a doll,” Angie said.
Earlier that morning, Daddy took Mark to Cafe Javasti before school. Daddy said the cheaper coffee was in little local places, and that no Seattleite knew how to drive. He said the drivers were too nice and didn’t know anything about right-of-way and Ma shouldn’t have picked a neighborhood where they used their Bluetooths so much. He said that the public schools were corrupt. He said the United States should stop funding rebellions with his taxes. He said the minimum wage was stupidly low and no hard-working honest man could raise a family on that.
Daddy’s voice was steady and reminded Mark of stories at bedtime. Mark wondered what minimum wage was. He would look it up in Mrs. Marison’s dictionary, he decided. He wasn’t allowed to drink caffeine until middle school, but he liked to scrape the whipped cream off his hot chocolate with a stir stick.
Mark watched the dogs in the window of Mrs. Pets, the shop across the street. Shaggy dogs went into the shop and came out groomed. According to the paint on the window, small dogs cost $34.99. They had the shrillest barks. The ones with the gravelly voices cost $89.99. Every day there was one black poodle and one white poodle, and two dogs with short white hair which gradually littered the floor until someone vacuumed and made the carpet black again. Mark secretly named the black one Cocoa. The two poodles yapped at dogs who were tied to the pipes outside the shop. The glass muffled their speech and the exterior pets stood silent but agitated. The dogs on the outside of the window walked away with their owners and left the poodles to their cacophony. The two white dogs laid on the couch, bored with the poodles’ game. They waited for life to pass.
“Your mother wants a dog,” Daddy said. “Look how loud they bark. It’d wake me at night.”
Mark had a pet lizard, once, but it died when Angie poked it too hard with a pencil.
That day at recess, Mark played kickball with the other boys and girls. One brown-haired girl was always picked for teams first. Mark was somewhere in the middle of the picking order; sometimes when he kicked the purple ball, it went into the hands of the pitcher, and sometimes it went into the wood-chips near the slides, far away.
Occasionally the recess bell blared before it was his turn to kick. His ears sang in annoyance but he pushed it aside. He hurried to the lines at the edge of the brick building. It was easy to run back with the rest. It was almost nice to know he did the right thing.
After recess Mrs. Marison drew big and little rectangles with different numbers inside. “It’s time for multiplication,” she said.
Mark couldn’t make the boxes the right size, so he multiplied the numbers together in his head and wrote the answer at the bottom of the page before drawing the squares above it. Today, Mrs. Marison told him to do 42x63 on the board and he walked up and wrote 2646 in green Expo marker. Mrs. Marison said he had to show his work; he drew four rectangles above the number but he accidentally made the box for the 3 bigger than the box for the 60.
Mrs. Marison told him that he cheated and he wasn’t allowed to use calculators in this class, didn’t he know that?
Front-row-seat Claudia laughed loudly.
Mark did know this. “I don’t have a calculator,” he said.
Mrs. Marison said Mark had to take a bright pink note the color of Razzmatazz with lots of Mrs. Marison’s cursive writing home to Daddy, and he had to sign it and Mark had to bring it back to her tomorrow.
Mark said okay.
But when he sat down he leaned over to Andy and whispered that he didn’t have a calculator, he promised.
Ma made fruit gummies and a cheese stick for after-school snack. Mark sat next to Angie by the bay window. Her polka-dot socks swung without brushing the ground.
Ma wanted to know how Mark’s day at school was.
“Fine,” he said.
Ma’s work was fine, too. She had driven the 66 route today instead of the 250, and it was nice not to go on the freeway. Mark ripped the cheese in half before pulling a strand off, winding it around his tongue three times, and swallowing.
The microwave clock blinked 4:15. Mark had an hour before Daddy came home. It was in this hour that he plastered Angie’s legs and painted her doll cheeks and hammered on her head.
The front door slammed. Daddy left his brown boots, soiled with engine grease, by the entrance. Mark wondered if Mrs. Marison thought he had a calculator in his backpack. Or perhaps that he had remembered the number because a calculator told him one time? Mark wondered if he would ever own a calculator.
The Razzmatazz note was read through clear-framed glasses.
“Did you use a calculator?” Daddy said.
Mark shook his head. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry he said and he studied the grey and blue clumps which decorated the baseboards and wondered if a calculator could count all of the dust specks.
“What’s forty-two times sixty-three?” Daddy said.
“Fifty-seven times eighty-five?”
How did Mark do that?
Mark didn’t know.
Daddy mumbled about the corruption of public schools. Stifling natural talent. Investigative discovery math was a load of bullshit. Mark didn’t know what investigative math was, but he knew what bullshit was. Merriam-Webster said it meant “nonsense.”
Daddy stomped all the way down the stairs with the Razzmatazz note.
“Wait!” Mark said. He slid his palms quickly down the handrail. He needed the note back.
Daddy said that Mark didn’t need a fucking note to learn math. Mark knew what fucking meant, too. It meant “damned.” He wondered if God wanted the note to live in hell.
But Mark said again that he needed the note back and Mrs. Marison told him he had to return it and he had already made Mrs. Marison mad enough so wouldn’t Daddy give it back?
“No fucking bitch is going to get this note.” The spit hit the staircase wall with a tick.
The scabbed lips were taut within the graphite beard. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry Mark whimpered with his voice squeaky and rising and he ran upstairs to the room where Angie still sat with white plaster over her leg.
“I’d rather be dead than a stiff old doll,” said Angie. “Now anyone can do anything to me.”
“Anything?” Mark said.
“What if they do something awful?” said Angie.
Dinner was fish-sticks and asparagus. Ma scrubbed the watercolor off of Angie’s lips but left the crayon in faint circles over her cheeks. Daddy emerged from the basement just in time for “we thank Lord Jesus for our food,” and after they said Amen, Daddy told Mark he could have his note back. The Razzmatazz had been stapled to a single-spaced white sheet. Mark tried to read it, but it had too many big words like “circumvent” and “fatuous accusation” and “vacuous, unqualified instructor.”
Ma grabbed the letter and her eyes skimmed back and forth and she said she didn’t quite think it was appropriate.
Daddy said it was more than appropriate and just about time for someone to put that teacher back where she belonged.
Ma said they shouldn’t drag Mark into it.
Mark said he wanted the note back because he had already messed up enough anyway and he would never do multiplication in his head again if it meant that Ma and Daddy would please be quiet please.
Daddy said he didn’t care what that fucking bitch thought and certainly not you fucking bitch either.
Ma ate a fish stick.
Angie sank lower into her chair until her polka-dot toes dragged on the floor.
Daddy leaned over the table with a toothy smile. “Mark, you can take the note back to Mrs. Marison. Say you told your father what happened.” Mark took the Razzmatazz and put it in his lap.
Angie’s bottom slid across the wooden floor.
“I—” Ma said. She inhaled to silence. Angie wrapped her arms around Ma’s calves.
After another helping of fish, Daddy asked Ma about work today.
“Horrible,” she said.
Mark awoke to Ma’s voice, high-pitched and strained. He pushed aside his comforter and crept across the Lego-free floor to turn on the light.
“What is it?” said Angie.
Mark hushed her.
He opened the door to their room. Ma was screaming, no words that he could tell, to the rhythm of a cracking. Mark grabbed his crocheted Blanky and secured it over his head. Blanky peeked around the refrigerator. Ma at the counter. Pounding into the wooden cutting board. A chef’s knife. It smelled like dish soap and the countertops were sudsy. The lights rattled when the tip of the knife made contact. Crack! rattle-hiss. Crack! rattle-hiss. Crack!
“Ma, no! Ma, stop!” Mark said.
Ma brought the knife – Crack! – into the wood of the cutting board.
“Ma, no!” he said. The squeakiness in his voice grew. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry he said and he slumped onto the tiles and covered his face with Blanky. Ma put the knife in the sink with a small clicking noise. She took his quaking arm and walked him back to his room. She sang “Edelweiss” slightly faster than normal and turned out the lights.
The next day, after school, Mark and Angie played zoo. They set up the Jenga blocks in cages around the animals. Blond Jess was the zookeeper. The five-inch giraffes and the painted zebras were in the same pen. Mark learned on a field trip that they should never put predators and prey in the same exhibit. The pouncing cheetah was fenced off from the gazelles. The hippopotamus lived in a small “The Wiggles” bowl filled with tap water. Mark didn’t actually have a plastic hippo so he substituted a rhinoceros instead.
“Look, Ma!” Angie pointed at the bowl. “It’s a hippo!”
Ma looked at Angie, and then at Mark. “That’s a rhino.”
“No, Ma, that’s a hippo,” Angie said.
Mark tugged at the soft cashmere of Ma’s elbow. “We’re playing pretend,” he whispered in his best explaining voice. “Except she doesn’t know we’re pretending, yet.”
Ma chuckled. Ma laughed. Angie threw a marble at the rhino-hippo. The rhino-hippo’s nostrils sank beneath the water along with the marble.
“Don’t hurt the hippo,” said Mark.
“Anyone can do anything to a hippo in a cage,” said Ma.
Sarah Bowen studies violin performance and creative writing at Northwestern University. As a true Seattleite, she is snobby about her coffee, plays ultimate Frisbee in her spare time, and uses neither rain boots nor umbrellas. She has a pet cactus named Jeremiah.