Robert

By Micah Muldowney



Robert’s mother called him Bobbi.


That tells you a lot about what kind of child he was; almost too beautiful to be a boy:


He had long, soft, curly hair (blonde).


He had a round, soft little podge and round soft little fingers that almost never seemed to flex or bend.


His head was almost perfectly round and symmetrical in the apportionment of his round, soft little features. It was also ever-so-slightly-too-large, so that he could not reach his opposite ear with those pudgy, hyperextended little fingers until long after his peers.


He tended to look to the side and smiled with tightly pursed lips like a coquettish puppy dog and waggled his soft, round little shoulders whenever he became excited. Indeed, he was almost too cute to be human, as his mother would observe every night before bed, or when there was company. Then, she would pinch his nose or scratch his head and call him her ‘pet’ or ‘momma’s li’l critter’ and crinkle her nose for her audience.


Yet among all his quaint or charming little qualities, his eyes were the most remarkable.

They were (as it was said) just like his mother's—and ‘remarkable’ was just the word people always used when they made remarks about her eyes.


Now, this business of “having his mother’s eyes” (or any other of his mother’s traits, for that matter) had always perplexed Bobbi. You see, mother was perhaps unduly strait-laced when it came to her son. He was (to her mind) too beautiful, too innocent for “this present world.” Thus, she would never, ever permit him to be subjected to any kind of unwholesome influence; after all, he had her baby-blue eyes—clear as two drops of rain, fresh as a cherub, deep as the fountains of sleep etc. etc. etc.


As I had said before, the questions of origin and likeness rankled at Bobbi’s little heart. His parents weren’t any help at all; whenever he would ask his mother where he came from she would respond with an offhanded


“The stork brought you”


or


“Straight from the courts of heaven.”


Bobbi’s father was a bit more of a liberal thinker than his wife (“unpolished,” she would say) and never saw why little Bobbi’s natural curiosity should be subjected to such naked casuistry. Nevertheless, in this (as in all other) matters he deferred to his wives’ determination in favor of peace in the home; Bobbi’s mother sang soprano in the church choir on Sundays and as he saw it, it was sound polity not to encourage her on week-days. When pressed about how he had come to the family, his father would tell young Bobbi that they found him


“on sale in Macy’s”


and that there had been


“some assembly required.”

Then, in time-honored, ritual fashion his father would wink broadly at his mother and his mother hit him with a pillow or wooden spoon.


Bobbi could never figure out why grown-ups talked so much nonsense. It seemed a simple enough question to him, and their answers always left his core anxieties unaddressed;


If he came from Macy’s, how did he get mothers eyes?


Further, he knew that women had to get pregnant before they could have a baby; his own Aunt Clara got pregnant before she had his cousin Mae (she had let him feel the baby kick) and so had his neighbor Nelly.


And Nelly wasn’t even married.


It was all very puzzling. By the time he reached eight he simply stopped asking his parents these sorts of questions.


It was around this time that he found a pregnancy test in his parent’s bathroom. Of course he didn’t know what it was; his mother had covered the labels with electric tape—as she did her boxes of tampons and her husband’s Viagra. This was done for young Bobbi’s protection, lest he ask her ticklish questions.


Judging from its size and weight it looked like a box of gummy-candies. This made sense to Bobbi; his mother was very close-fisted with her personal cache of sweets and would often disguise and hide them in random places throughout the house. So (naturally) he tore open the corner and emptied the contents into his soft, round little palm.


It certainly wasn’t a gummy-candy he decided after a moment’s deliberation.


He held the torn edge to one baby-blue eye and discovered, buried deep to one side, some kind of leaflet. Thumbing through, he picked out a little instruction manual which he turned over and over and held up to his face with fat little fingers. On closer inspection he found that the booklet contained instructions to take the stick in his hand and pee on it. “Curious,” he thought; “the picture doesn’t show the person’s privates.” Maybe the illustrator, like his mother, didn’t much care for privates. She always told him not to touch them.


He proceeded to remove the test from of its plastic wrap. It made a nice crinkling sound. He liked the little test; it fit nicely in his fat little fist and was purple and white, like his shirt (like many mothers of soft, uncoordinated children, Bobbi’s dressed him almost exclusively in sports jerseys).


The booklet assured him that ten seconds would do the trick. Not a problem. It had been a hot day and cousin Mae had come over to play; he had been drinking large glasses of ‘guest’ lemonade all morning. Ten seconds would not be too difficult. Indeed, ten seconds was over before he knew it.


He watched the seconds hand on the bathroom clock until he was certain that three full minutes had elapsed. Only then did he dare to peek.


A minus sign.


This, this was very bad—His mother always scolded him when he brought home a minus sign from school.


And took away his gummy-candies.


He pouted his lips and wrinkled the nearly perfect symmetry of his brow, then clapped his soft round hands anxiously. Remembering himself, he hid the box and test under the toilet paper in the wastebasket; maybe, she would only take away his gummy-candies if she found it.


But what could he possibly have gotten a minus in?


He couldn’t possible imagine. He almost never got them in school. Just pluses, pluses, pluses, and candies. Bobbi dug the box out of the wastebasket to investigate. Since the words and pictures had been completely obscured, he had to scratch back the electric tape with his fingernails to find what the stick had been for. Finally, after a few long, unbearable minutes of pushing and pulling, he finally uncovered the front and . . .


Horror!


Now, a minus sign always meant trouble. He expected trouble. He was prepared for trouble – but what could possibly be more trouble than getting pregnant?


But how could it have happened?


He didn’t even know how Aunt Clara had done it, except maybe that she kissed Uncle Don sometimes. His mother would get angry when they did it in front of him. Then he remembered:


Mary Smith had kissed him on the playground the other day.


But he had yelled at her and wiped it off! Was there no protection?


Bobbi went to his room and started to pack his toys in a bandana, just like he had seen on TV. He would have to run away now; he had overheard the things him mother said about Nelly when she thought he was out drinking lemonade—


Nelly was an embarrassment to her parents and the whole community.


And NO child of hers would get teen-pregnant if she could knock some sense into her.


Mentally he hoped his mother would never find out while he continued to pack away the jelly sandwiches she had made for lunch and a box of gummy candies she had hidden in her underwear drawer.



 


Micah Muldowney is a poet and musicologist whose essays and poetry have appeared in Soundboard, This Literary Magazine, Polyphony Online, Grey Sparrow Journal, Descant, and West Trade Review.


His freshman collection of poetry will be forthcoming in May of 2022 with Finishing Line Press. He was born in greater Philadelphia and studied applied guitar and critical musicology at Brigham Young and Temple Universities.


After living and studying abroad and in the intermountain west, Micah returned to Philadelphia in 2009, where he now lives with his wife Erin and their three children. When he is not writing poetry and short fiction he bakes artisanal free-form bread and researches critical theory approaches to questions of music and meaning.