Scenes From the Sandbox

by T.R. Healy
Pauly, her three-year-old, had already finished his breakfast and left the table when Maura stepped back into the kitchen.  Smiling, she parted the curtain above the sink and, as expected, saw him stretched out in his yellow sandbox.  If she would let him, she thought, he would sit out there all day, muttering commands to himself as he maneuvered his toy cannons and tanks across a desert of dissolving fortifications.

Still smiling, she closed the curtain and glanced at the clock on the wall.  No one would be here for at least fifteen minutes, she figured.  Quickly she shoved aside some chairs and moved the breakfast table against the wall, then stepped to the center of the kitchen and drew a deep breath.  She raised both arms above her head, with the palms facing out, and stared back across the room at the closed curtain.  Then, abruptly, she lifted her right foot back from her knee and jabbed the ball of her foot into the hard linoleum floor then drove her heel down firmly.  Just as quickly, she jabbed her other foot into the floor.

An older woman she worked with a few years ago introduced her to flamenco dancing, suggesting it was a good way to begin the day because it would get the blood circulating in her veins.  A little skeptical at first, she gradually became a believer, endeavoring to practice a few steps every day, often in the morning before the kids arrived.  Not only did she enjoy it, but she also considered it a good way to release some of the anger pent up inside of her.

Her hands circling above her head, she continued to stamp her feet, harder and harder, until she was afraid she might knock the clock off the wall.

*

Gary was the first youngster to arrive as usual, his shirt half tucked inside his trousers, his slick brown hair parted almost down the middle with a large-toothed comb.  He was brought by his father, who was estranged from his mother who usually brought him.  Maura was surprised to see him, and realizing this, he quickly explained that his wife had an emergency appointment with her dentist earlier this morning.

"Some days nothing goes right," he whined.  "I hope today doesn't turn out to be one of them."

"So do I."

For the past four months Maura had operated a day care service out of the small frame house she rented from her Aunt Edna.  Prior to starting her own business, she had worked nearly two years downtown in a day care facility sponsored by an affluent Episcopalian church.  It looked after as many as thirty-five children some days, with half a dozen employees.  She only had four kids in her care so far, but hoped to have at least twice that many by the end of the summer.  She'd better, she thought, otherwise she didn't know if she could continue the business, and if she couldn't, she supposed she would have to return to the nursery downtown where she often felt patronized, as if she were still a child.

*

"I might be a little late picking up Julie this afternoon," Mrs. Agronsky advised Maura as soon as she arrived with her daughter.

"Oh."

"I shouldn't be more than half an hour, if that long."

"That's fine."

Mrs. Agronsky nodded in appreciation, idly smoothing out a wrinkle in her daughter's calico sundress.  "I am going to a concert at the home of one of my neighbors.  She has this Steinway grand piano, and every few months she invites someone associated with the symphony over to play it for her and her guests.  I promised I'd help her pass out refreshments and whatever else she wants me to do so I probably won't be here until some time around four-thirty."

"Stay as long as you wish," Maura told her.  "Julie and I can find plenty to do to occupy our time."

Mrs. Agronsky smiled and patted her daughter on the forehead then hurried out the door, the lilac scent of her perfume lingering strongly behind her.

Maura envied Mrs. Agronsky more than any of her clients because she was involved in so many interesting activities.  Only the other day, she told her about the waltz evenings she and her husband held in their home every couple of months.  For an instant, Maura thought she was going to invite her to attend one of the evenings, but she didn't, which was just as well because she didn't have anyone to take her.

*

"Maura, look!" Katie insisted, holding up the drawing she had been working on in the shade of the pear tree.

"Oh, yes.  It's very expressive."

"What is it?"

The wrinkled sheet of white tracing paper was almost covered in thick purplish blue crayon strokes, except for a lopsided circle near the middle that was left clear.  Maura studied it a moment, pensively tapping a finger against her lips.  "I'd say it's the moon late at night."

"No."

"No?"

She shook her long, red pigtails.  "It's a hole."

"A hole?"

"Yes," she said, making a circle with her right thumb and index finger and squinting through it.  "Now I can see what happens on the other side."

"The other side of what, dear?"

"A door, silly," she replied, continuing to stare as if she were peering through a keyhole.

*

The telephone rang in the kitchen.

Maura hurried up from the basement and eagerly answered it, suspecting it was Brady.

"Hello?"

"Maura Aitken?"

It was not Brady, but someone representing the sheriff's office asking her to purchase a raffle ticket for a vintage Thunderbird to help fund the construction of a new dayroom for the summer camp supported by the office.

In disappointment, she stamped her foot down on the floor, as if resuming her flamenco practice.  Brady was the only man in her life these days, and she looked forward to the telephone conversations she had been having with him three and four times a week for the past few months.

*

Scott, the guy she lived with for almost two years, and with whom she had Pauly, moved to Denver last fall to work in his stepfather's body repair shop.  He told her he would send for her and Pauly once he got settled, but instead he called a month later and said he had changed his mind and decided he didn't want to live with her any longer.  He assured her he would not renege on his financial obligations to their son but otherwise thought they should not see one another for a while.  She was absolutely devastated, incredulous, never for a moment anticipating he would abandon her and their child.  She was so depressed that for several days she refused to leave the tiny apartment where she was living then, unable to look at anyone she knew because she didn't want to have to talk about Scott, but gradually she got on with her life and moved into her aunt's home and began to make plans to start her own business.  Now she tried not to think about Scott, though it was difficult sometimes because Pauly had his eyes and the corners of his mouth, but when she did it was only with regret that she had ever got involved with someone so callous in the first place.

*

"Make a boat!" Maura commanded on an impulse as she passed out paper cups of grapefruit juice.

All at once, the children stuck their index fingers into their mouths, as she had taught them one afternoon, and lifted up the corners in the shape of a canoe.

She looked around the wooden table, admiringly, and complimented everyone.  Then, just as impulsively, she said, "Make a scarecrow!" and laughed brayingly as the children contorted their faces into the most outrageous expressions.

Not that many years ago, she remembered, she and a friend of hers used to like to go down to the bus depot and sit together in the automatic picture booth and make all kinds of strange faces for the camera.  Sometimes they could not even recognize one another in the photographs, they had twisted their faces into such hideous masks.

*

The telephone rang again, and Maura rushed into the kitchen to answer it.  It was Mrs. Engler reminding her not to forget to give her daughter, Katie, her cold medicine after lunch.  She was surprised, sure that it was going to be Brady this time since he hadn't called for the past three days.  She wondered now if he was going to call at all today.  It was already a quarter past one, which was generally around the time she heard from him.

She first met Brady at the nursery downtown because his sister worked there and he would come by sometimes to have lunch with her.  But she hadn't seen him since she left there until one afternoon last spring when she bumped into him at the post office.  Chatting together in line, she told him about her plans to start her own business and he asked for her telephone number in case he came across anyone who was in need of a day care service.  Somewhat to her surprise, he called a couple of days later and said he had given her number to a few people who might be interested in her services.  She never heard from any of these people, but she did hear from Brady again who, during his breaks as a medical courier, began to call her once a week, then more often, from his delivery van.  He seldom talked about soliciting business for her but usually just discussed whatever was on his mind at the moment.  At first, she regarded him as a nuisance but after a while she began to look forward to his calls because it was such a relief to have a conversation with an adult for a change during the daytime.  Curiously she had not seen him since that afternoon at the post office.  A few times he suggested that they go out to dinner together, but she always declined because she was not ready yet to get involved with anyone so soon after Scott.  She still hurt too much after that bitter experience.

*

The air was sweltering this afternoon, "as hot as a Texas highway," as Maura's father used to say whenever he complained about the heat.  So she decided to let the children take their nap in the basement where it was considerably cooler.

As she watched over them, seated in a creaking wicker chair near the wash basin, she softly practiced the rhythmic clapping that is such an integral part of flamenco dancing.  She wondered, if she ever really became proficient in the dance, if she would have the nerve to perform in front of anyone.  Maybe the children, she thought, grinning slyly, because they wouldn't laugh too hard at her mistakes.

*

Roger, lugging a wishbone-shaped pear branch behind him, approached Maura and yanked one of her fingers.  "I found this behind the garage," he said when he got her attention.

"It must've broken off last night with the strong winds we had."

"Can you find water with it?"

She smiled, remembering the demonstration she conducted the other week for the children.  It was something her aunt, who claimed to be able to locate water in her backyard with a forked stick, had shown her when she was about the age of these scamps.

"Come on," she said, taking Roger's hand.  "Let's see if this stick's thirsty."

She led the boy past the crumbling sundial to a tangled area in the yard where, her aunt always insisted, there lay a good vein of water, some sixty feet down.  Turning her back to the wildflowers and weeds, she took the stick from Roger and aimed it at his knees and told him to grab one end of it.  Then, almost in unison, they turned around and stepped into the undergrowth, pointing the stick toward the ground.  They took only a couple of steps when the stick shot up and almost sprang out of their hands.  Roger squealed with excitement, and Maura gritted her teeth.  They continued on, Roger's eyes bright as thimbles, and in another moment the stick began to heave back and forth like a garden hose.

"Hold on," Maura urged him.  "Hold on tight."

The stick seemed to shiver in their hands, which caused them to shuffle around together as they approached the dousing site.  And a broad grin curled across her mouth as Maura realized she had finally found a dance partner.

*

"Hello?"

"Hi, it's me."

"Brady," she snapped in irritation as she cradled the telephone against her shoulder.  "Where have you been?  I haven't heard from you in I don't know how long."

"It's been a while, I know, but I've really been busy this week.  You know how it can get toward the end of the month."

"Surely you had enough time to call and tell me how busy you were," she mildly chided him.

"Yeah, you're right.  I should have.  Sorry."

For the next few minutes, after complaining about the suffocating heat today and yesterday, they discussed the lottery and the enormous amount of money that was now in the jackpot.  So far, Brady said, he had purchased fourteen tickets for the drawing tomorrow night and was considering buying a couple more today after he got off work.  Maura, who believed he was wasting his money, tried to discourage him but he was adamant he had a serious chance this time.

"I really feel tomorrow could be my lucky day."

She snorted with laughter.  "You say that before every drawing."

"I guess I do," he conceded, laughing with her, "but one of these days my wish is going to come true."

"If wishes were horses beggars would ride," she said, recalling an old proverb.

"Oh, I almost forgot," he said hurriedly, ignoring her remark.  "Do you remember that rumor I mentioned to you a week or so ago about some teacher at my old high school being involved this summer with one of his students?"

Her smile dissolving, she sat up in her chair.  "How could I forget?"

"Someone else I know heard the same thing so I guess there must be some validity to it after all."

She grimaced.  "I'm sorry to hear that."

"So am I, Maura, but you hear about things like that all the time now.  In this city and probably every other one in the state that has more than one street."  He sighed, breathing rasply into the receiver.  "Kids, obviously, are a lot more grown up these days than we were when we were their age.  They do things we'd never have even thought of doing."

"Gracious, you almost sound as if you're excusing this guy," she said curtly.

"No, certainly not.  I guess I'm just saying that nothing surprises me anymore, which makes me feel like I am a hundred years old."

She disagreed.  "It was deplorable then, and it's deplorable now."

*

Through addressing the envelope, Maura set her pen down and leaned back from the wooden table and looked over at Pauly, who again had the sandbox to himself now that the other children had gone home.  She was surprised he could not hear the blood pounding in her ears, which sounded to her as loud as a waterfall.  She was absolutely beside herself, she was so furious at the seeming confirmation of the rumor about the affair between some teacher and his student.  Because if there was one thing she didn't want to see happen, it was to have some girl even younger than she was when she had Pauly become pregnant and then left on her own by some irresponsible teacher.  She almost wished Brady had never said anything to her about the rumor, but he did so she felt compelled to report the affair to the administrators at the school where the teacher was this summer.  Of course she realized the rumor might not be true, but she was so concerned she didn't want to take any chances and figured it was up to those at the school to make that determination.

She picked up the envelope and sealed it shut then stood and abruptly, loudly jabbed the ball of her right foot into the floor then stamped down her heel so furiously her spine cracked.
T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest.  His stories have appeared in such journals as 3711 Atlantic, Houston Literary Review, Ken Again, and Lily.

© 2007, T.R. Healy