By Danielle Wilcox
I was in the middle of ruining my ten-year-old’s birthday party when the nursing home called.
“Is this Mr. Daryl Ba-rell?” a distracted woman said on the phone.
“Beryl,” I corrected her, “like a barrel of monkeys.” We were in the neon lobby of Laser Land, feeding a pack of fourth graders birthday cake, and then buying enough laser tag games to drain sugar highs before we drove them home. We were considerate parents.
“Your name is Daryl Beryl?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Can I help you?” I had one hand on my phone. My free hand was holding back a child I did not know. Hopefully, it was one of Jeremy’s friends, but probably not. I would have remembered a child riding in my car with hair the color of a construction cone. He was flailing his little arms with little pink fists on the ends of them, snarling at my son and his friends like a cornered bobcat. He scared my wife, so she asked me to restrain him. Redheads made her nervous.
“Mr. Bar-ell, I’m Nancy Duncan down here at Sheridan Shores? Where your mother Sheila is? Down here at Sheridan Shores?”
“Yes, Nancy, hi. What can I do for you?” This little jerk I was holding had finished the arm-swinging portion of his tirade and started stomping on my Italian loafers. He pumped his arms in the air each time he pounded my shoes with his sneakers. He was leaving scuffs. I didn’t know whose little shit this was, but he was a real maniac.
“Mr. Ba-rell, I’m going to need you to come down here to Sheridan Shores? We need to have a little talky-loo with you about your mother.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Mr. Ba-rell, you’d just better come down here so we can sit down face-to-face and chit chat.”
“What’d she do?” I asked.
“Mr. Ba-rell, if you and Mrs. Ba-rell could just come down here, we can sit and have a little talky-loo, all of us, together, sound good?”
“It’s Beryl,” I said.
“Hmm?” Nancy said.
“It’s pronounced Beryl, like a barrel.”
“Huh,” Nancy said, pausing. “Well, I really wish someone would have told us that. We’ve been calling your mother the wrong name this whole time.” Nancy let out a nervous laugh. The little jerk of a human being I was holding back started kicking my shins.
“Jeremy,” I mouthed, holding the phone away from my face and pointing it toward the redhead, “is he with us?” Jeremy shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands up. My kid was dressed in head-to-toe camo. Except for the loafers, we were matching.
“Knock it off, you little shit,” I whispered in the strange kid’s ear.
“Excuse me?” Nancy said on the phone.
“Nancy, yes, hi, listen. I’m sorry about whatever it is Sheila did, but it’s really definitely impossible for me to come down there today. If you can just go ahead and add whatever damage to the monthly, I’ll take care of it like last time. So sorry about whatever it is.”
“Listen up, Mr. Daryl Beryl, this kind of thing isn’t one of those big-city, quick-fix money kinds of things. Sheila needs to know there are repercussions. We need to sit down and have this little talky-loo face-to-face, you got me Daryl Beryl?”
Nancy was getting hood on me. I became frightened not at what my mother had done to piss her off, but at the size of the check I’d be signing when it was over. Not like Nancy sounded that great, either. Maybe this little shit I was holding back was hers. Maybe this is what Nancy’s kids were like.
“Maybe if you had called my mother by the right name, she wouldn’t feel the need to act out,” I said. “Maybe then we wouldn’t even be having this little talky-loo.” Hah. Take that, Nancy. It was a pretty good come back. I was feeling pretty all right about where I sat in the conversation when the little redheaded asshole grabbed the arm I was holding him with and bit down on my wrist, hard.
“You little prick,” I said. He was a little prick. I bet someday he’d work in a nursing home and call someone’s mother by the wrong name for six months. I grabbed that pricky little redhead by his pricky little Spider-Man backpack and threw him on the floor of Laser Land, hard. Way harder than I probably should have. Definitely too hard. He was lying on the floor, still as stone. Sometimes, I blow up.
“Mr. Beryl, your mother. Visiting hours are until six. We’ll be expecting you before four.” Nancy hung up. The unnamed child I had just assaulted stood up from the floor, looked at me, terrified, and silently backed away toward whoever had brought him to Laser Land. Maybe it was a birthday party chaperone that hated him like I did. Maybe it was his parents. I pointed my index finger in the air, twirled it around, and raised my eyes to Dayna, my wife.
“Time to go,” I mouthed.
“Sorry to cut today short, J-Buddy.” J-Buddy was what I called my kid. He was my buddy, a pretty cool little dude. A little mini-me.
“Yeah, sorry your dad went ape-shit on that child,” Dayna said to J-Buddy from the front seat.
“I did not go ape-shit,” I said. Dayna turned to me with an exclamation mark on her thin, pale face.
“I saw the whole thing,” she said. “It was weird, Daryl. It was strange. You threw that kid hard.”
“He bit me in the arm.”
“So it really hurt.”
“Oh, come on. If Jeremy bit you in the arm, would you throw him on the ground? I’m worried, Daryl. This is worrying.”
“Listen,” I started, but Dayna wasn’t listening. She was holding a hand out in front of herself, admiring her nail polish against the traffic, fidgeting with her rings. A pedestrian on the sidewalk might have thought she was waving to them.
“It’s concerning, Daryl. I think maybe you would throw our son on the ground. I think maybe you’d just bite him right back.”
"Jeremy would never bite me. That’s that kid’s problem; he doesn’t get thrown on the ground enough.”
“It’s alright,” J-Buddy said from the back seat. “It’s like they told us in school. All good things end.” I looked at him in the rear-view mirror. The afternoon sun had never made its way out, and clouds had started to collect over the lake. It wasn’t raining yet, but flashes of lightening filtered through the tinted windows, making the spray of freckles across his face look dark and thoughtful. Exotic.
“What?” Dayna said. “Who says that in school?”
“Oh, well this is just great,” Dayna said, throwing her hands in the air. “My husband sucker-punches other people’s children for fun, and my son is being taught by a bunch of pessimists. This is just really great.”
I started to come up with ways to tell Dayna that what I did to that kid was nothing like a sucker punch, had she never seen a proper sucker punch, I’d be happy to demonstrate one, etcetera, etcetera, but instead I told her the thing I knew would piss her off the most:
“We’re going down to Sheridan Shores to see my mother.”
Dayna’s arms went from being long and outstretched to a tight cross over her stomach.
“Mm-mmm, mm-mmm,” she said through pursed lips, shaking her head so her short, blonde hair twirled and stuck to the suede headrest. “Nooooo way. I've read those Progress Reports. No way. You can just go ahead and forget that.”
The Progress Reports. For an extra fee, I suffered monthly through accounts in Nancy Duncan’s painfully tight cursive of my mother’s tirades. Why they chose the word progress for a nursing home report I do not know. What were the best reports like? “Progress: still falling asleep with applesauce in mouth,” or “Progress: still alive.” Either of these would have been lovely compared to Nancy’s February Report of my mother:
Progress: We seem to be having a bit of an issue with your mother during meal times. The past few weeks Sheila has been stealing food from the plates of sleeping or distracted residents. Then, when they wake up or remember they're eating, she tells them it was me. Last week Sheila joined the gardening club, which would have been a lovely surprise, had she not made such a big joke out of it. When Sheila planted her "friend flower" in the garden, she put my name next to it, and then refused to water it. She said she wanted to watch it dry up.
“What's a Progress Report?” asked J-Buddy.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, but Dayna started in.
“You know how you get a report card at school?” she asked him. I looked back at J-Buddy, hoping he wasn’t listening, but he was. He was listening with his hands down his pants.
“Get your hands out of your pants,” I said, “and don’t sniff your-” He sniffed his hand. My kid was a ball-sniffer. At least he wasn’t a redhead.
“Grandma gets one, too,” Dayna said. “Apparently she’s not very nice to the people who work there.”
“So?” J-buddy said. BAM. Take that Dayna. That is why I called him J-Buddy, that right there. The kid was only ten, but he stuck to an inherent bro-code. Dayna cleared her throat.
“So, it’s not nice to be mean to people. They end up feeling bad about it for a long time.”
“Like when Dad threw down that kid today?” he asked.
Dayna turned to me and smiled, the exclamation point on her face replaced with a smug period. “Exactly,” she said. “Exactly like that.”
Not cool, Jeremy. I looked at him in the mirror and glared. He’s just a ball-sniffer anyway.
We were in Nancy Duncan’s office at Sheridan Shores and Dayna was texting. Her nails were scratching at her phone like she was a rodent stuck in a wall.
Nancy’s desk held a stack of magazines, and on top was Snappy Seniors Monthly. The cover story, the cream of the crop for April’s issue, was titled: “Activities and How To Survive Them,” which seemed a little sad to me, a little sad and a little obvious. What kind of activities didn’t require surviving when you’re old?
"Mr. Beryl,” Nancy said, “when I sat down this morning to stuff my reports into their envelopes after handwriting each one, I got to licking yours, and I said to myself, 'Whoa, hey now. I think enough is enough. I think I’ll call this Mr. Beryl and go over these matters in person, get a fix for this here family.’" She handed me the report. "Go ahead and read it out loud. Nice and clear, please." Nancy leaned back in her office chair and closed her eyes while she listened. She was a troll of a woman. Her feet barely touched the floor and her face was a sideways oval. She had short, slick, brown leaves of hair gelled to her forehead, and she was wearing a blue pantsuit with a hem barely reaching to her mid-calf. Her feet were offensively displayed in sandals.
The file she handed me said PROGRESS REPORT. In the top corner was the Sheridan Shores logo: a tiny silhouette of Michigan. In the middle of the state, just north of the knuckles, with little waves floating outside of the mitten, were the letters SS. The top of the letterhead said MARCH–PROGRESS. White space filled the page.
“It’s blank,” I said.
“That’s right. Sheila has made no progress.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Well, alright, this is a little awkward, but, Sheila’s been…quite the ditty-bag lately.”
This got Dayna’s attention. The tapping quieted.
“Ditty-bag?” Nancy raised her arms in the air like Hello? Who doesn’t know what a ditty-bag means? “A minx, Mr. Beryl? A fornicatress?”
“She’s promiscuous?” I said.
“Ho-ho, I think it’s just a little more than that,” Nancy said, and I worried she might cross the line, might mistake my patience for politeness, and I was right. “She’s a little slutty,” she added.
“Excuse me?” I said. “Did you just call my eighty-year-old mother slutty?”
“Can she not have fun? Is this a no-fun zone? Is there to be no fun here, in the land of Nancy, where everyone suffers in the fun-free Nancy zone?”
“THIS IS NOT,” she started yelling, but then looked out of her office and into the hallway where residents were rolling by. “This,” she said, moving her arms in a circle and pointing around her office. “This is a fun-free zone, this right here. But out there, they are having plenty of fun, thank you. Plenty. Besides, what if all my residents decided to get hot and heavy, hopping into each other’s bed after curfew? What if everyone started running around, getting his or her rocks off like Sheila does? What if everyone said ‘I am like Sheila, and the rules do not apply?’”
Jesus, this woman hated my mother. Who got this mad at old people? What kind of place was this?
I looked through Nancy’s glass-plated door and into the nursing home’s community room. We’d walked past it when we arrived, but now I had Nancy’s view. Sheridan Shores was having a dance. Some old person with a shaky hand had written ‘Spring Fling’ on a banner that hung over a refreshment table, peppered with beige tapioca cups and forks stabbed into pineapple slices. Paper towel and floral favors were laid out, all untouched, and wilted streamers in sad colors hung in the yellow room, torn and tangled. A few balloons hovered like phantoms above the linoleum floor, collecting under a table holding a glass punch bowl, where Jeremy and my mom were taking turns sucking blue liquid into straws and then emptying them into each other’s mouth. Nobody was dancing, and most of the residents were asleep in their wheelchairs. “Running around?” I asked.
My phone buzzed with a text from Dayna: Can you move this along? Just pay her.
“Mr. Beryl, your phone. I’m talking to you,” said Nancy.
“I’m sorry, Nancy,” I said. “I didn’t realize this was communist China.” I said it too fast to consider if it made sense or not, but it didn’t matter. I was distracted by the sun breaking through the community room, making the dance look dreamy. Under the ‘Spring Fling’ sign I watched Jeremy. He was emptying tapioca cups into his mouth, and then into my mother’s, and then filling the tapioca cups with the blue punch and pouring it into both of their mouths. And then he poured one on her head and she coughed a little but she didn’t seem to care. He just kept pouring and pouring, and they kept laughing, punch all over them. He grabbed the back of her wheelchair and started spinning her around, rocking her until her eyelids closed and her hands went limp in her lap.
“Listen,” I said, holding the bill in the air. “How does this work? What do you want?”
Nancy grabbed it out of my hand, crossed out the previous monthly figure, and wrote a shiny new one with lots of looping zeroes next to it. I knew she wasn’t kidding, and I didn’t care. I looked for a pen.
Then I looked at the top of the page. In Nancy’s handwriting, next to my mom’s name, it said “Creaster kid.”
“What is a Creaster kid?” I asked. Nancy launched out of her chair to grab the bill, but I held it behind my back. She was incredibly slow.
“Nothing,” she said, still reaching like I was teasing her with a Happy Meal.
“What is a Creaster kid?” I repeated.
“I said it’s nothing, Mr. Beryl.” Dayna was fidgeting with her watch, spinning the gold links around her small wrist.
“The cake is still in the car, Daryl,” she said.
“We need to get going.”
“Fine,” I said, and with the bill in one hand, I reached for my checkbook with the other. But something from the community room flashed silver through Nancy’s glass door. J-Buddy had left his grandma in the corner, and was now wheeling around an old man, a man who could now possibly be one of my mother’s lovers? The wheelchair was bouncing light off the walls from a hanging fixture, and the faster Jeremy spun him, the faster the lights swirled. J-Buddy was mesmerized. But the old man in the chair had turned money-green, and his head was rolling around on his neck, loose. His face wandered down his head like it was about to slide off. His blue tongue hung out of his blue mouth.
“Hey,” I said to my kid, leaving the office and walking into the dance. Torn streamers stuck to my loafers and floated behind me. “Buddy, knock it off.”
He grinned at the disco lights above him, wheeling around, chasing them. He thought it was a pretty funny game, a beautiful, sparkling joke. He started pushing Blue-face around the room, weaving between sleepy seniors and balloons. He was tripping over streamers and swerving.
“BUDDY!” I yelled. What the hell was wrong with him? And then I busted out my secret weapon, which I knew was my last chance, using his full name because that was what always worked, that was how we communicated, that was the bro-code: “JEREMY DARYL BERYL!”
But he kept going. And I get just a little pissed off, just a little angry, chasing him and Blue-face around the room like an idiot. I started to see maybe the word LAWSUIT flash across my brain, so I ran my ass over there and grabbed my kid and I swung him around to face me, and he didn’t look too hot. J-Buddy’s pupils were rolling like pinballs in their sockets. And he grabbed me by the arm, smiling, slurring his words, and he said:
“Dad, this place is so cool. Grandma’s house is so awesome.” And then he threw up. He let it blow right on my Italian loafers. Puke and scuffs. And the blue puke smelled like tapioca but like acid, too, and another smell. I breathed in the sweet, rippling pine smell of gin.
“You’re drunk?” I said.
He was drunk. I grabbed that kid, the kid who wouldn’t stop pushing around a potentially dead boyfriend of my mother's, who wouldn’t stop when I used the top-secret full-name code. I grabbed that pricky little kid by his pricky little neck and I flung him on the ground, hard. Hard enough to watch my hand, in shock, recoil. But unlike the redhead he didn’t get up and back away, he kept puking, and he started crying.
And then I heard a wheelchair roll up behind me.
“Stellar parenting,” my mom said. “Real exemplary behavior.”
“I know you are not judging me.”
“No, you’re not. You are not judging me because you’re the one who names flowers after people and then kills them. You’re the one getting nicknames like ditty-bag. Costing me a fortune.”
“You sound like her," she said, pointing to Nancy, who is now troll-hobbling toward us. “What do you expect?” my mom asked. “Look at this place. I can spin circles around these folks. They got me playin’ pinochle in my dreams here.”
And then Jeremy started puking next to Dayna, who was now kneeling over him, tending.
“You think maybe we can go now,” my wife said, her brows pinched. But my mom’s still talking.
“You see what this place does to people? You gotta get me out.” And I saw unconscious Blue-face and Nancy with her gelled hair and I considered taking my mom with us, along with my check, when a bottle of Blue Sapphire rolled out from under her wheelchair. The square, sky-blue bottle took two full clumsy rotations before settling, empty, at Nancy Duncan’s swollen feet.
“Lovely,” I said to my mom. And looking right at her, my son puking behind her, I didn’t yell at her or come up with mean things to say, and I didn’t hit her. I just reached for my checkbook. I started to pay off Nancy.
“Right,” my mom said, understanding. “Of course.”
“Oh, you people are just horrible,” Nancy said to me, grabbing my check and picking up the empty bottle. “You Creaster kids are just trash.”
“WHAT is a Creaster kid?” I yelled.
“You only visit on Christmas and Easter,” J-Buddy answered from the floor.
Christmas and Easter? And then Jeremy started throwing up again. I looked down at the chunky spread of vomit he was crouching over, feeling relief, relief that J-Buddy would never be a Creaster kid. He wasn't Creaster material--he was happy, considerate. And I desperately clung to that notion as I watched the vomit really work its way out of him in chronological order: the tapioca first, and then his birthday cake--the cake we ate this morning, the cake we sang to, the cake he wished on--the yellow and red icing dyed green and purple by the blue. The colors of spring sprouted out of his mouth, moving on the floor, moving toward me.
Danielle Wilcox is currently a MFA student at Columbia College Chicago where she teaches first-year writing.
This is her first publication.