Southern Legitimacy Statement: My Grampa Navy was from Copper Hill, Tennessee, a place that still sounds like “Copper Heel, Tin ah see” when I type the words even though it’s been decades since he spoke about the acid and the Burra Burra mine. When I was about 9, living near Canada, he taught me to how brew coffee and make cornbread in a skillet. He was a storyteller and a practical joker with double-jointed thumbs. It took me a while, but I ended up in Florida, a place that’s south if not entirely Southern. But I know the difference.
A Bedtime Story
“I hope you die,” my son tells me. “I want you to die, Mummy.”
I didn’t answer –– as my own father might have –– “Don’t you worry about that, child. I will die, and you’ll never forget that you wished for it!”
Instead, I give my firstborn a long look and say, “That’s not a very kind thing to say.”
With a thunderous expression, he answers with the obvious, “I am not kind today! Not kind!”
“Perhaps tomorrow you’ll feel more civilized?”
The suggestion brings a flush to his face. “I will not be going to bed! I will not!” Since learning to speak, he’s had this verbal tick of repeating phrases. It gives him a slightly magisterial air. My son, ruler of crowds, pronouncer of absolutes.
“Will you eat me up?” I ask. We won’t have to look far for the wild things tonight.
“Noooo! I am not Max. Not Max.” He starts to hitch the breath into his narrow chest, preparing for a cataclysmic display of seven-year-old anger.
I swoop toward him with my arms outstretched. I make my voice strange and scratchy, an ogre, a stranger, loud. “No, you are my very own little monster! Nom, nom, sour as a lemon!” (this against his hot little neck) “I think I will just nibble a little, here.”
“No Mommy, you have to die! Die like this!” He squirms out of my arms and flings himself across the ottoman, his limbs akimbo and a triangle of pink tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth.
It’s unsettling how still he can hold.
“I can’t die like that.”
“Please! Please Mommy!”
“How about like this?” I clutch at my shirtfront, spin on a heel, make a few choking sounds, and then collapse slowly onto the couch. My hair makes a messy screen across my face.
From his own deathbed, my son props an urbane elbow on the upholstered edge of the ottoman, cupping a palm to the back of his head to get a good view.
When he opens his mouth to speak –– a protest, no doubt, he’s at that age –– I let a leg flop and tremble. Death throes, after all. I start small with the convulsions, gauging his reaction from behind my messy hair. I jolt myself off the cushions, drumming my heels on the ground and arching my spine as the spasms move through me. I gasp, and then begin stuttering, “Gah! G-G-Gah!”
As the last, wet “Gaaaaah,” ends, I slump and flat-line on the floor between the couch and the glass coffee-table. .
It’s a test of wills, but there’s not much battle left. “Mommy?” He giggles uncomfortably into the silence.
“Mommy wake up!”
I count to ten, making my breath invisible. My own mother might have kept waiting until hysteria set in, for her own unknowable reasons. But ten is enough for me. I fake a big stretch, sitting up and finger-combing my hair back into place.
“Phew!” I say, with a theatrical swipe at my brow. “That was close.”
“Can we make Daddy die? D––”
“Not tonight, sweetheart.”
“But sometime? Can we? Please, please Mummy?”
There’s a sound and I startle, my ears straining. Was it the slamming of a truck-door perhaps, or the sound of the garage door rattling up? My son also freezes in place.
We anticipate a follow-up racket, but the house remains still, the placid hum of the refrigerator underlining the quiet. After a moment, my son, too, releases the breath he was holding and says, “But can we? Sometime?” When I don’t answer, he tries the words out again, “Can’t we make him die?”
“I think it’s time to brush your teeth and get into your pjs.”
I make the exaggerated turning of an invisible key at my mouth, locking in the words. “Let’s just button our lips, shall we?”
My son’s small hand hovers before his face, echoing ever so faintly the movement as I pretend to throw away my key. He starts to twist his hand, but then untwists it long enough to say, “We can pinky-swear and never tell anyone. Never tell ever.”
He anticipates my saying no by giving me a puppy-dog look.
“I’ll consider it.” I say, feeling my heart leap in my ribcage like a startled bird. “But not tonight.”
Keeping his lips pursed, he smiles and wiggles onto his side, curling up to fit on the ottoman, making his hands a pious pillow under his cheek. “Will you read me a story, though, a story? At least until Daddy gets home?”