“This is all about the environment, kids,” Mom tells Ernie and me. She opens an arm up toward the river, which is slow-moving, wide and clean. “It’s all about how man and nature can live in harmony.”
She’s been repeating some version of this since we arrived, and Ernie’s stopped listening. He’s peering at the map, trying to find the A&W.
“No more international food,” he mutters. “A hamburger. A root beer float. No more rice.”
Dad waggles his beer and ogles the fairgoers. A group of young women gather on the platform. They wear miniskirts and boots and tight blouses; their perfume rolls lightly over us: patchouli and jasmine. Dad smirks at them for a moment and then drops his head back and drains half the can.
Harmony by Sharma Shields
“President Nixon stood right here on this platform kids,” Mom says. “ Right here. I’ll bet he gave the most moving speech about the environment. I can almost feel his words in my toes, can’t you?”
Dad finishes his beer, belches, pitches the empty can into the river. It lands with a flat splash. The current pushes it lazily westward.
“Aw, Dad,” Ernie says, “I could’ve fed that to the garbage goat.”
Mom reddens. Her mouth works as though something is alive inside of it, something that wants to get out.
“What’s that, Hon?” Dad says.
I’ve watched my mom do this a million times, so it comes as no surprise when she swallows her rage. It’s a literal, physical swallowing: Her cheeks balloon with backdraft, her eyes bulge, her nostrils flare, and then her whole face closes down and she gulps. You stand there expecting her to scream from the pain and effort, but she chokes it all down.
The next moment she’s bright, smiling, staring at us with the same irritating amount of affection.
“So,” she says. “Who wants ice cream?”
It was Mom’s idea, of course, to take the train from Seattle to Spokane for the World’s Fair. Dad said Expo was a waste of money, but then Mom and I caught him nuzzling his secretary’s neck at the annual St. Patrick’s Day office party. Amanda, the secretary, was dressed as a green elf with pointy fake ears; Dad, the lead sales agent, wore a roomy green sweatshirt that read, “IRISH I WERE DRUNK.” He was.
Mom said nothing on the drive home from the party. Our car felt held together by the pins of her silence. If she uttered even a syllable we’d fly apart in an explosion of gears and wheels and metal panels. I held my breath for entire neighborhoods, begging her to stay quiet.
For the next few weeks, Mom got what she wanted: bouquets of roses, lavish dinner dates, tickets to Expo.
Ernie wondered about the change in our summer plans, but I guarded their secret from him, feeling nuanced and proud. I was an adult now.
“Life is complicated,” I’d tell Ernie, and he’d roll his eyes at me and groan.
It wasn’t like I took pleasure in my parents’ unhappiness, but I did relish the maturity it forced me to bear.
After lunch, Mom shepherds us under the sprawling white pavilion so that we can see our first IMAX film.
“The Grand Canyon,” Mom gushes. “It’s going to be like we’re there, kids. It’s like two vacations in one.”
The usher hands us barf bags in case we experience motion sickness.
“Far out,” Ernie says. “I wanna see a guy puke.”
In the theater, the movie screen is wide and high, a blank ivory sheet.
“This is really cool, Mom,” I say, but she’s not listening to me. She’s listening to Dad, who’s telling Ernie about hypocrisy.
“I mean, that’s how the world is, Ernie,” Dad says. “People say one thing but do another. Take the theme for this fair. The environment, right? I mean, who are they kidding? Did you see the sponsors? Exxon, General Motors, Ford, for crissakes. The environment! What a sham.”
Mom sputters about it not being so simple, not really, but Dad speaks over her, “It’s simple in the sense that they’re a bunch of liars. Right down to their bones.”
Mom stands up then, clutching her barf bag. She excuses herself and shoves past the knees in our aisle. I give Dad a withering look.
“What?” he says. “What did I say?”
I rise. The room darkens; the screen flickers to life. Dad grips my hand for a moment but I keep going.
I find Mom outside of the theater, looking pale in the grass. She holds the barf bag open under her mouth. My first thought is that she’s about to be sick.
“Mom,” I say. I want to say I’m sorry, but that would suggest how wrong things are. “Mom, I’m glad we’re here.”
Her eyes soften. She withdraws the bag and opens her mouth to speak, but what exits from her are not words, but two clamped red fists. Something – someone – is crawling out of her throat.
He emerges, arms first, then head. It’s a little clay man, formed from the magma of her insides, his shoulders streaming with smoke.
Mom reaches up, eyes bulging, and offers the clay man a finger to grasp. He uses it to climb out of her mouth, down her chest, over to the ground. His feet burn two crooked ovals in the grass.
“Mommy,” I say, although I haven’t called her that in years.
“Oh, Karen, I tried so hard,” Mom says hoarsely. “I tried to protect you for as long as I could. You’re too young for this.”
I’m not too young; I’m practically a woman now, but I’m shell-shocked, speechless, and I wish the little man would throw himself into the river, tunnel into the ground, anything, just so long as he disappears.
Instead, he stands regarding me with his small fists on his hips.
“Mom,” I say, “what’s it doing?”
Mom crawls toward me and presses her palms against either side of my jaw. She works my mouth open. The little man steps into my lap.
“It was like this for me, too,” Mom says. “Relax, Karen. Stop fighting. It’s better if you don’t fight.”
I try to pull away but her grip is too firm on my face, and the little man is too quick, crawling up and in, filling my mouth, then my throat and chest, pressing my organs aside to make room.
Mom rocks back on her heels, crying. I’m burned up, inside and out.
“Let it be,” she says, and I swallow like it’s my choice.
Sharma Shields is the author of “Favorite Monster: Stories.” Her debut novel, “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac,” will be published by Henry Holt in January. When she was in grade school, Sharma and her brother won a goldfish at the Spokane County Interstate Fair and named him Herman. Herman ate all of the other goldfish in the tank and lived for more than a decade.