By Bettyann Moore
On the eve of her son’s second birthday, Thea McAllister put down the sifter she was using to make the boy’s cake, crawled into the narrow guest room bed, pulled the blankets up to her chin and stayed there.
The bed, which had been Thea’s while she was growing up in her parents’ farm house, sagged in the middle and smelled faintly of urine and knock-off Evening In Paris, the perfume of her teens. It felt like home.
With cake ingredients littering the kitchen counter and a house full of guests due to arrive the next day for their son’s birthday party, Thea’s husband, Brian, was more than a bit worried. He thought having a party for an oblivious 2-year-old was a ridiculous idea anyway (though less ridiculous than the one Thea had thrown for Leslie’s first birthday, complete with pony rides and clowns – Thea loved clowns), but Brian was loathe to pick up the phone and start making cancellation calls. What he wanted to do, even if it wasn’t a Wednesday, was head down to his secret cellar room and indulge in his lifelong and unmanly habit.
He called his mother instead.
“Well, just march in there and tell her to get her butt out of that bed,” Maggie McAllister said when her son told her what was going on. Secretly, she’d always harbored a grudge against the girl after she insisted on giving the boy – her grandson – a unsaintly name like Leslie. Her husband wasn’t crazy about the name either, calling it “namby-pamby.”
“Mom, she’s done this before; that won’t work,” Brian said with a sigh.
“When? When has she done this before? I don’t remember any such thing!”
“When we were dating,” Brian told her. “And a few times before that, according to her mother. I guess I never told you.”
So while little Leslie played with his wooden train set at his feet, Brian told her how he’d gone to Thea’s house to pick her up for their 100th date. He was taking her to the fanciest restaurant in town and planned on asking her to marry him. Instead, he was met at the door by Thea’s embarrassed mother.
To her credit, Mrs. Martin didn’t try to hide what was going on. She invited the young man in and, thinking perhaps he could succeed where she couldn’t, allowed him to enter her daughter’s bedroom sanctuary where Thea lay with the blankets tucked up under her chin. Her thin, white arms rested on the outside of the covers, stiffly at her sides. Her eyes were wide open.
Thea didn’t acknowledge him. Brian sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, after first getting Mrs. Martin’s nodding approval, and held Thea’s warm, damp hand. He’d expected it to be cold. None of his coaxing appeals reached her, so he simply sat and told her about his day, how he’d helped his dad turn a breeching calf in their best milking cow and how he’d rubbed down the little one with hay after it was born.
For the next two weeks, every day after evening milking, Brian talked like that to her. On the fifteenth day, as he plodded up the Martins’ front steps, Thea threw open the front door and ran into his arms, completely back to normal. And she stayed that way … until now.
Brian could hear his mother “tsk-tsking” on the other end of the line. He looked down and saw Leslie’s trains, but no Leslie.
“Look, Ma, I gotta go,” he said. “Can you come tonight and help out? Tomorrow too?”
“Of course, son,” Maggie replied. “Let me get your father’s dinner on the table and I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” Brian’s parents lived just on the other side of McAllister Pond, which was longer than it was wide; they shared and farmed 300 acres together. The land had been in the family for generations.
Brian sighed with relief and hung up the phone. He knew where he’d find Leslie and headed down the hall to the guest room.
Thea looked much the same as she had the first time he’d seen her take to her bed, though her arms were a little less thin and a little less white. Her wide-open eyes stared up at the ceiling; she seemed oblivious to the fact that her son stood at the side of the bed, just inches from her head. He didn’t make a sound. Brian shivered.
“Hey, buddy,” he said in the voice he reserved for kids and old people, “your Gramma M is coming to see you, isn’t that neat?” When the boy didn’t react, Brian sat down on the edge of the bed and reached for his hand.
“Momma’s very tired,” Brian told the boy. “We’ll give her a nice, long rest and then she’ll wake up good as new and play with you, won’t that be fun?” Leslie cut his eyes at him. Even to a not-quite-2-year-old Brian’s happy voice sounded fake. Thea, of course, didn’t react at all.
“Come on, Little Man, let’s go get into your pjs. Maybe when Gramma gets here she’ll tell you a bedtime story.”
“Widdle Engine?” Leslie asked, not taking his eyes off his mother.
“The Little Engine that Could?” Brian asked, relieved he’d gotten his attention. “Sure! That’s one of Gramma’s best!” He stood, gathering up the boy in his arms just as the front doorbell rang. “Hey, that’s Gramma M now, let’s go let her in!”
That night, after the cake was frosted and Leslie tucked in, Brian listened while his Irish-tempered mother railed against Thea’s negligence.
“She’s indulging herself and you’re letting her!” Maggie insisted.
“She just gets real sad,” Brian said after she’d wound down a bit. “And there will be no talk about doctors or hospitals, Ma.” He made his voice hard.
“But … but … the boy ...”
Brian sighed. “How ‘bout this, how ‘bout you take him to your house for a few days after the party? I’ve got to get that last 40 acres plowed and it’d be a real help if you could do that.” He saw his mother’s eyes brighten; she liked nothing more than having her only grandchild at her side – without his mother.
Somehow they got through the party. Thank goodness Thea hadn’t scheduled any clowns or jugglers. The guests – a few kids and their parents from neighboring farms, a couple of Thea’s friends and their youngsters – bought the excuse that Thea had a touch of the flu and didn’t want to infect their guests. Once he’d gotten over his initial shyness, Leslie seemed to have a good time opening presents and playing with his new toys. Thea had worked with him for weeks before, teaching him how to blow out candles, and he proudly did so with a minimal amount of spit.
Afterward, while his mother cleaned up and Leslie played with the finger puppets that someone – the Morrisses? The Whites? – gave him, Brian and his father stepped out on the porch to drink a couple of beers and smoke cigars.
“Nice little party,” John McAllister said, easing down onto the porch swing. “Too bad Thea ...”
“Yep, too bad,” Brian said, cutting him off. He took a big swig of his beer and walked to the edge of the porch and looked out at the yard and fields beyond it.
“Just have that last 40 to do?” John asked, taking the hint. “Tricky piece, what with the lake and those big boulders. Your grandpa and I, we always did that one first.”
“I know, I know,” Brian said, turning to his dad, “to get the toughest out of the way. I like saving the worst for the last, so sue me,” he added, grinning.
Just then, they heard a commotion inside the house. Leslie was screaming at the top of his lungs and Maggie McAllister was shouting for her son. Brian rushed inside, his father at his heels.
The noise was coming from the guest room and Brian raced down the hall. Thea still lay motionless on the bed while his mother, on her knees, grappled with her 2-year-old grandson.
“No-o-o-o-o-o! I want Momma!” Leslie was screaming and fighting to get away from his grandmother and to the bed where his mother lay.
“Your momma has to stay, Leslie, honey,” Maggie was yelling to be heard.
“I want Momma!”
Brian dropped to his knees and pulled his kicking son to him. “Shhhh, shhhh, now what’s all this?” he asked, rubbing the boy’s back. He couldn’t help wondering how his wife could ignore her own son while he sobbed, taking in great gulps of air.
“I just thought we should maybe go tonight,” Maggie began, slowly rising to her feet. It was then that Brian noticed Leslie’s stuffed Spiderman backpack at the foot of the bed.
“Ma, we talked about this,” he said, still soothing his son. “Tomorrow’s soon enough and I need time to talk to him.”
“Maggie, what the hell, woman?” John McAllister growled from the doorway. He took a step inside, barely noticing the woman on the bed, and pulled his grandson from Brian’s arms. “Now, now, little man,” he said, swinging him up into the air, “what’s all this fracas and brouhaha?” A small, reluctant smile played over the boy’s snot-encrusted face.
“Yessir, fracas and brouhaha, diddlysquat and folderol!” John tossed Leslie, who was now starting to grin, up into the air. Brian was always amazed at the way his father had with the boy and how he could draw him out with a bit of silliness. It was a far cry from the father he knew as a child.
“So, you don’t want to come to your old grandpa’s house for a wee visit?” The question caused a momentary frown to cross Leslie’s face. John rushed on. “Ah, but what if we were to take the mighty ship Irish Luck across the wide, blue Lake McAllister to your old grandpa’s house?”
The “mighty ship” Irish Luck was a 16-foot fiberglass fishing boat with a 7-hp outboard motor. Leslie loved the thing. Brian and Thea had used the craft as a cradle during Leslie’s fussy infancy. He fell asleep the instant the boat left the pier. On the day that Thea caught him crawling down the pier and trying to climb aboard the old boat, though, was the day she insisted it be tied to her in-law’s pier directly across the lake instead. The temptation was just too much, she said.
“Iwish Wuck?” Leslie squealed now, wiggling with happiness in his grandfather’s arms. He’d all but forgotten his mother lying on the bed. The group made its way down the hall, Brian shutting the door behind them.
The next day, the elder McAllisters motored across the pond to their son’s pier where Brain and an over-excited Leslie waited, the boy’s backpack at their feet.
“I appreciate this, Dad, Ma,” Brian said as he strapped the wriggling Leslie into a boy-sized life jacket and lifted him onto the center seat.
“Bye-bye, Papa,” Leslie called as the boat pulled away. Brian waved and headed to his tractor. Later, he’d join his son and his parents for dinner, but in the meantime, the fields wouldn’t plow themselves. And, with the boy out of the house for a few days, perhaps he’d get a chance to sneak down to the cellar later that night, Wednesday or not.
Hours later, Maggie put her grandchild down for a nap and sighed a huge sigh of relief as she sank down into her rocking chair. Her husband, in his recliner, winked at her.
“Feeling a wee overwhelmed, Mother?” he asked, grinning.
“Was Brian this active?” she asked in return. “I don’t remember him being quite so … so into everything!”
Having kept to the barns and fields when Brian was too young to help out on the farm, John didn’t have an answer for her. The pair sat companionably in the quiet and, in turn, drifted off to sleep.
Leslie was having a nice dream. He and his momma were sitting in Irish Luck eating Gummi Worms and laughing. Leslie had never tasted a Gummi Worm – candy was a no-no – but he saw them on the TV and they looked so pretty and made everyone so giggly and happy. His momma would slurp one into her mouth, then toss one into the water where little fishes swam up to eat them. It made Momma and him laugh and laugh.
Grabbing his stuffed bunny, Leslie slid down from his Gramma’s big bed. He wanted his Momma and he wanted Irish Luck and Gummis. He wanted the tickle-good feeling he got when his momma laughed.
Gramma and Grampa were sleeping in their big chairs. Leslie sucked on his thumb and watched them for a while. Before Momma got sick, Leslie could stand by the bed and wake her up by just looking at her. Then she’d open her eyes wide, smile and let him crawl in between his Papa and her. It was warm there. Gramma and Grampa, though, wouldn’t wake up. Everyone sleeps so much, he thought.
He shuffled into the kitchen and went to the screen door. He could see Irish Luck rocking on the water. And the pond. And across the pond, he saw his papa on his tractor and his house where maybe his Momma would wake up and give him Gummi Worms. He pulled down on the shiny handle and the door popped open. Momma and Papa had put special twisty things on the doors at home and Leslie couldn’t open them. This one was easy.
The grass going down to the lake tickled his feet and the sand was almost ouchy-hot. The bumpy green stuff on the pier felt a little hot, but not too bad. Maybe it would feel better in Irish Luck. Before he tried climbing inside, though, Leslie looked up and saw his papa again, only this time he was looking right at him and waving his hat over his head and shouting something. Leslie waved back, a big wave like his papa, and tried to get into the boat.
Maggie McAllister awoke with a start, her heart pounding. Her husband still sat dozing beside her, but she could hear shouting coming from somewhere outside. Then she remembered Leslie, pushed herself up out of her chair and headed to the bedroom, still wondering what the commotion was outside. She gasped when she saw the empty bed.
“John!” she shouted. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph ... John, the boy!”
As her husband sputtered awake, Maggie came down the hall and out of the corner of her eye saw that the kitchen door was wide open. She raced toward it, shouting Leslie’s name. As she slammed through it onto the porch, she saw three things: Her daughter-in-law running out of her house, screaming; her son ripping off his shoes at the edge of the pond and her 2-year-old grandson slipping into the water between the pier and the Irish Luck.
As much as she tried to, Maggie McAllister couldn’t get Father Doyle to call it a miracle. Despite the fact that her 2-year-old grandson who’d never so much as set foot in anything larger than a bathtub had started swimming – swimming, not just floating – to her guilty mind constituted nothing short of a miracle. He listened with an open mind, he told her (when, in actuality, he just couldn’t get enough of her crumb cake), but eventually the good father had to promise that he’d call Rome. Maggie had to be satisfied with that.
She didn’t mention the other part of the miracle, that her daughter-in-law, upon hearing her husband frantically shouting Leslie’s name, broke out of her “spell” and had jumped into the water and reached Leslie long before anyone else. Her in-law’s negligence had almost cost her son’s life, but Thea never said a word against them. Somehow, that made Maggie feel that much worse.
But not John. John, in the telling, glossed over their negligence and went right to his grandson’s amazing feat.
“I get to the dock, all set to jump in,” he tells any and all listeners, “and the boy just bobs up on the other side of the Irish Luck and he starts whirling his arms and kicking his feet and swimming, by God, like a God-blessed porpoise! That’s my grandson, a God-blessed porpoise!”
Of course, the name stuck. Leslie was no more. From that point forward he was Porpoise McAllister to everyone, except his mother, who continued to wake up whenever she’d feel her boy’s eyes silently watching her.