The snow was two feet deep. All I wanted was to play in it. Today, my second-grade classroom would be Smith Hill, my desk a Flexible Flyer.
Not till breakfast, Mom would say.
I lay on my belly by the living-room window, watching cars skid, neighbors shovel walks. I was too short to reach for the Cheerios on the shelf, too young to use the stove for anything hot, so I waited. Mom was still asleep.
Jill flew downstairs, her face flushed. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Mom’s bed shook and made a hickety jickety sound.”
“You looked in?”
“They were—” Jill scrunched her nose. “And then Mom said, ‘Sweetie pie, go downstairs, I’ll be right there.’”
Bill Watkins was Mom’s boyfriend. He visited all the time. I leaned forward. “You mean you saw them—”
Jill nodded. She was crying fat raindrop tears.
“Maybe what you saw was—” I trailed off.
Mom descended the stairs in a bathrobe, her face cherry red. “Who wants pancakes?” she asked.
I pictured the bed all hickety jickety, Bill Watkins and Mom sizzling like bacon in a pan. It was enough to make me sick, but that could mean staying indoors, maybe a trip to the doctor.
“I know who wants pancakes,” Mom said, picking up Jill, smooching her face.
Four years ago, Dad had come downstairs in his green suit with the name tag, carrying a duffel bag. He’d hugged Mom, pregnant with Jill, and squeezed me too. “Look after your mom,” he’d said. Through the window, I’d seen a tall man on the patio, dressed in blue like the color of the bus in the street holding up traffic, full of other dads in green. The fact that Bill Watkins never went to Vietnam made me hate him.
If I were going to be a man, I’d have to order Bill Watkins out. He had his own place, down the street.
I looked into the kitchen. Jill was hunched over the table, still sobbing. Mom was mixing batter. “Someone’s going to get a pancake bear,” she said.
I snuck up the stairs, teeth clenched. I needed to keep my voice steady, pointing like a teacher. If necessary, I’d chase him to his house, throwing snowballs.
In my room, I pulled on yellow snow pants. My mittens, jacket, hat, and shoes were downstairs in the closet by the kitchen. I inched to the main bedroom, my puffy pants rubbing, making too much noise. With my ear to the door, I heard snoring. I peeked in. There was a heap under blankets. When I flicked on the light, it jolted upright, like a jack-in-the-box.
Bill Watkins was a pale, white hippie with long hair and bushy beard, big enough for a bird’s nest. This guy had short hair, darker skin. He looked younger than Bill.
“Hello, Little Man,” he said.
I ran downstairs. In the closet, I grabbed everything. I heard Jill say, “Raisins for eyes and buttons, please.”
Mom leaned over the stove. Flipping pancakes, she yelled, “Howie, breakfast!”
Slipping on galoshes, I raced to the front door. Outside, the cold stung my cheeks. My breath steamed. I put on my winter wear, squinting in the sunlight. I wanted to get far away, not even thinking to grab my sled as I rushed to the park.
Near Bill Watkins’ place, my heart pumped. There he was, in a green jacket and beanie hat, shoveling snow.
He shouldn’t see me. I should run. He waved.
Bill Watkins had droopy eyes, plump lips. Less than five minutes ago, he’d been my enemy. Now I wanted to bury my head in his belly and ask about the new guy in bed.
I remembered Dad waving goodbye as he walked to the bus, leaving for his trip—longer than the weekend drills he took with the National Guard. He said he’d come home with souvenirs. According to Mom, he was never coming back. I pinched my arm. It was Bill, waving like the Jolly Green Giant.
I waved back, then trudged home. Mom had traded Dad for Bill, and now Bill for someone else, as if they were baseball cards. I worried that she could trade us too, or worse, split us apart.
Mom was out front, tightening the drawstring around Jill’s hood. I thought she’d be angry that I’d skipped breakfast. I expected to be grounded, but she smiled and called me over. Her hug was as strong as Dad’s. “I love you,” she said. “You and your sister.”
With my head against her chest, I listened to her heart.
“When you were no bigger than Jill, Dad used to take you down Smith Hill in that sled.” She released me, pointing to the Flexible Flyer. “Now you can take your sister.”
“I saw Bill shoveling,” I said.
She straightened my hat.
“Will he be coming back?” I asked.
“I would imagine.”
She leaned down. “There’s no rule against having more than one boyfriend.”
I was about to ask about the difference between a boyfriend and—
“But,” she whispered in my ear, “you will always have just one father.” I looked up. Her chin was shivering. She wiped tears from her eyes. “Now scoot,” she said. “I expect you two back at noon.”
Jill grabbed my palm, and we headed to the park, tugging the sled.
Bill was now spreading rock salt.
“Hello, Mr. Watkins,” I said politely, relieved that he was still a boyfriend—even if there were others. I heard shouts from kids sledding in the park. “Let’s hurry,” I said to Jill, skipping forward. “We need to be home by lunch.”