It would be an understatement to say Mary was surprised to receive a letter from the woman who’d adopted her son three decades before. It was true that they’d signed a post-adoption contact agreement with the agency back then indicating that she’d be informed of his name and address when he turned thirty, and it was also still true that rarely a day went by without her thinking about him. But she’d been barely seventeen at the time and so crazy with emotions, she hardly knew what she was doing or what that agreement meant. And she’d had little reason to have maintained her parents’ post office box; since they’d died in a car accident the previous year, she only checked it every month or so for the few odd pieces of correspondence that still came to them there.
The envelope had no sender’s name or return address, just her own in tight, neat scrawl. She opened it on the spot in the post office without forethought. It held a single sheet of plain white paper written in the same hand as the envelope’s front that said simply: “His name is Tim Ratcliffe. His address is 3111 Morrison St.; Lemon Grove, CA 91945.” Her heart began hammering. It was signed: “Tim’s adoptive mother”.
Mary lowered the letter slowly to her side and stared outside where she was vaguely aware that it had begun to rain. Lemon Grove was another small suburb of San Diego and was only a couple towns away from her own. For how long had they’d only been separated by less than ten miles? Like so many times before, she thought again of the few minutes she was allowed to hold him after birth – his tiny face and hands, his nose small and peaked like her own, his eyes opening and seeming, though she knew it was impossible, to seek hers – before he was whisked away. Never to be seen or heard of again…until that moment. Mary put the letter in her jacket pocket, dropped the envelope in the trash, and walked out into the rain.
The late, fall afternoon had already turned towards gloaming when she arrived home. It was a Saturday, and her husband, Hank, was in his usual position when not working, tipped back in his recliner watching sports on television. She pecked the top of his head as she passed him, and he grunted in reply. They’d been married five years, and though they’d begun trying right away, had not been able to have children; they’d finally given up after several rounds of in vitro. They did have his twin seven-year-old daughters from his first marriage with them on Wednesday evenings and every other weekend. Mary got along well enough with them, but it wasn’t the same as having a child of her own. It just wasn’t.
She went into their bedroom, sat at the desk, and turned on the laptop. When it had powered up, she did an internet search for Tim Ratcliffe – San Diego. The first entry was for Facebook profiles with that name, and she found him quickly among the associated photos because of his nose; she felt a jolt when she recognized its distinctive shape. She clicked on the profile and fixed her gaze on the banner photograph on top: it was him, ordinary-looking with thinning hair, wide-framed glasses, and a narrow face similar to hers that held a trace of smile. She kissed her fingertip and touched it to his face on the screen. One of his arms was draped over the shoulder a waifish boy about the twins’ age who squinted at the camera with only one eye open. Mary felt her palms go suddenly damp; she put one over her heart and whispered, “My grandson.”
Her eyes flitted to the Intro. It indicated that he was self-employed, had graduated from a high school in Lemon Grove and studied at a local community college, and that he was divorced. He had 111 friends. Mary clicked through his other photos, all of which had to do with he and his son in predictable activities. Just as quickly, she moved to the first post on his wall that had been entered that morning and included a link to an elementary school’s website. He’d written: “Come join us at the annual PTA Fall Carnival at Kevin’s school this Friday from 4-7pm and help raise needed funds. Should be lots of fun and I’ll be volunteering at a game booth. Stop by and say hi!”
Mary scrolled no further. Instead she closed the laptop and sat back in her chair, her eyebrows knitting. She and Hank had his girls for the coming weekend; like always, he’d pick them up from school on Friday after his construction shift ended and bring them back to the apartment. In that instant, Mary was certain she would arrange to take them to the carnival that evening. She’d suggest it casually, but knew Hank well enough to be sure he’d agree; he struggled to find ways to fill their time together. They would play carnival games there and have dinner; she could find Tim’s booth, see him face-to-face, perhaps even speak to him. It didn’t matter if Hank went along or not; she often took the girls places without him. Rain droplets crawled crazily down the outside of the window next to her. She put her hand to her racing heart again and said, “Stop”.
It turned out Hank didn’t accompany them to the carnival; he complained that his bum knee was acting up and wouldn’t tolerate more standing or walking. Mary had gotten home from her cashier’s job at four, but wanted to give time for a crowd to gather they could mingle in, so waited until five to drive the girls over to the school. They were eager to go. She found parking on a street near the playground where it was being held, and they stopped at a table by its open gate where Mary paid for wristbands that entitled the girls to unlimited activities and dinner for the three of them. It was packed inside with children running between game booths that rimmed the perimeter on three sides, along with a big bouncy-house anchoring the first corner inside the gate. People were dancing to a three-piece country-western band playing up on a flatbed truck on the fourth side, and a bar-b-que billowed smoke in the center surrounded by lunch tables that had been rolled outside from the adjacent school cafeteria. A silent auction of large framed art collages created by students in each classroom were propped on hay bales next to the bar-b-que.
Looking around at the festivities, Mary felt her throat tighten. She blew out a breath and said, “What do you want to do first, girls?”
“Games.” Their answer came in tandem.
They began at the booth nearest to them: a ring toss. Mary ventured a tentative glance behind the game’s counter but saw that the aproned volunteer was a heavyset woman. The girls took their turns tossing. Neither won, but were nonetheless given single tokens for a prize booth near the flatbed. The three of them made their way slowly along the row of game booths engulfed by shouts, laughter, movement, and music.
Midway down the first row, Mary came to an abrupt halt and stared: Tim was behind the counter two booths ahead. He wore an apron like the other booth volunteers and took a token from its pouch to hand to an older boy. She felt herself blinking rapidly, her mouth agape.
One of the twins tugged her hand and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Mary shook her head, looked down at her step-daughter, and forced a smile. She turned to the booth they’d come alongside and said, “This one looks fun.”
While the girls took turns doing something that involved a fishing pole strung to a magnet and a kiddy pool, Mary stole glances at Tim. He was shorter than she’d imagined, with a small pot belly, and wore jeans, a plaid shirt, and a gray sweater-vest under the apron. When he bent over, she could see a bald patch on the crown of his head. His hair, like hers, was limp and sandy-colored.
She and the girls moved on to the booth next to his where they waited to use darts to try to pop balloons on a wooden wall. With the sun having set, the temperature had dropped, but as she stole more glances Tim’s way, Mary felt heat rise at the back of her neck. Her fingertips tingled. During a break between songs, the singer on the bandstand announced the approaching the end of the silent auction. Then one of her step-daughters pulled on Mary’s hand again, and they stood alone in front of Tim’s booth.
He was on his knees at the back of the enclosure replacing three metal milk bottles into a pyramid tower. He stood and retrieved baseballs near the tower, dropping them in the pouch of his apron. Finally, he came over to the counter between them, smiled at the girls, and said, “Hi, there.”
Neither of them responded. Mary’s breathing had quickened; she tried to reply for them, but no words came.
Tim looked back and forth between the girls, his smile remaining. “Know how to play this game?”
They both nodded.
He handed one of the girls a baseball and said, “Try to aim for where the bottles meet.”
While the first step-daughter took her two turns, Mary studied Tim. She thought, I gave birth to you. She thought, you’re my flesh and blood. She thought, you’ve lived a life for thirty years that I know nothing about.
Her first step-daughter hit nothing, so only earned a single token. But her second toppled the tower on her initial throw. Both girls yelled and jumped with glee. Tim cheered, too, clapping, then gave them each high fives. Mary recognized the same awkwardness in his movements that she did in her own. He handed her second step-daughter two tokens, then looked at Mary for the first time and smiled. There was no hint of recognition in his eyes, none. She felt a hardness crawl into her throat, swallowed over it, and managed to say, “Thanks”, before two small hands yanked her off to the next booth.
While they made their gradual advance along the rows of booths, Mary moved in a sort of daze. She turned back often to watch Tim and wondered about the significant events of his life. What had he been like as a baby? When had he first ridden a bike, lost a tooth, learned to read, made a friend, fallen in love, been hurt in love? What were his interests, his fears, his dreams? She thought about her own life after his birth, the mistakes that she’d continued to make until she met Hank, the frailties and uncertainties she still struggled with. She thought about their separate lives ahead.
Evening descended further. The girls took several turns each at the bouncy-house and danced together for a couple of songs in front of the flatbed before they made their way over to the bar-b-que area for dinner. By then, it had become fully dark, and the playground was lit by tall, portable floodlights in its corners run by generators. Some of the crowd had dissipated, but the three of them still had to search for a spot at the tables where they could eat their meals: hot dogs for the twins, a cheeseburger for Mary, chips and sodas for them all. Mary sat across from the girls where she could see a portion of Tim’s booth. But when she craned her neck to search every part of it, she found he was gone, replaced by a tall, bearded man in a ball cap. Mary’s heart fell. She lowered her chin to her chest.
A voice said, “These spots taken?”
She looked up. Tim and his son were standing across the table from her holding dinners like theirs. Tim used his to gesture towards two empty places next to the twins. Mary stiffened as she shook her head.
He nodded, and the two of them sat down, the boy next the twins. Tim smiled over at them and said, “I remember you two. Which one of you knocked down my tower.”
The girls grinned, and the one next to his son raised her hand.
He said, “Hey, there, champ. Nice to see you again. I’m Tim. This is my son, Kevin. What are your names?”
The nearest one said, “Michelle. My sister is Diane.” She pointed. “And that’s Mary.”
Tim smiled at each of them in turn. When he got to Mary, he said, “Nice to meet you all.” He ripped open his bag of chips and turned back to the girls. “You having fun?”
“You bet,” Michelle told him. “I like the bouncy-house best.”
“Me, too,” Kevin told her.
Mary saw that her grandson also had her same small, peaked nose, and she bit the inside of her cheek.
“I like the dancing,” Diane announced, her mouth full. She swallowed, then sputtered and made a gagging sound. She leaned forward, slapping the table as she gasped for air, and her eyes widened with terror. Mary leapt to her feet, but Tim was already behind Diane. He wrapped his arms around her midsection, grasped a fist over the center of it, and made one firm jerk upwards. A mashed ball of hot dog and bun shot from Diane’s mouth onto the ground, and she sucked in a full, grateful breath.
By then, Mary had made it around the table and was kneeling next to her. She placed a hand on her shoulder and said, “Are you all right, honey?”
The little girl still panted, and her eyes were watering, but she nodded.
Tim had released his arms. Mary looked up at him and said, “I don’t know how to thank you.”
He shrugged. “No problem. Good thing I took that refresher First Aid course this summer. Not sure I’d have remembered how to do that otherwise.” He patted Diane on the back. “Might want to not mix talking and eating again, though.
“I don’t think I want to eat right now,” Diane mumbled.
“Neither do I, after that,” her sister said.
Kevin nodded. “Me either. Hey, you want to go do the bouncy-house again instead?”
The girls looked at Mary. Michelle asked, “Can we?”
Mary cocked her head, a small smile creasing her lips. “All right.
“Stay together,” Tim told them. “We’ll save your dinners.”
They watched the children scamper away, then returned to their places at the table. Mary watched Tim resume his meal. When she took a sip of soda, her hand trembled, and she lowered the can to her lap.
“So,” Tim said. “You a parent here, too?”
“No.” Mary tried to keep her voice steady. “Just read about the carnival and thought we’d come.”
“It’s for a good cause, you know. PTA is trying to raise money for an instrumental music program. Kevin wants to learn to play the saxophone.”
Mary paused, then asked, “Did you play an instrument when you were little?”
“Wanted to, but never got the chance. Wanted to be an astronaut, too, and a professional football player, but became a computer repairman instead.” He gave a sheepish grin and gave another shrug. “Oh, well.”
“I played violin in youth orchestra when I was in high school. Thought I might study that in college.” She paused again. “But then…life took a different turn.”
“That’ll happen.” Tim nodded. “My life has sure had its share of those. Right from the start.”
Mary clutched the can in her lap with both hands. “I hope they’ve mostly been good ones.”
He shrugged again. “You do what you can, I guess.”
The white light from the floodlights was almost garish across his face, and she saw for the first time that his forehead was lined with tiny wrinkles. Their eyes held until his traveled over her shoulder. He pointed and said, “Look.”
Mary followed his gaze to the top of the bouncy-house where their three children held hands before letting out a collective, joyful shout and dropping down the long, rubber slide. She returned Tim’s smile.
“Looks like they’re really hitting it off together,” Tim said. “Maybe we can arrange a play date sometime.”
The flush that passed through her was almost electric. “I’d like that,” Mary heard herself say, “Very much.”
William Cass has had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, has received three Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. His short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, is scheduled for release by Wising Up Press in late 2020. He lives in San Diego, California.
© 2020, William Cass