When you find yourself knee-deep in shit, the first thing to ask yourself is, how did I get here? What choices in my life have led to this moment: wading through sewage, chest hollow from crying, clutching a pink plastic doll in my hand, trying not to breathe?
When Justin and I moved our little family to the suburbs, this wasn’t quite the future I imagined. I had visions of the children riding their confident bicycles, fearless in the warm safety of a neighborhood watch, protected from chaos by the HOA restrictions and speed bumps that slowed the late-model SUVs and entertainment-package minivans to a crawl down shady streets. Somehow it would always be early May, dogwood blossoms and azaleas looking on indulgently as the children shot hoops in a neighbor’s driveway, the smells of a backyard barbecue luring them home at dusk.
Before the oldest started kindergarten, we had left the city and its troubled public schools, (and its coffee shops and friendly-eyed bodega cashiers and sidewalks), in search of something different. Something we felt our children deserved. We bought the cheapest house in the nicest neighborhood we could afford, the one with the blue-ribbon elementary school and the community pool and bunco nights for the ladies and golf outings for the guys. Never mind that I don’t play bunco and he hates golf. This was about the kids. The neighborhood spread out in the shape of a hand, with a playground and clubhouse cradled in its palm and two-story colonials lining its cul-de-sac fingers. Kids wandered the streets in feral little packs, meeting up at the playground to kick a ball or climb trees. After the stomach-clenching anxiety I’d felt herding the kids through the city, the safety we felt in our suburb was decadent and welcome.
Lila, our oldest, fit into her new world like she had been molded to it. Ballet classes, soccer team, making friends with the kids all up and down the street. Watching her frolic through the connected back yards from the shelter of our screened-in back porch, I felt a surge of satisfaction, of having made all the right decisions, because surely this was it, what anyone would want, right here.
Edward would have struggled anywhere. He was nothing like his sister, right from the start. Even as a baby, he rarely smiled. He was acutely attuned to the crushing weight of things. Back in the city, the other moms in the park had chuckled uneasily at his serious face, his perpetually-clenched fists, his dark-eyed mistrust of strangers – “oh, he’s an old soul!” Perhaps he seemed too curmudgeonly to be a child. There wasn’t anywhere on earth that child would have fit in.
But it’s possible that our suburban community’s obsession with niceness – make sure you play nice! doesn’t their lawn look nice? oh, some lemonade would be nice! – did make it more difficult for a boy for whom nice held no allure. He was always frowning, blurting out things like, “I can’t play nice if your son cheats,” or, “lawns are a waste of resources,” or, “lemonade is really just sugar water.” It was exhausting. I was always trying to smooth over some fracas or other that Edward had left in his wake, while nurturing a seed of secret pride because, rude he may be, but he wasn’t wrong.
Edward was then eight , and his quirks and strangeness were just getting more pronounced. I kept telling myself, every kid goes through their obsessions. Lila had gone through phases of cats, fairies, ballet. Over time, she’d honed her obsessions into interests. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, right? Edward eschewed cars, trains, and trucks for rocks, feathers, and skeletons. He was forever tracking mud into the house, and his room was crammed with shoeboxes full of sticks, and sheets of moss, and dead frogs. Edward would squat by the curb in front of our house and peel their flattened, dried bodies from the pavement, and then tuck them reverentially into his pockets. The dead frogs were a little creepy, but as Edward pointed out, I wouldn’t let him have an alive frog. And there was something so sweet about his love of nature. It made me glad to live where we did, where he could search for bird nests and cicada shells in the yard to his heart’s content.
Except that Edward’s heart was never content. As soon as he learned to read – early, barely four – he gobbled up every book he could find about animals, fossils, trees. And as his love of the world grew, so did his worry. Pollution in the oceans, deforestation, climate change. His little face would contort with pain. He was baffled by the scale of human indifference.
I tried to help him feel empowered. “Look, we recycle! We’re doing our part!” I would reassure him, the bright smile on my face feeling false even to me.
But he would frown and point to our supersize garbage can at the curb, the little yellow recycling bin beside it looking like a whimsical sidekick. “It’s not enough. Look at how much is going to the landfill! And it’s all in plastic bags!”
Plastics were his new obsession. I had let him watch a documentary on YouTube, and now all we heard about was plastic. Plastic doesn’t break down in landfills. A lot of the plastic we use in the home can’t be recycled. Even recycling plastic releases harmful pollution into the air. And on and on.
When we re-did Lila’s room, she purged her outgrown toys. The ones in decent condition went to Goodwill of course, but the books with missing pages, the boxes full of fat, broken crayons, and the cheap dolls with Sharpie makeup and safety-scissor haircuts went into the trash. A perfectly normal thing to do! And Lila didn’t mind at all – she loved her new room with the fluffy pink comforter and the tidy displays of ballet shoes and soccer trophies.
Edward went ballistic.
Usually so serious, so stoic, Edward broke apart seeing the bags of discarded crap ready for the garbage pickup. To say “he fell to pieces” wasn’t an exaggeration – I watched helpless as my little boy seemed to lose the glue holding him together, puddling on the floor, overcome by grief and impotent rage. He couldn’t stop making the connection between our family’s consumption and the destruction of the planet. When I knelt to try to calm him, his eyes blazed with shock and betrayal. Over garbage.
That’s how he got the doll. The deal was, he could rescue one item from the trash if he promised to calm down and let the rest go. Why he chose that ridiculous baby doll, who knows. It was bright pink plastic, not “flesh toned” for any human creature, with corn-silk yellow hair sprouting from its misshapen head and brightly painted makeup on its round, large-eyed face. It was the opposite of what Edward was usually drawn to, as if all of the things he despised about human culture had been embodied in a single object. He carried it with him everywhere.
Already the other children were only sitting next to him on the bus after losing bets. “Kids like to have fun!” I’d remind him while packing his lunch. “Maybe you can come up with a game to play at recess instead of collecting insects! Maybe some other kids would like to join you!” But he would just look at me with those serious eyes. He liked collecting insects at recess.
It only got worse when he started carrying that deranged-looking baby doll around. I tried to get him to leave it in his room, but he would sneak it into his backpack, or I’d find him crouched in the front yard at the base of the oak tree with it clutched in his grubby hand and, eventually, I gave up. Not having any friends didn’t bother him, so I tried not to let it bother me.
And then he started with the sidewalk chalk.
On the first day, Lila and her friends had abandoned a box of chalk after tiring of drawing rainbows and hearts all over the driveway. Edward came along behind them and scrawled LOVE THE EARTH in huge, shaky letters. At dinner that night, Justin told Lila he liked her chalk art.
“What about my message?” Edward asked.
“Oh, was that you? Yeah, LOVE THE EARTH – great message,” Justin said, scooping another helping of potatoes onto his plate. Edward sat up straighter. Praise from his father was rare. Edward didn’t do much, you see – there were no T-ball games to cheer at, no performances to applaud. There wasn’t much opportunity for an atta-boy. I think Edward might even have smiled.
What did Justin care what the neighbors thought anyway? He was still commuting into the city every day. He approached neighborhood social events with the brave stoicism of one heading into battle, and was delighted when his work travel schedule saved him from having to show up. For him, our house was an island that could have been located in any sea at all. I didn’t have the luxury of his indifference. I worked from home, my eyes glued to spreadsheets all day. Vapid it might be, but the open hand of our neighborhood was all I had.
The driveway messages became a daily occurrence. REDUCE REUSE RECYCLE. His handwriting improved with each one. PROTECT THE WATERSHED. He learned to use the side of the chalk to make his letters thicker, the chalk saturated to opaqueness. PLASTIC MURDERS WILDLIFE.
That’s when the neighbors began to complain.
One day, I opened the door to find the woman from down the street huffing on my front steps, holding the hand of her crying toddler. I recognized her face but didn’t know her name.
“I’d like to talk to you about the graffiti,” she said.
“The sidewalk chalk. On your driveway.”
“I’d hardly call that graffiti.”
“Oh? What would you call it then?”
“My property,” I replied, and shut the door.
That was probably a mistake. I should have been nice. But I didn’t like the way that woman looked at me, and through me at Edward, at the image of Edward in her mind. I didn’t like what her indignation said about our family, about my parenting. Standing there so smug in her judgment.
I tried talking to Edward. I explained that even though what he was writing on the driveway was true, and it wasn’t really a problem to write things on your own driveway in sidewalk chalk, he had to understand how other people felt when they read it. He just blinked at me, in that inscrutable way of his. “I know how people feel when they read it. That’s the point.”
I smiled shakily. “Right. But see, this is a neighborhood. People want to feel comfortable.”
Edward frowned. “You told me the best art provokes a reaction.”
Well, what the hell was I supposed to say to that? I was the one who kept dragging the kids back into the city, taking them to art museums and kiddie symphony concerts, determined that they would have the sophistication of city kids even while they reaped the benefits of tree-lined streets and high-scoring public schools.
For years, we’d made concessions to Edward. We’d sprung for the hybrid minivan, even though Justin grumbled about the cost. It was for Edward that I switched to cloth napkins, used the crappy detergent from Whole Foods, and wrapped his sandwiches in squares of colorful oilcloth. I felt the weight of his judgment when I left lights on or forgot the reusable shopping bags. I was beginning to resent the smelly compost bin every time I slid carrot shavings or coffee grounds into its putrid depths.
The trouble began in earnest when Edward decided that the driveway wasn’t a large enough billboard for his messages. He had grander plans. He spent all of his allowance money on jumbo-sized sidewalk chalk, boxes and boxes of it.
One Tuesday afternoon, I was looking out the front window while half-listening to a conference call to see if the predicted rain was going to cancel Lila’s soccer practice. I saw Edward, pink doll tucked under his arm, stepping back to admire his latest message, written in two-foot high letters right in the street itself. He’d even added a few illustrations to get his point across. A bulbous cartoon car with spirals of smoke coming from its tailpipe, and a stick figure clutching its throat.
YOUR CAR IS KILLING OUR CLIMATE.
I closed my eyes. I had to hand it to him, the alliteration was a nice touch. But this had gone too far. It was getting personal now. I was going to have to tell him to wash it off. As soon as I got off my conference call, I’d have a talk with him.
Except one of the neighbors got to him first.
A few minutes later there was frantic knocking at my office door; it was Lila, out of breath. “The lady from down the street is yelling at Edward!” I dropped the phone and flew down the stairs and out the door.
“It’s not your property!” the woman was saying, gesturing at Edward with a pointed finger, like a caricature of admonishment. She wasn’t even looking at his latest graffiti; all of her attention was turned towards Edward himself, like she was gearing up to make a citizen’s arrest.
“It’s community property, and I am a part of the community,” Edward replied, stone-faced. His words were bold, but he was kneeling in the grass near the mailbox, shoulders hunched as if expecting blows.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
“Your son has gone too far.” She spat the word son like it left a bitter taste on her tongue. Spitting that bitterness back onto me, the mother. Edward half-cowered on the grass, but lifted his head towards me, looking to hook his courage onto mine.
“You’re right, I’ll take care of it,” I said.
“It was one thing in your own driveway, but the neighborhood –”
“I said I’d take care of it.” My voice was surprisingly steady. I glanced at the sky. “Anyway, it’s going to storm and this will be all washed away.” I gestured at the chalk message as thunder rumbled in the distance as if in confirmation. “Edward, come on inside so we can talk.”
Edward wouldn’t look at me as he gathered up his chalk and went inside. My stomach clenched. But I knew he needed to stop. The messages were becoming so pointed. That lady had every right to complain. I just had to explain it to Edward in a way he would understand.
Lila was still hovering in the driveway, watching the drama. I took her hand and led her inside behind Edward. “Sorry, Mom,” Lila said, “I know you were on a work call, but I thought I’d better come get you.”
The conference call. Damn it. “It’s fine, Lila, you did the right thing,” I said. To Edward, I called, “Wait for me in the family room, mister, and we’re going to have a talk. I just have to finish a work thing real quick.” I hurried upstairs to my office and my discarded phone.
Twenty minutes later, I came downstairs to find the family room deserted. Lila was at the kitchen table, doing her homework without being asked. “Where’s Edward?” I asked.
She just shrugged.
I figured he was sulking in his room. But after five minutes of circling the house and calling his name in increasingly panicked tones, I couldn’t find him. Or his doll.
“Mom, is soccer going to be cancelled? Did they send an email?” Lila asked, pencil poised over her math worksheet. The rain had finally started, the kind of soaking thunderstorm you get when the calendar says October and the days still feel like August.
“I have to find your brother. Sit tight. Can you stay home by yourself for a few minutes?”
Lila’s eyed widened. “Yes,” she said, sitting straighter to bear this new responsibility.
I grabbed my rain jacket from the hook, and seeing Edward’s bright orange slicker hanging there empty, grabbed it too. At the bottom of the driveway, runnels of pink and blue and purple water sloshed over the curb. Edward’s messages were washing away. The rainwater was diluting his bold letters, tumbling his warnings into the storm drain along with the leaves and candy wrappers and dead frogs and cigarette butts. His heartfelt pleas turned into a barely noticeable tinge.
I called for Edward as I traced the cul-de-sac fingers towards the neighborhood hub– the clubhouse and playground. I tasted salt; somewhere along the way I had started to cry. My voice sounded hysterical to my own ears: deranged, maniacal. “Edward!” I could barely see through the sheets of rain. As I walked, I noticed more swirls of color in the gutters. I wondered what else Edward had been scrawling on the streets. I followed the trail of pastel smears until I reached the playground. The rain beat down at an astonishing rate. I could barely catch my breath without swallowing water.
He was crouched by the side of the large storm drain by the playground entrance, reaching with one arm into the stream of water rushing into the sewer.
“What are you doing?” I knelt beside him and pulled him towards me. He was drenched through, his skin clammy, like a frog’s. He was so small, this brave and righteous boy. I could tuck him under my arm. His arms were limp as I threaded them into the sleeves of his raincoat. His face looked stricken.
“My doll,” he said flatly, and pointed down the storm drain. He glanced up at me. His face held no expectation of help. He’d given up on me.
“Oh, Edward. I’m sorry. Come on, let’s go home.” My chest ached, and I realized I was crying again.
“But it went down the storm drain. This is a watershed. The doll is plastic!” Edward hooked an arm around my knees for leverage and began reaching down into the water again.
“No, Edward, it’s too dangerous. You have to let it go.”
“But, Mom. I can’t let it go.”
“You have to learn, Edward.” I rubbed his back through the slippery jacket. “People have to learn to let things go. We have to choose the things we care about. You need to learn to forget on purpose.” He was too small to carry such a weight.
He looked up at me, blinking fast as the rain hit his eyelashes. “No,” he said simply.
I wiped the rain from his face with my sleeve, but it just kept pouring. “I’m sure it’s washed away by now, it’s probably halfway to the Bay.”
“No, it’s right there. I can see it, I just can’t reach it. See?”
Sure enough, somehow the pink plastic doll had caught on something, a kind of metal bar protruding from the concrete wall. A ladder.
“I need a flashlight or something,” I said, stalling.
“There’s one on your phone,” Edward pointed out.
Against my better judgment, I flipped on the flashlight on my phone and handed it to Edward. I knelt by the storm drain and the putrid smell nearly knocked me over. Sometimes with heavy rains, the neighborhood wastewater system backed up into the storm sewer. The rushing water below smelled like raw sewage. The smell made my nose run, and suddenly I was crying again. Was I really going to crawl down in there just to get a plastic doll? I eased one leg into the gaping mouth of the storm drain. Apparently, I was.
The doll was stuck on the second rung down. I should have been able to grab it without climbing all the way in, but the stench was making my eyes water, and I misjudged the distance. I reached for the doll and knocked it into the swirling, filthy water below.
I didn’t think. Faster than I would have thought possible, I shimmied down the ladder until I was standing knee-high in the current and snatched the doll from the water before it could be swept away. The air was choked with filth, and I was knee-deep in slime, my chest still heaving with sobs. I let out a mighty screech of triumph.
“You got it!” Edward shouted, and the pride in his voice made my heart sing.
Slowly, clutching the doll in one hand, I climbed up the metal ladder out of the storm drain. I wriggled into the street and handed Edward the doll. He curled around it protectively. A small movement caught my eye. Small and lithe, mud-green. It was a frog. I tried to grab it, but it hopped away. I followed the frog to the side of the clubhouse, where the overhang of the roof created a shelter from the rain. I shook the water from my hair and crouched down. Slowly, slowly, I reached my hand out to the frog, and snatch! I grabbed him.
I laughed from surprise. A frog! An alive frog! I tucked it carefully in my pocket. In a moment, I would turn and place this miracle into my son’s hands, but for now I reveled in the surprise of its small body wriggling through the thin lining of my jacket. Yet another thing I would never have noticed if not for my strange and earnest boy.
I stood up, calling to Edward, “Look what I found!”
That’s when I saw the message on the side of the clubhouse. I stepped back to take it all in. He had used every color in his box. The letters were a joyous chaos of color. And they were two feet tall. This must be what the lady from down the street was yelling at Edward about. Not the anti-car evangelism in the street in front of our house, but this towering question, part prayer, part lamentation.
WHO WILL SAVE US?
Laura Todd Carns’s work has appeared in Electric Literature, Pigeon Pages, and The Washington Post, among others. She lives near Annapolis, Maryland with her husband, children, and far too many pets. Follow her at @lauratoddcarns.