MARLENE DOWNSHIFTED and whipped the 1954 racing-green MG past a truck piled high with baled hay. She returned the farmer’s wave as she pulled away. With its running boards and big headlights, her new convertible was the ultimate in European styling and performance. Driving it usually made her spirits as light as the breezes on the Chesapeake Bay, which she had just crossed. But not today.
The nagging thought returned. Had she done the right thing to put William and Derek in Saint Boniface Academy? Her friends who had children and careers used boarding schools.
She loved her job as a buyer for a toy company. Two outstanding performance reviews in a row had her lined up for another promotion. She was good at what she did. Whether by dumb luck or intuition, she could spot the next big thing before anyone else and snap it up for National Toys. Two years running, her choices had led the toy market nationally.
She loved the travel, the challenge, and the interesting men she met, like Jacques, the Canadian engineer she had met and dated last week. The employee discount on the latest toys made for obscene piles under the Christmas tree.
In her mind, she replayed the last phone conversation with Chad, when she told him about the sloppy language their sons had picked up.
“Don’t worry about it,” her ex-husband had said. “You say they seem happy. That’s important. The kids would make fun of them if they talked like adults all the time.”
“William never tells me anything about his schoolwork.” She tucked the phone with her shoulder to sign some papers that had to get out before she flew to Chicago. “He’s getting all A’s, so he must be learning something.”
“Don’t bet on it. I remember getting A’s and dying from the boredom.” He was a product of private boarding schools himself.
After hanging up, she had reflected on Chad’s high regard for himself. His perennial optimism drove her nuts, but he did have a way with the boys that she envied.
We’ll soon see what they’ve learned this week.
The soybean fields stretched out in all directions as she zipped northeast on US 301 toward the Delaware border. The countryside clung to its color, defying the winter that lay in waiting. The wind whipped through her auburn hair. After the cold snap around Columbus Day, she welcomed the warm sun on her face.
Much as she enjoyed her work, she looked forward to these visits like nothing else all week. Some Saturdays, she arrived groggy from the seven-hour “red-eye” flight from San Francisco, but it was worth it. The boys were so excited and eager to show her what they had learned. She hated leaving them during the week.
But a girl needs some social life, she told herself. And the boys need a man around the house. Trouble is, the only men who seem comfortable around women with children have families of their own. She had a good vibe about Jacques, but after only one date, she knew nothing about him, and he knew less about her.
She left US 301 for a two-lane country road just over the Delaware border. The last mile to Saint Boniface Academy always seemed so long. Thick evergreens flanked both sides. She flipped on the headlights, but they made no difference. She turned them off.
At last, she turned between the carved granite columns that flanked the gate of the former estate of the Van Viere family. She drove carefully up the long drive to the main house.
She braked hard for a football bouncing across the road in front of her. Three boys about nine years old exploded from the hedge that ran between the trees and disappeared after the ball.
The Main Hall had been the manor house of the estate. Its spires and round corner towers dominated the school grounds. Beyond the Hall, she saw a formation of Canada geese reflected in the small lake near the riding track. To the right, about a quarter mile away, red and gold sycamores surrounded a yellow frame dormitory building. Both boys lived there, but they would be waiting in the visitors’ lobby. She had not seen their room since Parents’ Weekend in September.
A new Mercedes Benz 300 SL roadster pulled out from a parking place near the front door. Marlene slid the MG into the spot.
William and Derek burst from the door as she stepped around the car. People often mistook the tow-headed boys for twins, because Derek was nearly as big as his elder brother. They had her hazel eyes and their father’s smile.
“Hi, Marlene,” they shouted. She looked past them to see who had called her. William stopped and looked back. Derek kept running and grabbed her thighs in a bear hug.
“What did you call me?”
“Marlene,” said William, his face as clear as spring water.
“You’re supposed to call me Mommy.”
“But all the kids here call grownups by their names.”
She imagined the other parent at the school whom she knew, a personnel manager at Dupont.
“Even Mrs. Hesbrough?”
“Yeah,” William’s expression clouded a little. “She’s Marie.”
“You used to say “yes, ma’am.” He shrugged and considered his shoes. Marlene bit her tongue and hated herself.
Derek tugged on her jacket.
“Mommy, where were you?”
Marlene looked down. His eyes told her how long she had been gone: a week to her, a lifetime to him. She picked him up and hugged him hard. Trying not to cry, she stared at a tall oak across the driveway.
How will I ever find a man for these boys? She felt so totally incompetent – and incomplete.
She noticed that William watched her silently.
“William, call me Mommy, Mother, or Mom. But don’t call grownups by their first names until you’re older and they tell you to.”
“Okay, Mommy.” He smiled. “Hear that, Derek?” She heard a confidence in his voice she had not noticed before. She eased Derek to the ground.
“So, anything new to report?”
“Not much,” said William.
“I can play jacks. Come see.” Derek took her hand and pulled her toward the door.
The visitor’s lobby had been the main entertaining room of the old manor. It reminded Marlene of illustrations of a mead hall in Beowulf, with tall, plain walls, and small, multi-paned windows, and dark timber rafters. Groups of visiting parents occupied couches scattered around the room. Derek led her to a sofa near the front door. It held William’s homework papers and a ball-and-jacks set.
Derek made a production of seating her and explaining the game. His coordination was not up to his oratory, but Marlene enjoyed the demonstration. His intenseness made her smile.
A few feet away, two boys – nine or ten years old – distracted her. They were taunting a youngster about Derek’s age, tossing a small stuffed tiger back and forth over his head.
The younger child started crying. One of the older boys missed a pass, and the toy fell into Derek’s jacks. Marlene reached down and collected it. She held it out for the owner.
“This must be yours. Does it have a name?”
The boy grabbed the tiger and hugged it protectively.
“Tigger.” He eyed Marlene suspiciously, still sniffling. William helped Derek recover the scattered jacks.
“What’s your name?”
“Winston.” The two older boys disappeared as a monk appeared at the far doorway.
“Are you waiting for your parents?” Winston shook his head and looked like he would cry again. Marlen bit her lip.
“Do you know Derek?”
“I’m Derek mother.” No reaction. Marlene wished she could vanish like the two bullies.
William and Derek came from behind the sofa with the last of the jacks.
Her question must have been on her face. “That’s the Armstrong brothers,” said William. “They pick on everyone.”
“Not me,” said Derek. Before Marlene could ask why, the monk approached them.
“Hello. I’m Brother Bertram. You must be Mrs. Carroll.” Marlene shook hands. His grip was both firm and gentle. “Derek is in my pre-school music class. You must be very proud of him. He has the best voice in the group.”
“Thank you,” said Marlene. Derek had never mentioned music class.
“I see you’ve met Winston.”
“Sort of, yes.”
The monk squatted down. “Mr. Nemours called, Winston. He won’t be able to come today. Would you like to come to the stables with me?” Winston nodded.
“Nice meeting you,” the monk said to Marlene. “Would you excuse us?”
Marlene watched the silent child and his tiger follow the cleric to the far door. A trip to see the horses should be more fun than this. She looked back at her sons.
“Do you know who Mr. Nemours is?”
“Guardian,” said Derek.
“Doesn’t he have parents?”
“They’re divorced,” said William. “His dad remarried, and his mother is in France.”
Under her blouse, Marlene felt a trickle of sweat run between her breasts. She gave the lapels of her jacket a quick wave.
“Boys, let’s take a walk outside.”
Marlene looked at William’s homework and tests as they walked out the front door and turned toward the rear of the building and the little lake. William’s test papers were messy, with doodles in the margins. They all had 100’s or A’s on them.
“William, do you like it here?”
“Sure, Mommy. They’re really nice here, and there’s lots to do.”
“Swimming, boats, horses, the trails in the woods. And the library has every book in the world.”
“How about the school part?”
“It’s okay.” He kicked a small stone off the path.
She wanted to scream. How could a boy with straight A’s not show any interest in his schoolwork? Is he hiding something? Who are their friends? Isn’t he excited about something? She did not know what to ask, and he would not volunteer anything. Doctor Spock was a little weak on the details when it came to extracting information from her children.
“How about you, Derek?”
“I like it. Especially the horses.”
“What about the Armstrong boys?”
“They don’t—” William slapped him gently on the wrist.
“What was that about?” she asked William. He looked very upset.
“Mommy,” Derek whined, “can’t we not talk about them?”
“Why? What’s going on with those two that I am not supposed to know about?”
“If I talk about it, William gets in trouble.”
Marlene stopped. Were these her boys, five and seven, already into conspiracies?
“William, Derek. Stop. Right here.” She squatted, took a hand in each of hers, and looked them eye-to-eye. “I’m not a teacher here. I’m your mother. Now what’s going on?”
William looked down. Shades of red passed across his face as his jaw twitched. Twice he took a breath to talk, then clamped his mouth shut.
Derek looked at him and back at their mother.
“They picked on me once.”
“William beat them up.”
“Both of them?”
Marlene felt her face flush. She wanted to do that to those two herself, before she even knew who they were. She forced herself to sound stern.
He looked up.
“I was mad, Mommy. I’m sorry.” The words came tumbling out. “I was going back to the dormitory from the nature walk when I saw them teasing Derek and making him cry. I hit Tad with this stick I had picked up on the walk. Then I punched Buck again and again until he ran away. Tad ran away with him.” He stopped suddenly. His face was pale.
“What happened then? What did the monks say?”
“Nothing. They thought Tad and Buck were fighting. They do that when they’re not picking on other kids.” His eyes were wide with fear. “But if the teachers find out, I don’t know what they’ll do. Suspend me or something, I guess.”
He started crying.
Marlene opened her arms and let him come in for a hug.
She could not take it all in. This isn’t childhood, or is it? Whatever it was, she was missing it all. She put her arm out for Derek, while she rocked on her knees with William hanging on.
She could not wait for a man in the house. She would make do with the two she had.
“Would you like to come home with me?”
“Really?” they shouted together. “Now?”
Derek joined his brother, and they threw their arms around her neck. She fell back into the grass by the walk. They lay there for a minute, laughing.
“I need to see Brother Aloysius in the office and settle the details. Come on. Let’s go.”
An hour later, they were singing “Zippity doo-dah” at the tops of their lungs as they sped back to Baltimore. The boys told knock-knock jokes and giggled with delight. Near Oxford, Maryland, they dozed off, leaving Marlene with her thoughts.
She knew that she had made the right choice, but so many things would have to change.
“Thanks, Jim. I’ll be there first thing Thursday morning.” Marlene hung up the phone. At least she had a job. Seven thousand was less than a third of what she had made at National Toys, but she wouldn’t have to travel. Jim seemed happy to have her back, though he only had an opening for a receptionist.
She rose and stretched. She took her coffee mug out to the back porch and watched Derek playing in the sandbox. The phone rang, and pounding feet raced down the stairs.
“Mommy, it’s for you,” William shouted. So proud of himself, she thought. She wondered whom he had deafened on the other end.
“Hello, Marlene.” It was Jacques. “You have a son. I did not know.”
“Two boys.” She tried to sound casual. “They’re home from boarding school now.”
The long pause told her all she needed to know. She heard him take a breath.
“I called to see if you wanted to go out, but maybe I should call again after they go to school.”
“Thank you, Jacques. That’s very nice of you, but they won’t be going back.”
“Well, then, maybe I’ll see you around?”
“Sure. Thanks for calling.” She returned the handset to its cradle and sighed. “Won’t be the last time I hear that line.”
“Hear what line?” She started. William was at the door to the hall, watching with a serious expression.
“Oh, nothing, William.” She reached out and pulled her eldest to her side. “Just talking to myself. Lonely grownups do that sometimes.”
© 1989, 2022, JT Hine