The halo of sweet golden curls surrounded the small, soft, alabaster face, but the wide blue eyes glinted with mischief and the toothy mouth had a maniacal grin. As he jumped up and down, laughing raucously, on the green vinyl booth seat in the local Coco’s Restaurant, Sarah wondered for the thousandth time from which side of the family these particularly vigorous genes had come. He was way more extroverted and confident than she, her engineer husband, and their other child put together. But this was the boy she had been assured was hers at the hospital nearly two years before.
“Sit down, Dougie,” she said, for the tenth time that morning. When would the food come? This was excruciating.
He sat, and she passed him another cracker, pushing wispy bangs off her forehead. The calm lasted for five seconds. Then he stood up on the booth seat again and clambered expertly up onto the back of it and sat down, short red corduroy legs dangling, face lit up and squealing with glee.
His four-year-old brother, Stevie, quietly stirred his water with his straw and made a mess with his cracker crumbs. Then he giggled, too.
Sarah was about to say something to Dougie when a waitress crossed the nearly-empty dining room, apron strings flying. “Excuse me, ma’am, but you need to keep him in his seat. He might fall.”
Sarah grimaced. “Sure.” Fuming, she got up to pull the toddler off the booth back and plop him on the booster seat. Again.
She was doing her best. She had always been the good child, had never challenged a rule in her life, yet this baby made her look irresponsible and lax as a parent. Dougie no longer fit into Coco’s wooden highchair, and nothing short of an elephant sitting on his chest would slow him down today. But wasn’t this supposed to be a family restaurant? Couldn’t she bring her older son here for a promised lunch out without being chastised by the crew fourteen times? And Whirlwind Dougie just had to come along.
Most of the mothers she knew refused to trade babysitting with her because he was such a hellion. Her stomach hurt like it always did from being caught out by someone else’s rules, especially those unposted ones. If they didn’t want children on the booth tops, why wasn’t there a sign? He really wasn’t hurting anything. Besides, her little Sherpa Boy could scale almost anything without falling, and often did, to her utter amazement.
Dougie popped up from the booster seat and, hands held high, hopped down off the booth to the carpet. “Gup down!”
“Get back in your seat, Dougie!”
He did, but he “gupped down” again twice more.
Ignoring her pleas, Dougie raced around the room on his chubby little toddler legs, then ran off into the next dining room, which was currently dark and unoccupied. Able to see him through the window between the rooms and exhausted by his presence, Sarah let him stay in there a few minutes.
She turned to Stevie. “How was pre-school today?”
“Fine. Where’s Dougie?” He craned his neck and looked up over the seat back through the windows. “What’s he doing?”
Sarah wished she didn’t need to answer that. Little breaks from Dougie were like roses in a ragweed field. She tried to enjoy them fully. The food was finally delivered to the table. Stevie started on his burger with zeal, and Sarah thanked the waitress, then went to the other room to get the wild child. She found him sitting under a corner booth table in the dark, playing with napkins and silverware that he had grabbed off of the already-set tables in the silent room.
Kneeling, she took these away. “Don’t you want to come and eat?”
“It looks good. Grilled cheese just like you like it.”
She stood up and started walking back to the table. “Okay. Then you won’t get any French fries.”
He zoomed back to the table, climbed up, and stood on the seat, vacuuming up fries.
“Sit down, Dougie.” Sarah started to eat, hoping for a respite long enough to finish their meal. Ten minutes. That was all she really needed. Just ten minutes.
But after a few bites, Dougie said, “Gimme some lettuce.”
“You don’t like it,” said Stevie.
“Mom, I want lettuce.” Dougie looked earnest.
“He’s right,” Sarah said. “You hate it.”
Dougie pestered her over and over until she gave him a leaf to keep the peace. He still had it in his mouth when he flew out of the seat again and rocketed around the slightly more populated restaurant one more time.
Sarah raced after him as fast as it was polite for a woman in a denim mom-dress and sensible shoes to go. She caught up with him in front of a lone older woman in a booth. He took this moment to spit out the wet green wad of lettuce with a gagging motion of the tongue in full view of the woman.
Both women stared down. Yes, just what Coco’s needed to welcome its guests. Kids barfing up wads of slimy green stuff, like gross little frogs, on the carpet by each table.
Sarah grabbed a napkin and picked it up, not daring to meet the woman’s eyes, while Dougie ran off chortling and scampered up into another empty booth, climbing up its back to stand there on the conquered summit, all joyful good humor. This time, a manager came over and told Sarah to keep him from climbing the booths because their insurance did not cover falls in the dining room.
Her stomach tightened and her face reddened. Time to go.
Waiting for their ticket and some take-home boxes back at their table, Sarah had great trouble keeping hold of little Houdini. Too bad spanking was so out of fashion, she thought. Screaming at him wouldn’t have kept him from misbehaving, but would have made her feel a lot better. But she’d been taught never, ever to attract attention to herself, so she just wailed inside as she dragged her charges up front to the long, empty bench for people waiting to be seated.
Sarah pointed at the bench. “You guys sit here for just a minute.” She turned to the cash register to pay the bill.
It only took a minute for a girl to package the to-go cherry pie order that Stevie wanted, just enough time for giggling to start behind her. She turned to see her little angels both dancing on the bench and laughing like hyenas. Turning back to the cashier and looking for her Visa card, she tried not to notice the rising noise level, tuning it out like she so often did at home.
“Uh, Ma’am, they’re not allowed to stand up there on the bench like that,” said the man behind the register. As if this were news. Could anyone stand on anything in this damned place?
“Sorry.” She cringed and ushered the boys back to her side. “Stay here for one minute,” she snapped.
Dougie didn’t miss a beat. As soon as her pen was on the credit card slip, he was giggling off toward the restroom, little legs flying and curls bobbing angelically.
Sarah had had enough. Purse and pen clutched in one hand, she launched herself away from the cashier’s desk. In a couple of long strides, she caught up with Dougie and grabbed his hand and swung him in a neat arc about a foot off the ground back to where she had been standing. She stuck him between her knees, put a vise grip on a little hand, and growled, “Stay!” then proceeded to finish her signature.
From a nearby table, an older male, witness to the one-armed maneuver, stood up and said loud enough for all to hear, “Hey, lady. Never, EVER treat a child like that!!”
Sarah wanted to drop through the floor and let it close unceremoniously over her head.
Another man standing on her other side, waiting in line to pay his bill, answered the first guy. “Hey. Can’t you see she’s only trying to control him?”
Send me to a very deep, dark cave. Alone, she thought, as all the customer and staff eyes settled on her and judged her mothering skills.
She grabbed the boxes and tried to make a quick escape before Dougie could cause any more embarrassment, but he chose this moment to melt onto the floor in Coco’s entryway, refusing to leave the scene of his crimes. Sarah pulled at his arm again, but he wouldn’t budge. She didn’t dare drag him off the floor by his arm with this tough audience. So in the end, she had to pick up the twenty-eight-pound blob and carry him out to the car, her back aching all the way. She’d need ibuprofen and heat for two days to undo the physical damage. The emotional scars could take years.
She lectured the boys all the way home, but the lecture just bounced off the golden curls and made Stevie get quiet.
Later, on the phone, her mother said, “Your brother was just like that. I couldn’t take him anywhere until he was six.”
“Oh, no. The genetic connection.” Sarah sighed. “Wait. Now I remember Dad yelling and swearing at John for something. I was about three. But that would have made him eight.”
“Well, you were never like John.”
“But eight? He’ll be like this until he’s eight?” Sarah’s head swam. She saw double. Hadn’t she always been the good one, the well-behaved, level-headed one, to avoid her father’s wrath? And now she had to raise her brother’s double. Lord have mercy.
“Well, maybe he’ll come out of it sooner. By seven or so. But I wouldn’t go back to Coco’s any time soon, dear.”