© 2011 David’s Harp and Pen
So there I was, standing outside the men’s room at the mall waiting for Zechariah and Jonathan to finish up in the men’s room, hoping it would be incident-free, since so far, I had been unable to get through the day with my dignity intact. After a few minutes, Zechariah came out and just stared at me.
“What? Where’s your brother?” I inquired anxiously.
“He’s having trouble. I think he needs you to wipe his butt,” Zechariah answered. (Jonathan was still not quite potty trained, and he couldn’t tidy himself after making number two.)
I gritted my teeth, covered my eyes, and inched my way into the Men’s Room. I slowly opened my eyes, and thankfully, there weren’t any men using the urinals. I looked at the bottom of the stalls for Jonathan’s little feet, but there was no sign of them. So, I yelled, “Jonathan, honey, do you need some help?”
I then heard two different adult male voices laughing. One of the stall doors swung open, and a late 20-something man, seemingly normal but giving off a creepy vibe, stepped out, walked right up to me, and said, “I’m sorry, Baby, but the kind of help I need, you can’t give me.”
“Excuse me?” I asked him, confused.
“Hi!” he retorted. “I’m Jonathan.” He extended his right hand to me, but given he had just come out of the toilet, I thought it best not to shake his hand.
“That was awesome!” Said the other voice, which belonged to his friend who was in the bathroom with him. When I turned around to see the face that went with the voice, Jonathan’s friend snapped a picture of Jonathan with a huge grin on his face, and me with a look like someone has on their face when about to be led to the gallows.
“I’m gonna post this on All About Me,” the friend announced with laughter, quite pleased with himself, apparently.
“I am so sorry, sir,” I said, blushing. “I’m babysitting my friend’s little boy, who is also named Jonathan, and his brother said he needed some help.”
“No worries, Luscious,” Jonathan answered. Luscious, an innocent enough word in and of itself, took on another, dark, insidious meaning when being applied to a woman in a public men’s room. “You’re cute.”
I all of a sudden felt very nervous, those two strange men and me in there.
“Eh, my name is Margaret, and thank you, but I’m really rather plain, and ubiquitous,” I answered. I felt the need to back up towards the door, but hesitated, because I didn’t want to leave without Jonathan (the small, non-evil one).
“Don’t be so modest,” big, evil Jonathan answered. “Do you have any plans tonight?”
Big, evil Jonathan and his cohort began to move towards me. I found myself tongue-tied. My mind began scramble. Even though I had been taking martial arts lessons and felt quasi-confident I could defend myself against one man, I felt zero-confidence in my ability to fend off two. Also, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the defense from an unwanted lip lock.
“Margaret? Are you okay?” asked an all-too-familiar voice. It was Ryan. I was both relieved and scared that he was there. Jonathan and his buddy, who were both a good six inches shorter than Ryan and nowhere near as ripped, immediately backed off.
“Sorry, Man. No disrespect,” Jonathan said nervously to Ryan. Then he turned to me and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you had a boyfriend?”
Before I could answer, Jonathan turned back to Ryan and said defensively, “She didn’t tell me she was with someone. Typical woman, right?”
The elder Jonathan and his friend quickly washed their hands and headed out the door. Ryan looked at me with that usual unreadable look of his.
Don’t be embarrassed, Margaret. I thought. You did nothing wrong. Just make it into a joke and go with the flow.
Ryan finally broke the silence and asked, “So, looking for a date for later tonight?”
I let out a skittish laugh and started to say, “For your information, I can tell a lot about a man by the way he…” Then I stopped myself, but there would be no backtracking from that one. I saw the words, like carrots in front of a horse, dangling in the air in front of me, but no amount of reaching on my part could ever take those words back.
“No, Margaret! By all means, finish your thought,” Ryan stated, looking both deadly serious and also like he would burst into laughter at any moment. “What is it about a man you can tell a lot of by watching him in a public lavatory?”
I hemmed and hawed, straining my brain ferociously for something clever to say, but finally gave up. “You know, I really didn’t think that whole comment through before I started to say it, and…”
I decided it best to not even explain any further. Ryan began to laugh so hard I thought he would hyperventilate. At that moment, Zechariah and Brittany walked in to see what was going on.
“Where’s Jonathan?” Brittany asked. I then remembered why I had gone into the men’s room in the first place. I started to push open all the stall doors looking for the youngest of my charges, trying to forget all that just happened.
Oh, God! I prayed silently. I am trying so hard, but humiliation seems to chase me down wherever I go. I pray Ryan will overlook that I am spacey and regularly accidentally say things that could be construed as morally reprehensible in light of the fact that I am so good with children.
I pushed open the stall door on the last toilet in the room. There sat poor little Jonathan, quiet as a mouse, with poo smeared all over his face, hands, and the walls, with toilet paper crinkled up and overflowing out of the toilet. He looked like a little cherry sitting on top of a giant chocolate poo sundae.
As Ryan and I cleaned up Jonathan and the stall, I tried very hard to keep my mind from obsessing and compulsing. I had to get my mind off myself and how I looked and sounded, but I didn’t know how.
No sooner had we all left the men’s room than it began to thunder, lightning, and rain with a fury uncharacteristic even for middle Tennessee during the rainy season. Next thing we knew, the lights in Palucci’s were flickering. Jonathan pulled on my hand and reached up his arms for me to carry him. Jonathan hated storms. I was about to pick him up when I felt a small tap behind me.
“Mommy!” cried Toddler X. I turned around to see him reaching his arms up to me as well.
Slightly aggravated, I picked him up and asked him, “Where are your parents?”
The question apparently confused him greatly. He then pointed to the gun range game and exclaimed, “Wifles! Boom!”
I could see I wasn’t going to get a straight answer out of the kid, so I carried him to the front counter and handed him off to the manager. As I turned to rejoin Ryan and the kids, a huge flash of lightning lit up every open window and sky light, and all the electricity in the place went out. As the subsequent sound of thunder blasting ensued, and every child in Palucci’s let out a single, collective, ear-piercing cry that rose up to Heaven. After the screaming died down, I heard from the direction of the front door the sound of heavy, labored breathing. I discovered, to my concern, it was the kid at the door in charge of stamping hands and making sure the kids who come to Palucci’s leave with the right grown-ups. Concerned, I walked over to the door to check on him.
“Are you alright,” I asked, then glanced at his nametag, “Neil?”
“Hate storms,” he answered in rapid-fire fashion, fidgeting as spoke. “Hate ‘em, hate ‘em, hate ‘em!”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. We’re used to storms like this here,” I said in an attempt to sound reassuring.
“It’s not fine! Can’t you see we’re all going to die? How can you be so calm?”
Ooh! I prayed. This would be perfect time to talk about You to him, wouldn’t it be, God?
“Well,” I answered Neil, “if I die, I know where I’m going.”
Neil looked at me oddly and asked, “Where are you going?”
“Oh, sorry,” I answered. “Well, if I die, I’m going to Heaven. To be with God. Forever.”
“Oh, great!” he sneered. “You’re one of those, aren’t you? I can’t believe in the present age of knowledge and intellect there are still people stupid enough to believe something that’s nothing more than old wives’ tales!”
“My faith is not an old wives’ tale!” I protested.
“No, of course not! It’s true because your mommy told you it was, right? I don’t believe in stupid-stitions. I believe in science. I believe in fact. I believe in logic.”
Another blast of lighting and thunder came through Palucci’s, even stronger than the one before.
“Oh, Sweet Jesus!” Neil screamed like a little girl. As he ran to hide under the front counter, he cried, “I’m too young to die.”
I stood scratching my head as he disappeared from view.
Oh, God! I prayed. I don’t think that went very well at all. I don’t think I said the right thing at all.
God replied, It’s not about you. Are you willing to look bad so that I can look good?
God, I don’t know what You mean. I didn’t know what You meant all the other times you said it today, I prayed in protest.
Suddenly, the electricity came back on, and life at Palucci’s quickly proceeded as normal.
“Margaret!” Brittany yelled as she ran up to me, interrupting my silent debate with God. “Come with me to the finger-painting class! Please!”
Before I could answer, she grabbed my hand and pulled me to the craft room at Palucci’s. Besides all the games, Palucci’s had a craft room where they would have a class with fun stuff like painting or drawing. I jumped into cool babysitter mode and threw myself into finger-painting with her. I worried about Brittany more than the other two, mostly because I knew it had to be hard for her being the only girl in the house. I wanted to be a good role model for her. As the class went on, my lack of sleep from the previous evening finally overtook me. I put my head on the table to shut my eyes for a second, and that second turned into forty winks.
I woke up moments later to the sound of ever-increasing laughter. As I lifted my weary head, I saw strange faces jeering at me everywhere I looked. I felt something on my face and in my hair, so I grabbed my compact out of my purse. I was covered in paint. My face had been painted white, with large black circles around my eyes, purple streaks on my cheeks, and giant red lips. My hair had been doused with orange and red paint. I looked like Ronald McDonald, except not quite as classy. I stared at myself in shock. Then I heard the sound of Ryan and the boys chuckling at the door of the craft room. I felt so goofy and so ashamed, but before I could say anything, Brittany tugged on my arm.
“Do you like it, Margaret?” She asked sweetly. “I love playing make-up and dress-up. I did it all the time with my last mommy, but they won’t let me bring my make-up with me when I visit her in the prison.”
All of a sudden, I felt ashamed for a different reason, namely my self-consciousness. Then I remembered what God had been saying to me all day, and it finally clicked. It wasn’t about me. I had to look bad so a little girl could feel loved and special and know that God wasn’t the indecisive nut job who had thus far been erroneously presented to her.
I bent down to Brittany, looked her in the eye, and said, “I love it! I have never looked or felt lovelier than I do at this very moment. Thank you!”
I kissed her on the cheek as she hugged me super tight around my neck.
“I’ve never seen you look lovelier, either,” said that voice I loved from the get go. I turned to see Ryan grinning at me.
“No, seriously,” he said with a smile, “you look great.”
“Thanks,” I responded. “I feel great.”
It’s not about me! I prayed silently. It’s not about me. Thank You, God, that it’s not about me.
The time was coming for us to leave. We brought all our tickets to the prize desk and traded them in for this humongous, life-sized, stuffed Palucci. When we were done, we walked out to the parking lot. I pressed my keyless entry to open the sliding doors and hatch on my minivan. By this time, the rain was pouring down fiercely, and we wanted to get out of it as soon as we could.
“Brittany, Sweetie, would you please get your brothers into their car seats?” I asked.
Brittany fought with her brothers to get them strapped in while Ryan and I tried our darndest to get Palucci to fit in the rear hatch. After a few minutes, we admitted defeat and squeezed him among the rows of the minivan, even though it was an awkward fit. Ryan slammed the hatch closed, we each closed a side door, and then we took off.
When we left, the rain was falling even harder. I had paint streaming down me, but I didn’t care.
“You seem content,” Ryan said.
“I am,” I replied. “You see, it’s not about me.”
“Really?” he asked. “Do tell.”
I was about to tell him my little discovery for the day, but I was interrupted by the sight and sound of police sirens, which had quickly overtaken us.
“I wasn’t speeding, was I?” I asked, confused.
As I pulled over, Ryan looked in the back of the van and asked, “Eh, Margaret, how many kids did we bring with us to Palucci’s?”
“Three,” I answered with a reasonable degree of certainty.
“Then why do we have four kids in the van?”
My heart stopped before becoming lodged in my throat. After I had stopped the car, I turned around to see Toddler X climbing out from underneath the middle row of seats.
“Mommy!” He screamed with delight.
I felt a terror unlike I had felt since high school. I scrambled for my purse to get my driver’s license, then the glove box for my registration and insurance card.
“How did he get past the Neil kid at the door who stamps everyone’s hands?” I asked frightfully.
“You mean the guy who kept ducking behind the prize desk every time he heard thunder?” Ryan retorted.
The next hour was a blur, to be perfectly honest. I vaguely remember the kids crying, police officers with guns drawn, accusations of kidnapping, and being handcuffed. One of the cops radioed back to dispatch that he had found both the child and the woman matching the physical description of a “deranged Indian chief.” As Ryan and I were put into different police cruisers and the kids were taken off in an unmarked car, Ryan looked at me, almost as if he was in pain, and said facetiously, “Honey, we should’ve stopped after one.”