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Shauna McKenna



My son MacKay was a problem from his very first second of breath. Too red, the fingers in too many places; pinching, prodding, insistent in ways that most infants were months from able. So itís possible I didnít give him what he needed. I liked to sleep too late. I liked to say to myself that the cry of a child is exercise for his lungs, that isolation would harden him in preparation for the gnarly life rolling itself forward like a carpet.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

Now that heís hit the big time I can watch from a safe distance. Itís a distance I shoved upon him. Thereís nothing I can do about it. Even if he lived in the same town, on the same block, next door, thereíd be continents between us. The ocean. A sky full of fat, airless stars.

MacKay, you should come home, I overheard his father saying into the telephone mouthpiece when the kid was still a teenager. To all appearances he was a hoodlum, but a kind one, a lovable one, not the type to get wrecked and die young. We missed him. But I couldnít admit it. His face was the transcript of accusation. So I said nothing like that, issued no invitations. To no oneís surprise, the kid survived. To everyoneís surprise, he began to ascend.

It startles me, the voice in the middle of the night that says, like his father: Come home. It rings in my head. Itís a long, long time before Iím able to fall back asleep. The big dog, Bessie, snores in the corner. My husband sighs like a kettle coming to boil. When I do fall asleep, it is not a comforting rest. I wake up in the morning with my jaw clenched and sore.

MacKay didnít tell me about his accumulating successes. I had no idea he wanted to be an actor. Who knew? He was cute and likable, sure, but he seemed incapable of telling a fib. In the end years of his childhood, before his weird adolescence, heíd rush into the house without looking me in the eye, clomp straight upstairs to his bedroom. Thatís how I could tell that heíd been up to something. The things he did werenít awful. He wasnít a bully; he didnít beat up on other kids. The things he did were merely strange. He spat on the drugstore floor, right in front of the pharmacist, Mr. Wendell. He stole a bag of balloons and blew them all up, Scotch-taped them to toilet seats in the menís washroom at church. He certainly acted guilty more often than he was caught at it.

Then of course there was that afternoon in his high-school principalís office, with the girl. She weeping, he staring at her with a curious expression. The principal said the girl had come running from the woods across the street, MacKay following a few seconds later. On the way home, in the car, I said nothing. I never confronted him. I didnít care to know.

My sister told me about his first television role.

"How about that?" she asked-exclaimed on the telephone. "And we never thought heíd do anything particularly special."

I was utterly confused.

"Beth, what on earth are you going on about?" I asked.

"MacKay!" she chirped. "On the television. For the Children..." her voice trailed off as she realized that I honestly didnít know what she was talking about. "Oh, well, hm. He must have been keeping it for a surprise." She excused herself from the conversation.

Not the case, I knew. He was apathetic, pure and simple. I tried to tell his father in a nice way. That evening over dinner, I smacked my hand against my forehead, pretended like I was the biggest dope ever for forgetting such delightful news. My husbandís eyes filled up when he realized heíd missed seeing his son on the television screen, seeing him at the same time as possibly millions upon millions of others. Those dribbling eyes were punishment enough for all my true neglect. If that boy only knew what shame I bore that evening, maybe heíd think a little kinder on his mother.

The next week MacKayís father and I watched the television show together, on our matching La-Z-Boy recliners. He had a beer, I had a glass of red wine. I lit up a cigarette as the opening credits began to roll.

"Seems like only yesterday," said my husband quietly, practically moaning. I said nothing. I had no use for wallowing in a pretty past that never happened in truth.

MacKay was only part of the show for a handful of scenes. He played a store clerk with the main character, who spent most of her time out of the store transcribing psychic visions for the FBI. Most of her visions had something to do with the fate of missing or murdered children. Thatís where the title of the show came from, see, For the Children. I thought there was something ludicrous about the two of them, this gifted woman and my boy, working together at a store that was maybe the Gap, maybe Old Navy, but I guess the showís producers were trying to be realistic about the whole thing. The store was in a mall. MacKay was a college student, and working at the store was the only income he had for food and books. His hair was blonder than it had been the last I saw him, two years before. His brown eyes looked old.

When the show was over, my husband chuckled in a low voice and turned his head back and forth like heíd just found out an April Foolís.

"Who wouldíve guessed," he said, again so soft I could barely hear. He got up without looking at me. Seems like most parents would have been able to share in their pride. Not us. MacKay was never something we shared. Never something we discussed.


We didnít hear anything for a while. We watched the show every week, my husband laughing extra loud whenever MacKay was given a joke to deliver, me smoking cigarettes lit as fast as they finished Ė but midway through the season, MacKayís character was written out of the script.

Thatís the end of that, I thought. Guess weíll be hearing from him soon, for money.

But we didnít hear anything from him, or about him. My sister stopped asking, and just chattered on about the accomplishments of her three whenever weíd go shopping together. I watched young mothers in the shopping malls pushing navy blue perambulators; cream babies, brown babies, tan babies. I watched teenagers who wore leather jackets hanging out at the wrong times of day, leaning against the gleaming walls. One time one of them caught my eye and snickered. Most of the time I was invisible to them, just a piece of the scenery.

My husband, heíd been shocked when MacKayís character left the show Ė bolted upright in his recliner, begged of the TV screen "no, no, no" but of course he had to accept it. When the show was over that night, he gathered our glasses like he always did, but he was slow walking to the kitchen; a man in shock. He didnít say anything about it. We never had a comforting marriage.

Heíd had an affair. Early on.

Things were just starting to get back to normal when we saw the first of the commercials. MacKay stood beside a slender brunette, staring at a Ford automobile, while an energetic announcer talked about all the good things that particular Ford model apparently was. MacKay, he sure looked pleased. For the first dozen or so times he saw it, my husband would slap his hand against his leg in glee.

Of course the Ford commercials slowed down, appeared between longer and longer intervals, and my husband took to pacing. It was spring. First he paced only in the house, around our bedroom when I wasnít in it, around the living room while I was in the kitchen, up and down the stairs if I was vacuuming. Even though he seemed to have worn enough paths away from me, the indoor periphery couldnít calm whatever was jiggling in his head, thwarting his attention from books or television screen, so he took to the outdoors. Not walks like people take in normal circumstances, but pacing, claiming new paths as stealthily as a dirty puddle filling with rain, and in the meantime bringing the mud with him as he went in and out, in and out. So he paced and I cleaned. I vacuumed. Then I bought a Bissell. The mud was unbelievable. It was ground into the particular threads that he kept going over time and time again. Something had to give.

And it did. One day I was running the vacuum cleaner back and forth in front of the television, and there again was our boy. MacKay. This time with dialogue: wiping his hand across his mouth after taking a huge bite of a hamburger and saying something garbled in meat to his pretend family. A young wife and toddler. The wife laughed and the toddler laughed, even though only a pretend toddler would have a sense of humor at that age.

"Frank...look!" I called, hearing the door swoosh open at my back. My husband came to my side in front of the television screen and began to chuckle. He touched my arm. I nearly jumped out of my skin.

The cycle continued. A popular commercial would run for a while, then ebb, and then a new one would come up. This happened three or four times before we started seeing ads for a new television series next season. This time, there was nothing minor about the role MacKay was to play. He was a public defender. The show was called "The Defender." He was in every scene in the previews. My husband and I both squealed in delight the first time we saw one. That night, he gave me a full, soft kiss before turning over to sleep.

I was very confused. For so long I was angry. This reconciliation was not invited. But it felt good. I tingled when he kissed me.

The affair had happened soon after we got married. Frank was recently out of college, busting his butt as a claim adjuster trainee. I stayed home. Back then it was common for women to stay home. It was just the two of us at first. The house didnít take very long to clean, and I wasnít much one for fancy cooking, but as was the custom in those times the wives of white-collared men didnít find jobs. I wouldnít have minded a job. But I canít say I minded being at home.

My husband was smothered in paperwork, doing all the menial correspondence for the senior claim adjusters as well as working on all his own files. Or so he said. Even though we were newlyweds, I liked the time I had to myself Ė Iíd fix a casserole, or bake some chicken or something, then heap up a plate for myself and go out to the front steps to eat while watching the children glide up and down the street on their bicycles. The air was kind most of the year there, in San Diego. The sunsets were open wounds in the sky that receded into bruises.

She was the supervisor of the typing pool, an older woman, a divorcee. We even had her over to dinner once. I purchased special fancy ingredients for her, took extra long in the kitchen, found an unusual wine. The harpy. She told me herself. Called me up one day, pissed off at my husband. We didnít have a screaming fight when I confronted him. He apologized, promised heíd never do it again. But by that time I was over it. Iíd been sitting on the front steps, thinking. I shrugged my shoulders. MacKay was on the way.


"The Defender" was on for a few months before the TV tabloids began to talk. Blonde talking head, glossy lipstick, chalky-white teeth exposed in a smirk:

"We all know him as the honest civil defender who takes on tough-luck cases both inside and outside the courtroom. But rumors about the lifestyle of ĎThe Defenderí star MacKay Farrell has his fans wondering if this beefcake will need a defense of his own."

Oh, no. I thought to myself. Fortunately, I was alone. My husband was at the liquor store. The woman went on about suspicious activities at MacKayís luxury condo Ė droves of scantily-clad women, seedy characters pulling up in towncars, staying for twenty minutes or so, leaving in the company of one of these tramps. Of course the lady on the TV didnít say tramps. But I saw the footage for myself. Tramps they were.

Itís started. I thought again. A mean voice in me, certainly the same one that held me back from the big conversations with MacKay when he was a kid, said, well this is perfect, this is prime, this is the best way for the father to understand what heís bred in his son, but I shook my head fast to try and make that little voice shut up. I flipped off the TV set just as my husband came into the living room, having returned from his errand.

"Going for a walk," I said with what I hoped was a natural-seeming smile. He didnít seem to notice anything was wrong. As I left through the front door, he was at the TV set, raising the babble of advertising noises like a chorus of the cheerfully undead.

A few days later, my husband came home from work looking like he was shell-shocked.

"Theyíre saying the worst things about MacKay," he said. He seemed to be pleading with me for something. The jig was up. I didnít want to play at sympathetic partner anymore, didnít want to pretend to be surprised and pretend to mourn with him the darling golden boy who for a short time changed everything.

"Come off it," I said to him. "Itís MacKay."

My husbandís face went slack. He set down his briefcase and walked out the back door to his car. I heard the engine a moment later. I flipped the television on and went to the loveseat. MacKay wasnít on, it was something else. Didnít matter to me. It was like it was when he was a kid. He was there sometimes, sometimes he wasnít. He was trouble. I didnít let it get to me. Iím not going to let it get to me now. They say you have to be this, or this, or that, as a mother, but I say itís just hard enough to keep up. And Iím watching, and Iím paying attention, and heís my kid, and whatever comes down through this whole mess, Iíll be at the bottom with my hands open and saying to whoever wants to know that I am, after all, there.

  • Shauna McKenna lives in Philadelphia, and her work has appeared in Pindeldyboz, Eyeshot, Sweet Fancy Moses, Opium Magazine, and The Surgery of Modern Warfare.

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