Greenwich Origin Story
by Joanna Theiss
The woman in the red coat will become his mother-in-law, but Alex doesn’t know that. He is eight years old. He is an invading army. He is a grinding machine chewing the olive brown village down to mush, toppling the peace that suffocates the playground, the contentment of leaves curling from trees, mothers and nannies snuggled into fur-topped boots and wrapped in printed scarves.
The stick that Alex has found by the trashcan is hard and unpliable, like him. Its shaft is uniform and unnatural. The stick belongs to another planet, the weapon of a comic book ninja.
From her bench, Anya’s silver eyestuff flashes like hailstones as she shouts his name and points to his stick. Anya’s voice is the scuff of sparrow claws, the frivolous titter of mice.
The girl who will become Alex’s wife is crouching in the sandbox, pushing a truck with a gloved hand. Last summer’s sun has faded the plastic cab to a brittle, unicorn pink. Alex doesn’t like that she is in the sandbox. Sandboxes are for summer, and besides, she is big, like him. She should be swinging on the monkey bars, going headfirst down the tallest slide. She should not be waddling through sand.
As he stands on the sandbox’s lip, the girl and the truck crawl towards the bulbous toes of his sneakers. The wheels burrow tracks through the sand, and she is whispering, breathy honks and babyish beeps. Alex closes his left eye, then his right, watching how the girl’s head, crooked part and yellow bow, bounces a few inches with his change in perception.
The idea cuts through him like a commercial break. One hard, sure kick to the center of her forehead. The girl would sprawl backwards, thump into the sand, stare up at trees as bare as science museum skeletons. She would forget the truck.
Realize her mistake.
As if she hears his idea, she looks up, her glove flat against the cab, and Alex pauses, mid-kick, the motion causing him to nearly lose his balance.
When he throws the stick at her laughing mouth, a clumpy red mixture oozes from her chin, like strawberry jelly dribbling from a sandwich. The mixture smears the fingers of her gloves and the front of her fleece.
Phoebe! Oh my God, Phoebe!
From the other side of the playground, the woman is a blaze of red wool. She squats in front of the girl, who is silent, too shocked to cry.
Anya tornadoes at Alex, digging her sharp nails into his collarbones. She thunders about how she told him the stick wasn’t a stick, but a piece of iron, industrial trash, rusted to the brown of something once living. How come he hadn’t heard, why hadn’t he been listening?
What is wrong with him?
No, no, please don’t, his mother-in-law says, holding her scarf to the girl’s chin.
He didn’t do it on purpose.
His mother-in-law will ask Alex to tell the story at every Thanksgiving dinner. He will tell it the same way each time. He will begin with how badly he wanted to play with the little girl in the sandbox. At this part, he will smile at Phoebe, who will sit next to him at his mother-in-law’s table, her knee under his palm. He will tell everyone how pretty she was as a girl.
He will always mention her yellow bow.
During the telling, his mother-in-law will clasp her hands in front of her heart and make contented moans in her throat, shaking her head at the caprices of destiny, the good luck of it all. If Alex and Phoebe hadn’t both been at the playground that afternoon, if Alex hadn’t accidentally dropped the iron bar, Phoebe and Alex never would have met, much less gotten married and had the twins.
His mother-in-law will not ask Phoebe, with her upraised scar and guarded eyes, to tell the story. She will not ask Phoebe to tell the other stories of when Alex decided that Phoebe required correction.
So many stories, accumulating like leaves on a playground in fall.
Joanna Theiss is a freelance author living in Washington, DC. Her publication credits include articles in academic journals and popular magazines, and short fiction in literary journals such as Bending Genres and Barren Magazine. Twitter: @JoannaVTheiss