It’s Kaya’s third week back to school after winter break, and she’s already annoyed with me. Let them handle it, my husband says. Builds responsibility. But he leaves for work before Kaya and Blake are even up. I went through the same routine with Blake an hour ago. Soccer jersey, field trip permission slip. Homework, again.
Kaya crams her homework into her backpack, then slings it over her shoulder. I wait with her on the front porch until the school bus pulls up, then pretend to straighten the wicker furniture till she’s safely on the bus, and it lumbers down the street toward the school.
I breathe in the possibilities of a day alone, imagining myself on a tropical beach, my body soothed by the sun like the strokes of an expert masseuse. More likely, I will try to eke out a few paragraphs of my novel. The truth is, I’ve barely written a word in months.
I open the document and reread the first chapter, the words less familiar to me each time I do.
I used to get through writing blocks by wasting time online, reading about “The Bachelor,” what novels made the New York Times bestseller list, which movies had the highest percentages on Rotten Tomatoes. Now all I see are the weather disturbances of a warming planet, children at the border, racial injustice, possible pandemics. It’s hard to focus on a novel when there are so many real things to think about.
I glance at my phone. I’ve wasted an hour. Today’s my day to volunteer at the food pantry so I close my laptop and head downtown.
Marian is there when I arrive, her gray hair wound in a pink scrunchie. She empties boxes of canned soups and vegetables and places them in neat rows on the shelf. We’re the only food pantry for twenty miles, and we’ve been even busier lately due to cuts in the SNAP program.
“Just us today,” she says. “Jo’s daughter went into labor. They’re headed to the hospital.”
“No problem,” I say and look at the clock, a simple black schoolhouse model that’s been there for decades. Forty-five minutes until we open but we’ve done this by ourselves plenty of times before.
Marian points to a large box filled with cereal and pasta. “We’ve got time to make up some bags. That’ll help move things along. How’re the kids?” She stands still, waiting for my reply.
Marian is always in constant motion but she gives her full attention when she’s talking to someone. There’s no doubt she’s really listening.
“Good. Back in school.” I start filling the paper bags with canned beans and jars of tomato sauce with meat or plain for vegetarians, then add boxes of spaghetti, cereal, and day-old bread donated by the bakery on Main Street.
We fill two dozen bags, then stack the empty boxes by the back door.
Marian pours two cups of iced tea from a thermos and hands me one. “And how’re you?”
“Busy with the kids. And the novel.” I slip that in like it’s actually true.
“How’s the book coming along?” She sips her tea, not taking her eyes off me.
I start to say fine, but can’t get the word out. “It’s not,” I tell her, surprising myself. What I don’t say is my mind is so full of the world that it’s impossible.
The room is quiet except for the steady ticking of the old clock.
It’s almost ten but Marian doesn’t look at the clock. She looks at me, like we’ve got all day, like there won’t soon be parents lined up needing to feed their children and seniors on such limited budgets they have to choose between groceries or medication. She puts on the full-length apron she wears to protect her clothes. “Why?”
She won’t let up until I tell her. “There’s too much to worry about. My kids, other people’s kids, the country, the planet. There’s no room in my head for anything else.”
It’s five to ten. I put my apron on too. The pantry will soon be filled with women holding babies; men who look embarrassed, like they came to the wrong place; elderly couples needing help carrying their bags to their cars.
“Takes courage to live in in these times but like they tell you on the airplane: put your own oxygen mask on first. You’ve got to take care of yourself before you can be of help to anyone else.”
It’s ten o’clock. I give Marian a hug and rush to unlock the door, wiping away tears. A line forms outside. I tell everyone to come in and have a seat in the lobby, where Marian has laid out paper cups of iced tea and her homemade chocolate chip cookies. I talk to each family to assess their specific needs, hoping we can fulfill them, no matter how temporarily. Marian takes care of the paperwork. I give each family a bag of food that will hopefully last a week. It’s not much, but it’s something.
The next morning, I clean up the breakfast dishes and wait for Kaya to finish getting ready for school.
“Almost done,” she says.
I stand by the sink drinking my coffee.
“Aren’t you gonna ask if I have my homework?”
“Nope. You’ve got this.”
“Where’d my mom go?”
I wrap my arms around her and she lets me. I hold the door open and follow her out to the front porch.
After the school bus drives away, I sit down on the wicker chair. The first light of morning filters through the trees. I open my laptop and click on the document that contains my novel. As I read, I remember why I started this particular story in the first place. I start to type and I keep going.