Everyone's Place

Catherine Campbell

We were all here because it felt like the right time. We were here because the five o'clock smell of brakes pinching and releasing gagged us, and the heavy sighs from our tear-stained children nudged us to the exit, to this parking lot. We were here because of the giant play-space: the tunnels and slides and other things that would help our kids to run themselves exhausted and offer us the slimmest hope of free time this evening to watch a movie or fuck our spouses or whatever we wanted to do for once.

We feigned defeat with a shrug of our shoulders at each other—"What can you do? The kids wouldn't stop! Hahaha!"—but secretly we felt relief in the air conditioning that was on someone else's bill and the promise of food in plenty, truckloads of it, steaming behind metal partitions. For a small sliver of what we were saving for our American dreams our children could shut up and eat all the fries they could with their tiny fingers, the salt catching under their nails. They could pick apart hamburgers and lay them out in neat rows while we, the grown-ups, sorted the pieces of our day that brought us to this moment. We smiled as we held open the doors for each other and then we filtered out into polite lines before the cash registers.

There were others here, too, not just us, but also men with big flaked hands and rough pants and boots, a few homeless people staring at their empty coffee cups, young adolescent girls who came here after school and ordered super-sized meals because they couldn't stop themselves from growing. Their nipples poked through their shirts. We mothers crossed our arms over our own chewed-up breasts and hated them. We looked around for what was ours, still young and vital. Sometimes our children stuck with us and sometimes they disappeared under tables.

My son was a good son, a five year-old boy, and smart enough to read all of the words on the meal signs above him.

"What would you like, sweetie?"

He wanted the usual: six chicken nuggets which he would allow to grow cold, paper packet of fries, two tiny cups of ketchup, and a soda (Sprite Sprite Sprite the kids ordered, a mantra). The toy that would be plucked out of his meal box first, unwrapped by me, and eventually lost in the ball pit.

"Please," my son said at the end of his order.

"Aw, he's so polite!" One of the women behind me put her hands on the shoulder of her own child. "She forgets her manners all the time. You're so lucky!"

"Thank you."

My son stepped forward with me to the register and reached his arms up to the counter.

This was, as it happened every time, what separated us. On this particular day I had dressed him to match my own office wardrobe, and his blue oxford sleeve was wrinkled where he had used the stumpy arm throughout his day to hold a board book, or scratch in vain an itch on his leg. When he reached up, Benny's sleeve fell back to reveal his stump. His right arm started like any of our kids' arms would, with smooth muscles and skin winding down from the shoulder. Little-boy blonde hairs caught in the sunlight. Freckles grouped in constellations. And then his elbow curved slightly so that he could never really bend it in or stretch it out into a straight line. The forearm stopped several inches too short, a pinched end, like a Polish sausage.

"Oh my," the woman behind me gasped.

I pretended not to hear and said to the cashier, "Add a small coffee and apple pie, too, thanks." I handed the money down to Benny, who took it and shoved it with his left hand back up to the teenage boy running the register. Benny smiled. The cashier looked at my son's stump and then at me and he did not smile. He reached over Benny's head with my change.

I held our tray and we made our way through the clear doors into the play-space dining room, an airy place filled with sunlight and little gray tables scattered in postured spontaneity before the enormous indoor play structure. The glass between the play room and the rest of the restaurant was thick, practically soundproof. It was much colder in there and the cold helped stifle the smell of socks near the shoe cubby. We took to our usual table by the window. Benny ran off to the cubby to remove his shoes and play. “Five minutes!” I yelled after him. Sometimes I felt guilty for coming here so often. I should have learned how to cut up potato wedges at home and serve those instead, and with a side of broccoli, while wearing an apron. But I had never done that. I felt tired. We came here because I didn't want to feel tired and alone. Looking around that evening, however, I realized I was the only single person in the room.

To my right there was a family. A young man, who looked very defeated, took half a French fry at a time and chewed it in his mouth. He then gently spit it back onto his fingers and deposited it onto his baby's pink tongue. His washed-out, freckled wife yelled after their older girl: "Quit climbing up the slide! Somebody's gonna come down that thing and knock your teeth out!" She kept one hand at all times on her pregnant bump. A quiet Mexican couple—they were all quiet, all of those couples, with shining black hair and teeth that seemed bigger than their mouths that barely opened—sat close together at the next table, murmuring things I could not understand, but I nodded at them like I understood them anyway, because we were all here doing the same thing, thinking the same thing, weren't we? A few others scattered across two-person tables dressed in office skirts and low-heeled pumps and discount suits, and all of our jackets were unbuttoned. It felt great to slump down and break our diets. We were all doing it. An older couple sat, not talking to each other, but reading their own paperbacks. They had talked a lot already in their lives. Our sweet offspring scurried through the play-space like hamsters, gliding past each other—"Excuse me, excuse me"—and coming down the slide plop, plop, plop before running around and entering the tunnels again. Screams of delight.

At that moment I turned and looked through the clear glass window into the other dining room. What I saw was an act so graceful that I almost didn't catch it. If I had glanced down at my cell phone I may have missed it entirely. But there it was before me, separated by only some glass, a group of three young men, two black and one white, dressed the same with shirts untucked and shoes unlaced, all leaning over as if in a business meeting. I could see their mouths moving. One of them stood with his hand under his shirt, upon his belt buckle and walked to the side door. From my seat, I watched a car pull from the drive-through window up to the side curb and the young white man went outside. A hand held out a folded bill and from underneath his shirt the young man withdrew a bulging envelope. An exchange was made and the car pulled out of the parking lot.

Watching him I was filled with envy. I worked in sales, my workday world confined to a cubicle. Maybe I could be a good drug dealer. Controlled, quiet me. Responsible mother watching her child play, clapping her hands together—"Good job, sweetheart!"—while surreptitiously taping packages to the undersides of these swinging plastic dining chairs and swiping pick-up cash from a corner booth. I could do this, and still sleep in on weekends. I would need a back-up plan for the health insurance, the 401k could rollover, but my math skills just weren't up to date. This guy could probably make change, if needed, without thinking. In the time it would take me to re-weigh a bag, or carry the "1," or mistake a gram for an ounce, I would be shot.

He was looking straight at me.

Two of his friends saw him staring through the glass window into the play space and turned their heads toward me. I quickly glanced downward, focused on the food tray paper. I didn't know for sure if they were still staring at me. Then I looked up at the top of the play tunnels, searching for my son's crawling body. "Benny! We're going to finish up soon, honey!"

My son didn't hear me in the din. His green shirt flashed between the peep holes of the tunnel. There were four other children with him. They appeared to be chasing each other very closely, back and forth, through their sanctuary of primary colors, a second padded home where they became brothers and sisters for a short time. I busied myself with our food, choking through my apple pie since my coffee was long gone, and after a few minutes I moved my face very slowly and slightly toward the window and out of the corner of my eye searched the table where the young men still sat. None of them were looking in my direction. I relaxed a little.

“Hey, Benny!” I called out.

Benny climbed down from one of the ladders and ran up to our seats. He grabbed a chicken nugget and zoomed it close to my mouth, then boomeranged the piece of meat into the dark of his own jaws. My coffee was coursing through me. “Honey,” I said. “I'm going to run to the bathroom, I'll be right back. Okay?”

“Okay!” He took off again.

He would be fine for a minute. I walked out of the play space and down the hall to the ladies' room.


I should have known enough to walk away, five years ago, when my fiance had slammed his fist down and said, “There will be no God at our wedding!” It was the first time he slammed his fist upon the table. I should have known then. But I walked my white Episcopalian ass down the aisle anyway, which wasn't an aisle but a strip of freshly-mowed backyard grass in the merry month of May. I don't remember what our ceremony was about, the language itself so vague and meek, except for a poem about two trees my sister had read to us, and of course the vows we made for each other. We were to be the greatest work of each other's lives. There was no “'til death do us part” because Jimmy didn't like the idea of death mentioned at a wedding, and I didn't like the idea of being a single mother, our child already six months formed inside of me.

Jimmy was a chef. While I was pregnant he made little dishes throughout the day, knowing I could only eat a serving at a time. Dainty bowls of chowder with crackers fanned out upon a tea saucer. Crudite with tangy dips. Chunks of watermelon, drizzled with honey and mint. A tiny pork chop with three mushrooms piled on top. Plating was very important to Jimmy. Presentation had to be perfect. “The outward appearance is all that really matters when it comes to food,” he once said. He was quoting from a book then. He read a lot of books on food, and we spent our nights with me watching television and him dog-earing a page in a cookbook or a chef's memoir or the history of tea. He hated fast food. We were not allowed to buy it.

“What the hell am I even doing here if I can't do what's best for you?” he had said.

I quickly learned to keep the car clean of any hamburger smells or straw wrappers if I stopped somewhere during my lunch hour. I worked in my office—it was a different office at that time, I was an administrative assistant—up until the day I went into labor. Jimmy was disappointed when I abandoned our breathing techniques halfway through delivery. When they laid Benny's head upon my chest Jimmy thrust his face into the little infant's face.

“Here I am,” he said low, eyes locked on Benny's. “I'm your daddy.” Then he let our son look at me. Jimmy stared at Benny's stump, didn't touch it until it was wiped clean by a nurse.

It was the repetition that began to wear thin. Make eggs like this. Fold the laundry this way. Weed the bushes in this manner. I never did it right, although the ending was the same I thought, the process wasn't right according to Jimmy and the presentation of the end results would never satisfy. We stopped having sex sometime in October.

And then, on Thanksgiving Day, in front of five other people at a table set originally for twenty, we exploded at one another. Jimmy had prepared a feast for our friends, many of whom decided just to stay home and order in Chinese at the last minute, and I had sat politely at the table with our few guests, sipping wine and pushing gorgeous dishes around on trivets until they were equally spaced. Jimmy had just hung up with another apologetic guest. “Fuck!” he yelled. He picked up the pork loin with his bare hands, its brown-sugar-and-pepper-glaze dripping through his fingers, fumbled open the back door and tossed the pork loin into the yard. I didn't notice until after the wine was spilled and the bowl holding sweet potatoes was shattered on the floor that our guests had left, and Benny pierced our ragged battle with his own cries, waking from his nap. The following March I scooped up our baby and left. It was a ten-month marriage in which I learned how to cook properly and never did. I never met anyone else. We didn't need anyone else, Benny and I.


I was just about to go into the stall when the bathroom door swung open. The young man jumped in, grabbing me by the arm. He pulled me around, shoved me hard up against the door. My body blocked it closed. I shut my eyes. I wanted to play dead. The D-shaped handle dug into my back so I squirmed to the right a little so I would at least get pinned to a flat surface. His arm heavy against my chest. I tried to breathe, wheezing and spittling until I found myself crying in that uncontrollable, embarrassing way, the way I did if a cop pulled me over for speeding.

"Bitch you didn't see nothin'! You didn't see nothin'!" he hissed it loudly into the side of my neck and for the first time in years I wished I had never left my husband, that his broad-shouldered, controlling nature was here, noticing my absence like he had never noticed before. Maybe none of this would be happening. I opened my eyes. The tiles on the wall were brown and cream.

"Bitch! You heard me?" He grabbed my face with his free hand and pushed harder against my chest. His eyes were red-rimmed. Mine must have looked the same. His skin was so smooth, the pores invisible, but it looked very dry, unlike Benny's, which was always smooth and firm and moisturized because he was still a tiny version of a man , and I thought, I'm going to die and I'm going to look awful. Snot was dripping out of my nose and I couldn't wipe it off.

"Yes," I breathed into his face. Dull coffee breath, crying, sniffing hard. My throat burned. "I didn't see anything. I swear."

He reared back a hand and slapped it against the wall beside my face. His arm lightened off my chest, he pushed me aside, and was gone.

At that moment everything was quieter than it had been in a long time. All the sounds of the past four years: yelling shrill and bass over each other, the car coming to a stop in front of daycare, the early morning radio, the wailing late at night on the bathroom floor, vowel jibberish from a tiny body, my working hum of an office and phones ringing, automatic replies, metallic jingle of a quarter caught in the dryer's tumble. I slipped off my heels to keep the quiet preciously my own. I stepped to the sink. Slowly I brought my eyes to the reflection in the mirror. I was still here. We were all still here. It was only five-thirty, and across the town people were making hundreds of decisions. What to eat. How to live. My face looked like shit. I gently went to work pushing everything into place and wiping my makeup off with my fingers.

The young man and his friends were gone. An empty table. When I returned to the play room, the place was in an uproar. Wailing children curled up on parents' laps. Several adults snapped their heads in my direction. A sharp stench of vomit. I looked around until I saw a small puddle in the floor. And Benny, sitting very still at our table, chewing on a straw like a wise old man who was thinking very hard.

I kneeled down in front of him. “Sweetie, is everything okay?”

He looked at me and continued chewing on his straw.

“Did you get sick?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It was that kid.” He pointed over my shoulder to one of the boys he had been chasing earlier in the tunnels. The boy now sat weeping and turned in toward his father's chest, ashamed. The mother saw me, stood and walked over to us.

“I'm not sure exactly what happened, but your son freaked out a lot of kids here,” she said. She was a woman who had a nice manicure and ran her fingernails back and forth across her palms as she spoke. I tried to focus.

“I don't understand. What did he do?”

She glanced back at her husband for reinforcement, then turned back to me. “My son said that your son said his arm was torn off in the ball pit.”

There were other parents watching us now. The Mexican couple held hands at their seats next to where we stood.

“He said what?”

“He said a monster tore his arm off in the ball pit, and that's why he doesn't have an arm. He scared all the kids. My son just ate.”

“Oh my God,” I shook my head. “I am so sorry.”

“I'm not going to tell you how to parent,” she said. “But, if it was my kid—”

“No, I'll take care of it. We were just leaving.”

Benny had the straw out of his mouth when I returned to our table. I bit my lip hard. No crying in front of them. In front of him.

“Mom, they were grabbing it! They wouldn't let go of my stump arm!”

“Didn't you tell them to let go? Give you some space?” We had practiced this many times, starting in preschool: our terms of autonomy.

“They wanted to know why I was like this. They wouldn't let me play chase until I told them.”

“So that's what you told them? A monster chewed off your arm?”

He looked sullen. “It did.”

I reached for my bag, dumping everything into it, including Benny's unfinished fries, where I knew in the back of my mind that the salt and grease would stain this two-paycheck purse, I knew it dimly and kept going. “Come on,” I said and took my son gently by his stump.

“Am I in trouble?”

“No, baby. You're fine. We're fine.”

The exit door was heavy as we pushed out of the place where everyone was trying to come in. We were back in our car in a few easy strides, I in my seat and Benny in my rearview mirror, with a face that would in a few years trick me that I was living with his father again. I heard the click as he buckled himself in: my boy with one arm and his own fairy tales about how things changed in the places we knew, how any one of us could be singled out in the deep, and bits of us chewed off until we didn't recognize ourselves, only the recoveries we thought we could make.

Catherine Campbell

Catherine Campbell's stories appear in PANK Magazine, Matchbook Literary Magazine and the Other Room Journal. She attends the Queens University MFA Creative Writing program and resides in Asheville, North Carolina. You can find her on Twitter here: @bookish_type.