“I’m a dragon,” my son says to me when I pick him up from his daddy’s house. He’s in his booster seat, and I can see him in the rearview mirror. His skinny arms are held out stiffly in front of him. “Mommy,” he says, drawling out the vowel. Mo-o-o-o- mmy. “I’m a dragon.”
“If you really were a dragon, you wouldn’t have to tell people,” I say. “We’d already know.”
“Well,” I say. “Dragons look like big lizards with wings. They have huge claws and they blow fire out of their mouths. And they have tails.”
“That’s like me. I breathe fire and have a tail and everything. But you didn’t know I was a dragon. You didn’t know.” He chokes up, his cheeks reddening, but he doesn’t cry.
When we get home, I let him have sips of my cola. He burps, loud and long, a rumbling wave of gastric juices. “Fi-i-i-i-re,” he says.
In shop class he makes a pair of cardboard wings. He uses bungee cords to strap the wings around his torso. He wears them to school every day. After a week, the counselor calls, asking for a meeting and his daddy’s phone number. “He’s just being silly,” I tell her. “The wings make him feel special.”
“That’s not the only problem,” the counselor says. “He’s been starting fires. In garbage cans. In the bark dust. In his locker.”
“Why haven’t you called me about this before?” She’s silent and I can feel her thinking, I shouldn’t have
to call. You should know something’s wrong with your son.
We schedule a meeting right then and there and I promise to call his father. But when we meet, everything is my fault and everyone thinks he should go live with his daddy and step-mom. No one’s on my side, not even me. After I tell my son he’s moving in with his daddy, he starts a fire in a wastebasket in my bedroom.
After that, he comes home for the holidays and I let him do whatever he wants. He leaves his wings under his bed. I want to burn them, but I don’t.
When he visits that winter, I pay for fire breathing lessons. I know a guy and it’s an inexpensive Christmas gift. I let my son barbecue every night, even when it snows.
“How’s your daddy?” I ask him. “A dickhead.” I let myself smile. “Oh, I’ve always known that,” I say,
but then my son looks at me, his eyes squinty and sad. “Then why’d you let me go with him?” The question isn’t verbalized, but I hear it anyway. It’s one that lingers between us, as suffocating as a weak cloud of smoke.
He leaves on New Year’s Eve and I don’t see him again for two years.
I have a secret: I’m sick, but he won’t talk to me unless I’m dying. I’m deteriorating, that’s all, my joints crack like
egg shells, held together by thinning skin and inflamed cartilage. I might say something, but I don’t want to tell his daddy. I don’t want pity. Or forgiveness. What I want is to see my son even if he can only look at me with hate and spite and hurt.
His daddy calls in January, tells me the boy’s taken off and is probably headed in my direction. Even though I’m exhausted, even though the arthritis burns my joints, I clean his room. I stock up on his favorite donuts and cereal and chips. But he doesn’t get here for another six months.
It’s July sixth when he shows up. Flags still line the streets, hanging limply in the summer heat. That afternoon, I pull into the driveway and find a lanky, tanned boy sitting under the weeping willow. I walk up to him, my cane tapping sharply against the sidewalk. Up close, his skin is leathery, like an old man who’s worked the fields all his life. His eyes and teeth have yellowed. He’s a stained, older version of my son.
When he holds out his hands, his fingers thicker and straighter than mine, I grab them and pull him close to me.
We walk into the house together. I make him a sandwich and watch him eat every last crumb.
He’s helping me out of the car. “I don’t want to go
inside,” I say. “Let me sit out here, under the willow tree.” He pushes my wheelchair through the lumpy yard, asking me if I’m in any pain.
“No,” I lie, because I just want to sit and not think about being sick, don’t want to bother with pills and painkillers and glasses of water that are too heavy for me to hold.
It’s late and the sun is setting. I can already see the moon and I feel a nickel of hope.
My son tucks a blanket around my legs and says, “When I was cleaning my room, I found something.” He runs inside, leaving me alone in the creeping darkness. My throat is hot and stings. I should have asked him to bring me some water. I should have asked him to stay with me.
He reappears in the doorway illuminated by the porchlight, tiny insects hovering about his head. His cardboard wings — bent and worn — are attached to his back. He steps down from the porch carrying a torch in one hand. He moves quickly, easily, lights the torch and raises it to his face, opening his mouth wide so that a full flame flies from his lips. He breathes fire as he walks around the yard, the flame growing and shrinking, oscillating and hissing like a fiery, flying snake.
I clap for him until my hands swell. My son performs for me throughout the night, and when the sun only hints at rising I know he’ll still be here after the fire burns out.