His mother glided past the TV. One minute, Mary Tyler Moore was there, then a silhouette of his mother’s plump body. Her nightgowns were blue and thin; they seemed made not of fabric, but of smell: a warm, sweet odor of cold cream and sweat and flesh. She raised the stiff bedcovers and settled herself next to him.
“I still don’t see why we can’t go,” he said.
“Please, honey.” His mother lay her hand across her forehead and shut her eyes. “We’ve been over this a thousand times.”
“If daddy was here, we’d go.” Hugh said this not because he believed it, but to nettle her. “Everything was better when daddy was around. We didn’t drive all day and see boring things and stay in crummy motels. We were normal.”
His mother shielded her eyes. “The sun was brighter, the sky bluer, and you never had to go to school.”
“We floated through life on a pink perfumed cloud.”
Hugh laughed, but his throat ached, as it did when he cried.
“A pink perfumed cloud,” his mother said, glancing at him, tweaking his armpit.
Laughing, he squirmed away from her. It didn’t feel like it used to, when they had sat on her bed, eating animal crackers and watching TV, waiting for his father. Then, tickling had been a kind of relief. Now, it felt as if his mother were trying to make him believe he was happy. She noodled his ribs, and he batted her hands away.
“Honey,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“I told you.”
“Do you really want to go?”
“I told you,” he said, hiding his face from her.
Ploughshares, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter 2001-02); Recommended Story in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003; cited in The Best American Short Stories 2002; Pushcart Prize XXVII nominee.