By: Mary O’Connell
Mortimer’s Magnificent Monday
It was my husband’s idea to make Mortimer both an omniscient narrator and a tender hooligan who drinks bourbon and frequents the Gentlemen’s Club by the interstate. I preferred a brooding Mortimer writing bitter, aspirational entries by the light of the moon: Dear Reader, Cursed be the maniacal God that made me a plush toy! Ah, Mortimer! Ah, humanity! Etc.
Mortimer is a toffee-colored teddy bear, the former star of a preschool literacy project called Book, Bear, and Basket. Each week a child in my son’s class took Mortimer home in an old rattan Easter basket and recorded his adventures in a loose-leaf notebook. The pages were preprinted with inane headings for each day of the week, and some freakshow parent with a flair for jaggedy, haunted house calligraphy had written The Mortimer Chronicles on the cover. The teacher sent the book, bear, and basket home with the preschool kids in alphabetical order. Our son Logan didn’t get his turn until late March, so we, the Wyckoffs, had many entries to enjoy.
Today Mortimer and Jonah folded used aluminum foil into shiny origami dinosaurs! At naptime, Jonah made a blanket for Mortimer out of an old cloth diaper; Mortimer really enjoyed the feel of recycled, organic cotton next to his fur. After a quick hibernation, Mortimer woke and helped Jonah and Jonah’s mommy make tuna casseroles to take to the homeless shelter. The delicious smells coming from the oven made Mortimer bear-y hungry! The Parmesan cheese bubbled to the top in the shape of a cross; Jonah’s mommy thought that might be because we were doing the work of the Lord. The Less Fortunate members of our community will soon have some yummy in their tummy! Oh, and we also read tons of books! A kidlitpalooza! When Mortimer asked why we read so much, we told him that it was because the Hinkle family chooses NOT to have a TV; big, big blessings everyone!
“Super-size my blessings, Jesus!” my husband hooted, dropping the Merchant Ivory accent he’d used for his dramatic reading.
It was Monday night and Logan was already asleep. Technically, my husband was helping fold the laundry, but he was taking extraordinarily long pauses to read from The Mortimer Chronicles; I had folded ten washcloths to his one. Mortimer was squashed beneath a couch cushion, his head poking out.
“Check it out,” my husband read. “Today I went to a peace rally at Pilgrim Park. I do not understand war, and sometimes I, Mortimer, wonder what is wrong with human beings.”
He put the back of his hand to his forehead, stricken. “Sometimes, I, Greg, wonder why each and every preschool parent has to be such a total cliché.”
“So says the editor who keeps alerting us to grammatical mistakes,” I stage-whispered to Mortimer.
“Here’s a good subtitle: Tales of White Privilege. Also, I’m seeing a lot of viewpoint confusion. Is Mortimer or the child supposed to tell the story?”
“Obviously, the parents are writing from the viewpoint of the bear.”
My husband held out his hands to me, palms up, as if about to offer some great gift. “I nominate you to be our unreliable narrator!”
“There’s a surprise.” Already I had the image of Greg kicked back on the couch watching Steven Colbert next to an unfolded basket of laundry while I labored over writing this inane bullshit at the kitchen table. I certainly did not pause to consider my husband’s corporeal tenderness: his bony feet propped on the ottoman, his hands rubbing his face, the prickle and scritch of fingernails against a five o’clock shadow.
He cleared his throat dramatically and read: “Today, Mortimer and I skipped the art museum and went to the biannual Nordstrom’s shoe sale! I bought some hot pink Ugg boots! Mortimer said, ‘Lila, those boots will look oh so stylin’ with your Lily Pulitzer watercolor dress—’”
“—Like, oh my God!” I gave up the ghost of resentment; I stuck out my chest and flipped my hair. “I so totally thought these were The Mortimer Chronicles, not Chicken Soup for the Soul of Sorority Bimbo Mommies from Hell.”
My husband flipped the page. “As Sid Vicious once said, now for something in an entirely different vein: Pippa enjoyed a sublime afternoon with Mortimer, playing violin and tromping through the apple orchard. And, then, Pippa, named not, as most assume, for Pippi Longstocking, but for Pippa in the Robert Burns poem—“
“Pippa! There’s nothing especially poetic about that creepy little whiner in Van Gogh barrettes, and her mom’s this wheatgrass-and-Pilates crackpot who wears a T-shirt that says Mother by Choice.”
“And yet, Pippa’s mother, the mother by choice, has sent forth the muse. Tonight I will take over the Chronicles; tonight I shall be the scribe!” He gave up the ruse of folding laundry and settled back on the couch to write, chuckling, and later completely cracking up, here and there, as he read it to me:
“Dear Reader, Logan was not named, as most assume, for the venerable Boston airport, but for the brilliant purple pancake syrup at IHOP called ‘Loganberry.’ Logan (henceforth referred to as Loganberry) had a delightful day with Mortimer, blah, blah, blah, but now that young Loganberry has retired to his chambers for the evening, it is time for Loganberry’s parents to, in the immortal words of Missy Elliot, ‘ Get their freak on.’
Mortimer’s Terrific Tuesday
Today we had an unexpected guest! Time for a tea party with mugs of milk and boysenberry muffins!
Ode to the sweetly mundane: Greg worked on the taxes and I took Logan downtown for a treat. Clouds of whipped cream topped off our hot chocolates; tiny dark chocolate stars dusted the saucers. Bliss, bliss, bliss. We listened to the Smiths on the drive home, that ancient, dreamy magic of the sharp-chinned and sensitive Morrissey before he turned into a sweaty old racist: “Ignore all the codes of the day; let your juvenile impulses sway.” Greg loved to mock all the forty-something hipsters with their Smiths gear and tragic lack of self-awareness: “Slap on a MAGA hat with your Hatful of Hollow hoodie, and you, my aged friends, are good to go.” But I had once loved Morrissey like a brother—I have no actual brother—and was a bit more sanguine. “‘Nothing gold can stay,’” I always told my husband, as if Robert Frost had specifically predicted Morrissey’s anti-immigration screeds.
Logan and I were still a half block from home when I saw my husband pacing inside our lit garage.
When I pulled into the driveway, he yelled, “Call Michelle!”
I rolled down my window. “Michelle?”
“Michelle!” He flung his hands in the air, disgusted. “Jesus!”
Logan leaned forward in his car seat. “Michelle Jesus?”
“But I don’t know any Michelles,” I said.
“You pretty much have to know a Michelle. Because her son is having an asthma attack, and she’s on her way over here to borrow fifty bucks for an inhaler.”
When I unbuckled Logan’s car seat straps, I remembered. Oh, yes. Michelle was a woman in the Beethoven Babies class I’d taken with Logan when he was not yet a year old. The class attracted the stereotypes who enroll their infants in educational classes: elderly mothers (see also: Logan’s mom), hippie chicks who carried their babies in cloth slings, suburbanites with Kate Spade diaper bags, and groovy young mamas with their ironical glances and extensive body art. And then there was Michelle. She smelled a little smoky and her son wore rompers patterned with monster trucks and American flags. But because I am forever on the lookout for the Lonely One, and because I refuse to pick my mom-friends based on the allegedly nonexistent American class system, I didn’t snub Michelle. I had been to Michelle’s house for a play date: she served homemade ginger snaps and there was a vase of fresh pink roses on the kitchen table, but she also had a jittery, loud husband who, at eleven o’clock on a weekday morning, was gorging on Kraft caramels and watching Judge Judy.
I hadn’t seen her in over three years, but in minutes there she was, knock-knock-knocking on the back door, blonde and cat-eyed and skinny. She was nice enough, quick to tousle Logan’s hair. “Hi there, punkin’ pie.” But Michelle’s own asthmatic son was not with her. My husband and I exchanged a nervous, neutral smile: Was the little guy chilling at home? Wheezing on his own? Mortimer, perched in his basket on top of the refrigerator, looked askance: This is bearrrry peculiar, people! And because we never seemed to have any actual money in the house—nary a greenback!—it was decided that my husband would drive behind Michelle to the ATM and withdraw fifty dollars from our account.
So Logan and I waited at home. I gave him a bubble bath while Mortimer watched from the towel rack, and then we popped popcorn and cozied up on the couch to write our entry. When I bit down on a hull and cracked an old silver filling, I thought, Fifty bucks, come back!
Tonight I went to a café with Logan and his mommy. The stars were out—real ones in the sky and in chocolate sprinkle stars in our hot chocolate! If happiness is warmth, then I am blazing. Mr. Mortimer is on fire, people!
I had mocked the other entries, so it seemed only right to give the Yus and the Zimmermans some enjoyment.
“Don’t forget about Michelle,” Logan said sternly. He looked very schoolmarmish in his chenille bathrobe. “That was part of our day, too. She was nice. She called me pie.”
And so, I started over in a wavering hand—a very eighteenth-century pen-and-parchment look—telling my tale of our delightful visit with an unexpected guest.
Mortimer’s Wacky, Wonderful Wednesday
“I didn’t even know her husband was with her until I was at the ATM punching in my code and I saw a tiny dragon head reflected in the Quik Cash screen. It was an iguana! The goddamn iguana was riding on her husband’s shoulder like a pirate’s parrot.”
The previous night my husband had arrived home too grouchy about his induction into “The First National Bank of Greg” to tell me about his little adventure, but now he was sweet Chatty Cathy with plasticine morning breath from his Invisalign. Logan was snuggled between us in bed, snoring softly, snoring beautifully, really—the heavy, honeyed breathing of the archangels.
“And the iguana was yawning! A slow-motion yawn, his jaw opening millimeter by millimeter. Her husband scratched the iguana under its scaly, iridescent chin and said, ‘Ivana Iguana is sleepy. She needs to start gettin’ to bed a little earlier.’”
“Poor Ivana Iguana! Did she even mention the whereabouts of her asthmatic child? I can’t remember his name—“
“Mama Bear?” Logan’s eyes were still shut, his froggy breath on my cheek.
“Good morning, my sweet boy!” Had anyone else ever loved me so dearly?
Well, yes. Someone had.
Logan said, “Papa Bear?”
Greg snuggled close to our son. “Baby bear,” he said, and then reached for me. We held hands over our curled-up son. Oh, that lost triune joy before showers and breakfast and hey, where’s my dinosaur folder and hey, I thought you were going to buy half-and-half, and hey, let’s go, let’s get moving, look at the clock.
Greg and I traded e-mails and calls all day, sharing free advice from friends and co-workers. The verdict was in: We had probably not helped an asthmatic child, but “enabled”—Aargh! The elbowy, new-age poison of those three syllables!—an adult with an addiction problem. Everyone was in clever agreement that they would not have given Michelle cash; they would have called her bluff by saying, ”Meet you at the pharmacy.”
But what did my husband and I know of addiction? In college our bliss was drinking black and tans and dissecting Bill Callahan’s lyrics; as adults we worked for a university press and enjoyed public TV. And my personal “Just Say No” piece de resistance? I’d been suckered by the revival natural childbirth movement and birthed Logan drug-free in a zinc tub at the Women’s Center.
Wednesday’s chronicle looked a bit drug-addled, though: My husband took another turn and wrote it in swollen, circular letters. He used pastel felt-tips, matte and sweet. His words were Jordan almonds.
Here’s a bon mot from my play pal Polonious Panda: Neither a borrower nor a lender be! Unfortunately, Logan’s mommy and daddy do not follow this wise counsel. But, hey, if old Mortimer bear ever needs fifty bucks for heroin or girlie magazines, he knows where to get it! Wheeze, wheeze! Meet you at the pharmacy!
Mortimer’s Thrilling Thursday
It was early morning, the sky dark-dove gray, when Michelle called, wanting another fifty dollars. My husband stammered, “Um, well, huh, that’s …” and then offered up his panicked wax-museum smile when he mouthed the words, “It’s her!”
I took the phone from him and whispered, “Michelle?”
“Hi sweetie! Thanks for picking up the phone! I didn’t want to just pop over—”
“What?” I looked at the digital clock: 5:17. Outside, the newspaper delivery van revved up the street, headlights blasting our bedroom window.
“Listen, angel, I know it’s late, but I’m going to need another fifty dollars for groceries and, um …” She paused as if choosing the perfect word, and then sang it out, her voice canary-sweet and slicing the syllables. “Pet-ro-le-um.”
I stumbled out of bed with the phone in my hand and went downstairs to pace around the living room. “Look, Michelle, I want to be nice about this but—”
“—Because I’ll sign an I.O.U. I am more than happy to sign an I.O.U.”
“That’s okay. I mean, Michelle, this is actually kind of unusual, you asking for money, because we just had that one class together—I mean, I totally enjoyed that, we totally hit it off—but my husband and I can’t just hand out money, because we live on a tight budget—”
Michelle let out a constellation of tense giggles. “Heh, heh, heh! Is that why you have a Mercedes SUV? Heh, heh, heh! Because of your tight budget and all?”
I looked out the living-room window. The van I’d heard was not the orange newspaper delivery van, but an old white van idling in front of our house. I did not tell Michelle that it wasn’t a Mercedes she was seeing in our driveway, that our SUV was actually a Subaru Ascent. Softly, I hung up the phone.
It certainly makes for a long, melancholy day when one rises too early! I was up with the chickens and this stuffed bear is one tired cookie. How I would love to hibernate with my family, to empty my mind of all sorrows, both present and looming, and fall into the dark, sweet safety of sleep.
The sun rose, dolling up the house with pale lavender light. My husband and I ate breakfast and had the mother of all whisper-fights.
“You’re always too nice to people,” he hissed. “It makes you a freak magnet. It’s fine to be a one-with-the-people Walt Whitman–type when you’re childless, but snobbery is a good thing when you’re responsible for another human being. I can’t believe you ever took Logan to their house.”
“Responsible for another human being, right! It was a play date when he was a baby! He was in my arms the whole time. And you’re the one that drove to the ATM to get her the money.”
He wolfishly went at his Nutri-Grain Eggos, lowering his face to the plate. Eventually I heard a guttural, syrupy, “Whatfuckingever.”
“Because,” I said, “we both thought we were helping a child with asthma, do you recall?” I jammed in a bite of waffle and was about to say, Furthermore, you’re the one who fell in love with the Subaru Ascent in black cherry with charcoal interior.
But then Logan raced into the kitchen in his space ship pajamas, holding Mortimer by the leg. “Waffles? Yum!”
Mortimer’s Freaky Friday
Logan was in his car seat, listing off his dinner requests. “Sausage and eggs. No, fish sticks and chicken nuggets. No, what I want is hot dogs. Hot dogs, mama!”
The road was bumpy, crumbling red brick; when I glanced in the rearview mirror, I saw Little Lord Atkin’s curls bobbing along—Oh, Logan’s spring-shine dark locks!
I was thinking of my son’s hair when I looked at my smiley-faced self in the rearview mirror. The last few seconds of my old life were spent noting the flesh-cross of wrinkles between my eyebrows—how it looked like the jaunty little x in Botox, and I was thinking that I should stop plucking and disguise it with my junior high unibrow, and I was also remembering that it was my night to cook, wondering if I could get away with grocery store hot dogs or if I’d need to make a special trip to the Health Mart for Soy Pups and whole-grain buns—Greg was always such a weenie about a proper, organic dinner. And so there I was, turning onto our street, thinking about the pink-skinned palette of easy dinners—Soy Pups vs. Oscar Meyer—when Logan said, “Mommy? Mommy! Look at our house! Why is the door open? Why is the door open? Why? Mom?”
I went with Logan and his mommy to Vallano’s Pizzeria and ate scrumptious sausage pizza. We colored our dinosaur menus with waxy crayons and drank mug after mug of frosty cold root beer. The owner even plugged in the dusty old player piano so Logan and I could watch the piano keys moving all by themselves: Magic! We heard a rueful rendition of “Greensleeves” and then snapped to attention for “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Next, Logan’s mom said we could order dessert. Well, say a triumphant hello to Spumoni ice cream!
It was not in my husband’s nature to forget to lock a door. I stayed in the car with Logan and called the police on my cell phone. The dispatcher offered up increasingly absurd suggestions: “Has the wind perhaps blown open the door? Maybe one of the neighbor’s dogs nosed the door open? Did your husband go for a drink after work?”
“No, no, no,” I said, frantically daydreaming an entirely different husband, a rakish day trader buying White Russians for rummy blondes at the Jet Lag Lounge. Thinking me shrewish and paranoid, the dispatcher finally agreed to radio a call for the police to check our house. And then I drove to the pizza parlor.
Soon enough this would make me sound pretty bad: Was I really so hungry for pizza just then? The two detectives who questioned me later thought I might be the One. (They were not, incidentally, the chubby cop/foxy cop combo of TV reruns. Through the haze of my fresh shock, I thought, Bring me Jimmy Smits.) I explained that, when I couldn’t reach my husband at work or on his cell phone, I wanted to do something normal to calm myself.
And so, to Logan’s delight, we spent three hours at Vallano’s, joking around with the elderly waitstaff in their dandruff-dusted polyester tuxedoes, mowing down sausage pizza and spumoni ice cream, and quite purposefully omitted from the chronicle, also eating pastel bouffants of cotton candy and turtle cheesecake. I told the detectives that I left out the multiple desserts because I didn’t want to alarm Logan’s know-it-all teacher with my nutritional laxity. (The detectives exchanged a wary look that I found unprofessional.)
I turned my phone off; I wasn’t ready for an official update.
And yet I knew that I was leaving my old world behind: community potlucks and Montessori-school fundraisers and the League of Women Voters and all my shimmering, cruelty-free lipsticks. Soon I would care about nothing but Logan. Like the sickly bright refrain of an old Abba song, “I knew, I knew, I knew.” I did not spend the evening at the pizza parlor in purgatorial hopefulness. Already I was at the helm of the ship with my stomach full of stones. All I could do was hold my little boy’s hand and watch the shore disappear: Goodbye! Love you! Right from the start, I loved you! Living at the dorm—a Post-it note stuck on my door: Do you want to study later? It’s cool if you don’t. Whatever, Greg. I loved you loved you loved you loved you.
I already knew—not completely, not yet—that my shocked sorrow was not temporary or anecdotal, but in fact the stark and shitty landscape of the New World.
The fake flicker of electric candles lit up Logan’s face while he looped around the player piano singing, “‘Yankee Doodle went to London just to buy a pony. I am that Yankee Doodle Boy!’”
Mortimer’s Super Saturday
Simile is a crock of shit. Metaphor is pointless.
My husband’s murder was a sort of miracle, the horrifying opposite of the happiest day of my life: Logan’s birth. I spent the hours staring at my baby’s turnipy face and thinking, Today is Wednesday. On Tuesday, Logan did not exist in the world. And now he is in the world. Here he is in my arms. Happiness rose in my heart then, a Technicolor swell of lilacs, sweetness distilling and expanding with each of my baby’s soft breaths.
My husband was eating frosted brownies with his co-workers when he laughed at a joke and upended his dessert plate, staining his pants. He was home changing clothes when Michelle and her husband broke into our house through a basement window. They confessed to driving him to the ATM, where he withdrew two thousand dollars because, as Michelle would say in court, “We asked him to. He was really nice about it.”
They drove my husband out to the country.
My husband always hated the sound of gravel crunching under the tires, and I thought this terribly persnickety of him, although now it seems like pure premonition. Michelle, or perhaps her husband (which one? They have turned against each other. Surprise.), shot my husband and left him in a soybean field. Then Michelle and her husband drove on to an acquaintance’s house to buy more crystal meth. The acquaintance’s name was Destiny Frankenstein. (In court, the last syllable was, to my disappointment, pronounced with a long e.). I also learned a few things about Michelle’s life. She’d started out like me, a basic girl from the suburbs, before bad things happened to her and she sought escape in synthetic pleasure. She had been somebody’s baby once upon a time—somebody’s hurt little girl in pigtails swinging a lunchbox—before she became the agent of my husband’s doom. I worried that juror number nine, a young-looking twenty-one-year-old wearing a Jonas Brothers T-shirt and cut-offs, would feel a burst of sympathy for Michelle—as I had—and hang the jury, but Michelle was found guilty.
In any case, that knowledge belonged to the future. Saturday was the Day After, with the harshly apocalyptic horror of telling Logan, with a parked patrol car leaking oil Rorschach hearts on the driveway, with Mother Nature—the leafy super-bitch—not showing her respect, not showering us with blustery gray rain. Saturday was clear and lovely. Fresh. Sunshine from the kitchen window lit up the Granny Smith skins in the recycling tub next to the kitchen sink—ahhhh!—but lodged next to the tart and chartreuse brilliance of old apples was a baseball-sized wad of lint. My husband was an ardent recycler and stripped the lint trap of the clothes dryer daily. Because he knew this lint recycling made me want to stab myself, he did it on the sly, balling the lint in his fist—an eco-rat with his cheese. I dreamed up a postmortem greeting card embossed with swirled golden letters: Kudos on saving the lint!
I hadn’t slept on Friday night, and planned to keep a vigil on Saturday night and every night thereafter, believing sleeping would be disloyal to My Guy, as if I were a bouffanted Ronette and my husband a dozy Christ who might be resurrected by my fatigue. But Logan and I spent the night at my parents’ house, and my mother gave me two Valium. The first tablet left me in twilight hysteria, shocking myself over and over, sleeping for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch only to wake and not remember why I was in my childhood bedroom with my son in the canopied twin bed next to me, his arm curled around Mortimer Bear. Hey but, where’s… Hey, but where’s…
And so, I crunched up the other Valium. And then I fell and fell and fell into the slow-jawed yawn of the iguana.
Mortimer’s Sunny Sunday
More fun in the new world: I did not think to pull the college student manning the children’s department at Dillard’s aside and whisper the reason my son needed a suit, and so he asked Logan, “Whatcha gettin’ all duded up for, little man?” And in the dressing room, Logan clutched Mortimer and studied himself in the mirror—the pin-striped suit made him look like a beauteous shrunken stockbroker—and said, “Mommy, do we have to give Mortimer back, too?”
The fluorescent lights tinted the half-moons beneath our eyes a pale, Martian blue. From the speakers in the ceiling came the haunted, skinny voice of Karen Carpenter, singing, “We’ve only just begun.” I remembered the drunken freshman night I met my future husband, how he’d said, “You look like the lead singer of Bikini Kill,” and how my heart floated right up.
My thoughts were a blur of come back to me, but I was the adult; I was in charge. So, I squatted down and kissed my son on the nose. “We’ll never lose Mortimer,” I cooed, by way of ineffective consolation.
“Yes, we will,” Logan said, pulling away. “Kendall Yu gets to take him home next week. It’s her turn.”
“Kendall is not taking Mortimer,” I said. Because, really, the world pretty much owed us a teddy bear. “Kendall will want you to keep Mortimer. Mortimer belongs to you now.”
“Really, Mom? Forever?”
I rebounded that magical word and shot it back to him with a fulsome smile, as if—there now!—our lives were sweetly settled, as if I were wearing a reindeer sweater and slicing pumpkin bread, fresh snow speckling the kitchen windows.
“And the basket?”
“Sure, the basket! Of course!”
“And the book?”
“Yours, baby. It’s all for you.”
And then I started swallowing all my ragged tears and Logan whispered, “You’re okay, honey. You’re okay.”
That night in his sleep, Logan said, “Dad!” with the brightest, warmest relief, then fell back into his agony of see-saw snoring.
I held him in my arms while I wrote a final entry in the Mortimer Chronicles:
Dear Reader, It must be acknowledged that Logan’s parents had a baby primarily for aesthetic reasons: they were getting old, forty almost, and feared becoming the childless couple with the folk art collection and NPR tote bags. Additionally, they saw the people yelling at their children at Pizza Hut and knew they could do a far better job. It was easy to imagine the longing looks they would get from the general public when they strolled their baby down the street, for their future parental selves would be soft-spoken and intelligent, kind and slim. Such crappy people deserve a bratty little Britannica Junior, but instead they got the sunshine miracle of Logan. One night when baby Logan was only a few days old, his mommy woke to find his daddy at the window. He looked radiantly happy standing there in the silver-blue moonlight, holding his baby.
My Dearest Reader, this is where we found our surprise happy ending: with you, Logan, with your baby face an open moonflower reflected in the windowpane, with Dad stripped of all his sour fears of sentimentality, stripped clean of his ironical composure, saying, “This must be heaven.”
Mary O’Connell has published a short story collection, Living with Saints, and two YA novels, The Sharp Time and Dear Reader. Her most recent essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Lit Hub and Longreads, and her short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines. Her essay Writing the Monsignor (Longreads) was selected as a notable essay in the 2018 Best American Essays collection, and her short story Limbo! Limbo! (Idaho Review) received special mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and lives in Lawrence, Kansas.