Jan/Feb 2008  •   Fiction


by Caroline Kepnes

Photo-art by Steve Wing

Photo-art by Steve Wing

You are not the only divorcee in her 40s who sits alone with her #1 son pretending to be content. You are common. Son is common; a teenage boy with acne who lives for videogames. Son sits in same spot on couch stabbing fingers at joystick while staring at fake blood baths on TV. You sit behind him and read the warnings on the Accutane bottle. Accutane lives in the downstairs bathroom. His bathroom. All son has to do is open bottle once a day and take pill. Son won't open bottle. Son won't take pill. Son won't save his skin. Son says it is a pain. Son says he is busy. Son says to leave him alone. Want to strangle son. Tear into his mottled skin and shove it before his eyes and show him. See, you are foul!

Bad mom. Look down. Press bottle into table. Boys with pimples jerk off too much and don't do homework and hide away in their fake blood baths. Cannot tell that to son; would be cruelty that might put him away forever. Breathe. Find good mom voice. Happy mom. "Andy, the drug only works if it gets the chance to build up in your system. And you're lucky to have it. They didn't have anything this good when I was your age. Andy?"

Clutch the Accutane. Yearn for son to put down joystick and ask a question. How did you and Dad meet, Mom? What did you do? Where did you live? Why did you move here? Who were you before me? No. Son plays his game. Damn game. Damn son.

"Shit." Warrior collapses on TV screen. Limbs abound, blood, too. Son is bad at game, can't even do that. Bad mom. It's just a stupid game; it means nothing.

"Andy will you please get off the damn Internet and talk to me? Just for a little bit."

Son stays with the TV. "I'm not on the Internet. This is Playstation."

"Whatever it is. You can stop for a bit. Come on. Talk."

Son plays on.

"Well, then, tell me about the game. What's this one?"

"You won't get it."

"Try me."

"You don't want to talk about it, Mom."

Call Shirley. Shirley will listen. Can't call Shirley. Need a man's ear. A man's ear means something. A woman's ear is a freebie. A man's ear is a win. Rub hand on forehead. Tap Accutane on table.

"Mom. Annoying."

"Sorry, honey."

Set Accutane on table. Stop touching. Leave him alone. He's a boy. Let him be. He will grow out of acne. Live your life. Find a hobby. Wash a dish. Watch a movie. Call a Shirley. Take pleasure. To take is to steal. They mean the same thing. Can't take pleasure. To take is to steal. To take is to be greedy.

"So, who's the guy you're being?"

"Mom, come on."

"I'm just curious."


Wait. Take him in. 6'2". Strong jaw. Thank you, asshole ex-husband with good jaw. Solid bones. Pimples ooze. This one new and white. That one old and crusted. Imagine you are mini-person. Crawl across landscape of skin. Scale the walls of his face. See the craters. Smell the smells. This is something you did wrong. You built this landscape, and now look. Puss, craters, roughness. It is a wounded place, wounded face. And you built it. Bad Mom. Look away. Open Accutane. Take one. Maybe if you take it, he will take it, too. Close bottle. You don't need it. Son's legs quiver. Son masturbates too much. No girl is holding son's hand and kissing the puss out of his acne. Dizzy. Need to talk.

"Did your team win this week?"



Stand up. "Andy, are you taking your Accutane?"


"Honey, your pimples are all in different stages of life, and the drug needs to accumulate if it's going to do anything." Hold back. Don't throw knives. Pat his head. Good dog. Good son. "All I mean to say is when you take a few days off, you undo all the that you have taken." Kiss his head. Rough hair, hair no girls want to play with or feel in their young, slutty hands. "Remember that Playstation raffle, Andy? And you had to save up six receipts for games you bought? Remember how we saved them in an envelope?"

"Yeah." Fantasy warrior dances. Smiling son. Storm on face again. New era in the battle.

"Well Andy, every time you skip Accutane, it's like throwing that envelope of Playstation receipts away."

"The receipts were for games, Mom. Not Playstations. Playstation games." Son yanks joystick. Cartoon brawny men on TV grunt.

"Which guy are you?"



"I don't see why you won't just take it."

"You nag me. Jesus."

"I nag you because I love you and I want what's best."


Ssssh. Son's zits redden. Son gets the bad guy. Happy son. "You read my paper yet?"

Yes, you read the paper. The paper was putrid. Now is time to give lecture. Time for son to listen and say he gets it. Time for you to say no, you don't. Time for son to say yes, I do, let me try. I know what a trope is. Time for you to ask him to define a trope. Time for son to blush and say okay, he does need help. Time for you to sit with him and rewrite the paper together apart while son slowly drifts toward TV. It is the way. Son will blossom in college. It is worth it. Then the son will read the paper and get angry and cry that he is stupid. Say you kept not one word. You will tell him no, you are not stupid, you are my son, I love you. He will sob like a kid, saliva on your sweater when you hug him and stroke the hair. You will make joke about teacher, idiot teacher, and say boys blossom in college, son will get smart and settled in college, all this is just prep. That is what you will do. That is what happens every time son has to write a paper. But tonight son is different, colder. The Accutane bottle laughs in your face. You won't let him cry. No more. Son needs A. Son needs change.

"Your paper was great, honey."

Son looks up. Distrust, small eyes too widely set. He is yours for the moment. Shiver.

"Andy, you did a great job."

"But I couldn't even finish the book."

"Well, sometimes you just get it."

"You don't need to help me fix it?"

"I don't. You did well."

"Really?" Son beams. Son sets joystick on his lap. You turn red for son, you wonder, does he show his gratitude so openly, so sadly, around other boys and girls his age? You wince. You stand.

Lie. "Really. Andy, something in you opened up. Okay, I'm exhausted. Love you."

"You, too."

Peer around corner and see son. Son smiles. Bashful. Son likes his self. Turn away. Walk up the stairs. It was his worst paper yet. He is not even smart enough to know that. He trusts you. Shiver.


Middle of the night. Can't sleep. Never sleep. Take son's paper out of smelly backpack. Rip it up. Go online. See his porn. Smile that he likes Asian girls. This is the only thing you really know about him, and you can never discuss it. You can't say, "So, Andy, I see you like Asian girls, especially ones who go down on each other!" Open Microsoft word. Write essay about Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Put son's name on top. Print paper. Put the paper in smelly backpack. Amble back to kitchen. Son will never know. Son won't reread. Leave note for son. Sleeping in. Love you. Mom. Lunch is in fridge. Can't see son in the morning. Some mornings, just can't. Thoughts too full of Asian lesbians.

Next day. 1 o'clock. Pretend to pull weeds. Watch squirrels run around. Wish you were a squirrel because they are so busy, so occupied. You are a common, middle-aged, divorced woman. Who in the world is gonna care you wish were you were a squirrel? Oh but you can write a paper; you nailed A Room. Phone rings. Secretary at high school. Perk up. Mother voice. You are gardening. You are normal, well adjusted, chipper even.

"The principal would like to see you, Mrs. Ringler. About Andrew's paper." Silence. "We suspect plagiarism." Silence. Agree to come in. Hang up phone. Hand on mouth. First thought, lipstick. Bad mother. Second thought, son. First thought, lips. Bad mother. Principal. Tick, tock.

Sit on hard wooden chair in the English teacher's office. Wore the wrong outfit, too low cut, the shirt, too mauve, the lipstick, too fresh. The teacher hates you. She sees. She sees you just put on lipstick. She knows. Mean teacher. Principal likes you. Teacher hates you for that, too. Think of those terrible, banal Nicholas Sparks books you read. Wish you were one of those women with a heart. Gulp.

Fat woman teacher opens mouth. "Mrs. Ringler, you do have to tell us what you were thinking."

"It's Mrs. Austin-Ringler." What is wrong with you? "And it's Ms. There is no Mr. Not for some time." Be civil. Be innocent. "Anyhow, Andrew understood the book. I just helped him organize his thoughts. I really don't see the problem."

"You're trying to tell me Andy knows what a trope is?" Fat teacher is mad. Fat teacher's ruddy cheeks are about to pop.

"He's a bright kid."

"I throw my hands up. Principal Cullen, can you please?"

Principal waves hands. Principal is off focus. Cross legs. Take charge. He likes you. "You're implying my son isn't bright? Well, my son is bright. We read books. We talk about them. I am very close with my son, Mrs. End." Raise eyebrows, both of them. Beam. Focused as a squirrel.

Teacher rages, "Mr. Cullen, would you please do something?"

Glare right back into the fat teacher and march into the sadness of her eyes. Fat teacher drinks too much, goes home, inhales Lean Cuisine salmon and washes down with white wine while reading Nicholas Sparks book. Know it. Show it. Hate fat teacher. Cross legs. Principal gulps. Fun day. Bad mom.

Principal tries. "Well, Mrs. End, how sure are you Andrew didn't just get a little help? Maybe a little too much help, but that happens. I know it's been a tough year. But he's a good kid."

Fat teacher huffs. Principal turns red.

Sigh like a pioneer wife, "It's been a tough year. Yes. But that doesn't mean Andrew's stopped growing academically. He loves to read."

Principal smiles, "You must have done something right, Ms. Ringler."

He said Ms. Grin. Schoolgirl pioneer.

Fat teacher explodes. Invisible scraps of salmon and vinegar and cherry scum attack walls of classroom. She is right to pop. You wrote son's paper. Bad mom. "Enough already. The facts are the facts. Andy couldn't define the word trope in a recent pop quiz." Fat teacher brandishes quiz. Here is son's handwriting. Son's life. "See, Mrs. Ringler. What is a trope? Andy answers, 'Thing in a theme.' Yet here he writes an essay on tropes only a few days later. Impossible. The boy's a child. He does not know what a trope is, and you wrote this paper behind his back. You shit on your own child."

You see only son's words. Thing in a theme. Son is retarded. Bad word. Son is worse; son is stupid. Thing in a theme. Look away, "He reads all the time, he probably learned about tropes on his own."

Teacher sweats. Teacher's poor legs are trapped in spandex pants. Poor torso cloaked in African toga. Teacher is the whitest person you have ever seen. Teacher is a retard. "I want you punished."

Stand up. Hands on hips, "Don't you speak to me like that. I am not your child. I am not your student."

Teacher looks at principal. Keep your eyes on her. Don't look at him. Trust him. Stare her down. Clock ticks in background. Principal rolls the quiz in his hands. He opens mouth. He doesn't want to punish you. Teacher knows. Teacher groans. Teacher stands. Heaves. Poor zebras on poor toga on poor torso. "Shame on you, Mrs. Ringler. Shame. On. You."

Teacher looks at principal. Principal looks at you. "Well, why don't you and I discuss this, Mrs. Ringler?"

"Discuss this? Jerry, she's lying through her teeth."

"Well we can't ground her, Mary Ellen."

Mary Ellen. Mrs. Mary Ellen End. Of course.

"I won't stand here while you let this woman abuse her child."

"Give us a few minutes."

"For what?"

"To talk."

"Then I will go tell Andrew what a louse his mother is."

"You will do no such thing, Mrs. End."

Fat teacher shakes. Fat teacher, sore loser.

Principal has arms from playing basketball and a long narrow mouth going on forever, lips that say too much, lined, thin, as if someone came along with a syringe and sucked the fun out of them. Principal opens door. "I will take it from here, Mary Ellen."

Fat teacher exits. Door slams. William Shakespeare and Stephen King smile from a wall of Great Minds. Hello boys. Hello principal.

"Would you like a cup of coffee?"

Sigh, exasperated, run under those train tracks, you whore mother. "You read my mind."

Principal loosens tie. He closes door again. Walk. Pace. Sway hips. Be aware you have an ass. You have a neckline. Hair up. He can see all of it. Be seen. Seen by a man. Man wants to listen. He touches arm. Sit. Coy.

"You take cream?"

Tuck hair behind ear. Touch self to convey interest to him. "Yes." Say yes to all. Send message you say yes to him.

Principal pours coffee. He looks at you. First time he sees your eyes and you see his at same time. "How much?"

"How much do you have?"

He shakes the carton. "Enough to make it any way you like it."

Stand up. Walk to principal. Sniff carton of cream. Gasp lightly. "I think it's bad."

He sniffs. "I think you're right."

Share a laugh. Let him lead. "Andrew is a great kid. And you did a great job."

"Thank you." Fuck me.

"I'm sure it's been rough on him and you as well, the divorce."

Purr in French. "Les divorce."

Second shared laugh. "Mrs. End can be a real... well, you met her. But she is a great teacher."

"She is. Yes."

"We'll just forget this, this error in judgment. Hey, parents are people, too." Need principal to stop talking. Principal says "Parents are people, too" at least once a day. Principal Stupid. Principal Fuck Me.

"I do have one concern though." Principal raising eyebrows. Odd principal.

Look at him. Nod. Be available. "Yes?" He's gonna say you look like a woman who needs to be kissed and ravaged. He will say he worries you are alone. He will say you need a man.

"Don't take this the wrong way."

"Never." Good girl. Bad mom. Maybe he'll kiss you here. Maybe this is how a new life begins. The principal made you coffee; he had all the cream in the world. Nice eyes. Big hands. He joined you in the foxhole. He loved you, on instinct.

"We have great resources here, Ms. Ringler. Maybe you would consider seeing a counselor, a therapist?"


Dinner table. You and son. Roasted chicken with saffron and cubed potatoes you cut up square by square. Counselor. The first word he used was counselor. Therapist came second. So he thinks you need counseling. You thought he thought you needed love, but no, you are a woman who seems like she needs advice, desexualized talk with some Masters in Psychology know-it-all. Blush again. Counsel. Is there a dirtier word?

"I think I'm expelled."

"No you're not."

"My teacher was really pissed today."

"Oh?" Shit. Son knows. Bad mom.

"She said you wrote my paper."

"I just made some changes."

"Why? You said it was great?"

Son pushes chicken into potatoes. Son felt good, and now son feels bad. Liar mother. Counsel. Sigh. "Your teacher is a cunt."

Bad word. Not a word for Mom. Bad mom. Son stares. Son's potato cube barely hangs onto fork. Son's father never says words like cunt. Son's father lives with a new woman. You live with son. Potato drops. Plop. "Mom."

"It's true. And believe me, you're not expelled."

"But I'm stupid."

Grab son's arm. Cling. Grab him. "Andy, you're brilliant. You just don't know how to put it on paper and show it to a cunt teacher."

"My arm."

Son laughs. You laugh. Saffron smells warm. This is home. Phone rings. Kiss his head. Grab that arm of his once more. Get phone. Shirley wants to see a movie. Agree. Try to ask how things are at bank. Don't care about the bank. Return to son.

"Who was that?"

"Just Shirley."

Know what son will say. Nothing. Son doesn't care about Shirely. Shirley is not Playstation. Shirley is your life. Son is staring. Feel his eyes on you. See his shoulders different, lower. Son is still staring. Say nothing. Let him not care.

"How do you know I'm not getting expelled?"

Because your mother needs counsel. "I just know."

Son stares. Now your face is his landscape, your wrinkles. He is small, walking across the quiet, tender planes, dipping into the beige cracks, the fault lines around your eyes, the moisturized planes over your cheekbones, the smoothness, the tiny hairs making his spine tingle when they rustle in the wind, the ghost town of your desolate, delicate face. Here he comes. There he went.

"So you gonna go out with Shirley?"

Shrug. Smile. It's okay to look at him now. "I don't know. Are you gonna take your Accutane?"

Son stands, so suddenly, knocking chair against the table. Potatoes rattle. Son goes into bathroom, abrupt. All of his moves so jerky, they keep you nervous, they make you fidget. Impossible to know what son will do next, what he does now, where he will settle, if he will settle. Son returns. Son carries the bottle of Accutane. Son sits down. Everything on the table rattles. His motions, blunt and careless. Who is he? Where did he come from?

"You got it."

Son won't look at you now. Son fights to open the bottle of pills. Let him grapple. Let him sweat. Let his palms grow tender from squeezing the thick plastic. Brute force. Watch him do it the wrong way, yanking at the bottle cap, banging it on the table, potatoes rattling, ignoring the clear as day instructions etched on the bottle top. Let him explore, as if there are a million ways to open a bottle of prescription drugs, as if there weren't just one very specific and coordinated way to get it open, as if there isn't a code needing cracking, as if there is a point in fighting it and forcing it until his hands throb, raw, red as lipstick, throbbing. Laugh with him. Stupid bottle. See him smack the bottle on the table and curse it out and don't take it from him. Eventually, he will grow tired and defeated and read the instructions, follow them, let the instructions counsel him, belittle him and make his life a little easier.