"The Critic" a short story about middle class suburbia
The dark side of suburban existence.
She sat with the sun on her face, and the local paper in her hands. The delighted screams of the children around her were not enough to distract her from this pleasure. The local paper came out every Thursday and it provided her the opportunity to look down on the inelegant lack of verbal prowess that the local reporters published each week. So, as she sat with her tankini uncomfortably riding up around her midsection revealing the stretch marks and a scar from where there used to be a belly ring adorning a flat stomach, she privately scoffed at every typo, and ungraceful phrase. She often thought herself more talented and capable than anyone who writes for this small town craprag. These thoughts were often interrupted by a wet child, usually Matt, who at nine craved the attention of his mother; and despite her disapproval, he would rather sit at her side begging for some interaction than play with the children his own age. Although in her mind she thought ‘go away!’ At first, she would usually gently remind him that 'mommy brings you to the pool everyday to play with your friends. You have plenty of friends, so go play'. Then, when the gentle, albeit half hearted, comments received no action, on Thursdays when the local paper was in hand, she rather quickly jumped to the, “Leave me alone and go play!” Matt would often comply, whining the whole way looking back over his shoulder. He was a child much like the child she once was, who had an uncanny sense for the emotional states of those who he loved. He would sit up at night and worry about the frustration that he sensed in his mother and he was always trying to placate his own fears and the unresolved desires of his mother, but with the experience and strength of a nine-year-old these struggles displayed themselves in a quiet and reserved nature. When he was very young his mother once thought that he could read her mind, but it frightened her more when she realized that he shared the same poetic sensibilities that fought to be heard and understood. When distracted by the ungrateful child who doesn’t appreciate all the fun that his mother provides for him she became briefly agitated and then quickly dove back into the pleasures of self-elevation she received from critiquing the reporting on the local stories. Each story provided more opportunities for degrading critique and inched her closer to her ultimate favorite the police logs.
The police in this small New England region didn’t see much excitement. As a matter of fact from the times of her parents growing up, in this same town, despite increases in population, the lifestyle was pretty much the same and now even more predictable. So, the local police busied themselves with harassing teenagers, and occasionally there was a domestic call but often the police logs immortalized the important task of small town safety. Wednesday June 27th 1:30PM call from police port-o-potties on fire at two locations believed to be the result of a teenage prank. Advising all towns in the region to check port-o-potties regularly to prevent further damage or danger. She laughed to herself at the ridiculousness of the subsequent records, which indicated that there were four port-o-potties in town and all of them were checked by an officer on duty, every hour. A pyre of flaming shit she thought and chuckled indulgently. She most assuredly enjoyed the arrests. The pleasure she received when she found the name of a person whom she knew was only equaled to the pleasure that she found when spreading the news of this event and then hypothesizing about the circumstances which led up to this arrest. She would sometimes read of a former classmate who was arrested on a Saturday night for DUI and instead of thinking about her last Saturday night when she drove home from a cookout with her two children in the car and four glasses of chardonnay in her system; she thought about how much better her life was than theirs. A typical thought was, ‘I do see their car at the Eddie’s Pub at least three nights a week’. ‘What a shame she was so popular, so pretty, now unmarried, arrested.’ As she would scour through this paper she would occasionally look up to critically examine the other mother’s there with their children. Some of them would also be reading the local paper on a Thursday, some would be in the pool with their children, some would be gossiping with a friend. She would watch them all from under the anonymity of her sunglasses and scornfully critique them. If one looked up, and despite the sunglasses, seemed to discover her looking she would give a fake smile and look away. She examined them with this detachment, as if she was outside their existence, a visitor, or a spectator. Although she once considered herself to be against prejudices and stereotypes as she looked around she thought these women all were cast from the same mold.
Maybe it was because the lifestyle of Millville was so consistent that allowed for a uniform conformity. She thought that the majority of the women who lived in this upper middle class town mostly looked the same. The women sat with a tankini or a one-piece suit, usually of a darker hue, brown was all the rage this season, but the standard black was always slimming. She regarded the women to be ten to thirty pounds overweight. There was always an occasional woman who was blessed with genetics, and a metabolism, but cursed but the envious stares of the women who wished to blame her healthy weight on drugs. Then, there were always a few women who were very overweight and were looked upon with delight, not because of their unabashed disregard for the stares and leers, but because they always make the masses feel better about themselves. The women generally carried this excess weight in the area in between the middle of the ribcage and descending down to the middle of the upper thigh. These saddlebags were most evident to the observer when looking at these women in their beach chairs sprawled across the lawn.
She sometimes noted that the area that used to be her full voluptuous hips now was uncomfortably wedged between the armrests on her chair. As she sat in her chair it was often like the excess fat and flesh around this area was not connected to her consciousness. Although the chair should be uncomfortable with the extra twenty five pounds around the hips thighs and butt that were poured into the chair, it was as if she couldn’t feel the arm rests leaving the red indentation that was obvious to everyone when she stood up. She sometimes would look down and be startled by what she saw there. Her changed body had not yet been secured into the vision she had of herself. She, like the others around her, would come to the town pool in a typical cover up, lately it was the elastic top, strapless baby doll dress. Whatever, they watched on the entertainment shows, and read in their magazines would show up at the Millville pool two years later. This summer it was the bright florescent gardening clogs and, of course, hers were bright green. She cynically recognized that they flocked to the pool in their spacious masses, driving their SUV’s and minivans. As these symbols of money and power raced towards the entrance the women of middle class suburbia showed their aggression and competitive natures.
The parking lot at the town pool only had a limited number of spaces and these moms with malice looked at these spots with entitlement. There was an irony in the fact that these women drove SUVs and minivans with “Life is Good” stickers on the windows but their rage and the negative energy that they expelled over a parking space was anything but good. They would race around the row of cars, indifferent to the mother trying to wrangle her two year old nearby; and as if in competition they would try to beat the other mom to the spot. She and the others would curse their competitors and then get out and give a friendly wave, as if the windshield was an invisibility cloak, hiding their ugly rage. And those poor bastards who didn’t get a spot in the main lot and had to walk the extra one hundred yards to the entrance, God forbid. They would have to try to cross the street safely with chairs, bags, coolers, and eager children in tow, while the lucky Moms, and the ones in the race, would show that no cross walk law was greater than they. Once the spot was secured their children who wore their Red Sox hats and t-shirts might help and carry moms chair. Everyday throughout the summer as she looked at these women she felt connected to them, but distinct. Just as she looked down at the writing of the local reporters, regarding the misfortune of the latest one to get nabbed by the local police who were not distracted by flaming shit houses, she looked at these women as sheep, blissfully unaware as they “baw” away their existence between soccer practice, the PTO, and Pilates.
As she concluded the police logs she turned to the editorial page, which was often inspirational to her. The senior editorial writer often wrote pieces with a hint of literary understanding and evidence of the nuances and beauty of the English language. After reading his work she was often challenged to, and inspired to try and take his job. She often thought ‘I will write a piece about the new recycling program in town and submit it for consideration of employment’. Maybe her muse had a small attention span but she only got as far as sharing her idea with her husband who was forced to fake attention in between scratches from the throne of his recliner. Today the editorial section elicited in her an emotion that was never before associated with “The Millville Register”: Rage.
There it was taunting her, critiquing her, in black and white, but its power and assault was beyond that two dimensional page. She looked up expecting to see the other mothers who were reading the paper to all look up simultaneously from their papers with the same look of indignation and ‘Well, I never…’. She almost imagined that they were all reading in unison, as if following along in a textbook, whose pace was dictated by the teacher. But out of those women who were still reading their paper, none of them seemed angry. In fact, many of them seemed to be paying more attention to their children or their gossipy conversation than what they were reading. ‘Typical’ she thought. None of them seemed to care and as she became embarrassed, almost confronted by what she saw, she concluded that these women ‘didn’t get it’. She thought that she might actually get up off of her plump behind and explain how they should be feeling, but she was so ashamed, scorned by what she saw that she thought she wouldn’t educate them on what they missed. It seemed to her that she was the only one who was reacting to what she saw and because of this she felt like it was a personal attack, she was being assaulted by her reality. She felt like the editorial cartoon should have been called “Julia at the Pool”. She stared at the cartoon too proud to not examine it closely, feeling that if she just put it down it would be as if she was backing down from an insult hurling verbal fight where the wittiest retort always crowns the victor. The two women in this cartoon were drawn as caricatures, but their likeness might have made this simple cartoon a Rembrandt. The women sat in their low to the ground beach chairs and their plump legs stuck out in front of them. They wore tankinis and the artist was capable enough to display a slight roll protruding from the spandex fabric that was not quite large enough to cover it all. Their over nourished thighs jutted out from the more slender arm rests and they wore visors to block the sun from their reading material. Their hair displayed the stereotypical “mom do” short and curly around ending right before the shoulders. And as she acknowledged the hair she grabbed the long ponytail that hung down her back and she thought to herself ‘you didn’t get that part right’. The women were reading the local gossip rags with headlines about teenagers in rehab. And as one quickly quipped about the health insurance crisis and the states attempts to ail this problem the other responded, not with concern about the crisis but interest in the young teen on the cover whose life had become a spectacle for the whole world to enjoy each agonizing second. Julia was so engrossed and embarrassed that she felt like she was a kid looking at the playboy magazines that she found under her older brothers bed. Only now she felt like she was naked on the pages. She didn’t even hear Olivia crying for her. The tankini, croc clad mom next to her had to startle her back to reality and say, “Isn’t that your kid?” She looked up, brought back to the now by the question, and took a second to register it all, and once she did she was grateful for the distraction. She responded with an empty, “Oh my…thank you…it is…my baby!” As she got up to mother her child her uninterrupted vision, and understanding, stayed behind in the chair with that cartoon for a second and all she saw was black. When her consciousness caught up to her she gathered their things, including a soaking wet Matt. As she cuddled the little girl with the skinned knee, all she wanted was escape and her comforting ignorance. Despite the lack of seriousness, skinned knees happened all the time she ushered her children out of the pool as if there was a head injury or broken limb. As she haphazardly rushed the children to the black Honda SUV she strapped them in without a towel to protect the leather. Matt’s echoing words, “Mom, the wet suits will ruin the leather,” (a well trained objection that usually would have elicited a ‘what a good boy’ response) made her want vomit, and she had no reply.
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