SmokeLong Quarterly

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All About Things That Can Hurt

Story by Stephanie Reents (Read author interview) July 22, 2019

Art by Lorena Turner

This is the title of my son’s next book as he dictated it to me this past Saturday, sitting on my lap. Then he got distracted by the fact that my computer doesn’t have emojis, and his father’s does, but his father, my ex, doesn’t live with us anymore. He lives around the block, per the complicated co-parenting arrangements we worked out with the help of lawyers, and it would probably be better if I didn’t call him because last week when I phoned to ask the name of the plumber, he sounded annoyed. My son’s full name is Arno Henry Cozy Cushner aka Transforming Bat Robot, or sometimes Tootsie Roll. He is four and a half years old with gold hair and pale skin, cheeks that turn bright red in the cold air of winter. We walk to pre-K, his gloved hand in mine, and I try my hardest not to hurry him, but we are always late, and today I am in a foul mood because I am teaching Blood Meridian to freshmen who claim that the violence and its aftermath doesn’t bother them, they read right over it, because isn’t it true that the characters in the novel come to a bush hung with dead babies and say nothing. Just hobble on. This is true, I say. But aren’t you horrified by their indifference? He does not read or write and already in him broods a taste for mindless violence. I pull my son by his arm, and my son complains, you’re walking too fast, Mommy. I can’t walk that fast through the snow. Do you want to miss dance class? I say not very gently. Chop chop. What’s chop chop, he asks. It’s what will happen if I’m late for work. I pretend to chop something with the side of my hand. I do not imagine my ex-husband’s neck. Transforming Bat Robot giggles. 

My son insists that he does not sleep. Whenever I check on him, which is now my responsibility four nights a week, except the last week of every month when I get just three, he seems to be sleeping, sweaty and dead to the world, but he says he is just pretending to be asleep. Because all night he is busy fighting bad guys. His remote control (located on the back of his hand) tells him he has spider strength, and his robot never actually runs out of batteries because the powers are infinity powers. A starship waits just outside the window to whisk him away. Sometimes in the morning he has a small sticker stuck to the bridge of his nose, the kind you’d peel off the oily aromatic rind of an orange or the waxy skin of an apple, and it makes me wonder whether he has, in fact, found some way of slipping out the window and breaking into grocery stores. His shooter fires “pullets.” He wears a ring with a small turquoise stone on his left hand, just as I used to, not a turquoise but a pink sapphire, until my husband woke up one morning, turned to me, his head still on the pillow, his hair mussed, and said the magic was gone. He was so close I could see the sleep lodged in the corner of his left eye, and without thinking, I reached out to rub it away, and he jerked back from my touch.

If you don’t eat your carrots, you won’t get dessert, I tell my son at the end of the day, a long day, but every one is long. We’re sitting at the dining room table that is too big for the two of us, and he’s playing with a rubber band that he found on the sidewalk on the way home. If you don’t stop playing with that, I’m going to take it away. Is that what you want? He doesn’t answer, doesn’t even look at me. Is that what you want? My Ts get sharper, not in an especially lyrical way, which is what I might claim if I were to analyze myself as a character on the page. The little boy won’t meet his mother’s eye, which reminds her of… I try to snatch the rubber band away from him, but he holds fast, and the rubber band stretches between the two of us until my end slips out of my fingers (on purpose?), and the rubber snaps back on him. Ow, he says. I don’t like that, Mommy. When he is heart hurt, and not being theatrical, he gets quiet before he cries. This is what happens now. 

On another night when I make pancakes from eggs, almond butter, and banana, and we both happily gobble them down, and there’s a sliver of time before he needs to go to bed, and I am relaxed, because I have just finished grading a set of papers on memory and nostalgia in My Antonia, I ask Arno whether we should finish the book he started the other week. I want to know if the things that can hurt are imaginary, or if they’re something else, and mostly if they hurt him, but he doesn’t want to make that book anymore, because he doesn’t want to talk about things that can hurt, because that’s a too-sad name, he says, looking at me. Right?


Notes from Guest Reader Kim Magowan

This story captured me. I love the narrator’s self-awareness: she sees acutely and painfully. She sees her husband flinch from her touch, she sees what is delightful and exhausting about her son, she sees her own capacity to inflict pain. This is a witty, tender, sharp story, perfectly constructed (check out how the ending folds into the beginning).

About the Author

Stephanie Reents’ most recent book is I Meant To Kill Ye (Fiction Advocate) about her long obsession with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Her first book, The Kissing List, was published by Hogarth/Crown in 2012. Reents’ short fiction has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, Best of the West, and many literary journals.

About the Artist

Lorena Turner creates photography projects that draw from the areas of documentary, journalism and fine art. She selects image-making tools that best articulate her ideas. Lorena’s work is shown both nationally and internationally in venues as diverse as The Photographers’ Gallery in London, the United Nations headquarters in New York City, the Arc Light Theater in Hollywood and the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. Her book, The Michael Jacksons, and ethnographic monograph on the American subculture of Michael Jackson impersonators, was published in 2014. Lorena received an MFA from the University of Oregon, studied sociology at The New School for Social Research in New York City, and teaches photojournalism and documentary storytelling in the Communication department at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, California.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Five

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