Mother is a Roly-Poly

By Amy Rains

Mama leaves the house in a tizzy, hands full of promises heavy and shifting like hay bales. “Let’s go,” she calls to the trailing two-year-old whose world moves three beats behind. She turns to watch the girl waddle across the driveway and only just resists the urge to drag her the rest of the way by her elbow. A soft tickle on her forehead makes Mama's hand jolt to attention, smoothing an offending stray hair back under her headband before dropping again to jitter against her thigh. In front of her, the girl’s loose ringlets bounce just above her shoulders, some of them sticking to her cheek in stringy clumps. Mama wonders whether spit, snot, or some remnant of breakfast is the cause of this adhesion. She twists to rifle through the large bag on her hip in search of a wipe.

The girl, meanwhile, does not respond to the initial call to get moving, doesn’t even look up at the sound of Mama’s voice. Instead, she stops three feet from the car, squats like a chimp, and presses her nose down to the rough and cracked cement between her splayed fingers, the sun above slicing through morning like a pizza wheel.

Mama cups one hand to shield her eyes, tugging a baby wipe with the other. “Come on, honey,” she calls, waving the wipe above her head and scanning the driveway for whatever has pulled her daughter’s attention down to earth. Her eyes soon land on a roly-poly wriggling through the narrow trench between two slabs of concrete sidewalk, its gunmetal shell slinking along like jointed nesting cups. The transfixed girl raises a pointed finger and jabs down at the bug, making it spring into its dead petal curl. She smiles, pushing a wad of soggy cheerios into her cheek with her tongue. “Potato!”

Mama glances down at her watch. “Very nice, baby. Time to go.” She bends to reach for her, holding the wipe out to her face, but the girl squirms away.

“Potato!” she screams again, pointing down at the bug, insisting on the prime importance of her observation.

“That is not a potato. That is a bug.”

The girl looks at Mama with narrowing eyes. The roly-poly stays in its circular sanctuary, either from lingering fear of further inspection or personal offense at being mistaken for a starchy vegetable. Though Mama’s mind is still buried under the weight of their daily schedule, something about that tightly closed shell makes her think of the claustrophobic parish hall where she had sat not two weeks ago. Maybe not so much the hall itself, actually, but the way she had sat in it, stuffed in the middle of a room full of vaguely familiar people and folded into herself on a metal chair that cooled the back of her legs a bit too much for comfort.

“Before today, when was the last time you and I sat down together, just the two of us?” Skylar had asked, her words just as chilled as the metal chairs beneath them. “What could be keeping you so busy that you can’t set aside one hour in one week for your only sister?”

Mama hadn’t known what to say to that, and she had been too distracted to attempt a response. Her periodically buzzing phone seemed to her a fly that, though it belonged outside, continually managed to ping-pong its way inside her brain.

Are you cooking tonight, or do we need to DoorDash?

Where’s the glue?

Dad said Charlie cn come over l8r if cool w/u. Can he?

            If it hadn’t felt inappropriate for her to do so, she’d have left not long after she had arrived, excusing herself to run the four separate errands she still had to complete while John watched the kids. Instead, she had sat and listened to Skylar’s targeted commentary move on to their mother:

 “Look at her! Refilling pitchers of lemonade, giving hugs, smiling. Clearing tables like some overzealous busboy. Take away the black dress, and it’s like she’s hosting a damn retirement party. I haven’t even seen her cry! That’s just not healthy. I haven’t been able to stop crying for days!”

Mama had glanced down at her own unused pack of tissues then, before quickly refocusing on her mother. She had watched, from across the room, how her mother’s eyes bounced around the yellow pitchers as if in search of something, her fingers fidgeting with the belt around her waist. (The fiddling reminded her of someone, though she couldn’t say who.) Then Mama had spoken the only words she had said all day: “I don’t think she can stop.” The statement had come out just above a whisper. “There’s not a switch you can just flip like that.”

“Stop what?”

“I don’t know.” Mama had not yet torn her eyes away from those hands–the ones that couldn’t stop moving. “Carrying the load of everyone else’s comfort.”  

“Come on. No one expects her to do anything right now.”

“That’s not the point.”

“She needs to sit.”

“She won’t.”

“Well, she needs to. Pouring from an empty cup and all.”

Mama had faded then, thinking about empty cups, and dropped her eyes to her still buzzing phone: Mom????

She had spent the remainder of that afternoon as close to the wall as possible, unable to focus on any single thing and equally unable to correct the two separate relatives who had mistakenly called her “Skylar” for their entire interaction. She would’ve very much liked to have curled into a steel-coated ball that day.

Shaking her mind loose of such a sticky memory, Mama feels the sun again on her face and looks once more at the motionless bug before her, its plated defense system still on full display beside her daughter. A thought slinks around the corner: I want to hear someone say my name out loud.

The humid air oozes over her exposed arms like warm buttermilk, and Mama wonders if the bug’s shell blocks the heat. It’s a beautiful shell. Not like a turtle’s, which she’s always considered crushingly burdensome, but a kind of organic Ironman suit, a second skin at one with the stuff inside it. Did the creature have to willfully send some kind of physiological signal telling its shell to coil, or did it happen involuntarily, like breathing? She stands now like her daughter, eyes locked on this strangely alluring bug.

“Come to think of it,” Mama says slowly, “I think these things are technically crustaceans. We just call them bugs to make it easy.” She looks again at her watch. “But you know what? We can pick this up again later. Right now, it’s time to go.” She reaches toward her daughter more urgently this time, but the girl flops on the ground, a kamikaze explosion of extremities ending in pudgy fingers that lock around her knees. Mama slumps in defeat, letting her head flop backward. She feels the sun through clenched eyes, all the things on her to-do list spread across her lids. I want to chew the tip of my pencil clean off, leaving only the pink rubber behind.

She doesn’t see it happen, but the crustacean-bug somehow rights itself below her gaze and adjusts its trajectory. When she looks down again, she sees it is now moving in the opposite direction as before, giving the fetal girl in front of it a wide berth. Is it deterred from its original motive, scampering back home in fear? Is it disoriented and unaware it is backtracking? Or is it just moving to move, not following any preordained directive, not measuring in minutes or tangling with time at all–just seven legs on each side of a moving singularity? I want to see where it scuttles, how it gets there. I want to watch my daughter watch the bug. I want to make my mother a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cut off the crust, and watch her eat it.

“Did you know roly-polies have gills?”

Mama turns at the sound of her son walking outside to join them. “What?”

“Yeah. We learned about it in Science." He scratches his leg. "They used to live in the ocean a long time ago, but they figured out how to live on land. Sometimes, when they curl up, it’s because they’re too dry and need to cover their gills.” His voice lingers on that last syllable, eyebrows raising expectantly.

“Huh,” she says, looking again at the armored bug and rubbing the soft flesh on the side of her neck. She imagines the slow-motion flailing. I want to scoop it into my pocket for safe keeping. I want to see if its breathing matches mine. I want to dive headfirst into the cold ocean and remember what it’s like to untether my feet from land.

She feels her husband’s shadow cross her face and turns to watch the final member of her family join their little outdoor meeting. “I thought you were leaving,” he says.

Thoughts of foamy waves dry up and flake away in the heat. “Yes, well, this one had other plans,” she says, gesturing to their daughter, still rolling on the ground.

He shakes his head. “It’s okay to say ‘no’ sometimes,” he says with the tone of a grade-school principal, gliding straight-backed toward the girl. He picks her up with ease, despite her willful resistance, tucks her into her car seat, then loops back around for the boy. His steady pace thrums out a methodical cadence, the shallow heartbeat of leather soles against cement.

Mama is thinking about hearts and bugs when she sees where her husband is heading a moment too late. She raises both hands in a defensive sprawl that sends the still unused wipe falling down to her feet, but she doesn't get the word "stop" out in time. There is an almost imperceptible crunch as his boot lands squarely on the roly-poly mid-stride. Not even a crunch, really, so much as a soft click.

“What?” he says, noticing her flinch. She doesn’t respond. He follows her gaze downward. “This?” He picks up the glistening wipe, tosses it in the dumpster, and kisses her cheek. “I’ll see you later,” he calls over his shoulder as he ushers their son back toward the house, not noticing the small black smudge he leaves behind on the driveway.

Mama watches him close the front door and stands there a moment longer, feeling the heat on her face.

She crawls into her silver sedan–its slick metal shell shining bright as a prayer–curls into the driver’s seat, and heads toward the PTA luncheon where her daughter will say quiet grace for simple things, and Mama will excuse herself to weep in a bathroom stall, two weeks behind schedule.