—But we have to be thankful, Denise. We’ve been blessed, both of us. You have to admit that much.
—I won’t deny it. Even so, we all have our struggles.
—Dayton will come around eventually. Surely it’s not as bad as you think, and besides, it could always be worse. For goodness’ sake, at least you don’t have breast cancer. At least your brother’s finally off your couch. You’re one of the lucky ones. The fortunate few. We’ve been blessed, Denise. Hashtag blessed.
—Oh, I know you are, Stacey. I know it. Have I ever told you the banana story?
—No, but that’s so funny, because I’ve got a banana story, too.
—No, you first. Please.
—Well, this happened a long time ago. Around the time Princess Diana died.
—God, what a tragedy that was! Is it strange to say I miss her, a woman I never met in my life? I wish we had royalty here in America. It’s one thing we’re really lacking, as a culture. We’ve got our celebrities, sure, but it’s not the same, because you know half of them were born in Indiana or Iowa or some such place. They’re not much better than us, only luckier and a little better-looking.
—Diana’s death is incidental to my story. It only situates us in time. I was still living in the city then, and Dayton was maybe five years old, and we had this crazy dog.
—Before King Tut. Tut’s predecessor. This dog’s name was Fillmore. Benny named him. Something to do with Millard Fillmore, the president. I never understood it. Benny had a peculiar sense of humor. Fillmore was part pit bull, and we had no yard to speak of, just a little patio, and the dog park, which was very nearby, didn’t allow any pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Apparently there had been a few unfortunate incidents, not with Fillmore but with other pits, little fights and scrapes, and so it had been decided by the powers that be, whoever that was exactly, that pit bulls were no longer welcome. That made life very difficult for us. Fillmore was super high energy, and unless he got some exercise every day he was impossible to control. We were renting a house at the time with lovely hardwood floors, and Fillmore had pretty much destroyed those floors running back and forth all day.
—Didn’t you clip his nails?
—Believe me, Stacey, we tried. But he’d flip if we went anywhere near those nails. He was a stray, we’d adopted him from the pound, and I suspect he might have suffered some sort of terrible nail trauma. Who can say what these dogs have gone through before they wind up in our homes? It’s frightening, when you think about it, their mysterious histories. Anyway, we’d given up on the nail situation, his claws were monstrous, and he’d destroyed the floors, and I was certain we were going to lose our entire security deposit unless we kept the dog exhausted, which meant it was necessary to get him outside at least twice a day. We’d found a baseball field, about a half-mile from the house, and most of the time the field was empty, so we’d drive him there and turn him loose to run. The baseball field was next to a playground, and so what I’d usually do was let the dog do his thing for a while and then put him back in the car while Dayton played on the playground and got his fill. Just for fifteen minutes or so. We couldn’t stay too long, because Dayton had his pre-K class, and I had work.
The problem with the baseball field was that it wasn’t totally enclosed. The gate was open at the far end. Most of the time, Fillmore was really good about staying inside the fence, but this one morning he got loose. He went sprinting up a steep embankment that led up to a very busy road. Four lanes. Lots of traffic. Not a good scene for a dog. I panicked and started shouting after him, “Fillmore! Fillmore!” but either he didn’t hear me or he didn’t care. I was so sure he was going to get hit by a car. Obviously I didn’t want Dayton to see this, the family dog crushed and mangled under a car, so I asked him to please stay put right where he was on first base while Mommy ran up there and rescued the dog.
—Was the dog dead?
—Hold on, I’m coming to that. The hill was too steep for me to climb, and anyway it was covered in brush and ivy, and I’m highly allergic to poison ivy, so I had to go out the other gate and run up the sidewalk and climb some steps that led up the main road. Once I was at the top, I was relieved, because I didn’t see the dog dead in the street, a sight I’d been preparing myself for, but then I started getting upset because, you know, “Where’s the dog?” There was a guy standing on the other side of the street. He was outside a pharmacy, and I yelled over at him if he’d seen Fillmore running loose. The guy just shrugged. He didn’t care. I started screaming the dog’s name like an idiot. “Come on, boy! Come on, boy!” I was really getting worked up now. If we could have taken him to the dog park, this never would have happened. He wouldn’t have escaped. I don’t think I’d even realized how angry I was about that pit bull rule until right then, when it seemed like the rule had killed Fillmore. If he was dead, I was going to write the meanest, nastiest letter. This was their fault!
—Denise, for God’s sake, was the dog dead or not?
—No, Stacey, the dog was not dead. The dog survived. Well, he did die, eventually—a few years later, our vet found a tumor and I chose Option B, which was “Do not operate, do not spend a million dollars on a dog tumor,” God save me—but he wasn’t hit by a car that morning, thankfully. I found him one block up in an alley where he’d pulled some kind of saran-wrapped nastiness from an overturned can. Typical, right? I’m a cat person myself, but Benny was allergic to cats, so we had dogs.
To make matters worse, I’d left Fillmore’s leash on the baseball field with Dayton, and so I had to carry his fat butt all the way back down to the field, which was not a short distance. Fillmore was by no means a small dog. He was probably fifty pounds. And I was pretty shaken up. That’s an important part of this story, how worked up I already was because of the dog incident. All that adrenaline. I hadn’t equalized. I’ve always believed we are different people in moments of stress and anxiety. We transform. This is baseline me, the one talking to you now, but there’s another me whom I’d rather you never meet. She has a different voice, a different personality. I’m tempted to say she has an entirely different set of memories from me, but of course that’s silly.
—So you’re the Incredible Hulk, then?
—I’m only going into so much detail about the dog and my emotional state so that you’ll understand why I behaved the way I behaved when I got back to the field and realized Dayton wasn’t there. He wasn’t on first base, where I’d left him. Where I’d told him to stay.
—Oh, no. A lost-child story. I hate these.
—He was nowhere to be seen. The field was empty, but plenty of people were walking by the park on the sidewalk. What I mean is, anything was possible. I felt so incredibly dumb for having gone off without him. I’d done it to protect him, obviously, but that had been a gross miscalculation. My first thought was that someone had grabbed him and left, so I ran toward the parking lot just in case this kidnapper was about to leave in a car. I was covering the exits. I still had the dog in my arms, and he was wriggling to get free. I threw him in the backseat and slammed the door and—
—What is it?
—I was in rough shape, Stacey. I was crying. I’d always thought of myself as a bad mother, and now I knew it for sure. I wasn’t fit to be taking care of another human being. I’ve told you before what happened to me during college, haven’t I?
—You’ve alluded to it, yes.
—Well, it’s nothing I’m ashamed of. A manic episode, they called it. I’d never had any symptoms before then. Eventually my roommate had to call an ambulance. I spent two weeks at a hospital, but it was a year before we figured out the right drugs, and another year before I finished up my coursework and graduated. I was living at home for most of that time, and I had decided I was going to be alone for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else’s feelings. Mine were big and gangly enough as it was. My doctor tried to assure me that I could live a normal life. I’d only had the one episode, after all, and so it was possible I’d never have a relapse, but I had trouble trusting myself. Anyway, then I met Benny, and the rest is history, as they say. I was happy when Dayton was born, I really was, but I think it was always there, in the back of my head, this basic uncertainty about whether I was qualified to be taking care of him.
—So you had another episode that morning?
—No, no, in retrospect, it’s very clear to me that I wasn’t anywhere close to another episode, but at the time I feared I was coming unhinged. I was having trouble thinking clearly. I couldn’t seem to formulate a proper plan. I had these little flashes in my head, little images. They were like two-second waking nightmares. Various scenarios involving kidnapping and abuse and torture. It was awful. The dog was barking like crazy, lunging at the glass, and I was going from car to car to make sure Dayton wasn’t in one of them. And then I saw him.
—God, you found him in another car?
—He was on a bench at the far end of the playground. Just sitting there, his little feet swinging back and forth, very content. I ran at him, screaming, “You weren’t supposed to leave the field! You weren’t supposed to leave the field!” I was scaring him. He had this terrified look on his face, and I was trying to get ahold of myself, to calm down, when I saw that he was holding a piece of fruit.
—Ah! The banana. I was beginning to wonder.
—He’d already eaten half of it. But Stacey, here’s the thing. I hadn’t brought any bananas with us to the park. The banana did not belong to us. I hadn’t packed any snacks for Dayton. None whatsoever. So where had it come from, this banana? He was about to take another bite when I grabbed it from him and demanded to know where he’d gotten it. I was so mad, Stacey. I can’t tell you how mad I was. Dayton made a whiny sound. He was a whiner. Always he was whining. He wouldn’t use his words. He’d just skip to the whine. He wouldn’t cry, just whine. Very high-pitched. Very embarrassing. Finally he muttered something about finding the banana over there somewhere, over near the slide. “Like, on the slide or on the ground?” I asked him, and his eyes just dropped to his shoes. If he’d found the banana on the ground, I said, then it was trash.
We’d had this talk before. We weren’t supposed to eat trash, were we? Were we? Then, suddenly, he changes his story. He didn’t find it, he says. The banana wasn’t trash. It was a good banana. He reached for it, thinking I might return it to him now, but I said, “OK, if it’s good, then where did it come from?” He started whining again, and I told him whining wasn’t going to get the banana back, letting him think that maybe if he told me straight I’d actually let him have it. Finally he says to me, “It isn’t trash, Mama. Somebody gave it to me.”
—Oh, God. This isn’t funny at all, Denise.
—I never said this was a funny story. Not once did I indicate it would be humorous.
—Who gave it to him?
—When I demanded to know, he said it was just some guy. “Some guy,” he kept repeating. “Some guy. Some guy.” “Show me this person,” I said. “Where is he? Where did he go? Point him out to me. Where did he come from?”
—You were the only ones on the playground?
—The playground was empty except for us. No other kids. No other parents. There was no one around except far off, on the sidewalk, people on their way to work. “Dayton,” I said, “you have to tell me. This is very important. Please.” He tells me it was a man, a man with a green jacket, and he was walking along by the fence near the sidewalk when he offered Dayton his banana. According to Dayton, the guy stuck it right through the fence.
—Dayton took it, no questions asked. Apparently all a stranger had to do to get my son’s interest was offer him a banana. I was coming apart now. I had the banana in my hand. I wanted so badly to fling it away into the trees, but I wasn’t sure if I’d need it later. As evidence, I guess. I don’t know. Already in my head the trial was under way. My son was dead and buried, and I was sitting in some courtroom, studying the jury, and the artist was doing one of those little sketches of the defendant. I could see it all. I’d be in that courtroom, and I’d be one of those sad mothers on the courthouse steps doing interviews on the evening news. One of those moms with bad hair and the gray roots showing and the worried eyes and the necks all flushed red. They stand behind microphones and dab at their eyes as they read prepared statements.
—I’m familiar with these mothers.
—Nobody suffers like these mothers do. They want their children back or they want justice for the killer or they want more gun control. Their wants are so fundamental and understandable and useless. You just know they’ll never get what it is they want. They’re out there right now, these mothers, thousands of them, suffering jointly on behalf of us all. Now it made sense why I’d had Dayton, why the universe had brought him to me. I was being recruited into their ranks.
Stacey, I was trembling. I said to Dayton, “So let me get this straight. A man offers you a banana and you just, like, fucking take it, no questions?” I didn’t say fucking—at least I don’t think I did—but I might as well have. That was my tone. He just kept shrugging at me. Where had he learned to shrug like this? From other kids? He’d perfected the shrug. We went back and forth for a few minutes before I dragged him over to the car, threw him in the backseat with the dog, and asked which direction this man had gone. Dayton pointed right, which was fortunate, because the street was one-way. I started driving, very slow, watching out for any green jackets. I didn’t really have a plan, but I figured if I could see him and get a look at him, I’d know whether I needed to be worried.
—So you thought he’d given Dayton a poison banana or … ?
—Honestly, Stacey, I don’t know what I thought. Let’s just say if Dayton had started vomiting or choking or acting groggy, I wouldn’t exactly have been shocked. Poison seemed like a real possibility, the world being what it is. Don’t you ever feel like the world’s full of more poison bananas than regular ones? Around every corner, another poison banana lurks, waiting to kill you. It’s a terrible way to go through life, granted, but if you’re even a slightly informed person, you’d be a fool not to suspect a poison banana.
—It doesn’t help that bananas are so phallic. How not to regard them with a vague suspicion?
—Plus, like I said, I was already agitated because of the thing with the dog. Driving around, looking for this guy, I had the strangest feeling that my life had become latched onto this single moment. It’s like when you’re walking and the doorknob catches your shirt. Or no, that’s not quite the right analogy. I felt as if I’d reached a fork. All the mornings before now had just been preparation for this one. Life would either dart one way—or the other. The other way was dark and sad, this long, wet tunnel with little needle-swords sticking out of the walls. But I didn’t want to focus on that too concretely. If I focused on it, I’d make it real.
—Denise, I’m sorry, but I have to ask. Were you on your meds?
—God, Stacey. Please. I was, but like I said, this wasn’t an episode. I wasn’t having a breakdown. I wasn’t delusional. I was just a freaked-out mom who was under too much stress at work. Benny—you never actually met him—but he was almost forty years old at this point, and he was still working at a bar. Those were not easy days.
—For some reason I’ve always had it in my head that Benny owned that bar.
—He only worked there. I’m not sure where you got that idea.
—So, the green jacket.
—Four or five blocks later we found him. Unfortunately, he was an unusuallooking man. The jacket was cotton, with lots of pockets, like something from the army surplus. Why would a person ever need so many pockets? Anybody who needs more than two regular pockets is up to no good, is my position on it. He had large, bulging eyes and brown, greasy hair that was parted very neatly down the middle. His face was sort of white and puffy and off-putting. He was the guy in college who thinks it’s OK to wander the girls’ dorm in jeans and a bathrobe. You know the type.
—I’m afraid I do, Denise.
—Nothing was wrong with him, but nothing was right, either. I immediately disliked him. He was eating a muffin as he walked, some kind of foul carrot-multigrain thing. Like a bunch of shredded vegetables mushed into a ball. I drove ahead of him and stopped alongside some parked cars with my emergency lights flickering. I still had the banana, and I walked up to this guy waving it at him like a gun. He had this look of … I don’t know how to describe it. Sick embarrassment, maybe? I was sure I’d caught him in some terrible child-murder-sex scheme. I asked if he’d given the banana to a little boy, and he nodded nervously. “Who does that?” I asked him. “Who just randomly gives a kid a banana? You can’t do that!” I don’t think I’d ever yelled at anyone like that. People who were walking by weren’t even looking at me. They were staring ahead, into space, avoiding eye contact.
—You were making a scene.
—Not to mention, the street only had one lane, and the cars were backing up behind mine. Like thirty cars, all the way back to the light. All of them were honking their horns. Everyone was trying to get to work. I was making them late. They were screaming at me to get back in my car and go, go, go. I wasn’t sure what to do now that I’d confronted this guy. He started to walk away, and I stopped him with my hand. “You can’t do that,” he said. “You can’t touch me. You can’t put a finger on me. That’s assault, OK?” His voice was high but also a bit gravelly. A smoker, probably. He had a satchel over his shoulder, and it sagged at the bottom, and I kept thinking, “What’s in the bag? What the hell is in this bag?”
I demanded he give me his name and his address, over and over I asked for it, but he refused to tell me. He said he was late, and I asked what he was late for, thinking it might help me figure out who he was. He tried to get by me again, but I swiveled around in front of him. If I let him leave, then he would have won, and I couldn’t let that happen. Real quick I leaned forward and reached around him for his wallet in his back pocket.
—You did not!
—I didn’t have a good grip on it. He swatted my hand as I was pulling it loose, and it fell onto the sidewalk. A brown leather bifold. Some of the cards fell out. His license, his bus pass, gym card. I was shocked I’d done it, and so I hesitated too long. He was down on the ground before me, gathering up everything, and I only managed to catch his first name off the license—Kurt—so I said, “Listen, Kurt. I know who you are now, Kurt. I can find you whenever I want, Kurt. I know where you live. I have your address, and I can call the cops, Kurt, I can call the cops.” He seemed a little shocked to hear me using his name. I said, “Listen, Kurt, you can’t just offer little kids bananas. You can’t just do that. That’s not all right.” And then he looked up at me with this confused, sort of frustrated face, and he says, “Lady, I have no idea what your kid told you, but I didn’t offer him anything. I don’t like what you’re insinuating, OK? I’m not some fucking pedophile, OK?”
—A guy who has to insist he isn’t a pedophile is, like, ninety-six percent of the time a pedophile. Besides, he’d already admitted that he’d given Dayton the banana, so I figured he had to be lying. I still had the banana in my hand. I shook it at his face and called him a liar. “I’m not a liar,” he said. “I’m not lying to you. I promise you I’m not a liar.” We were both yelling now, and a couple of people had stopped just a few feet away from us. Maybe they thought we were about to get violent. Then the guy, Kurt, he says, “I promise you I’m not lying. I was just walking by, minding my own fricking business, when your kid came over to the fence and asked me for my banana. He said he was hungry and that he missed breakfast, and so I gave it to him. That’s it. End of story. I did nothing wrong.”
—Was that true?
—I threw the banana, what was left of it, at his feet and got back into the car. I felt so deflated. Just totally exhausted. Dayton didn’t say a word. He’d been watching all of this through the window, and now he just stared down at his dumb little shoes. We were almost at his school by the time I was calm enough to question him. Dayton, very sheepishly, admitted that, yes, he had in fact asked this weirdo for his banana. He’d gone over to the fence and asked him for it! I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to slap him, Denise. I hated him. I really did. A little window had slammed shut in my head, and he was on the other side of it. I couldn’t even look at him. Who was he? Because, you know, really, when you think about it, who are any of them?
—Any of who? Oh, children. Denise, we all feel that way about our kids sometimes.
—This wasn’t just about the banana. I think this had been building for a while, but only now was I fully aware of the feeling. Only now could I identify and label it. My son and I were not going to be close, that much was clear to me. We weren’t going to be friends. He was going to move away one day and never call and I was going to be OK with that. I was a custodian, nothing more.
—But Denise, he was only five. You’re projecting. It’s easy to look back and feel that way, given everything that’s happened, but you couldn’t have known it then.
—So you say, but here we are. I don’t even know where he’s living now. I couldn’t tell you. Last I heard it was Pittsburgh.
—I didn’t realize it had come to that.
—It’s not something I like to talk about, generally.
—Well, I had no idea it was that bad. Surely he has a phone, though?
—Of course, yes. Who doesn’t have a phone, Stacey? I called him a few months
ago and left a message.
—And he never called back?
—I feel like I’ve said too much.
—Not at all, Denise. Certainly not. I’m glad you told me. Though I do wonder what happened to the man, the one who gave Dayton the banana.
—No reason, really. Just curious. I mean, imagine what that must have been like for him. Being accosted in the street like that by some lady over a banana.
—You’re taking his side, then?
—Oh, Denise, please. There are no sides here. And if there are sides, I’m on yours, obviously. I’m in your corner, always.
—I couldn’t care less what happened to that guy. He got what was coming to him.
—You mean to tell me if a kid asked you for your banana, saying he was hungry, you wouldn’t even consider giving it to him?
—Not if I didn’t know the kid or the parents, no.
—I’d be on the fence, at least. I’d have to mull it over. Especially if the kid was just alone on some playground in the middle of the city.
—I was only gone for like five minutes! It was an emergency!
—I’m not blaming you, Denise. Not at all! I’m only trying to put myself in the man’s shoes for a quick minute. You say he looked like a weirdo, but that was hardly his fault. One of my best friends growing up, her right eye bulged because of a skull defect. People always assumed the worst about her.
—In all honesty, she did have a bit of a mean streak. She could be a real bully sometimes. She used to make me cry on a regular basis, as a matter of fact. But her personality had nothing to do with her looks, you understand.
—I’m sure that guy is doing just fine, wherever he is. I doubt he ever thinks about this.
—You’d be surprised what sticks in people’s memories, Denise. I remember the first time I ever met you, we were at Sandoval’s, for that orientation party for all the new music teachers, and you told me I had a piece of toilet paper stuck to the back of my skirt. I was so embarrassed! I remember it clear as day. Billy Mixson, of all people, was standing right there with us.
—I was only trying to help you.
—Anyway, Denise. You’ve got your health. You have your house. No one’s thumb is greener than yours. Your students adore you. Your evaluations are always top-notch.
—I know I shouldn’t wallow. No one likes a wallower less than me. So what about your banana story?
—Mine? Oh! I almost forgot. Well, now I’m embarrassed to say. It’s hardly a story at all, not compared to yours.
—That doesn’t matter, Stacey. Just tell it.
—Well, last week someone left a banana in my chair. It wasn’t even a fresh banana. It was brown and mushy and squishy, and I sat down right in it.
—Yes, it was very annoying, but what’s so odd is, I couldn’t help laughing. I must have sat there laughing at myself for a solid ten minutes.
—Bananas often have that effect, I’m told. Did you figure out who left it in your chair?
—One of my students, I assume. Not out of spite, I don’t think, but you never know.
—So what did you do?
—Not much. I went into the bathroom and cleaned it all off my skirt with some paper towels.
—And then what?
—And then nothing. I suppose it’s more of an anecdote than a story, isn’t it? It’s got a beginning, something like a middle, but no end.
—If you’d confronted a student, maybe.
—Or it could be my banana story’s still happening. Right now. Yours might be part of mine. This could be my ending.
—The ending to your banana story is us talking?
—Yes, maybe mine ends here, with this conversation, with your banana story. It feels very coincidental, very symmetric, you telling this to me just a few days after I sat in a banana.
—But does that mean when you tell people your banana story from now on, it will include mine, too?
—I’ll change the names if you’d like. To protect the innocent and all that.
—Use my name. I don’t care. I have nothing to hide.
—Even the part about the breakdown?
—Why, would you hide that from people if you were me?
—I worry we’re wandering into dangerous territory now, Denise. I don’t want to upset you.
—We all have our struggles, Stacey.
—I won’t argue with that.
—Oh, I do, of course I do.
—I’m not saying we haven’t been blessed.
—Of course not.
—But I’m sure even you have had your private struggles. Your depredations and traumas.
—Half the battle is putting on a good face. I’ve always said so.
—I’m glad you’ve found some resolution, Stacey. It’s not something most of us ever find.
—Never in a million years would I have suspected my story would end like this, of course. How could I have known yours would be the end of mine?