My mother shakes the can of spray paint ticka ticka ticka as I stand off to the side in our backyard. My bike, stripped of wheels and chain, sits upside down on the patch of dirt beneath the oak tree. The leaves above us are lit up green in the warm summer sun. My mother has acquiesced to my demand for a more masculine color. I was ten when my parents bought me the bright yellow bike, but now I’m twelve and ready for a change. We are painting my bike blue. Or rather, she is painting my bike blue and because she is in a good mood I am keeping her company.
Through the thin gaps between the slats of our tall wooden fence, I see a shadow crossing our yard. It sweeps along the fence until it reaches the open gate of our backyard, and in walks Mrs. McIntyre.
Mrs. McIntyre is the closest thing our neighborhood has to a busybody. She and her husband live two doors down, and her son Johnny is my younger brother’s age. They play together all the time, but in my mother’s opinion Johnny is a spoiled brat, and because my mother rarely expresses a negative opinion on anyone, I like to agree. The McIntyres have bought Johnny every single Star Wars action figure and spaceship and trash compactor available at Target and it makes both my brother and I jealous. When the inevitable squabbles erupt between Johnny and my brother, Johnny likes to sweep all the Stars Wars toys into his lap and yell “These are mine! Get out of here!”
Last week I had stopped at their house, collecting my brother for dinner, when Mrs. McIntyre cornered me in the foyer. “Michael, I heard about your parents,” she said, using a tone of voice that she probably thought sounded concerned. “Why did they get divorced?”
Her bluntness caught me off guard. I looked away from her, down at my shoes. Nobody on our block had ever been divorced. Nobody on our block had ever declared themselves a homosexual, either, but I wasn’t about to tell Mrs. McIntyre that. “I don’t know,” I told her.
She crosses the yard, a small bundle of determination wrapped in a cardigan. She dispenses with small talk. “Michael, did you teach Johnny to say ‘asshole’?”
I stand there with my mouth open, looking at her and then at my mother, who stands with the spray paint can frozen in mid-air. My mother looks back at me.
“Uh, no,” I say. “No, I didn’t.”
“Well there’s nobody else around who could have taught him that.”
I look back at my mother, certain that her fear of confrontation will lead her to choose Mrs. McIntyre’s side, if only to be nice.
“I didn’t teach him that,” I say. “I don’t know who taught him that word, but it wasn’t me.”
“Johnny said you taught him the word,” she says, smiling as though she’s caught me in a trap.
That little lying brat, I think. “Well, I didn’t teach him to say that.”
Mrs. McIntyre turns her attention to my mother. “Susan, this makes me very unhappy.”
I look with dread at my mother, and see a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She shakes the spray paint again ticka ticka ticka, looking Mrs. McIntyre straight in the eye. “Michael said he didn’t do it.”
My heart leaps.
“Well then, why would Johnny say that?” Mrs. McIntyre snaps.
“Maybe,” my mother says, “Johnny is lying.”
Mrs. McIntyre stands there, glaring at my mother. She opens her mouth but nothing comes out. She shakes her head in disgust, then turns and stamps across our yard, exiting through the gate, chin held high.
I look at my mother with adoration. She smiles back. “That woman,” she says, “is such a bitch.”