Red Wagon

Charles Bins, Brunswick Forest

The red wagon in the yard reminds Madeline of her childhood. She peers from behind a maple at the edge of the park across the street, musing and pulling at her sweater.

She certainly didn’t expect to see it, but it’s there. The wagon that belonged to the little blonde-haired girl, Molly. A hiker found Molly wrapped in a shower curtain; she had drowned in a bathtub. –No, the wagon couldn’t be the same, Madeline decides. It isn’t at all rusty as she remembers, but brand new a year later. Molly’s mother must want to see it from the window.

Today is Madeline’s 39th birthday and looking at the wagon on this blustery October day somehow makes her feel warm. She imagines it’s Molly’s birthday, too. Four was a decent age, Madeline thinks, smart enough to know what’s going on even if you couldn’t remember it all — “but smart enough to keep your mouth shut,” as Madeline’s mother would say.

When Madeline was four, she recalls her mother would pull the arm on her easy chair and lay all the way back, blowing smoke rings and staring at the ceiling. Madeline would climb into her lap and watch the rings expand and spread into nothing. Her mother would stroke Madeline’s hair absentmindedly with one hand while she set her cigarette down and lifted a bottle to her lips. Madeline experienced moments of comfort there. Smelling that blend of menthol and cinnamon whiskey, she would nestle against her mother’s bosom and start to drift off.

A gust now rustles the maple canopy above her head; blotches of color dance down. She rubs one of the many white circles on the back of her hand. That first one nearest her thumb was from the day she was climbing into her mother’s lap with her new doll. Mitzi’s hand knocked her mother’s bottle and crystal ashtray onto the tile floor and shattered.

Whenever it happened, there was a foul smell she hated. Her mother snarled. “Don’t tell your father. And if he ever asks, tell him it was an accident.” (He never asked, and she never told.)

Madeline’s eyes settle again on the red wagon. With a flick of her thumb, she lights up a smoke. She closes her eyes and recalls the sweet fragrance of strawberry shampoo in Molly’s hair. She exhales slowly and promises herself she will always come back to this place on her birthday.