Bespectacled, gray-haired, and with a mother’s concerned expression from the right, I feel eyes watching. I crane my neck casually to exchange glances with the woman, who cannot help but focus on the child and show her dismay. She utters her question, then quickly looks away, making her posture more casual.
"Don't worry about him," I politely assure the well-intentioned lady sitting beside my wife and me, who has asked if my child is sick. From his fit of coughing, it's a logical conclusion. "It's a new thing he does."
Ezra continues to cough, his face turning red from the forced expulsions, solicitations of parental attentions.
The woman casts a semi-judgmental glance in my direction, a look filled with contempt for me passing off my son's "ailment" for anything less than the plague. His cheeks continue to redden from the forced labor of making himself cough. This child already knows how to work an audience.
"When did he start doing that?" I turn to my wife, asking in a hushed whisper, not indicating my discomfort.
"I don't know," she replies, "A couple of days ago?"
"It's awful," I say, looking at Ezra, two of his fingers being chewed on, massaging his sore gums, angered by the intrusion of colonizer incisors or bicuspids which are attempting to surface and make his mouth home. He lifts his left eyebrow, the same one I lift. I know exactly what this means; I invented this move, the brow-raise. It is an act of betrayal of my face, a teller of tales and secrets that the rest of my face is complicit in withholding, a treason against my quiet contempt. It’s my middle finger. The little shit is trying to tell me he knows that I know it is all part of his plan, a plan for attention, when he feels as though he is not receiving enough.
Picking up my spoon, I turn to my cookie dough ice cream. I wrap my fingers around it, similar to the way I am now wrapped around his finger, small as it may be. Before I can lift the spoon to my mouth, I’m jolted by the hacking that ensues with an "Ack! Ack! Acka! Acka ack ack!"
"Ezra!" My wife quips, half-concerned, half-amused, choking down a laugh. The woman to my right casts another disapproving glare. I wave my spoon dismissively in her direction, letting the ice cream slip downward onto my shirtfront.
Amazed at the development of my son, I am also half-terrified. If he is this master of mischief at five months, what does my future hold? Already I get the cold glare of women of children my age which are often endearing, or like today, overtly judging. I hear echoes of my father, his words like an icy blast to my face, prophetical in their Greek mythology way, "Your children will be your punishment." Perhaps Ezra will always have a way of embarrassing me in public. I can say, if following the profundity of my father's axiom, it would be just desserts.
Grocery stores were my favorite place to wreak havoc. Otherwise an unassuming child, I made my mom parade on egg shells at grocery stores, a land of opportunity for my mischief. My agile fingers would peel the colorful wrappers of the candy in the bulk candy aisle, littering the floor with the carcasses of would-be-sold candies. My particular victims were usually the small treats that resembled strawberries, their plasticky shells discarded like fallen leave from a tree down the aisles as my reckless hands peeled them, one by one, just because I could. Down the canned goods aisle, I sought my next victim.
At seven, I had decided that no one should eat any meat from a can. I imagined the surface of the unrecognizable meat products, indistinguishable from one another, devoid of any real meat characteristics: gray in color with a slimy, gelatinous coating resembling, what I imagine, lines our sinus cavities. The Spam cans were my favorite. It is no conincidence that junk mail we do not want to open, messages that come from questionable and unknown origins, are named after a meat product so similarly sourced. No meat should ever take that shape, a rectangular prism of purported flesh, and I had decided to protect my fellow grocery shoppers from any exposure to such questionable products. Me, the seven-year-old processed meat vigilante.
One by one, lifting the can quietly from the shelf, I'd hold them up, examining each one as though it were different from another. With diligence and precision, I would manage to get one tiny finger between the top lid of the can and the tab designed for its opening. Wedging my digit further, carefully, cautiously, stealthily, I would pry, ever so gently, the tab from the top of the can. Making sure not to puncture the lid not only out of fear of leaving evidence, but for allowing any of the foul odor out from the deceased meat's aluminum tomb, I pull upward. By the time my mother was ready for the next aisle, I had celebrated, quietly, the fact that at least ten cans of Spam would not be making it to the homes of shoppers who needed me to protect them.
It wasn't until laundry time came that my mother would realize the destruction I had caused, the acts of service, in my mind, which I had committed. In my pockets were the strangely hoarded artifacts, the evidence of the little crimes, silver and flat; I had so proudly severed from their purpose. My mother wouldn't know how to respond verbally. On my dresser, I’d find my casualties of war displayed when I got home from school that day, indicating that my mom knew what I had done, but carrying none of the severity of a verbal admonishment. My mother: the accomplice. Secretly, I think she found it funny, or she was too embarrassed to admit to the fact that my acts of derision were committed unbeknownst to her, right beneath her otherwise-watchful, mother hawk’s eyes.
Ezra coughs again. The sound pierces my ears and wakes me joltingly from my momentary nostalgia. Looking up, I again meet eyes with the woman next to us who stands up and walks away, shooting daggers again in my direction. I know my eyebrow is deceiving me as our eyes meet. I look at my son who smirks at me, a mirror image of my younger self. I reach down in my pocket and almost feel the tabs of ghosts of Spam cans past.