From the time Paul Alistair Baumgartner could form sentences, his mother, Theresa, taught him to be polite. "Sit up straight," she told the boy when he was two years old. "Fold your hands like this," she would say as she moved his hands for him, one on top of the other, checking first to be sure his fingers and palms were clean. Paul Alistair Baumgartner was taught proper grammar before he could read. He learned to laugh at other's children's "Can I?" questions.
"I don't know. Can you?" he would scoff under his breath when he overheard them. His requests always began with "May I?" and drew a pleased "Yes, you may," from his mother, she who was somehow far older than every other mother. Theresa Tannenbaum, the principal of Our Lady of the Assumption School in north Denver, birthed her only child when she was 42 years old.
Enunciate, Theresa urged Paul when he reached three years of age. Look at me, she would add. "Diction," she explained to the boy at age four, "is underappreciated." Just after his fifth birthday, Paul was given permission to answer the home phone.
“Hello. You have reached the residence of Principal Baumgartner. To whom do you wish to speak?” There was usually an uncertain "Pardon me?" in response. Occasionally there was mere silence or the stumbling click of a hang-up. Every once in a while the caller would snicker at Paul. Older folks, the ones who were older than Theresa, would grow distracted by this greeting and comment. "Well aren't you a gentleman," they would say. Only one person gave a different answer.
“Mr. Paul Baumgartner, please,” Loretta always said. She was Paul's grandmother, not his mother’s mother but Enzo Vitale’s, the man who once impregnated his mother. Before Paul started kindergarten, Theresa provided him with a frank admission of a grave sin committed with Mr. Vitale, the physical education teacher at a neighboring school, sixteen years younger than she.
“It lasted three weeks,” she informed the boy. Young Paul took in this information with a blink and did not ask questions. Paul was a bright boy, a good speller, but he inherited regrettable features from both his parents. From Theresa he took a certain bulginess around the eyes, short stature, and a tendency to be plump. From Mr. Vitale he gained abundant dark hair on his arms and the need to use deodorant by age nine. No one ever took well to Paul's politeness, to his sirs and ma’ams and shall I’s. Even his mother’s staff at Assumption murmured. Goodness, the kindest of them said.
Despite all this, Paul was not unhappy for his first decade of life. He enjoyed the casseroles his mother made for dinner, the many meals involving cans of tuna and cream of mushroom soup. A few days a week, he would ride with Loretta on errands and sometimes to Dairy Queen or 7-11, and he liked his grandmother's sleek Chrysler with maroon upholstery that felt smooth under his legs.
As his second decade began, Paul developed seasonal allergies that quickly worsened until his eyes were chronically red. An especially loud sniff one morning elicited a comment from classmate Bobby Montoya. "That's nasty," Bobby told him. Bobby was a tall boy with oily hair and a bridgeless nose. Paul noticed that Bobby's lunches consisted of sandwiches with trimmed crusts, oranges peeled and sectioned, and homemade desserts. Paul's lunches were far inferior: a thin, barely-there layer of peanut butter on dark rye bread, a whole apple, and milk money.
“Invite Bobby Montoya over for dinner,” Theresa suggested.
“But,” Paul said. Theresa approached Mrs. Montoya at the choir recital the following week.
“My son is very fond of your Robert.”
“Oh?” Mrs. Montoya answered. “Bobby? Your son?”
“Yes, and we’d love to have -- Bobby over sometime for dinner.”
“Really?” Mrs. Montoya could not hide the surprise in her voice. “Does—,” she began, but she ended there. Bobby never came over for dinner.
Nearly eighteen months later, at the beginning of Paul's seventh grade year, the Life Science teacher leaned into Theresa’s office late one morning. “Um,” he murmured, and leaned back out the doorway. “We don't?" he said down the hall.
“What's this?” Theresa asked.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Well Paul—.” He paused. “Well, it turns out.”
“Well it turns out that he, I guess, he—soiled his clothes, or, just…” He lowered his voice. “Well his pants,” the teacher said.
Theresa’s face revealed nothing. “What.”
“Um, in the classroom. The class was watching a video.”
“So I asked and I guess we don’t have any sort of loaner clothes, so…”
Theresa drove her son home. He kept the hood of his jacket over his head and both hands pushed into the pockets. “Did something happen?” Theresa tried. Paul only sniffed and turned his shoulders further away from her.
“I don’t want to talk about it Mom,” he said.
“Did you just call me ma’am?”
He looked at her then, his face stiff. “No. I said Mom.”
Theresa pulled into the driveway. “Well there you go. Take a shower. I’ll see you when I get home.”
Later Paul pretended to be asleep when his mother opened his bedroom door. Theresa called Loretta. “Paul peed in his pants in science class,” she said.
Loretta put extra emphasis on her usual hmm’s and oh’s. Finally Theresa could hear Loretta sigh, and she said, “Theresa, are you sure it was – that?”
“There was nothing to spill. They were watching a video. It wasn’t a lab day.”
“Theresa. What do boys do in the dark?”
Theresa gave an uncharacteristic pulse of nervous laughter. “I. Oh. You think—that’s?”
“Of course, Theresa. He’s going to have a little fun under the table in the dark.”
“Oh. They do that at twelve?”
“I guess this hasn’t come up before.”
“Oh, no, no. No.”
“You sound unhappy.”
“But, in, school -- in science class? I’ve never heard of any kid...”
“Well, life’s. Like that."
Paul and Theresa never had a conversation about what happened. Over the weekend, they spoke little to each other. Paul went on a bike ride while Theresa paid bills at the kitchen table. Paul watched TV while Theresa pulled weeds in the front yard. The day ended with another casserole, this one featuring chipped beef.
The following Monday morning, as they pulled into Theresa’s reserved parking spot at the school, she sighed. “Well let’s both go and have a gooh--, a fine, day,” she said. That afternoon, Paul discovered that his sack lunch was even worse than usual – four hastily cut pieces of sharp cheddar cheese, a whole apple, and three tasteless water crackers. He could not eat.
This was how Paul entered his adolescence, with a thirteenth birthday that included T-bone steaks for dinner with no mention of the reason. They sat in silence until both were nearly finished eating. Finally Theresa sighed. “Did you have that test today?" she asked.
They returned to silence then, Paul finally putting a single impolite elbow on the table as he finished his birthday meal. Theresa cleared the plates and returned from the kitchen with a bowl of chocolate chip ice cream. “I didn’t see fudge ripple,” she apologized.
“This is like practically it. Thanks.”
Theresa didn't move from Paul's side as he sat with the bowl before him. "I want you to rid your speech of that habit," she said.
"You and I both know," she told him. "Like this, like that. I don't understand why children do that these days."
"It's. Sorry," Paul began. He cleared his throat "I'm sorry."
Years passed. A month after Paul's graduation from the local Catholic university, Theresa retired. She was weary most days by then. The arthritis in several joints grew more acute as she hit her mid-sixties, her knuckles bulging more each month, and she fretted especially hard against her left hip. She tried remedies of various sorts, some her own creation: aspirin dissolved in tonic, warm baths, cold compresses. It was all at least distracting.
One winter, the snowfalls were all blizzards. Theresa worried that Tibor, the Hungarian she’d been hiring for years to shovel her driveway, would be overcome and quit. Her prediction was correct. By early January he told her: “too busy.” She tried pushing, not lifting, the snow.
The next morning, the latest storm had left behind another nine inches. Theresa stood in front of her living room window talking to herself.
“Maybe just,” she said. She left for Sunday Mass anyway, the snow quiet and dry beneath her boots. Theresa's car’s engine had grown reluctant, and she pumped the gas pedal with her usual private admonitions: do it Betsy. Come on girl. Atta way.
She was surprised to see Paul walking into the church as she drove into the parking lot. He had never been a winter person. Inside, there were the usual sights of the space that both mother and son had studied for the previous twenty-five years. There was a tall wall behind the altar covered in stones, a mural of the baptism of Jesus to one side of the stone wall, and a large baptismal font resting between the two.
When Theresa sat on the pew next to her son, she saw that his eyes were even redder than usual. She focused on her own hands, beset with arthritic aches with the tasks of the morning, and she regretted leaving her pain medication at home. She searched her purse anyway. Paul sat leaning forward, his hands clasped and elbows resting on his knees. Theresa patted his arm and gave him a gentle push backward, but he resisted her and remained leaning forward.
Every several seconds, Theresa looked at Paul. Soon he moved his hands to his sides, grasping the wooden pew. He must not feel well today, Theresa concluded.
The priest was mid-sentence when Paul stood up. His arms were stiffly at his sides. Theresa looked at him with a horror that was slow to arrive. My son—is… she thought.
“Paul.” She whispered at him fiercely.
Paul stepped along the raised kneeler then, away from her, and exited the pew. He rounded the corner and approached the font. He touched the water with both hands. Then he formed his hands into fists and plunged them further into the water until he was wet midway up his forearms. Theresa’s lips parted in shock.
"Paul," she whispered again. Her mouth dropped open further with Paul's next move: he stepped into the font. He supported his body with both hands as he then edged in his second leg and sat on his knees inside the font.
“Paul!” Theresa could not contain her voice. The priest put his hand on his head and looked at her. She began to shimmy down the pew. Paul took a noisy breath and plunged his head into the water.
“Paul. What,” Theresa said, lowering her lips near the water. A man arrived at her side and pulled Paul's torso out of the water. Paul opened his mouth but kept his eyes deliberately closed. The man released him, and Paul immediately dropped again into the water.
“No!” Theresa said. "God," she cursed before she bit down hard on her bottom lip. They were joined then by two others, a young father and an elderly man, and together the three men lifted Paul and removed him entirely from the font. He would not stand, so they dragged him to lean against the nearest wall.
“Perhaps we should…” the priest offered from the altar.
“No, no. Go on. Just-- go on," Theresa said.
Paul remained, dripping, on the floor. "I didn't feel..." he murmured to his mother until she shushed him with her finger to her lips. The Mass was the shortest one that year.
Twelve years later, Theresa had settled into her room at Castlebridge Assisted Living. She had arranged for her own move, selecting a facility not far from her house. “I can get here in five minutes," Paul told her, his lips close to her ear. “I could walk here."
“You walked here?”
“No, I could walk here.”
“Oh, you should,” she said, and she patted his midsection.
Paul visited Theresa twice a week. Theresa gave her son tasks during his visits, her choice of words forced, as if she had learned phrases from her new neighbors.
Be a dear and get me that pillow, she asked. No, son, she often corrected. She and Paul did not talk about the past. There was never a word exchanged about either humiliating incident that had stained Paul's life, the twin catastrophes that Theresa marked in her head as the first and the second, thirteen years apart, marking time. Before the first. Between them. After the second. Instead, Paul said the same phrases over and over. "It's hard to believe it's June already," he would offer. "It's hard to believe it's November now." He quizzed her on medications. He asked her the same questions every time but expected no answer. "How has the food been? Are you eating much? How's your appetite?" Paul brought Theresa books that she never touched – collections of word searches, an atlas, the farmer’s almanac.
“Why do you bring these?” she tried asking one day.
“Oh okay,” he said.
He told her one morning about a new branch library that was opening the following week. He worked on the planning for the building, he explained, and his name would appear on a plaque on the wall. Paul stood up and looked out his mother's one window, the neighbor’s toilet flushing as he did.
"Oh," Theresa said.
On opening day at the new library, Paul found the plaque. He dropped his backpack and removed a single piece of white paper and a pencil. He rubbed back and forth across his name. “Excuse me.” It was a dull voice but clear, and Paul looked up with a startle at a man behind him who wanted to move past.
“I’m so sorry, excuse me, I’m so sorry,” Paul told him, and he bowed slightly as he moved away. “Pardon me. I was not paying attention,” he continued.
Paul stuffed the paper in his backpack and walked out of the library. After several minutes, he slipped back into the building and paused again at the plaque by the front door. This time he took out his phone and took a picture of it.
Theresa did not answer when Paul knocked on the door to her room the next day. He pushed the door open slowly. “Mom?” There was the usual glass of water by the bed, the newspaper on the end table next to the loveseat. Then Theresa appeared behind her son in the doorway and walked silently past him. "Oh hi. Where were you?” he asked.
“Oh.” He looked toward the clock on the wall. "Is that normal?"
“I’m going to lie down. I get sleepy after I eat,” Theresa said, and she eased into the bed. As she adjusted her position she eyed him. "What did you say?"
"Are you supposed to do that -- eat lunch this late?"
"Don't be silly." She adjusted her pillow and closed her eyes.
"Oh, wait, before --," he said. "I brought something to show you." He handed her a piece of paper with a photo printed on it.
She opened her eyes and glanced at the picture of the library plaque. “I don't think I know what that is.”
He shifted his weight to a second foot. "Oh, it's--"
"Not like that," she interrupted, moving his arm away.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Pardon-- pardon me. Oh. Remember I said I helped with this new library? See my name is on there," he said, pointing.
"Oh," Theresa said.
"I tried to like, make a rubbing of it. I thought that would be neat but it didn't come out right."
"I think Grandma would've--," Paul began. His mother interrupted him again.
"You've always had so much trouble when things don't 'come out right', as you put it."
“Your grandma would've liked that, you're right about that,” Theresa said, sighing.
Paul cleared his throat. “Yeah,” he murmured. "Yes."
“Mom’s—I’m tired,” she said. Then she looked up at her son. "Be polite now."
Rachel Stewart Johnson is a writer based in San Diego County whose fiction has appeared recently in Synchronized Chaos Magazine, Literary Mama, and Pif Magazine. Her nonfiction feature material has been published by magazines based at Johns Hopkins University, Pomona College, and the University of Denver. A former lecturer in human development, Johnson has a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University and is the mother of three children.