“I know,” said Melvin hopefully. “Let’s go to the beach!” Paula’s brow darkened at the suggestion. She sucked her bottle sullenly.
“No,” said Adrianne more assertively than she’d intended. “No beach today. We’re going to wash the clothes and then maybe go look at some shops.”
“Shops,” growled Melvin, curling his upper lip to his nose.
The laundromat bustled with its usual clientele: ex-hippies who lived back in the woods interspersed with transients and a few neatly dressed tourists. Usually Adrianne was charmed by the laissez-faire ambience of the place, but today she took one step inside and drew back into herself. Unkempt, barefoot children ran shrieking down the aisles. Men with dense beards and women trailing scarves scuttled between churning machines, grouping and regrouping in twos and threes to talk. They could have been talking about anything.
Adrianne did not deposit Paula on one of the chairs by the door as she usually did. She gripped her hand tightly, braced the laundry basket against her other hip, and made straight for the nearest available machine. She had only half loaded it when Paula threw herself to the floor and began screaming. “What’s the matter, Paula?” asked Adrianne. She’d meant her voice to sound soothing, but she could hear the panicked edge. Paula would not allow herself to be picked up. She flailed and shrieked inconsolably.
Suddenly, Adrianne remembered Melvin and frantically scanned the room. He was toward the back with the other children, engaged in some kind of game. One little girl stood apart from the others, transfixed, one hand in her mouth, her eyes on Paula. “Melvin!” commanded Adrianne. For a moment everyone stopped and looked at her, and in that moment she saw herself as they must have seen her, looming over her terrified daughter, face contorted, shouting at her son. For a moment she wished she had it in her to be the woman they saw, to shout her children’s capacity for suffering out of them, to beat into them some kind of permanent safety.
Melvin shuffled over, obviously abashed at having been called away so ignominiously. He showed his mother a face that seemed prepared to admit the possibility of guilt. It made Adrianne feel ashamed. She turned quickly to finish loading. After a few moments of uncertainty, Melvin turned to Paula, who was sobbing quietly now with her thumb in her mouth. “Get up, stupid,” he said.