Redefining north.

What To Expect When You Are Not Expecting by Allen Woodman

What To Expect When You Are Not Expecting by Allen Woodman


What To Expect When You Are Not Expecting

I did not expect this job, babysitting for Oscar, my new neighbor’s kid.  He’s three, so okay, I think, we will throw a ball around, play catch, but instead, Oscar stays in his room, playing with his toy train set, and I watch a breaking news story on TV. The TV set is always on at Oscar’s house. Mary, Oscar’s mom, says she likes the background noise.  The TV screen shows a train wreck somewhere in the world. From his room, Oscar screams, “Come see crash,” and he laughs and laughs, but I am caught up in the real breaking story.

When I go in to check on Oscar, he squats by his little train, collapsed on its side next to the trestles. He smiles and his eyes are black with delight. “Train go smash. Goodbye.” I wince. The angle of the train accident is strangely familiar.

That night, I sit on our shared screened-in balcony at The Arbors condominiums. A large moth beats against the screen. I am thinking about those people who always tell you how nice life is because it gives you the chance to look at the stars. The stars are out there, but I am looking at the black spaces between the stars.  I have not had a real job for three months. It’s the economy, we all say. I think I have it bad, but the man downstairs sounds as if he is at the Wailing Wall. “Help me, help me, help me,” I hear him muttering all night long like a prayer or a chant. I don’t know his story, maybe his family left him, maybe he’s lost his job and savings, too, but I know that The Arbors could really use a guardian angel.

Next day, Oscar is still sleeping. Mary cracks the door to show me his angelic face, the glow from a large world globe lamp lights up his golden curls. Oscar sleeps with his tiny arm wrapped around a toy airplane. “He’s my little dream of heaven,” she whispers. I gaze at him and think he looks as contented as a chubby cat that has just eaten two juicy blue birds.

Mary holds her finger to her mouth, and closes the door. She has some time before serving the food of Nepal to customers at the Himalayan Grill, so we make out on the couch. My shirt is off, and her black faux-leather couch sucks at my skin. I touch her breasts and cradle her body. I try to ignore the tattoo of Oscar’s profile she has on her back.

Mary’s got it tough. Young son, waitress job…now a jobless boyfriend of sorts, but she doesn’t complain. Once I asked her if there was a father in the picture, but she said it was a virgin birth.

Before I can get her red panties off, I hear sputtered noises like a dying engine coming from Oscar’s room, and I see something over Mary’s shoulder on the TV screen, an airplane engine seems to be stalling…a plane like a thin silver knife being dropped from the sky. Someone has caught the video pictures on their cellphone and sent them to the station.

Later, when I check in on Oscar, he still seems asleep, but his toy airplane lies broken on the floor beside the far wall. I watch him sleep for another hour. He doesn’t move, but when I turn to go, I think I half hear a soft laugh.

Before the housing bust, I used to be a framer. I loved building the wooden skeletal supports for homes. My last job was in the meat department of a grocery store. I learned the secret knowledge of knowing when the steaks were just old enough to be ground into hamburger and not make anyone sick. We did the same with the old fish, making ground fish patties out of them. You’d be surprised at how many fish patties we could get out of a few stinky fish and a lot of bread crumbs.

At the meat counter, I caught a woman slipping steaks under her skirt. You could see little streaks of cow blood running down her leg. I took the steaks away from her and gave her my lunch sandwich to eat, roast turkey on marble rye.  She wolfed down half if it and said she was saving the other half for her elderly mother.

The meat department manager had to fire me for not following company policy and calling the police on the shoplifter.  He gave me a big smoked ham to take home to tide me over. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t eat ham, but I put a seatbelt around it in the passenger’s seat of my VW bug while I drove around and looked for another job.  I started calling the ham Virginia. After every failed interview, I’d say to the ham, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Eventually I left the ham by my downstairs neighbor’s door.


The next day, I tell Mary that I can’t babysit for Oscar. I tell her I have a job interview, but really Oscar is just creeping me out.

After I know Mary has gone to work, I walk out on the balcony with a glass of iced sun tea. Below in the backyard, I see a girl with Oscar. He is playing on the ground with a shovel, and the girl sits in a lawn chair, looking at something on her iPad. He digs in the dirt and then pours a flood of water from a little blue plastic bucket. Then he places a wooden bridge over the puddle of water. He drives tiny toy cars across it, but something seems wrong.

Oscar grabs the bridge, shaking it a bit, and the cars start to wobble off. Somewhere in the world, I think, a bridge is falling. “Hold on,” I shout down to him.

He looks up. “Hold it steady.  Hold it up.” His face looks like it is hiding a secret. There is a tiny smile. The girl does not stop looking at her iPad.

I run downstairs, falling on the last step, rolling in the dirt. Maybe somewhere in the world I am gaining time for someone to run from their car, to get off a toppling bridge.

When I get down on the lawn, Oscar is gone. The bridge is already in pieces and the cars are underwater.  I fish them out and place them gently on the ground. “Where is Oscar?” I shout to the girl. She looks at me like I am a crazy man. She seems not to have noticed that he has gone. But I see him.

Oscar is upstairs on the balcony now. How he got there is beyond me. He has the screen pushed open. He holds the big world globe in his hands, hanging it out in space over the balcony. He is spinning it and spinning it. His eyes shine.  I feel like summer, winter, spring, and fall are all blending together. I feel like the earth has turned around and around and started going the other way, and Oscar, he just laughs as the globe sails up up in the air.

Somewhere in the world, Mary is refilling a cup of chai, somewhere people are finding jobs or food or not finding jobs and food, maybe just finding another person to spend the good and mostly bad times with, but at The Arbors, I am running, almost flying like an angel, to catch the falling world and save it.

Allen Woodman teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University. He has published six books of fiction, including Saved by Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a collection of short stories for adults, and The Cows Are Going to Paris, a children's picture book with David Kirby (selected for Doubleday and Literary Guild book clubs). He has also published scores of short stories in magazines and anthologies, including Flash Fiction, Micro Fiction, Sudden Fiction Continued (Norton), Mirabella, Washington Post, and Story. His stories have been heard on NPR’s Selected Shorts, at Symphony Space (NYC), and an interview with the author appeared on Books & Co. (PBS).

Writers on Writing #41: Nancy Gold

Writers on Writing #41: Nancy Gold

Writers on Writing #40: L. E. Kimball

Writers on Writing #40: L. E. Kimball