Friday, Field Trip Day

The little boy is disgusted by the monkeys but adores the lions as
his peers adore their older brothers and young uncles. Their bodies
seem to spell out words to him, words he cannot understand, words he
has not yet learned, long words that begin with soft esses and ells,
then glide just as smoothly over rough kuhs and hard guhs without the
slightest slip or flaw. They are slow and direct, they cannot be
bothered by the little bugs that congregate near their manes and
tails. They look in the direction they are headed, to the rock wall,
to the water well, to who knows where.

The biggest male lion passes the boy’s shadow through the bars
of the cage, two paws through his outstretched arm, the mane sliding
into his shoulder, the shadows merge for a second, and he is a boy
with a lion across his chest. Then paws stretch out of his ribcage, a
tail brushing past his left hand and his little blue camera.

Judith, his mother, is standing in front of the kitchen sink,
drying her own mother’s china with a tea towel. She feels she has
not seen or touched any of these things—her mother, the china, the
kitchen sink—for a while now. She rubs the plate hard, fast, her
brown hair bucking and swaying from her head as her back and
shoulders join the motion. If her son were there, he would think she
was angry. At the dishes? At grandma? At something his father did or
did not do? Again? But she is thinking about her son this afternoon,
knowing deeply and quietly his wish to be a lion, admiring this
quality in him, claiming it as a result of her influence, worrying
what will happen when he discovers that boys don’t grow up to be
lions after all.

She is the one who has given him his best qualities, she thinks as
she rotates the dish against the towel with short flicks of her
wrists. She supplied the natural creative talent, and she is the one
who nurtures his imagination, who beams and grins and coos over the
paintings and drawings, who has them framed professionally and hangs
them next to the Matisse and Degas prints. Her husband has
contributed mainly time, she decides. Which is certainly valuable, a
good thing for a father to give a child. She has been glad about
their life. Most days around this time, she is at her desk or at a
meeting, and for a second she imagines what they must be doing.

Soon her husband will pick the child up since it is Friday, their
day to “hang” as he puts it. Any other day, he would spend the
early afternoon working, jamming with his musician friends, and pick
the boy up from after-school. They would come home, have a snack, and
he would put dinner on. Then he would retreat to his studio, the
small shed off the side of the kitchen, and work on his songs. He
would start them and stop them over and over, emerging absently only
three or four times throughout the evening: to check the food, to
stir it, to serve it and eat too much once she has arrived, to wash
the dishes and eat some more, maybe to go to the bathroom a few hours
later, and finally to drag his weight up the stairs at three or four
in the morning and heave himself into bed beside her.

These days it’s a love song he’s been working on. She finds
that she is least in love with him when his songs are about love. She
cannot resist the urge to imagine that he is singing about someone
else, some other woman. The “storm of sand after my desert rain”
could not be her. This is someone smaller, with a pointier face and
wider eyes. But when the songs buzzing through the shed walls are
about other people’s products and services, she is inspired to love
him well. He would think, for sure, that this is because the jingles
bring money to the house and make him seem responsible, but that is
not it. She feels these jingles showcase his true talent. He is not
an artist, she feels, so much as he is a riddler. His poetry is
unremarkable, but his ability to arrange collections of words—the
names and phone numbers of carpet outlets, for example—and concepts
like We won’t be undersold! and Our staff is well-trained
and helpful!
into short little snippets of song is astounding to
her. During these times, about every other week when things are good,
she is pleased with their life, the balance they have established:
his gigs, her talent, her career, his work, their house, their
marriage, their son.

These days it is a love song, but even so, there had almost been a
moment of tenderness this morning. She woke up and thought for sure
that she was right, that he was off sleeping with someone else
because he was not in bed. She had not heard him lumbering up the
stairs at dawn, she had not felt him sink into the bed beside her,
causing her to roll back slightly in her sleep. She did not smell
anything cooking in the kitchen when she woke up, did not hear him in
the bathroom. He was with his love, his muse, she decided, and she
would divorce him right away. Then when she saw the light on in the
shed on her way out of the house, she was relieved and felt, for a
second, an urge to pop her head into the shed door like a movie wife
or a young girlfriend, to tell him to have a good day, to remind him
that she would be home late, and perhaps even to blow him a kiss. But
the child was almost late for school, and she for work, and the
moment passed.

He is one of only three in his class whose fathers come to pick
them up after school. It is mostly nannies from other countries, or
babysitters. His father is a musician, and he comes to pick the child
up every day from after-school. Some days, like today, Dad will come
early, and the boy will not have to go to after-school where they
feed him stale oatmeal cookies that turn to powder in his mouth on
the first bite and do not let him do what he wants to do. There are
no kids from his class in after-school. The kids here are larger kids
that seem to sweat a lot and talk loud all the time. The teachers
make them do activities, uninteresting things like tying cups
together with yarn and pretending that it makes a telephone. They
will not let him do what he wants to do. They will not let him sit
and draw. They make him do activities that he hates forever. Time
goes so slow that it becomes heavy on him, he gets dizzy, and he
begins to feel that if he does not do something interesting, his skin
will erupt into a blistering itch. This is one of the things he does
not say to anyone. He does not know how to put the feeling into
words, and even if he did, he is not sure he would say them.

There are a lot of things he doesn’t explain to anyone. He likes
drawing mainly because he likes to hold the crayons between his
pointer finger and his thumb, likes to peel away the tan-and-black,
aqua-and-black, magenta-and-black paper in rough rivulets and dig his
nails deep into the wax. It gives him a satisfaction he cannot name,
one that he gets he can’t think where else. Maybe from pressing his
tongue against his gums when one or two of his baby molars tingle and
start to feel loose, or from biting the inside of his cheek lightly
for who knows how long, maybe days, until the skin is salty and raw,
then stopping for a little while, then biting some more. He would dig
his fingernails deep into the colored wax, deep, deep, until the wax
seemed to burrow canals under his nails right into those mysterious
top pads of his fingertips, into his veins, up his arms and right to
a place in the crook of his neck that was rarely ever touched by
anything other than these nameless pleasures of his own making. These
were the greatest satisfactions because on top of the wild tension
and release they brought, they could be nothing but entirely private;
even when he had tried to explain them to people, as he once did to
his cousin Bettina as she was sculpting something that looked like a
porch swing, he did not know the words to convey the feeling. All he
could tell her was that it was very weird and very good. She gave him
a tilted eyebrow look, which she held only for a second before
returning to her clay, and this look confirmed his suspicion that
this was a private feeling that could not be explained, both because
the words were not there and because people could not or would not be
bothered to understand them.

He wonders what makes these lions feel this way, and he is tempted
to ask one of his classmates, but refrains. The class is moving
toward the picnic tables, and he gathers that it must be time for
lunch. He feels it is too early. He has just eaten breakfast not so
long ago in the car with his mother, and he would rather stand here
against the hot metal railing and think about the lions. But
remembering the good ham sandwich his father packed for him, he
decides it is okay that the time has come to eat.

For him, for now, time is an unfathomable expanse drawn in bold
colors: green and brown for trees, brown for dirt, brown for the hair
of his mother and his sister and himself. Red for apples and
farmhouses, blue for water and skies. Time holds all of these things
just out of his reach, just beyond his understanding of the red and
green numbers on the clocks that can never go past a certain point,
never to 67, their building number, or 92, the number of their

Time does hold promises, though. It promises that one day soon
will be his birthday, and that eventually he will be able to tie his
shoes the real way, without having to loop each lace first into bunny
ears and then tie them together. It promises that he will one day
become all of the things he feels for the lion in front of him, that
this is why he feels these things in the first place. He will one day
walk like a lion on two legs, pass between the shadows and keep his
eyes forward, focused on something important that only he needs to
know. Time promises that soon the class will pile onto the bus where
he will sit next to fat Jordan Richard and talk about television
shows. Time promises that they will return to the classroom, that it
will smell the same way it smelled when they left, and that before
long his father will come to pick him up and take him home. He will
not have to go to after-school today. They will stop for Chinese food
on the way home, since this is Friday, field trip day, his mother’s
late night at work.

She does not like her husband’s friends. She runs hot water in
the basin and squeezes the dish liquid bottle hard so that half the
contents spew into the stream and bubbles spring up almost instantly.
Her husband’s friends are all fat, all irresponsible, as far as she
is concerned. None of them have changed since college. None of them
have given up their addictions, none of them have figured out how to
provide for anyone as well as her husband has. They should look to
him as a role model, but she is sure they don’t. They see him as a
buddy, because they are still in the habit of having buddies. They
call him in the afternoon to jam, to play, but really just to hang
out and eat pizza and drink beer. When they can’t reach him, they
call her, though she and he are rarely together because she works.

The one friend, Billy, called her four or five times this morning.
It was a busy morning. She did not pick up the phone. She did not
have time to check her messages before lunch, but by 12:10 she was in
the car, on the phone, driving, dialing, moving dizzily toward home.
She had found it hard to hold the phone, she remembers now, gripping
a clean soup bowl firmly and dunking it into the soapy water. She had
a hard time seeing the numbers on the phone, and knowing whom to
dial. She had trouble remembering how to press the buttons with her
fingers and press and release the gas with her foot at the same time.
She had found herself on the phone with Billy, somehow, who told her
things she hadn’t understood then and cannot remember now, now that
she is home with the bubbles and running water and the china that
refuses to get clean. No matter, though, she will wash these dishes
again, and she will think. She will remember her mother’s advice on
how to clean good china. She will remember her middle name, she will
remember Billy’s messages this morning. Nine-something AM, just
after the start of a meeting, Billy: Wondering where he is, we had
to pitch an idea to someone, he’s late, call back
. Closer to
10, Billy: Jude, hey, hoping nothing’s wrong, call back.
Some time later, a message, or maybe many, Billy: Jude, uh, don’t
have your work number, at the house, listen… uh
. This she
remembers. She remembers the length of his stammer, the porousness of
his voice as his uhh seeped through the phone, through her
ears, over her mind like coffee over gravel, come, call, back,
come, pick up, shit

He always said he would have a heart attack. It was a pun to him.
He meant his tortured artist’s soul would be overwhelmed, that his
heart would eventually snap completely out of his control and attack
him for all the love he helped it to produce and forced it to dole
out, much of which, he felt, was never returned, leaving, as he saw
it, holes which would breed anger, which would germinate into little
heart armies, which would eventually overthrow him. He would laugh
about it, and she would tell him to stop smoking, to stop drinking,
to stop gaining weight.

But she cannot think too much about these things because she will
drop the dishes, or she will miss spots of grease and they will not
be clean and she will have to wash them again. People will be coming
over in a few days, and she will need to serve them food on clean
dishes. She has to run the water, she has to scrub, to rinse, to
wash, to dry, to soap up. She does not have to remember what Billy
said, who Billy is, what happened when she turned the corner and saw
her door, her front door, which looked so strange and made her wonder
if she was on the right street, if this was her house after all. She
does not have to remember the date, and she does not have to remember
the time, just for a moment.


The nannies have all come. The mothers have all come with their
big smiles and hugs. The fathers have come, but not his. The
after-school children have already gone down to the basement to be
fed powdery cookies and juice from a can. The boy sits on the bench
in the office while they call his mother. He tells them to call his
father because sometimes his mother is at work and does not get to
answer the phone. They call more people, someone, he does not know
who. The big black clock is moving to a rhythm, he has noticed, and
if he pays attention he can move with it. He can click his tongue or
blink his eyes or bite his teeth along with it, and he can predict
where it will be in three bites, four. Maybe his mother will come
instead, he thinks. Maybe she will surprise him, and maybe she will
cook dinner instead of take-out. He would rather have take-out, but
she is a better cook than Dad, at least. Sometimes he wishes she were
the musician instead of Dad, because he likes the way her meat is
soft and juicy and easy to chew, and he even likes the taste of her
broccoli when he dips it in the juice from the steak. But in the
office, the secretary tells someone else he will have to go down to
after-school. He is not surprised, but he is something—mad,
disappointed, let down. Some adult will come, will hold his hand and
walk him down into the basement. He would rather do almost anything

He would rather sit and learn this clock. He would rather rub his
fingers along the ridges of the corduroy bench cushion until his
father arrives. He would rather not have to hold the hand of the
secretary or some other person, a hand that would be huge and strange
and probably cold or sweaty. He would rather not have that hand lead
him to a place he suddenly hates more than anything in the world. He
looks out the window, down the long hallway to the stairwell. He
hates this hallway now, almost as much as he hates after-school
itself. He hates the white line in the middle of the floor, hates the
muraled walls on either side. There are children smiling on these
walls, different colors of skin and shirts. There are people playing,
holding their arms out, smiling to the center of the hallway, but he
walks straight, still looking at the stairwell. He thinks about
putting his hands in his pocket so the secretary will not come up
behind him and grab them, but instead he keeps them to his side. He
walks not slow but not fast, toward his afternoon. No matter the
activity, he decides, no matter the puzzle-making or puppet show, he
will find a way to draw—cameras, lions, rock walls, wells. He walks
straight and thinks of these things.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s fiction has appeared and/or is forthcoming in the anthologies, What I Know is Me, Baby Remember My Name, and X-24 Unclassified, as well as in the literary journals BLOOM, Lumina, The Amistad, Roots & Culture, Black Ivy, and In/Vision.
She’s received honors and awards for fiction, playwriting, expository writing, and teaching from Temple University, The Boston Fiction Festival, New World Theater, the NAACP, and other organizations.
She holds a B.A. in Afro-American Studies from Smith College and an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Temple University, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. You can reach her at

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