On an unusual day during my childhood, my mother showed up at school and asked me questions about myself. I was twelve or so then, and generally I found my own way home: bus, walk, bike, hitchhike. I hardly recognized her car, waiting there by the flagpole with all the other mothercars until she honked and beckoned me inside.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” I said at the window.
“Get in, William,” she said, pushing open the door. “How was school?”
“Why are you picking me up?”
“Get in,” she said, pushing the door open more.
I had, right then, a fast stab of fear in my stomach, like maybe she would kidnap me. Except for the fact that she had birthed me. It was confusing.
I settled into the passenger seat.
“So,” she said, as she pulled out of the school lot. “How was your day?”
“Fine,” I said.
“How are your friends?”
“Fine,” I said.
“That’s good. What did you do today?”
“We played war. How are you?”
“You played war on the playground?”
“War is not a game, William. Your uncle—”
“I meant we played tag. I forgot. Sorry.”
“Oh. And was that fun?”
“I’ve always enjoyed tag myself.”
“Tag is a classic.”
We turned onto the main street, by the shopping area. My mother used to work nearby, as an administrative assistant, but she had lost her job the month before. “We have nothing left to administer,” they told her.
“And who do you like the best of your friends?” she said.
“Mom,” I asked, picking at the seatbelt, “why are you here? Are we going somewhere? It smells like french fries—can we stop for french fries?”
“Is there a friend you like more than the others?”
“Not really,” I said. “I like them all the same.”
She eyed the driver behind us in her rearview mirror, waving as she changed lanes.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Nowhere special. Do you have someplace to be?”
“Do I have someplace to be?”
“Good then. Now why don’t you tell me one of your friends’ names.”
“Why are you so interested all of a sudden?”
“I just want to know one of your friends’ names,” she said, slowing down at a light.
“Gath,” I said.
She smiled straight ahead, but her eyes were wandering.
“What do you mean, sure?”
“That sounds about right,” I said. “Can we stop for food?”
“But is it his real name?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know their names,” I said.
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
“You don’t know your friends’ names?”
I opened the glove box to discover many neat stacks of paper about cars and their insides.
“So what do you call them if their backs are to you?”
I thought about it for a second. The car in front of us had a kid facing out in the backseat, waving and waving.
“I call them Hey or You,” I said, waving back.
She almost laughed, but it turned into a grunt. The kid turned left. Bye. We drove into the mall and I sat in the parking lot while she went shoe shopping. Half an hour later, she returned, smelling suspiciously of chocolate cake. “The shoes in there,” she said, “are so expensive!” She handed over a bread roll. She didn’t want to bring me in with her because last time mall security had found me quietly moving items in the department store into the wrong departments.