“Mom, it’s eight, I gotta make it to school.” Hector, like all members of his species, had an innate sense of time when it came to appointments. Promptly at 8 A.M., when the school day started, or at other government-set times, his neurochemistry lit up like Christmas and he was compelled to surrender his ego and march toward whatever social structure demanded his attention. It was an odd but welcome evolutionary development that made as little sense as the parallelism in that metaphor. But he had to finish eating.
Claudia watched the time she had left vanish down Hector’s throat. She had at most an hour to borrow and damn her if she wasn’t going to stretch it into a lifetime, adrift and clinging to the couch for as long as possible. But social norms meant that as soon as Hector left, she—no, best not to think about it. Savor this breath before moving on to the next. Borrow this hour before moving on to the next.
“So, Hector.” She’d started a thought she wasn’t prepared to finish, compelling herself to flesh out an empty list of conversation topics, compelling herself so hard the focus was on the necessity of coming up with something rather than the process itself, and finally coming back to her immediate surroundings in hope of inspiration. Something in the room changed more often than not, something other than herself—the TV. She found herself drawn to the glowing flashing pixels meters from her face. Or not their existence, but rather what they represent. Onscreen, a single eye gazed through a level that was balanced on a wooden plank the color of uncooked potato, imperfect with its asymmetric knotting, strikingly realistic in front of the lanky, garishly blue bird the eye was attached to. Presumably the animators gave the bird an anthropomorphic claw and that claw was what’s keeping the level in place. “What is this show?”
“Oh, so it’s pretty random but it’s actually pretty funny.” The bird and its level shrunk to a ninth of the screen, conserving aspect ratio, to reveal there were two people hiding behind the animated short all along. They were seated in armchairs. Someone had also projected onto the back wall the same bird, bodied and level-less in its promotional glory, making it more like a cartoon sandwich with talk-show filling. A man on the right promised they’d be right back. Cut to commercial.
“Ok, so mom. They’re talking about a film this guy made that’s making fun of those classic cartoons. You know the ones where the coyote’s chasing the roadrunner?”
“Wile E. Coyote.”
“And he’s not actually faster than the roadrunner, so he has to order from a special cartoon company called ACME? That sells things like paint you can put on a rock and if you paint a tunnel it becomes an actual tunnel, but only if you’re a roadrunner?” He got that his mother knew what he was talking about. This was more of a transitional detail.
She felt the vibration of the footsteps before she heard them. He’d finished making himself a Mexican breakfast plate from her kitchen’s perpetual lukewarm banquet, walking past the six chairs at the kitchen island, three at the bar, four further away, and one angled toward the front door. It would’ve been odd even if members of this family didn’t enjoy watching the fridge while they ate. He’d positioned himself so he could watch her. He knew. She cast him a ticcy smile in a way she hoped was comforting. The TV asked Claudia if she could please tune in to this network 12 hours from now to catch a different show.
“And so like as that suggests, it doesn’t matter how good or how complicated the trap the coyote sets up is, because all the roadrunner has to do is just do something insultingly simple to get past it? And the roadrunner has this smirk on his face because he knows exactly what he’s doing?”
“And that’s what makes it funny. Because to the audience it’s really the animated version of just like watching someone spend hours making a tower out of blocks and then someone else smacks the whole thing down in a second. And you’re supposed to identify with the person doing the knocking down.”
“Is that so?” Claudia’s the type to enjoy well-timed silliness and praise the voice actor who had to sit in a room more elegantly decked out than most people’s houses and say meep meep over and over again until he got it right, and so was blind to the mocking sadism embedded in that meep meep.
“Yeah, the funny part is how easy it is for the roadrunner to mess things up after seeing how much effort the coyote put into it.” Hector had since finished his empanada. He’s hitting snooze on his biological alarm. “The more elaborate, the better. Most people won’t try to get something right after they fail so many times. The coyote actually has awesome work ethic. He might even really be a genius if he can build all these things from scratch. So you feel good about watching him fail over and over again, because it means he was foolish to put in all that effort. It means you did the right thing by not trying to catch the roadrunner in the first place, or like whatever your equivalent is. You kind of see that sort of thing with internet trolls, is what the host is saying, where they can just say ‘fake’ and treat that like a mic drop and then walk off.”
“So now this film is about, what if the roadrunner’s the one building the machines? What if the whole time, we’re watching the roadrunner go through the process of placing the ACME order, and waiting three business days for all the stuff they ordered from ACME to make it into the middle of the desert, and setting up internet so he can take Khan Academy courses about simple mechanics and staying up until 3 A.M. giggling as he comes up with a slightly more ingenious idea to add to the blueprint and developing a very close relationship with his barista and reading on the internet that he’s stupid for having used the wrong type of wood glue and having to go through a bunch of false starts putting it together and…”
And ordering sentimental items by sentimentality in case she couldn’t take everything she wanted, and figuring out who’s going to live at which mutual friend’s house, and what’s going to happen with those mutual friends afterward, and to the house, the dog, the kid; and could she talk Aileen into a bar or at least a shinier kitchen, and whether this was happening or whether this is just what she thought was happening as her brain ran out of gas. Hector kept up his own list. Parsimony was something he was still working on. Claudia wasn’t going to bask in the smug self-satisfaction of having 40 more years of experience to figure out when to stop, nor was she going to do the unthinkably awkward and stop her child mid-sentence to slowly administer some constructive criticism. That stuff’s guaranteed to make your kid stop talking to you. Hector’d have to figure it out himself or learn five years from now by delivering some similarly unproductive rant to a mean person.
“Mom?” She’d been staring. She snapped back.
“So you’re waiting to see how this thing works?”
“No. I’m waiting for the coyote to do something.”
“You’re rooting against the roadrunner?”
“Yeah, because then something would happen. But it’s not. The anticipation is what makes it funny.”
“I guess that’s true.” This was getting one-sided, comically so. She had to tip the scales to hold his attention. “In the cartoon you know exactly what’s going to happen and it’s still funny. But now they’re making you wait all the way to the end and you have no idea how it’s going to turn out until it’s over.”
“Yeah, I guess they’re funny for opposite reasons. One’s following a formula and one’s poking fun at us for wanting to follow a formula. But they’re still both funny! That’s cool, right?”
The smile she returned was genuine. What’s cool was how easily her youngest son could tether her when she found herself lost in her own world, more than she’d ever been, like he pressed a button on a tape measure and snapped her right back. Like she could take back some of the sparkle in his eyes. The look he gave her now, anticipating some expert flavor of positive response, that’s the face she gave herself in the mirror each morning 30, maybe 25 years ago. It was only natural of her to reflect it.
She lowered her voice and brought her face closer to Hector’s. “Hector, look at this.” She turned away, placing herself in the straight line between the two men, and aligned her pointer finger and thumb roughly where her head had been.
She brought her pointer finger and thumb together, covering her husband’s head. “Squish, squish, squish.”
“Haha, Mom, that’s great.” A pair of disapproving dog eyes drew Hector away from the gesture Claudia’s divorce lawyers didn’t need to know about. Perry was watching this entire bullshit go down. “Mom, did you feed the dog yet?”
“No, not yet.” The dog’s empty stomach is a known problem and we kindly ask for your patience as we work to resolve this issue.
“Ok, I’ll do it.”
Claudia hadn’t expected herself to call out, or to regain control so suddenly after she’d lost it. She was aware of how it looked. Her open fingers reaching out toward Hector, pulling herself almost up out of the couch after him, the boy she was intentionally keeping from school to assuage her selfish desires; she’d be on the butt end of jokes involving Jocasta or helicopters, a dog-eared copy of Love You Forever slammed on the prosecutor’s desk on Day 1 of the Newcrest vs. Mom breaking-and-entering case.
“Hector. Thank you.”
“It’s cool Mom, it’s just feeding the dog, someone’s gotta do it.” He turned the TV off just as the roadrunner entered his eighth minute of being on hold with ACME customer service, the staff being overwhelmed with their vital role in the animated world’s food chain.
The sudden lack of motion was as jarring to Claudia as its existence in the first place. She narrowed her eyes at the void, certain she and the show were in an interrogation that wasn’t over yet, when Hector decided to test his precision-engineered anti-fantasy abilities again.
He didn’t speak a word, just aimed the universal bro-nod in the kitchen’s direction. Now that he wasn’t looking at Claudia, she realized she could take out her phone, but then also didn’t want to seem distracted when Hector walked out for school. She let herself stare. He’d barely aged since the first day they met, although he’d cultivated more mass since letting himself listen to Claudia’s alignment tips. Today, though he usually did a better job of hiding it, his face wasn’t flat so much as focused, the intense concentration lending him an air of mystery Claudia hadn’t ever been able to lift. It didn’t sit well with her. Of all the days—hours—she needed him to be predictable, this was the big one, and she wasn’t expecting much, just that when 10 A.M. came around the Work bell would go off and he would follow the same compulsion that drove Hector out the door.
“Bye Mom and Dad. Peace out. I’ll see you at 3.”
“Goodbye my lo—“
The door latched itself behind him. Hector was gone. Perry was gone. Kendra was gone. Charlie was really gone. Mona was dicking around outside somewhere. And yet the couch had become her prison in this nearly-empty house, Claudia finding herself unable to move as the warden’s eyes burned through her. This next hour would be the worst. This next hour would be the worst and then it’s all over. He looked back down at his partially-finished breakfast.
It had slipped her mind to ask what happens to the roadrunner after his trap gets sabotaged.