“Y’know, they must be the family that bought the Barlows’,” Mary Sue Jamison mused. “That FOR SALE sign came down a few days ago.” If she’d known, she’d have worn something more interesting than a worn gray University of Maryland t-shirt with her fading brown hair than a long, simple ponytail.

            With practiced grace, Ruthie Weiss disengaged her nipple and slipped her breast back into her bra, buttoning her sleeveless white cotton blouse, patting her baby’s back for a little burp. “The dad’s kinda short,” she noted, fingers picking at her heavy red hair, “but in good shape. He’s been pushing her for fifteen minutes or so without a break. Early forties?”

            “She’s adorable, with those big almond eyes and straight black hair,” Said Karen Romano, the only one of the mommies wearing a loose blue India-print dress. “Adopted? She’s clearly Asian and he’s obviously not.” The flying black mane and golden skin of the child in the swing contrasted with the man’s sun-pinked pallor and close-cropped yellow-orange hair.

            “Well, George says the mother is Vietnamese,” Nelda Harris put in, her dark eyes alert and her cocoa-brown skin goose-pimply since race had popped into the conversation.

            “Jeez,” Peg Alviar teased, “somebody knows something.” She yelled at her older daughter to slow down, satisfied that she’d steered the conversation back into placid waters.

            “Well, I took the kids with me to the Safeway Saturday morning, okay? So George could sleep late,” Nelda said, her grin alive with conspiracy, “and saw the moving van when we came back. Only the movers in sight. Well, George had wandered over, but he returned in twenty minutes or so. Men are so exasperating at these things! He’d gone across the street to help, but the movers did all the work while George talked to the husband. He actually didn’t get the man’s first name! Last name is Collins, though, and the wife’s is Minh. Collins writes books—trust George not to find out what kind—and Minh’s a lawyer or something for ‘some government agency,’ in George’s words. One child, sex not reported. Honest to God, men make you crazy.”

            “Probably discussed baseball,” Peg chuckled.

            “Well, no, it was the Barlows,” Nelda replied. “Why they moved, what good neighbors they’d been, and what tools George and Fred Barlow shared.” More comfortable joking about their husbands than looking at the new daddy with Baryshnikov’s ass, the mommies laughed their quiet laugh.

            The Romano sons raced over to their mother for some Juicy Juice®, and while Karen handed it out, she asked what the man had told them. The sum of their intelligence: the girl, named Angie, didn’t have a dog. Then the boys vanished, trailing squeals.          

[To be continued…]  


            When the affair ended, nobody in the playgroup took the blame for saying the new daddy in the cut-off jeans had Baryshnikov’s ass. Still, they all remembered Mary Sue Jamison telling the other women, “He’s cute.” The guy waved a hairy black horse fly away and murmured a hello towards the maple-shaded benches where they sat in their faded shirts and snug shorts.

            “Jeez, nice smile,” Peg Alviar whispered. The other four nodded, as if in reply to his greeting. The new daddy in the neighborhood lifted his three-year-old-or-so into the baby swing and started pushing.

            The Romano boys and Peg’s older daughter dashed over to take a look at the newcomers, asking questions while their mommies strained, without looking, to hear the answers. For a moment it seemed as if the Alviar girl would climb into an empty swing and call to be pushed, but the slide won out. The new daddy remained alone with his daughter, a little sweat glistening on his forehead.


            The playgroup met two or three times a week now that summer had started and their kids could not bear being kept at home. As often as not, the mothers gathered in the little recreation park at the end of the two streets that bordered their neighborhood, Maple Lane and Cedar Terrace. Otherwise they congregated at one of their homes, on whichever terrace, unless it rained.

            The playgroup lived in a suburban community—not one of those suburbs that thrive in film and fiction, with manicured lawns and pedicured wives, but a neighborhood in which every budget had to be stretched, ten minutes’ drive from the Metro train between Washington and Maryland. Each of the homes in the Baxter Heights area of Takoma Park centered around a comfortable little two-story postwar house, with an extra room downstairs that a previous owner had converted from a screened-in porch. Each backyard differed from the others, each had its own deck or patio with table, chairs, a charcoal grill and a chez lounge. Every flowerbed dazzled with bright colors, shaded by fully-grown yellow-green leaves.  Every lawn, in its turn, looked a little overdue for mowing, strewn with toys and dandelions.

            Unseen forces created the neighborhood’s demographics. If there had been a public square, it would have been built around a rusting biological clock. Most of the couples were in their late thirties and early forties, though the kids, if they had any, were under eight. A year or two of the public schools sent a lot of families elsewhere.

            Don’t call the women housewives, not in 1997, for Chrissake. The wives, feminists of the soft kind, had put off choosing between careers and children as long as they could. The conclusion was not assumed but thoughtfully discussed and decided that the mothers should stay home for the first few years, rather than find a good pre-school.

            An economy of numbers brought the playgroup together. While they enjoyed a couple of hours talking to each other, the reduced intensity of the mother-child interaction made it restful to sit around with other women, raising an occasional eye or voice as the big kids—the oldest being four—tore all over the park while the little ones giggled on the gym set and the two babies cooed on a blanket.

[To be continued…]