Strongman by Rae Stringfield

Tommy lay draped over his mother’s protruding belly, her short fingernails massaging his scalp. The smell of salmon slowly saturated the air in the living room, wafting under the crack below the kitchen pocket door. They never used to close the door, but for weeks now any whiff of food sent his mother running for the bathroom. Tommy always followed her, even in the middle of a TV show; he’d wait for her to finish then pass her a towel dampened in warm sink water to wipe her face. Tonight a Doogie Howser rerun played on the television, but Tommy had seen it before and wasn’t paying attention; eyes closed, he tapped out letters with the palm of his hand on the firm bump of her stomach: Dash—dot dash—dash dot dash—dot.

It surprised him how quickly the bump seemed to grow, like the baby was rushing to get into the world. Take your time, he patted to the baby now in the Morse code beats he’d memorized for Cub Scouts—the series of dots and dashes displayed on a large poster that had hung in the kitchen until he’d refused to go back to Cub Scouts and his dad had ripped it angrily from the wall. Sometimes he was sure the baby couldn’t understand, but then sometimes it kicked back a response through the layers of Mom separating them, and then he was less sure and so he kept going; he wanted it to know he was out here, that someone in the world would have its back when it was time to come out. 

The deadbolt turned in the front door and Tommy sat up. 

Mom brushed hair from Tommy’s forehead and leaned over to kiss his face like when he was a little kid—lately, she’d kissed his face a lot more; he didn’t mind. “Time to check on dinner,” she said. 

“Hey, Tom?” Dad called from the front hall.

“I’m sure he’s sorry,” Mom whispered before heaving the weight of her stomach and pushing awkwardly to her feet. When her back was to him like now Tommy could almost forget there was a whole person inside her about to join their lives, which made the baby feel not so real at all and his Morse code storytelling silly. 

Dad came into the room, arms full of briefcase and keys and jacket and something square underneath it all. A weirdly huge smile sprouted on his face as he dropped the pile beside Tommy on the couch. 

“I picked up a little something for you on my lunch break,” he said in the happy-cheer voice Tommy recognized from visiting his father at the car lot. From underneath the jacket Dad produced a bright red box with HERO written in bold white letters across the side. 

Tommy did not reach for the box. 

“Strongman,” Dad said. “He’s a superhero, like Batman. Look at him”—he turned the box so Tommy could see a flash of blue and a flowing yellow cape—“he’s strong, he’s serious, just like you when you grow up.” 

That night before climbing into bed Tommy put Strongman on his windowsill, bending his legs at the hip joint so he would sit against the chilly glass. Tommy lay facing the wall, sure he could feel Strongman’s hard plastic gaze on his back from across the room. 

He went to school the next morning without so much as glancing at Strongman, ignoring Dad’s question over the paper at breakfast: “How do you like your new action figure? That’s what they’re called, you know,” now directed toward Mom, “it’s not a doll. These are different.” 

When Tommy got off the bus that afternoon he found Strongman propped not against the window but sitting instead on his pillow. He picked the figure up, trying to decide whether Mom or Dad had moved it. 

“Dad, right?” he asked the toy. He played with the material of the cape, running it through his fingers like a long lock of bright yellow hair. Strongman had bendable knees and elbows, which was cool, but his hair was painted on and that was less cool. Besides the cape, his clothes were painted to his body which was good, Tommy supposed, as clothes were what had gotten him into trouble in the first place.

He carried the doll to his desk and stood him against the coffee mug that held his Crayola pencils, their tips wedged into a bed of multicolored shavings from repeated sharpening. “You can watch while I do math,” Tommy said, voice low enough that Mom wouldn’t hear him from the other room. “I’m doing decimals. You’re serious so you’ll like it.” 

It was hard to pay attention to his homework, especially math, but it helped a little bit to use a brightly colored pencil, and for this he chose purple. He liked the way he could feel the lead transferring onto the paper, liked the bright color when he pushed just firm enough but not so hard that he broke the tip—the feeling of knowing how to balance between those two places, not too much but just enough, to get the color as bold as he liked. 

He glanced up to find Strongman’s eyes on him, painted eyebrows arched in an expression Tommy didn’t understand—not quite happy but something almost warm anyway, kind of like he was waiting for Tommy to respond to something he’d just said. And even though Tommy wanted to respond, he didn’t know what to say and so he went back to his math homework until Mom called him out to watch TV.

A rerun of Press Your Luck was on and Tommy mostly paid attention to the gameshow, which he liked. But more he liked lying with Mom’s hand on his back; she rubbed him for a few minutes before resting her palm between his shoulder blades. Tonight he began to tell the baby that sometimes things are different and sometimes people are different and he didn’t know why it had to be that way, but then a contestant on the show got a whammy and the cartoon animals racing across the screen distracted him and he forgot where he was. So Tommy started over, but his thoughts were too long so instead he just said, It’s OK, even though he wasn’t sure he meant it, because he didn’t want the baby to think the world was a bad place to be. 

***

That night Tommy laid in bed facing the window, listening to the rain outside and watching as droplets of water shiny from streetlight reflection clung to the glass, slowly slipping down the pane, outlining Strongman’s form against the dark of the night. The heat kicked on and air from the vent sent Strongman’s cape fluttering up so Tommy could see the silhouette of his legs, the curves of those thick superhero thigh muscles. Tommy felt a ping in the pit of his stomach—the same feeling he’d gotten that time he glanced for just a second at a classmate’s answers during a math quiz. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, thinking now about Ken and reminding himself how angry Dad had been. 

***

The baby had known about Ken from the beginning because he told the baby everything. He’d tapped out parts of the story, of waking up on the last night of his Cub Scouts camping trip to find the purple-clad Ken doll tucked into the sleeping bag with him, the way the other boys had stood over him with flashlights and laughed when he woke up, how one boy had kicked him and called him a sissy and they’d all laughed harder when Tommy began to cry. After the boys left his tent he didn’t know what else to do so he’d stuffed the doll into his backpack, where it stayed until a few days later when the sick feeling in his gut had faded to match the soft yellow of the bruise now barely visible on his side. Only, he hadn’t told the baby all of that; he’d told what he could until he felt the tears about to come back, then he’d laid still on the bump of his mother’s stomach and she’d held him to her and he’d wished then that he could tell her too.  

Tommy had sat on the floor inside his closet, the door cracked open so only a sliver of light came through. He’d taken the Ken doll out and stared at it. Its time in his backpack had messed up the doll’s hair, so Tommy brushed through it, licked his fingertips to dampen the strands so they’d stay in place. Ken wore a nice purple shirt and had a smile like someone you’d want to be friends with, and Tommy wondered what the other boys found so bad about the doll anyway. He returned the doll to his backpack with more care this time and left the top unzipped so the air inside didn’t get all stuffy. 

The next day and the next, Tommy had returned to his closet. He didn’t talk to Ken, only looked at him. He liked that Ken was tall and skinny because Tommy himself was skinny—not yet tall, but he hoped—and he’d been worried that it would be bad to be an adult and so shrimpy, another thing the other Cub Scouts had called him. But it didn’t seem so bad if he could be Ken when he grew up. Tommy liked Ken and so did a bunch of other people, he reasoned, or else there wouldn’t be a doll of him. 

And because he’d decided he would be Ken, Tommy wanted to know what else he’d be like; he sat on the floor of the closet with the hems of clothes brushing the top of his head and undressed Ken in the dark, peeling the Velcro slowly apart and delicately slipping the doll from his shirt and then his pants, dropping the small versions of clothes onto the pile of Tommy’s own person-sized clothes on the floor beneath them. Before his brain could catch up with his eyes, the closet door opened and light was shining in and there was Dad, whose brain did catch up with his eyes; he ripped Ken from Tommy’s hands. 

“This is not how you’re going to be,” Dad said, thick veins in his neck popping out to show he meant it. Dad took Ken and wrapped him up in newspaper and, without letting them eat breakfast, told Tommy to get in the car; Dad turned onto the highway instead of the road to school and drove all the way to the dump at the edge of town. Tommy didn’t recount this story exactly to the baby because it would take a long time to tap out, but instead simply warned: Don’t make Dad mad.  

Tommy knew Dad had bought him Strongman to show him how he should be, but when he looked at himself in the mirror in the morning before school and thought about being grown up he still thought about Ken. The things he thought about Strongman were different, and he knew somehow that these were also thoughts his dad would not like. 

***

Tonight the living room window was cracked open to let the scent of dinner—cheese, garlic, tomato sauce—waft out into the night, so Mom had draped an afghan over them both on the couch. A new episode of Full House was on the TV, which Mom liked much more than Tommy did. He knew she’d want to talk about the episode over dinner, so he wanted to pay attention but his thoughts wandered to the night before when he’d finally taken Strongman from the windowsill and slipped back into bed. With the comforter pulled up over his head he could barely see, so he’d closed his eyes. 

The plastic of Strongman’s body had become cold from sitting beside the window, and Tommy had liked the surprise of chill against his warm fingertips as he made his way across Strongman’s frame. He’d started at the shoes—only shoes, safe—but then made his way up to Strongman’s shins, where his fingers stopped because his heart stopped for a long second and his breath stopped and his thoughts stopped too. Then he felt himself breathing in again, a lungful of stuffy under-the-blanket air, and his fingers were on Strongman’s thighs. He’d felt the contours on the front, wrapped his fingers around to the back, and finally ran them up the part between Strongman’s legs. 

The laugh track rumbled from the television and pulled Tommy back from his thoughts and into the living room. Dash dash—dot dash—dash dot dash dash—dash dot dot dot—dot, he patted to the baby: Maybe, he told it, I am a sissy. Maybe I’m bad. He didn’t have words for why he was bad, but the feeling in his stomach told him. He sucked in a breath that caught too short. I wish, he tapped, you talked back. Then he told the baby to be normal if it could, not to be different—It hurts, he said. 

When Tommy remembered to pay attention again the show had gone to commercial. He rolled to look at Mom and found her eyes, puffy red, already on him. The blanket slipped off his shoulder when he sat up, realizing he must have missed something important in the episode. Full House was a sappy show, his dad always said so, and Tommy felt bad because he knew he should have paid better attention in case his mom needed comforting. 

“It’s okay, Mom,” he told her, rubbing her arm. 

Mom put her hand on his, then pulled him into a hug so tight it squeezed almost all the air out of him, the rough yarn of the afghan scratching his cheek. “You,” she said into his hair, “are such good boy.” She rubbed his back, and even though cold air from the open window tickled the back of his neck Tommy felt warm. “I wouldn’t change anything about you, Tommy. And I hope this baby has your sweetness.” 

Just then the deadbolt turned in the front hall, but mom kept hugging him. 

“Smells delicious in here!” Dad called. “Dinner ready?”

Mom loosened her hug but didn’t take her arms from around him. “It might be done,” she said as Dad shrugged his jacket off and slung it across the arm of the couch. “Would you check on it?”  

“Been on my feet all day.” Dad rubbed his eyes.

“We need a few more minutes just for us,” Mom said. “Tommy wants to tell the baby more about his Strongman action figure before dinner.” 

“Oh,” Dad said, and blinked just a little bit of the tired from his eyes. “Strongman, good! I’ll check on dinner, you two—two and a half, I guess?—just stay put.” 

With Tommy still in her arms—the warmest place to be—Mom took his hand and placed his palm back on her belly. “I bet this baby is so excited to meet you,” she said. “I would be.” She ran her fingers through his hair while he patted out his story.  

About The Author

Rae Stringfield (she/her) is a fiction writer and freelance editorial consultant who grew up in the Tennessee Valley. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University where she taught creative writing, rhetoric and composition, and special topics honors courses. When not reading or writing, Rae can sometimes be found exploring the nearest mountain trails or working on her quarantine project—renovating a 1993 Fleetwood Jamboree.

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1 reply »

  1. You’re a great writer. Your bio says you are working on a novel, excited to buy a copy when it’s finished.

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