There’s nothing about nunchucks that makes C. Alice Newman smile. They’re “violent, flashy, and outmoded,” she told me last week over pie. When her stepson, Ben, buzzed her doorbell, Alice saw him on the security camera, saw his plastic nunchucks, and pressed the intercom. “I told him to get rid of them before he came up,” she reported, “and get rid of anything else violent while he’s at it. He knows better.”
Alice is a member of a book group composed solely of stepmothers; they meet twice a month to discuss literature that treats their particular role. “We’re basically always the bad guys,” says Shea Stetson-Brown, the group’s founder. “And it’s a relief to look at these stereotypes, and say, hey – that’s not how I see myself.” Last month’s title was “Warm and Wonderful Stepmothers of Famous People.” At our meeting, Alice had the novel “More Than You Know” tucked in her purse. Though the margins were full of her left-leaning slant, Alice confessed that most sessions are spent dissecting more personal narratives. For instance: nunchucks.
Ben receives a weekly allowance of $10 from his mother, Claudia. This money is deposited in a savings account in Ben’s name (he’s saving for a Nintendo DS). Last month though, to Alice’s dismay, he got his hands on some discretionary cash. Claudia’s dog Soupy got sick and puked under the kitchen table, and Claudia heard the retching, saw the mess, clutched her pregnant belly and started to cry. Ben ran in and offered to help, and she felt guilty about her ten-year-old doing such a thing alone until he proposed a $5 bonus. (And, Alice adds, “He says he couldn’t smell anyway on account of a cold, which I do not believe.”)
The nunchucks were $1.99 and Ben bought them at Jack’s World on the way to Alice’s apartment. The rush of his solo trip to the counter and pulling the bill from his pocket must have momentarily overwhelmed his judgment, because it’s true, Ben should have known better. He’d been in trouble with Alice before.
“He took my bra and he tried to hang my cat,” Alice said.
It soon became clear that the only evidence Alice had of Ben’s attempt was flimsy at best. She had left Ben alone in the apartment while she went to the UPS store to ship a Christmas gift to her sister. The store was closed, and she turned back. Ben must not have heard Alice return, because she entered her bedroom and saw Ben standing in front of her open closet. The top drawer of the dresser was open, Ben was holding a bra and the cat by the scruff of her neck, and he was looking up at the clothing rail. “I know what I saw,” Alice said when I challenged her conclusion. It was hard for me to think of what Ben might have been doing, but I thought messing around was a finer bet than hanging the cat. Alice remains convinced – and her group supports her. I spoke with Nedra Tomasino, who sees the situation as “fucking classic.”
Nedra’s tormentor is named Rougie, and she is fifteen and a winker. “Everything nice, everything sincere from her, is like, followed by this,” she groaned, and executed an overexaggerated wink, accompanied by a slight shoulder shimmy. “I think I’m doing something nice for her, and then there it is.” Nedra winked again. It all stems from a chat they had shortly after Nedra married Rougie’s dad. Apparently Nedra told Rougie that she’d never try to take the place of Rougie’s late mother, but she hoped that they could be friends, and she felt lucky to be a part of Rougie’s life. Then Nedra had winked. And now she can’t escape it.
Another group member who supports Alice’s interpretation, Joanna Clemmens, has encountered real violence from her stepchildren, Genny and Andrew. Genny is six and clings to Joanna during the day but at night screams and slaps at her, crying for her mom, who’s across the country in Washington State. Andrew, 17, just breaks things. He’ll idly pick up a decades-old china egg and let it slip through his hands. He’ll knock over flowers, and spill a gallon of Hi-C on the kitchen floor, and apologize for it all. “But he never breaks [my husband] Carl’s stuff,” Joanna explained.
With the blessing of her book group, Alice responded to the cat episode by eliminating Ben’s unsupervised time and axing his kitchen privileges. (“No knives.”) So Ben really should have expected Alice’s nunchuck decree. He didn’t. Over at his mom’s, those nunchucks meant he’d been a good boy. Here with Alice, they were proof of his delinquency. What did he think about as he sat out there on the stoop with those $1.99 nunchucks, waiting until it got dark and his dad got home? Alice says he opened his backpack and did his homework, but he kept the nunchucks tucked in the back waistband of his pants, so they would be visible on the security camera. After he finished the homework, he beat the stair railing with the nunchucks for an hour.
I asked Alice why she didn’t go downstairs and grab the plastic weapon and haul Ben inside. “I thought about it,” she replied, and dragged her fork through a few final wisps of whipped cream on her plate. “But he was sleeping at Claudia’s that night. I can only go half-way with this kid.”