Fiction | Short Story

We Can’t Be Good at Everything

He is forced into farcical attempts to catch her attention. Every other moment of his life has been arranged to this purpose, so why should his son’s birthday be any different?

The balloons have been blown up, the cakes frosted to within an inch of their lives. An inflatable bouncy castle has been erected in a corner of the yard, and napkins and wet wipes have been laid up in their thousands for the inevitable clean-up operation. The boy—the sweet, wondrous, confounding boy with his downy hair and inexplicable sorrows—is the ostensible reason for the gathering. It is his third birthday. But the boy’s father, Miles Warden, has only agreed to host the party because it offers the rare occasion to be in the presence of a celebrity: his own mother, Fenella Warden.

At one point he’d had the bright idea to make everyone wear name tags, had even floated it to Jill. He’d gotten the idea from Fenella, who also suffers from face blindness. She insists everyone wear name tags on set, and because she’s so important and everyone’s livelihoods depend on their continued employment as part of her crew, they all go along with it. The few times he’d visited her somewhere on location as a kindergartener, he remembered feeling comforted by the familiarity of everyone wearing their names on their chests.

His lips touch the skin of her cheek, which is still smooth and unlined, even at age sixty-two. He assumes she’s had work but if so, it’s discreet enough to allow her to engage in the illusion of agelessness. She smells exotic and expensive. Everyone else calls her Fenny, but Miles has always preferred the formal term. He can’t recall ever having called her Mom, but that in itself isn’t unusual among his circle, where the parents all tend to be of the progressive type whose greatest longing is for their children to regard them as chums rather than authority figures.

Miles: Even his name feels like a yearning, her desire to put some distance between herself and home. They are almost the same height. When she wears heels, she towers over him, over everybody. “Where’s my beloved boy?” she asks. For a moment, he might imagine she’s talking about him, her only son. Her bright, dark bird’s eyes dart around the yard, searching. “Ah, there he is!”

Can you ask her if she’ll pack me in her suitcase next time?

Getting paid to travel and eat—where do I sign up?

Man, Fenny is so kickass! You’re so lucky to have a mom like that.

You must be so proud of her.

I want to be her when I grow up!

Could you ask Fenny to sign this book?

“Your shrimp was a big hit,” he says quickly.


She did her best, Miles.

But that’s just the point, Dad! Her best wasn’t good enough! Like, not even close. Why couldn’t she have been better at it?

His father’s face had shut down then, because as usual he wouldn’t brook any criticism of his wife, the person who had left him to bring up a child single-handedly while she gallivanted around the world, amassing worshipful fans. That his father had done an excellent job didn’t, in Miles’ eyes, mitigate her from the responsibility of having abandoned them.

Even now, he is impressed by how effortlessly erudite she is. People are often surprised to find out she writes all her own books and her scripts for the show, after which they tend to gush about how “genuine” she is, how “authentic.”

“Well, didn’t they?” she pressed.