Root Bound

When Amanda, Richard, and his mother returned from dinner, tagging covered their fence. OCAX3. Silver. Paint dripped under the c, as if the letter wanted to slip away. The graffiti was big this time, taking up a fourth of the red cedar boards that separated their side yard from the dirt lot. 

Heart in her ears from the alcohol at dinner, Amanda could practically hear the hiss of the spray can. It was only eight. What does it mean that it was so early? she wondered. She took a step back, wished she had a sweater on. She wanted to wrap something around her. But it was May, and it was hot. 

Amanda glanced at her mother-in-law for a reaction, but Katherine only stared. Somehow this had been the first time their house had been tagged with Katherine there. The graffiti had gone quiet every other time she visited, as if the neighborhood understood that an upper-middle-class white lady from a gated community wouldn’t understand tagging even though she sure as shit understood property boundaries. 

“Are you calling the police?” Katherine’s voice spilled down the street. 

Amanda glanced around, but no one was out. “Let’s go inside. You want some tea?” 

Inside, they moved swiftly. Amanda in the kitchen asking Katherine to get the cups while Richard grabbed the paint can in the front closet and went outside. 

“Does this happen often?” Katherine asked.

Amanda shrugged. “Rarely. Once or twice. It’s nothing really.”

Katherine drummed her fingers on the countertops. “Oh, it’s something.”


In the morning, Amanda laced up her running shoes in the living room while Katherine still slept. Richard sat on the couch with his coffee and kept his eyes on the paper. “You up for that?” he asked.

“It’s either that or murder your mother.” Amanda’s voice was too harsh. She could feel it. Dr. Clements’s voice came to her. Give the other the benefit of the doubt. He said it their first session five months ago. The last time she ran—four days ago, the day after her miscarriage—she passed out for a second while waiting for Richard to get her. Richard’s coming from a place of concern, she reminded herself. “I’ll take it slow.” She made her voice gentle. She put her hand on his arm. “Thank you.” 

“Take your time. Call me if you need help.”

Before she was even two blocks away, she felt tired. Her body ached, cramped.  The pregnancy had been a surprise. Amanda had thrown out her birth control when Richard was first diagnosed over a year ago. The chemo was supposed to fry his sperm, and so she thought she was safe when he went into remission. But apparently, like cockroaches, his guys could survive radiation, and one swam and settled and burrowed. Cells multiplied and formed until they let go last weekend in the vegetable department at Von’s. 

They hadn’t told anyone about the baby yet—they were going to tell Katherine this weekend for Richard’s birthday. So at least there was that, Amanda thought. At least, they didn’t have to suffer through more pity. For three months, it had been their secret. They guarded it, hoarded it. After spending eight months fielding cancer questions, they needed something that was just theirs. And like cancer, once the pregnancy got out, the questions and advice would begin. 

The sun hadn’t yet hit the neighborhood. Sprinklers shushed as she ran, splashing her legs, water creeping into her socks. A half a block down, when the bars on windows were replaced with stained glass, her body ached. Her breath caught and suddenly her heart covered her, invaded her belly. But she pushed on, passing the university where Richard taught, passing the high school, moving until the Craftsmen and Victorians gave way to tract houses, where there once was nothing but fields and citrus. On the corner between a tan stucco house and a white one, she stumbled, caught her hand on the wrought iron fence, gripped it, and tried to find her breath. 

Now still, her thoughts caught up with her, tripping over her heels like a dog. Her body twinged, an arc that ran from her side to her heel, and she sat on the curb, head between her legs, willing herself not to pass out. Not again, she commanded her body, as if her body would listen.

Four days ago, she ran. Still bleeding, she strapped on a pad and let herself go. Pushed herself until she tasted iron. Pushed herself until she forgot that just the day before she had a baby and then she didn’t. But then she stumbled. And then she threw up. And then stars covered her eyes until she sat down and called Richard to come get her. 

She wouldn’t do that again today. Turn around, she told herself. Go home, and she did. 

When she rounded her corner, she checked the fence to see if they needed another coat to cover the letters. 


Larger this time. Two of them. One on either end. 

She swore, low, long, under her breath, her heart already too loud in her chest. Looking up, she saw that the rest of the neighborhood had been hit too: the old farmhouse across from her, the mission-style two-bedroom, the cinderblock wall that separated her neighborhood from the university’s parking lot. She just hadn’t noticed it earlier. Car doors slammed one block away at the old packinghouse as vendors arrived for the weekly farmers’ market. It was still early, Amanda reminded herself. Katherine might not even be up yet. She went inside and got Richard. 

Minutes later, Richard stood in front of the fence next to her. “What does it mean?” he asked. “Why again?” 

She stared at the two markings. “I don’t know. Probably nothing.”

“They used to come round a few times a week. Now twice in a day?”

“They got the whole neighborhood. They just must have been out.” 

They both looked down the street at the damage, the buildings all a patchy tan from years of painting. 

“Just remind your mom it’s a nice place to live, okay?” Amanda bent down, dipped a brush in paint, and got to work. 

“She knows.”

Amanda saw Richard’s hand clutch the brush a little tighter. She could see his jaw work. Does she? she wanted to ask. She wanted to be catty, but she thought of Dr. Clements and stopped herself. They hadn’t even gone to therapy since the pregnancy. They had started going when the cancer went into remission and they found that they didn’t know how to go forward, but once the baby appeared, they didn’t want to know what Dr. Clements would have to say. They told each other it was the money. Babies are expensive and so are therapists. They told themselves this, but they knew that really they couldn’t afford any more vulnerability. They didn’t want to sit next to Dr. Clements’ spider plants and begin talking about household chores—Richard always did dishes; Amanda always vacuumed—and end with their fears about the other—Amanda was afraid that Richard didn’t respect her intelligence or her job; Richard was afraid that Amanda thought he was uncaring. There were only so many times that they could admit how deeply scared they were during the cancer and how deeply they depended on the other. 

It was as if the pregnancy suspended everything. All resources went to the baby. It reminded Amanda of the cancer: everything focused on survival. Except this time, it didn’t work. Maybe Richard’s stronger, Amanda thought. Maybe if he was pregnant the baby would have stayed. But, she reminded herself, Richard would never have allowed a baby in the first place. She saw his shoulders tense in a line when she told him the news. She saw him pick at a string on his shirt, twirling it and pulling it until it began to unravel. 

It was quiet but for the whisper of the traffic a few blocks away, the shushing of the brush on the wood as they painted.  “She’ll be gone tomorrow, “Richard said. “This will all stop soon.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Amanda asked.

“We’ll figure it out. We always do.”


But the writing was back after brunch. Amanda saw it from the backseat of their Prius before she realized she was looking for it. “Richie,” she said and then stopped herself. 

Katherine pointed. “Someone did it again. Don’t they know you can’t do this?”

“That’s kind of the point, Mom.”

“Well, who does that? Is it safe here? Are you two safe?”

“It’s just graffiti.”

“But this is from a gang isn’t it?”

“Yes, but this isn’t some television show.” Richard’s hands gripped the steering wheel. “They’re a gang. It’s not warfare.”

“Call the police, Richard,” Katherine said.

He pulled into the driveway, stopped the car. “We know what we’re doing, Mom.” 

“Call the police, Richard. Or I will.” They were sitting in their driveway. Katherine looked behind her to the street. “You should get a gate. If you’re not going to use your garage, you should get a gate.”

Amanda sighed before she could stop herself. “We don’t need a gate, Katherine. Nobody comes in here.”

“It’ll make you feel better,” she said, and Amanda knew she was right.  


They waited for the gang unit to come and take pictures of the writing before painting over it. When the police arrived, Katherine insisted on greeting them even when Amanda and Richard said that it wasn’t necessary, that the police take their pictures for the database and go. 

“Son of a bitch,” Richard said and Amanda looked up to see another marking.

“That’s the fourth time in less than twenty-four hours,” she told the police officer.

“Fourth?” Katherine said, but Amanda ignored her.

“What does it mean? Are they trying to send us a message?” Amanda’s hands felt shaky. 

“It means they have too much time on their hands, ma’am,” the man said, but he wouldn’t look her in the face. He spoke staring past her right shoulder. 

“What are you going to do about it?” Katherine asked.



“What are you going to do about it?” She pointed to the wall. “About this?”

“The pictures go in our database, so we have clear documentation of the gang if we need to prosecute or compile evidence. It helps us sort which is the real gang and which is just kids tagging.”

“So you aren’t going to stop it?”

“Mom.” Richard stood between his mother and the officer. “What can they do? They can’t patrol the neighborhood all the time. If someone wants to mark something, they’ll find a way. You know this.”

“I also know how gangs work, Richard.” Katherine’s voice cut through the air, and Amanda could imagine the force that she used to be in the classroom, making college freshman everywhere shit themselves and switch into sociology rather than anthropology. “Don’t lose control of your space.” She turned back to the officer. “So you’ve seen this a lot, yes?” She pointed to the wall. The man nodded. “Is this the actual gang?”

“It looks like it.”

“Are you planning on using this evidence any time soon?”


“Do I need to be worried about the safety of my family?” Katherine asked.

“We’ve got this, ma’am.” The officer said, and Amanda’s hand went to her stomach for just a moment even though she knew that the baby was no longer there. 

When she first found out, when she sat in their bathroom while Richard was at yoga, she cried. Hard. They both taught and had enough of taking care of other people’s children. They didn’t need to watch over another. Richard went away for months during the summer to research, and while she could come to his digs too, hanging out in the Mojave was not her idea of summer vacation. She felt her patience run thin every day with her fourth graders. How was she going to handle a baby? She wasn’t certain that she even wanted the baby until it left. It was only when she felt that sudden pain, the trickle of blood, the certainty that something was not right, that the certainty of needing that child, of wanting that child, formed. But by then, of course, it was too late. 

Later, the three of them sat out in the yard, their heads under the shade of the umbrella, their legs stretched out in the sun. Their cat lounged in the space that they had cleared for a garden when they first moved in, but they never got the plants in the ground. Now weeds had grown thick from the winter rain and not yet fried by the heat. 

Richard had made them a pitcher of margaritas. Amanda had brought out the chips and guacamole. It would have been nice if it had been the two of them. They could have sat in silence and dozed or read, but Katherine kept tapping her toes on the cement. 

“You know what it is,” Katherine said. “It’s just like—”

A rattle on the other side of the fence. 

They froze. 

A hiss. 

Amanda stared at Richard. “What the fuck?” she mouthed. 

Richard shook his head. 

She checked the time. It was two o’clock. She held up the phone. He shook his head again. Her fingers traced the sweat on the cup. She stared at that time. Two o’clock. “What the fuck,” she whispered. “It’s two o’clock.” Her voice louder. 

Katherine shushed her. 

“It’s two o-fucking-clock,” she shouted it this time. She pushed her chair back.

“Where are you going?” Richard got up, reached out to her. 

“It’s not even night.” Amanda marched to the gate. 

“Amanda,” Richard said. She heard his feet behind her. “Stop.”

Her heart was in her chest just as it was at work whenever she’d have to break up student fights. But she could break up fights. She’d done it before. She’d caught kids—sixth graders—once smoking out in the bathroom, and she broke that up too. She rounded the corner. “It’s two o’clock,” she yelled before she saw him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” And then she looked up and saw the boy. Maybe fifteen. She could picture him in her class five years earlier, and the thought made her slow. 

The boy stood at the fence, paint can in hand. “Fuck you, lady.” He started to run, but she ran after him, caught the tail end of his white t-shirt. 

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” she said. 

“Amanda,” Richard shouted behind her. “Stop.”

The boy pushed Amanda back. Hard. She fell. He started to run, but she grabbed the edge of his khaki shorts and tripped him. “Leave our fence alone.” 

He kicked at her. His foot caught her teeth. Iron flooded her mouth. Blood. She cupped her mouth, and he pushed away. 

She reached out for him, blood on her palms, but she swiped at air. He was already down the street.  Dust caught in her eye. Richard ran after the boy.

“Richie, stop,” Amanda shouted. “Stop.”

He turned around, kneeled in front of her.  “What are you doing?”

“Something needed to be done, Richard.” 

He pulled her up. “How bad is it?”

She took a step away from them, one hand on her stomach, the other on her face. Blood dripped through her fingers. “It was never going to stop. We can’t just pretend it away. Pretend it didn’t happen.”

“I’m not pretending,” Richard said. “I’m being realistic.”

“Well, fuck you and your realism.”

Katherine put her hand on Amanda’s shoulder. “Let’s get you some ice.” She turned to her son. “Richard, get your wife some ice.” He started to speak. “Go,” Katherine repeated. 

For a moment, it was just the two of them. Their silhouettes outlined on the fence, falling on the unfinished graffiti.  I had a miscarriage, Amanda wanted to say. We don’t talk about it. Your son was relieved. But it wasn’t her secret to tell. It was theirs. Richard would be the one dealing with the aftermath, and his mother already hovered because of the cancer. 

“Richard can be too practical at times,” Katherine said. She touched Amanda’s arm for just a second, a rub on her elbow, before pulling away. 

When they got inside, Richard held up a bag of frozen peas and had two Advil on the counter. “Bamboo,” he said.


“Let’s get bamboo for the fence. It’ll be a barrier. It’ll look nice.”    

That night, after four trips to the nursery and sixteen bamboo plants stuffed into their Prius, Amanda, Katherine, and Richard dug in the dirt. Amanda’s body ached. Blood lingered in the back of her throat. But the dirt under her nails felt good. She was in motion. She kneeled on a blanket and pressed into the dense, clay soil, pulling out rocks, breaking up the earth hard from drought until she had a hole twice as wide as deep. Her knees sank into the ground, and it was only when she bent over that she realized she was still searching in her mind for the effects of the miscarriage. 

It was hard not to take the miscarriage personally. Fertility, like cancer, might be explained in biological terms, but Amanda still found herself searching for reasons why, searching for any evidence of something that she did to make it slip away. Because, like cancer, it was easier to understand if it was something that she did. If it was because of exercising too hard, stress, eating fish. When Richard first got sick, they were flooded with advice: a friend beat cancer with organic food, with a positive mindset, with yoga, with a juice cleanse. As if Richard only needed to think and eat the cancer away. As if it wasn’t a disease filled with mutating cells that crept into his body like mold. “He needs to take control of that cancer,” her hairdresser told her, and Amanda had to sit tight lipped for the next thirty minutes as the woman finished. She knew that cancer was biology, that he couldn’t have changed it. She knew the same about the miscarriage, and yet, there she was, wondering. When she drove to work, when she was making dinner, when she was in the shower, she listed the things she could have done differently. She searched for ways that she could have been proactive.  

The sun hadn’t yet disappeared behind the cinderblock wall. It hit Amanda in the shoulders, warming her, making her sweat. She ducked her head and found the shadow. Bending, Amanda dug, pushing the shovel into clay, letting the handle press into her palm until she knew that tomorrow she’d still have a mark. It felt good, this work, this ache in her body that she created.

“This won’t stop them,” Katherine said. “Not right away at least. The plants will need to grow in first. And even then…They can still get to your fence.”

“It’s something,” Richard said. “At least it’ll mask it. It’s the best we can do.”

Amanda paused and measured the hole with the plant. “Give yourself space,” the man at the nursery had said. “You need more room than you think.” And so she dug until she was sure. She broke the plastic away from the plant, cradling the bamboo shoots in her fingers as she put the container aside. Her hands broke into the snarl of roots, dirt embedding under her fingernails. The roots curled into each other, a swirl of white. Amanda twisted the root ball, snapped a few apart.  “Treat the plant rough,” the man had said. “You don’t want it root bound.” She shook the bamboo, the roots now dangling, soil trailing to the ground. Grabbing a handful of compost, Amanda filled the hole, put the plant inside, and pressed until the ground became firm. She patted her hands together.  Earth caked the lines of her palms. She got up and moved to the next. 


  • Rebecca Thomas' work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, ZYZZYVA, The Massachusetts Review, and other places. She is the senior editor for Ms. Aligned 3 and received an MFA from West Virginia University. Originally from Orange County, California, Rebecca now lives and teaches writing in Charlottesville, VA.

  • Bryan Buckley is a photographer and metal fabricator in Massachusetts.