WE’RE washing down the kitchen in the vacant basement apartment, my mother and I. She opens the cabinet beneath the sink and acknowledges the mildew huddled in the damp corners. “I will destroy you,” she whispers, slowly fingering the trigger on the can of disinfectant. “You’re scum, do you hear me? Scum.”
Personally addressing each stain is a telltale sign that my mother is entering her vengeful stage. I turn on the radio hoping to distract her. “Please, no,” she says. “Not that, not now.” She says it as though I were a suitor trying to work my hand beneath her apron on the first date. That’s when I slam my fist against the refrigerator door and say, “Ma, I’m lonely.”
It’s something I saw someone do last night on TV, a hand-some, sunburnt pioneer boy heading west in a soiled Conestoga wagon. In the movie the mother gathered the boy in her arms and stroked his head, offering words of comfort and staring off into the bright horizon that suddenly appeared before her.
In the basement apartment my mother wrings out her sponge and says, “Lonely? You’ll find out what lonely is if you don’t quit acting like a goddamned monkey and get on the stick. Then you’ll see lonely.”
A monkey? Bless her heart, my mother thinks I would be lonelier without her.
“You’re the man now,” she said to me after my father died, “you’re the man.” Then she turned to Popeye, our calico tom, and said, “You’re the cat now, Popeye, you’re the cat,” as if she’d always worn a veil over her face and had never known we were men and cats all along.
The night after his funeral my mother smashed the Pontiac windows with a golf club. I was in bed watching TV when I heard the noise and came running out barefoot in my robe thinking it was someone, some kids maybe, and there she was standing beside the car with this golf club. The windshield was webbed and sagging, and she stepped back to take another crack at it. There was a moth on her forehead. I took the club from her hands and said, “Mother, listen to me. This is our car. Why not the Dinellos’ or the Ablemans’?” She said she preferred the Pontiac as she was within the rights of the law to destroy her own property.
Another moth, this one brilliant and spotted, lighted on her shoulder, and we all watched as the windshield heaved and collapsed, raining chunks like crushed ice onto the dash and front seat.
We replaced the windshield with plastic as a temporary measure. I ride shotgun, my head out the window like a dog, while my mother drives slowly, cursing, the cigarette poking out of her mouth like a fuse. The drivers behind us grouse and honk their horns.
“Listen to them,” my mother says, tightening her grip on the wheel, “all in a big hurry to meet some big stinking heart attack.” It embarrasses me that she cannot recognize herself in others. “The trick is not to allow yourself to be consumed by your anger,” she whispers between clenched teeth, her knuckles white. She says she would like to have his body exhumed so she can spit on it.
“That’ll cost money.”
“We’ll go there at night with shovels, just the two of us,” she says. “What’ll it cost?”
I say, “He’s rotting flesh now, and long fingernails. You don’t want to see that.”
“I would pay dearly to see a thing like that. Name your price.”
That was months ago, before she developed her theory that he wasn’t really dead at all. During the latter period she spent a great deal of time behaving in a clairvoyant fashion. Placing her index fingers to her temples she would pronounce, “Right this minute he’s sitting beside a puddle no, a pool. I see a swimming pool and a. . checkered bathing suit, a wet bathing suit. I see a diving board and. . what’s this? I see a cocktail napkin that reads. . ‘Fort Cheswick’ no, I take that back! It reads ‘Port Selznick. . Country Club.’ There’s something written beneath it. . something in very tiny letters. . I’m seeing the letter H. . and the letter V and. .” At this point she would surrender her head to the tabletop. “Goddamn you,” she would say. “I’ve lost it. I was this close, Dale, and then I lost it when you cracked that ice tray.”
I would then pour my Pepsi and remind her that we had both seen his body after the accident. We saw his arm torn off at the shoulder and lying in a separate bag beside him.
“He was in a drawer,” I’d say. “Normal, healthy adults do not choose to spend their time in a refrigerated morgue. If he had it in him to play this sort of joke, chances are we would have known it before now.”
“He lied to me for fifteen years so why should I believe him flow? Maybe he’s alive with one arm. It happens.”
My mother’s sister Margery refers to this as “Evelyne’s stage of denial.” Since my father’s death my mother has grown closer to her sister Margery, who provides her with slogans such as “God doesn’t close one door without opening another,” “One day at a time,” and, my mother’s favorite, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
I feel sick.
I’m cleaning the refrigerator in the basement apartment when I find two squirrel tails in the crisper and another one, attached to the genuine article, wrapped in newspaper in the freezer. The squirrel looks pathetically eager, its paws frozen beside its terrible, crowded mouth.
“Oh, that Nick Papanides was one sick customer,” my mother says, referring to the former tenant. “He and I were standing in the backyard one day last month when Popeye dragged home a squirrel, the way he’ll do sometimes it wasn’t quite dead yet. It was putting up a fight but you could tell this one wasn’t going to climb any more trees. It was pitiful. We’re standing there when Nick asks, ‘May I?’ So I said, ‘Hell, it’s a free country knock yourself out.’ Then he throws a towel over the damned thing, stomps on it a few times, and carries it into the apartment. He used to cook them with eggplant,” she says. “I can’t say I’m too sorry to see him go. You couldn’t pay me to eat a goddamned squirrel it’s nothing but a rat with long fingernails and a pretty tail.” She pauses to scratch at her ankle with the rough side of a sponge. “There’s a type that rents basement apartments,” she says. “They need a low ceiling to match their self-esteem. You couldn’t pay me to live with pipes eight inches over my head. We should try renting out the attic get some cheerful people around here for a change.”
I thought Nick was cheerful enough. He was no Shirley Temple but neither was he the despondent mole my mother would have me believe. Before he moved away, Nick and I would lie upon his big water bed, naked, listening to my mother’s voice and footsteps as she paced back and forth with the telephone.
“She is laying each of her cards upon a table tonight,” Nick would say.
It killed me, the way he put a phrase together. Instead of “off the deep end,” he’d say “into the part where the water is more high than your head.”
One way or another you find things out about people. After a tenant leaves, we always find something, objects hidden and for-gotten about or just left behind. We’ve found bottles of pills and birthday cards, cassette tapes and jewelry and pictures drawn on the backs of playing cards. We use these things to put together a better idea of the people we thought we knew.
Tom Dodges, for example, left behind two ink-stained bras, a mason jar of gasoline, a book on ventriloquism, and a pillow-case stuffed with dog hair. Tom Dodges, a grown man! He moved out to attend a technical college and was replaced by a loud, chumpy dope my mother and I refer to as “The Sportsman.” The Sportsman worked as a printer and presented me with dozens of single-sheet calendars picturing naked women leaning against motorcycles or bent over the hoods of troubled cars: women holding tools as if they were trophies they had won for being pert and shameless.
“Add this to your collection,” he would whisper. After a while I stopped opening them.
The Sportsman was clinically obsessed with any game involving a ball. Any round object that moved along the ground or through the air; smacked with a bat or club, kicked, dribbled, passed by hand or prodded with a cue, mallet, or paddle it commanded his full attention. He followed all games, either on television or radio, the volume so loud that it could be heard all the way down the street. It was his habit to coach the players from wherever he happened to be. “Cahill, you shithead, what’s your problem? Jesus Christ, you couldn’t catch a fucking cold. Hand that uniform over to your mother, why don’t you, you faggoty piece of shit.”
It got on my nerves in a big way. Even with tissue stuffed into my ears I could still hear him from my bedroom. I made it a point to avoid him, but certain people can’t take a clue. The moment I passed his window or open door he would call out, “Hey, Dale, you watching the game?”
“You’re kidding me, right? The Stallions are ahead by eight points with twenty minutes left in the game and you mean to tell me you’re not watching? What are you, some kind of an apple-polisher, running off to polish some goddamned apple?”
He would rapidly rub his hands along the sides of his sweaty beer can, a dopey illustration of the verb polish, and then, thank-fully, the televised ball would regain his attention and I was able to pass.
The hands-down worst day of my entire life was the October afternoon when the Sportsman took me to an actual football game. He had bought the tickets in advance and arranged everything with my father. I would sooner eat a Vaseline sandwich than witness two minutes of a football game on TV, let alone an actual, live game. I began feigning illness three days in advance, unforgiving chills accompanied by memory loss and a stiffening of the joints. I was in my bedroom, moaning, when the Sportsman arrived at my door, accompanied by my father.
“Who are you and what do you want with me?” I asked, my stiff arms raised against the light. “I’m so cold, so. . cold. When will it stop being winter? So. . cold. If you have any decency, sirs, you will leave me alone to die with dignity.”
“Get up and get dressed,” my father shouted, ripping the blankets from the bed. “Either that or you’ll go in your pajamas.”
I gave it another shot. “Go? Go where? Are you taking me to the hospital? Will it be warm there? Who are you? Are you one of the soldiers who visited yesterday? I told you, we have no more bread. We’ve had no bread for weeks.”
“Hey, my man,” the Sportsman said when I met him a few minutes later on the sidewalk. “Give me five.”
We took a bus to the stadium and this bus, it crawled while Mr. Congeniality struck up a game-related conversation with every passenger, all of whom seemed to find him charming. The stadium was even worse. Once the game began, the Sportsman was riveted, screaming and leaping up from his seat, rooting with the best of them. It was a safe bet that he wasn’t going anywhere until long after the last ball was mauled. I excused myself and took the next bus home. Nobody was there, so I rooted through the kitchen drawers and found the spare key to the Sportsman’s apartment, figuring I would go down and investigate for a while. I’ve done it with every tenant, and why shouldn’t I? It’s my house too, partly. I wanted to discover the Sportsman’s pathetic secrets: the sheets stained with urine and decorated with hairs, the magazines beside a foul toilet, the medication and letters they all keep.
One time, while Tom Dodges was out of town, I found, beside a shit-smeared pillow, a magazine picturing naked men, women, and children summering at a nudist colony. These people went about their business, picnicking, cycling, enjoying a barbecue they were just like anyone else except that they were naked. Most of them, the parents, were uninviting in their nudity. I mean, you really wouldn’t want to see them that way, but in this magazine you had no choice. Someone, probably Tom, had accentuated this magazine, with a ballpoint pen. The nudists were provided with thoughts and dialogue, crudely contained within cloud-shaped bubbles that poured from their mouths. “You want a nice big hot dog?”
When Tom returned from his vacation I looked at him differently. I acted the same, but in my mind he became a specimen. Every time he greeted me I pictured those nudists and the filthy pillow. I had always liked Tom and my experience in his apartment made a deep impression on me. Any of us could die tomorrow. It happens all the time. Any of us could have our home broken into and examined by thieves. If I can enter a tenant’s apartment, who’s to say that he can’t enter mine? I have learned to destroy all the evidence. It isn’t enough to hide it; you have to burn it and trust that the important secrets will be held in your mind.
I entered the Sportsman’s apartment because I wanted to see him differently, to see through him with absolute conviction. I felt I deserved the sensation after everything he had put me through. So I went. I let myself in, quietly, and discovered my father and Aunt Margery on the foldout sofa bed. They were actively naked and it took them a moment or two to notice me standing there.
“Jesus,” my father said, covering my aunt’s face with a sofa cushion.
“Jesus Christ,” my aunt said in a muffled voice, struggling against the pillow.
I said, “Oh, Lord.”
It strikes me as funny that Jesus’ name was invoked at this time and with such sincerity. Jesus, in pictures, has a beard and long, healthy-looking hair. His eyes are moist with pain and compassion, pretty eyes. That is all I know about him, yet, in times of crisis, his seems to be the name that comes to our lips whether we believe or not. In that regard he has a very good reputation. The details of my father’s naked body do not bear reporting. When he stood up I looked away. I saw a dress neatly folded upon the TV set, placed beside a bra and panties. I saw my father’s pants and briefs, a tangled ball beside the coffee table.
“Jesus,” we all said again, in unison. “Jesus Christ.”
The Sportsman moved out toward the start of the upcoming baseball season, just before my father died. He left behind an NFL cigarette lighter, a sink full of dirty plastic dishes, three motel bath towels, countless newspapers and magazines, his unused broom and mop, and stickers: team stickers plastered to the windows, the refrigerator, the kitchen cabinets, even the bathtub! It took my mother and me hours with razor blades and lighter fluid to ease them off. The Sportsman left behind a real mess.
My father hadn’t planned on dying and left behind everything, including a small notebook hidden in the drawer of his desk at work. It is a child’s notebook, the cover decorated with satisfied cartoon bears presenting one another with bright balloons. Inside he stupidly recorded all of the women he had screwed with, their names, the color of their hair, a pathetic, juvenile assessment. In the notebook my mother is never referred to.
He died on a warm spring day when his company car was sideswiped by a Mayflower van. He looked over at the place where his arm used to be and literally died of shock. Many of the names in my father’s notebook are familiar. These are women we know from the stores we frequent, from the neighborhood we live in. He died of shock but look at us, carrying on!
My mother was vacuuming the carpet in the basement apartment when she discovered some pictures on the floor of the bed-room closet. She takes her glasses from her smock pocket and holds them before her eyes. “Oh, that Nick Papanides, I had him figured out right from the start. A Greek god on loan from Mount Olympus to the women of America.”
I ask to see the pictures and she tells me I am too young.
“Greeks,” she says, “Greeks are just Jews without money.” Mom is down on the Jews since discovering my father had carried on with Sandy Ableman, a former best friend.
“Honest Ableman,” she says, raising her voice over the noise of the vacuum cleaner. “She’d say ‘Evelyne, who but your best friend can you rely on for the truth?’ Then she’d say, ‘And the truth is that you need to cut your hair. You’re too old to carry off that length. It might work for a teenager, but face it, Evelyne, you’re no teenager. Far from it.’ So what did I do? I cut my hair! Then she got honest about my clothing and the shade of yellow I used on the front steps. So I stopped wearing bright colors and repainted the stairs that shit-brown color she recommended. I’d say, ‘Oh, thank you, Sandy, thank you,’ and all the while she was sneaking around with my husband. She’d say, ‘The truth hurts, Evelyne.’ The truth! Do you know what I’ll say the next time I see her?”
“We can grow your hair back, Mother.”
“You know what I’ll say the next time I run into that lying whore?”
I know. She’ll say the exact same thing she said the last time we ran into Sandy Ableman. She’ll say, “Sandy, it’s so good to see you.” Then Mrs. Ableman will take my mother’s hand and say, “Evelyne, I have been meaning to call you. How are you and Dale making out these days?” Then my mother will look at the ground and look at me and say, “We get along.”
“You know what I’ll do the next time I see that flowering Judas?” My mother lifts the vacuum cleaner by the hose and gives it a violent jerk. It falls to its side, helpless and struggling. Something has been shaken loose, and she stands there, glaring down at the vacuum cleaner, both of them panting.
“Let’s take a little break,” I say. We’ve brought a can of Pepsi and a thermos of coffee a thermos, even though we live right upstairs. The thermos allows us to feel that we’ve gotten away. I pour her a cup of coffee and hand her a couple of Tums. My mother washes her hands and looks around the room in a panic.
“That Greek bastard, where’s the little TV I loaned him? Can you believe this? He stole the television set and I can’t even take it out of his security deposit because he never gave me a god-damned security deposit. He said, ‘Next time, next time,’ and I trusted him and he walked off with my TV set. It wasn’t much, but it worked. That lousy shit. ‘You can’t trust anyone’ I’m going to have that tattooed on my hand in capital letters.”
She eats her Turns and they seem to have an immediate effect. “What the hell,” she says, her lips chalky. “Why let ourselves get so worked up over a black-and-white TV set? The damned thing didn’t even have an antenna. Who cares? Let him choke on it. He was garbage just like all the rest of them. And speaking of trash, have you run into that Spacely woman at school lately, your father’s favorite brunette?”
“That’s Spakey, Mother, and no, I haven’t seen her. She’s a junior high teacher, and I’m at a different school now, remember?”
“Well, won’t she come to your school sooner or later for a PTA meeting or something?”
“She’ll have PTA at her own school.”
“Well, won’t she have to visit your school for some kind of a conference or something?”
I know what she’s getting at, so I give up and say, “Yes, sooner or later I guess she will.”
“And what are you going to say when you see her?”
This is one of my mother’s tests and I have no choice but to satisfy her with an appropriate answer. I take a sip of my Pepsi and stare out the window where I watch the Dinellos’ dog squat and void in our front yard. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, Miss Spakey, that was very nice of you to give me an A in your class. My father only gave you a C.’
“You can do a lot better than that,” my mother says, lifting the thermos cup to her mouth.
“All right, I’ll say, ‘Miss Spakey, isn’t it ironic that while I was busy adding and subtracting you were dividing and trying to multiply.'” I know this is bad. My cheeks flame. My mother looks away, a kind gesture on her part. “OK, how’s this? I’ll say, ‘By the way, Miss Spakey, are you still teaching math or did they transfer you over to home wreck?’
My mother laughs, my reward. “Oh, that’s rich,” she says. “Home wreck, that’s very good.”
I think it’s just OK. Given time, I’m sure I could think of something better but, unlike my mother, I lack the ability to dwell on these vengeful scripts. I do it for her but personally I just don’t work that way. I’m certain that, when and if I ever see Miss Spakey again, we will both look away. She was my seventh-grade math teacher. Seventh grade, that was two years ago. Did she sleep with my father while I was her student? Did their union affect my grades? Did she look at me any differently? I, personally, do not care one way or the other. I don’t wish her the worst, nor do I wish her the best. I don’t wish her period. Her very existence is a mistake, but it is not my mistake, so I’d rather not waste my time thinking about it. My mother, on the other hand, can’t stop thinking about it. I can practically see the thoughts as they stomp about my mother’s skull. They are the size of a cigarette lighter, yet their feet are heavy and dangerous and they give her no peace.
“Have you given any more thought to that W.S.?” she asks.
W.S. was my father’s only initialed blond encounter. “W.S. Blond (today) Sack of Hammers!!!”
My mother went through his address book, his wallet, his file cabinet, and, finding nothing, resorted to the phone book. It’s the not knowing that kills her. Unlike the adulteresses she does know, my mother had taken to calling these W.S.’s. She calls and says, “I am the widow of Les Poppins.” I listen in on the other phone as they say, “What? Who?” A few of them she has taker to calling very late at night, a dangerous thing to do if you’re going to give out your last name.
“I think I’ve got it narrowed down between Winnona Spears and Wendy Sidawell,” she says. “That Spears gal has the nerve to say I’m harassing her that’s a guilty conscience talking. She’s cagey that one. On the other hand, we’ve got Wendy Sidawell, an absolute moron. ‘Huh?’ she said the first time I called her, ‘What is this, some kind of a contest? Are you with the radio? Am I winning something?’ They don’t come much dumber than Wendy Sidawell. She’s just your father’s type. I asked her what color her hair is and she said ‘The hair on my head?’ When I asked Winnona Spears she threatened me with a lawsuit. The two of them are running neck and neck in my book. Which do you think it is?”
I’m spraying the oven and the fumes are making me dizzy. I back away, frightened that I might tell the truth. W.S. Wife’s sister Aunt Margery. Even if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes the “Sack of Hammers” would have given her away. “I still think it was Wanda Sparks,” I say. Wanda Sparks was the one W.S. whose phone has been disconnected. “I think that after he died she packed up and left town. I think she’s probably living somewhere out west, somewhere in the desert. I think she’s maybe in a rehab center, trying to pick up the pieces.”
I’d like for my mother to drop the whole thing, forget it, leave it alone. I try to lead her in another direction but I can’t stop thinking about Nick. Why would he have taken off with that TV set when he hardly ever watched it? I was always the one to turn it on. Then he would ask me to get up and change the channel, wanting, I guess, to watch me naked and bending over. Perhaps it was just a prop.
“Make the thing stop talking now,” he would say. “Only the picture if you want it there.”
“The thing to do is to call them both and have you listen to their voices,” my mother says. “We’ll give them a call later tonight, when their guards are down. You call them and say you’re Les Poppins’s son, then we’ll hear what they have to say. Use that little-boy voice of yours while I listen in on the other line. Tell them your father just died and we’ll flush them out, the bitches.”
I’m bucking for a way out when my mother’s sister Margery pops in. That’s Margery’s word, “popped,” as if she’s the cork in a bottle of champagne, the symbol of fun Margery has just re-turned from an AA meeting. She goes twice a week as a show of strength for her third husband, Chet Wallace, an alcoholic real estate broker. Margery opens the door, “Yoohoo!” and she says to me, “Dale, run upstairs and bring your tired old aunt a beer. After three hours of hearing those people whining about it, I need a drink.” She removes her coat and shakes it as though she were provoking a bull. “Goddamn, those alcoholics can smoke quit drinking so they can turn around and die from cancer. I leave those meetings with my clothes stinking like they’re woven from cigarette butts.” She takes a seat on my mother’s folding chair, spreading the coat over herself like a bib. “Are you people cold or is it just me? Jesus, it’s cold in here. No wonder you can’t keep a tenant. Dale, did I ask you for a beer or did I not?” I love to make her ask me at least twice as it always makes the request sound more desperate: booze, booze, booze, booze. The longest I’ve held out is five times.
“Dale, go on now, get your aunt a beer,” my mother says.
I give Margery my “I have seen you naked” look, but, as always, it has no effect. She studies her coat for lint and says, “Did you hear your mother?” Margery is under the impression that I was set upon this earth to act as her personal slave. This time though, I don’t mind.
On my way out the door I grab my mother’s smock off the kitchen counter. I wait until I’m in the upstairs bathroom and then I remove the pictures from the pocket. There are three of them, Polaroids. One is a picture of Nick standing proud and naked against a paneled wall. His stomach catches the light. It is pale, covered with thick black hair and it stands out, like some-thing held before him. He’s got a drink in one hand and is using the other to point at his flaccid penis, as if it were not a part of himself but some rare, exotic creature briefly resting between his legs. In another picture I see his short, ringed fingers petting a woman’s breast. In the third I find a washed-out, horrified woman sitting naked upon an orange bedspread, waving her arms and trying to stop this from happening. The picture is blurred but I identify the woman as Elaine Petrakis, the hostess over at The Golden Key, the restaurant where Nick worked as a cook. I fan the pictures before my face and cast them into the sink, pretending to care. It’s a bit like trying to force yourself to vomit. I look up into the mirror and wail, “Nick, Nick how could you?” My face looks best when it is screwed into an expression of turmoil in repose my features tend to come across as flat, like a face painted upon a plate. I examine my tortured self in the mirror and I like what I see a guy who hurts, who really cares. “Nicky, how could you do this to me? Especially with Elaine Petrakis, the hostess, that same hostess who smiled my way every time I snuck into the restaurant to see you. Nick, you son of a goddamned bitch, don’t you know that I love you?”
I force myself to cry and admire the tears upon my cheeks. I watch in the mirror as my hand moves, broadcasting the sorrow across my face. “I loved you. Sweet Jesus, I loved you so much. Hold me. Just hold me.”
The perfect moment suddenly turns sour and I find myself embarrassed at the sight of myself. I didn’t love him. I do not feel betrayed by the photographs. Rather, I find myself thinking of that squirrel in his freezer, of squirrels baking away in that oven of his, and I say, “Nick, how could you? Why didn’t any-body tell me?” To eat squirrels that the cat dragged in that’s sick. And to think I ever even thought about kissing him! I mean, I might allow Popeye to lick my face every now and then, but that’s different. Popeye only caught the squirrels, he never ate them.
“Nick Papanides,” I say, spitting into the sink. “Let me tell you a little something, Mister. You can rot in Hell for all I care. You can. .” I watch my saliva clinging to the rim of the basin and wonder where the bubbles come from. Is that air or are we all naturally carbonated? If Nick were to appear before me right this moment I might ask him that question but find myself bored with his answer. That’s the kind of guy he was. I wouldn’t even have thought of asking my father that question as the answer would have been both dull and uninformed, a double whammy of tedium. That was his claim to fame, we all knew it. My mother though, she seems to cling to an idea of this man. She never seemed to want him alive, but dead he assumes a potential for change. His corpse is something to be claimed and fought over while his life, like Nick’s, is transparent to a fault. You’d have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to know what you’re getting yourself into, so if there’s blame, blame yourself.
It suddenly becomes clear that a cat has more sense than Nick Papanides. I slip the pictures back into my mother’s smock pocket and go down to the kitchen where I take Margery’s beer out of the refrigerator. I open the can, take a deep swallow, but spit it back into the can. I don’t get it, beer it’s nasty tasting. I follow it up with a tug of Pepsi and close the refrigerator, the door of which is decorated with inspirational messages provided by Aunt Margery. There is a bumper sticker reading “Keep It Simple,” and a sympathy card reading “You are not alone!” But she is alone, my mother. She just doesn’t know it. It’s like falling asleep in your bedroom believing that someone else is quietly sitting in the living room. You feel their presence when actually they’re not home at all, they’re down the block, living it up. But if the false idea of your company helps them to sleep then why tell them otherwise? It’s pitiful. You might look upon a child or a simpleton with pity, no problem, but it’s ugly work to see your mother that way. It’s much more tiring than cleaning an empty apartment or attending a football game. Like seeing my naked father, clumsy, the words pouring out of him like brown water I never wanted to see him like that. These thoughts become my job and I clock in and out, every day of my life.
I laughed when I heard the news that my father had died. I celebrate his death every time his name is spoken. In my opinion, the driver of the Mayflower van deserves the keys to the city. The hero responsible for Margery’s eventual death should have a national holiday named in his or her honor. They should have their head placed on stamps.
I return to the basement apartment and, entering the kitchen, I pretend to trip. My aunt covers her hair with one hand and her coat with the other unconcerned for my safety but frightened that I might shower her with the stinking beer.
“I swear,” she says, recovering herself. “I shouldn’t but I do.” She settles back into her chair and takes a greedy sip. A golden stream dribbles out of her mouth and falls upon her coat. Margery removes a Kleenex from her purse and, frowning, mops at the stain. “My coat,” she whispers.
“You’re looking very pretty tonight,” my mother says. Margery has spruced herself up since marrying Chet Wallace. She has stopped bleaching her hair and currently wears it cut short and heavily gelled, brushed toward her face. She’s wearing heavy red blush, which, combined with her hairstyle, makes her look as though she has just come up for a quick breath while bobbing for apples. She studies her reflection in the dark window and then looks down into her beer.
“So, how is my big old baby sister doing today?” she asks. “I worry about you here all by yourself.”
“I’ve got Dale,” my mother says. “He’s with me.”
Margery pulls her coat close to her neck and says, “I worry about you, I can’t help myself. Chet wanted me to go with him to the Angus Barn for dinner, him and his sponsor and a few other people, marvelous people, but I said, ‘No, thank you, I’ve got to check in on that baby sister of mine because I worry about her.’ ” She takes another sip of her beer and beams.
This is standard Margery, to tell my mother stories of all the sacrifices she’s made to be here.
“They all said, ‘Margery, come on! Come out and have some fun for a change.’ They said, ‘What is it with this sister of yours?’ Then Chet’s sponsor, Bobby, said, ‘Sister, hell, I believe she’s got a man tucked away somewhere on the sly,’ and everyone laughed. They simply would not leave me alone.” Margery paused, shaking her head at the thought of them. “Those people, bless their hearts. They’ve saved my husband’s life and I love them for it, but still I worry about you and that’s why I’m here.”
“The Angus Barn,” my mother says. “Isn’t that the place out on Highway 70 where they wheel around the raw steaks and let you choose the one you want? I believe I went there once with Les when Dale was a baby.”
“Les this, Les that,” Margery says. “Let it go! You’re a fool to even speak that man’s name. You’re allowing him to live rent-free in your head. Now’s the time to let go of the past and move on! Look at me, I’ve moved ahead like you wouldn’t believe. If you want my opinion, you’re lucky that the man is dead and buried. Divorce is a lot worse than death, trust me. In death you get a lot more money. In divorce you get nothing but the same old promises that coupled with the chance of running into the fat creep every time you leave the house. Look at me, I ran into my ex-husband just this afternoon, at Clawsons.”
“Which one?” I ask.
“The one on Glenwood Avenue,” she answers, mocking my voice, high-pitched and acidic.
I meant which ex-husband, and she knows it.
“I ran into Terry Berringer and hardly recognized him. He looks like a snowman except, you know, made out of flesh. That man must have gained himself a good one hundred and fifty pounds since I left him. There he was pushing a cart like a death wish all of the food was fatty and cancerous. God, that man can shovel it in. Even his eyes have gotten fat.” She crosses her legs and dents her empty beer can. “I hope I never get fat eyes like that,” she whispers, squinting at her reflection in the dark window.
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Margery,” my mother says. “You’ve got very slim eyes.”
“Everyone tells me I’ve got pretty eyes,” Margery says. “Everyone. They start in with my eyes and work their way down. Eyes are the mirror of your soul; they reflect what’s there, that’s their job.” She places her hands to the side of her face and leans into them, removing the creases. That’s the oldest trick in the book, that attempt to appear both young and pensive. You see it all the time in magazines. “Eyes,” she says. “I don’t know why I even brought them up. Here I am carrying on and on when my problems are nothing compared to yours. Here you are without a pot to pee in, pardon my French, while I’m speaking philosophy.”
My mother rubs a washrag into the palm of her hand.
“Dale, run upstairs and get me another beer,” Aunt Margery says.
“Beer,” she says. “Can’t you understand English BEER.”
“Go upstairs and get you an ear?” I am hoping to break my record.
“Dale,” my mother says, “go upstairs and bring your aunt a beer before you drive me to distraction.”
So I head upstairs thinking that something is definitely wrong in this world when my aunt can order me to fetch the drinks for her. It should be the other way around! “You there,” I’d say, “bring me a Pepsi in a tall glass with five ice cubes. Now.”
“But Master,” she’d say, kneeling, “there is no Pepsi left and the nearest store is closed for the evening.”
“Then run to the store that is open,” I would command. “Don’t bother me with the logistics run, woman, run.” She should be my slave, and yet I am hers.
There is one beer left in the refrigerator. I take it in my hand and dance about the kitchen. I dance the way I see them dance on television, as if I’m on fire. I shake that can and on my way downstairs I toss it from one landing to the next. Standing at the door to the basement apartment I notice that it has begun to snow, the first snowfall of the season. Snow is great that way, the first snowfall of the season and you look at the world as though you’d never seen it before, as if you had forgotten such a thing was possible.
I dart into the apartment, hand Margery the beer, and leave, saying, “Time for my program. I’ve got to go.” Outside, on the landing, I hear Margery say, “That boy watches too much TV if you ask me. He should be involved in sports or homework or something. It’s not good for him, all this television. Ivey Ingers’s son watched too much television and look what happened to him! He’ll be in prison for the rest of his life.”
“Dale’s not that way,” my mother says.
“That’s what Ivey Ingers thought before the trial,” Margery says. “Here she is, her only son ties naked ten-year-old girls to trees and she’s on TV saying, ‘He’s not so bad.’ “
I am waiting for the explosion. Margery rarely opens a beer while she is preaching. During her lectures she taps the can with her fingers as if the beer is her brain and she is prodding it for wisdom. Both of them are silent and it is getting late. In a moment or two my mother will say, “Stay for dinner, Margery. I’ll cook something nice.”
Then Margery will say thanks, but no thanks. She’ll say that Chet is feeding her leftovers from the Angus Barn. She just popped in, she’ll say. Just a quick yoohoo! She’s sorry but she’ll have to leave right after this beer.
Standing outside the door I press my head against the mailbox and wish that she might stay, knowing that, following her beer bomb departure, my mother and I will make certain phone calls. She’ll listen in on the other line as I dial and soften my voice, identifying myself as the son of a man named Les Poppins. I will hear my mother’s measured breath from the next room as these women, sleepy and innocent, whisper, “What? Who? Why do you keep calling me? Why can’t you leave me alone?”