IT WAS JUST THE TWO OF US, my mother and me, after my father left. He said I should count the new baby he had with his new wife, Marjorie, as part of my family too, plus Richard, Marjorie’s son, who was six months younger than me though he was good at all the sports I messed up in. But our family was my mother, Adele, and me, period. I would have counted the hamster, Joe, before including that baby, Chloe.
Saturday nights when my father picked me up to take us all out to dinner at Friendly’s, he was always wanting me to sit next to her in the backseat. Then he’d pull a pack of baseball cards out of his pocket and lay them on the table in the booth, to split between Richard and me. I always gave mine to Richard. Why not? Baseball was a sore spot for me. When the phys ed teacher said, OK, Henry, you play with the blues, all the other guys on the blue team would groan.
For the most part, my mother never mentioned my father, or the woman he was married to now, or her son, or the baby, but once by mistake, when I left a picture out on the table that he’d given me, of the five of us—the year before, when I went with them to Disney—she had studied it for at least a minute. Stood there in the kitchen, holding the picture in her small, pale hand, her long graceful neck tilted a little to one side as if the image she was looking at contained some great and troubling mystery, though really it was just the five of us, scrunched together in the teacup ride.
I would think your father would be worried about the way that baby’s one eye doesn’t match with the other, she said. It might be nothing more than a developmental delay, not retardation, but you’d think they’d want to have that child tested. Does she seem slow to you, Henry?
Maybe a little.
I knew it, my mother said. That baby doesn’t look anything like you either.
I knew my part, all right. I understood who my real family was. Her.
IT WAS UNUSUAL FOR MY MOTHER and me to go out the way we did that day. My mother didn’t go places, generally. But I needed pants for school.
OK, she said. Pricemart, then. Like my growing a half inch that summer was something I’d done just to give her a hard time. Not that she wasn’t having one already.
The car had turned over the first time she turned the key in the ignition, which was surprising, considering a month might have gone by since the last time we’d gone anywhere in it. She drove slowly, as usual, as if dense fog covered the road, or ice, but it was summer—the last days before school started, the Thursday before Labor Day weekend—and the sun was shining.
It had been a long summer. Back when school first got out, I had hoped maybe we’d go to the ocean over the long expanse of vacation ahead—just for the day—but my mother said the traffic was terrible on the highway and I’d probably get sunburned, since I had his coloring, meaning my father.
All that June after school let out, and all that July, and now just having ended August, I kept wishing something different would happen, but it never did. Not just my father coming to take me to Friendly’s and now and then bowling with Richard and Marjorie, and the baby, or the trip he took us on to the White Mountains to a basket-making factory, and a place Marjorie wanted to stop, where they made candles that smelled like cranberries or lemon or gingerbread.
Other than that, I’d watched a lot of television that summer. My mother had taught me how to play solitaire, and when that got old, I tackled places in our house that nobody had cleaned in a long time, which was how I’d earned the dollar fifty that was burning a hole in my pocket, for another puzzle book. These days even a kid as weird as I was would do his playing on a Game Boy or a PlayStation, but back then only certain families had Nintendo; we weren’t one of them.
I thought about girls all the time at this point, but there was nothing going on in my life where they were concerned besides thoughts.
I had just turned thirteen. I wanted to know about everything to do with women and their bodies, and what people did when they got together—people of the opposite sex—and what I needed to do so I could get a girlfriend sometime before I turned forty years old. I had many questions about sex, but it was clear my mother was not the person to discuss this with, though she herself brought it up on occasion. In the car, on the way to the store, for instance. Your body is changing, I guess, she said, gripping the wheel.
My mother stared straight ahead, as if she was Luke Sky-walker, manning the controls of the X-wing jet. Headed to some other galaxy. The mall.
WHEN WE GOT TO THE STORE, my mother had gone with me to the boys’ section and we’d picked out the pants. Also a pack of underwear.
I guess you’ll need shoes, too, she said, in that tone of voice she always had when we went places now, like this whole thing was a bad movie but since we’d bought our tickets we had to stay till the end.
My old ones are still OK, I said. What I was thinking was, if I got shoes on this trip too, it might be a long time before we came here again, where, if I held off on the shoes, we’d have to come back. Once school started I’d need notebooks and pencils, and a protractor, and a calculator. Later, when I brought up the shoes, and she said, Why didn’t you tell me when we were at the store last time?, I could point out the rest of the items on my list, and she’d give in.
We finished with the clothes part. I’d put the things I picked out in our cart and headed over to the section where they sold the magazines and paperbacks. I started flipping through an issue of Mad, though what I really wanted was to look at the Playboy s. They sealed those up in a plastic wrapper.
Now I could see my mother across the rows of merchandise, wheeling our cart through the aisles. Slowly, like a leaf in a slow-moving creek, just drifting. No telling what she might put in the cart, though later I would learn: one of those pillows you put on your bed so you can sit up at night reading. A hand-held battery-operated fan—but not the batteries. A ceramic animal—a hedgehog or something along those lines—with grooved sides where you scattered seeds that you kept moist until, after a while, they sprouted and the animal would be covered with leaves. It’s like a pet, she said, only you don’t have to worry about cleaning out the cage.
Hamster food, I had reminded her. We needed that too.
I WAS ENGROSSED IN AN ISSUE OF Cosmopolitan that had caught my eye—an article called “What Women Wish Men Knew That They Don’t”—when the man leaned over and spoke to me. He was standing in front of the section right next to the puzzles, which was magazines about knitting and gardening. You wouldn’t think a person who looked the way he did would want to read about these things. He wanted to talk to me.
I wonder if you could give me a hand here, he said.
This was where I looked at him. He was a tall person. You could see the muscles on his neck and the part of his arms that wasn’t covered by his shirt. He had one of those faces where you can tell what the skull would look like with the skin gone, even though the person’s still alive. He was wearing the kind of shirt that workers wear at Pricemart—red, with a name on the pocket. Vinnie—and when I looked at him closer, I saw that his leg was bleeding, to the point where some of the blood had soaked through his pants leg onto his shoe, which was actually more like a slipper.
You’re bleeding, I said.
I fell out a window. He said it the way a person would if all that happened to him was he got a mosquito bite. Maybe this was why, at the time, this didn’t seem like such an odd remark. Or maybe it was that everything seemed so odd back then, this comment in particular didn’t stand out.
We should get help, I told him. I was guessing my mother would not be the best one to ask, but there were many other shoppers here. It felt good, him choosing me, out of everyone. This wasn’t usually how things went.
I wouldn’t want to upset anyone, he said. A lot of people get scared when they see blood. They think they’re going to catch some kind of virus, you know, he said.
I understood what he meant, from an assembly we had back in the spring. This was in the days when all people knew was, don’t touch anybody else’s blood, it could kill you.
You came here with that woman over there, right? he said. He was looking in the direction of my mother, who was standing in the garden section now, looking at a hose. We didn’t have one, but we didn’t have a garden to speak of either.
Good-looking woman, he said.
What I wanted to ask is, if you think she’d give me a ride. I’d be careful not to get blood on your seat. If you could take me someplace. She looks like the type of person who would help me, he said.
It may or may not have been a good thing about my mother that this was true.
Where do you want to go? I asked him. I was thinking, they weren’t very considerate to their workers at this store, if when they got injured like this, they had to ask the customers to give them a hand.
He said it like a question first, but then he had looked at me like he was a character in The Silver Surfer, with superpowers.
He put a hand on my shoulder, tight.
Frankly, son, I need this to happen.
I looked at him closer then. He did this thing with his jaw that made you know he was in pain, just trying not to show it—clenched down tight, like he was chewing on a nail. The blood on his pants wasn’t that obvious, because they were navy blue. And even though the store was air-conditioned, he was sweating a lot. Now I could see there was a thin trickle of blood coming down the side of his head too, and clotted in his hair.
They had a closeout on baseball caps. Once he’d picked up one of those and put it on his head, you couldn’t see the blood much. He was limping badly, but plenty of people did that. He took a fleece vest off the rack and put it over his red Pricemart shirt. I gathered, from the fact that he pulled off the tag, that he wasn’t planning on paying for it. Maybe they had some kind of policy for employees.
Just a second, he said. There’s one more thing I want to pick up here. Wait here.
YOU NEVER KNEW HOW MY MOTHER was going to react to things. There could be some guy going door-to-door with religious pamphlets, and she’d yell at him to go away, but other times I’d come home from school and there’d be this person sitting on our couch having coffee with her.
This is Mr. Jenkins, she said. He wanted to tell us about an orphanage in Uganda he’s raising money for, where the children only get to eat once a day and they don’t have money to buy pencils. For twelve dollars a month we could sponsor this little boy, Arak. He could be your pen pal. Like a brother.
According to my father, I already had a brother, but we both knew Marjorie’s son didn’t count.
Great, I said. Arak. She wrote out the check. He gave us a photograph—fuzzy, because it was just a photocopy. She put it on the refrigerator.
There was a woman who wandered into our yard wearing a nightgown one time. This person was very old, and she didn’t know where she lived anymore. She kept saying she was looking for her son.
My mother brought her in our house and made her coffee too. I know how confusing things get sometimes, my mother told the woman. We’ll straighten this out for you.
Times like this, my mother took charge, and I liked it, how normal she seemed then. After the coffee, and some toast, we had buckled the old woman into the front seat of our car—in fact, this might have been the last time my mother had driven it until now—and cruised around the neighborhood with her for a long time.
You just let me know if anything looks familiar, Betty, my mother told her.
For once, her slow driving made sense, because a man had spotted us, spotted Betty in the front seat, and waved us over.
We were going crazy trying to find her, he said, when my mother rolled the window down. I’m so grateful to you for taking care of her.
She’s fine, my mother said. We had the nicest visit. I hope you’ll bring her over again.
I like that girl, Betty had said, as the son came around the other side and unbuckled the seat belt. That’s the kind of girl you should have married, Eddie. Not that bitch.
I had studied the man’s face then, just to check. He was certainly not handsome, but he looked like the kind of person who would be nice. For a second I wished there was a way of telling him my mother wasn’t married to anyone anymore. It was just the two of us. He could come over with Betty sometime.
Eddie looked nice, I said, after we drove away. Maybe he’s divorced too. You never know.
MY MOTHER WAS IN THE HARDWARE section when we caught up with her. Now that we’re here, she said, I should pick up lightbulbs.
This was good news. When a lightbulb burned out at our house, more often than not it just stayed that way. Lately, our house had been getting steadily darker. In the kitchen now, there was only one bulb left that still worked, and not a bright one. Sometimes, at night, if you wanted to see something, you had to open the refrigerator just to shine a little light.
I don’t know how we’ll manage to get these into the sockets, she said. I can’t reach those fixtures in the ceiling.
That was when I introduced the bleeding man. Vinnie. I thought the fact that he was tall would be a plus.
My mother, Adele, I said.
I’m Frank, he said.
Not the first time a person wasn’t who you thought they were in this world. Just wearing the wrong shirt, evidently.
You have a good boy here, Adele, he told her. He was kind enough to offer me a ride. Maybe I could repay the favor by giving you a hand with those.
He indicated the lightbulbs.
And anything else you might need done around the house, he said. Not many jobs I can’t handle.
She studied his face then. Even with the hat on, you could see some dried blood on his cheek, but she didn’t seem to notice that part, or maybe if she did, it didn’t seem important.
We went out through the checkout together. He explained to my mother that he was paying for my puzzle book, though he would have to give me an IOU, since at the moment his funds were limited. Evidently he wasn’t mentioning the baseball cap and the fleece vest to the cashier.
In addition to my new clothes and the garden hose, and the pillow and the ceramic hedgehog and the lightbulbs and fan, my mother had picked up one of those plywood paddles, with a ball attached on a piece of elastic, that you try to hit as many times in a row as you can.
I thought I’d get you a treat, Henry, she said, laying the toy on the conveyor belt.
I wasn’t going to bother explaining that I hadn’t played with something like that since I was around six, but Frank spoke up. A boy like this needs a real baseball, he said. Here was the surprising part: he had one in his pocket. Price tag still visible.
I suck at baseball, I told him.
Maybe you used to, he said. He fingered the stitches on the ball and looked at it hard, like what he had in his hand was the whole world.
On the way out, Frank picked up one of those flyers they gave out, featuring that week’s specials. When we got to the car, he spread this out on the backseat. I don’t want to get blood on your upholstery, Adele, he said. If I can call you that.
Other people’s mothers would have asked him a lot of questions probably. Or not taken him in the first place, more likely. My mother just drove. I was wondering if he was going to get into trouble for leaving work that way without telling anyone, but if so, Frank didn’t appear to be worried about it.
Of the three of us, it seemed as if I was the only one who felt concerned, actually. I had a feeling I should be doing something about the situation, but as usual, didn’t know what. And Frank seemed so calm and clear about things, you wanted to go along with him. Even though really, he was going along with us, of course.
I have a sixth sense when it comes to people, he told my mother. I took one look around that store, big as it was, and knew you were the one.
I won’t lie to you, he said. It’s a difficult situation. Many people would not want to have anything to do with me at this point. I’m going on my instincts here that you are a very understanding person.
The world is not an easy place to get along, he said. Sometimes you just need to stop everything, sit down and think. Collect your thoughts. Lie low for a bit.
I looked at my mother then. We were coming down Main Street now, past the post office and the drugstore, the bank, the library. All the old familiar places, though in all the times I’d passed this way before, it was never in the company of anyone like Frank. He was pointing out to my mother now that it sounded as if the rotors on her brakes might be a little thin. If he could get his hands on a few tools, he’d like to take a look at that for her, he said.
In the seat next to her, I studied my mother’s face, to see if her expression changed, when Frank said these things. I could feel my heart beating, and a tightness in my chest—not fear exactly, but something close, though oddly pleasurable. I had it when my father took Richard and the baby and me, and Marjorie, to Disney World, and we got into our seats on the Space Mountain ride—all of us but Marjorie and the baby. Partly I wanted to get out before the ride started, but then they turned out the lights and this music started and Richard had poked me and said, If you have to barf, just do it in the other direction.
Today is my lucky day, Frank said. Yours too, maybe.
I knew right then, things were about to change. We were headed into Space Mountain now, into a dark place where the ground might give way, and you wouldn’t even be able to tell anymore where this car was taking you. We might come back. We might not.
If this had occurred to my mother, she didn’t let on. She just held the wheel and stared straight ahead same as before, all the way home.
WHERE WE LIVED THEN—THE TOWN OF Holton Mills, New Hampshire—was the kind of place where people know each other’s business. They’d notice if you left your grass too long between one lawn mowing and the next, and if you painted your house some color besides white, they might not say anything to your face, but they’d talk about it. Where my mother was the kind of person who just wanted to be left alone. There had been a time when she loved being up on a stage, with everybody watching her perform, but at this point, my mother’s goal was to be invisible, or as close as she could get.
One of the things she said she liked about our house was where it sat, at the end of the street, with no other houses beyond us and a big field in back, opening onto nothing but woods. Cars hardly ever came by, except on those occasions where someone missed the place they meant to go and had to turn around. Other than people like the man raising money for the orphanage, and the occasional religious types, or someone with a petition, hardly anyone ever came to see us, which to my mother was good news.
It used to be different. We used to visit people’s houses sometimes and invite people to ours. But by this point, my mother was down to basically one friend, and even that one hardly ever came by anymore. Evelyn.
MY MOTHER AND EVELYN MET UP around the time my father left, when my mother had this idea to start a creative movement class for children at our house—the sort of activity it would have been hard to picture her getting into, later. She actually did things like put up flyers around town and buy an ad in the local paper. The idea was, mothers would come over with their children, and my mother would put on music, and lay out things like scarves and ribbons, and everyone would dance around. When it was over, they’d all have a snack. And if she got enough customers, she wouldn’t have to worry about going out into the world and getting a more normal type of job, which wasn’t her style.
She went to a lot of effort setting things up for this. She sewed little mats for everyone, and cleared out all the living room furniture, which wasn’t all that much to start with, and she bought a rug for the floor that was supposed to be someone’s wall-to-wall carpet only they hadn’t paid.
I was pretty young at the time, but I remember the morning of the first class, she lit candles to put around the room, and she baked cookies—a health food kind, with whole wheat flour and honey instead of sugar. I didn’t want to be in the class, so she told me I could be the one to work the record player and keep an eye on the younger children, if she was busy with one of the older ones, and later, I’d serve the snack. We had a dry run, the morning of her first class, where she showed me what to do and reminded me, if anyone needed to go to the bathroom, to help the little kids with things like fastening their pants after.
Then it was the time her customers were supposed to start showing up. Then it was past the time, and still nobody.
Maybe half an hour after the class was supposed to begin, this woman arrived with a boy in a wheelchair. This was Evelyn and her son, Barry. From the size of him, I got the impression he was probably around my age, but he couldn’t talk so much as he just made noises at unusual moments, as if he was watching a movie nobody else could see, and all of a sudden there was a funny part, or one time, it was as if some character in this movie that he really liked a lot had died, because he put his head in his hands—which wasn’t all that easy, since his hands jerked around a lot, and so did his head, not necessarily in the same direction—and he just sat there in his chair, making these sobbing sounds.
Evelyn must have had the idea that creative movement could be a good thing for Barry, though if you asked me, he moved pretty creatively to begin with. My mother made a big effort, though. She and Evelyn got Barry on one of the special mats, and she put on a record she liked—the sound track of Guys and Dolls— and showed Barry and Evelyn these motions to make to “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” Evelyn showed some promise, she said. But moving to a beat definitely wasn’t Barry’s type of concept.
The class folded after that one session, but Evelyn and my mother got to be friends. She’d bring Barry over a lot in his oversized stroller, and my mother would make a pot of coffee, and Evelyn would park Barry on the back porch and my mother would tell me to play with him, while Evelyn talked and smoked cigarettes, and my mother listened. Every now and then I’d hear some phrase like delinquent child support or face his responsibilities or my cross to bear or deadbeat bum— this was Evelyn talking, never my mother—but mostly I learned to tune the whole thing out.
I tried to think up things Barry could do, games that might interest him, but this was a challenge. One time when I was really bored, I hit on the idea of talking to him in a made-up language—just sounds and noises, along the lines of the ones he made himself now and then. I parked myself in front of his stroller and talked to him that way, using hand gestures, as if I was telling this elaborate story.
This seemed to get Barry excited. At least, he responded by making more sounds than before. He was hooting and yelling, and waving his arms more wildly than normal, which caused my mother and Evelyn to come out on the porch, checking things out.
What’s going on here? Evelyn said. From the look on her face, I knew she wasn’t happy. She had rushed over to where Barry’s wheelchair was parked, and she was smoothing his hair down.
I can’t believe you’d let your son make fun of Barry like this, Evelyn told my mother. She was packing up Barry’s stuff, collecting her cigarettes. I thought you were the one person who understood, she said.
They were just playing, my mother said. No harm done. Henry’s a kind person, really.
But Evelyn and Barry were already out the door.
After that, we hardly ever saw the two of them anymore, which wasn’t such a loss in my opinion, except that I knew how lonely my mother was for a friend. After Evelyn, there was nobody.
One time a kid in my class, Ryan, invited me for a sleepover. He was new in town and hadn’t figured out yet that I wasn’t somebody people had over to their houses, so I said yes. When his dad came to pick me up, I was all ready for a quick getaway, with my toothbrush and my underwear for the next day in a grocery bag.
I think I should introduce myself to your parents first, Ryan’s dad said, when I started getting in the car. So they won’t worry.
Parent, I said. It’s just my mom. And she’s OK about this already.
I’ll just duck my head in and say hi, he said.
I don’t know what she said, but when he came back out, he looked like he felt sorry for me.
You can come over to our house anytime, son, he said to me. But that was the only time I ever did.
SO IT WAS A BIG DEAL, bringing Frank home in the car with us this way. He was probably the first person we’d had over in a year. Possibly two.
You’ll have to excuse the mess, my mother said, as we pulled into the driveway. We’ve been busy.
I looked at her. Busy with what?
She swung open the door. Joe the hamster was spinning in his wheel. On the kitchen table, a newspaper from several weeks back. Post-it notes taped to the furniture with Spanish words for things written in Sharpie: Mesa. Silla. Agua. Basura. Along with teaching herself the dulcimer, learning Spanish had been one of my mother’s projects planned to occupy us over the summer. She had started out back in June playing the tapes she got from the library. ¿Dónde está el baño? ¿Cuánto cuesta el hotel?
The tapes were intended for travelers. What’s the point of this? I had asked her, wishing we could just turn on the radio, listen to music, instead. We weren’t going to any Spanish-speaking country that I knew of. Just getting to the supermarket every six weeks or so was an accomplishment.
You never know what opportunities might lie ahead, she said.
Now it turned out there was another way for new things to happen. You didn’t have to go someplace for the adventure. The adventure came to you.
Inside our kitchen now, with its hopeful yellow walls and its one remaining working lightbulb, and last year’s magic ceramic seed-growing animal, a pig, whose crop of green sprouts had long since turned brown and dried up.
Frank looked around slowly. He took in the room as if there was nothing unusual about coming into a kitchen in which a stack of fifty or sixty cans of Campbell’s tomato soup lined one wall, like a supermarket display in a ghost town, alongside an equally tall stack of boxes containing elbow macaroni, and jars of peanut butter, and bags of raisins. The footprints my mother had painted on the floor from last summer’s project of teaching me how to fox-trot and do the two-step were still visible. The idea was for me to put my feet over the foot patterns she’d stenciled on the floor, while she counted out the beats as my partner.
It’s a great thing when a man knows how to dance, she said. When a man can dance, the world is his oyster.
Nice place, Frank said. Homey. Mind if I sit down at the mesa?
What do you take in your coffee? she asked. She took hers black. Sometimes it seemed as if this was all she lived on. The soup and noodles were bought with me in mind.
Frank studied the headline on the newspaper that sat there, though it was several weeks old. Nobody seemed in a rush to say anything more then, so I thought I’d break the ice.
How did you hurt your leg? I asked him. There was also the question of what happened to his head, but I thought I’d take things one at a time.
I’m going to be straight with you here, Henry, he said. I was surprised he’d taken in my name. To my mother he said, Cream and sugar, thanks, Adele.
Her back was to the two of us, counting out the scoops. He appeared to be speaking to me, or about to, but his eyes were on my mother, and for the first time I could imagine how a person who wasn’t her son might see her.
Your mom looks like Ginger on that show on Nickelodeon, Gilligan’s Island, a girl, Rachel, told me one time. This was in fifth grade, when my mother had put in a rare appearance at my school to watch a production of Rip Van Winkle where I played Rip. Rachel had put forward the theory that maybe my mother actually was the actress who played Ginger, and we were living here in this town so she could escape her fans, and the stresses of Hollywood.
At the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to discourage this theory. It seemed like a better reason than the real one for why my mother hardly ever went anyplace. Whatever the real reason was for that.
Even though she was a mother—not just a mother but my mother—and what she had on was an old skirt and a leotard she’d had for a million years, I could see now how a person might think she was good-looking. More than that. Most people’s mothers you saw at school, parked outside at three o’clock to pick up their kids or running in to bring the homework they’d forgotten, had lost their shape somewhere along the line, from having babies probably. This had happened to my dad’s wife, Marjorie, even though, as my mother always pointed out, she was a younger woman.
My mother still had her figure. I knew from one time when she’d tried them on for me that my mother still fit in her old dancing outfits, and though the only place she danced now was our kitchen, she still had dancer’s legs. Now Frank was looking at them.
I’m not going to lie to you, he said, again, the words coming out slowly, as his eyes took her in. She was filling the pot on the Mr. Coffee with water now. Maybe she knew he was watching. She was taking her time.
For a minute then, Frank seemed not to be in the room at all, but someplace far away. To look at him, you might think he was watching a movie projected on a screen located somewhere in the vicinity of our refrigerator, that still displayed the faded photocopy of my African pen pal, Arak, held up by a couple of magnets with calendars on them of years that were over. Frank’s eyes were fixed on some spot in outer space was how it seemed for a moment then, instead of what was there in the room, which was just me, at the table, flipping through my comic book, and my mother, making the coffee.
I hurt my leg, he said—my leg, and my head—from jumping out a second-floor window at a hospital they’d taken me to get my appendix out.
At the prison, he said. That’s how I got out.
Some people make all these explanations first when they give you the answer to a question that might not reflect so well on them (a question like, where do you work, and the answer is McDonald’s, only first they say something like I’m really an actor or I’m actually applying to medical school soon; or they try to make the facts seem different from how they really are, like saying I’m in sales when what they mean is, they’re one of those people who calls you up on the phone trying to get you to sign up for an introductory subscription to the newspaper).
Not Frank, when he told us the news. The state penitentiary, over in Stinchfield, he said. He lifted up his shirt then, to reveal a third wound that you wouldn’t have known about otherwise, though this one was bandaged. The place where they had removed his appendix. Recently, from the looks of it.
My mother turned around to face him. She was holding the coffeepot in one hand and a mug in the other. She poured a thin stream of coffee into it. She set the powdered milk on the table, and the sugar.
We don’t have cream, she said.
No worries, he told her.
You escaped? I asked him. So now the police are looking for you? I was scared, but also excited. I knew that finally, something was going to happen in our life. Could be bad, could be terrible. One thing was for certain: it would be different.
I would have gotten farther, he said, except for the damn leg. I couldn’t run. Someone had spotted me and they were closing in when I ducked in that store I found you at. That’s where they lost my trail, out in the parking lot.
Frank was scooping the sugar into his coffee now. Three spoonfuls. I’d be grateful if you’d let me sit here awhile, he said. It would be hard going back out there right now. I did some damage when I landed.
This was one thing the two of them could agree on—my mother and Frank: that it was hard going out into the world.
I wouldn’t ask anything of you, he said. I’d try to help out. I never intentionally hurt anyone in my life.
You can stay here awhile, my mother said. I just can’t let anything happen to Henry.
The boy has never been in better hands, Frank told her.
MY MOTHER WAS A GOOD DANCER. More than that. The way she danced, she could have been in a movie, if they still made movies where people did that kind of dancing, which they didn’t. But we had videos of a few of them, and she knew some of the routines. Singin’ in the Rain, the part where the man twirls around a lamppost from being in love, and the girl’s wearing a raincoat. My mother did that number one time, in the middle of Boston, back when we still went places sometimes. She took me to the science museum, and just when we got out it started to pour and there was this lamppost, and she just started dancing. Later, when she did things like that, I’d feel embarrassed. Back then, I was just proud.
Dancing was how she met my father. Whatever else she had to say about him, she told me the man knew how to move a woman around the dance floor, which meant a lot in her book. I couldn’t remember all that much about times my parents were still together, but I could remember the dancing part, and young as I was I understood they were the best.
Some men just set their hand on your shoulder or against the small of your back, she said. The good ones know, there has to be strong pressure there. Something to push back against.
How to hold your partner when ballroom dancing was only one of the things my mother had a strong opinion about. She also believed that microwave ovens gave you cancer and sterility, which was why—though we had one—she made me promise I’d hold a cookbook over my crotch if I was ever in the kitchen at my father’s house when Marjorie was heating something up.
One time she had a dream that a freak tsunami was going to hit the state of Florida shortly, which was clear evidence that I should not go on the Disney trip with my father and Marjorie—never mind the fact that Orlando was situated inland. She decided that our next-door neighbor, Ellen Farnsworth, had been enlisted by my father to collect information to support his custody case. How else could you explain the fact that one day after my father had called up to demand that my mother take me to Little League tryouts, Mrs. Farnsworth had stopped over to ask if I wanted a ride. Why else would she come over to ask if we had an extra egg, with the excuse that she’d run out in the middle of making chocolate chip cookies? She just wanted to check up on us, my mother said. Gather incriminating information.
I wouldn’t put it past that woman to have bugged our house, she said. They make microphones so small now, there could be one hidden in this saltshaker.
Hello, Ellen, she called out, over the salt, her voice almost musical. There had been a time when I was in awe of how she knew things like this, and how, once she found them out, she knew just what to do about them. I didn’t feel that way anymore.
As for the Little League tryouts: Little League was just one of those organizations where they squelch children’s creativity by making them follow all these rules, my mother said.
Like how they only let people get three strikes? I asked her. Like how the team with the most runs wins?
I was being a wise guy of course. I hated baseball, but sometimes I also hated how my mother looked at everything other people did, looking for the reason it wouldn’t be our kind of thing. And why they weren’t our kind of people.
What is it with that woman, anyway? she said, right after Mrs. Farnsworth had her fourth child. Every time I turn around she’s having another baby.
These were the kinds of topics we talked about when we ate dinner. She talked about them. I listened. My mother didn’t believe the television set should be on when people were having dinner. There should be conversation. In the kitchen, under the light of our one remaining bulb, while we ate our frozen dinner (heated in the oven, never a microwave), she discussed the possibility that the Farnsworths’ birth control method must be faulty—diaphragm perhaps?—and told me the stories from her life, though only about the old days. This is where I learned everything: when she set the tray down, after she poured her wine.
Your father was a very handsome man, she told me. Same as you will be. She had mailed a picture of him to someone in Hollywood one time, back when they were first married, because she thought he could be a movie star.
They never wrote back, she said. She seemed surprised.
My father was the one who came from this town. She’d met him at the wedding of a girl she went to school with, down in Massachusetts, the North Shore.
I don’t even know why Cheryl invited me, she said. We weren’t that good friends. But you could count me in anytime I knew there was dancing.
My father had come to this wedding with someone else. My mother came alone, but she liked it that way. That way, she said, you don’t get stuck all night with someone, if they don’t know how to dance.
My father did. By the end of the evening, people had opened up a spot on the dance floor just for the two of them. He was leading her in moves she hadn’t done before, like a round-the-world flip that made her glad she’d worn her red underpants.
He was a very good kisser. After they met, they’d stayed in bed all that weekend, and for the first three days of the week following. I didn’t necessarily need to hear all the things my mother told me, but this never stopped her. By the second glass of wine, she wasn’t really talking to me at all anymore, she was just talking.
If we could have just danced all the time, she said. If we never had to stop dancing, everything would have been fine.
She quit her job at the travel agency and moved in with him. He wasn’t selling insurance yet. He had this wagon he drove around, selling hot dogs at fairs, and popcorn. She got to go around with him, and at night, they didn’t even come back to his apartment sometimes, if they’d driven up north someplace, or to the ocean. They kept a sleeping bag under the seat. One was enough.
This was strictly summer work, of course, she said. Winter came, they headed south to Florida. She got a job for a while, serving margaritas at a bar in Fort Lauderdale. He sold hot dogs at the beach. Nighttime, they went dancing.
I tried to eat slowly when my mother told these stories. I knew when the meal was over, she’d remember where we were and get up from the table. When she talked about their old days, the Florida days, and the hot-dog wagon, and the plans they had to drive out to California sometime and try out to be dancers on some TV variety show, something happened to her face, the way people get when a song comes on the radio that used to play when they were young, or they see a dog go down the street that reminds them of the one they used to have when they were a kid—a Boston terrier maybe, or a collie. For a moment, she looked like my grandmother, the day she heard Red Skelton died, and like herself, the day my father had pulled up in front of our house with the baby in his arms, that he called my sister. He’d been gone over a year by the time that happened, but that moment when she saw the baby—that was the worst.
I forgot how little babies were, she said, after he’d left. There was that melted look on her face then too. Maybe the word is crumpled. Then she recovered. You were much cuter, she said.
Back when she used to take me places, she also told me stories while she drove, but once she started staying home all the time, dinners were when she told me her stories, and even when they were sad I never wanted them to end. I always knew, after I set my fork down, the story was over, or even if it hadn’t ended—because these weren’t stories with endings—and her face changed back.
We’d better clear away these dishes, she said. You have homework to do.
The real ending came when my parents moved back north and sold the hot-dog wagon. They didn’t have that kind of show on TV anymore, like when we were growing up, she said. With dancers. They had driven all the way across the country without ever noticing that The Sonny and Cher Show and The Glen Campbell Hour had been canceled. But that was just as well, actually, because what she wanted most was never to be some dancer on television. She wanted to have a baby.
Then you were on the way, she said. And my dream came true.
My father got the job selling insurance policies. His specialty was injury and disability. Nobody could calculate faster than my father how much money a person got for losing an arm, or an arm and a leg, or two legs, or the bonanza, all four limbs, which, if they were smart enough to have bought a policy from him before, meant they were a millionaire, set up for life.
My mother had stayed home with me after that. They lived with my father’s mother then, and after she died, they got the house, though that was not the place we lived after the divorce. My father lived in our old house with Marjorie now, and Richard, and Chloe. He took out a second mortgage on that one, to buy my mother out, which was the money my mother used to get the place we moved into. Smaller, without the tree in the yard where my swing had been set up, but enough room for how our family was now, the two of us.
These were not stories she told me over dinner. This part I had pieced together on my own, and from Saturday nights with my father, when he and Marjorie took me out to dinner, and sometimes he said things like, If your mother hadn’t made me give her all that money for the house, or Marjorie would press her lips together and ask me if my mother had applied for a normal job yet.
My mother’s problem about leaving the house had been going on so long now I couldn’t remember when it started. But I knew what she thought: it was a bad idea, going out in the world.
It was about the babies, she said. All those crying babies everywhere, and the mothers stuffing pacifiers in their mouths. She said more too—about weather and traffic, and nuclear power plants and the danger of waves from high-voltage lines. But it was the babies that got to her most, and their mothers.
They never pay attention, she said. It’s as if the big accomplishment was giving birth to these children, and once they had them, the whole thing was just a chore that you got through the best you could by pumping them full of soda and sitting them down in front of videos (these were just starting to get popular then). Doesn’t anyone ever talk to their children anymore? she said.
Well, she did, all right. Too much, in my opinion. She was always home now. The only person she really had any interest in seeing now, she said, was me.
NOW AND THEN WE’D STILL DRIVE PLACES, but instead of going in herself she’d send me with the money and stay in the car. Or she’d say why bother driving to the store when you can order from Sears? When we did go to the supermarket, she’d stock up on things like Campbell’s soup and Cap’n Andy fish dinners, peanut butter and frozen waffles, and pretty soon it was like we lived in a bomb shelter. Sears had already provided the deep freeze by this point, and it was filled with frozen dinners. A hurricane could have hit, and we’d be set for weeks, we had so many provisions stored up. Powdered milk was better for me anyway, she said. Less fat. Her parents had both suffered from high cholesterol and died young. We had to keep an eye on that.
Then she started getting everything from mail-order catalogs—this being the days before the Internet—even things like our underwear and socks, and commenting on how much traffic there was in town now, that a person really shouldn’t even drive there anymore, especially when you considered how it contributed to pollution. I had this idea we should get a motor scooter: I’d seen a character riding one on a TV show, and I pictured how much fun it could be, the two of us buzzing around town, doing our errands.
How many errands does a person really need to do? she said. When you think about it, all that going around to places just wasted so much time you could be spending in your own home.
Back when I was younger, I was always trying to get her out of the house. Let’s go bowling, I said. Miniature golf. The science museum. I tried to think of things she might like—a Christmas craft show over at the high school, a production of Oklahoma! put on by the Lions Club.
There’ll be dancing, I said. Big mistake, to mention this.
They just call it dancing, she said.
SOMETIMES I WONDERED IF THE PROBLEM was how much she’d loved my father. I had heard about cases where a person loved someone so much that if they died or went away, the person never got over it. This was what people meant when they talked about a broken heart. Once, when we were having our frozen dinners, and she’d just poured herself a third glass of wine, I had considered asking my mother about this. I wondered if what it took to make a person hate another person the way she seemed to hate my father now was having once loved him in equal measure. It seemed like something they might teach you in science class—physics, though we hadn’t studied this yet. Like a teeter-totter where how high the person goes up on one side depends on how low the person goes down on the other.
What I decided was, it hadn’t been losing my father that broke my mother’s heart, if that was what had taken place, as it appeared. It was losing love itself—the dream of making your way across America on popcorn and hot dogs, dancing your way across America, in a sparkly dress with red underpants. Having someone think you were beautiful, which, she had told me, my father used to tell her she was, every day.
Then there’s nobody saying that anymore, and you are like one of those ceramic hedgehogs with the plants growing on it that the person who bought it forgot to keep watered. You are like a hamster nobody remembered to feed.
That was my mother. I could try to make up for some of the neglect, which I did, when I left her notes on her bed that said things like “For the World’s Number One Mom” with some rock I found or a flower, and jokes from my joke-a-day book, times when I made up funny songs for her, or cleaned out the silverware drawer and laid shelf liner paper on all the shelves, and when her birthday came around, or Christmas, and I gave her coupon books with the pages stapled together and on each one a promise like “Redeemable for carrying out trash,” or “Good for one vacuuming job.” When I was younger, I had made a coupon once that said “Husband for a day,” with the promise that whenever she cashed that one in, it would be just like having a husband around the house again, whatever she wanted, I’d take care of it.
At the time I was too young to understand the part of being Husband for a Day I was not equipped to carry out, but in another way I think I sensed my own terrible inadequacy and it was the knowledge of this that weighed on me, when I lay in my narrow bed in my small room, next to hers, the walls between us so thin it was almost as if she were there with me. I could feel her loneliness and longing, before I had a name for it. It had probably never been about my father really. Looking at him now, it was hard to imagine he could ever have been worthy of her. What she had loved was loving.
A year or two after the divorce, on one of our Saturday nights, my father had asked me if I thought my mother was going crazy. I was probably seven or eight at the time, not that my being older would have made it any easier to address this question. I was old enough to know that most people’s mothers didn’t sit in the car while their son ran into the grocery store with the money, to do the shopping for them, or go up to the teller at the bank—no ATM machines yet—with a check for five hundred dollars. Enough cash, she said, so we wouldn’t have to make another trip for a long time.
I had been to other people’s houses, so I knew how other mothers were—the way they went to jobs and drove their children around and sat on the benches at the ball games and went to the beauty parlor and the mall and attended back-to-school night. They had friends, not just one sad woman with a retarded son in an oversize stroller.
She’s just shy, I told my father. She’s busy with her music lessons. This was the year my mother had taken up the cello. She had watched a documentary about a famous cello player, possibly the greatest in the world, who got a disease so she started missing notes and dropping the bow and pretty soon she couldn’t play anymore, and her husband, who was also a famous musician, had left her for another woman.
My mother had told me this story while we finished our Cap’n Andy frozen fish dinners one night. The husband had started sleeping with the famous cello player’s sister, my mother told me. After a while, the cello player couldn’t walk anymore. She had to lie there in bed, in the same house where the husband was in bed with the sister.
Making love in the next room. What do you think of that, Henry? my mother had said.
Bad, I said. Not that she was really waiting for my answer.
My mother was learning to play the cello as a tribute to Jacqueline du Pré, she told me. She didn’t have a teacher, but she rented a cello from a music store a couple of towns over. A little on the small side, because it was meant for a child, but good enough to start on. Once she got the hang of it, she could move up to something better.
My mom is fine, I told my father. She just gets sad sometimes, when people die. Like Jacqueline du Pré.
You could come live with Marjorie and me, he said. And Richard and Chloe. If that was something you wanted, we’d take her to court. They’d have her evaluated.
Mom’s great, I said. She’s having her friend Evelyn over tomorrow. I get to play with Evelyn’s son, Barry.
(Blah blah goo goo, I thought. Booby dooby zo zo. Barry talk.)
I looked at my father’s face as I told him these things. If he had wanted to pursue it, I might have said more—told him who Barry was, and how my mother and Evelyn spent their time when she came over, the plan they had to maybe get a farm in the country together, where they could homeschool their children and grow their own vegetables. Follow a macrobiotic diet to reactivate Barry’s brain cells, the ones that didn’t work so well at the moment. Run the lights off solar power. Or wind power, or this machine Barry’s mother had seen on Evening Magazine, where you stored up energy to run your refrigerator by pedaling for an hour every morning on this bicycle-type contraption. Save money on the electric bill and slim down, all at once. Not that my mother needed that, but Evelyn did.
But my father, hearing my report on my mother’s busy, happy schedule of activities, had looked relieved, the way I knew he would. I knew he didn’t really want me to come live with him and Marjorie, any more than I wanted to go there and live with him and a woman who referred to her two children (and me, when I was with them) as munchkins. Or kidlets, her other favorite term.
Even though I was his real son, and Richard wasn’t, Richard was more his type. Richard always got on base when he came up to bat at Little League. Where I sat on the bench, until the day when even my father agreed maybe this wasn’t my sport. One thing was for sure: nobody missed me on the Holton Mills Tigers after I quit.
I just asked because I get the impression she’s depressed, my father said. And I wouldn’t want you suffering through some kind of traumatic experience there. I want you to have someone around who can take care of you properly.
My mom takes care of me great, I said. We do fun things all the time. People come over. We have hobbies.
We’re learning Spanish, I told him.
THEY WERE LOOKING FOR HIM all over town of course. Frank. We only got a couple channels on our TV, but even before the regular news came on at six, they interrupted the program to tell about it. The theory was that, given his injuries, and the fact that the police had roadblocks up within an hour of his escape—and in our town, there was basically only one road in and one out—he could not have gone far.
There was his face on the screen. It was funny, seeing this person on your TV who was also sitting in your living room. Like how that girl Rachel might have felt if she was over at my house, which she never would be, and a rerun of Gilligan’s Island came on just at the moment my mother came into the room with a plate of cookies for us, which was also not happening, and she still believed my mother was actually that actress.
“We have a celebrity in our midst,” Marjorie had said the night she and my dad took me out for a sundae after my performance as Rip Van Winkle. Only this time it would have been real.
Now they were interviewing the head of the Highway Patrol, who said the escaped man had been spotted over at the shopping plaza. They were calling Frank dangerous, possibly armed, though we knew he wasn’t. I’d already asked him if he had a gun. When he told me no, I was disappointed.
If you see this individual, contact the authorities immediately, the anchorwoman said. Then a phone number flashed on the screen. My mother didn’t write it down.
Evidently he’d had his appendix surgery the day before. They said something about how he’d tied up the nurse who was supposed to be watching him and jumped out a window, but we knew that part already, and we also knew he’d let the nurse go before he got out the window. They had her on-screen now, saying how he’d always been thoughtful and considerate with her. A good patient, though it had definitely come as a shock when he tied her up that way. In my mother’s eyes, this probably made him seem more trustworthy, knowing he hadn’t changed his story for us.
The other thing they said on the news was what he was in for. Murder.
Up until then, Frank hadn’t said anything. We were all just watching together, like this was Evening Magazine or some other show that came on at that hour. But when they said the part about how he’d killed somebody, you could see this place in his jaw twitch.
They never explain the details, he said. It didn’t happen the way they’re going to say it did.
On the television, they had gone back to regular programming now. A rerun of Happy Days.
Adele, I need to ask if I can stay with you two for a period of time, Frank said. They’ll have a search out on all the highways and trains and buses. The one thing nobody expects is me sticking around.
It wasn’t my mother who pointed out this next part. It was me. I didn’t want to mention it, because I liked him, and I didn’t want to make him mad, but it seemed important for someone to bring this up.
Isn’t it against the law to harbor a criminal? I asked him, a fact I’d picked up from watching television. Then I felt bad that I’d used that word. Even though we hardly knew Frank at this point, it seemed mean to call this person who had bought me a puzzle book, and put in new lightbulbs all over the house, a criminal. He had complimented the color my mother had chosen to paint the kitchen—this certain shade of yellow that he said reminded him of buttercups on his grandma’s farm when he was growing up. He had told us we’d never eaten chili like he was going to make for us.
You have a wise son here, Adele, Frank told her. It’s good to know he’s looking out for you. That’s everything a boy should do for his mother.
It would only be a problem if someone found Frank here, my mother said. So long as nobody knows he came by, there’s no harm done.
I knew the other part. My mother didn’t worry about laws. My mother didn’t go to church, but the one who looked after us, she said, was God.
True enough, Frank said. But it’s still not acceptable to place you and your family here in jeopardy.
Our family. He spoke of us as a family.
This is why I’m going to tie you up, he said. Only you, Adele. Henry here knows he doesn’t want anything to happen to his mother. That’s the reason he won’t go to the police or call anyone. I’m correct on this, right, Henry?
My mother, hearing this, did not move from her spot on the couch. Nobody said anything for a minute. We could hear the scraping of the wheel in Joe’s cage as he pawed his way in circles, the click of his little nails against the metal, and the hiss of the water on the stove from our Meal in Minutes dinner.
I need to ask you to take me up to your bedroom, Adele, he said. I’m guessing a woman like you would have a few scarves. Silk is good. Rope or twine can cut into the skin.
The door was four feet away from me, and still partly open from when we’d carried in the bags from our shopping. Across the street was the Jervises’ house, where Mrs. Jervis sometimes called out to me, when I went by on my bike, to comment on the weather. Beyond that, the Farnsworths, and the Edwardses, who had come over one time to ask my mother if she intended to rake our leaves anytime soon, because they’d started blowing onto other people’s lawns in the neighborhood. Every December, Mr. Edwards put up so many lights people from other towns drove by to see, which meant they often went by our house that time of year.
People spend all this money putting up lights, my mother said. Did they ever hear of looking at the stars?
I could burst out the door and run to their houses now. I could grab the phone and dial a number. The police. My father. Not my father: he’d use this as evidence that my mother was crazy, the way he always said.
But I didn’t want to do this. Maybe Frank had a weapon, maybe he didn’t. Evidently he had killed someone. But he didn’t seem like a person who would hurt my mother or me.
I studied my mother’s face. For once, she actually looked fine. There was a pinkness in her cheeks I wasn’t accustomed to, and her eyes were locked on his eyes. Which were blue.
Actually, I have a silk scarf collection, my mother said. They were my mother’s.
It’s about keeping up appearances, Frank said, in a quiet voice. I think you understand what I mean.
I got up and went to the door. Closed it, so nobody could see inside. I sat there in the living room, with my legs folded under me, and watched the two of them climb the steps up to her room: my mother first, Frank following behind. They seemed to walk slower than normal, climbing those stairs, as if every step required thought. As if there was more at the top than just a bunch of old scarves. As if they weren’t even sure what might be up there and they were taking their time now, thinking about it.
After a while, they were back. He asked her which chair she found the most comfortable. Nothing near a window was all.
You could tell from the way he winced now and then that he was still hurting from the injury, not to mention the appendix surgery. Still he could do what he needed to.
He had brushed off the seat first. Ran his hand over the wood, as if he was checking for splinters. Not roughly, but with a firm grip, he put his hands on her shoulders and lowered her onto the seat. He stood over her for a minute, like he was thinking. She looked up, as if she was too. If she was afraid, you wouldn’t have known it.
To tie her feet, he’d gotten down on the floor. My mother was wearing the type of shoes she favored, that looked like ballet slippers. He slipped them off her feet—first one, then the other, his hand cradling one arch. He had a surprisingly large hand, or maybe it was just how small her feet were.
I hope you don’t mind my saying this, Adele, he said. But you have beautiful toes.
A lot of dancers ruin their feet, my mother said. I was just lucky.
He took one of the scarves from the table then—a pink one, with roses, and another that had some kind of geometric design. It seemed to me he placed this against his cheek but maybe I imagined that part. I know that time seemed to be standing still, or moving so slowly at least that I had no idea how many minutes had passed, when he wrapped the first scarf around her ankle and began to tie. He had attached the chair to a piece of metal that ran under the table, where you could put an extension leaf in for times when you had company over and you needed to make room for more people. Not that we’d ever had to do this.
It seemed as if Frank forgot I was even there as he positioned the scarves—one on each ankle, that he attached to the legs of the chair, one around her wrists, tied to each other in her lap, so that she looked as if she was praying, sitting there. Sitting in church, anyway. Not that we ever went.
Then he seemed to remember me again. I don’t want any of this to upset you, son, he said. This is just something a person has to do in these types of situations.
One other thing, he told my mother. I don’t want to embarrass you in any way by saying this. But when you feel a need to use the restroom. Or have any intimate need that might require privacy. Just say the word.
I’ll just sit myself down beside you if that’s all the same with you, he said. Keep an eye on things.
Just for a second, that look came across his face again, where you knew he was hurting.
She asked him about his leg then. My mother wasn’t a big believer in medicine, but she kept rubbing alcohol under the sink. She didn’t want him to get an infection, she said. And maybe they could rig up some kind of splint for his ankle.
We’ll have you back to how you were before you know it, she said.
What if I don’t want to be how I was? he said. What if I want to be different now?
HE FED HER. MY HANDS WERE FREE, but because hers were tied, he set the plate in front of himself on the table, but close enough for the fork to reach. And he was right about the chili he made us. The best I ever tasted.
How it was, watching him bring the food to her lips, and watching her take it, was nothing like my mother’s friend, Evelyn, when she used to come over with Barry, and she’d give him his meals. Or Marjorie with the baby they called my little sister, spooning the peaches into her mouth while she was talking on the phone or yelling at Richard about something, so at least half of the meal dripped down the front of Chloe’s sleeper suit without Marjorie even noticing. You might think it would be a little humiliating for a person, having to sit there like that, relying on this other person to give them their meal. If they put too much on the spoon, you’d have to take it, or too little, you could sit there with your mouth open, begging. You might think this would leave a person feeling mad or desperate, in which case the only thing they could do about it was to spit the food back out at the person who was giving it to them. Then go hungry.
But there was something about the way Frank fed my mother that made the whole thing almost beautiful, like he was a jeweler or a scientist, or one of those old Japanese men who work all day on a single bonsai.
Every spoonful, he made sure it was the right amount, so she wouldn’t choke on the food, and none of it would drool over the side of her lips onto her chin. You knew he understood she was the type of person who cared about how she looked, even when she was tied up in her own kitchen with nobody but her son and an escaped prisoner there to see her. Maybe how she looked to her son didn’t matter, but the other part did.
Before he lifted the spoon to her mouth, he blew on the chili, to not burn her tongue. Every few spoonfuls, he understood she should have something to drink. This would be water or wine, depending. He alternated those without her having to say which.
Unlike dinners with me, where she was always talking, telling her stories, we ate in near total silence that night. It was as if they didn’t need to speak, these two. Their eyes were locked on each other. Still, many things were coming across: the way she arched her neck toward him, like a bird in the nest, the way his body leaned forward in the chair, like a painter in front of a piece of canvas. Sometimes making a brushstroke. Other times, just studying his work.
Partway through the meal, a drop of tomato sauce trickled onto my mother’s cheek. She could have licked it off with her own tongue probably, but she must have understood by this point that there would be no need. He dipped his napkin into the glass of water and touched it to her skin. His finger also touched the skin of her cheek then, for a moment, to dry it off. She made a small nodding motion. Easy to miss, but her hair had brushed his hand, and when that happened, he’d taken the strand of hair and brushed it off her face.
He himself did not eat. I had been hungry, but sitting there now, at the table with the two of them, it felt as crude to chew or swallow as it would have to munch on popcorn at a baby’s christening, or lick an ice-cream cone while your friend told you his dog died. I shouldn’t be here was how I felt.
I guess I’ll take my dinner in the living room, I said. Watch some TV.
The telephone was also there of course. I could have picked it up and dialed. The door, the neighbors, the car with the key in it—nothing had changed. I turned on Three’s Company and ate my chili.
A few shows later, when I got tired, I looked back in the kitchen. The dishes had been cleared away and washed. He had fixed tea, but nobody was drinking any. I could hear the low sound of their voices, though not the words they said.
I called out then that I was going to bed. This was the moment my mother would normally have said “Sweet dreams,” but she was occupied.
MY MOTHER DIDN’T HAVE A REGULAR JOB, but she sold vitamins over the phone to people. Every couple of weeks the company she worked for—MegaMite—sent her a printout with phone numbers of potential customers all around our region, to call up and tell about the product. Every time she sold a vitamin package, the company paid her a commission. We also got a discount on vitamins for ourselves, which was a fringe benefit. She made sure I took my MegaMites twice a day. She could see the results in my eyeballs, she said. Some people had these grayish corneas, but mine were white as an egg, and the other thing she’d noticed already was how, unlike so many other kids my age (not that she saw other kids my age much), I did not suffer from acne.
You are too young to appreciate this yet, she told me, but in the future, you’ll be grateful for how the minerals you’re taking in now will affect your virility and sexual health. They’ve done studies on that. Particularly at the moment, as you enter puberty, it’s important to consider these things.
These were some of the lines my mother was supposed to deliver to the people on her potential customer printouts, but mostly the person who heard them was me.
My mother was a terrible MegaMite salesperson. She hated calling up strangers, for one thing, so very often she avoided the whole thing. The new printouts would sit on our kitchen table, on top of the old ones, with a name checked off here and there, and the occasional comment—Line busy. Call back at more convenient time. Wishes she could buy but no $.
I can tell you’re someone who should have these vitamins, Marie, I heard her saying on the phone one time—a rare night when she had set herself up at the table with the phone, and a pen to take notes, and the list of numbers they’d given her. So far so good, I was thinking, when I came into the kitchen to fix myself a bowl of cereal with powdered milk. This was particularly good news to me because at the time she’d promised, if she could drum up another thirty MegaMite customers, she’d buy me the boxed set of Sherlock Holmes I’d been wanting, from Classics Book Club, that we’d joined the year before to get the free world atlas and a leather-bound edition of The Chronicles of Narnia with full-color illustrations.
So here’s what I’m going to do, Marie, she was saying now. I’m going to send you the vitamins anyway. I’ll get them myself on my company discount. You can send me a check later, when things improve for you.
What makes you think that person you never even met is any worse off than us? I asked her.
Because I have you, she said. Marie doesn’t.
I DON’T IMAGINE YOUR FATHER HAS TOLD you anything about sex, she said one night, when we were having our Cap’n Andy. I had dreaded this moment, and might have avoided it if I’d told her yes, he explained everything, but it was never possible to lie to her.
No, I said.
Most people put all this focus onto the physical changes you’ll be going through soon. Maybe they’ve even started. I don’t intend to invade your personal privacy by asking about that.
They explained everything in our health assembly, I told her. Cut her off at the pass was my thought. As swiftly as possible.
They never tell you about love, Henry, she said. For all the discussion of body parts, the one that never gets mentioned is your heart.
That’s OK, I said. Desperate to get this conversation finished. Only her words kept on coming.
There is another aspect your health teacher is unlikely to explore. Though he may refer to hormones. No doubt he has done that.
I braced myself for all the horrifying words then. Ejaculation. Semen. Erection. Pubic hair. Nocturnal emission. Masturbate.
Desire, she said. People never talk about longing. They act as if making love is all about secretions and body functions and reproduction. They forget to mention how it feels.
Stop, stop, I wanted to say. I wanted to put my hand over her mouth. I wanted to jump up from the table and run out into the night. Mow the lawn, rake leaves, shovel snow, be anyplace but here.
There is another kind of hunger, she said, clearing our plates—hers barely touched, as usual—and pouring herself a glass of wine.
Hunger for the human touch, she said. She sighed deeply then. If there was any doubt before, it was clear. She knew about this one.
THERE IS A THING THAT HAPPENS sometimes, where you wake up and you forget for a minute what happened the day before. It takes your brain a few seconds to reset, before you remember whatever it was that happened—sometimes good, more often bad—that you knew about when you went to bed the night before and blanked out in the night. I remember the feeling from when my father left, and how, when I’d first opened my eyes the next day, and stared out the window, I knew something was wrong without remembering exactly what. Then it came to me.
When Joe got out of his cage and for three days we didn’t know where he was, and all we could do was scatter hamster food all over the house hoping he’d come out, which he finally did—that was one of those times. When my grandmother died—not because I actually knew her very well, but because my mother had loved her and now she was going to be an orphan, which meant that she would feel even more alone in the world, which meant it was more important than ever for me to stick around and have dinner with her, play cards, listen to her stories, listen to more—that was one of those times.
The morning after we brought Frank home from Pricemart—the Friday before the start of Labor Day weekend—I woke up forgetting he was there. I just knew something was different at our house.
The tip-off came when I smelled coffee. This was not how my mother did it. She was never out of bed this early. There was music coming from the radio. Classical.
Something was baking. Biscuits, it turned out.
It only took a few seconds before I got it. Unlike other times I’d woken up and then remembered some piece of news, there was no bad feeling to this one. I remembered the silk scarves now, the woman on TV saying the word murderer. Still, the feeling I had, when I thought of Frank, contained no fear. More like anticipation and excitement. It was as if I’d been in the middle of a book that I had to put down when I got too tired to keep reading, or a video put on pause. I wanted to pick back up with the story and find out what happened to the characters, except that the characters were us.
Coming down the stairs, I considered the possibility that my mother would be where she’d been when I left her the night before, tied in the chair, with her own silk scarves. But the chair was empty. The person at the stove was Frank. He had evidently made some kind of splint for his ankle, and he was still limping, but he was getting around.
I would have gone out and got us eggs, he said, but it might not be a great idea stepping into the 7-Eleven at this moment. He nodded in the direction of the newspaper, which he must have picked up from the curb where it had been tossed sometime before the sun came up. Above the fold, next to a headline about the heat wave they were predicting for the holiday weekend, a photograph of a face both familiar and unrecognizable—his. Only the man in the photograph had a hard, mean look and a series of numbers plastered across his chest, where the one in our kitchen had tucked a dishrag into his waistband and wore a potholder.
Eggs would really hit the spot with these biscuits, he said.
We don’t go in much around here for perishable groceries, I told him. Our diet mostly featured canned goods and frozen foods.
You’ve got enough room in back for chickens, he said. Three or four nice little Rhode Island Reds, you could fry yourself up a plate of eggs every morning. A fresh-laid egg is a whole other thing from what you get in those cardboard boxes from the store. Golden yolks. Stand right up off the plate like a pair of tits on a Las Vegas showgirl. Companionable little buggers too, chickens.
He grew up on a farm, he said. He could set us up. Show me the ropes. I shot a look at the newspaper while he was talking, but I thought if I looked too interested in the story of Frank’s escape and the search now on to find him, it might hurt his feelings.
Where’s my mom? I asked him. For just a second there, it occurred to me to be worried. Frank hadn’t seemed like the type to do anything bad to us, but now a picture flashed through my brain of her in the basement, chained to the oil burner, maybe, with a silk scarf over her mouth instead of wrapped softly around her wrists. In the trunk of our car. In the river.
She needed her sleep, he said. We stayed up real late, talking. But it might be nice if you took her this. Does she like coffee in bed?
How would I know? The question had never come up.
Or maybe we’ll just let her catch a few extra winks, he said.
He was taking the biscuits out of the oven now, laying them on a plate, with a cloth napkin on top to keep them warm. Here’s a tip for you, Henry, he said. Never slice a biscuit with a knife. You want to pull them apart, so you get all the textures. What you’re aiming for is peaks and valleys. Picture a freshly rototilled garden, where the soil is a little uneven. More places for the butter to soak in.
We don’t usually keep butter around, I said. We use margarine.
Now that’s what I call a crime, Frank said.
He poured himself a cup of coffee. The newspaper was sitting right there, but neither of us reached for it.
I don’t blame you for wondering, he told me. Any sensible person would. All I want to tell you is, there’s more to this story than you’ll see in that paper there.
I had no answer to that one, so I poured myself a glass of orange juice.
You got any plans for the big weekend? he asked. Cookouts, ball games, and whatnot? Looks like it’s going to be a scorcher. Good time to head to the beach.
Nothing special, I said. My dad takes me out for dinner Saturdays, that’s about it.
What’s his story anyway? Frank asked. How does a fellow let a woman like your mother get away?