The bus line ran right into the suburb and stopped about a five-minute walk away from this old house of mine. I’d thrown away all my clothes, except for one pair of pants, one button-down shirt, two pairs of underwear, and one argyle sweater. Socks were unnecessary. Beyond this, I kept a toothbrush and a half-depleted stick of deodorant and, of course, my cigarettes. When my mom opened the door to let me in, she didn’t even bother to give me a hug. She just said, “I could smell you right when I walked in.”
I hadn’t seen her in a year. Not since that time she yelled at me because I hadn’t spoken to her in two years, and she tricked me into answering my phone by calling me from a different number when I happened to be drunk. That night, she made me tell her why I didn’t talk to her anymore, and I told her that it was because she sent me that photograph of my dad as a 22-year-old man on my own 22nd birthday, and in that photograph of my dad he wore his police uniform and his dark beard and he smiled, which was something I could never remember him doing when he was alive. Why would I have wanted this picture? On the phone, she said to me, “You should go to the police academy. The world will always need police officers.” “The world will always need waiters too,” I said. But now, me without a job, without a place to live, she had a point. I wanted to give it a little while, though. I wanted to see how desperate I got before I dressed up in blue.
An hour after returning home, I smoked a cigarette out on the porch. The leaves flared up – reds, oranges, a few still green – and the sky at dusk looked liquid. The clouds hung heavy like hammers and saws. I closed my eyes, wondering if the scene would change when I grabbed another look. Take a guess how well that worked.
Earlier that afternoon, everything had looked fresh to me – even the weatherworn stonewall my father had built along the driveway. Even the house, smaller than the others in the neighborhood, blue with shallow-looking windows and the small front porch whose white paint had begun to chip away – even this house had looked like no place I’d ever been.
I stubbed my Winston out on the driveway and opened the screen door. My shoes landed on top of an unworn pair of high heels. I put my pack of cigarettes down on the china cabinet that held my mother’s collection of Irish dolls, and I sat down at the table, where I’d laid out our places for dinner.
My mother came into the dining room, equipped with a bottle of Fabreeze. She sprayed it all over me. “I have to spray the whole house now,” she muttered.
Some of the Fabreeze got in my eyes. “This is ridiculous,” I said.
“You don’t know how bad you smell.”
Her eyes glowed red, more bloodshot than a year before. Her hair, which had always been frizzy, practically stood on end, electrified. She wore sweatpants and a t-shirt, both of which showed off the chubby midsection middle age had proffered. She worked from home now, only cheating on the house with the grocery store. Honestly, the thought of my mother going out embarrassed me.
“You should have told me you were giving your stuff away,” she grumbled, heading back into the kitchen. “It would have been nice to have your old armoire back.”
She returned to work, making our dinner of spaghetti with canned sauce and heated-up Texas toast.
My mother’s dolls stared at me from the china cabinet, looking florid, wearing solid- but brightly-colored dresses, holding tiny accessories, purses and parasols, attractive in the way that every female doll is designed to be attractive, but with empty, obsidian eyes. These dolls colored this room more than anything else – this room, white slabs for walls, cheap tiles for floor. Even the veneered table lacked luster. As a little boy, I’d suggested we buy it because of its grease-rubbed shininess, and I’d fantasized about sliding over it, action-hero style. Now, scuffed- and scratched-up, the table felt coarse on my fingertips.
I’d set our places simply: two large plates, silverware. My mother brought in the bowl of spaghetti, gripping the porcelain with oven mitts. A moment later, she returned with the bowl of sauce and the plate of Texas toast. Four chairs sat around this table, but growing up, we almost never used more than two.
My mother, seated now, forked herself a mound of spaghetti that she drowned in sauce, spilling a good amount on the table. I hadn’t moved to serve myself.
“Eat,” she said. “You think I can eat all of this on my own?”
I avoided spilling as much as she had on the table. The spaghetti scalded my mouth.
“If I ate all this, I’d get even fatter,” she said. “Why should I get fatter?”
“You’re not fat,” I said. “You’re tiny.”
“I’ve put on some weight.”
Around the mid-section, sure. But her shoulders looked bony as a three-year-old’s.
“I have too,” I said. “My stomach. I don’t even eat that much.”
“Drinking too much beer,” she said.
“Contrary to what you think, we twenty-seven-year-olds don’t drink beer all the time. Some of us have other things to do.”
“That’s nice.” She avoided looking at me or rolling her eyes or anything like that. “Thank you for the lesson on being a twentysomething.”
“Is what you’re telling me that you used to drink when you were a twentysomething?”
“Drink?” She scoffed and took a bite of spaghetti. That she could do this amazed me, since the steam came steadily. “I’ve drunk three beers in my life. They were all with your father. He talked me into it, each time.” She spoke with her mouth full.
“I never drink,” I lied. “It makes me sick.”
She chewed her food and put down her fork; it clinked against the plate. She relaxed in her chair and raised an eyebrow. “You never drink?”
“I don’t have that much money to spend.”
She nodded. An almost unnoticeable smirk peeled up the corners of her lips. “Let’s drink something then,” she said.
She held up her finger, making an unnecessary signal for me to wait a second, and she returned to the kitchen. I heard her opening and shutting cabinets, rummaging around for something. I stared at the spaghetti on my plate. One of my mom’s frizzled gray hairs had landed in it. I plucked it out with my forefinger and thumb before she came back in, two paper cups in one hand, an emerald bottle in the other.
“What is that?” I said.
She set the bottle down on the table in front of me, and set the two cups next to it. “This is whiskey,” she said. “Have you ever had whiskey?”
I nodded. “Sure. Once or twice.”
She uncapped the bottle and then filled both of the 8-ounce cups to the brim. She sat again, cup in hand. “Let’s drink this. Your father left me with all sorts of stuff out there. You can take some home if you want.”
“You were just bitching at me because you thought I drank too much.”
“That’s not entirely true.”
“But you always told me it’s bad with a capital ‘b’ for people to be drinking.”
She gave this some thought before deciding on a simple shrug. “Seems maybe a little stranger not to drink. Certainly in this day and age it does. So go ahead.”
Was this a test? I almost didn’t want to reach out and pick up the cup and drink it back, for fear that then she’d smack it out of my hand and slap me across the face, like she’d done that one time when I ate the cookies she’d just taken out of the oven, a reasonably small infraction which had incurred what I felt even at ten to be a disproportionately harmful punishment. But another part of her – the part of her that leaned across the table, staring at me intently – suggested that this was a test all right, but of a completely different nature.
“I don’t want any,” I told my mother, staring at the whiskey bottle. “But thank you.”
“Come on.” She frowned, her whole face melting. “I already poured it, didn’t I?”
“You did already pour it, but you didn’t ask me if I wanted any.”
“Drink some,” she said. “If you’re moving back here – if you’re going to be staying here now, for some time – we might as well celebrate. So drink up.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be staying here.”
She sighed loudly. “You should try and oblige me, shouldn’t you?”
“Why is that?”
“Because you’re asking me for a favor. You’re asking me to share my house again. So aren’t you concerned with obliging me right now?”
“What are you saying, you’d kick me out?”
Her lips curled up with something resembling mischief. She looked almost like an imp – like a character in a video game, asking me an extra tough riddle.
“You wouldn’t kick me out. Winter’s coming. You want me to freeze to death on the street?”
“You’re so melodramatic,” she said. “Where did that come from? I never knew. Whom were you ever around who was so melodramatic?” My mother: the only person I’d ever met who never failed to use “whom” in every day speech. Apparently my grandmother had helped to edit a grammar book as a schoolteacher in the 1950’s, a slave to the public school system. But I’d never seen this grammar book. Maybe someone had jailed it away in a box somewhere.
“Look,” I said, staring at the glass. Had it grown even fuller? Maybe its volume increased exponentially with every second I delayed the inevitable. “The thought of drinking with my mom is frankly a little too weird for me to deal with right now.”
“Why is that? We’re both adults.”
Arguing with my mother over anything she felt strongly about stood as a patently bad idea. Being away from the house for so long had robbed this from my memory. Now, with the sun setting outside, I remembered.
“Go ahead,” she told me. “Drink.”
I sighed exhaustedly just to put my complaint on record and I took a sip of whiskey, which burned on the way down, like all whiskey does. I almost coughed.
My mother saw this and laughed. “That’s all you can drink?” She picked up her cup and, I swear to God, drank it all back in one smooth motion, her glugging as loud as gunshots ringing in my ears. She put the empty cup down with such force that it fell over. She put her hand to her chest and began to cough as hard as I’d ever heard anybody cough. Her face reddened and she looked ready to fall out of her chair.
Before I could say anything, she shook her head emphatically, as though answering some question I hadn’t asked. “That’s rough,” she moaned, patting her chest.
My eyes fell to my cup of whiskey, still largely not drunk. I felt bad, all of a sudden, for letting my mom sprint down this road by herself. I thought that maybe, in a show of solidarity, I should pick up my cup and finish it in one great sip.
I realized right then just how much I regretted coming home. My mom stared at me as though urging me to drink down what remained of mine, the drunkenness seeming already to spread like a rash. Her pupils flashed to pure obsidian. She stared out at me, the cup and the fork and even the food just her mini-accessories. She stared out at me as though closed in behind glass.
My mother went upstairs because she had to lie down in bed for a while. She left the food out on the table. We’d barely eaten anything. I put all the pasta into Ziplock bags and stuck them in the freezer. I covered the bowl of pasta sauce with cellophane wrap and put it in the fridge. I poured what remained of the whiskey down the sink and almost gagged from the smell. After a cigarette out on the porch, the sky now completely dark and the stars so bright that I realized how dim they were in the city, I went back inside, upstairs to my old room, which looked more or less how I remembered, except the walls, like all the other walls in the house, were blank. The door had been closed, and when I went inside the smell of stale tobacco hit me. When I used to sneak around, hiding my smoking, I filled my pockets with cigarette butts and when my mother smelled them on me, I told her the stench belonged to one of my friends. When one day my mother found some of the butts I’d forgotten to dispose of, I told her a friend gave them to me because he didn’t want his parents to know he smoked. Whenever I got caught with anything, I blamed it on a friend.
Smelling this in my room, it occurred to me that the door must have been shut for a long time. My blue reclining chair, all torn up in the back from the cats we used to have sharpening their claws, remained where it had always been, right by the window. I found my closet empty, except for a few of my old clothes on hangers: a couple button-down shirts, some pairs of slacks from before I started wearing jeans all the time, and my high school graduation gown, all of which sized for the overweight young man I used to be, before I’d become a rail (except for my distended stomach). I closed the closet and sat down on the bed and its log cabin-patterned quilt. I ran my hand over the stitches, which were a little too easy to search out with my fingertips. I bit my nails, staring at this quilt, the ugly colors banging together, brown and orange and yellow.
After sitting for a few moments, I lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling fan. I used to always leave it running, wasting electricity. But now its three blades were quiet. My father had installed that ceiling fan for me when I was three and complained about the heat, even when I had my windows open. My father had done some other things in my room. He’d painted the walls green. He’d built a row of shelves for me to keep my books and my movies. Then he’d gone out one night, his work on my room and maybe on me completed, and he drank too much at a bar just a couple miles away from our house, and he tried to walk home, too drunk to move straight, and fell down into a creek, face-first; had he not been so drunk, he would have known enough to roll over and catch his breath, but instead he just lay there, let himself choke.
My father should have known better. He was a policeman whose uniform I used to see hanging in his room, but which I never saw him actually wearing, except for this one time. The time, 11PM, and I couldn’t sleep. I lay there with my eyes open, thinking about whatever a five-year-old has to think about, when downstairs I heard the door slam. I knew my father had come home. I heard him kick off his shoes into the corner. My mother asked him where he’d been, telling him, “You’re late,” and saying all those things we usually hear our parents say when they’re fighting. I got out of bed and put on my pajamas but kept my socks off because I didn’t want to slide on the wood stairs going down. I crept along, step after step, hiding myself behind the bars of the railing, gripping them tightly, staring into the brightness of the dining room, hidden by shadows. I could still hear my parents’ voices somewhere else in the house, and I could hear my father explaining to my mother that sometimes things requiring the attention of a police officer happen late at night, and how sometimes he comes home late without announcing it beforehand because he can’t predict when somebody will get shot or raped or bludgeoned, etc. etc. Eventually, their voices faded out; I stopped being interested and, instead, pushed my face right into the bars, feeling the vertical imprints against my skin, and I squinted into the dining room, focusing on where my father had clicked his shoes into the corner. Something red pooled under them. Two footprints in the dining room, right by the door, red as well. When my mother came back into the room, I took my face away from the bars and pushed myself back into the darkness. She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. With her back to me, she stared at the shoes. She yelled something about what a mess he’d made, and how he should wipe off his shoes before coming home if he’d been at the scene of a crime. He said something in a quiet but terse voice about not waking up Maxwell, and then I heard him sit down in the chair in front of the television, pop up the footrest, and hit the power button on the remote.
A little later that evening, after my mother had gone to sleep, and after the house hushed except for the dim moan of the TV, I left bed again to go downstairs and use the bathroom, where I found my father, lying in the fully-reclined chair, the light from the television flashing blue frames on his face. He had fallen asleep, still fully uniformed, black stripes marching up the sides of his legs, his utility belt undone and lying on the couch, his uniform still somehow neatly-pressed even though he himself looked like a discarded piece of plastic. He snored roughly – sometimes so roughly that I thought his breath caught in his throat. His face curved like an apple, and his white beard, which had made him the perfect Santa Clause at all the police department Christmas parties, looked less like a beard than an animal attached to his face. The way the light hit his eyes, they seemed almost to be opened, as though he stared out, watching me watch him. I couldn’t hear anything coming from the television, except for the low hum of white noise. He’d known sleep was coming and had turned the volume down. I didn’t know why he might have done this.
When I went into the bathroom, I didn’t go to the toilet right away. First, I looked at myself in the mirror. Five years old, and I’d never really looked at myself in the mirror. I reached out my hand and ran it over my face, down one cheek, over my chin, and up the other cheek, tracing the path of a beard, and wondering what I would look like with one. My father drowned not much longer after that.
The cigarette smell was extra bad as I lay on the bed, and when I rolled over at one point to lie on my side, I felt something under my head, under the pillow. I found a freshly crushed box of Camel Lights. I picked them up and looked inside. The pack held about ten cigarettes. I shook it over the floor, squeezing the box a bit to keep the cigarettes in place; loose tobacco and crushed butts fell to the floor. I had never smoked Camel Lights, and even if I had, I would never have left a box under my pillow like this, nor would it have stayed there for five years without my mother finding it. Had she started smoking? It kind of made sense. Maybe she missed the smell of smoke on me. In a funny way, it even made sense that she would hide the cigarettes under the pillow, not wanting anybody to know about her habit even though nobody ever entered the house, as though she hid the habit from herself. But maybe she just liked the scent of them now. Maybe she left one burning somewhere at all times, like incense, so sick she must have been of the scentless rooms. I picked up the fallen cigarette butts and put them in my pocket. The smell of them comforted me somehow. I stuffed the pack into my pants. I knew I’d smoke them on my walk back to the bus station. If I left shortly, I could catch a late bus back into the city.
I left my bedroom, closing the door carefully, trying not to make a sound, just how I used to when I’d creep downstairs in the middle of the night. In the hall, all my mother’s fabric was lined up against the wall – fabric of all different colors and patterns, neon pink and purple and brown, adorned with stars and comets and leaves – and I stared at it, with only the lights on down in the dining room creeping up the stairs to illuminate what stood before me. From my mother’s bedroom, her snoring sounded like somebody trying to start a lawnmower. During my father’s life, my mother complained all the time about his snoring. Apparently she told him he could take measures – nose guards and pills – but my father told her that he didn’t want to do any of that, so my mother decided to sleep alone. She set herself up in her sewing room, where she kept the fabric she needed to use regularly, rather than the stuff she let spill out into the upstairs hallway. She purchased a shoddy chair that could fold out into a bed and she slept on this every single night, with her door closed, windows open, no matter the time of year. Even after my father died, she refused to go into his room and to sleep in his bed. She, instead, remained on her foldout, curled up every night, her short body still too tall for the size of the bed, her feet dangling over the edge. Pink flowers covered this foldout, all of them attached to a tree that stretched up the entirety of the piece of furniture when in bed form. She always slept right in the center, the tree running up through her, cutting her in half.
My mother had forgotten to close the door to her room, so I went inside. Of course the windows were open, and the room was cold. My mother lay in the bed with what looked like too few blankets on her. Her hair flew in crazy directions from being jammed against the pillow. She’d left her glasses on. This room stretched out only to the size of a walk-in closet – nothing grander than that.
First things first. I knelt down and removed her glasses. I folded them up and put them on the table where she kept her sewing machine, a metal ruler, a few pens, a picture of our deceased cat Molly, and nothing else. Then, I brushed the hair away from her face. She stirred when I touched her. I stood up and went into my room and took the quilt off my bed. I threw it over my mother. She reacted instantly, pulling the quilt around her neck and holding it tightly, as though it were somebody in bed, arms wrapped around her, keeping her warm. I knelt next to my mother. I kept my hands away from her, pressed against the slick wood floor to balance myself. “Hey,” I whispered. For some reason, I didn’t say her name: I didn’t call her mom.
She stirred and squinted at me.
“I’m leaving now,” I whispered.
She cleared her throat, as though getting ready to give a big speech. “Where are you going?” she muttered, slurring her words like a drunk.
“I’m going back to the city,” I said. “I’m going to stay with a friend.”
She stirred a bit more, but mostly just seemed to press herself even deeper into the pillow. “Do you remember,” she said, “when we used to go for a walk every night?”
“Sure.” I nodded, even though I knew she couldn’t see me. Not in the half-light, and not without her glasses on. “We used to drive to the track by the high school.”
“That’s right. We used to talk then.”
“We used to talk,” I said.
“You asked me one night if I thought you had leprosy. You pointed to something on your forehead. I told you it was a zit. You were young.”
“That’s right,” I said.
I remembered these nights: nights in places like this, where I felt alone, in the fall our feet cracking the leaves, and in the summer the June bugs clattering around our heads. Thin, yellow lights lined the track. From the field nearby you could see the city skyline just barely rising up over the perimeter of trees.
“You always asked me questions,” my mother slurred. “I miss your questions.”
“I know,” I said, even though I really didn’t know at all.
“You need to think more about what you’re doing,” she said.
“I know I do.”
“I know you miss him.”
I stared at my mother, her face looking so old and rumpled, almost as though it had been creased by the way she’d slept for so many years. Her eyes had closed again.
“I know you miss him,” she said again. “But you need to get past it.”
I clenched my teeth and reached out for her. I reached out for my mother and buried my hand in her hair.
“You need to get over him,” my mother breathed.
“But I don’t want to,” I said.
“But you have to,” my mother said.
I left my mother’s house wearing my backpack and walked down the street toward the gas station. None of the houses had their lights on. The street was as quiet as 4AM. A fifteen-minute walk. Fifteen minutes to get to the gas station. Fifteen minutes to buy a bottle of water and then to wait for the bus to come and pick me up and take me back into the city. I would figure it out on the bus, I told myself. Something. I would figure something out on the bus, my head pressed against the glass, using my hand as a pillow. Only a ten-minute ride back into the city. Ten minutes and the problem would be solved. My feet banged staccato against the street. I passed a house with a dog chained out front. The dog lay on the grass and raised his head and looked at me but didn’t bark. A few leaves from the trees had scattered on his back. He didn’t shake these off. He just lowered his head and went back to sleep. Twenty-five minutes and I would be fine. I ignited one of my mother’s cigarettes and smoked it until the taste of the filter filled my mouth like plastic.