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I hesitated picking up the telephone when it rang, in case it was my mother. I never knew what to expect, so I let the machine absorb the impact of whatever she had to say. Even though our relationship had improved a thousand percent since I got sober, I still had to brace myself before I called her back.
I wasn’t comfortable yet asking God for help with intricate processes, like returning phone calls. I didn’t want to bother him. Back then, I didn’t think he could help with stuff like that.
“Listen, hon, I know you’re busy. But I’m gonna need you to take me to Kohl’s. I’ve got to get out of this house.”
“What do you think?”
Answering a question with a question was one of my mother’s favorite conversational tactics. Responding with vague gems like Why bother? and What do I care? helped keep her listener engaged and confused at the same time, reducing the likelihood of having to provide any concrete facts. Withholding critical details made her problems unsolvable, which therefore kept the focus on her pain. And that pain was her main source of energy.
If I didn’t have my wits about me, I ran the risk of getting sucked into an emotional black hole from which there was little chance of escape. Unless I agreed that my father was responsible for the unending sorrow she endured at his sinister hands. And I couldn’t sign on for that. He just wasn’t capable of that kind of advanced strategy. He might have been when he was younger. Maybe, but I don’t think so.
Dad had become a vulnerable old man who needed protection and care, while Mom was still waiting for apologies she’d never receive. He couldn’t recall any of the disappointing memories that fueled her resentment. And what was the point of all that anger? She carried it around everywhere, making her life a lot harder than it had to be. My heart broke for both of them.
“How’s Daddy?” I asked.
“How should I know?”
“Isn’t he there?”
“Of course, he’s here. Who else’d be stupid enough to put up with his shit?”
“C’mon, Mom. You’re not stupid.”
“I never said I was.”
“You kinda just did.”
“Who’s side are you on?”
“Why don’t I come get you tomorrow, after I drop the boys at school?”
“That’d be great, babe.” I loved when my mother spoke sweetly to me. She did not trust me easily, but I knew she appreciated the things I did for her and my dad. We’d shared some beautiful moments together, amazing gifts of my recovery. “Just give me a ring in the morning, so I can get this fat fuck dressed and out the door,” she said. Such moments were fleeting.
“He’s coming with us?” I asked.
“What else am I gonna do with him?
The next morning, my parents were waiting on the sidewalk outside their apartment complex. I beeped the horn and waved to my dad. He waved back but just stood there. It was only after Mom elbowed him and started moving toward the car that he followed her.
“Ask him where all the jelly went,” she said, as I strapped him into the front seat and her into the back. I fastened the seat belts neither of them would ever buckle on their own.
“What’s she talking about?” My father shrugged his shoulders.
“Three brand new jars, Mary. All empty. I can’t even take a shower without him spooking around in shit he shouldn’t.”
“Is this true?” I asked him.
“Mom, why’re you buying so much jelly? You trying to kill this guy?” I laughed, and so did Dad.
“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” she half sobbed. “Can’t I ever have anything nice?”
I’ve always enjoyed going to Kohl’s. For me, it’s one of the few department stores where I feel confident I’m making smart purchases. I know exactly where to find the styles that fit me well. I get psyched when I can buy two shirts for thirteen dollars.
I don’t belong in big open markets like the mall. There’s just too much stuff to look at, and it’s coming at me all at once. But I do like their soft pretzels, and that little cup of cheese sauce they sell for fifty cents extra. Sometimes, I get two, because the cups are so small.
Mom’s mission to Kohl’s was often spent preparing for one specific event – my father’s death. Although Dad was not dying, this detail did not stop my mother from procuring clothes they both could wear to his funeral. She mentioned, quite unselfconsciously, that she looked forward to burying him. How she longed to be free of the burden of the old man’s care. Perhaps, she dreamt of the day she would finally be recognized for her tireless efforts on his behalf.
When Mom was in a benevolent mood, she opted for soft corduroys and textured sweaters that might flatter Dad’s massive frame. Sure, he was a pain in the ass, but he should look presentable at his wake. If she was pissed at whatever he’d done or failed to do, she headed straight for the misses’ section, slapping angrily through each rack, in pursuit of the blackest blouse she could find – one that could accurately reflect her suffering, as if that were possible.
“Which one?” she asked, holding up two nearly identical shirts.
“They look like everything else in your closet.”
“I hope you never have to go through this kind of grief.” She jammed the hangers back onto the rod and continued her search for deathwear.
“What grief? Is Daddy sick?”
“Not yet, but he will be someday. It’s only a matter of time. Shit, I could die tomorrow.”
Mom steered her shopping buggy into the aisle. I called after her. “Where are you going? Let’s find you something while we’re here. For when it’s your turn.”
“Don’t you dare put me in my coffin wearing black. And nothing whacked out, either,” she said, lowering her voice. “I mean it, Mary. I’ll haunt you forever.”
“What color, then?”
I checked my watch, becoming acutely aware of the time.
“We’re gonna need to wrap this up soon. I’ve gotta get the guys,” I told this to the back of my mother’s jacket as she kept walking. I caught up with her when she stopped at a display table stacked with men’s pullovers. Again, I tried to remind her that we had to move things along.
“They get out at 2:30. We better go.”
“Relax, you won’t be late,” she insisted. “Isn’t this beautiful?” She lifted a cream-colored turtleneck by its shoulders.
“Get it for him.”
“Why? He’d have it shitted up in no time.”
“He’ll be dead. How much damage can he do?”
She tossed the sweater back on top of the pile. “God can hear you, you know.”
I felt the tug of my commitments, but I didn’t want to make waves. Once Mom’s bra was strapped to her chest and she was outside the house, it was hard to reel her back in. She didn’t want to go home. I understood why. Her life was grim by design. She had TV, the telephone and church on Sundays, none of which brought her any joy.
“Go check on your father,” she said, waving a hand toward the registers. I did what I was told.
I found Dad where my mother had deposited him, parked on a white metal bench at the entrance to the store. He stared with amusement as a toddler stomped around in the foyer, opening and closing the automatic doors with his efforts.
I plopped down next to him and sighed. “Hey, big fella. What’s up?”
“Just this,” he said, pointing at the little boy.
An older woman appeared, calling “Joseph!” She grabbed the child’s hand and dragged him back inside the building. He screamed as if he’d come face-to-face with his executioner.
“Are you hungry?” I knew he would be.
“I am,” I said. “I wish they had a soda machine.”
“How ’bout an ice cold beer?” he asked. He didn’t mean any harm, just trying to be friendly.
“How can you say that?” I gave his big leg a playful smack. “You know I don’t drink anymore. Fuck, neither do you.”
He chuckled. We sat there for a minute or two in the vacuum of that exchange.
“You ever miss it?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said.
I was wishing I felt the same. I missed it a lot.