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From Summer 2006 [Issue No. 9]

FICTION

 

 

The Wild Track (Part 1 of 3) ▪► Christopher Conlon

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1.

I met Leslie Rose the year I turned fourteen, when my mother—though not yet fifty—was dying of leukemia. Until recently she had been getting around, slowly and very painfully, with the assistance of two metal devices that wrapped around her forearms and acted as crutches, allowing her to move awkwardly forward in a kind of scuttling motion that reminded me of a crab; now, however, the disease had progressed to the point that she rarely left her bed upstairs, and one nurse or another was in attendance in our house most of the day. Once voluptuously beautiful, my mother was now a desiccated skeleton with hollow cheekbones and the kind of big wide-staring eyes I’d seen in Life magazine’s photographs of survivors of the German concentration camps. Dresses that had fitted her perfectly a year or two before now hung on her emaciated frame like gunnysacks, her nearly fleshless arms protruding lifelessly through the sleeves. Her hands, which at the little piano downstairs had taught me a love for Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, had become twisted, veiny claws. Her voice, always warm, intimate, loving, was reduced to a harsh whisper.

I was allowed to see her twice a day, before I left for school in the morning and before bed at night. As often as not, she was asleep; a relief to me, for I had begun to fear my mother, or rather this hard, bony simulacrum of her. I was afraid of her haunted eyes, the yellowed teeth that grimaced within her once full, now thin and parched lips; I was afraid of her voice, which sounded to me like the malevolent rasp of the vilest of movie villains. Most of all, I was afraid of her nearness to death, the fact that she would not long be here, would be in some dark, ineffable elsewhere soon and forever.

My father owned a quiet restaurant off Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle, a few blocks from where we lived. Washington’s old-timers still remember Winterburn’s for its huge black oak bar and apple martinis, its succulent Saturday-night prime rib and Maryland crab cakes. Back then Dupont Circle still retained much of its original socially-elite, old-money character. Family-owned mansions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—many of which are demolished now, or house embassies or institutions—faced the streets with their mighty stone walls and huge semi-circular arches. Grand balls were still held, dozens of tuxedoed men and elegantly-gowned women, graceful as blossoms, filling the sidewalk as they strolled in. The streets themselves were uncrowded, tree-lined, and safe. It was a welcoming place for the rich, and to some extent for those who served them. Winterburn’s was one of the key businesses in the district, frequented by politicians, stage stars, and athletes, as well as by middle-class professionals who lived in the row houses (impressive in themselves, Queen Anne and Richardsonian in design, beautifully built) that filled some sections of the neighborhood.

The Winterburn family was not rich, and I never got closer to any of those grand balls than standing on the other side of the street watching the limousines pull up to the elaborate wrought-iron gates. I went to public school and struggled to save enough money for things like comic books, model airplane kits, and movies. (I was wild about Hitchcock, Psycho being new then, and almost any science fiction or horror film.) Our own row house, modest but spacious and quite comfortable, was on Q Street, part of a lovely old line that still stands to this day, while so much else has fallen or changed.

It is a comfort to me today that Dupont Circle itself is still there, its inviting park benches and walkways and well-manicured grass, its white marble fountain with the carved classical figures of the Sea, the Stars, and the Wind. But the area is packed and bustling now with nonstop traffic, franchise restaurants everywhere, coffee houses on every corner. Skateboarders and bicyclists whiz by. T-shirted couples, gay and straight, french kiss in the sun. It is in every way a vibrant urban community. But it has no place for an establishment like Winterburn’s.

I knew the place well not because Dad owned it, but because I worked there. Beginning at age thirteen, I spent three or four nights a week in its dark, smoky interior, generally busing tables but also washing dishes, preparing salads, even at times making change. In my earliest memories of Winterburn’s, I see both my father and mother there: they were co-hosts, Mom greeting the patrons, Dad forever holding court in the bar, one hand reaching to greet a customer, the other holding one of his cigarillos: the thin, pungent mini-cigars he smoked in public because he thought they gave him something of a flamboyant dash, which perhaps they did (he smoked Lucky Strikes at home). I was very young when my mother still worked there; by the time I was ten she had stopped, her illness already beginning to ravage her. I can see her in my mind, done up for hostessing—modest black dress, simple strand of pearls around her neck, high-piled, complicatedly-arranged hair. I never heard anyone address her as Agatha, just Mrs. Winterburn; the same was true of my father. In those days, it never seemed to occur to anyone except children to call each other by their first names. It was strange and vaguely disconcerting for me to realize, as I grew up, that my parents did have first names, and moreover, that they had lives that predated my own and were separate from it.

By the time I came to work there, it was already apparent that my mother’s life would be cruelly truncated. For the past year or so my father had effectively been alone in the running of the restaurant, as my mother was preoccupied with doctors, tests, treatments. She was still mobile, but it had become increasingly difficult for her to walk. Dad and I spent many evenings with her in hospital rooms. But when she was home, she still tried to participate in the family life: she would cook dinner, often with assistance from me; she would clean house in between long bouts of rest in front of the television. At night she liked to tuck me into bed, though I had become a bit old for it; she would pull the sheets to my chin as she had done in earlier years, kiss me softly on the lips, whisper, “God, David, I love you so much,” as her blonde curls toppled onto my cheeks. In the darkness, the streetlight outside silhouetting her form in a soft blue glow, she would seem to be just as she once was, and I would imagine for a moment that I was as I had been, that nothing whatsoever had wreaked havoc on her, or on us, or ever would.

She was becoming reluctant to play the piano, her hands weak and her fingers not as nimble as they had been, but she still did: I can see her head thrown back, eyes closed, an expression of ecstatic joy on her face as she ran through a favorite Mozart sonata or Chopin nocturne. She was never more than an amateur pianist, but a very good one, having nearly attained a professional career earlier in life. She had begun giving me lessons years before, but they were discontinued in light of her condition and my own indifference; still, at times we would sit together at the instrument and share parts, me banging away at the simplest chords and Mom doing everything else, our hands sometimes bumping into each other’s. I remember her husky laugh when I would hit a bad note: “Chopin’s rolling over in his grave for that, David, absolutely spinning like a top in his grave for that!” But too frequently her laughter would collapse into an awful, spasmodic coughing that would go on for minutes, leaving her sweat-drenched and wild-eyed.

To take up some of the slack left by my mother’s absence from the restaurant, my father tried out several new employees. I remember meeting some of these men and women, ill-at-ease as I was in my new busboy’s uniform of slacks, white shirt, bow tie; for a few months these strangers seemed to just come and go almost randomly, none living up to my father’s expectations. But finally, sometime around my fourteenth birthday, he found what he had been looking for. He hired a striking young lady he introduced to me as Miss Rose.

She was a coltish dynamo of a woman with long, rather frizzy black hair, big dark-blue eyes, and an impish grin. She was petite, small-breasted, tightly and muscularly built; she radiated health and energy—I would be surprised to learn later that she was already thirty years old, since she could have passed for twenty-two. Assisting in this illusion was her fashion sense, which skewed toward low-cut blouses and skirts rather surprisingly brief for that era, accessorized with brightly-colored scarves and big silver or gold hoop earrings. Six or seven years later, such outfits did not raise an eyebrow, but they were daring and outré then. Moreover, I soon learned that Miss Rose was an enthusiastic fan of the most recent movies and TV shows (unlike Dad, who had no interest in such things, or Mom, who was rapidly passing the point of caring), and eager to talk to me in spare moments about the latest Roger Corman horror picture or last night’s One Step Beyond.

She was friendly. She was funny. She was sexy. And I hated her.

▼▪▲

My parents were affectionate enough—at least Mom was—but any child alone in a household will eventually teach himself to flourish in solitude, to find his passions and interests in activities that do not require brothers or sisters, partners or teammates. So it was with me. I liked reading collections of scary stories, but my real medium was visual. Movies and TV are for most people escape, entertainment; they were my life’s very blood. Going to the movies could still be an all-day affair then, when I was eleven or twelve, and I vividly remember riding the streetcars all by myself to downtown theatres (“Fully Air-Conditioned!”) like the Palace, the Capitol, the Columbia, or north on Connecticut Avenue to the Uptown, or to the Tivoli on 14th Street. Although the best days of the grand movie palaces were already gone by my time, they were still places of wonder and magic for me; and most still ran a proper program consisting of cartoons, news, and a pair of features. I liked anything with lots of action, with adventure and excitement: Bridge on the River Kwai was a favorite, and The Magnificent Seven; a re-release of The Caine Mutiny caused me to have nightmares featuring an obsessed Humphrey Bogart chasing me along the deck of a huge ship.

Best of all were the science fiction and horror pictures. Some of the oldies, Dracula and Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and White Zombie, had begun showing up on television, and I would stay up late on Friday nights for the Midnight Creature Feature. Others were brand-new in the theatres, this being a time of black-and-white B-movies with titles like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Attack of the Giant Leeches. Future classics, too: in a single weekend when I was about eleven I recall being completely overawed by both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and, at another theatre, Forbidden Planet.

I made my own films, as well. The humblest productions imaginable, admittedly, but films nonetheless. My parents owned an eight millimeter home movie camera in which they had lost interest a few years before, and so it dropped more or less into my possession. Though it bore little resemblance to the fancy Agfas or Zeiss Movikons I dreamed of, and which could often only be purchased at specialty photography shops, it represented some kind of start. It was a simple, cheap little Kodak bought at Garfinckel’s department store downtown, a tiny silver-and-black box that on Saturday afternoons I would take into the streets, photographing cars and buildings from extreme angles, practicing with light and darkness and contrasts. I rarely photographed people, since they acted silly and self-conscious when the camera was pointed at them; instead, at home, I played with creating stories using clay figures I painstakingly animated frame by frame: dinosaurs fighting, human figures magically melting into horses or trucks. A second or two of film, I soon discovered, could take all day to shoot, and if I made a mistake (easy to do with poor lights and a wobbly tripod) I had to start all over again—I had no editing equipment. But it was a delight to see my little creatures move and dance when projected on my bedroom wall. Of course the pictures were black-and-white and silent, but I knew that this was no different from the way greats like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton had worked. In fact, I attempted to create soundtracks for my films using an old reel-to-reel recorder, providing voices and sound effects and then attempting to synchronize the playing of both the projector and the recorder. It rarely worked very well, but I spent endless hours experimenting.

When I was home and not making films, I watched TV. There were several sci-fi kid’s series, but they never much interested me; the real winners during this period were Alfred Hitchcock Presents and, a little later, The Twilight Zone. Dad was bewildered by my preoccupation with these types of programs, my absolute insistence that I must be allowed access to the TV at the appropriate times.

“It’s just a goddamn show, David,” he would say from his easy chair, sipping at his drink and taking a drag from his cigarette.

Although my father spent a great deal of time at the restaurant, when I picture him in my mind I usually see him in that big leather chair in the living room, ice-filled glass in one hand, Lucky Strike in the other. The glass would contain scotch or bourbon mixed with a trace of water. He was never exactly an alcoholic, but as my mother’s condition worsened it seemed that increasingly often I saw him get up from his chair and move to the small bar built into the corner of the room. He would keep the cigarette between his lips as he used the silver metal tongs to drop an ice cube or two into the glass, filled the glass nearly to the top with liquor, then splashed the concoction with water before moving back to his chair again. He would watch the TV shows I liked—he never cared what was playing, cop show or western, quiz program or sitcom. By this point, with his wife dying upstairs, he spoke little and evinced enthusiasm for nothing. From time to time I would watch him surreptitiously, this tall, intimidating hulk who would never be anything but a stranger to me. His body had softened; his crew-cut hair had grown out unevenly; the horn-rimmed glasses that he used at home and when doing the books at the restaurant had a small crack in one lens that he never bothered to have repaired. The man was like an automaton, a robot as he went through his daily routines at home and at the restaurant.

That is, until Miss Rose arrived. It was a long while before I realized it was not her behavior that disturbed me, but the personality change my father seemed to undergo once she appeared. The fact is, Miss Rose—“Leslie,” as she would shortly have me calling her, in a time when it was a heady thing for a fourteen-year-old to call any grown-up by her first name—had an electric effect on the staff and patrons, particularly on the men. It was all but impossible not to be attracted to her. She was, to use the slang of the time, “easy on the eyes”; but a prominent nose and slightly protruding ears robbed her of any real claim to classical beauty. Her body was appealing, but the standards of the time preferred bustier, more curvaceous women. The attraction, then, was not simply physical. Leslie also had enormous charm along with a warm, generous humor—not wit, precisely, but a kind of overburbling enthusiasm that was infectious and amusing in itself.

One night, for instance, after the restaurant had closed and the only customers left in the bar were a couple of old regulars, a spirited argument began over classic movies, fueled to some degree by alcohol. One man offered the opinion that Gone With the Wind had never been equaled. My father, at his usual corner table with his cigarillo, countered that nothing could top The Maltese Falcon: “Nothing! Best goddamn movie ever made!” The bartender agreed on The Maltese Falcon and on John Huston films in general, but thought that John Ford was just as good. “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” he said. “Now that was a picture.” I was about to toss Fritz Lang’s name into the pot when Leslie, still new at Winterburn’s, chimed in.

“You know whose movies I love?” she said, sipping at her beer. “William Castle’s. David, you must know who he is, right?”

I was on the barstool next to her. “Sure,” I said. “Horror movies. Cheap ones. Kind of corny.”

“Corny!” Her eyes opened wide. “Oh my gosh! I remember seeing a movie of his called Macabre downtown a couple of years ago. It was about this girl who’s buried alive by a madman and her father, this doctor, spends the entire film trying to find her before she suffocates. Scary! And you know what? Before they let us into the theatre we had to sign an honest-to-gosh insurance policy that would pay a thousand dollars in case we died of fright! They even had a nurse and an ambulance outside the theatre!” She giggled, twirling her silver necklace in her fingers as she habitually did. “I was so scared. I still have the insurance policy!”

All the men laughed, as they always would at her breathy excitements—my father most of all, with a barking horse laugh I had never heard before, shaking his head and slapping his knee.

There was something childlike about Leslie. When I talked to her I had the odd feeling that I was speaking simultaneously to an adult and to someone my own age. During the evenings when we worked, she was completely professional and rather subdued, her hostess-clothes on the conservative side and her humor muted. She was very good at her job, managing to make customers happy to learn that there was an hour’s wait for a table or that we only served certain items on the weekends. She had a way of impressing on a person the urgent need for something and the desire to do it for her. “David,” she would say, touching my shoulder and looking straight into my eyes, “table five has to have bread and butter right now. You’ll do that for me, won’t you, handsome? Pretty-please?”

Of course there was a patronizing quality to her words which I hear now, all these years later. But they did not sound like that at the time, with her eyes locked on mine and her fingers touching my shirt sleeve. They sounded like the words of a vivacious, alluring woman with all the pep and verve in the world, and she was standing there in my mother’s old place while Mom lay at home exhausted and dying, and that was why I hated Leslie Rose.

▼▪▲

At first, my life did not center itself around Leslie as it would later. My dislike of her was real. I found myself annoyed at her loud voice, her girlish mannerisms, her provocative clothes (grown-ups, I felt, should not dress that way). But I was also quite aware that my feelings about her were hotly confused with my feelings about my mother, and that much of my emotion toward Leslie had nothing to do with her, but with myself. Even at the height of my hatred I knew she was a nice lady, one who had neither said nor done anything to earn my disaffection—in fact, quite the opposite. She had gone out of her way to be kind, no doubt in part because I was the boss’s son, but also, I felt, from a genuinely friendly feeling toward me. And certainly I could never have denied her sexual attraction, which made her a frequent visitor to my overheated fantasies (girls still being as remote from my actual experience as the residents of Pluto). What Leslie actually understood about me, about my father and our family situation, I did not then know.

Nor, at the beginning, did I much care. Working at the restaurant, though it provided me with a small bank account and some walking-around money, was a burden. I disliked it almost as much as I disliked being home, with my mother ever more frail, ever more often confined to her bedroom and locked behind her closed door. At times she would be taken to the hospital for a night or two, but for the most part she was home—slowly expiring, a fact of which I was well aware though no one told me so. Dad and I never talked about her; it was as if she had already become a ghost, omnipresent in the house yet invisible to its inhabitants. By this time I had begun to fear her, to fear what she was becoming, her emaciated look, her medicinal odor; she was beginning to seem like someone else, someone threatening, frightening, hardly my mother at all.

As a result I liked doing anything that got me far from home and away from the restaurant. I started high school around this time, and it was okay. I had two friends for a while, Billy and Tommy Hubbard, wild buck-toothed brothers who took me along on their excursions around the city to shoot spit wads at passersby, steal Clark bars from the grocery store, that kind of thing. It all seemed exciting and rather glamorous to me then, though the Hubbards were really just poor kids who lived in a bad neighborhood and whose futures were bleak (both were dead before they reached twenty-two, one in a car accident, the other in a knife fight). I spent many hours with my Kodak eight millimeter finding interesting angles to shoot and practicing basic skills like tracking shots and panning. I was not so much fascinated with the idea of directing a scene with actors, but rather with the technical aspects of how the image that moved or delighted me actually wound up there on the screen. I spent time in the library, almost always with books about filmmakers. And I was reading anything I could find about film itself—how cameras worked, how the pictures were cut together to form montage, how sound editing was done, how special effects were created. I found some published screenplays and tried to create my own, handwriting them on notebook paper and then typing them up in my spare time during Mrs. Mercure’s Typing 1A class, but they rarely got beyond a few pages. My films, whether street scenes or clay animations created in my bedroom, were strictly improvisations.

Mostly I just went to the movies, and it was this that generated my initial connection with Leslie. Much as I was determined to hate her, I quickly discovered that she was not like the other grown-ups in my life. She was not like my teachers—men and women who seemed to exist only in the classroom, for whom it was impossible to imagine private lives or experiences outside school. She was not an ominous shadow like my father, quietly menacing, subtly dangerous. And she was absolutely nothing like the paling husk of my mother, who, I knew, would get better and live if only she loved me enough to do so—if only I proved myself worthy of that much love.

The one thing Leslie was, that no other adult seemed to be, was fun. She kept a lightheartedness in running the floor in the evening, laughing and cracking jokes; but it was in the after-hours that she really shone, sitting in the bar with the rest of the employees and my father, her boss. She would lead us in silly games or get us to sing bawdy songs with titles like “Miss Itch and Mr. Bucket” and “Gertie’s Garter’s Falling.” She was always the center of attention. I was a reluctant participant in these frivolities, partly because of a natural shyness, but mostly because I adamantly refused to allow myself to like this woman. She was a show-off, I told myself, a fake. I could never associate myself with such a person, not me.

Leslie noticed. That was one of her best qualities: she was sensitive to others’ feelings. “David, you’re so quiet here in the corner!” she would shout in the middle of a song, leaning toward me. “C’mon, relax, sing along!” I would smile, pretend to sing or just shake my head, and she would stick out her lower lip in a pout before turning back to the group.

Once she embarrassed me acutely, though it was accidental on her part. It was at the annual Winterburn’s Employee Christmas Party. This was a time for everyone to get together with spouses and children, a time when no one was exhausted from a night of work just completed, no one in a hurry to get home to check on husbands or wives or kids. The restaurant would close early, after lunch, and the party would begin then, often running well into the night. Dad hosted each year in his reserved, rather forced-affable way—or at least he did until Leslie Rose came. Then his hosting duties were strictly nominal. Leslie (who had been quickly promoted to assistant manager) led all the conversation, chose all the music on the jukebox, organized every game and prize-giving and gift-swapping. One element of these parties that didn't change under her direction was their boozy atmosphere. And while the youngsters were not allowed access to liquor, the adults tended to let loose. I remember watching Leslie kick back drink after drink, hard liquor of some kind, becoming louder and more boisterous, dancing with many of the men, dancing in fact with Dad, who had a huge grin plastered on his half-drunk face as Leslie wrapped her arms around him and they circled about the tables in rhythm to a tune I have since blanked out of my memory. My parents had formerly hosted these parties together, and they had danced about the tables too. I was appalled at my father’s behavior, and yet my shock and hurt seemed to direct itself entirely at Leslie. You bitch, I thought, blindly. You fucking bitch.

As their song ended, another began, and I found to my horror that Leslie was now approaching me, a huge, happy smile on her face, her arms extended to encircle my shoulders.

“C’mon, handsome,” she grinned, “your turn! I want to dance with my favorite busboy!”

Any other teenager in this situation would have been heart-smashingly thrilled at such a prospect, and indeed she had danced, innocently and quite appropriately, with several of the other young people on the staff. But at that moment I saw her as little short of a monster. I froze as she placed one arm over my shoulder, clasping her other hand in mine.

“Don’t,” I said, very quietly.

“What?” She looked at me.

“Don’t!” And I pulled violently away from her, my breath fast and shallow. Those nearest to us saw the exchange, stared at us in surprise. Dad was on the other side of the room, paying no attention.

She said, “David, I just ... ”

“I don’t want to!” I cried, desperate for an excuse, any excuse. “I—I have to go to the bathroom!”

The room exploded with laughter, naturally, as I ran out.

▼▪▲

Most likely I would have eventually forgotten this incident, trivial in itself, except that it ultimately merged in my memory with another event of that night into one continuous sensation of horror. I was breathless as I entered the dark foyer of our house a few minutes later, sweating even though it was an icy evening outside. Some huge emotion was washing through me, part grief, part rage, and I stood bewildered in front of the hall closet, totally unable to think of what to do next. Finally I moved into the living room. I remember running my hand over the sofa, the chairs, the top of the TV set; I remember staring dully at the covers of Mom’s LP records, dozens and dozens of colorful cardboard folders with pictures of Van Cliburn, George Szell, Herbert von Karajan, Arturo Toscanini, all the classical stars of the time. Somehow I could not get my thoughts to focus, to think clearly about what had happened. My brain seemed to have seized up. For a very long time I simply stood there.

Then there was a crash from upstairs. It was a muted, thudding sound, not loud but out-of-place, unexpected. I looked reflexively up at the ceiling.

I heard my mother make a low, moaning cry. This was in the period when her nurses still only came in the daylight hours, the last one leaving around seven p.m.; my mother and I were alone in the house. Suddenly all the bitter confused emotions coursing within me coalesced into a single awful feeling of sheer terror. Whatever had happened, I knew that I did not want to walk up those stairs. I did not want to enter that room. I did not want to see her. I thought of shouting upwards, “What’s wrong?” but I could not raise my voice above a whisper. There was no choice, none, there had never been a choice.

I mounted the stairs in the darkness.

Knocking softly on her door, I said, “Mom?”

There was no response.

I knocked louder. “Mom? What is it?”

Again I heard something, a faint groan. I opened the door. I could see the room was empty; light from the adjoining bathroom illuminated it dimly. I took in the rumpled bed, the tipped-over bottles of medicine on the side table, the issue of the Saturday Evening Post lying open on the floor. She was in the bathroom.

“Mom?”

Again the slight, fractured groan.

I moved to the bathroom and looked in.

My mother was collapsed on her side next to the toilet, her body curled into a fetal position. She was completely naked. Her hair was thin, lifeless, askew. She was breathing fast. There seemed to be little to her body at all: her skin was marble-pale, her limbs as slender as a child’s. A thin, yellow-brown liquid had run between her legs and was pooling on the floor before her.

Some time before, I had been hanging around with the Hubbard brothers in an alley near their house when they brought out their slingshots, having decided to take potshots at the starlings they saw on a telephone wire overhead. Generally they just scared the birds, which quickly flew away; but this time Billy Hubbard nailed one and it dropped straight as a stone to the cracked weed-infested pavement. The Hubbard boys had run over in great excitement, shouting, “Fuck yeah! Fuck yeah!” and stood over the tiny feathered thing. It was not dead. Billy’s rock had smashed it full in the chest with tremendous force, caving it partially in, and the bird lay there on the broken asphalt breathing heavily, its wings futilely trying to take flight. The Hubbards quickly gathered more rocks and, standing over the bird, shot stone after stone at it, making its body jitter and bounce. And yet for the longest time it did not die. It lay there quivering, the one black eye that I could see open and staring, not flinching, not blinking, merely staring frozen at the certain death that loomed above it.

In the bathroom, now, I saw that same eye. It neither flinched nor blinked, appearing for a moment completely lifeless, doll-like, dead, until at last I heard my mother’s broken voice. “David ... I’m so sorry ...”

I stood unmoving, unspeaking.

“I ... thought I could make it,” she said, her voice hardly a whisper. “I ... thought I would take a shower before I went to—to bed ... I was about to ... Then I needed to go to the ... the bathroom ... I thought ... David, I’m so sorry ... Please ... step out of here and close the door behind you. Go downstairs and call the hospital. Go ahead, honey. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry ... ”

I stared at the helpless bare thing on the floor and suddenly felt cold, very cold, cold and emotionless, as if this were happening to someone else entirely, as if it were a film I was watching in a movie house: interesting, but with no actual connection to me, not to me.

“It’s all right,” I said to her. “It’s quite all right.” I walked calmly from the room, closed the door, moved down the stairs to the phone. Soon enough we were at the hospital. My father did not join us until several hours later.

▼▪▲

I saw her very little after that; an around-the-clock nursing regimen was imposed after she returned from the hospital, and at that point I was allowed in only for two brief moments each day. Though again I was not told, I knew that she was nearing her end. And that she had decided to die at home.

At innumerable dinners in restaurants, across countless hours of television-watching in the darkness of the living room, my father and I never discussed my mother, her condition, her diagnosis. Mom went to the hospital and was brought back without anything said to me. When it was time to visit her there he would simply announce, “Time to go, David,” and I knew where. He seemed to treat the entire situation as utterly routine, not worth mentioning; and I realized—reading his expression, his eyes, the movements of his head and hands—that the subject was not, under any circumstances, to be raised. Dad had set us on a course of grim and silent determination, the proper response, he no doubt imagined, for anyone heading into a hurricane. If he ever wept for my mother, I was not a witness. And I certainly could never have imagined weeping for her in front of him.

I do not mean to suggest that he was cruel. His stoicism he learned early, growing up poverty-stricken in West Virginia. It was a survival strategy that worked to good effect when friends passed away, when his wife was dying, and, later, when his business went bad and he was faced with his own demise. I think he assumed that I would simply learn to emulate him, and that this was enough in terms of helping a son through the death of his mother. I am sure he thought about me and perhaps even worried. The man was not uncaring. But that was the extent of his ability to help me.

In the wake of my mother’s latest crisis, I was away from both school and work for several days, but the humiliation at the Christmas party still burned darkly within me. I steeled myself for the jokes and razzing that I believed would come. I should have realized that the entire staff was well aware of what had happened to my mother—their boss’s wife—and so the matter had been instantly forgotten, replaced by entirely sympathetic support. “Real sorry about your mom, kid.” “Try to be strong, David.” “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” All such comments were well-meant, of course, and utterly futile.

I had not yet seen Leslie, and when I went to slip my punch card into its metal slot over the time clock, I was surprised to see a small pink envelope waiting there. Opening it, I found a girlish, curly-cue handwriting that read:

Dear David please stay around after work I need to talk to you. Leslie.

The night passed slowly; I could not help but feel something of a thrill, this being the first note I had ever received from any female other than my mother asking me to do anything at all. My anger at her seemed to melt away, replaced by a giddy anticipation. I don’t like her, I kept having to remind myself. I don’t want to talk to her. I’ll just leave, walk right out.

Of course I did no such thing. As it happened this was Monday, my father’s night off; I often stayed a little late along with Leslie and one or two others, setting up for the next day’s lunch crowd while she completed work on the accounts. Around ten p.m. I saw her near the cash register, telling the dishwasher he could leave for the night; there was a cook still cleaning up in the kitchen, but by then the restaurant itself was empty. I was across the room near the door, determined to walk out, when she said, “David?”

I turned. She moved to the nearest table and sat down, motioning for me to join her.

“C’mere, sit down for a minute, will you?”

I did. I could hear the cook slam shut an oven door. The restaurant was mostly dark, the main dining lights having been switched off. I found myself feeling nervous, as any child does when summoned by an adult to sit down for a talk.

“David,” she said, not looking at me, “I want to apologize to you.”

“The doctors say she’s stabilized,” I replied.

She glanced up, then away again. “I didn’t mean that—I mean—yes, I did mean that. But I was really talking about the party.”

I felt my face flush red. “Never mind. It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not.” She shook her head, her curls bobbing limply on her shoulders. She looked elegant in her dark hostess-dress and necklace of pearls. After a moment she began twisting the pearls between her fingers. “I’m ... I didn’t mean to embarrass you. I ... ” She fell silent.

“You didn’t embarrass me.”

She ignored the obvious lie. “David ... Your dad and I talked for a while that night. He told me about ... everything. Your mom. The fact that I—do her job here now. I—I don’t know what to say. My own mom died when I was about your age. I feel so stupid for acting like that around you when you’re going through—you know—what you’re going through.” She looked at me. “I had no idea, David. I just felt like, I don’t know, killing myself. When I found out.”

I felt hot tears spring to my eyes and quickly looked down. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, my throat tight.

“I won’t ask you if you’re okay, like everybody did tonight,” she said. “It’s a stupid question. I know you’re not okay. But it’s so awful, knowing I made you feel worse.”

“No, you—no. It’s ... I like you,” I said, admitting it to myself at last. “You’re funny. I—I mean—I can talk to you. Nobody else likes the kind of stuff we like.”

She grinned. “Like bad horror movies!”

I grinned too.

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