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Authors: Joyce Maynard

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BOOK: Labor Day
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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.

 

N
OW 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.

 

S
OMETIMES
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.)

BOOK: Labor Day
4.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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