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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

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BOOK: Missing Mom
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And upon me, her supposedly beloved daughter.

She doesn’t know me. Doesn’t want to know me.

As usual, Mom was oblivious of any discomfort that wasn’t obvious. As long as her guests appeared to be enjoying themselves, eating her food and accepting offers of seconds, what else mattered? Gwen Eaton, incurable optimist! It was hopeless to be angry with my mother, she meant so well. She wanted her Nikki to be happy like her Clare and that meant marriage, kids, home.
Family
.

Inspired by Danto whose swaggering self-confidence must have annoyed him, Rob confided to the table how, as a boy, he’d wanted to be a bacteriologist, or maybe an epidemiologist: “Somebody who would do good in the world not just make money.”

Aunt Tabitha crinkled her nose as if Rob had said something vaguely obscene. Alyce Proxmire shuddered, staring at him in disbelief. Clare was looking embarrassed as if Rob had suddenly revealed an intimate secret and Sonja Szyszko clapped her ungainly hands together as if she’d misunderstood.

“Why Rob,” Mom protested. “You do good, in your line of work. ‘Electronics.’ ‘Sales.’ There has to be electronics in our world, doesn’t there? There has to be business, and making money, or there wouldn’t be other things like science, would there? You couldn’t make a living just from tiny things you can see only through a microscope, who’d have invented and manufactured the microscope without business and money? Bacteria are so little, not like birds or even bugs.” Mom spoke gaily, giddily. She was being funny without knowing why, and seemed pleased at the smiling response.

Danto said belligerently, “Bugs have their own bacteria, you better believe it. Like ticks? Lyme disease? It ain’t the ticks that cause the disease, it’s bacteria.”

“Actually, it’s a virus,” Rob said curtly. “Lyme disease is caused by a virus.”

The subject shifted to Lyme disease: everyone knew someone who’d had it. Alyce Proxmire seemed to come alive for the first time that evening, speaking excitedly of how, two summers ago, in this very house, she’d made the near-fatal mistake of holding Gwen’s gray cat in her lap and in so doing she must have picked up a tick from the cat’s fur because early next morning she was wakened by a terrible throbbing in her scalp, and managed to see in the mirror an angry red swelling of the kind that is a danger sign meaning infection, and Lyme disease, if you aren’t treated immediately with antibiotics.

“I might be paralyzed right now! I might be in an iron lung, right this minute! Thanks to Gwen and one of her strays.”

Alyce meant to be joking, even as she was seriously chiding Mom, but her voice quavered with dread.

Mom said apologetically: “Oh, Alyce. I feel so bad about that! Right away I examined Smoky, and took him to the vet, and Dr. McKay could not find a single tick on him, honestly. Not even a flea. ‘Smoky is one of the cleanest animals in my practice,’ he said, truly, Alyce! I’ve explained to you. Maybe you did pick up a tick at my house, out in the grass, remember we were walking in the lawn, there are always deer crossing the lawns in this neighborhood, and Lyme disease comes from deer ticks. I’m sure the tick didn’t come from Smoky.”

Alyce murmured petulantly that Gwen always defended the cat, as she always defended her strays. Aunt Tabitha smiled grimly, agreeing: there was no telling how many of Gwen’s strays were underfoot, she was sure she’d felt something brush against her ankle beneath the table. In her teacherly way of shutting down a subject Clare intervened: “Mom is a sucker for stray animals but her family keeps a close watch on her, she’s down to just one.”

Mom said, sighing, “Well. Morning Glory passed away. Now there’s just Smoky.”

“But there was a time, not long ago,” Clare said, “when you had four cats. You know how Dad felt about that.”

“Oh, dear. Your dad didn’t…” Mom smiled, faltering. Before dinner she’d draped the white feather boa playfully over her shoulders but now it was slipping off. “…actually didn’t like animals. Very much.”

“Not animals, Mom. Strays!”

Clare was smiling brightly. I knew I had to help her, she’d blundered leading us to this subject. We would tease Mom to deflect her attention, make her laugh with embarrassed pleasure. Telling of her weakness for strays: the cosmetics saleswoman who’d begun to weep during her sales spiel, confided in Gwen how lonely she was, promptly Gwen invited her for dinner, the woman had a “breakdown” and wound up staying the night, and in the morning, Dad was the one to ask her please to leave. Even worse, there was “Cousin Darlene”—a remote relation of Gwen’s from Plattsburgh who arrived unannounced and disheveled with a six-month infant, telling a terrible story of her husband abusing her, and threatening her life, and naturally Gwen made her welcome; and within a few days Darlene was running up long-distance telephone bills, leaving the colicky baby with Mom for much of the day and expecting Mom to cook and clean up after her, until again Dad had to intervene, contacted Darlene’s family in Plattsburgh to please come get her. “‘Cousin Darlene’! She’d be here yet, camping out in my old room,” Clare said vehemently. “She’d stolen from her own family. She wasn’t even married. That baby didn’t have any father.”

Faintly Mom protested, “Oh, but whose fault was that? A baby doesn’t choose…”

“And last summer? I dropped by the house here, and there’s this Ozark-looking individual, I swear his arms were covered in tattoos, in a muscle T-shirt and what looks like swim trunks out in the yard pretending to mow the grass. Except the mower kept sputtering. I asked Mom who on earth this person was and she tells me Reverend Bewley ‘spoke up’ for him, he’s a parolee from Red Bank of all places.”

“Oh but just for some small thing, really,” Mom said, blushing, “like forging checks, or…”

“Auto theft, Mom! Burglary! Who knows what else he did, he never got caught for! Your precious Reverend Bewley is as naive as you are! And, get this,” Clare said in triumph, “his name was ‘Lynch.’”

“But Clare, a person can’t help what his name is…”

“‘Lynch’ was his first name! ‘Lynch’ was certainly a name the man could have changed.” Clare’s eyes glistened with righteous fury, she had the rapt attention of the table. The mood of the moment was wayward and comical. Mom blushed with a kind of embarrassed pleasure at such chiding. I could see my father’s figure hovering in the background as often, when Clare and I were visiting with Mom, having coffee or herbal tea together in the kitchen, or on the patio, I’d become suddenly aware of Dad as he stood in a doorway seemingly wanting neither to join us nor to leave us; content with listening in, getting that gist of what was so entertaining to his three girls as he called us fondly, without wishing to participate. “…so I’m with Mom in the kitchen and we aren’t hearing the lawn mower, and I go outside to investigate, and there is this ‘Lynch’ in front of the garage where there was oil spilled on the concrete he must have spilled himself, and what is the man doing?—I couldn’t believe my eyes, he was practicing slipping and falling. Falling! This guy, in his late twenties, one of those skinny hard-muscled guys, scrubby little goatee and sunburnt-looking face, sort of positioning his hand on the ground, and lowering himself, preparing to fall hard, turns out Mom had hired him for yard work in some ‘Christian Fellowship Out-Reach Program’ sponsored by Reverend Bewley, and what’s he doing but practicing an ‘accident’?—so he could pretend he was hurt, and blackmail Mom? Sue Mom? So I call out ‘Excuse me, mister, just what the hell do you think you’re doing?’—and that got his attention.” Clare spoke vehemently as one giving testimony on Court TV. The color was in her fleshy face from the wine she’d been drinking, and now the rapt attention of the table. “And all this while Mom is trailing behind me wringing her hands—‘Oh dear, oh dear! Don’t be hard on him, Clare.’ Lynch at least has the decency to be embarrassed when I confront him, he’s mumbling
Nothin, ma’am, I ain’t doin nothin just finishin’ up here
and I say, ‘That’s right, mister. You are doing nothing. You are finished working for my mother, you will leave this property immediately and not ever return or I will call the police and you’ll be back in Red Bank where you belong.’”

Amid the laughter of her guests Mom tried feebly to protest. “But he meant well, I think. I mean, at first. I’d talked with him, he wasn’t a bad person, really—told me his ‘only trusted friend’ was his grandma. I know it looked suspicious how he was behaving, I’m sure Clare is right, but how can a parolee support himself, how can he avoid committing more crimes, unless someone gives him a chance…”

Clare cried, “A chance to exploit you! A chance to rob
you
!”

“But how could I know, Reverend Bewley said…”

“So I called the Reverend. Oh boy did I call the Reverend and give him a piece of my mind. ‘No more charity cases! No more phony Christian ex-cons preying on my tender-hearted mother! Gwendolyn Eaton’s family takes care of her just fine, thank you.’ And the Reverend, too, had at least the decency to apologize.” Clare was breathless, triumphant. Each time she told the Lynch story it was becoming more embellished, crueller and funnier. In the earliest version which Clare had told me on the phone, on the very day of the episode, it hadn’t seemed so clear that lawn worker had been practicing a fall, only just behaving suspiciously in Clare’s eyes, in the vicinity of the garage. (While Dad was alive, the garage had been kept relatively clear, and he’d insisted that the car be parked inside every night. After Dad’s death, Mom tended to park the car in the driveway, and the garage was filling up as a kind of storage space.) This new version was such a success in the telling, even prim-faced Tabitha and Alyce Proxmire were reduced to fits of giggling, unable to resist the tale of another’s hard luck.

Foster, who’d been watching TV in the other room, ran back to see what was going on with us, and there came languid Lilja, cell phone to her ear: “Mom? What’s so funny? Why’re you guys laughing so hard?”

It took me a moment to register, Lilja’s “Mom” wasn’t Mom but Clare.

 

In Mom’s guest bathroom where the predominant smell was sweet potpouri and “floral” soap. Where the hand towels were prissy little linens Mom had embroidered with rosebuds, you’d never dare soil with your actual hands.

Nikki what have you done with my hair
seeing my pale startled reflection in the mirror and the fright-wig dyed-maroon hair on my head that looked weirdly small.
What have you done with my Nikki
.

“I’m thirty-one years old! I’m not your Nikki any longer, Mom.”

Whose Nikki, then? I’d had a few glasses of wine and wasn’t thinking with my usual laser clarity.

Ran cold water, splashed my feverish face. Winked and smiled flirtatiously at myself. “‘My specialty would be moths.’” Pursed my lips in a mock kiss trying not to see that I wasn’t so sexy/funky/glamorous close up. Was it seductive or silly, or sad, the way my puckered-tight black top had a tendency to ride up my midriff showing a swath of skin? No wonder Rob Chisholm, Gilbert Wexley, “Sonny” Danto snagged their eyes on me as I’d excused myself from the table.

Lilja on her cell phone. She’d been bored out of her skull by her grandma’s Mother’s Day dinner.

I’d brought my cell phone too. Arrived at the house by 6
P
.
M
. and it was 8:35
P
.
M
. now and I had refrained from making a single call. (I knew Mom would notice. Seeming so unsuspicious, Gwen Eaton had eyes in the back of her head, and ears, too.) I was feeling empowered not having called my voice mail in Chautauqua Falls which would determine for me had I been expecting a call, or not; was I hoping for a call, or indifferent; was I oblivious of what might, or might not, be waiting for me on my voice mail in my darkened apartment in Chautauqua Falls.

In fact, I couldn’t risk it. Hearing the recording click in.

You have no new messages.

 

“This has gone better than we expected.”

“Well, Nikki! That isn’t saying much.”

Next morning Clare and I would have to concede, speaking on the phone, that the crazy quilt of Mom’s guests had worked, sort of. If we’d taken Mom out to dinner at the stately Mr. Ephraim Inn she’d have fretted over the prices (“Twenty-two dollars for
chicken
! Twenty-eight dollars for
lamb
!”), she’d have been overly friendly with our waitress out of an embarrassment with being waited on (“I’m never waited on at home, am I? I can go to that service station and pour ice water for myself, it’s no trouble”) and, when the check came, she’d have tried to talk Rob into letting her “help out.”

At 9
P
.
M
. Mom’s guests were still at the dining room table. Showing no signs of preparing to depart. Wexley and Danto and Rob Chisholm had established an unexpected alliance, criticizing state government officials. In the kitchen Mom was brewing fresh coffee (“real” and decaf ). Through the evening she’d been on her feet half the time, into and out of the kitchen in her usual flurried zeal to serve her guests. Mom was a small woman but could be fierce in forbidding anyone to help her: “Now! You’re my guests tonight. Even my daughters, you just
sit
.” As if Aunt Tabitha and oldest girlfriend Alyce needed to be told.

In the midst of a meal Mom had a way of slipping into the kitchen to surreptitiously rinse a few plates at the sink, place them in the dishwasher and return smiling innocently to the table.
Getting a headstart on cleanup
was for Mom what illicit sex was for other people.

I followed Mom into the kitchen carrying dirtied plates. And there came Clare with more. When Clare scolded, her nostrils flared: “Mom! For goodness sake let Nikki and me take over. Enjoy your guests,
you
invited them.”

I laughed. Clare glanced at me, incensed.

“Well, it’s so. No one but Gwen Eaton would have invited these people, thrown them together to sink or swim, and hopped up and down from the table all evening abandoning them to one another.”

Mom mildly protested, “Clare, I have not. I have not been hopping up and down and abandoning my guests. You’re being unfair.”

BOOK: Missing Mom
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