His mother has been dead a long time and it should be easier to talk about her now, write about her, think about her. But nothing’s settled in his mind about this woman – Mother – and he’s afraid the memories have been buried too long, that they will crumble like dry earth in his hands. He wonders if maybe it isn’t better this way, not knowing, not remembering. But he’s a writer, so he writes:
I Was Fifteen – Jim Noonan
I don’t remember the “why” or the “what” of the argument that day in my room, when I shoved mom flat-backed into the wall beside my bedroom door.
I remember my hands, hard against her collar bone, elbows flexed, her shoulder blades clapping against the wall. I remember the rising odd and far-away look of recognition in her eyes, the look she used with dad a lot.
His mother bought a motorcycle because his father refused to buy a second car and she insisted on taking art classes at a studio in town. She found it in the classifieds. Paid the man two hundred dollars to bring it to the house in his pickup truck. It was a warm summer day, his father was at work and his brother set about showing her how to ride it. She gunned the engine and released the hand clutch too fast bringing the bike to a shuddering stall. “More throttle, and let the clutch out slower,” his brother encouraged from the side yard. She tried and stalled again and again, each time revving the motor higher and higher, dangerously high. Finally, in frustration, she twisted the throttle on fully and let the clutch go. Immediately the bike reared up on its back wheel and careened towards the house. His mother refused to let go of the handlebars, her feet skipping uselessly across the yard as the bike accelerated. The churning rear wheel spat grass and dirt and the engine shrieked until the bike and his mother hit the side of the house with a thud. She hopped up immediately as if to say she was all right with that look of determination she sometimes had when her mind was made up about a thing, no matter how crazy or inconceivable it seemed.
She had that same look when she told him about the Nursing School classes she would take when she moved to San Francisco, part of the brave face she put on during the divorce. He was only a teenager, but he knew the realities of a middle-aged woman in 1974 with no skills or experience, moving completely across the country to “start her life over.” After she moved, when they spoke on the phone, she always said the classes were scheduled to start “next month sometime.” After a while, he stopped asking her about them.
He didn’t see his mother again until the Navy stationed him at Treasure Island, on the Bay Bridge halfway between Oakland and San Francisco. A friend gave her a ride from the city, she introduced him as Roger. His mother was excited to see a Navy barracks and began talking about his father and the stories he had told her about his time in the Navy, before they were married. He tried to listen to her as she rambled on but his mind kept drifting back to the friend waiting outside, this Roger, whom she was living with, whom she had stood next to and casually draped her arm around.
Roger turned out to be the first in a series of perhaps a half dozen men of dwindling character his mother let live with her in the rundown apartment building she managed. To make an impression, Roger gave him a present of a leather-bound King James bible. He’d never owned a bible before and was allured by the crisp pages, so thin and edged in gold, and the mysterious language lilting from them like Shakespeare. He remembers sitting in the overstuffed chair in his mother’s apartment fingering the pages of the bible while Roger, standing behind the chair, gripping its edge, fist thumping his own well-worn bible, keened about “angels of righteous vengeance and the hounds of hell pursuing the damned and the glory of the Lord and the shame of sinners.” Later from his brother he learned about the times his mother ended up at the clinic because of Roger and his preaching and his drinking and his fists.
His memories seem almost cartoonish to him now, his feelings manufactured. What did he think of her? He doesn’t know but he’s a writer, so he writes:
Empty – Jim Noonan
He came home from school, stepping around the empty vodka bottle on its side on the kitchen floor. The afternoon sun struggling to penetrate the dirty windows cast a pale shadow of his mother’s unconscious form on floor. He stepped over her and started up the stairs to his bedroom.
“You guys wanna get high or what?” he said to his friends standing expressionless in the kitchen. “Come on.” Then he disappeared up the stairs.
He shook his suitcase to empty it on the bed, his heartbeat thundering in his ears. A postcard fluttered silently from the case, a glossy beach scene – Nags Head – glinting in the hard morning light. In the next room, his wife’s rasping cough stifled her litany of complaint for a moment.
“If you were a real fucking man . . .” Her voice rose to a nasal crescendo then suddenly, almost magically faded into the background buzz and hum of the tiny apartment. His heartbeat steadied and he set about packing.
Absentmindedly he jostled the empty tumbler, the whiskey long since gone. He turned from his desk to empty an overflowing brass ashtray, then sat staring at his monitor. Gnarled fingers fumbled a cigarette from a crumpled pack and propped it in the corner of his mouth. He squinted against the glare of the lighter, inhaled deeply, and typed over and over again:
Empty . . . empty . . . empty . . .
He was eight years old the day he tucked his sisters’ identical twin dolls in his mother’s bed like they were sleeping and hid in her closet to see her surprise. She screamed when she came in the room and he bolted from the closet, horrified by what he’d done. Horrified and confused. That’s when she told him about the triplets, girls born before him. Born too early. Never even given names. Arm draped on his shoulder, sitting side-by-side on the edge of her bed, she told him, “If they had lived, we wouldn’t have had you.” Her voice was soft, like she was comforting him. She spent the rest of the day in bed, a vodka bottle within arm’s reach on her bedside table.
He was the one she confided in. His older brother was too much like his father, and the twins were too young. So it was to him that she told the story of Rita, her college friend. Rita, unmarried with a figure not “ruined by children.” Rita, slim and athletic, with taut thighs and flat stomach. Rita, who glowed with health and tanned vigor. The tan was fake, his mother told him, and so was the friendship. “You can tell when you do the laundry and find streaks of bottled-tan orange on the fly of your husband’s white shorts. That’s how you can tell,” she said as she took another drink.
He never knew why she told him these things. And he never was able to make the connection from that woman, sitting with her arm around her son, telling him things children should never hear, and that woman he knew when he was in the Navy, that woman who managed that apartment building in San Francisco, a spectator to her own parade of depraved and abusive men.
He wonders if there was something in her she felt needed to be punished, some dark secret that made the drinking, and the pills, and the men make sense somehow. He doesn’t know but he’s a writer, so he writes:
The Question – Jim Noonan
Things with my mom haven’t been the same since the accident with the rope. Dad makes me shush and I can’t play inside when she’s in her bedroom or floating through the house like she does in her pink bathrobe, pulled tight at the neck to hide the bruises.
I don’t understand why things are like this. I cut my finger and press it in a paper towel until dad unlocks the medicine cabinet for a band aid. I tell him I cut it, that’s all. We don’t eat steak. Dad hid the steak knives in the basement. We can only have spoons.
I ask questions and Dad explains with words like “dissociative pathology” but I don’t know what he means except that things are different now with mom. Like in my dream as she swings slowly in the basement laundry room, her slippers just toeing the concrete floor. She smiles and her blue lips ask a breathless question.
I try to tell dad about my dream and he cuts me off. “No eight-year old should see these things,” he says. I want to tell him that the dream is every night. That it’s always the same; mom floating there in front of the dryer, her breathless lips, the steak knife in my hand, the rope twitching tautly from the rafter to the leg of the deep sink, the overturned stool, me knowing like I could see a picture of it – like mom was telling me herself – that I had to cut the rope.
But I can’t tell dad about my dream. He’d be mad I found the knives.
There was no funeral when his mother died in 1984. She burned herself while cooking. She was drunk, spilled soup on her lap. It was only a minor burn but it became infected, the infection spread through her alcohol-ravaged body, and in a matter of days she was dead. His aunt, his mother’s twin sister, called the Neptune Society who cremated her body and spread the ashes in the San Francisco Bay with thousands of others. Then she waited a week before calling his father to give him the news. She was gone. No time to grieve, no time for reconciliation, no time for final words. No time for anything but the endless washing of the San Francisco Bay into the Pacific. But he’s a writer, so he writes.