A Sure Thing
PART TWO: BIRTH
Chapter Nine: A Sure Thing
My suspicions over who was living in our home with us seemed to become more of a reality over the course of a few weeks. It was toward the end of January and the first week February, right before my eighteenth birthday. It was morning and I was watching football in the living room, on the big TV.
For some reason Valerie was making breakfast, which was unheard of, despite the fact she was a descent enough cook. She merely didn’t like the time it took to prepare a nice meal. I was having a hard time concentrating. It wasn’t the opening and closing of the cabinets or the odd squeak of one of the kitchen drawers being pulled along their wooden rungs. The pots and pans rattling or the running water or the sound of sizzling bacon – none of that was bothersome. Those were the typical sounds heard on any ordinary morning.
No, it was Valerie herself. For some reason, she felt the need to walk back and forth from the kitchen to the bathroom every five or six minutes. It was as though she were deliberately trying to annoy me. She kept stepping heels first, making the entire house shudder underneath me.
After she’d done this for the fourth time, I’d had enough. “Valerie, stop stomping around like you have clod-hoppers on your freakin’ feet!”
There was no reply, nothing. This was unusual. My sister was always willing to step up to the combative plate when she felt pressed upon, and yet – silence.
“Valerie, do you her me talking to you?” I got up. I’d seen the last, whisping edges of her nightgown as she made her way into the bathroom, so I made my way after her.
The sarcastic accusation upon my lips went to ash in my mouth when I peered into the bathroom and found it empty.
There was no one there.
I turned around, quizzical, head dipped in the tangle of sticky cobwebs that were my thoughts.
Wait a minute. I remember the phrase skipping across my consciousness like a flattened stone over the surface of a pond. It was touching, ever so slightly, but it never penetrated deeper than the uppermost recesses of the waters of my mind.
My eyes darted about the dining room, the living room beyond, the snarls and grunts of the football game barely registering in my ears. I focused, letting my perception expand. Aspects of my environment began to register elsewhere than just the automated portions of my brain.
It was late morning, not early. There were clouds covering the city, making it darker than it should’ve been at ten-thirty. There was no sound of frying bacon. The light in the kitchen was off.
Confusion set in like a fog. I could see fine, but the meaning, the ability to cognize what I was seeing was dulled, hampered, muddied.
I shuffled toward the kitchen, long shadows following. The house had gone eerily quiet. Even the television seemed as if it had somehow found a way to walk outside, onto the deck and close the sliding glass doors behind it. The moment I cleared the dining room hutch, I peered at the stove as it came into view. It was devoid of all cookery. There were no pots or pans in evidence anywhere.
Valerie hadn’t been making breakfast.
No one had been making breakfast!
It felt like I’d been struck with a pillow in the dark. In a second I was moving cautiously, careful with every step, letting the tips of my toes acclimate to everything they touched. My secondary senses were on high – hearing, smelling.
Then, BLAMM! the realization hit me like a slap of ice-cold water in the face.
I was the only one here!
My mother, Valeria and Eli had gone shopping. They weren’t in the house.
My father hadn’t come home last night. He’d called the night before saying there was some sort of emergency in Santa Barbara and his department had been called-in to remedy. I recalled, when my mom had told us, we’d all laughed out of the corners of our mouths. We knew where he was really going. We knew what he was really doing. He was going to spend the night with Roxanna, screw her until the break of dawn.
What an idiot. You’re a glorified accountant, not a fireman or a police officer, or even a lawyer! What the hell were you thinking? Are we that stupid to you? At seventeen, almost eighteen, he was transparent to me. Yet, how could I blame him. If I’d been bitch-slapped by something I couldn’t see, I’d probably stay away as well. Maybe he was scared. Maybe the idea of sleeping at the house was too much for him right now. I was there. I had seen what had occurred. I saw the invisible fist clout my father upside the head, nearly knock him unconscious.
Well, whatever the reason, it sure gave him one hell of an excuse to stay away.
My mother hadn’t so much as lifted an eyebrow. She didn’t care anymore. I guess from her perspective, Roxanna was doing her a favor.
I was able to figure that out when I got older. When you abhorred someone, it was better to let someone else sleep with them, so you wouldn’t have to. It was survival.
My mother had been in that mode for far too long.
All of this flashed through my mind in second. I glanced about again on the cusp of fright. I knew I should feel a tingle up my spine. My heart should thud, my breathing increase. The hot flush, followed by the frozen gooseflesh should’ve come next. My head should’ve darted back and forth, my expression grim with wary expectation. It should’ve been there, twisting my gut, a wrenching in my chest.
I felt none of it. The very moment another notion registered, it all melted away. I was nodding now. I know who you are, I thought, comfortable, knowing it was Her and not someone other sort of presence. She I could tolerate. She had a right to be here. This place had been hers since the turn of the century.
“Sorry, Mrs. Gates, if I disturbed your cooking,” I said to no one in particular - other than the dead, of course.
I walked back to the couch and resumed watching football. It was the playoffs after all. Thoughts of what had happened out of mind. After all, it was only Her.
As if to answer, I smelled fresh cooked bacon as if she were capable of preparing it from beyond the grave. Still, I could almost see it. Long, straight, uncurled strips of meat she’d cooked over a low flame. Just the way I liked it.
I smiled, thinly, then gripped the pillow I’d been holding, my thoughts flittering away.
Oh god, go! I yelled internally.
John Elway broke free of a charging linebacker, the pocket about him collapsing. He scrambled, twisted to the side. He launched an impossible pass at the line of scrimmage. His receiver had broken free, by one foot, two feet. The ball was coming down, a beautiful arch, a perfect spiral – touchdown.
“Yeeeaaah!” I howled.
Off to my right, going from the kitchen to the bathroom, the footsteps sounded once again.
I heard her crying in the sunroom. They were small, muffled whimpering’s, barely loud enough to reach the dining room. I’d come home later than usual, after spending some time at Myra’s house. It was almost 6 o’clock, the sun was fast toward the horizon. We were still on Standard Time.
Valerie and Eli were upstairs. I could hear their footfalls above me.
The lamp in the far corner of the living room was the only luminance in that part of the first floor. The rest of house was dimly lit, subdued.
The only sound was the soft click of the heating system, the faint swoosh of air as the furnace system engaged and pushed air through the walls.
And, her near-silent sobs.
I strode briskly toward the sound. I knew it was my mother. I had heard her weep so much over the years. I knew every nuance of the act. This fact alone was a physical testament to all the unnecessary bullshit she had to endure when I was a child. It made my teeth grind together. I was seething. What now? What have you done to my mother? My thoughts were narrow, aimed, straight for the very middle of my father. Why couldn’t he just fuck Roxanna and be done with it? Why all the torment and torture? Why was he so fucking sadistic?
I came around the fireplace and peered through the twin, wood-framed, glass doors with their gossamer curtains and saw her. She was sitting a rocking chair, one I had never seen before. She was staring out at the darkening day, over the deck and rest of the side yard, her eyes locked on the distant tree-line. She wore simple grey sweats, top and bottom. I couldn’t see her feet, because she had her favorite white and red-colored afghan over the lower regions of her body.
I stopped cold. The lighting was, from left to right, illuminant to dark and cast a shadow beginning at the front of her cheek bones and grew progressively intense toward the back of her head. Her hair was in near-darkness. Though she was only thirty-eight at the time, it was like seeing her through a wormhole. As plain as if were written in the sky, I knew I was looking at the future. This would be my mother in forty years – old and frail, tiny and worn, especially if nothing changed. If I didn’t get her away from my father, this is what she’d become, a husk of the vibrant woman I had known as a child. The very woman I’d seen traipsing about the house almost form the moment we’d moved here would be dead.
She turned to look at me.
I was astonished.
The woman I thought I was seeing was entirely different. She wasn’t broken or fragile. She wasn’t overburdened by a grueling life, downtrodden by a brute of a husband. Yes, she was crying. Yes, she looked small to me, but my mom was a petite woman. I’d grown bigger than her over the course of my thirteen year. I passed her in height right before my fourteenth.
When her eyes met mine, when those dark, warm pools looked into me, there was nothing but strength within. There was nothing but resolve.
“Mommy?” I ventured, my voice more like the boy I’d been than the man I was on the verge of being.
“My marriage is over, son.” She said it succinctly as if her mouth needed less movement to utter the correct amount of syllables.
I felt icy dread grip the center of my chest. It was suddenly hard to breathe.
She noticed at once. “Nothing happened… well, outwardly that is.” She shook with a chortle, a weary, yet confident resonance of her mid-section.
I was confused. “How do you -?” I tried.
She finished, “I know?”
“I think I’ve known for some time. I just needed someone to tell me what I was thinking was the right thing to do.” She pushed herself straighter in the rocking chair. “And not just for you kids, but for myself as well.”
I was thrown off kilter as the import of what she’d said sunk in. I wasn’t always this slow on the uptake, but there was a lot of emotion to wade through. I know for a fact she’d talked with her close friends about my father. I know she confided in some of my uncles over the years, but none of those conversions had borne any viable fruit. What had changed? Who had she…?
The thought burned away like film left to long on a projector. It dwindled into nothing, leaving only a clean slate, bathed in white.
Our eyes locked.
“When?” I asked, certainty growing like weeds.
“Within the last hour,” she began. “I can’t be more specific than that. I was keeping track of the time.”
She looked back toward the horizon made ragged by the tops of the trees. “On the sunlight.” Her voice was miniature. “I was watching the clouds change color, asking myself what I was going to do different this year.”
I came forward, kneeling, putting a hand on her knee. It looked huge. “She told you?”
“Not in the way you’re thinking, Jer.” Her hand came to rest upon mine. “I was staring at the world out there, thinking about things in here.” She brought her other hand to her chest. “And suddenly, she was with me.”
“Just like that?” It seemed too simple to be true. Yet, I had no issue with the fact I was referring to a woman who’d been dead for more than fifteen years.
It was a mothers’ knowing smile I received in return. “Yes, my beautiful boy, just like that.”
“And now you know what you have to do?”
She nodded, reaching out to stroke the stubble on the side of my head like she used to do when I was much younger and had longer hair.
I grabbed her hand after a time, intent on kissing the back of it. Her scent registered before my lips made contact. She smelled different. I stopped to look up at her.
She was still smiling. “It’s her. I know.”
“Is she still here?”
My mom shook her head.
“You smell like great grandma,” I concluded, kissing her hand all the same.
Another miniscule chuckle escaped her. “I love you, Jerry.”
“I love you too, mama.”
“Things are going to get dicey around here in the next few months.” Her hand gripped me for a moment.
I nodded. I knew my father wasn’t going to take her leaving him without a fight.
“But, I’ll wait until after your birthday before I do anything drastic. I wouldn’t want to mess up your party. Turning eighteen is an important milestone in anyone’s life. It should be experienced, celebrated.” She patted my hand a few times. “After, Jerry, after I will make the necessary moves to get us away from him.”
“You sure you don’t want to do something right away?” I was already feeling anxious. If that asshole caught so much as fart on the wind of what she intended, he would make her life a living hell. He was such a vindictive sonofabitch, there was no telling what he’d do.
“He’s got Roxanna to keep him busy.” She actually sniggered.
“And you’re ok with that?”
There was moisture at the corner of each eye. “My god, son, you have no idea how ‘ok’ I am with that.” She sounded so “hip” when she spoke those words, in the fashion she’d uttered them. In my ears, she was decades younger.
On the vestiges of being sexually active myself, the innuendo of her statement wasn’t lost on me. I shook my head with mild nausea not sure I wanted to delve too deep into that particular subject, especially when it involved my parents.
“Ok, well, you let me know when.”
I stood, peering about the room. “Thank you, Mrs. Gates,” I said aloud.
“She doesn’t need you to say it, son. She already knows.” She trailed off, then, as quiet as a mouse: “Call her Florence. She prefers it, you know.”
I left my mother in her rocking chair. When I looked back, over my shoulder, she had resumed her vigil of the setting sun. There were only long streaks of indigo in the sky by then. The branches of the trees were weaving this way and that in the play of the wind.
Again, I saw her as I would any years in the future, but not like before. This woman was old, but strong, proud of what she’d accomplished with her time on earth.
I realized, Mrs. Gates – Florence - hadn’t left. She was still there. The moment I turned away, she and my mother were speaking to one another once more.
They looked peaceful at first, sharing a single body. Yet, as my stare lingered, I could see something else, something I couldn’t quit place. I was too young to understand to the true depth of a woman’s heart at the time. I didn’t know plans could be laid and buried as if they’d never been.
I had no comprehension that a woman’s heart can oftimes be a deep, deep well, where sometimes, awful things can be hidden as if they never were. You could know her for scores of years, her entire life possibly, and still not know what lies in those murky waters in the nethermost regions of her soul. They can be hidden so thoroughly.
When I learned this - learned this for real - I think I was leery of all females for a time, even my Myra. I was never able to look at them the way I had before.