After John Cheever
The last time I saw my mother, she was standing in Penn Station under the arrivals and departures board wearing a wool cardigan buttoned to her throat. It was 5:38 p.m., 94 degrees outside, but my mother seemed oblivious to the heat and mad crash of commuters.
I approached her from the side, the way you would a feral cat. She looked thinner than the last time I’d seen her, the bones in her wrists knobbed under the rolled cuffs. Her face was still unwrinkled. She still wore red lipstick.
“Hello,” I said.
She turned her head slowly and studied me for a few seconds before she smiled. “Oh,” she said. “Hannah.” Her voice was breathier than I remembered, the vowels drawn out. She didn’t sound surprised; it was as if she’d expected to see me.
She gestured at the list of destinations. “Tell me, please: what is a Matawan?”
This was a game we used to play on her okay days. We’d pick an obscure word from that morning’s newspaper and spend the dinner hour making up a definition. Whoever came up with the cleverest was the winner, though there never was any real prize.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
She smiled. Her front right tooth was chipped. It made her look younger.
“A metal vessel for preparing goulash,” she said. “Okay. Your turn.”
The flip board whirred and clicked. My train was announced. The line grew wider and longer, aimed itself at the dark opening that led to the track. If I wanted a seat, I needed to get in line now. Say goodbye. Ask her to write down a phone number, maybe, or an address.
“A percussion instrument,” I said. “A cross between a snare drum and a tympani.”
“Excellent!” she said. She sounded so delighted that I found myself saying sure, yeah when she asked me if I had time for a cup of coffee.
We ordered at a counter. I offered to pay and she didn’t say no. We sat in a booth near the back. The curved seats were made out of something hard and orange. It was a dismal place, humid with a mustard yellow light.
My mother took the cover off her coffee sniffed it. “Burned,” she said. She shook a sugar pack into her cup. She did that four more times before giving her coffee a stir. Only then did she take a sip. “Not bad.”
I once dated this guy who did the exact same thing. Whenever he finished a piece of pie, he all but licked the plate clean. On our first date, he told me he was in recovery. We’d been fixed up by a mutual friend who knew we both loved books. We had fun for a while, then he called to tell me he couldn’t see me anymore. Too dangerous, he said. When I asked him to explain, he hung up on me.
My mother nodded to the music threading through the speakers. I sipped my coffee. It was bitter and weak.
“I love this song,” she said. “Don’t you love this song?”
“I don’t know this song,” I said.
“Sure, you do!” she said, filling in on the chorus with her alto harmony. She could still sing. In spite of everything, she still had that voice.
I picked up her stir stick and fiddled with it. “How have you been, Mother?”
“Oh,” she said, “here and there.”
She heard me say how. I know she did.
“That’s good, Mother,” I said. “So what brings you here?”
“This and that,” she said. She leaned in close and whispered, “Don’t look now, but that man at the cash register? He’s not wearing any underwear.”
It was the kind of thing she noticed, the odd detail that would often prove to be telling about that person or thing. He has shifty hands, is what she said about an old boyfriend. In and out of his pockets, always moving.
I didn’t look.
“A man,” she said. “But it’s not what you think! It’s business. He owns a supper club, and I sang for him. You know, an . . . ”
“Audition?” I said.
“Yes. An audition,” she said. “Exactly. See here.” She shoved a crumpled business card across the table: The Two Fifty-Two Saloon, it said. Then again, she could have picked up this card anywhere. From the ground or a trashcan where someone tossed it.
It wouldn’t be the first time she’d imagined something.
“Are you sure, Mother?” I meant it gently, but it came out all wrong and she heard it.
“Sure?” she said. “What do you mean, sure?”
The man two tables over looked up from his coffee. I could ask her to tell me about the audition and she would. She would tell me about the spotlight, the out-of-tune piano, the man who looked bored until she started to sing. How her hands still shook no matter how many times she’d done this. She’d tell me all this as though it had happened, make me believe in the thing as much as she did.
Another fairy tale, full of unhappily-ever-afters.
I crumpled up my napkin and stuffed it into my half-empty coffee cup. “I have a train to catch,” I said. That much was real. She walked with me as far as the departures and arrival board and told me she would say goodbye here. She said she liked to picture the trains coming and going, the people on them. I imagined she saw herself on each of them, constructing a life for herself complete with props and a better daughter.
“I’ll send you tickets when I open,” she said. “Good seats, up front, okay?”
Sure, I said.
Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize, A Brief Natural History of an American Girl, winner of the Editor’s Choice award from Accents Publishing, and Sort of Gone, a book of poems that follows the rise and fall of a fictional pitcher named Al Stepansky. Her work has appeared in the Sun Magazine, Brevity, Rattle, Barn Owl Review, on Writer’s Almanac, and anthologized in the 2011 anthology Good Poems: American Places. Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.