“The quiet in that bed—that’s the hardest thing,” Mother once said after Daddy died, and I believe she thought she’d said it to herself.
It was pneumonia that got him—something I still can’t understand in this day and age, someone so young and nearly healthy: if you discount the two-pack habit; he never touched liquor. It compounded with early emphysema and that was it. Mother took time off work, telling me it was just to keep Daddy busy—pencil in crosswords, read something old and lovely to him from his special books, play fish. It was sudden in that we had no idea he was seriously sick, sick enough for a doctor.
Only once did I personally see him suffering, and that looked just like flu. There was a low harvest moon that night. Too early in the year, too far from sowing, let alone taking a crop. Its light bit the crowns of the sleeping trees out back, found a way to make evening dark glow for hours. The two of us ate quietly, alone, while he slept and wheezed upstairs. Then she washed the dishes and I dried.
“I mean to show Daddy that moon, Kenneth” she said, wringing out the dishcloth and draping it over the faucet to dry.
I hurried, left streaks of wet across the plates, whole little drops round the rims of our glasses that broke and ran when I set them down. I was intending to follow her up the stairs, close enough to maybe touch the bone of her elbow, because more and more I was losing my way in that house.
Those days, she knew everything so I wasn’t surprised by her fingers in my hair, her chin bent over my shoulder, Mother leaving me out of it, saying, “Isn’t safe for a growing boy.” She was giddy with the night, the window-show she was to catch with Daddy. But even spinning back in front of me before heading up, I saw her eye catch my dinner plate.
There lay my tomatoes, which I’d refused tonight, puddled in their seedy mess. I sat back down at the table, watched the night’s glow from there, and Mother left me waiting for something I still don’t understand—a way to dissolve fear that’s not yet known. We’d spent only three or four nights like this: Daddy in bed, Mother and me quiet when we spoke. I suppose she worried we might disturb him; I thought I needed to be good.
An hour later I went up to tell Mother I’d eaten them, wet and horrible as they were. The bedroom door was open enough to see, but shut enough to know she’d meant it to latch. She held him in her arms such that when I stepped nearer, I at first felt it was me she cradled. Across her lap and nestled against her chest, her chin atop the crown of Daddy’s graying hair. He shivered, his teeth chattered right up into her own jaw. She pulled his blankets tighter around him, and when he coughed that crinkling in his lungs and the sputum coming up on his chin, she hummed. The tune was something I remembered enough to know then, but have lost since. Then she lay Daddy back in the pillows she mounded behind him, and touched pieces of him. She rested a hand to his palm, fingered each of his right fingertips, measuring her own to his like a baby wanting to grow. His face was something I’d never seen before, something private between them, a delight in Mother that settled his eyes and brightened his gray lips to pink like he’d been sipping cherry pop. He whispered as much as he could breathe, and I haven’t any idea what he said, but Mother shook her head as if correcting or reminding.
I did see him a couple of times more before he died, when Mother took pity and ushered me in quickly before school; but he was always sleeping. I suppose eventually there were doctors there during the day, while I was gone. But once we knew what had a hold in him, there was no time to do something about it. After that, I’m not sure what I’d expected to see: green skin, gasping for breath. I never did. He looked fine, frozen-through and tired, but fine—and Daddy had always looked tired; he was base manager at KS Oil, afterall. So I’m not sure I took his illness seriously until he died. Then Mother returned to work. I was alone at home after school again until I couldn’t stand being alone with their empty room, the way I still heard him coughing with a breeze. If we were together, the old sour smoke, the rasping of his lungs in the shifting of the trees, was a comfort. Alone, it terrified me.
I started biking straight to the meat-and-three after sixth period gym, studying math at the counter, watching Mother wait tables until her shift was over at five, and we’d put my bicycle in the trunk of her car, and drive home. All those days and nights, neither one of us knew what to say, so we didn’t say much of anything.
Mother found Charlie not long after that, and so spent that next year lying beside him in their—her and Daddy’s—old double bed, knowing how much more she could have felt for this man if he were the right one. We could both, I was sure, see that in her face: her skin formed sideways pleats drawing from the bridge of her nose into the corners of her eyes, and I could have sworn she was a full inch and a half shorter. Charlie sold farm insurance across the street from the restaurant, and he was steady, even if he rarely could decide on or finish his three sides—ordering tuna melt, macaroni and cheese, french fries, and corn pudding every Monday, by Thursdays he’d have given up on getting his money’s worth and just ask for the grilled cheese. Mother let him talk to her. With my algebra text and a spiral notebook, I hardly even noticed Charlie until the morning he walked out of Mother’s bedroom in Daddy’s old flannel robe. I suppose I wasn’t expected up so early on a Sunday. I suppose Mother about died. After that, however, Charlie slept over most nights.
That’s when Mother started coming to me. She’d sit by me on my bed, or shut my math book on my pencil at the restaurant, and whisper, “You hardly say a word anymore.” And I’d shrug or mumble something to keep her from putting us both through such a thing.
She wanted something from me, some bit of information that would explain herself to herself, like maybe I held the key to showing her just where she was. “Anything you want to talk about?” she’d say. “Anything confusing you, you ask me right now.”
She never mentioned Charlie, but I knew he’s what the questions were about. She’d find a crusty swipe of peanut butter on my cheek, lick some dishrag or her thumb and rub me clean with it. “We’re good friends, you and me,” she’d say, though the way her eyes tended to dip down then back up, suggested she wanted confirmation. “We’re all there is,” she’d say.
Right then she’d touch her wedding ring, start pushing the banged-up thing loose of the soft, pale skin it hid. It was too much. She kept nothing to herself anymore. I could have screamed for all the ways she was falling apart, all the ways she was frightened and weak. Some nights I ran from her—straight out the back door and into the field behind the house, seeing the brown rabbits I’d scared up dart ahead of me, out of my way. Then I sat in between rows of broken-down cornstalks, hearing the rush of the trains three roads over, thinking of him and that night and trying to hum a bar of what it was she’d sung him. And I’d stay out ‘til the lights were off in the house, ‘til she and Charlie were forgetting the day and I could hear the coughing come through the hall to me again.
Other times, I stayed put and tried my best to give her what she wanted.
“We know what’s what, don’t we?” she’d say, smiling up into my face, that smile that only exists to get the other person smiling. Both of us knowing the lie.
What I knew she wanted me to say was it’s all right, he’s gone and everybody knows a person’s got to be held; if you’ve got no consolation elsewhere, then it’s just got to be all right. But I didn’t say a word, not out of wanting her to suffer but out of refusing to find a way to talk to her, refusing to be the one giving out permissions.
I just said, “I’m fine.” And that’s how it was: every few days she’d announce that I don’t talk to her anymore, and I’d say I was just plain old fine with no troubles or worries. And that was true, for as much as a twelve year old boy can be trouble-free in that sort of a house with that sort of a mother and that sort of a man walking through the place in that sort of a bathrobe. I didn’t have questions; I knew exactly what Mother was doing.
Charlie was nice. That’s about the only word I can think of for him. He wasn’t funny, though he occasionally tried out a good one on me. He wasn’t clever, though he could make sense of his world pretty well. He loved Mother, that was clear, maybe even more than Daddy had, but in a limited way as only limited people can. I don’t think he understood her. I’m sure he never knew how different what she thought and said really were. To me, that was clearer than anything I’d ever learned: Mother wanted him near, him-anyone so long as she could keep Daddy on her mind. And she did.
At the end of their second summer, Charlie was transferred to a larger branch, this one in Wichita, and Mother and I followed him there. He bought a house, but she didn’t sell or rent ours. It sat empty of us, though still furnished—mostly with things Mother wouldn’t ask Charlie to keep: Daddy’s cherry highboy, though I think she could have given it to me; his bicycle, again something I could have taken, though I already had one; her and Daddy’s bed; and his books. I debated whether or not to tell her in our next talk that I wanted his things, but we didn’t really talk much.
She was so tired, even in the morning. I don’t think she slept a lot in the new house. Charlie was still nice, still handing me the Sunday funnies when I padded up to the breakfast table. And he was talking more and more, I think to make up for the silence fallen into the rest of the house. He’d ask me about school, which I hated: there was something backwards about a district that saved algebra for tenth graders, and wouldn’t give me geometry no matter what ‘til I was sixteen; I had two more mathless years to wait. “It’s fine,” I told him; I didn’t want to trouble him with it.
“That English teacher still raking you over the coals, Kenneth?” he asked, looking up from the paper. I’d told him about a teacher marking me down for being so quiet, and Charlie took it so hard, asking every time he saw me if it had gotten any better, was there anything he could do, could he talk to the principal for me.
“Aw, things are good,” I told him. We were getting along now, in a sort of rhythm of proving how well life could work out even in such strange circumstances.
“Well, no such thing wrong with a quiet boy. Far as I can recall, all my teachers—that was exactly what they wanted.” He found his place in the paper, then shook his head one last time. “Marking down for that? Good grief.”
Mother wasn’t with us at the table. She didn’t cook breakfast in the new house or even get up. She slept in, even on weekdays when she was supposed to look for a new job—though Charlie would never tell her she had to, especially with Daddy’s benefit.
But I often thought about one night before we moved when she kicked off her work shoes at the kitchen table, and showed us the ad in the paper for real estate agent school and whooped and hollered, “That’s what I’ll do with my new life.” And then she stuck the scrap of newsprint to the ice box.
In Wichita, there was no new life; there wasn’t even her old life. I never saw her on mornings anymore, just occasionally after school and for an early supper if she were feeling up to it or was wanting to slip in to the bath. She’d say, “Kenneth,” and kiss my forehead and tug at a tuft of ducktail coming down the back of my neck. But then she was gone, and the way the house felt, I couldn’t be entirely sure she was there. Sure enough, I found out, most times she wasn’t.
On that last ever day, I came home to Charlie’s walls and space and floorboards and I was certain nothing more. I crept up the back stairs, skipping the steps I knew would creak. Thinking of who must have lived here before Charlie met Mother and got his transfer, and whether or not Charlie’d ever meant to have a boy or a widow for a wife. All this trouble he could have saved himself. I wondered if he ever thought of us that way.
I tipped a water glass to the flimsy door and heard nothing save the birds through her open window. I couldn’t bring myself to turn the knob; we were all growing so weak. Charlie wasn’t home for another several hours. All these other nights in the new house, he’d come home late. Sometimes with Mother, sometimes without. He never said more to me than, “She’s really tired, son, let’s not wake her.” And this made sense when she was draped over his shoulder, stumbling from the Chevy to bed. But on the nights he came home alone, himself stumblingly tired, I had no idea what he meant.
This last night Charlie came in late—late as he’d done every night that week, and every night without Mother—his face was drawn and white. He had the face of someone who has just thrown up and knows there’s more to come; his lips even glistened. He was in jeans and a flannel shirt, and it dawned on me he’d not worn a suit any day this week, though he’d been leaving early as usual. I was at the kitchen sink rinsing off my supper dishes when he came in.
“I need you to come with me,” he said, handing me my jacket—an old quilted shirt of Daddy’s, really. Charlie never talked like this: nothing before was ever immediate or dour.
I left the dishes, slipped on the jacket, and he had us into the car on the road driving before I ever spoke. “Is she okay?” is all I said, and Charlie wouldn’t answer.
We drove the 49 minutes of flat to Clearwater, past Prospect, Oatville, and signs for Murray Gill. Charlie had found a faster route—out 400 west, south on 2, down 135th, to W. Hellar—and there was our old house out by the tracks and dry fields before I expected it. Her car was there. Charlie cut the lights before parking. At first I thought he wasn’t sure where to stop, that he’d just done it prematurely, but I realized he didn’t want her to know we were there.
I hadn’t seen the place for several months, and nothing about it looked the same. The white siding was bubbled and peeling. The shutters all dragged down on the right. Edges of the gravel drive spilled out into the front yard, and all of the lights were out.
“She won’t come down,” he said, looking up at the house. “Anymore, she won’t come down.” He wanted me to go to her. He’d been here every day this week trying to bring her home. “I thought it would pass, son,” he said, talking fast now. “I thought I could help her come home to us. You and me. I mean, we’ve done pretty well, haven’t we? I mean I treat you just as if you were my own, and I think you do the same, don’t you? So we’re just fine now, just fine in Wichita, we’re doing so well. And this is just a bump, just a little bump we’ll ride over and be just fine on the other side, you and me and Mother back in Wichita.” He took a deep breath.
“You’re fine, Charlie,” I whispered outside my father’s house.
We walked through the overgrown grass to be as quiet as we could be, though I’m not sure what Charlie feared she would do if she heard us. He pushed me ahead up the stairs to their bedroom door, and still nothing looked the same up there. I put my palm to the dark door, not knowing anything, being completely empty of how to help, and then pushed it open.
Even in the dark I knew where she would be, curled across Daddy’s side of the bed, holding to his pillow, wishing she’d never let someone else touch it; wondering who she smelled there in the cotton batting; wondering how little of someone new could replace so much of someone gone. Some sliver of moon made it through her drawn curtains, and in it I saw my mother frightened of me. The whites of her eyes showed like those of a spooked horse. Then suddenly they were dark, almost entirely black, just a fleck of moonlight in them, enough to know she’d seen Charlie standing behind me. She pulled her shoulders away, pulled so much of herself away that I wanted to run into the cornfield again. See those rabbits and escape the pressure of that room’s air, feeling like to crush my ribs or flood my own lungs.
“Should I call someone? I don’t know, I’m no good,” Charlie muttered from the hall. “Help her.”
“Mother,” I said, but had nothing more. I slipped in near her on the bed, not touching any piece of her, just near. Her eyes wouldn’t sit still on me, but when I whispered her name, her real name, Susannah, she smiled and stroked my hair and cheeks and kissed me on the forehead and then on the lips.
“It was so quiet,” she said to me. “This place, the bed—it frightened me.”
“Hush,” I told her.
“I’m not sure what I’ve done, but I think it’s a permanent evil.”
“I can’t hear him anymore.”
I’m not sure when Charlie left. I don’t know what he thought, though I know he wanted her back in Wichita, and would have even moved back here if she’d made room for him.
Months later he came to see her at the house, though he said it was to see me, see how I liked being back in my old school, have a little talk. “Mother’s back at the meat-and-three, doing just fine,” I told him.
Charlie gave a nervous laugh, twisted his watchband around his wrist. “I’m not here about her,” he said. “I miss talking to you, seeing your mug over the Sunday funnies.” I would have believed him if he ever went to see her, too. But I know he didn’t. I could see it in his face when I mentioned Mother; everything went tight, pulled this way and that.
I wanted to tell him, “It was too soon for you two,” but he already knew that and I thought it would hurt him more if I were the one to say it. So I told him about geometry formulae, and poured lemonade. Charlie tipped the glass to the light to watch the pulp float around; he’d always made a big show out of drinking Mother’s own lemonade, said every time that he’d never had fresh-squeezed ‘til he met Mother. “Hers?” he asked.
“Well, if everything’s fine here, I guess I’ll be on my way. Long drive, you know.” I nodded. He patted his shirt and pants pockets until he found his keys—always in his left front pants pocket, always—then stood looking at me a minute. “You look good, Kiddo. No worse for the wear, I’d say.”
Those words are as close as he ever came to mentioning that night. He came to the house only a couple more times. Then he was just gone, gone from here, gone from Wichita. Each time I left out the lemonade glasses we’d drunk from for Mother to see, but she never asked me who was here. I figured she knew, that maybe she’d seen Charlie skulking around lampposts across the street from the restaurant.
There was no one else, not soon, not later. Mother learned to live with things that can’t be undone: stayed working at the meat-and-three, sleeping in their old double, reading his books, even took up riding his bicycle to work. As we all do with age, she became soft-hearted toward the details of memory. She put away photographs because of how much is lost in translation from life to light, instead recalling the exact angle of swirl of Daddy’s cowlick at his right temple or the way he’d let loose the wheel driving a stretch of flat to check for wheel alignment. And sometimes she’d tell me about these, and sometimes she’d smile and hum, or touch her face like maybe he would have been doing at that precise moment of loving her. She lived a sort of penance for having left Daddy too soon, but she managed that life.
I got a couple of postcards from Charlie, one from Maui—a honeymoon, I suspected though he was nice enough not to say—and New Brunswick—whale-watching tour with the new wife, she even signed the card with hearts over the last i of her name. I graduated high school and left Clearwater, Kansas, though I go back at least once a year. Mother never leaves. She doesn’t even visit me now in Houston, just sticks close as she can to Daddy’s side of the bed.
Noley Reid’s third book is the novel Pretend We Are Lovely (Tin House Books), which O, The Oprah Magazine called “scrumptious.” Her fiction and nonfiction appear in The Southern Review, Meridian, Arts & Letters, CRAFT Literary, The Rumpus, Bustle, and others. She lives in southwest Indiana with her two best boys. www.NoleyReid.com