“Mother,” I said, though I seldom use that word in conversation with her, “this is different. You’ve got to help me this time. People will die if you don’t.”
Perhaps that was the worst thing that I could have said. She didn’t possess the emotional capacity to assume responsibility for the lives of others.
She seized the rose that she had cut for me, gripped it by the bloom and tore it out of my hand.
Because I failed to release the rose quickly enough, the stem ripped between my fingers, and a thorn pierced the pad of my thumb, broke off in the flesh.
She crushed the bloom and threw it on the ground. She turned away from me and strode toward the house.
I would not relent. I caught up with her, moved at her side, pleading for a few minutes of conversation that might clarify my thoughts and help me understand why I had come here, of all places, at this mortal hour.
She hurried, and I hurried with her. By the time she reached the steps to the back porch, she had broken into a run, the skirt of her sundress rustling like wings, one hand on her bonnet to hold it on her head.
The screen door slammed behind her as she disappeared into the house. I stopped on the porch, reluctant to go farther.
Although I regretted the need to harass her, I felt harassed myself, and desperate.
Calling to her through the screen, I said, “I’m not going away. I can’t this time. I have nowhere to go.”
She didn’t answer me. Beyond the screen door, a curtained kitchen
lay in shadows, too still to be harboring my tormented mother. She’d gone deeper into the house.
“I’ll be here on the porch,” I shouted. “I’ll be waiting right here. All day if I have to.”
Heart hammering, I sat on the porch floor, my feet on the top step, facing away from the kitchen door.
Later, I would realize that I must have come to her house with the subconscious intention of triggering precisely this response and driv­ing her quickly to her ultimate defense against responsibility. The gun.
At that moment, however, confusion was my companion, and clar­ity seemed far beyond my reach.
THE SHANK OF THE THORN PROTRUDED FROM MY THUMB. I plucked it free, but still the bleeding puncture burned as if contami­nated by an add.
To a shameful degree, sitting there on my mother’s porch steps, I felt sorry for myself, as though it had been not a single thorn but a crown’s worth.
As a child, when I had a toothache, I could expect no maternal pam­pering. My mother always called my father or a neighbor to take me to the dentist, while she retreated to her bedroom and locked her door. She sought refuge there for a day or two, until she felt certain I would have no lingering complaint that she might need to address.
The slightest fever or sore throat that troubled me was a crisis with which she could not deal. At seven, afflicted by appendicitis, I col­lapsed at school and was rushed from there to the hospital; had my condition deteriorated at home, she might have left me to die in my room, while she occupied herself with the soothing books and the music and the other genteel interests with which she determinedly fashioned her private perfecto mundo, her “perfect world.”
My emotional needs, my fears and joys, my doubts and hopes, my miseries and anxieties were mine to explore or resolve without her counsel or sympathy. We spoke only of those things that did not dis­turb her or make her feel obliged to offer guidance.
For sixteen years we shared a house as though we lived not in the same world but in parallel dimensions that rarely intersected. The chief characteristics of my childhood were an aching loneliness and the daily struggle to avoid a bleakness of spirit that unrelieved loneli­ness can foment.
On those grim occasions when events had forced our parallel worlds to intersect in crises that my mother could not tolerate and from which she could not easily withdraw, she reliably resorted to the same instrument of control. The gun. The terror of those dark en­counters and the subsequent guilt that racked me made loneliness preferable to any contact that distressed her.
Now, pressing thumb and forefinger tight together to stop the bleeding, I heard the twang of the spring on the screen door.
I couldn’t bear to turn and look at her. The old ritual would play out soon enough.
Behind me, she said, “Just go.”
Gazing into the complexity of shadows cast by the oaks, to the bright rose garden beyond, I said, “I can’t. Not this time.”
I checked my watch - 11:32. My tension could not have wound any tighter, minute by minute, if this had been a bomb clock on my wrist.
Her voice had grown flat and strained under the weight of the bur­den that I’d placed upon her, the burden of simple human kindness and caring, which she could not carry. “I won’t put up with this.”
“I know. But there’s something… I’m not sure what.., something you can do to help me.”
She sat beside me at the head of the porch steps. She held the pistol in both hands, aimed for the moment at the oak-shaded yard.
She engaged in no fakery. The pistol was loaded.
“I won’t live this way,” she said. “I won’t. I can’t. People always wanting things, sucking away my blood. All of you - wanting, want­ing, greedy, insatiable. Your need… it’s like a suit of iron to me, the weight, like being buried alive.”
Not in years - perhaps never - had I pressed her as hard as I did on that fateful Wednesday: “The crazy thing is, Mother, after more than twenty years of this crap, down at the bottom of my heart, where it ought to be the darkest, I think there’s still this spark of love for you. It may be pity, I’m not sure, but it hurts enough to be love.”
She doesn’t want love from me or anyone. She doesn’t have it to give in return. She doesn’t believe in love. She is afraid to believe in it and the demands that come with it. She wants only undemanding congeniality, only relationships that require less than lip service to be sustained. Her perfect world has a population of one, and if she does not love herself, she has at least the tenderest affection for herself and craves her own company when she must be with others.
My uncertain declaration of love inspired her to turn the gun upon herself. She pressed the muzzle against her throat, angling it slightly toward her chin, the better to blow out her brains.
With hard words and cold indifference, she can turn away anyone she chooses, but sometimes those weapons have not been sufficiently effective in our turbulent relationship. Even though she doesn’t feel it, she recognizes the existence of a special bond between mother and child, and she knows that sometimes it won’t be broken by any but the cruelest measures.
“You want to pull the trigger for me?” she asked.
As I always do, I looked away. As if I had inhaled the shade of the oaks along with the air, as if my lungs passed it into my blood, I felt a cold shadow arise in the chambers of my heart.
As she always does when I avert my eyes, she said, “Look at me, look
at me, or I’ll gut-shoot myself and die slow and screaming right here in front of you.”
Sickened, trembling, I gave her the attention that she wanted.
“You might as well pull the trigger yourself, you little shit. It’s no different than making me pull it.”
I couldn’t count - and didn’t care to remember - how often I had heard this challenge before.
My mother is insane. Psychologists might use an array of more spe­cific and less judgmental terms, but in the Dictionary of Odd, her be­havior is the definition of insanity.
I have been told that she wasn’t always like this. As a child, she had been sweet, playful, affectionate.
The terrible change occurred when she was sixteen. She began to experience sudden mood swings. The sweetness was supplanted by an unrelenting, simmering anger that she could best control when she was alone.
Therapy and a series of medications failed to restore her former good nature- When, at eighteen, she rejected farther treatment, no one insisted that she continue with psychotherapy or drugs, because at that time she hadn’t been as dysfunctional, as solipsistic, and as threatening as she became by her early twenties.
When my father met her, she was just moody enough and danger­ous enough to infatuate him. As she grew worse, he bailed.
She has never been institutionalized because her self-control is ex­cellent when she’s not being challenged to interact with others beyond her capacity. She limits all threats of violence to suicide and occasion­ally to me, presenting a charming or at least rational face to the world.
Because she has a comfortable income without the need to work and because she prefers life as a recluse, her true condition is not widely recognized in Pico Mundo.
Her exceptional beauty also helps her to keep her secrets. Most
people tend to think the best of those who are blessed with beauty; we have difficulty imagining that physical perfection can conceal twisted emotions or a damaged mind.
Her voice grew raw and more confrontational: “I curse the night I let your idiot father squirt you into me.”
This didn’t shock me. I’d heard it before, and worse.
She said, “I should’ve had you scraped out of me and thrown in the garbage. But what would I have gotten from the divorce then? You were the ticket.”
When I look at my mother in this condition, I don’t see hatred in her, but anguish and desperation and even terror. I can’t imagine the pain and the horror of being her.
I take solace only in the knowledge that when she is alone, when she is not challenged to give anything of herself, she is content if not happy. I want her to be at least content.
She said, “Either stop sucking my blood or pull the trigger, you little shit.”
One of my most vivid early memories is of a rainy night in January when I was five years old and suffering with influenza. When not coughing, I cried for attention and relief, and my mother was unable to find a corner of the house in which she could entirely escape the sound of my misery.
She came to my room and stretched out beside me on the bed, as any mother might lie down to comfort a stricken child, but she came with the gun. Her threats to kill herself always earned my silence, my obedience, my grant of absolution from her parental obligations.
That night, I swallowed my misery as best I could and stifled my tears, but I couldn’t wish away my sore and inflamed throat. To her, my coughing was a demand for mothering, and its persistence brought her to an emotional precipice.
When the threat of suicide didn’t silence my cough, she put the
muzzle of the gun to my right eye. She encouraged me to try to see the shiny point of the bullet deep in that narrow dark passage.
We were a long time there together, with the rain beating on my bedroom windows. I have known much terror since, but none as pure as what I knew that night.
From the perspective of a twenty-year-old, I don’t believe that she would have killed me then or that she ever will. Were she to harm me - or anyone - she would doom herself to exactly the interaction with other people that she most dreads. She knows that they would want answers and explanations from her. They would want truth and remorse and justice. They would want far too much, and they would never stop wanting.
I didn’t know if here on the porch steps she would turn the gun on me again, and I didn’t know exactly how I would react if she did. I had come seeking a confrontation that would enlighten me, though I didn’t understand what it needed to be or what I could learn from it that would help me to find Robertson’s collaborator.
Then she lowered the gun from her throat to her left breast, as she always does, for the symbolism of a bullet through the brain will not as powerfully affect any mother’s son as will the symbolism of a shot through the heart.
“If you won’t leave me alone, if you won’t stop forever sucking and sucking on me, draining me like a leech, then for God’s sake pull the trigger, give me some peace.”
Into my mind’s eye came the wound in Robertson’s chest, as it had plagued me for nearly twelve hours.
I tried to drown that insistent image in the swamp of memory from which it had risen. It is a deep swamp, filled with much that stub­bornly will not remain submerged.
Suddenly I realized that this was why I had come here: to force my mother to enact the hateful ritual of threatened suicide that was at the
core of our relationship, to be confronted with the sight of a pistol pressed to her breast, to turn away as I always do, to hear her command my attention… and then, sickened and trembling, to find the nerve to look.
The previous night, in my bathroom, I hadn’t been strong enough to examine Robertson’s chest wound.
At the time, I’d sensed that something was strange about it, that something might be learned from it. Yet, nauseated, I had averted my eyes and rebuttoned his shirt.
Thrusting the pistol toward me, grip-first, my mother angrily in­sisted, “Come on, you ungrateful shit, take it, take it, shoot me and get it over with or leave me atone!”
Eleven-thirty-five, according to my wristwatch.
Her voice had grown as vicious and demented as ever it gets: “I dreamed and dreamed that you would be born dead.”
Shakily, I rose to my feet and carefully descended the porch steps.
Behind me, she wielded the knife of alienation as only she can cut with it: “The whole time I carried you, I thought you were dead inside me, dead and rotting.”
The sun, nurturing mother of the earth, poured a scalding milk upon the day, boiling some of the blue from the sky and leaving the heavens faded. Even the oak shadows now throbbed with heat, and as I walked away from my mother, I was so hot with shame that I would not have been surprised if the grass had burst into fire under my feet.
“Dead inside me,” she repeated. “Month after unending month, I felt your rotting fetus festering in my belly, spreading poison through my body.”
At the corner of the house I stopped, turned, and looked at her for what I suspected might be the last time.
She had descended the steps but had not followed me. Her right arm hung slackly at her side, the gun aimed at the ground.
I had not asked to be born. Only to be loved.
“I have nothing to give,” she said. “Do you hear me? Nothing, noth­ing. You poisoned me, you filled me with pus and dead-baby rot, and I’m ruined now.”
Turning my back on her for what felt like forever, I hurried along the side of the house toward the street.
Given my heritage and the ordeal of my childhood, I sometimes wonder why I myself am not insane. Maybe I am.
DRIVING FASTER THAN THE LAW ALLOWED TO THE OUT­skirts of Pico Mundo, I tried but failed to banish from my mind all thoughts of my mother’s mother, Granny Sugars.
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