“Oh damn, it’s my mother,” Jennifer covered the phone with her right hand, shaking her head.
“Good luck with that,” her husband Michael said as he walked past on his way to the den. Jennifer glared back.
This was the third time this week that Carla Howland had called, and this time, like before, somber music played soulfully behind her voice.
“How are the children?”
“The kids are fine mom.”
“And Michael, how’s he?”
“He’s just fine too,” Jennifer walked over to the counter for a coffee refill.
There was the usual silence with the strains of Barber in the background.
“I’m sure he’s really busy now, isn’t he?”
“Yes, mom; it is the end of the semester. I’m pretty busy too……I’ve got…..”
“Oh, I’m sure you are too, dear”
“……papers to grade and reports to complete.”
“Uh huh,” the shaky voice wobbled back. More music.
“You know, Jennifer, I always tried my best.”
Her daughter rolled her eyes and sat down by the window.
“It was never easy with your father.”
And though there were a thousand miles between them now, and this conversation had happened a hundred times before, it could still take Jennifer back thirty years.
Back when a major part of being the oldest child was acknowledging her mother’s brilliance, even if it was hidden under the proverbial basket or otherwise unseen by the world; noting that Clara was always right, despite rather frequent empirical evidence to the contrary and/or the opinions of others; and understanding that her mother’s time, however spent or unattended, was truly the most valuable time allotted to anyone. Perhaps most important, though, was the vital job of verifying that whatever ill befell her mother, whatever unpleasantness tumbled from her hands, it was not her fault. It was the work of someone else, some unseen cosmic force, or maybe just another salvo in the world’s vast conspiracy against her.
As a girl, Jennifer was often tasked with watching her younger brother and sister when her mother went out to shop, visit, or just take a break from the house and her husband, Jerry, a clever but worn-down man who, Clara had decided, was a principal culprit behind the asterisks affixed to the relatively short list of her lifetime achievements.
Jennifer had grown up watching her father frustrate himself with a relationship equation he was never going to solve, though it appeared he had discovered the common denominator of alcohol as a way to at least cope with the unbalanced formula. That it required progressively greater numbers to make the calculus work was a demand he had determined to oblige. Clara saw this behavior as confirming evidence of his basic shortcomings as a human being and in no way resulting from the general disdain in which she apparently held him.
In the hills and shadows of all this, Jennifer found it difficult to see just who she was and how things ought to work in the world. She wasn’t sure what her mirror was telling her (how pretty she was), what her ideas and questions were really worth, who she was becoming. What she did figure out, though—and at an early age, is that her parents were fallible humans, and as she was growing into her own version of imperfection, she saw it more clearly every day.
“I know, mom, I know.” She could hear her mother light another cigarette.”
“Mom, have you thought about quitting. We’ve talked about this be…..”
“I know. I know,” the thin voice came back, “but what would it matter anyhow?”
There was a pause.
Did she just turn up the music? Jennifer wondered.
“Sometimes I think, honey, that I’m just too tired to go on.”
Even though she had heard this a dozen times or more before, the words still made her shudder. It didn’t help that her mother almost never called her ‘honey.’
“Now don’t say that, mom.”
“Why not? What have I got here? You’ve got your family. Barbara has hers, and your brother is…….I’m not sure what Ronnie is doing.”
“He’s working at that tool-and-die place, mom. I told you before; he’s doing just fine.”
“Well, there, you see. You are all doing just fine, busy up there all the time, and I’m down here.”
“With Gary, mom. You’re in Florida with your husband.”
One Monday about six years ago, Larry put down the bottle, bought a little blue sports car, and left the house wearing sunglasses and a jaunty cap, pretending he wasn’t fifty-three. Her mother, who had already subtracted three years from her birth certificate with white-out and a ditto knife, was also prepared for the life-after-marriage sweepstakes. Within two years, both had found a second spouse, and Jennifer, once again as a function of first birth and already accustomed to being the net for their psychological tennis match, found these new serves and volleys even harder, more athletic than before. As she knew all along, they were both really singles players, intending every lob, forehand, and backhand as a match-point winner.
“Oh, him! Jennifer, I might as well be alone here.”
“Oh now, mom.”
“I mean it,” she said slowly, painfully. “He plays golf almost every day. At night he listens to his albums and tapes. Did I tell you he has over two thousand recordings.”
“Yes mom; you told me.”
“Well, it’s every night with those things, and then he watches the goddam Golf Channel until god knows when.”
“I mean it. I’m always asleep by ten, but he goes right from his jazz and blues to the television to watch golf.”
“And it’s golf from everywhere, anywhere: England, Australia, China; hell, the other day he was talking about some damn tournament in Indonesia for Christ’s sake.”
There was a pause, and then another piece of music came on. It sounded like Elgar.
“And the only time we go out anywhere, it’s to the goddam dog track. Even if we go to dinner, it’s only before or after we go to that damn place. Golf, music, the dog track, and The Beachcomber Restaurant, that’s his whole life.”
Clara sighed heavily. “I don’t know, Jennifer. I just don’t know any more. I keep wanting to go to bed earlier, and I’m beginning to hate it when the sun finds my window in the morning.
A particularly morose musical phrase filled the phone.
“Besides, honey, I don’t think I’m well at all.”
The voice from Florida seemed to become raspier.
“Well, I’ve had this terrific headache since Saturday; I’m lightheaded; I seem to be off balance, like I’m tilting; my neck hurts, and I can’t eat or sleep.”
“That sounds awful.”
“It is. I’ve never felt quite like this before.”
“Did you call the doctor?”
The respirations grew louder as the music grew softer.
“Yes, yes, honey; I did.”
Clara almost never called a doctor. Jennifer tightened her grip on the phone.
“I’m going to see him on Wednesday.” This was Monday. “If I make it that long; if they don’t cart me away before that.”
“Jennifer, call Barbara and Ronnie, let them know; then call your father.”
The daughter drew a deep, calming breath.
“Okay, I will.”
“Listen, honey, I’ve got to go lie down, all right? I’m dizzy and very tired. I’ll call you on Wednesday, okay?”
Jennifer stared blankly at the wall a moment then went out to the den to tell Michael who set down his stack of papers and took off his glasses. “Oh my,” he managed as Jennifer went back to the kitchen to make the calls.
Barbara, who talked with her mother maybe six times a year, was concerned and skeptical; Ronnie, who called at Christmas and Easter, was just skeptical; Jennifer’s father was quiet at first and then said, “I didn’t know they lived that close to a dog track.”
The phone rang at 9:30 Wednesday night, late enough that Jennifer, who had expected a call much earlier, had begun to imagine a whole array of outcomes, each more dire than the one before. The ring startled her.
The voice on the other end was weak and raspy.
“Mom, is that you?”
“Hello Jennifer,” Carla managed.
“Mom, how are you? What did the doctor say?”
There was no music in the background, but there was a voice as if from another room, down a hall.
“Mom, where are you?”
“I’m in the hospital, Jennifer.”
“Doctor Marshall sent me right in. He was concerned.”
“Con…….about what? What’s wrong?”
Michael came in from the living room. “What’s up?” he whispered.
“She’s in the hospital,” Jennifer whispered back.
“The doctor isn’t sure. He put me in for some tests.”
“What does he think it might be?”
“He didn’t say, but he sure wasn’t smiling,” the soft, breathy voice returned.
There was a hospital-room silence.
“Mom, do you want me to come down?” Jennifer heard herself ask.
Michael’s eyes widened.
“Oh, no, don’t you bother. You’ve got Michael and the kids to look after, and you’ve got your classes. I’ll be okay. I’m used to getting through things…..”
“No, no, that’s okay. I’ll let you know how I am.”
“Mom, I’m coming down.”
“But you’re so busy. You’ve got so much to do. Who will look after….”
“Mike and the kids will be okay.”
“But your school…?”
“They’ll get a sub.”
“Well, that’s okay, honey. I’ll be just fine.”
“I’m coming down.”
“Well, if you can spare the time, that would be nice.”
“I’ll be down as soon as I can.”
“Well, that would be nice if you could manage somehow.”
Jennifer shook her head, rolled her eyes.
“Mom, I’ll see you soon. Now you get some rest and feel better.
Right after that Wednesday night conversation, Jennifer called Barbara whose concern by then had overtaken her doubt, and she agreed to go down to Florida with her sister. With arrangements that had to be made, the first flight they could schedule was noon that Saturday.
“I talked with her yesterday morning,” Jennifer said as they got into the TSA security line. “She said that they did some tests on Thursday and had more scheduled for yesterday morning. Doctor Marshall told her that he would have a better idea after.
“What does he suspect?” Barbara asked as she inched her carry-on bag ahead in the line.
“Mom didn’t say, but she thinks it may be a stroke.”
Barbara just looked at her sister. The hum of airport voices and the clack of steps on tile filled the large space. The security screening crawled ahead.
It was twenty degrees warmer and dramatically brighter when they landed three hours later. As they walked down the concourse, they saw Gary Howland standing by the Delta desk. As usual, he was unshaven, his bowed legs poking out from his faded brown shorts. His disheveled white hair streamed above his deeply tanned, weathered face. A wrinkled smile flashed below his rimless glasses. He waved as they approached and received their hugs warmly.
“How is she?” Jennifer asked, almost before she said hello.
“Uh, how is she,” he repeated quizzically. “Oh, your mother.”
Barbara’s brow furrowed.
“Yes, mom! How is she?” Jennifer repeated.
“Oh, you can ask her yourself.”
“Are we going right to the hospital?”
Gary stopped walking.
“Oh no, no. We’re heading to the house.”
“What about mom?”
Gary resumed his pace.
“She’s over at Marge Stoneham’s at the beach.”
This time, the two women stopped.
“Yeah, she got out yesterday afternoon.”
“She’s out of the hospital?”
Barbara rolled her eyes; her mouth hung open.
“Doc Marshall said it was acute sinusitis, shot her full of some antibiotics, got her rehydrated, gave her a prescription, and told her to get plenty of rest, which is what she’s doing at Marge’s, stretched out in the sun.”
The two just stared at each other, then Gary turned and said, “She’ll catch up with us in a little bit. She’s going to meet us at the dog track.”
“The dog track?!” they said together.
“Yeah, sure,” Gary smiled. “She loves the place. I can hardly keep her away from it.”
“And if we don’t meet up with her there?” Jennifer managed. “We’ll probably just find her at the Beachcomber, right?”
Gary Howland stopped and turned to Jennifer.
“Why, yes. That’s right. It’s her favorite spot. How’d you know that?”
“Oh just a hunch,” she said caustically. “Just a daughter’s crazy hunch.”
John P.(Jack) Kristofco has published over seven hundred poems and seventy short stories in about two hundred different publications, including: Folio, Rattle, Bryant Literary Review, Cimarron Review, Fourth River, Stand, The MacGuffin , Sierra Nevada Review, Blueline, Slant, Snowy Egret, and OffCourse. He has published three collections of poetry (most recently The Timekeeper’s Garden from The Orchard Street Press) with a fourth, Shadows on the Fog about to go to print and a collection of short stories, The Alex Chronicles, to follow soon thereafter. Jack lives with his wife Kathy in Highland Heights, just east of Cleveland.