by James Tucker
“You can’t miss the giant weeping beech in the back yard”. Those are the last of the directions the landlord gave me. He was not wrong.
The tree is a colossus demanding attention the moment I turn onto the road even though the house is still a couple hundred yards away. The closer I get the larger the tree becomes, yet; (as if straight out of some kind of Alice in Wonderland illusion) the house itself seems to be getting smaller. Knowing I am suffering jet lag, I twist the knuckles of my index fingers deep into my eye sockets hoping my vision will correct itself— to no avail.
Situated behind the home the tree’s branches protrude above and on both sides, causing the house to look even more diminutive than it is whilst being embraced in an arboreal bear hug. Two full limbs at the top, each with subsidiary branches hanging like tendrils swaying in the breeze, descend over the home like some kind of guardian specter. No doubt, this is what attracted my mother to this place, as I am sure she and many like her—those who live on the periphery of normal— would find it beautiful and lovely. I do not.
Pulling into the drive and stepping out of the car my first thought is of the sheer encompassing magnitude of the thing. Second is of the damage its umbrella-like shade must cause, not allowing sunlight to evaporate moisture off the roof. I can only envision the amount of bird droppings and squirrel crap that must come off those branches. It really sums up the relationship between mother and me. We think (thought) differently.
The house is brick, its once rusty-red color now dark with the grimy patina of age. It is an old mill house; on an old mill road, lined with analogous old mill houses built long ago for those who worked in what is now a much older, old mill; long closed.
At the bottom of the steps, leading to a side door is a moss-covered hole in the concrete. I reach my hand into the darkness anticipating the venom filled fanged bite of a waiting spider or snake, the flesh ripping jaws of a rabid rat or ravenous wolverine, or whatever flesh-eating creatures occupy these parts but all I feel is the metallic key, which the landlord correctly told me would be there. God my nerves are shot and I haven’t even walked inside yet. Emerald colored lichen or moss also completely covers the three steps I ascend leading to the door, giving them the candescent shimmer of a green glow-stick.
“Jesus, can I just get this over with and get the hell out of here?” I bitch while opening the door.
The smell of mold, mothballs, and the unmistakable miasmal aroma of the old punctuates the dread I feel as I enter the house. It is small which is apropos, as it needed to accommodate only one. I feel ambivalent in the fact that I never visited this place, ignored my mother’s pleas to come and see her, to bring my girlfriend (now wife) to meet her.
“I’ve got a lot going on right now but we’ll try and make it some other time,” was the standard recitation; hopefully never letting on that I was ashamed of her; never wanted my wife or friends to meet the woman who birthed and raised me. It has been years since I spoke to the woman I once called mommy and much longer since I last saw her. I said my goodbyes when I went to college at seventeen. I am forty-three now. Twenty-six years, the math is simple.
The door enters into a kitchen / dinning room with faded yellow Formica countertop, faded yellow cabinets and an ancient faded yellow refrigerator, the kind that never stops running, making a god-awful racket as this one is doing now. There is a faded yellow kitchen table with sepia colored chairs, which may or may not at one time have been yellow. Past the kitchen / dinning room, is a living room with a small couch, which just barely fits the width of the room, the obligatory coffee table in front. Against the opposite wall only a few feet away is another similar table but with a perceptible slant; a TV perched upon it. My head is askew as I look at it and contemplate first: how it is still standing and second, how or if anyone ever watched it.
The interior is Spartan. As is (was) indicative to her peripatetic lifestyle my mother never owned much in the way of furniture, for her austerity was a virtue. As a child, I always had a bed— always a mattress, rarely a box spring— and an assortment of never matching tables and lamps purchased at the local Goodwill in whatever city we happened to live in at the time. Mother was superb at acquiring furniture that One would never be disheartened leaving behind on a moments notice.
There is an open door leading to an unremarkable bathroom: sink, toilette, and tub. Upon further inspection, I realize the tub is actually quite large; the full length of the room and above it is a railing with what appears to be a new shower curtain scrunched to its end. Impulsively I grab it and pull it to its full length. It is a beautiful scene of Italy’s leaning tower of Pisa. I let out a half-snort half-laugh recalling the television and decide not to ponder. There is a closed door catty-corner to the one I walked through but it opens with a flick of the fingers, leading into the sole bedroom.
Across the room is a large bay window with an unobstructed view of the weeping beech, its summertime fullness blocking out anything that may be behind it. In this last room of the house, the afternoon sun attempts to beat through the foliage from above causing a contrast of dancing shadows and shimmering light, creating an ominous chiaroscuro. The room is small with only a twin-size bed, a dresser and a small escritoire; and to my surprise, an almost matching chair. The desk is by far the nicest piece in the house— the 1st place winner in a, you’re-not-entirely-unwanted contest. I am afflicted with goose bumps when I suddenly have an all too real image of my mother writing scores of unanswered letters to me from there.
With more than a slight chill, I turn back toward the window and the corollary view of the tree. In the glistening light, the many branches look like massive arms with endless redundant smaller branches, all in leaf, undulating in the breeze like millions of groping fingers. My skin crawls as they rub and probe against the glass and all over the side of the house with nails-on-a-chalk-board affect. The largest of its massive limbs rises from the trunk at a thirty-degree angle until it is about nine feet off the ground when it abruptly straightens and runs about twenty feet parallel to the ground where it branches off into five subsidiary appendages giving it the appearance of a chimerical claw. Instinctively, I know; that is where she did it.
The ring of my cell phone more than startles me. I recognize the number from this morning; it is (was) my mother’s landlord.
He perfunctorily tells me what a tragedy it is and blah, blah, blah. He then tells me what a wonderful woman and great tenet my mother was. “She was a fine lady; I know she was proud of you.” He consoles.
“Oh thank you. My mother always spoke highly of you too,” I say, repaying the ruse— both of us having more than an inkling of the truth. I, knowing that he lived halfway across the country and that she was only known to him as a rent check that arrived (hopefully on time) once a month, he; by having earlier that day having to explain to me, in detail, directions to the house.
At the end of our conversation as we bid our farewells and just before I hang up I barely hear my name called through the phone.
“Yes?” I ask.
“I know this is rotten timing but I wanted to let you know the house is going on the market,” he tells me.
“Dispose of the furnishings any way you see fit,” I reply. No noble act on my part as the removal of these items would cost more than they would ever be worth.
“So, you wouldn’t mind if I have Goodwill come and pick the furniture up?” he asks.
I smile wondering how many times these undesirable furnishings have left only to be repatriated back to their home of goodwill and never ending donations of crap. The smile fades as I think of all the people who have never known what it would be like to own possessions that started and ended as theirs, having only known hand-me-downs and rejects. A feeling I remember far less than nostalgically.
“That would be great,” I say hanging up.
Taking a last look at the last place my mother ever called home and content that I have fulfilled my filial duties (whatever that entails) I am somewhat surprised that I feel… nothing. I have spent so many years away from this woman I am numb. No, it would be wrong to say nothing. Though it is true, I have spent a reprehensible amount of time away from my mother, the most impressionable years of my life were in her arms and by her side living in her demimonde. I feel unsettled and unpleasantly surprised at the sudden and violent wave of memories that assault me. A childhood phantasmagoria plays itself out all too realistically in my mind.
“Your father loves you more than you will ever know,” she tells me while wiping the tears from my face, her piercing blue eyes always affecting reassurance and love even in the midst of such a farce. I was only a small child, but even then, the memory of the man who was my father—but never a dad— was beginning to fade.
“Then why did he leave me? Why doesn’t he ever come to see me?” I say between sobs. The thought of us instead of me does not occur to a child.
“Well sweetheart your father is… oh my little sweet boy. I think you are old enough to know the truth. Your father is… Your father was…”
That is when my mother spun one of the greatest tales ever told to a child; a myth she would promulgate for the rest of my childhood. A myth that even with the incredulity of age remained embedded in my memory until elucidated and shattered by the invention of Google Search. Then a truth that came not as an epiphany but as a slow crushing weight. I do not call it a lie because it was an efficacy never meant to deceive for harm or gain, only to protect.
A large amount of air escapes my lungs and I twitch in an autonomic spasm as I have apparently forgotten to breathe. I take a gulp of air and my breathing resumes though much heavier. I am faintly aware of the goose bumps that materialize on my arms when the sudden chill that started at my neck violently permeates throughout my body. Just as suddenly begin the recollections of all the different ‘uncles’ (though none were very avuncular) we lived with throughout my childhood. Their faces, once blank to me, are materializing maliciously in my memory — another brutal quiver, another deep breath.
I have a sudden mental flashback, only it is not a flashback in the literary since but more of a break-in by some unseen cerebral intruder meticulously prying and pilfering; riffling through locked rooms and drawers of my mind. A forced remembrance cruelly ripped against my will from the safe recesses of my subconscious.
I am very young during a time we stayed in a nice apartment and my so-called uncle would come over on weekends– a man whose name is unremembered and unimportant. A man who would always rub the top of my head until the gold wedding band he never deigned to remove dug into my scalp. For this assignation, he always called the same babysitter to get me out of the apartment, a girl in her late teens or early twenties who smelt of a combination of lip-gloss, weed and shopping mall. A want-a-be valley girl whose’ every sentence started with ‘like’ and ended with ‘as if’.
“He needs to get some fresh air,” he would cajole my mother. He would then hand the sitter a wad of cash and tell her, “Take him to the movies or Chucky Cheese or whatever.”
I all too vividly remember her holding me by the shirt while she was talking to her friend on a payphone (back when people somehow survived without cell phones). “Like, I’ve gotta watch him for a little while but it shouldn’t take the old fart long, as if,” she says in giggles. She hangs up with an “Ohmygod” chortle.
Tears well up in my eyes and I have a yearning for the insensate emotional block I first entered this house with. I will not cry for this woman, this paramour. This demimondaine who dragged me from one ‘uncle’s’ home to another’s, none of which were my dad, just vacant faces; faces that when I was older, college (and an ungodly amount of drugs and alcohol) would be my escape from: theirs and hers. Long ago faces, which to spite my best efforts at suppression are starting to come into view.
I remember one we lived with whose house (now I realize, not so coincidently) happened to be very close to my school. He was unctuous and eel-like with a vulpine face, another nameless specter. I recall my mother and him laughing and drinking the grape juice she would never let me try even when he said to her, “Oh com’on, it’ll make a man outa him.”
Her response was indignation.
“Lighten up babe, I was only kidding. It’ll take more than some booze to make a man outa him,” he says with a sardonic, lecherous smile. That is when she sent me to my room. I remember her crying early the next mourning when I awoke, wiping her face when she saw me and smiling.
Her smile was her greatest lie.
“I hate it here. I hate him,” I tell her as she walks me to school. A view I would express on more than, and for more than, one occasion.
“You’re in a great school and it’s almost out, we’ll leave as soon as you’re finished,” she says in a comforting voice, always the purveyor of sangfroid. “Just keep studying and keep your grades up. That’s what your father would want.” She gives my back a reassuring rub and wraps her splendid long fingers around my hand.
“I hate you,” I say in tearful susurration. Is it a phantom memory or do I recall her graceful walk (it was more of a glide) stumbling… her hand squeezing mine… a violent hiccup?
“I love you. Nothing you say can make me not love you.” That was her standard reply, jaw clenched, voice so mellifluous; she more pulled than led me the rest of the way. The school was not much further and though she walked up right and stoic, her natural lithe having returned; I think I remember the back of her hand, the one not holding mine, wiping the tear from her face.
The series of flashbacks and recollections will not subside. I am on a mental rollercoaster that will not stop, there is no getting off, and the safety latch is giving way. For twenty-six years, I have suppressed and now am drowning in these fucking memories. The experience is causing a rattling hum in my head that is sending me to the edge of a panic attack. I am able to take a deep breath and relax at the realization that what I am hearing is not coming from within my head but is in fact the insidious screech of that goddamned refrigerator. How the hell did she stand it?
The torrent of memories starts again, the floodgate wide open. Years later when the misnomer ‘uncle’ no longer fooled me (funny; it occurs to me that I have never actually known a true uncle, I wonder if I have one) there was ‘Uncle’ Jim. He was a corpulent, odious, runt of a man with a bulbous pockmarked face who, at the time, for the life of me I did not see what my mother could have seen in, she so tall, thin and attractive. For a long time— the longest lasting of the ‘uncles’— we lived with him in an opulently beautiful house on the beach not far from the private school I was attending; one of the best, I was told.
How can something I had forgotten about come back so vividly?
He was never physically abusive (or perhaps never had the chance to be) but I had no misconception that he liked me. It is such a bad memory compounded by the awkwardness of adolescence: braces, corrective shoes, speech therapy (I pronounced my th’s with a sibilant s sound); good times.
“Do you have any idea what this is fuckin costin me?” I can still hear him bellicosely screaming at her; can fell rage even now, not because my mother was the focus but because I was the catalyst. He grabbed her arm and clamped down like a vice causing her to wince. I wanted to hurt him so bad I could taste the bile in my throat but I was no more capable of that than I was of flying or walking through walls.
How many times did I scream viscerally at her?
“And you should show a little gratitude,” he bellows at me. “You know how much fuckin money I’ve wasted on you?” An ossified finger jammed into my minuscule chest just in case there was any confusion.
“You’re not my dad,” I spat back at him!
Was that my riposte? Was that the best I could do?
“You better thank God I’m not YOUR dad! You wanna know…”
“STOP IT! ENOUGH!” my mother screams, he and I equally stunned at her silky voice becoming so sonorous. “He’s just a child you asshole.”
His face became a rictus of shock while his body began a frenetic tremor of anger and what I suspect was more than just a little fear at my mother’s clarion recrimination.
“Why don’t you tell the little bastard the goddamn truth,” he shouts while shaking his fist, animus exuding from his demeanor; its sharp edge, however, now just a little dulled.
Vicissitude being no stranger to our lives we moved again the next day among a fusillade of Jim’s apologies. My mother was able to fit all of our belongings into a mid-sized rented U-hall, all the time proselytizing of how much my father would love and take pride in me (motherly damage control). Miraculously she somehow convinced Jim that it was his obligation to pay for a small apartment and my many needs until the school year ended. Verisimilitude was another of my mother’s intangible gifts. Vicissitude and verisimilitude; how the fuck could a child’s life be so affected by two words that start with v?
Today my teeth are strait, my walk correct, and my speech precise.
Sitting down on the bed, I cannot inhale the stale air fast enough. How long have I been here? When I arrived, the sky was bright with the early afternoon sun blazing overhead, now it has become crepuscular. I lie down and the deluge of memories continues to pour over me.
At the end of my school year, we went to stay with a group of my mother’s friends in the woods of Oregon, an omniumgatherum of starving artist, writers and other misfits. A gregarious assemblage that oddly (or maybe not so oddly), I discovered years later, boasted an ex-California state senator—forced to leave office after an affair with a wealthy donor’s much too young daughter— and a renowned chemist— with a penchant for making pharmaceuticals of highly questionable legality— among their numbers. We had stayed there years before, I remember it with fondness, and according to my mother, years before that when I was an infant. They were an effusively jovial, insouciant lot and there was always ribald laughter, much drinking and copious amounts of acrid smelling smoke, a group of rejects who found purpose in each other’s company.
We arrived, greeted with a shower of hugs and kisses (I remember clearly that some were in need of an actual shower) and exultations of “look how big he’s gotten” and “my you look beautiful” all emphasized with more patchouli-infused hugs. I learned from my mother years later that the munificence of a relatively successful member of their group afforded their Bohemian lifestyle. A writer who had found acclaim in a time when people actually bought books, even ones that did not take place in Hogwarts.
Today my conservative self would refer to the group as just a bunch of refractory old hippies but I cannot help but smile at the remembrance of all the laughter, especially my mother’s; endearing laughs all. I wonder why we spent so little time there as she love them dearly and not one of them had a malicious bone in their body. There being no school for hundreds of miles would definitely have been a deal-breaker as she was a stickler for education. I start to feel more than a little culpable at the thought that without me, she probably would have stayed there—happy.
I do not find it strange that I have recessed the memories of all the questionable and belligerent men in my mothers (and subsequently my own) life but how could I of forgotten these ebullient people and those halcyon days? Maybe it is not just what happens to us in our lives that define us but also our choice of memories. Why does it seem that I have chosen to pigeonhole my mother to the worst, while eradicating the best?
Having no idea of the time, or how long I have been in this fugue, I suddenly realize I must pull myself together. I throw my legs to the floor, stand up fighting vertigo, lose the fight, crash to the floor, get to my feet like a newborn calf and tremulously make my way to the bathroom sink. The water runs a rusty brown for quit some time before gradually becoming clear; a few handfuls to the face and I feel much better…well, better. Why did I even come here, to this place that I never once visited when my mother was alive? I should have know there would be nothing here worth salvaging and cannot help an ironic smile at the thought that there is nothing here she herself would not leave behind without a second thought.
Walking away, I hear just the slightest creak in the floorboards. I turn around and as I am looking back into the bedroom, I see something under the bed I had not noticed. I am pulling it out like an automaton with no recollection of walking back to it. It is an old shoebox with the name Pay Less on every side except the effaced top. In its place is a single word: Memories. It mocks me as I sit inundated with many more than I care to remember.
In the box, the fist thing I see is an old picture of my mother and me, her holding my hand. She was a woman who never wore makeup but with such a natural glow, somehow always looked as if she had. I remember her long blond hair always seemed to be in a gentle breeze, blowing around her angular face. She always seemed to be in motion; grace in motion. God, for a split-second I can actually see her thick locks undulating in the photo. Squeezing my eyes shut for a moment brings back normalcy. I remember how tall, thin and pretty she was, so willowy. I now realize that she was a woman who, beaten down by life, had every right too passively accept defeat; yet she did not. She was so… vibrant.
I next find my acceptance letter to college, the postmark pitilessly reminds me again that it has been twenty-six years; the last time I saw my mother. Being a good son, I always made my weekly call, then monthly, ebbing to quarterly calls and then… I have a job, a wife; it’s not as if I could just… When had I spoken to her last? I find my high school diploma and underneath that, a variety of school awards and report cards. From finish to start is the documentation of a child’s scholastic life right down to the chaotic drawings of a young would-be crayon artist.
“Jesus, what is wrong with me,” I say to no one, breaking the daze I am in, aware that I am unaware of how long I have been holding this box of crap. “Get it together,” I say to the only one in the room. I put the picture in my pocket and resign myself to tossing the box into the nearest garbage can; I nearly miss the envelope at the bottom. On the upper left hand corner is a printed Easter Seals sticker with an address of which I no longer recall. In the center of the envelope in muddled handwriting, so foreign yet so familiar, it reads, Santa Clause, North Pole.
I take the letter out, open it and begin to read; another autonomic action of which I am only faintly cognizant.
I hate my mom so much. She tells me that I should not ecpect a lot for crismass this year. She says I should be thankful for having a home and food to eat. That is so stuped. All kids have homes and food. My mommy is so mean but I no you are nice. Please remember me and I love you so much.
Then there it is, the coup de grace, the knife to the heart: the closing.
I Will Always love You Santa
I do not believe I could write something so hurtful yet here it is staring me in the face. A child’s messy scribble grabbing me by the scruff of the neck and forcing me to look. I notice how worn the paper is, as if it has been opened, read and closed many times. Perhaps because my past self wrote it, it is remarkably, painfully, legible; the ‘I will Always Love You Santa’ in big bold irrefutable letters. This love delineated with a glorified stick-figure child’s sketching of me hugging foresaid Santa.
The irony is that my mother always encouraged me to write to Santa when I was young and allowed me to indulge in the illusion far longer than my age should have allowed. The greater irony is that the illusion is no more real than the image of the loving father my mother perpetuated even though my love for these two fantasies came at her expense.
My mother: paramour and demimondaine, propagator of myth, master of lies and manipulation… lover and protector of child.
I do not know how but I no longer have the letter in my hands. Now I am staring at the picture, the one of my mother and me holding hands. I see no resemblance, her being so tall, svelte, and beautiful while I am simply awkward: a small child with messed up hair, a crooked smile and comical corrective shoes.
For some reason, I do not know why nor can I stop, I take out a picture of my wife and me from my wallet. I rip the picture in half, let the image of my wife flutter to the ground as I take the half of myself, and place it over the younger me. Amazingly, it looks as if it belongs there, as if it were there all along. The resemblance to her is uncanny. Undeniable. I can hear the ethereal sound of her saying “I love you” in my head with that mellifluous voice. Did I ever say I love you to her? Of course I did, all children do. When did I last tell her as an adult? Did I ever?
I have often heard the phrase, ‘we hurt the ones we love’; yet, rarely does one discover that the greatest means to that hurt, can often be by simply doing nothing.
I place the lid on the box and slide it back to its original resting place under the bed with the sudden epiphany that the only shame in this house is I— the opprobrium mine. The rivulets of tears and sweat running down my face begin to subside as I compose myself, unaware of nervously twisting the sheet from the bed. The mischievous lunar light of a full moon dances through the ubiquitous canopy of branches and leaves, glistening seductively around the room.
Looking out the window at that once ominous weeping beech, for the first time, I see its true enthralling beauty. Swaying in the breeze at the end of its massive limb, the enormous claw seems to beckon. My sobbing stops, my breathing returns to normal and tranquility sweeps over me. I am suddenly invigorated. The stygian night is alluring; the wound sheet is strong yet soft in my hands. I think I will go outside and have a better look at that magnificent tree.
About the Author:
James Tucker is from Charleston SC and has been featured in Sick-Lit Magazine, Stay Weird and Keep Writing Press and others.