Westbound

I usually turned on the television and zoned out whenever I visited Mom. I used to be terrified of silence, and her house was full of it save for the mundane ticks and clicks of appliances that only seemed to punctuate our lack of conversation. She was only 56, but she was neither young, or old. She was just there.

Mom was pretty at one time, in orange tinted photographs with rounded edges. But life had been more than a formidable opponent, and its one-two-punch of drink and depression had left her slumped and forgotten. It was only a few years ago that I discovered Dad wasn’t the only big drinker in the family.

Now she hardly spoke, and when she did it was just to gripe about the neighbor’s dog or a piece of junk mail. I suspected any thoughts of substance were sealed away, in a place she no longer even knew to look. I was her only visitor so far as I knew. Melanie’s job kept her on the road, so I was left to play the good son.

She wheezed and coughed. I hopped up and fetched her tea. When she turned to the window I helped her out of bed. She spent most of her day at her bedroom window, overlooking a row of slumping houses and leafless trees.

Once she was settled she nodded her thank you. I nodded back and went to check on things downstairs. This time she spoke.

“I dream about him often.”

The buoyancy in her voice nearly knocked me cold. I fumbled for the remote, killing the TV and rushing to her side.

“Dream about who, Mom?”

“He comes and goes, always wearing that suit and hat,” she continued, and I backed into a seat on her sunken bed. “He was so handsome, his blue eyes were, they were almost gray, with speckles that glimmered when he smiled.”

Her own smile made me uneasy. I looked down to the hardwood floor, dimpled from the carpet I’d ripped out a few years back. But then I realized she wasn’t talking about Dad. I’d never known him to wear a suit a day in his life. And he had black hair and dark eyes, like Melanie.

“…he said he would take me away. He wanted you in his life, and Melanie too. All I had to do was leave, but…”

She stared at out, to the colorless winter. I was a lump on her sunken bed, sorting through vague impressions of my childhood. My father had drunk himself to death by the time I was ten. Mom motioned to a drawer. “There, in the jewelry box…”

I hopped up, nearly taking the bed with me. I opened the drawer, seeing the neck of a vodka bottle peeking out from a pile of socks. Beside it, in the broken cedar jewelry box were three yellowed tickets. Amtrak. One way to San Francisco, stamped July 3, 1989. They were frayed and worn, leathery, like they’d been handled many times. I turned back to my mother and her window.

“There’s a ring, too.”

I couldn’t keep up. What man? What ring? She’d never been married. My dad stumbled in and out as he pleased. I looked again to the tickets. I would have been six, Melanie nine. Down in the box was a diamond ring.

The floors creaked as I stepped around the bed to her. The ring tore at the skin in my trembling fist as I realized what she was trying to tell me.

“I would like two things, Jacob,” she said, her eyes clear and steady. “First, I would like you to return that ring to your father.”

She told me his name, where I might find him. I fell back onto her bed. Angry, devastated, relieved, all of it a slobbering warm mess on my face. But she only gave me a few minutes to absorb her first wish.

“And second,” she said, her eyes as gray as winter, “I would like to die.”

The thermostat clicked and the vents rattled to life.

 

–Pete Fanning/2015

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