“That boy is a world of pain,” she says and thinks as she hears the words she’s often thought but never spoken: This is wrong. And then: No, this is exactly right. Wrong that she’s saying it aloud. Right that it’s the truth. A world of pain: her older son, the darling boy who was born in agony (hers) and then wailed in agony (his) for months afterward. He was furious with all that was beyond his control: struggling infant, stubborn toddler, raging and often violent kid.
She stops this train of thought by reaching for her glass. Mustn’t go on. It’s over now. It’s been over for years.
“Was,” she says and shakes her head. “Was.”
* * *
You were the younger son, and cradling your drink you study the old woman Mom’s become. Maybe she was beautiful once, but now her hand wobbles and her speech is slurred and her eyes seem clouded and dim. She’s traveled a long way to get here. She’s tired, is all. The others are asleep, but you two have been sitting up together. You should both go to bed now, but “Just one more,” and then you hear yourself telling her, laughing, “He used to steal from you, you know. He’d get into your purse when you weren’t looking. Money. Your ATM card. Anything. I thought you knew. How could you not know?” You’re whining at her now. “Seriously, Mom. Of course, you had to know.”
* * *
But she didn’t know. She doesn’t think she knew, or if she did, she forgot. And now here’s this one, the younger brother, her other boy, who’s not a boy at all. He’s a man with a wife and kids of his own. He was the calm one. He was the one who was happy right from the start. The one who was by comparison a welcome relief. Now he’s laughing. Is nothing serious? Is nothing sacred? He’s mocking her. They never respected her, either one of them. She understands that now.
She presses a palm to her chest. Her face is flushed. Tears well.
* * *
And you see this, sure you do. You see that she’s folding in on herself and pushing you away.
Up on her feet and striding, barefoot, to the kitchen. “I’ve had enough I think,” she says. All business now. Gathering herself, pulling herself together, looking at the clock as if she’s only just now noticed how late it is.
The guest room is all made up for her, you saw to that yourself.
She doesn’t kiss or hug or even smile, just turns and goes. Her back to you, but you see her dodder and put a hand out to catch herself, which will leave a smudge on the wall that you’ll look at later, feeling soiled all over again. All right then, she’s drunk. She won’t remember. It’s just as well.
* * *
But she doesn’t forget. She can’t. When she wakes, it’s all still here: his face, his smile, his words, and behind that the truth of his brother’s old betrayals. She’s standing at the mirror in the guest bathroom. She looks around at the monogrammed towels, the plush bath mat, the print of a mad-eyed Kali—the many arms akimbo, fingers spread, hands all waving at once—while her own face fills the center of the glass, her mouth a gaping hole. She squeezes her eyes shut. Her diamond earrings twinkle in the light. Water rushes over her hands, cooling them. She dares not look down at her own body. Its soft sag fills her with disgust and dismay.
* * *
If you were lying then, you must be lying now as well. To taunt her. To hurt her. To get her to go away. Her visit here is an intrusion. That must be it. A word from your wife when she sees the disaster Mom’s made of the guest room. The bed torn up. Clothes everywhere. Her suitcase gaping. If only she had someplace else to go.
“I swear, I had nothing to do with it,” you say, not for the first time. This is at breakfast. The kids are at the table in the kitchen and you’re out here in the living room again with her. She’s sitting in your wife’s chair, calmly smoking. You frown at that, and you can see the obscenity forming on Mom’s lips. She’s about to spit it out at you, but you stop her by speaking first.
“It wasn’t me,” you say. “It was him. He was the one. I only watched. I would never. I never did. I was a kid. He was older. He was the one who led me around. I only did what he told me to do. I only followed his lead. That’s what little brothers do.”
Your own son shows up in the doorway now, wrinkling his nose in disgust. You catch her eye. She blows smoke, smashes her cigarette out in the ashtray, then lights another one and glares at you both.
So now everybody’s mad, and it’s not just this, not just now, not just that you told her about the purse and the card or that she’s smoking in the house or that she needs to leave soon so you and your wife can get on with your lives or that she won’t leave until it’s time to go home. It’s that she’s blaming you. It’s that you did nothing and Mom’s blaming you.
* * *
So now she’s mad at both her boys. And this one’s mad at his darling brother and at her.
Anger is like a slick, roiling yellow cloud that’s settled over the little house on the corner of this street, with its tidy yard and the drop-off past the fence that falls steeply to the creek below, frozen hard as concrete now, and the kids cooped up inside with the smell and the taste of all that anger, a low hum that sounds like voices in the background, arguing, pronouncing: “Your fault.”
* * *
You’re remembering her clearly now. At the table just after dinner, nodding off, glass in hand. Your darling brother creeping up, his eyes fixed on her, wary, an excuse on the tip of his tongue if he needs it, her purse hanging from the back of the chair. The wallet in the purse. The card in the wallet.
It took the two of you half an hour to get to the store, use the card, pocket the cash, and make it home again to see that she hadn’t moved, though the glass had fallen from her hand and a stain on the rug under the table had begun to spread, but you left that. Not your business and not your job. She was the mother. She could clean up after herself, is what you thought.
* * *
She leaves a day early with an excuse, a phone call she pretends to take, someone important summoning her back, some kind of an emergency or something, nothing serious, no need to explain the details, and he doesn’t ask because he doesn’t need to know, he just wants her to leave, because she’s stayed too long and it’s all gone bad. So, dressed and packed when he and his wife come back from their errands or whatever it was they were doing, she tells them the story she’s made up and they both express a chagrin they don’t feel. There are grocery bags and a dinner planned, but now at least they’ll be alone again. Kisses, hugs, all is forgiven now that she’s headed home—a twelve-hour drive from door to door. She should at least wait for morning, he says, but no, she’s in a hurry, she’s wanted, they need her and she has no time to spare.
She has stopped at a motel just far enough away that they won’t come upon her by some dark chance. She pulls the curtains and undresses and pours a glass of wine from the bottle she picked up at the drugstore down the street from their house, and she sits here with the lights off, going over it again, until she’s fallen asleep.
Sometime later she startles awake and opens her eyes to find herself in this strange room and deep night outside. She hasn’t eaten anything, doesn’t care to. Her eyes are wide and staring. She misses her darling boy.
* * *
You’re sullen at dinner. Quiet and inward turned. Your wife tries to cheer you up with her bright smile, her pretty hair and her flowered dress. Your son chatters away. The baby gurgles and coos.
You think of Mom out there alone, on the road somewhere.
If she will only forget and move on. You’ll do anything. You make that promise. And then you take it back. No. It’s over.
Your darling brother: standing in the weeds with the lighter in his hand.
Mom: “That boy. A world of pain. Always was. A heartbreaker, that one. Too smart for his own good.”
The meadow grass waving. Cash in his pocket, but he couldn’t keep it there. He had to keep showing it. Flashing it.
You told him to put it away.
That smile and those perfect teeth. That darling boy. It was like he wanted it. Like he was asking for it. Like the pain would make a difference to him somehow.
Picking a fight. Letting them let him have it.
Two hundred dollars. Ten twenties from the ATM.
While you were safe at home, slipping the card back into Mom’s purse. Still staying out of it, still claiming you were too young. “It was his idea. It wasn’t my fault.”
And if you could just say the right thing, or if you could just shut your eyes, then there wouldn’t be anything at all for you to have to see.
* * *
They beat me bloody and then left me there in the field. In the morning a man out walking with his dogs came upon what was left. The dogs sniffed around. One lay beside me, whimpering. Another was barking like a fool. The grass was burned. My clothes were torn. My hands had been tied to the fence post with ropes that later would be traced to the new hardware store out by the old highway, and from there to a kid who went to the same school but who denied having anything to do with anything, until his girlfriend came forward and spoke up about the plans they’d made to teach someone something about what was right and what was wrong.
It wasn’t the money, though they took that too, and spent it on booze and beer.
That kid came to you afterward and said he had no regrets. That I’d asked for it.
Mom, in her motel room, is remembering all this.
While you, in your wife’s arms, are doing your best to forget.
Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her most recent publications include a collection of short stories, It’s Not About The Dog and a new novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci. Susan has taught fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. She grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, lives occasionally in Toronto, and at present calls Colorado home.