His mother on the phone didn’t sound any different from when he had last seen her – sprightly with a girlish crispness to her voice. Carl was supposed to have arrived in Chicago three hours ago. He would have been by her side, only a winter storm had diverted his flight from San Francisco to a town in Kansas, where he was holed up in a motel. Half a dozen cars were parked outside his window, covered in what looked like Styrofoam flakes glued onto windshields and hoods. Snow particles in the sky flurried to the ground in creating a landscape of white frost. A diner across the street and a gas station beside it were the only other signs of habitation.
Carl had experienced many icy nights growing up in Evanston, Illinois, but none quite like this. In Evanston, the smoke that would emit from the chimneys of neighboring houses had warmed the view from the bedroom he had shared with his brother, and lights strung on trees had shone with the brilliance of candle flames in a bell jar. Down the hall, his mother’s and father’s laughter as both parents watched “The Carol Burnett Show” had assured him that a cozy home would be forever.
Their laughter… hers had been melodious, the sing-song cadence of a Disney princess, while his had been a baritone ha-ha-ha, exactly the sort of laughter one would expect from a man of his stature – lanky with a smile as eminent as his nose, features Carl had inherited. Five years ago, during a game of golf on one of Carl’s visits, his father died laughing. Carl was talking of the day his father had bought him a Hershey’s kiss the size of an apple. He had been a fat 12-year-old, and he would nibble on the chocolate hidden in a paper bag, behind his mother as they stood on a pier, watching sea lions lounge on rocks on a family tour of Fisherman’s Wharf. Since his mother had forbidden sweets, this had been a secret between Carl and his father for the four decades that followed. With a smile, his father raised his golf club, and that was when he had a stroke. As he fell to the green, Carl held his hand. The man might not have made a sound, but his eyes brightened, filling the air with a silent guffaw, and then they dimmed. Carl’s father was 83.
If only Carl could hear his mother laugh one last time. Or look into her eyes. Or hold her hand.
“I understand it’s brutal outside. Irene tells me everything,” she said, Irene being the caregiver. “She does everything. In fact, she’s holding the phone to my ear.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t make it, Mom.”
“You talk as if the weather’s your fault.”
“Tomorrow, if the storm clears up, I’ll be on my way.”
“Let’s pray and hope.”
Prayers were always a way to be with his mother. She had instilled a belief of God in her sons as if her faith were a matter of genetics. Here were the memories such faith blessed Carl with: the saccharine scent of apple pie that wafted through the house at Christmas; Easter picnic, their feast a barrel of Kentucky fried chicken; and the “Prayer for the Dead” on All Saints’ Day for both grandfathers who had gone before he was born and a sister lost to a miscarriage – memories more associated with family than with church. Later, in surviving the loss of his own son, Carl discovered prayers to be a savior of sorts, a source of strength.
Carl pictured his mother as she had been in his schooldays, slim in flared pants or a pencil skirt, and her hair a bush of ringlets from a night of sleeping in curlers. What a visual impression she had made on his teachers, and arm-in-arm with his father, who had commanded his own attention with a firm walk and a posture as upright as a general’s, she had presented the image of the perfect wife.
In his last trip to Chicago this past autumn, Carl had dyed his mother’s hair chestnut brown, its natural color during his youth. Dying her hair was a task he undertook on every visit. After his father had passed away, she moved out of the house and into an apartment in the city, the bustle of which teased her vanity. His mother chose the apartment for its wall-to-wall panorama of a board walk ferris wheel and a lake that shimmered gold on sunny days and turned silver when the weather was somber. How silver indeed the lake was as Carl had combed his mother’s hair… perhaps for the final time, he was realizing just now… the silver of goblets and platters to a royal banquet. Due to gusts of frosty winds, the coming winter threatened to be especially freezing. People crowded the boardwalk for a final hurrah of outdoor amusement. The ferris wheel in motion bespoke the gaiety in the air, and as night descended, it lit up like an electric roulette, promising eternal youth and fun.
Once upon a time, Carl had been a child on the ferris wheel. Suddenly, he was several stories above it, removed from it by a brick thick window that blocked all worldly sounds, as if in a glass coffin. His mother seemed fine. Nails lacquered, face smooth from daily egg packs, and a widened waist from an addiction to buttered popcorn, she had settled nicely into widowhood. Carl returned to the West Coast believing he would share with his mother many more autumns such as this.
Then the caregiver phoned. Barely four months had passed. His mother was slipping. For whatever reason, she was slipping fast.
In the motel room, Carl attempted to be rational. Every child faces saying goodbye to a mother sooner or later, he thought. This will be over soon enough. Then what?
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Oh, okay,” his mother said.
“I’ve been sleeping a lot. It’s nice. I always dream.”
“I do, too.”
“I usually forget my dreams.”
“Same here. Makes you wonder what they’re all about if you can’t remember them.”
“But I never forget the feeling. Sleep dreams are peaceful. Better than daydreams. With daydreams… I don’t know.”
Carl sat on a bed by the window. The airline booked him in a room with two beds, he a lone traveler. “With daydreams, there’s an underlying wistfulness,” he said. Even when he had not been alone, he had only needed one bed. “More than wistfulness. Restlessness. Hunger.”
“I guess that’s it,” his mother said.
“What do you daydream about anyway, Mom?”
“I’m too old to have any more daydreams. I remember instead.”
Carl himself spent much time remembering, too much time. “It’s been a while since I’ve daydreamed.”
“Son, you’re too young to stop wishing and wanting for things.”
At once, Carl realized this was probably the most personal he had ever been with his mother. When face to face, they would speak of the weather, tell each other one was fine or okay to inquiries about well-being, and they’d share accounts of an afternoon activity. However, he was hard pressed for memories of any conversation in which they confided deep feelings, whether it was sadness or happiness.
“Maybe I should do what Andrew does.”
His mother laughed. At last, she laughed. No, she couldn’t be dying. Too much melody and heart and soul were in that laughter. “Your brother is a queer one,” she said.
“I’m the queer.”
Again, laughter. “Do you actually like calling yourself that? Isn’t it insulting?”
“Andrew, he visits me often. Don’t you be hard on him.”
Carl did appreciate his brother, although his brother could be irksome, what with Andrew’s demands that during every visit to Chicago, Carl must avail himself as assistant to his house construction and renovation business. Lending Andrew a helping hand could be a debilitating enterprise. In one project, Carl tore down a garage wall, exposing a bat perched on a scaffold. With a flap of its wings, the bat dove towards him and drove him onto the street, where he ran down the block with arms outstretched in front of him like a character from a ’70s cartoon. In another, a maggot stung with such a burn that he felt as though a drill were digging into his arm. To Andrew, spending time with their mother meant chauffeuring her to Costco then picking her up three hours later, and his idea of a vacation was back packing across the 50 states and sleeping in cemeteries to save a buck on motels. Manual labor spurred an appetite for ribs and potatoes. Days and nights exposed to the elements chafed his nose red.
While Andrew was burly and gruff of voice, puberty had made Carl conscious of his corpulence so that by early adulthood, he was as lean as a sprinter, stacking his pantry with oats and nuts, baked chips and protein bars. Although the brothers now had salt and pepper beards, Andrew had a full set of hair on his head in contrast to Carl, who was convinced a youth of perms and products that advertised snazzy dos had damaged his follicles.
“He doesn’t dye your hair, though,” Carl said.
“Of course, no,” said his mother. “Only you can do that.”
“That’s right.” What now? thought Carl. Years of penning news articles to the caliber of front page coverage had not equipped him with words for this night.
“There’ll be a welcome party for me in heaven.”
“The guest of honor will be really late. Years late.”
“I don’t think Daniel can wait much more.”
Daniel, it was inevitable that he would be mentioned. “I think he can. His grandfather’s keeping him amused.”
Now Carl laughed. His was a laugh that kindled the sweetness of his childhood. Lemego was what he had called Lego, a toy he had rejected on his fifth birthday, rather preferring cut out dioramas of circus performers and a Ken doll to GI Joe because Ken was the closest he could get to owning a Barbie. Daniel had been a different matter. He had a passion for building things, just like his grandfather, whom Carl used to call “Daddy, the wall pounder.” A financial manager five days of the week, Carl’s father on weekends was the neighborhood handyman. His respite from his day job consisted of furniture construction and house repairs from replacing a sink valve to clearing a jammed garbage disposal. Andrew had developed their father’s hobby into a vocation, and he would joke that Daniel was actually his own son by virtue of the boy’s knack for a skill innate to the Larkin men, one that had bypassed Carl, no matter that Daniel had not been born a Larkin.
Daniel would have turned 18 in three months.
“I wonder sometimes why I’m not good with a hammer and a hand drill,” Carl said and imagined his father and Daniel nailing planks together to erect a bridge that would arch over the moon.
“You build in other ways,” said Carl’s mother. “You build stories.”
“I guess… I don’t know… Whatever I write is read and then forgotten. News becomes old fast, and journalists are a dime a dozen. We’re replaceable.”
“I have scrapbooks filled with clippings of your articles.”
“Other people write the same stories as I do and have them published in other places – on the internet, anywhere. What I do is reportage, Mom, a dry listing of facts, some more sensational than others. It has nothing to do with anything special to us.”
The Larkin line ended here; Carl’s father had two sisters. All that Carl had created with his mother and his mother with him would vanish when his own time came, as if they had never been. How many stories since the birth of language had been buried in the ground, lost to obscurity, or cremated, their ashes scattered in the wind over meadows or ghostly waters? The stories Carl wrote were on this senator’s legislature and that mayor’s campaign, stuff nobody gave a damn about upon the count down to a new year.
The stories that truly mattered, that blessed one and all an equal chance in immortalizing everyone and everything held dear, were those born of personal histories – a muddled montage of faces and voices, places and sounds, all imbued with the fervor of a love that refused to perish. Of course, Carl had always known this, though never had he confronted this fact with the desperation that he was doing so now.
As did frequently happen, memories of Daniel were at this instant overlapping with those of his own boyhood: his mother’s yanking him by the arm out of the toilet; Daniel terrified on his first day of potty-training that the flush of water would suck him in; running alongside his mother in a sudden cloudburst, on grass the luster of green gummy bears; Daniel catching up with him during a race on the beach. The boy had had a heart condition. What the doctor had assured Carl would be a safe procedure turned out to be anything but, and grieving proved too taxing for the two fathers to remain together. At least, that was what Carl told himself.
Really, the parting between Joel and him had been nothing remarkable. The bed left unmade in the mornings, dirty dishes neglected in the sink, and one’s late nights out without informing the other could have been any couple’s reasons for a break-up. Unique to them was that Daniel had possessed an eerie resemblance to Joel. More than the ginger curls, the all-knowing eyes had startled Carl, as if by a mere glimpse the boy could decipher the secret behind every object and living soul alike. On Joel, an anthropologist, such keen perception was natural, the result of wisdom accumulated from trekking the Borneo rainforest and living among Amazonian Indians. On a child, it was troubling. Carl often sensed as Daniel would contemplate familiar rooms that the boy knew their walls would bear witness to bad tidings.
On the phone, his mother’s voice was so loud that she could have been in the same room as he, at the window, the winter storm creating a backdrop of turbulence, just as it had on the first Christmas without Daniel. That December some ten years ago, his mother had been lamenting that Daniel had inherited a congenital heart from Joel, he whose father and father before him had died of heart attacks; Carl should have been the donor, for given a history of longevity on both parents’ sides of the family, his DNA was certainly pure of ailments. She wasn’t making any sense, Carl had said; had the decision been in his favor, then Daniel would never have been born.
They were both in the bedroom of his youth. Above his desk hung a collage Carl had made decades back of Michael Jackson moonwalking; a Rubik’s cube; and Tom Cruise, thumb up as he posed self-assured in a jet cockpit. Carl was going to light up the sky with the colors that dazzled the decade of the 1980s: passion purple, electric yellow, fluorescent blue… His name would grace bookshelves. He would appear on TV talk shows and be interviewed on the radio. No dream was ever too grand. He never planned on a family of his own, and the unexpectedness of this blessing had trivialized all those adolescent big shot aspirations. Laughter, so much laughter, from the morning buzz of the alarm clock to the last light switched off in the evening, had illuminated the darkest skies the brilliance of Venus.
Standing against the window view of the blizzard, Carl’s mother resembled a powder puff. Her ensemble of matching sweat pants and shirt was cotton candy pink. Her skin was luminous, free of the wrinkles characteristic of a septuagenarian. And yet, her face appeared broken. The more she spoke of what should have been, the more creases marred the brows and weighed on the cheeks, as if she were a porcelain doll cracking apart.
If truth be told, there was a vital reason that Joel had been chosen, something of which Carl never confided in his mother and never would. An illness independent of genetics tainted Carl’s blood. Due to medical breakthroughs, Carl was saved from the fate that had befallen men of his ilk a generation earlier, when ignorance had run so rampant that a mere kiss had fomented fears of mortality, and he was able to nurture a relationship with a man whose blood tested clean upon every doctor’s check-up.
Then again, suppose Carl had sired a son. Suppose the child had died. The loss would have been twice the tragedy for the Larkins because the boy could have been the sole biological perpetuator of their lineage. Andrew was never going to be a parent… he could not even bring himself to marry the woman who had been tending to his home for the past decade as diligently as she had been to his office… though their mother badgered him incessantly.
“Andrew will be here soon,” his mother said over the phone.
“I will be, too,” Carl said.
The snowing outside had calmed. Carl might be on his way to Chicago after all. God might actually be answering the prayers of mother and son.
“You’re already here. Somewhat.”
Something was different. His mother was growing distant. She was breaking up as if static had come between them.
“I hear you, so you’re here,” she said.
How incongruous her voice quickly became to the bobbysoxer whose image Carl once saw as a child in his mother’s girlhood scrapbook. Photo corners affixed on a page a picture of his mother at 17, sitting on a sofa with jean-clad legs curled up beneath her as she held a Frank Sinatra record to her bosom. Despite the black and white of the picture, she had color in her cheeks, a blush such as that upon the first kiss. Who had his mother been thinking of? Was it a celebrity crush that had made her eyes gleam so and her smile ardent or was it a boy in school? Who was Susan Flores before she became Mrs. Laurence Larkin?
A girl that lovely evoked morning dew on rose petals and slow dances. Rightfully so – Carl’s mother was born on the 14th of February.
Nonetheless, she was not above paroxysm. “Stupid. You stupid, stupid boy,” Carl’s mother once screamed. It was a long time ago, and it was the single instance in his life Carl had seen her blow her top. He had deserved it. Fat was bursting through the spaces between each shirt button. Crumbs of battered chicken soiled his fingers. After a burp that resounded in the kitchen, he said, “You always over fry the chicken, Mom. I feel I’m eating burnt wood.” She was at the sink with her back to him. With the swiftness of a whip, she turned to face him. “Stupid,” she said.
Her lips quivered. Her eyes flared with a wrath Carl had never before witnessed. The tick tock of the clock on the wall across the table from where he sat ruptured the ensuing silence like a time bomb.
Through the window behind her, his father and Andrew were plucking weeds in the backyard. The grass reflected the gold of day, and sunshine around Carl bounced off varnished cupboards and bluebird chinaware his mother was stacking in a dish rack. Andrew himself had made a big deal about having to work the garden that Sunday. Hair scruffy, in mid-yawn, he had stood at the backdoor, a bread toast in hand as he demanded from their father $2 for his labor. He got a smack on the head instead.
“You stupid, stupid boy.” His mother could have been referring to Andrew, as well. Just as suddenly, she turned her back to Carl and continued with the dishes.
Your cooking sucks… I want new sneakers… No way am I doing the lawn… I want a bike… Drop me off at the mall… I want a sound system… Pick me up at five… I want a car…
In a motel room abuzz with the whirl of memories, in a hick town he had neither heard of nor ever imagined he would set foot in, Carl marveled at the choices, big and small, his mother had made that brought the world to this moment.
“Thank you, Mom,” he said.
She was silent and then, perplexed, “For what?”
“Everything is a lot.”
“Thank you, too, my son.”
“Are you my echo now?”
So many questions. Still, Carl didn’t know where to start or if he should dare to ask. What he was well aware of was that his mother could have married any man she had so pleased. She often reminisced of her sorority days when boys would position themselves by classroom windows to glimpse her as she sat in the quad. Her own father, a judge, had cut a formidable figure. Although his shoe size was that of a prepubescent, his voice reverberated with the bang of a gavel against a sounding block. If ever on the street he chanced upon two men in a scuffle, all he needed was to say stop and they would. This intimidated many a prospective husband… except Laurence Larkin, a stranger in town on a business trip. The man had such a swagger, a sureness of where he was and where he was headed, that when a family friend introduced him to Susan Flores at a dinner party, “I just knew,” she would one day tell her sons.
And so the journey mid-way across the country to a future founded on a hunch. A strand of pearls, Dior purses, a Tiffany card holder… gifts Carl’s father lavished on her on special occasions and upon his return from business trips muffled whispered arguments behind closed doors over her predilection for the luxurious. That his father was ever present at the dining table in the evenings and was a home busy body on weekends dismissed flattering remarks on another woman’s looks as just that – a passing comment. What regrets could Carl’s mother have had? What dreams sacrificed?
This Carl knew: he would not have needed to endure half as much on account of Daniel had his son come of age. Father he had been but still a man whose identity extended to a job, and times were different. Nothing of his mother’s upbringing had prepared her for the man he would become, no matter the niceties of living his father provided.
Home in Evanston had been a brick Colonial with a columned entrance and French doors, Grecian pots that flanked a walkway and shrubs gate-high. White enlivened the interior… lots of white… from the draperies to the bed sheets, only on the morning that Carl had walked into his parents’ room to kiss them a good day before heading off to school, a drizzle immersed everything in gray. Even his mother seemed ashen.
While his father lay snoring, she was staring at the ceiling as though a disturbing image were projected on the blank space above. Carl had left a video to the film “Making Love” in the VHS machine, in the TV stand across the foot of the bed. A film buff, he rented movies on a variety of genres from Spaghetti Westerns to thrillers glutted with scenes of blood and gore. Never had his mother voiced disapproval. “Making Love,” however, was something else entirely.
“You’re too young for a movie of that title,” she said.
“I’m too old for cartoons,” said Carl.
“What kind of movie is it?”
“A married man who has an affair with another man.”
His mother jolted.
“It’s a good movie,” he said.
Carl might as well have come out right there.
Nothing. His mother said nothing.
Neither did Carl. He had been the boy who would cry for Mommy never to leave the house, whose assigned place at the dining table was beside Mommy, who sought Mommy’s caress whenever he fell and scraped a knee.
The silence persisted the rest of his adolescence and through college, until his move to San Francisco, where his mother stacked his pantry with daily necessities and cooked his favorite dishes for his first week there. “Be careful,” she said when Carl at last divulged the truth of himself that for too long both mother and son had kept hushed. They were dining to a window view of neighboring couples and friends, all of one gender, as the neighbors basked in the sunset on their back porches. “We love you, Dad and I.” She would always be there for Carl in his adulthood, in his commitment ceremony to Joel and then in the rearing of his own baby.
Please God, Carl thought, pressing the phone to his ear as if it were his mother’s lips. Let me be on my way tomorrow before it’s too late.
“How strange snow is,” his mother said. “For a storm, it’s so quiet. A storm is supposed to be thunder and rain hitting the roof like an attack of arrows. Snow, it’s so… so soft, heavenly.”
His mother sounded as if she was drifting into a trance, a distant past, one that Carl shared with her of clouds wafting through open windows into a white bedroom. He saw her in a yellow robe and matching slippers, folding cloth diapers as tenderly as she did gift wrapping paper every Christmas.
“Who do those belong to?” he had asked.
“They used to be yours,” she had said and stashed the diapers in a bureau that over the years would be filled with mementos of life’s achievements and rites of passage: the first baby tooth, report cards populated with A’s and B’s, a spelling bee certificate…
Every item in the bureau had pointed to a path, detours unforeseen, which were not wholly a bad thing. Detours ensured Carl that it could happen again, this oneness with another to warm him on a night such as this, and perhaps even something more.
“Tomorrow,” Carl’s mother said, her voice regaining its vibrancy. “I’ll see you tomorrow, my son.”
“If not, then you need to trust fate.”