His massive knotted hands grip the table edges; old spotted hands that look like tree roots. He grunts if you let him fester too long, his eyes lolling back in his head. He sits in the cluttered little kitchen holding on to the sun faded yellow table on a far out mathematical recon mission, or just shuddering inside the jumbled scurry of a ruined brain depending on how you look at it, as Mother burns our burgers, another layer of snot colored grease spitting against the little stove’s hopeless bright white and the gummy floor. He tells Mother if he lets go he’d float up through the sky and burn up in the atmosphere. His eyes are like idiot fish pondering an aquarium’s mysterious right angle boundary as bits of equations flash and splinter. Yesterday he described the bright perfect symmetry of the cathedrals of Florence, the foreboding expanse of the Sinai, and one of the silent hulking clouds he names and assigns personalities to, as if these topics were intimately related to us, to our situation here together in this house.
“I saw Beatrice again,” he whispered through yellowy mouth whiskers, the lolling eyes trying to infer something like, ‘you know what that means.’
During these spells, floating unencumbered through the grand sky of his psychosis, he is most coherent. His speech becomes soft and clear, otherwise he mumbles into his sleeve or sits rocking in silence. At the table in my mother’s kitchen he describes these flights like an intrepid BBC reporter dictating to a tape recorder during a championship golf tournament.
I love his fanciful trips. But Mother, annoyed and a little afraid, smacks the table to bring him back, as if he were a partially broken appliance. In my state of mind, his lunacy is a comfort, a very low bar to measure my own decay against. At least he has something, some goddamn reason to behave the way he does. I have no credible excuses. I am adrift, with a hot little knot of shame burning in my stomach, having lost my job and marriage to a series of lapses in moral judgement, having fallen (or so I thought at the time) in love with a student. I am flat broke, without job prospects and still buzzing with terror at having missed jail time by four and a half months and the entire process of being found out, of having my quiet and reasonably respectable life turned into a bad television soap opera with all too real melodrama, and me as the clearly defined, black hatted villain.
So we three spend a lot of time doing nothing but occupying the brick house I grew up in, listening to the professor go in and out of coherence, and waiting for the degenerates who for some reason are unaware of mail service, to hand deliver the rent they owe my mother; floating in at the most inconvenient times like mangled bits of societal driftwood. I cringe when one of them skulks up the steps, all beaten and drug pinch faced, with dead eyes and shabby clothes. I have no sympathy. Sympathy, for most of us, is granted to television stories, the victims of some unforeseen disaster, or to a previously unknown animal about to go extinct, unless the animal isn’t cuddly or cute or majestic, but the animals on ‘about to go extinct’ stories are always appealing because the ugly or otherwise useless creatures vanish without notice, without any consideration whatever.
Mother deposits the addict’s money and gives me a pinch, handing off an envelope or a book in the hallway or on the stairs, like she is doing something illegal. She is deeply ashamed of me. So ashamed she can’t allow herself to become angry for fear of having to talk about what I’ve done. Her awkward silence and the way her mouth tightens when I became the focal point for some reason, tells me she sees me as my father- the degenerate who left her alone so many years ago in the middle of a life she saw as a kind of fantasy dream come true. He wired a pile of money from somewhere overseas six months after he vanished, and that was it. He faded out of our lives. Over the years she managed to buy a slew of decrepit houses in south city Saint Louis no one in their right mind would own, eking by on the money she collected.
It is so goddamn hot in the house, even the mumbling idiot professor is pale and still. His liver spotted cheeks look like they have been misted. A solitary drop of sweat hangs on the end of his Socratic nose. He blinks his eyes in a gentle erratic rhythm. His giant white shrub of hair manages to remain Whitmanesque in the nearly visible humidity.
Mother yells intermittently at the television which sits on top of her refrigerator, as it has all my life. Maybe that’s why I never eat. I hate sitting down to dinner with her. She half pays attention to any conversation that might arise and bellows out at the news or game, or sitcom, or documentary like a blubbering drunk at a baseball game, or a hearing impaired and filterless old person, which she is neither. She is a very tired and sad riddle with the ears of ten parabolic microphones. I feel for them mentally, the nodes in my brain that might contain whatever chemical soup induces sympathy, and there is nothing. She has always been this way, half wrecked, scattered, partially torn asunder.
Tonight it’s too hot to eat. Every window and door in the house is open to the airless night. It is so humid, it feels like you are drowning a little with every breath. Mother has gone gray and sits heavily in her rusted, bent chair that squeaks when she moves, gazing at the mountain of unopened bills and junk mail she keeps on the table. Food has been spilled on a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Flies seem to be sleeping next to the butter dish soiled with toast crumbs and grape jelly. We sit in the dim light of the twitching bulb that flickers almost imperceptibly, making a barely audible hum, breathing the dead air.
The professor releases the table, slowly placing the palms of his hands on his thighs. Mother was good friends with his sister, a complete loon who rattled around in one of those mansions from the 1850’s west of the university where the professor was supposedly a math genius who became intermittently catatonic and eventually, completely daffy.
The two homeless looking siblings meandered around the Washington University campus for years, attending art openings and recitals every night to eat the free food. The professor snitches bits of Mother’s half spoiled food when she is distracted. She groans as her arthritic hip locks when she reaches to empty his sweater pockets each night before she retires.
That man turns to stone when he shuts his eyes, I always think he is dead, every morning I have to wake this dead looking man, she says to me every morning.
The sister was run over by a bus a few years ago. Mother never gave me a straight story on where in the hell their money came from, but they must have been from old Saint Louis wealth because they were both completely incapable of making it on their own. I felt sorry for the old bastard, my new housemate.
Mother clears her throat loudly and rams her chair back, making that awful sound I hate. The metal frame resisting the force of her hips, machine guns into my ears. I jump every time. I’m sure she does it to piss me off. When Mother is about to have a melt down there is a slow build up of several weeks
where she performs strange passive aggressive acts. Her movements become exaggerated, doors start slamming, plates are thrown into the sink and she stops cooking, doing laundry or feeding the dogs.
It takes a while to reach a full boil. I’m wound up like a spring; waiting. My shame wracked and over heated body is clinically tense and cannot be relaxed, knowing from experience the process has begun. Running away would only make it worse and could involve the police. She will eventually attack me for what I have done. In college, one Christmas break, struggling as always and completely exhausted because she couldn’t keep a handyman, she had been up all night painting a rental while I was out drinking with friends. When she found me passed out in the living room, she started beating me with a paint pole. She screamed and cried and smashed up the house before walking off through the back of the neighborhood weeping and ranting. I cleaned up the house, concussed and bleeding from the head and stayed at a girlfriend’s house before going back to school. We went on as usual after that.
Since my unexpected firing and the loss of my wife, who didn’t attempt to understand my transgression, who I am certain, secretly was relieved, and happy to move on, with the added bonus of victimhood glowing like a bright nimbus for all to see, I had been content to squat at mother’s. As she sat in gray silence, I felt that familiar sickness from childhood, the sudden gut stab of terror, knowing a savaging was inevitable. In my emotionally exhausted state, I had forgotten to notice the signs. Her rage had been building for weeks. She had recently lost another group of renters and was short on her bills. I heard her barking at Sly, a droopy old ex con wino who works a few hours a week for her, but is always trying to collect on unpaid hours going back fifteen years, telling him no money would be forthcoming for the foreseeable future. Mother’s tendency to catastrophize leaves her nervous system susceptible to flights of extreme rage.
As flies crawl on the dark pile of burnt hamburger laid out for the professor and myself, I notice we have no bread and that she hasn’t produced anything else besides charcoal disks to munch on. This lapse is a dark and foreboding indicator. She is about to wreck the place. The missing sympathy sacks may have been replaced genetically or environmentally crushed into uselessness by the constant gnawing tension of her probable explosions. As a functioning adult, her lunacy could not touch me, but now that I have infantilized myself, I recognize the familiar hot neck terror.
The professor begins keening, making a soft whining sound, perhaps sensing the tension. His eyes are closed. I break my weeks of silence on the matter and begin to tell my side of the story, the sound of my voice, and the feebleness of my defense of the indefensible seem to be coming from somewhere else, not from my mouth, not out of my mind. And yet, I am the one speaking. I begin by describing Lola’s intense hatred of academia, her complete lack of respect for my profession, her defiant coldness towards me, most likely stemming from her inability to gain acceptance into the world of academia, a world she supposedly despises. My litany of pathetic rationalizations ends suddenly and is followed by strident, hysterical apologies to Mother for anything I can think of, for the constant financial support during graduate school, the ungrateful lack of visitation, the unwillingness to labor at her disintegrating properties, for ruining her chances at grandmotherhood, for stealing her car when I was twelve, for being born,which I dramatically, with cracking voice surmise, probably drove my father away.
The power suddenly goes out- a percentage of tension evaporates with the loss of electricity. I can hear the professor breathing through his dirty whiskers. There is form, a possible outline of Mother against the space leading to the back porch, but the form goes in and out of existence, the near complete darkness tricking my eyes. The breathing and the silence and the darkness give my rambling confessional a cloak of drama absurda- sitting here in the filth, the eerie stillness exaggerated by the heat, we three loons resparating.
Oh Christ mother, I say, as she remains invisible, the breathing continuing, filling the room with a peculiar smell, like old musty clothing wrestling with the fog of burnt ground beef. I sit blinking in the blackness. My mother’s life assuming the posture of an intractable fighter. Not a boxer, a brawler, a force of nature set to beat out my brains. I hate it when I think about her, the way she was raised in that brutish, hard scrabble life of depression era people, folks drowning in a soup of trauma, her drunken and terrifying father unable to provide and cruel life weary mother, expert at the art of belittlement, needling them all to death.
The accounting of my mother then veers off to the years with my father, the promises made by fast talking Eddie, the soon to be head of something made up, at a secret government project warehoused in whatever town his latest girl on the side was staying. We think he was a small time fraudster with a working relationship, some kind of dope peddling, some mob venture his grubby hands touched, something unspeakable and wildly lucrative, something that required sudden disappearances and middle of the night bugouts. She fell for the shine and ease of a man on the take from a wicked unfair world, having been raised by a helpless man, a man unable to face himself, who stood slack jawed as the jobless years piled up and history as determined by far off banks, ground his kind into dust. It never occurred to him, to her father, to just take what he needed, to look out for his own no matter what the cost.
Eddie, the father I never knew, unwittingly tortured my mother, set it up so she could always be scrambling for cash, always have one foot in the financial grave, a pile big enough to spend recklessly on a dream, but too small to support a child. He didn’t force her to buy the goddamn rat trap properties, but she was thinking of volume, knowing renters are often unable or unwilling to pay, she figured it made more sense to play the percentages. She figured wrong.
The professor says, “We must be getting ready to recieve my friend Von Neumann, John that is. When he is around I speak and act as if nothing in particular were amiss, but the truth is, I get terrible headaches discussing his work. I find it’s beneficial to sit in my office closet for at least an hour in total darkness before receiving him. Is John on his way?”
“He died in 1956,” says mother’s voice from the darkness, softly, with sadness, as if she knew Von Neumann.
The musical breathing through whiskers returns, the smell of burger and forgotten clothing and the sweetness of his filth, like a bin of forgotten apples gone soft, hangs about us.
Then, in her prime, she had to raise me more or less as her parents raised her, oppressed by her own personal Great Depression. We got by, or I got by, somehow becoming adept at passing smarty pants multiple choice tests and qualifying for government aid. I was rescued by her insolvency, while Mother fell deeper into hopeless working poverty.
I accidentally saw her in her underwear the other day, and it made me cry. There is a human being under the dirty work shirt and paint splattered jeans, an actual flesh and bone woman glimpsed through the uncurtained window of her room as she lit a cigarette from the twenty year old pack she keeps on her dresser, her hair hanging down on one side, I thought I saw tears on her face, but looked away suddenly because nobody wants to see their mother in a state of undress. I thought of Lola in her cotton shirt she wore to bed, pulling back the covers, setting the alarm, issuing reminders, felt broken off from the world of human flesh, like a floating seeping sore of consciousness, and realized Mother had been sleeping, planning, dressing and undressing alone for thirty years.
A clacking sound issues from the totality of the house. Lights flicker on, the refrigerator's motor begins purring, the television loudly announcing a blowout car sale. The burnt disks have gotten blacker against the bright white of the plate. The professor blinks his eyes at me, verifying I am not John Von Neumann. Mother is so far beyond tired her eyes have the look of a dead person, the lids stuck at half mast, she leans dangerously in her broken chair and I catch an unexpected glimpse. I see the two of them waxy and eternally still in the darkness of caskets, and myself prattling on at some community college about media theory, an entire field of inquiry so diffuse and hard to pin down, one smart ass sophomore pointed out, you can say almost anything and sound intelligent, especially if no one is listening. Professor talk has its own music, he said, the kid whose name I never knew, from my last employed semester. You just gotta stay one step ahead, he announced, as if discovering his life’s direction in one eureka moment, standing in front of the class- just keep those scholarly sounding papers coming, and you got it made.
He has lost his job and wife- now he lingers in the house he grew up in as his mother's world crumbles.