Mother at the Bar
My mother’s at the bar. She’s wearing that
lavender dress-suit, her flaxen hair in a sleek
pageboy. She’s on her fifth Schlitz, the other
four strewn across the counter in no particular order. She’s laughing with reckless abandon, saying she feels like a lawnmower’s just run over her eyes, addressing whoever’s crazy enough to invest their time and step out of their own little sanctum. Somehow she’s managed to forget all the darkest dells of her life, or at least pretend that she has. Especially the fact that she left us. And she doesn’t seem to recognize me.
I’m the youngest of three, and the only son. Our father took off with a small-time actress when I was seven. Mother followed suit two years later, apparently with a pianist. Or so I heard. My two sisters Betty and Connie cared for me in the years following, taking turns with my teachers’ conferences, smoking joints with me after nights of brooding about my motherless status, which I wore like a deformity. They inculcated in me those little details of living and life. How to ask a young woman on a date and to recognize her as an equal. How to deal with bullies, the inordinately drunk, bigots. And how to write. The best writer was the one who kicked his audience in the balls, they said, made them feel the character’s life, the ups-and-downs, their most minute details, right down to his or her scent. Thanks to their loving directives, I’d become a fairly respectable writer, at least a step above mediocre. And a first-rate teacher, by my own admission.
In any event, I’d come in after another day teaching my writing class up at the college, where I’d taught for the past year. I’d figured life was sufficiently bright to warrant a celebratory drink. When I’d first seen her, sitting among the men in rumpled business suits and their scents of Old Spice cologne and shaving cream, my mind had played all sorts of wild scenarios. We’d fill in the missing twenty years over drinks, while she expressed admiration and pity for all she missed. She would apologize for writing all those flighty letters, letters concerned only with her own pursuits. Learning piano. Diving. Teaching herself law. She’d insist upon meeting up again and introduce me to her newest flame, some man who would have connections in the world, connections that would magically alleviate my troubles. He’d call me the son he’d never had.
Only after ten minutes of ranting about lawnmowers and meeting Van Cliburn, does she take stock of me. The jukebox plays Sinatra. He’s crooning “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” I feel my heart beating fast, as she smiles, looking at me over a pair of thick cat-eye frames. The neon sign in the window flickers on and off. On and off. The bartender arranges glasses in perfectly aligned rows, each one clinking softly.
“You look like some ordinary fellow.” She tosses her head back, smiling. “An accountant or a lawyer, I suppose. Not one of those sit-in protesters, those civil rights types. It’s a pity.”
“Oh, I’m in here quite a bit. I’m a teacher.” I don’t know why I tell her the truth. She doesn’t recognize me. She doesn’t goddamned recognize me. For a minute, everything is just a blur, the people around me distant shapes, unintelligible sounds. I always thought mothers were supposed to wield an instinct, some internal means of knowing their child, even when they’d been absent in their lives.
“A teacher.” She giggles, belching all too audibly. “Great pursuit. Of course, I could never take it up. Shaping minds is noble, but what does that leave you for yourself? Perhaps you’re more of a patient type, one of those people who looks at life in the longer scheme.”
“It feels good having someone look up to you, I suppose. That slight bit of respect.” I smile. “I do love it when my students ask questions. How to tighten up imagery, or avoid clichés. I feel like I have something I can pass on to them.”
What I don’t say is that it’s a way of holding onto something for myself, a way of proving my existence to the world. Earning my place in it.
“Well, it’s your life, young man. I say, give me a thousand drinks one night and damn the morning after.”
The bartender drops a tray down on the oak-paneled counter, cursing. A young woman in Capri pants and a black turtleneck walks in, her eyes bloodshot, mouth gaping open in a narrow O. A few of the businessmen next to us, already drunk to the limit, sway back and forth. One of the men motions to the ceiling, as though he has a hidden audience in the rafters. Please don’t kill the dog, he pleads. I don’t want you to kill the dog. His friends just stare and break into a perfectly coordinated chorus of laughter, pounding the counter. One of them throws a glass at the wall, shattering a picture of one of our war veterans, above the counter. His comrades pat him on the back, as though he’s achieved some great goal. The bartender doesn’t share their misguided ethos, however, and orders them out. They slowly trickle out like a herd, heads hung down, on their way back to their lives, their wives and children who stifle them in some indescribable way. It reminds me of what Tolstoy said about unhappy families being different, except with two-hundred inebriated strangers in a bar, each one of us reacting to life a different way, looking to escape. I’m no different.
Mother’s become a telephone operator. She needs a night on the town, she says, to see the sorts of people she deals with all day. On some level, it’s more interesting to hear their stories than to deal with their own life. She’d taken with a man some years ago, but he’d left her five years before. She’d traveled for a bit since then, because she felt every point in her life had burned out. The last place she’d been was Tehran, which she said was absolutely wonderful. She’d started fitting the pieces of her life back together, reassembling each small, significant piece of herself into order.
“I was young then.” She slams her Schlitz down. The bartender frowns, trying to affect some semblance of authority. He looks like a walrus in the throes of a nervous breakdown, though. “I suppose I took promises for what they appeared to be.”
“I’m sorry.” I do mean it. I suppose I looked for those promises in all her letters, becoming frustrated when not even a hint made itself present. I suppose I’m better off now. But she still doesn’t recognize me.
“He told me I’d have a good home.” She purses her lips. “Herman. The man I was with. We’d be all over Europe, he said, meeting royals and all these bigwigs. He didn’t like to stick around in one place too long. I think I felt that way myself. I’d been in a bad marriage before that. I’d given up a piece of myself.”
“That sounds pretty interesting. Europe.” When I was still in high school, all I wanted was to go to Europe myself. I always told my friends and my sisters I wanted to follow great men like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. I wanted to unlock their secrets to success, to be able to look at the world the way they did. The truth was that I wanted to reinvent myself entirely. I’d take up new pen-names and new lives, making them up as I went along, from city to city.
“My husband didn’t have any sense at all,” she says, inhaling. “Herman, at least, was more of a Romantic, spontaneous as hell. I loved that about him, at least. My husband had to have everything at his convenience. He was very particular. God forbid if you disrupted his routine. There was this one time he insisted on taking me bowling. He said I’d enjoy it, that it was the freest thing in the world. I don’t remember why I didn’t want to go.”
“What happened?” I order a Schlitz for myself, shift the stack of papers in my briefcase. Now, I wonder what my students’ lives are like beyond our detached relationship, the relationship between authority figure and student, what led them to where they are now, the little incidents in their own varied lives that made their pursuit of writing inevitable. I must ask them on Monday.
Dusk’s shadows spill through the windows, silhouetting the Irish, Polish, and American flags draped across the wall. Groups of workers from the paper mills stream in, smelling like grime and some other rotten odor, which I can’t place. Mother frowns, picking up her Schlitz, holding it as though it’s her most valuable possession. She finally sets it down after a minute.
“He punched the kitchen wall.” She lights up a cigarette, blowing smoke rings in the air. “He looked like the wildest animal, like he’d lost all control. He said I was a monster over and over, a selfish monster.”
She looks as though she wants to cry, so I offer her a handkerchief. She brushes it away, trying to smile. I lean over and awkwardly brush her cheeks slowly and deliberately, the way my sisters used to do with me, after a nightmare. I want to comfort her in some small way, but I don’t know how, as though it’s a foreign language. She has this look, somewhere between a smile and a frown, and she pulls back, eyebrows arched like a defensive snake. I’ve invaded her territory, a part of her world she doesn’t want me to see. I suppose when you’ve been alone as long as she has, though, you convince yourself that to be ignored is your station. You become accustomed to it, piling it on more and more like the thickest layers of ice.
She stares ahead, muttering something to herself. People stream out of the theater across the street, with its huge green-and gold marquee, which is playing Psycho. My sisters used to take me to the movies when I was a child. It was the one place where we all didn’t have to talk about our lives, where we could pretend to be a normal family. If I hadn’t been too obnoxious, they’d buy me a Coke, too. Or even a Mounds bar. We all loved Cary Grant. In my case it was because he seemed to have a sense of self-control and cocky calmness about him. In any event, the movie theater was a place where everything was all-too-perfect. I’d thought that all the bad things in the world couldn’t get into the theater, that there was some magical border between the real and the reel.
Mother stares at her diamond wristwatch, squinting to read the time. She shakes her head and turns to me.
“I suppose I realized the marriage was over when he tried to apologize,” she says. “He didn’t apologize for himself, is the thing. He made up excuses, so he could feel better about himself, so he could do it to me again at some point. He had a long day at the newspaper or his Aunt Nancy was always ill. There was something missing in him, something that made it impossible for us to stay married. I knew that right then.”
“I’m sorry.” I shake my head. I remember nothing of my father, save for a few small images, preserved like withered artifacts in an attic. His low-pitched nasal voice, the way his mustache bristled when he was angry. Even now, I’m not sure if that’s all true, or just a dream, one of many I had after our parents left.
“What about you, young man? What about your family?”
“Mother is a writer.” I take a long swing of beer. “Like me. We have coffee every morning at the Café Dupree, so we can talk about our work, talk ideas. She’s been published in The New Yorker, you know.”
“I thought you said you were a teacher.” Her face brightens like a schoolgirl, as though she’s just learned some deep secret. “Well, this is better. What do you write about, you and your mother?”
“I am a teacher. Writing teacher. We write coming-of-age stories, I suppose you’d call them.” I need another Schlitz.
She props her hands on her chin, nodding at me to go on.
“We write about runaway children. Even runaway parents.” I set my briefcase on the floor. “She wanted to know what made a mother or father leave. Or anyone for that matter. That’s a writer’s great mystery, son, she said. It’s a lifelong mystery, just figuring how the hell these people tick altogether. I always remember that, to this day.”
The girl in the Capri pants stumbles around, nearly ramming into the jukebox, laughing hysterically. A brown-haired young man in a sweater-vest paces the floor, twisting his mustache. He glances around frantically and I wonder who he’s waiting for. A girlfriend, perhaps, or maybe just a best friend. They’ll talk of engagement, of commitments and plans, right down to the most insignificant details, things that I know nothing about.
“I envy you,” she says quietly, looking away. “That must be very lucky, having her. She’s right, I guess.”
“Oh, it’s not all fun and games.” I pretend to laugh. “You don’t know how long we can argue. Last week we had a two-hour fight because I referred to dusk as “a purple sweat” in a story. She thought it was too Romantic, not grounded enough. Mother’s always been a bit of a realist.”
It feels good telling these lies, to the point where I almost believe. I always thought it would feel great to have that intangible power over her, to be able to hurt if I should have the opportunity, but I feel inexplicably bad for her. I don’t goddamned know why.
Mother reaches over, squeezing my hand. She smells like cigarette smoke and typewriter ink, an oddly soothing fragrance. I think of the times before she left. She used to sit beside me at night and smoke cigarettes for hours until I fell asleep. She never read me bedtime stories or sang to me, but it still possessed an oddly hypnotic comfort.
One of the workers drops a nickel in the jukebox. Johnny Mathis sings “Misty.” The girl in the Capri pants screams that this is bourgeois, capitalistic garbage. Fucking Johnny Mathis, she says, arms outstretched like a preacher on Sunday. If she wanted to listen to that trash, she wouldn’t have left home. Johnny Mathis. Sounds like an insect’s name. Johnny Mathis. Mother laughs, shaking her head at this display.
“Ah, I do love Johnny Mathis so,” Mother says. “How about you, young man? Don’t you think he’s good dancing music?”
“I prefer Elvis. I feel like he feels my pain, my struggles. He’s not singing to me. He’s singing with me.”
“Well, that’s a pity. Do you know how to dance? What was your name, young man?” Mother says. She fumbles in her purse, pulling out a pocket-sized mirror. She stares at herself, nodding, as though she’s satisfied with what she sees, with the woman inside. She’s satisfied, but not overjoyed.
I tell her I’m Henry Wolff because it sounds so powerful and adult-like. I feel less and less in both departments right now.
“Would you have this dance? I could use a dance about now. I love the waltz.”
“I haven’t danced in years.”
“Don’t be fatuous, Henry. Dance with the pretty lady.”
I try to argue, but she looks lost, like she doesn’t know what she’s looking for. Like those inexplicable forces that she’s tried to avoid have closed in. She grabs me by the hand, whirling me out onto the floor. She clamps my left hand firmly around her back, leaning in towards me. I feel uncomfortable and yet there’s something liberating about this, as though I can forget for now. As though we both can. I’ve got a small piece of something, a piece of something I’ve lost, even though she doesn’t know she’s given it to me. I picture myself young again. Nine or ten maybe. I tell myself Mother never left home, and she’s giving me my first dancing lesson. I close my eyes, try to picture our little frame house, the scent of lilacs Mother always kept, the lace curtains. Her old record albums lining the old mahogany shelves like a cathedral.
“Play me a waltz on the jukebox,” she barks at the bartender. “And make it slow.”