Ma refused to leave. She sat down on a pile of boxes and went limp.
“Come on, Ma. The movers are waiting,” I said.
An eye twitched.
“Ma, you’ll like the apartment. It’s brand new. In the basement.”
I signaled to Duke and Paulie, childhood friends, Paulie, skinny as a snake, Duke, shoulders wide as Alaska. They stepped in. “Come on, Mrs. Gugliamo.” They slid their arms fireman-style under the eighty-seven year-old woman, nothing but a bag of loose bones, and carried her out the door and down the steps.
After they deposited her in the car, they chugged back up the steps and began to lug boxes and furniture, rugs and suitcases into the small Uhaul. “She needs to be in a home, Billy,” Paulie said.
Fifty-four years old, and to my friends still I was Billy, never Bill or William.
“Yeah, we know. You promised.” Duke hefted a television into his arms. “Noble. But stupid. Come on, Paulie, put your back into it.”
Paulie hoisted a chest of drawers with scrawny arms, but not before he gave me a look of—contempt? pity? frustration? It was hard to know with Paulie. One half of his face was livid with scar tissue from a fire when he was two. His family had escaped their house, each thinking someone else had grabbed Paulie. No one had.
“Yeah. I promised.” I picked up two suitcases that contained Ma’s clothing and followed them to my car. I drove through town, Ma next to me, eyes shut. She hummed a tuneless tune. Her fingers fidgeted with her sweater buttons, the seatbelt, her gray hair.
I owned a house with a basement in-law apartment. Ma was to move in now that her house had sold, and my last tenant had moved out. I’d done a remodel that included a stairlift, bathroom pull bars, all the things to make it safe.
My sister Minnie said it would never work, that I put in too many hours, was never home, that Ma would somehow get lost, run into traffic, leave the stove on. My sister, all gloom and doom, a single parent, worn down with worry. There was no way she could take Ma, not that she wanted to, not with two teenaged children still home, cramped into a nine-hundred-square-foot post-World War II Cape Cod. Ma’s care fell to me– no wife, no kids, nothing to divert my attention. The lucky bachelor.
The fact that Ma and I were chalk and cheese, always had been, didn’t faze Minnie, though she did agree to stop over middays to make sure Ma hadn’t burned the place down, caused a flood with the water left on.
I checked my rear view mirror, Duke and Paulie behind in the U-Haul. I uttered a small thanks for their help and turned onto Forrest Drive, a suburban-like street in the heart of the city. My house, at the end of a cul-de-sac, was a 1980s Colonial, three beds, two baths. It needed a paint job and someone to mow the lawn and trim the bushes out front, but what with Ma and work, I hadn’t gotten around to hire anyone to do the maintenance.
The Uhaul rumbled into the driveway. My next door neighbor, Mrs. Abele, popped out of her front door as soon as I turned off the car. What a surprise. She trudged across the grass, one of her glutinous pies clutched in both hands with such delicate attention you would have thought she carried the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Seventyish, nosy, Mrs. Abele was a lonely widow, kids grown and gone. I hadn’t told her much about Ma. I maneuvered one foot out the driver’s side. “William,” Mrs. Abele said, hustling up next to me.
She was the only person I knew who called me by my full name. The pie was proffered. “Banana cream. A new recipe.”
“Mrs. Abele. You shouldn’t have.”
She scooted to the passenger side and peered through the window. “And you must be Celeste.” She opened the door. Ma was in her seat, still limp, eyes closed, chin to chest. Mrs.Abele turned to me. “The poor thing. She’s exhausted from the move.”
Just then the The Uhaul doors cranked open and Duke and Paulie descended. The truck adjusted upward for the loss of Dukes’s nearly three hundred pounds. Mrs. Abele smiled toward my friends, then sucked in her breath when she saw the side of Paulie’s face.
“You must be Duke and Paulie. William has told me what good friends you are.” Her eyes darted away from Paulie’s ruined face, and I saw him open his mouth. I shook my head at him. Paulie had several routines he performed for those who were uncomfortable with his face, from the immobile look of your basic stiff to the incomprehensible muttering and odd grunts of the mental defective. When he was in character for this persona, his mouth would roll open, grotesque in its shape, and as guttural sounds emerged, his eyes, both untouched by the fire, would dart from to side to side in feigned frustration. Paulie had a refined sense of humor.
“How do you do, ma’am?” Duke was all politeness.
Paulie nodded and turned away. He rolled up the hatch of the Uhaul and climbed inside. Still limp as a gutted mackeral, Ma ignored the goings-on around her. It would be no easy task to get her out of the car and into the apartment.
“Mrs. Abele, thanks for the pie. We need to get settled now, so–”
She took the hint. “You’re welcome, William. See you soon, Celeste.” With a flutter of fingers directed at the car window, she trotted toward home.
I got Ma out of the car. Noble. But stupid. I was to remember Duke’s words over the next few months as I settled into the role of caregiver, a middle-aged man with no wife or kids who’d never taken care of anyone or anything.
As a boy I’d wanted a cat or dog, but, forget it. Ma had frowned on pets, and when I won a goldfish at the Fireman’s Fair—ping-pong ball toss—it disappeared while I was at school. One day a happy fish swimming circles in its small glass bowl, the next day, nothing. Ma pretended not to know where it had gone, and while upset, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken because after all, how attached can you get to a fish?
Now my current situation overwhelmed me. I managed to find a woman to get Ma up and dressed and then to come again at night to cook her dinner and put her to bed. There was a limit to what I was willing to do, and I drew the line at bathing and potty duty.
Mrs. Abele, busybody that she was, eased my lot. After Minnie did her quick noontime check, Mrs. Abele visited. She seemed to enjoy sitting with Ma. The two of them watched classic game shows or played cards. Ma’s favorite was a bizarre form of Old Maid. Since Ma couldn’t remember any of the cards, they made up the rules as they went along.
I was unloading groceries at the apartment one day while Mrs. Abele was there. “Mrs. Abele I really appreciate this. Ma enjoys the companionship.”
Mrs. Abele deftly shuffled the deck while Ma’s eyes focused on the blur of her fingers. Ma took each card Mrs. Abele handed her and dropped it on the floor. She chortled as she dropped each one. “I like to be useful,” she said.
“It’s okay, William. She likes it when I pick them up.”
Ma finally spoke. “Bitch.”
“Yep, I’m the bitch.” Mrs. Abele continued to deal, unperturbed by Ma’s profanity. Ma had begun to cuss. After a lifetime of rigid respectability, curse words delighted her. She seemed to try a new one daily.
I watched, both fascinated and repelled as Mrs. Abele bent down to pick up the cards Ma had dropped. The seat of her baggy jeans rose upward. “Here you go, Celeste. Make a fan.”
Ma gathered the cards in her palsied hands, and spread them out. Her face stretched in the grimace that was her new version of a smile. “Okay, what pairs do you have?” Mrs. Abele said.
Ma began to discard cards at random with intense concentration. She threw down an ace, a set of unmatched court cards, a ten. “Excellent. Now you’re getting the hang of it.” Mrs. Abele placed a pair of fives on the table.
“Seven.” Ma offered the King of Hearts to Mrs. Abele who took it and placed it face up. “Great, Celeste. Anything else?”
Ma shook her head from side to side. “Bitch.”
“No? Looks like you’re winning.”
And so the game went. There was no rhyme or reason to it, but Ma seemed engaged.
I placed the groceries in the cupboard and left. The two old ladies never looked up.
That was March. By April, Ma was settled. Her routine consisted of a morning wash and dressing, helped by Dolores, the hired woman, breakfast, cooked by Dolores, morning cartoons, heavy on The Roadrunner, a visit from Minnie, lunch, cooked by Dolores, then Mrs. Abele with her deck of cards. At dinner, I would check in, and Dolores would put Ma down for an early night. It was a patchwork, but the best I could do. Ma seemed content, but her clouded eyes didn’t give much away.
One Thursday, my cell rang in the middle of a meeting. Paulie. I held up a hand to signal Mavis, my paralegal, to take over. She knew my situation. We were in the middle of pre-divorce proceedings for a couple who spewed vitriol at each other like skunks.
“Hey.” Paulie’s normal greeting. He called me for two reasons only—a problem with the law or a problem with Ma. Last I knew, Paulie was a line cook at Edison’s, a downtown dive, so it had to be Ma.
“Mrs. Abele called. She couldn’t get hold of you. Your mother is at the old house.”
“Don’t know. I’m on my way over now.” The phone went dead.
I stared at the blank screen. Paulie conveyed messages in a concise way that as a divorce lawyer, I admired. He also had a fondness for Ma. I rotated my hand in circles through the glass partition to signal Mavis to continue.
I drove through the old neighborhood. Narrow brownstones, skinny alleys, gray city trees. The park across the street from Number 55 was still winter-dreary, the grass brown and the trees held buds with tight fists. The artificial lake was plate-glass smooth, the boathouse shuttered. The man-made beach stretched toward the black sheen. As children, Paulie, Duke, and I had spent hours in that park. One summer day Paulie dove in, slipped under the water, and stayed there, tangled in weeds. Duke had dived in after him, punched him for the fright he gave us, all before the lifeguards grabbed their buoys.
I swung into a parking space near the old house. Ma sat on the bottom step of our former brownstone. Paulie sat next to her, a plaid blanket wrapped around both of them. I could see the owner of the brownstone as she hovered about the open door. Her narrow face hung around the edge. “I found her here when I came out to get the trash cans. Again. I’ll call the police next time. She can’t keep bothering us. The kids are afraid.”
“Time to go home, Mrs. Gugliamo.” Paulie hoisted Ma to her feet. She wobbled a moment and leaned against him.
“Home. That’s my Paulie. You’ll be all right.” She reached twisted and bent fingers to his face, patted his scarred cheek. Her nails were rimed with dirt. Lately, Ma had developed an aversion to soap and water. Paulie bent and scooped her up. I remembered Ma after the fire, Paulie’s mother hysterical, no one to comfort Paulie who came awake, screaming, in the fireman’s arms. It was Ma who held his hand all the way to the ER while he thrashed, his face peeling away.
“You’ll have to do something, Billy.”
“Any suggestions?” I stopped, ashamed. “Sorry.”
Paulie shook his head and maneuvered Ma into my car. “I have to go. Lunch shift.” Paulie loped off down the street. He stopped a minute, gave a brief wave. I was forgiven.
Two days later, a Saturday, Ma went missing again. Dolores called me to the empty apartment, tearful, and wrung her hands, something I’d never seen anyone do. “She was not here when I came, Mr. G. I look everywhere—everywhere—and I can’t find her.” Dolores sat on the sofa, rocking back and forth.
My cell rang.
“Billy. How ya doing?” Don Stevens’s smoker’s voice graveled over the phone. I’d handled Don’s divorce and he was forever grateful.
“Okay, Don, how ’bout yourself?”
“Fine. Look, Billy, your mother is here. Thinks it’s poker night.” Ma used to play poker with Don’s father on Wednesday nights, cigars and bourbon, Ma, one of the boys.
“Be right there.” I motioned for Dolores to get her coat. Don’s house was around the corner from the old brownstone. Dolores sat in the back seat and cried the whole way. I didn’t knock when we got to the door. No one had ever knocked at the Stevens’s house—as kids, we were always welcome.
Nothing had changed except we weren’t kids anymore.
Ma, hands folded in front of her, sat at the dining room table, the big mahogany table used for dinners and poker. She was barefoot. Dolores bustled over. “Mrs. G., you must come home. We have to fix your hair so it’s pretty.”
Ma ignored her, gave no indication she recognized Dolores. She stared at the photographs hung over the buffet. “It’s your deal, Howard.” Howard was Don’s dad, dead the last ten years.
Don shot me a look. “Hey, Ma,” I said.
Ma swung her eyes to me. Her chin quivered.
Her hands shuffled non-existent cards. “Come on, Jasper, I’ll deal you in. You’re late.”
Imaginary cards shot out of Ma’s fingers to five phantom poker players. Her head bobbed as each card was dealt.
“Ma? It’s me, Billy.” I knelt by Ma’s chair and tried to take one of her hands.
“Who’s Billy? Is he joining us?” Ma continued to deal the cards. She smiled at Don Stevens and gestured for him to take his seat. “Welcome to my home. I’m so glad you could come. Coffee?”
Don looked over Ma’s head at me. Dolores continued to sniffle. Oblivious, Ma flipped cards to the imaginary players. “Now, whose turn is it?”
After the incident at Don’s house, I hired Dolores to stay all day. She grumbled a bit, but she liked Ma, and she needed the money. Minnie continued her noontime checks as best she could. Life at her house was hectic, her oldest boy in constant trouble at school. Half the time she was in the principal’s office with a sullen teenager. We’d gotten into it after I’d hauled Ma home from Don’s.
“I told you, Billy, I told you. We can’t do this. Ma cannot be left alone for a minute. She needs to be in a facility.”
“No.” I don’t know why I was so adamant.
“Billy, she won’t know the difference.”
“Fine. But if she falls down those steps or gets hit by a car on one of her escapes, well…” Minnie trailed off. “You’re on your own. I have my hands full with Calvin.” With that, Minnie walked away. My family knew how to walk away, our story tainted by the loss of my father. Not through death, just an excursion to the store for cigarettes. He never returned. No card, no phone call to explain. Never to be seen again. Ma, alone with me, a toddler, and Minnie, in utero. History repeated itself thirty years later when Minnie’s husband vanished, another escapee from domestic entanglements.
Two weeks after this exchange, Ma ended up back on the steps of the old brownstone. By the time Paulie notified me, the cops were there. Blue lights flashed from the curb.
“You her son?” The officer in charge stood, hands on hips, legs in parade rest. He rocked back and forth on his heels. Smudged glasses blurred his eyes. His partner patrolled the sidewalk, one wary eye on Ma. Neighbors gathered to watch.
The officer in charge waved a fat hand in the direction of the front door. “The owner says she’s been harassing her family. This gentleman here,” a nod toward Paulie, “was on his way to work when he saw your mother sitting on the steps. He called you. Question is, what’s she doing here?”
I saw Paulie edge closer to Ma. She reached a hand to him. Ma looked frail, her neck too thin to hold up her head, her bird legs splayed in front of her. Her flowered house dress pouched between her thighs. Mottled calves, blue with cold, leaned inwards.
“Sorry, Officer. She wanders and—she’s not harassing anyone. Her mind—” I stopped. “Look. It won’t happen again.”
The officer sucked in a breath. “See that it doesn’t.”
“She’s sick.” This from Paulie. When he was angry, the scars on Paulie’s face became livid.
The officer’s ponderous belly swung in Paulie’s direction. “Yeah? Then keep her away from here. Come on, Stan, we got better things to do. The rest of you, go on home. Show’s over.” They got in their squad car, switched off the lights, pulled from the curb.
Paulie had his arm around Ma as he urged her toward my car. “Billy, she wants to go home. That’s why she keeps coming here.” I opened the car door. “What am I supposed to do? I promised.”
“We know. You promised. Meantime, you can’t keep her in one place.”
“I know how you feel about Ma.”
“Yeah?” Paul kicked the chipped concrete of the sidewalk. “She’s the only one who never thought I was a freak. The only one who treated me normal, made me play with you and Duke. You have any idea what it’s like to look this way?” Paulie’s hands scrubbed across his face. “She deserves better.”
Maybe Paulie was right. My experience of Ma was different—a distant woman, a deep anger over her absent husband, a woman who worked long hours to provide her children with food and a place to live. Nothing more. Never a home. Minnie and I received none of the affection she lavished on Paulie, or on Duke, who even as a child had been the size of a Volkswagen. I couldn’t understand my own reluctance to put her in a nursing home. By rights, I should be happy to turn her over to the diaper crew. And yet, I couldn’t.
Maybe I still waited for some acknowledgement from Ma, a sign that I existed to her. Proof of life. Of love. Stupid, I knew.
That night, Duke dropped by. He sprawled on the sofa, taking the space of three gorillas. With a can of Pepsi clutched in one large paw, he punched the buttons on my remote until he found HGTV. Duke had a thing for the Magnolia girl. As he watched, she placed leafy sprigs in glass pots arranged in artistic positions around a perfect kitchen.
“What?” I said.
“Paulie’s upset.” Duke was Paulie’s personal shrink, able to read him better than anyone. If Paulie was upset, Duke got riled.
“And this is my problem because?”
“Because it’s about your ma.” Duke shifted and sat up. The couch sagged. His dark eyes focused on the screen. “That Magnolia girl is cute. Great backsplash.” He took a swig from his Pepsi. “Paulie doesn’t love anyone except your ma. ”
Duke shifted again. The Magnolia girl added more vegetation to the glass pots, cocked her head to one side and rearranged the greenery. I punched the OFF button on the remote.
“Duke.” I tossed the remote across the room. “Look at me. What’s going on?”
“Yeah, I know. Paulie’s upset. What does he want?”
Duke tilted the Pepsi can to his mouth, drained it. “He wants you to put your ma in a nursing home.”
I stared at Duke, my lifelong friend forged out of the angst of a misfit childhood. Nearly fifty years we’d known each other. “Talk to me.”
“Paulie’s worried. He’s afraid she’ll get hurt. That would kill him.”
“She’s my mother—” I broke off at the look on Duke’s face.
“Paulie thinks she’s his mother.” Duke stared at the dark TV screen. “You had what you needed. Your ma once told me that you would be okay, that you had focus. Paulie and me?”
I had been snail-small, picked on by classmates, Paulie, scarred and angry. An alcoholic father and helpless mother. Duke, the lonely hulk, big enough to protect us, an orphan living with an aunt and uncle who never wanted him, locked him out one night when he was five minutes late from football practice. Below freezing outside, and Duke with no place to go except to Ma. My mother, abandoned by her husband, alone with her children and her grief, opened her heart to him, to them both, added them to her pathetic family. I pictured Paulie, mute in front of our TV, Duke, charging up our stairs on Saturdays, a football in his hands, Ma who made him sit and eat. “If you’re going to play football, you need fuel.”
She scrambled eggs, made toast, poured milk, watched Duke inhale it all. Never once did she allude to the fact that if Duke didn’t eat at our house, he didn’t eat. Paulie and Duke, strays taken in by Ma. “Friends are rare,” she’d said.
“Duke, she doesn’t know what’s going on. How can I move her again?”
Duke crumpled the Pepsi can and stared at his hands. “You have to.”
I nodded. He was right. It was too late. Ma would never caress my cheek, lavish attention on me. My face wasn’t scarred. I wasn’t an orphan.
A month later, we moved Ma. Courtesy of Dolores who’d spent two hours fussing over her, she was dressed in a pink dress with a white bow at the neckline, a white hat, and white Keds, the only shoes she would wear. “Don’t you look nice, Celeste. What a pretty dress.”
Ma pulled the straw hat off her head. She mussed the perm Dolores and Mrs. Abele had given her. “Itches.”
“It’s okay Celeste. You don’t have to wear it.” Mrs. Abele took it from her, patted her hand. “Now, I’ll be there tomorrow. We’ll play cards.”
Ma didn’t answer. Her chin was sunk in the collar of her dress. “Bye, Mrs. G. I will come visit.” Dolores gave Ma a peck on the cheek.
“Time to go.” I motioned to Duke and Paulie.
Holding Ma like Cleopatra descending the temple into Rome, Paulie and Duke carried her to my car. Mrs. Abele followed behind with her purse, Dolores on her heels.
“William, make sure you tell them she likes her coffee black. And hotdogs. She really likes hotdogs.” Mrs. Abele was at my elbow, tearful.
“Sure, Mrs. Abele.” Ma ate hotdogs? When I was a kid, according to Ma, hotdogs were filled with rat hair and nitrates.
With Ma settled in the car, I backed out of the driveway. Ma made no sound. Duke and Paulie watched from the yard. Mrs. Abele and Dolores had their arms wrapped around each other as if they needed the support.
“I want to go home.”
“That’s where we’re going, Ma. Home.”
“Who are those people?” One bony finger pointed at Duke and Paulie and Mrs. Abele and Dolores gathered on the lawn like hired mourners.
“They’re friends, Ma.”
“That’s right, Ma.”
“Who are you?”
I glanced over. Ma’s head was down. Her eyes darted from side to side, to me, to the windshield, to the side window, back to me. She picked up her right hand, brought it close to her face and stared at it. “Billy. I had a son once. He’s gone now.” Ma straightened, picked her chin out of her neck, stared straight ahead. “Take me home.”
“Okay, Ma, okay.”
Jo Ana Finger was born in Albany, New York where she pursued a career as a teacher. In 2008, she and her husband moved to Charleston, SC. Besides writing, she is a voracious reader, plays tennis—fairly well—and the piano—not so well. Her hometown, her travels throughout the Northeast, and the beautiful lowcountry of South Carolina often provide inspiration for her writing. This is her first published story.