By William Lychack
Two of them in a diner off the highway, booth by a window, poor woman trying to smile it all nice—nice in a way it never was, nice in a way it always was—mother trying to just never mind her son, just ignore this strange person, pay no attention as he lifts his shirt slightly, black handle of a forty-five tucked into his pants, gun exactly where he promised it would be.
Now, she says, of all the stupid things.
You would know, he tells her—and he can’t seem to chew that grin off his face—and he looks away to the traffic, sunlight, strip mall in the distance, whole world so bright and oblivious, waitress clearing dishes from the tables oblivious, cook behind counter in his apron oblivious, slushy sound of cutlery and voices, walls of quilted aluminum, and his mother staring at him all the while. Could out-patience a statue, woman with heating elements for eyes, that tungsten glow on the side of his face until he turns to his mother, finally, her hand out over the table to him.
May I? she asks—and she tips her head to one side—and he gently places the gun in her palm without a word.
It’s warm, she says, and heavy, much heavier than I’d have expected.
She weighs the pistol in her palm, her fingers fitting the grip, the trigger guard, the trigger. He watches and leans forward to narrate what she’s holding—Colt Commander, M-1911, single-action, semi-automatic, standard-issue blah, blah, blah—his mother’s eyes snaking across the diner, gun pointing at the waitress, waitress backing away slow, sandwich platters balanced on her arms, entire place going airless and hushed, everything suddenly ridiculous, son tucking few dollars next to his plate, saying c’mon, Mom, let’s get going.
Underhum of tires on highway, bright blue wash of sunshine, clean getaway of Lincoln floating big and loose, woman’s little dog on her lap, mother holding gun like a bird in her hand. Probably just the speed that makes it shake like that, pistol nervous and shivering with her holding it. A tree, a barn, a police car on the side of the road—miles turning into minutes, minutes into miles—each of them noticing things to one another as they go, son glancing every so often at her, gun in his mother’s hand, her knuckles like chicken bones.
So, he says, any chance I can grab that thing back from you now?
And his mother turns to him, stares as if not quite able to place this stranger, her mouth open as if on the verge of asking who are you again? And why are you driving this car? Where are you taking us?
Are you okay over there, Mom?
Her mouth folds down, that puppet face of hers, eyes sad and pleading, yet she raises the empty point of gun to his chest. You know, she says, but I have such an incredible urge to shoot you.
Better let me pull over first, he tells her—and he goes all nonchalant and eases off the next exit and rides them beyond the gas station, beyond the transfer station, the sandy clearing in the distance, where he says she can roll his body into the tall grass—his mother just sitting in judgment, not moving from the passenger seat, not opening the door, not wading out into the field, not slowly raising the gun with relief at him. She just waits in the car, a silhouette with that dog on her lap, his mother watching him stand in front of the car, her son with his arms raised don’t-shoot, that gunpoint smile on his face. Well? he calls to her—and he opens his arms, offers his chest, closes his eyes, and breathes deep that electricity of insects from the brush—but nothing happens.
He circles around to his side of the car, continues to the back fender, opens his pants and pisses into the grass, his legs and arms heavy as he gets behind the wheel again. And that seasick mouth, those glance-away eyes, he gets these nervous hands from his mother, just as he gets that streak of selfish and unkind from his father. Not going to happen, he says—and he smiles weak and tired to her—and he starts the car and says you’re not going to shoot me, no matter what I do, are you?
She shakes her head no and says sorry.
Big fat breeze of car, halfway through New York State, halfway through Ohio, road like a wire in front of them, and mother places the gun on the seat, says to do whatever you want with it, she doesn’t care. She turns to watch the rain approach, wipers back and forth, tires on the road like steam escaping, blind spray of trucks to pass. That willingness to blame he gets from his mother. The anger, the quiet, the reflex of hope might come from his father, but they both pass along that fear of everything fated and failed.
Another exit and she rests her eyes, her face all pinches and pulls of clay, that quiet scrape of her breathing as she falls asleep. Dog watches him take the pistol and lean across his mother and close the gun into the glove compartment. Another hour and Michigan and he talks to his father in his mind—goes back and forth with the man—son trying to tell all these things to the man. Like the mystery of the gun he can’t explain. And why he wanted to take her to visit in the first place. None of it making any sense to him, starting with his father and mother eloping all those years ago.
Michael, as his father once said to him, no one sets out to fuck everything up, it just sort of happens. [Note to self: if your father uses your name over the phone, it’s a safe bet he’s trying to impart some bit of wisdom he feels you need to know, some lesson he takes as his duty to teach you. Either that or he’s loaded again. Not always easy—or even necessary—to tell the difference. You have to listen for those wind chimes of ice in his drink. One day you’ll have to untangle your own yearnings for him from his stupid guilt and regret. In the future, maybe you’ll have patience for that hunted feel in the man’s voice. Maybe you’ll find compassion for the way he gets all homesick and goosey, your father remembering some song he used to sing to you and your sister when you were little, you on the other end of the line just waiting to hit him up for money.]
Like a dream, back in the car to him, a mother and her son riding quiet. It’s almost dark now—road clear and dry—and it has taken these many years for them to be able to say nothing. A few more miles and he’ll be thinking of his father again—the Minotaur in his particular maze—the time he and his sister were sent to visit, ten or eleven years old, their mother putting them on a train in Providence, their father waiting for them on a platform in Detroit, man’s shirt pressed and pants creased for the occasion, old Central Station this breathless cathedral of tiles and columns and arches, pigeons in the tall spaces inside. Such a gladness of street lights and buildings and driving out of the city with his father and sister, he can still feel it, the three of them on that big bench seat of Pontiac, belted radial drone of road, green glow of dash on his father’s face, burgers in Flint, gas and oil in Saginaw, and one more sleepy hour to Grayling, Portage Lake, that old pine cottage with the taste of weeds and wood smoke, the cool pour of air off the water.
Not sure why, but he starts to tell his mother how Sara laughed when he called the other day, his sister saying nothing could induce her to join this little pilgrimage of theirs, his sister going on how no one in their right mind would go with him. Wants to hurt his mother, maybe, make her react somehow, son going on about Sara’s voice swooping all high and cheery, sister asking what could possess such a person, nine hours in a car with your mother, sounds like the start of a joke to her, a bad movie, such a good boy bringing your elderly mother and father back together again, aren’t you? What can you possibly hope to accomplish, she asked. Why even care to bother anymore?
He waits for some reaction—and he drives in silence for another exit or two—and his mother just stares at the road ahead of them, her son saying that a good son would have claimed engine trouble, feigned a touch of the flu, just kept driving past his mother’s house, gone on this little adventure all alone, kicked back on the porch with his father, few beers with the old man, fishing or canoeing or whatever it was that sons did with fathers. For some tendon of strain in her neck, for her eyes to turn to him slightly, he watches for this woman to show some sign of life, his mother as stubborn as stone to him, her son’s voice all flip and cool as he wonders aloud if he should continue talking.
He holds the wheel and hum-dee-dums another mile away—highway lined with Jersey barriers—and he starts to tell how his sister imagined it all out for him. Quick glance at his mother, and he can see her stiff and solid and not going to give him an inch, yet he goes on in that cheery and awful voice of his sister, saying how she said she could see it all, the knocking at the kitchen door, the standing there like some encyclopedia salesman, that falsetto of your mother calling from inside the house, that little dog scrambling across the linoleum with its nails, your mother there with that kiss like one of those handkerchiefs she used to wet with her mouth to clean your face.
These dreams are fists. They are hard and closed and never will you open them, though they are yours and yours alone to open. Who else would want them, really? Who else would care?
Someone says you’ll never do a certain thing, never become this person you say you’ll be, never be this untangler, this undoer, this beautiful little dreamer, this lying little sneak, someone says you’ll never change, you’ll never bring these two worlds together, but then just watch—and voilà!—at the cottage again, opening the door for your mother to climb out of the car, your father there on the porch already waiting, hellos and hugs and everyone into the cottage, cold can of beer in your hand like magic, chit-chat about the drive as you stretch your shoulders, little dog crying to go outside, you offering to run this chore for them, your mother and father alone in the cottage together, you and the dog out in the yard.
Be so easy if the gun felt natural. So simple to just drift toward the Lincoln, that mineral pull of pistol from the glove compartment, imagine it warm and heavy, picture yourself decisive and clear and real for once in your life. But that’s not the way this works for you—sorry—and you tug your brother dog by the leash, grass wet and cold, saying to pay attention, saying to just do your business already, saying let’s wait on the steps for a little while like good kids now.
Let them have some time in the cottage, you say, your mother and father, one last hurrah. Remember she told you they made love on these visits—woman saying how she and your father would be together while you and your sister played in the yard—and you ask what’s a dog supposed to do with a detail like that, anyway? Bring gun into the cottage? Have mother shoot father? Shoot self in the foot? Shoot little dog?
Or do we sit on the porch like good boys? Can feel your mother and father telegraphed in the wood, can’t you? Her footsteps in the house, his voice like mice or water running inside the walls, and you might yearn for a bullet like this, might dream for some sharp demon of pain burning like a wick, but just stay here a little longer in the dark, let that cool of the lake seep in, that taffeta of air through the leaves of trees, and wait for that knock and scuff of the screen door opening behind you, eventually. Your mother out under the porch light, your father right behind her, the two of them wondering all sing-song what happened to you? Are you still out here?
And are they talking to you or the dog? Either way, you both tip your heads like you’ve never seen them before, stupid humans, should try barking at squirrels, try howling at the moon, why don’t you?
Image: @Anastasiia / stock.adobe.com