Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Ever since the divorce, my mother had been living life at a frantic pace. There were mornings when she hardly had time to butter her bread, let alone toast it. While she tore through the Liz Claiborne racks at Higbee’s department store, her mind was on the car loan; when she mailed the payment to the dealership, her grocery list wound up inside the envelope. Rare was the evening she remembered to turn off the burner after fixing a cup of chamomile tea, and the night she forgot herself and padded downstairs in her underwear while Bobby Swartout and Teddy Perry were sleeping over became the stuff of legend within the halls of Saint Joseph’s Catholic School.
That my mother had 22 million thoughts rattling around in her head at once was no accident, but rather part of a calculated decision to get all she could out of life, perpetually leaping from one quick pick-me-up to another to make up for all the migraines Dad had given her. A woman who’d lost her husband of fifteen years to a girl half her age deserved some kind of compensation, Mom believed, and anyone who questioned her right to be good to herself had no clue how much she had suffered. Never again would she allow herself to be suckered into self-sacrifice and blind devotion and the long, slow death of respectability. No dress was too expensive, no night out too long, and neither bill collector nor bouncer could stifle her spirit.
So it should have come as no surprise to me when, one weekend, I took a back seat to my mother’s new life. For the first time since I’d begun taking guitar lessons from him, Father Jim had arranged for me to accompany the choir during a Sunday church service. It was my big shot at playing in front of an audience. Strumming a Communion hymn wasn’t exactly “She Loves You” at the Ed Sullivan Theater, but it was the closest a thirteen-year-old boy in Ashtabula, Ohio, could come to feeling like George Harrison.
Given the hundred or so reminders she’d had of my performance, the chance that Mom would forget the whole affair seemed remote to impossible. Whether I was memorizing perpendicular for the next spelling test or watching the Cleveland Browns fumble away another win, the guitar was always in my hands. The cat had been hiding for several days from the steady ring of my D majors, and when I threw open my bedroom window on an uncommonly warm October afternoon, Mrs. Simrak from next door came over to ask when, exactly, I might be learning a new song. Mom even seemed to take an active interest in my playing. Twice she stopped ironing to listen in my doorway, and when I took a break one evening for an RC Cola and a couple of Chips Ahoy, she looked up from the pile of credit-card receipts at the kitchen table and muttered, “Sounds good.”
And yet, the night before my première, she gave me the first of several shocks I would receive that weekend. Father Jim had scheduled a final practice at the church, and when I brought my guitar into the bathroom where my mother was getting ready for yet another night out, she snapped her gum and blinked at the instrument as if seeing it for the first time.
“I have practice. Remember?” I said. “Tomorrow’s my big performance.”
“Oh, no, Justin,” she said.
At first I thought she was joking, but as she continued staring at the guitar, a cold fog crept into my belly.
“God, Mom, how could you forget to take tomorrow off?”
“I don’t know,” she said, frowning. “Sometimes I just don’t know.”
She worked at both the Star Beacon and the Amelia Grille most weekends. Holding down two jobs not only kept her feeling strong and financially independent, but also, I suspect, helped her avoid falling into another long depression. My stomach clenched like a fist whenever I thought of the nights I’d had to stay home and keep an eye on her when I could have been out roller-skating with my friends; the days when she had never gotten out of bed; the evenings when I’d watched TV and done algebra in her bedroom, leaving her side only to nuke the Lean Cuisines that ultimately went cold on her nightstand.
I’m not sure what brought her out of it. Maybe she feared that deeper introspection might unearth the frightening notion that she had played some part in the marriage’s plunge. Whatever the reason, one day, she finally rolled out of bed to declare herself the unwitting victim of another suburban white male’s midlife crisis and never looked back. Having worried about her for so long, I was all too eager to support her new outlook, and took on more chores around the house so she could seek her due. The thought that Mom was now doing the Electric Slide into the wee hours may have been nauseating, but it beat watching her sleep her life away. Many nights while she ransacked her closet for a clean pair of bluejeans, I whipped up a quick spaghetti dinner so she’d have something in her stomach when she went out with her pack of raspy-throated divorcées, who pumped their fists in the air whenever Stevie Nicks came onto the radio and belted, “Stand back! Stand back!”
That’s what got to me now. Despite all the time I’d spent in her corner, my mother couldn’t get her shit together just this once. Given the fact that she’d gone to Mass weekly most of her life, it should have popped into her head out of habit, if nothing else.
I remained silent as she drove me to choir practice later that evening. I’d played the part of the Good Son for so long that throwing a fit no longer came naturally.
“What are you doing? Which song?” she asked, driving slowly with both hands, as though heading into a blizzard. Her barhopping outfit that night included a disgustingly low-cut top.
I bit off each word: “ ‘Be Not Afraid.’ ”
“I’ve heard that one before, right? Didn’t you play that for me already?”
I made a noise of agreement.
“But not in public,” she said quickly, sensing my rising resentment.
By the time we pulled up in front of the church in a spray of dead leaves and pebbles, it was nearly dark. The clouds had pushed across the lake and felt very close overhead. My mother shut her eyes. The lids were purple from lack of sleep, and it was hard to believe she was upright and alive, let alone going out to Pirate’s Alley for the third night in a row. I thought of the New Year’s Eve bashes she’d thrown with Dad over the years and wondered if they’d provided a kind of training ground for her current all-nighters.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said at last. “If you have to work, you have to work.”
“Maybe I can get Coreen to fill in for me.”
“Coreen hates the early-bird shift, remember? She doesn’t even go to bed till breakfast.”
“Well, then, maybe I’ll just call in sick.”
“And what will you tell Visa and MasterCard?”
My mother looked embarrassed, and then mad, her thin lips pressed together as if holding back an angry reply. She had constructed such an airtight bubble of positive reinforcement around herself that she hardly knew how to take the faintest prick of criticism.
Mom got out and stood beside me as I pulled my guitar from the trunk. The air was sharp and thin. For a long moment she gazed up at the cathedral, her expression blank. She had been to Mass only once since telling Father Jim about her decision to divorce Dad, who for two full years had split his time between us and his girlfriend. Like so many things, church had become a casualty of her hectic schedule, but I sensed that this was one sacrifice that had given her pause. She’d gone to Saint Joe’s herself as a girl, and though Dad had bellyached over the idea of spending hard-earned money for “a few lousy nuns and crucifixes,” she’d insisted on paying the private-school tuition so that I could see Spot run in a morally sound environment.
“I’ll figure something out, OK?” she finally said. There was a curious look on her face, as if she were about to say something that I wasn’t going to like, but instead she took my hand. My throat tightened, and I ground my foot into the gravel. A car slowed down and drew near, and I hurried up the steps so I wouldn’t have to watch the driver stare at Mom’s cleavage.
Saying I had a bad practice that evening would be like saying the Cleveland Indians had lost a few games. For starters Mom got me there late. By the time I padded up to the altar, the other kids were sitting around waiting for me and thinking about all the fun they were missing at Nappi’s Roller Den. I had to break right into the song without warming up, and when Miss Ackley, our choir director, motioned for me to slide from A major into G, my fingers felt as heavy as iron. Since I’d begun learning hymns on the guitar, I’d often found myself caught up in the spirit of the music during choir practice and Mass, but that evening my focus wasn’t there. I kept making the wrong changes, and as the rehearsal wore on I felt as distracted as I had been as a kid, daydreaming in church about X-wing fighters crashing through the stained-glass windows where Jesus knelt beside the lambs. At 8:30 Miss Ackley finally called it a night. Most evenings I’d linger after practice and wipe down my Montaya six-string or pluck “Dust in the Wind,” trying to catch Lauren Locke’s attention, but this time I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I was less than a block down Lake Avenue when Father Jim called my name. He had been listening to us practice from the back of the church and at one point had looked at me as if he knew what was behind my lousy finger work.
“Wait up,” he said, struggling to push his arm into a sleeve of his coat while he walked.
I didn’t want to talk to him about Mom. Staying out till two in the morning, leaving your kid on his own for supper, believing the world owed you a good time: this behavior smacked of irresponsibility, and Father Jim didn’t like it. Though he didn’t voice his displeasure, his feelings were never in doubt when he dropped me off to an empty house or overheard my classmates joke about Mom’s dangerously low necklines.
We walked along in silence, the trees black silhouettes against the moonlit sky. Father Jim’s eyes were filmed over with age or tears or the sting of the wind, and his knees creaked as we made our way along the sidewalk. I realized he was waiting for me to speak first. His sustained pauses were frighteningly effective in getting my peers to talk. During confession, after you’d finished making up junk about stolen cookies and cuss words, he’d just sit and stare, his frog eyes blinking pleasantly behind his horn-rimmed glasses. So long and painful were these moments that before you knew it, you were spilling the beans about cigarettes and Hustler magazines hidden in forts.
“I guess I had a case of the jitters tonight,” I said nervously as we turned left on Prospect Road. Most of the houses there were clapboard Victorians painted green or gray or yellow, and cardboard jack-o’-lanterns smiled at us from a few windows.
“Is your mom going to make it tomorrow?” Father Jim asked.
“She was planning on coming, but she has to work.”
“There’s no way around it? She asked off?”
“Sundays are crazy,” I said absently. “Blueberry griddle cakes are only a buck-fifty.”
He gave me a sad, dark-eyed look, and I wilted under his gaze. I couldn’t have landed a more patient and dedicated guitar instructor, and I often feared that he’d mistake my increasing reticence around him for a lack of appreciation. “Does it bother you that she won’t be there?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “But what can you do? The town has to eat.” A train whistle blew from far away as I wiped my nose on the back of my hand. “She’s going to ask Coreen to fill in, but it’ll take some serious arm-twisting. Coreen usually just works nights.”
Father Jim peered curiously at me. “Coreen,” he said slowly. “Is she the one who was asleep on your mother’s sofa when I dropped by that morning?”
My face reddened at the memory of a hung-over Coreen snoring on the couch.
“She didn’t seem so bad once she had her coffee,” he said. “Say, why don’t we do some arm-twisting for your mother? Turning down a friend is one thing, but saying no to a priest and a boy is a lot harder. I’m sure we can work a deal.”
My breath came out in a quick snort. Though it was a noble idea, Coreen taking a morning shift was about as likely as Lauren Locke asking me to undo her bra. Besides that, her language was a little rough. Under closer scrutiny, Father Jim might see a friendship with Coreen as another example of Mom’s questionable decision-making. But the priest had already quickened his pace, crossing the road and cutting through the abandoned ball fields toward the diner.
© Al Barna
When Father Jim and I got to the Amelia Grille, it was hopping with the usual crowd of families and fishermen and teenagers nursing Cokes. The door banged shut behind us, and several people blinked at the sight of a priest and a teenage boy together. I was used to the gawking, but for a while I’d been embarrassed to be seen with Father Jim. Before I’d started lessons with him, my heart had been set on studying under the Eddie Van Halen look-alike at Simon’s Music. But Mom had spent all our money feeding her Liz Claiborne addiction, so free lessons at the rectory were my only choice.
At my first lesson, I’d gritted my teeth when Father Jim dug out the Mel Bay Guitar Hymnal. No music in the world would have been less likely to melt a girl’s panties. But when I’d been dreaming of sold-out concerts and groupies, I hadn’t realized how hard it would be just to nail down a basic A major: the challenge of squeezing three fingers onto one tiny fret, the sharp pain of the metal strings cutting into my fingertips. By the end of the first lesson, I felt humbled and defeated. But Father Jim encouraged me to buckle down and practice an hour a day, and, sure enough, my calluses built up, the chord changes came easier, and I felt a sense of joy I’d previously believed could come only from performing before thirty thousand screaming fans at Cleveland’s Tower City Amphitheater.
As Father Jim and I sat down at the counter and ordered a couple of slices of butterscotch cream pie, I heard a familiar voice, as scuffed as an old leather mitt: “What’s happening, studly? Come here often?”
My cheeks burned. Coreen might’ve been hot once, before the Beatles, but all she had going for her now was that she smelled good and seemed easy. She’d remained fiercely loyal to my mother after Dad had split, but whenever Mom and Coreen hit the town together, the fear crept into my belly that Mom would one day possess the same bleach-damaged hair and questionable reputation.
“Where’s your ma?” Coreen asked.
I shifted on my seat. “Pirate’s Alley,” I said.
Then she noticed Father Jim sitting next to me in his black shirt and white collar. There was a quick glint of recognition in her eyes. No doubt she was remembering the morning she’d rolled off our couch after another late night out with Mom and found him standing in our living room. But if she was ashamed, she didn’t show it.
“Miss Croll, we’ve got a problem,” Father Jim said. “Justin here has a big performance at church tomorrow, and it would mean a lot to him if his mother could come. The thing is, she has to work in the morning, and rumor has it you might be able to fill in.”
Coreen blinked at me as though to check whether or not the priest was kidding. Her twisted smile looked like something pried open with a screwdriver, and I gazed down at my half-eaten pie. “Tomorrow?” she said at last. “Let’s give her a look.”
Pulling the schedule from its hook, she examined the page. My eyes followed her finger down the list of names, and when it came to my mother’s, what I saw made my heart thud. Coreen flattened her palm over the page, but it was too late. I’d already seen the empty box next to Mom’s name for Sunday. She hadn’t screwed up at all; she’d been planning on skipping Mass. Was this what she’d almost told me in front of the church?
“She lied,” I said.
Coreen let out a nervous laugh. “Now, stop it,” she said, ever my mother’s ally. “You know your ma. She probably just got mixed up.” Then she hurriedly dug out her pad and went to check on a customer in Smoking.
Father Jim exhaled a long, weary sigh, as if what he’d dreaded most had finally come to pass. He slumped like a puppet. “It’s not you,” he said. “You have a right to be upset, but she’s not purposely trying to hurt you. It’s church she’s avoiding.”
“Why? Because it’s not a raging party?”
It was the first time I’d ever said anything bad about Mom around Father Jim, and I felt a twinge of guilt.
“She’s angry,” he explained. “Angry and confused. The last time I talked to her, she didn’t think she needed to seek God’s forgiveness for ending things with your dad.”
“But he cheated on her,” I said.
“But she was the one who moved for divorce,” Father Jim said. “A Catholic understands that no situation, no matter how bad, ends the bond of marriage. Those who are actually responsible for breaking the union are guilty of sin and have a duty to repent and confess before receiving Communion.”
“Can she go to hell?”
“I don’t know about that.”
The priest sighed once more. “Look at it like this,” he said. “Suppose you’ve stolen a guitar. That’s a sin that can be forgiven. But if you never go to confession, never seek God’s forgiveness, even though you know you’ve sinned, that makes things a little graver. And that’s where your mother is right now. She knows she’s broken a church law — Jesus said, ‘What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder’ — and yet she’s in no hurry to reconcile her offense against His will.”
“So she’s just going to stay away from church forever?”
“That’s the thing,” Father Jim said. “She doesn’t know what to do, and in the meantime she’s committing another sin by neglecting her Sunday obligation.” He took a deep breath. “No one can deny your mom’s had a rocky couple of years. What your dad did was wrong, and also a sin, and it’s hard to blame her for feeling hurt. At some point, however, she has to stop using her pain as a free pass. There’s something to be said for living your life without regrets, but if it means abandoning your responsibilities and denying your beliefs, that’s different. Sadly, I can’t get this through to her.”
“Don’t take it personal,” I told him. “An antenna tends to pick up less in a tunnel.”
“But that’s where you’re wrong,” he said, looking me in the eye. “She may not want to listen to me anymore; that’s understandable. But I believe she’ll listen to you. You’ve been a good son, patient and loyal, but maybe the time has come for you to tell her how you feel.”
Father Jim’s face burned red, and he stopped, as if concerned that he was getting carried away.
We finished our pie in silence, forks clinking on plates, and by the time Father Jim dug out his wallet, I was already outside in the parking lot, stamping my feet against the cold. The night was dark, and a heavy mist had begun to fall. Pulling my cap from my pocket, I decided to part company with the priest right then, before I got hit with any more surprises.
“Get a good night’s rest,” he said, and he put his hand on my back for a moment. “Believe me, you’ll feel a whole lot better once you talk to her.”
Clutching my guitar, I said goodbye and started for home. The blood roared in my head as I trudged along Prospect Road. If Father Jim was right and Mom really was about to leave the church, then maybe she was going too far. Sure, the church doctrine flew in the face of her belief that she’d been wronged. Dad was the one who’d had an affair, not her, and for the longest time she had tried everything, including counseling, to lure him back. I didn’t see what more she could have done. And yet, the idea that marriage was a contract with God made sense to me.
What really bugged me, though, was how she’d let her own problems get in the way of coming to my gig. Considering what a good soldier I’d been — cooking my own meals, doing the laundry, washing the dishes — was it now too much to ask that she return the favor? When was my reward coming?
The next morning, the sound of rain washing off the roof brought me downstairs before dawn. Since I’d gotten home from the diner, I’d been planning to flip out on my mother and make a big Hollywood scene. But the anger seeped out of me when I found her at the kitchen table, her hair barely combed and her eyes red-rimmed and puffy. The last time I’d seen her like this was right after the divorce, when she wouldn’t leave her bedroom. The same crippled, wary look of self-reproach darkened her face now, and it hit me that Coreen had probably caught up with her after the diner had closed. The revelation that her lie had been exposed must have put a serious damper on her evening.
I suddenly felt selfish and unsure where to begin. To my relief, she spoke first.
“I’ve been a real shit,” she said. Cigarette smoke curled from her nostrils. “I’ve been so caught up in doing things my own bullheaded way that it never occurred to me how wrong I’ve been.”
I swallowed, and something caught in my throat.
“Lying to you like that was terrible,” she went on. “I just wanted to buy myself some more time, to see if I was ready to give church another try.”
I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands and fought the urge to cry. “Have you decided what you’re going to do?” I asked.
“No,” she said softly, as if to herself. “But I shouldn’t let that keep me away in the meantime. Especially today.”
“So you’re coming?”
The old iron radiator grilles banged and screeched. She rose from the table, trying to hold back a smile. “Front and center,” she said. She bent to kiss me on the forehead, the lilac scent of her cheek sweet and sad. Then she disappeared to get ready for Mass.
My head swimming, I fixed a big breakfast: eggs, toast, sausage links. I was all too happy to let go of my resentments and get back to normal. So engrossed had I become in my mother’s situation that I’d hardly thought about plunking out a song in front of two hundred people. Only now, as I pushed a slice of rye between my lips, did I remember the Communion hymn and all the chord changes that loomed ahead.
For whatever reason, though, I didn’t have the jitters. By the time we climbed into the car at a quarter after nine that gray morning, I was calm, my fingers dry. The drizzle had stopped, and the streets were dead quiet except for the skittering of leaves. My mother had on a modest white blazer, and her honey-colored hair hung in a loose ponytail. Driving with one hand, she looked like a woman who had finally made a difficult decision and could now breathe easy. Whether she saw the trip to church as her first step toward redemption or had somehow forgotten that she was still considered to be in a state of sin, I’m not sure, but she smiled and hummed as we went along, and it was hard not to get caught up in her good spirits.
It looked like a packed house at Saint Joe’s. The parking lot was filling up, and people were milling about on the church steps. Mom eased the Duster past the playground, where a single crow sat on top of the swings, then flew away as if to tell someone we had come.
“Are you sure you’re cool?” I asked after she’d killed the engine.
She was watching a family make their way into the church, her jaw tight.
“Why?” she said. “Do I have anything to be ashamed of?”
My mother picked a piece of fuzz from my black trousers and licked her fingers to flatten my cowlick, her eyes large and surprisingly tender. “As long as I’ve got you, that’s all that matters,” she said.
As I ran through the song one last time with the choir in the cafeteria, I kept thinking about Father Jim. I was curious to find out what effect Mom’s presence at church that morning would have on him. Maybe now that she had shown up for Mass, we could get back to the days when a flubbed arpeggio was seen as the product of poor finger work rather than further testimony to a shaky home life.
When the choir finally made its way to the sanctuary a couple of minutes before ten, I spotted my mother four rows back from the altar. Our eyes met, and she smiled and raised her fist, as if to say, Go get ’em! I knew then she hadn’t come out of guilt, but because she’d wanted to be there.
All through Mass I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Back straight, hands folded, she looked quite capable of maintaining her dignity despite how the other churchgoers might have viewed her. In the gathering light that filtered through the windows, I wondered what she prayed for: God’s grace for the poor? Strength and wisdom in our leaders? A sale at Higbee’s? Whatever it was, from the instant Father Jim appeared in cassock and surplice to the moment Teddy Perry handed him the cruets of water and wine, the day’s service appeared to warm her like the breath of an old iron stove. She knelt for the moment of silence, rose for the response to the word, sat for the sermon, knelt for the consecration. Her calmness astonished me, and I tried without luck to catch Father Jim’s eye in hopes of directing his attention to the fourth row.
Still, as bright as the situation seemed, something began gnawing at me after Father Jim blessed each chalice. Deep down I knew the real test hadn’t come, and a tiny thread of sweat raced down my armpit. I was worried about Communion. Mom hadn’t been to confession since the divorce, so she couldn’t technically take the sacrament. It was new territory, and thinking about how she’d get through it made me more anxious than the hymn.
Father Jim stepped down to the front of the altar with the chalice. The first couple of rows got up and filed into the center aisle. Mom’s expression remained relaxed and comfortable. Hope rising in my chest, I prepared for Miss Ackley’s cue.
I’m not sure how long I’d taken my eyes off my mother. It couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds. But when I glanced back at her, my breath came out of me in a rush. In her white blazer, Mom was up and moving with the rest of her row.
The choir members around me all shot me a look, and I realized I must have made some noise of surprise. My heart clenched. Mom felt comfortable, all right — so comfortable she didn’t believe she had to apologize to anyone, not even God. I thought of my conversation with Father Jim about what it meant to steal a guitar and not feel sorry for it. What it meant to sin and not ask forgiveness.
The line inched forward until Mom stood before Father Jim for the first time in months. The priest looked startled, and I saw a flare of disappointment and sadness in his eyes as sharp as a struck match. He raised the Communion wafer partway, as if not sure what to do. His lips fluttered, and his voice was small and soft.
“Body of Christ,” he said.
“Amen,” Mom replied.
A strange lightness filled my head as my mother pushed the wafer between her lips and made the sign of the cross. All the sounds around me had suddenly ceased, as if someone had hit Mute on a volume control.
For a long moment Father Jim watched my mother make her way around the pews and back to her seat. Then he looked at me.
The choir was singing, but I had missed my cue.