by Stephenie Swindle Clark
The neighbors-two boys, dark-haired-are hitting the snow with
a stick. Mother in a coat that rises and falls with the noon wind
is no one that they see. Her coat has a red leather collar and cuffs.
Her head is naked. Her gloves are tight. Her high heels match
the coat collar and cuffs- red. She goes to the car and I let my
eyes, my body go with her, wobbling as one must to move
through the frozen footprints from days before. It is a little before
Mother and her boyfriend Ted (“My boyfriend for now,” I have
heard her say on the phone) line up alongside the Buick and
cheese it. “Okay,” I say. I say, “Ready? Ready?” They are ready.
I punch the button on the Polaroid and hold them there in my
eye through the viewfinder. They weren’t ready. But it’s done,
and it’s good enough, I think. It’s done and we are going to
Missouri. Mother, Ted, and me.
Mother told me, “Nathan, say, ‘I appreciate the sympathy and
kindness you have shown Mother, myself, and Ted on this sad,
sad occasion.’ ” Ted said, “Passed on and we’re sorry for it.”
My brother’s the one. The Tuesday before Missouri, my older
brother-James, seventeen-died straight out. I am fifteen. I play
football. We did the funeral and it was like eating marzipan for
the first time. I had said, out loud, “This is good.” And my friend
said, “Yeah it is, it’s candy. Eat more.” I ate more. My mother
said, “Stand here.” I stood at the casket. I stood there – all night,
with Mother – and people I did not know pressed me against
them and traced my head with cupped palms.
Given twenty-four hours, Mother, Ted, and I sat down and ate
soup. We ate heartily. Ted issued me knowledge on the status of
his built-in-the-U.S.A.-mother-loving Buick. He talked engine.
And it was the best engine. It had shown an inestimable amount
of dignity and self-respect by starting each morning-every
morning-for the whole damn winter. “A sign from God,” I told
him and Mother stretched her arms across the soup. She touched
our shoulders and rested.
“It’s been too long since Jefferson,” she said.
Ted rocked his chair, set it down on all four legs. ‘Jefferson?”
She said, ”I’ve been away too long. I am missed and Jefferson
City wants me.”
“Missouri?” said Ted.
“Ted,” she said and put her hands, palms up to the ceiling and
I got up in a hurry and cleared the table. I wiped up crumbs
and cleaned the placemats. I put a tablecloth on and replaced the
Santa centerpiece. Ted and Mother sat at the table still. I
did the dishes and set them out in rows to dry. I wiped the stove
off and shined the metal parts. I swept up the floor and that was
it. I walked into the T.V. room. Mother and Ted picked up the
Santa centerpiece and pretended it was walking-rocking the length
of the table. “Look at Santa,” they said.
To go, to find Missouri, Ted drives us. He puts his arms straight
out like baby wings and drives with his chest. ”.Jefferson City,
Missouri. Jefferson City, Missouri,” he says and ruffles his fingertips.
Mother turns her chin at him. He drives with his chest and lays
far enough in to make the horn honk. He honks it like a tune,
a rhythm in his own head, and we wonder what it sounds like
and where it comes from. Mother turns the radio on. Ted changes
the station to bebop and honks in time. He turns the radio even
louder and I am excited. Mother turns herself around and stares
out her window with her chin in her hand. Ted sits up and puts
his hands on the wheel. Mother rounds her back over and pulls
her head down. Her forehead taps the window with every small
stone, every ripple of the road. Ted looks at her and lingers. He
stretches his hand to her. He says to me, “You miss your brother,
I lean back into my seat and Mother turns from her window.
“My God, Ted.”
“What?” he says. “It wasn’t to hurt.”
“Why not?” she says.
“No problem;• I say.
We stop for lunch at a grocery store and I choose juice and
sliced ham. We walk slow, aisle by aisle, and feel rested. We
talk about Hawaii and James, ice cream and good books, luck.
We walk through the aisles and touch cans, touch each other.
Ted says, “We feel better to be out of the car.” Mother says,
“Guarandamntee it Sir.” ”Amen,” I say.
We drive and find the Jefferson City capitol building. We’re
here all right. The building is huge and it’s ugly. There are yellow
Christmas lights wrapped all down the pillars and a Santa and
sleigh and reindeers on the roof. It looks like all the rest. Ted
and Mother rustle in the front seat. Ted finds Mother’s hand and
they giggle. They are out of the car and up at the hood to find
each other’s hands again. They run for the stairs of the Jefferson
City capitol building and take them in fat leaps – three, four stairs
at a time. They keep laughing and laughing.
At the top they kiss. They hug and kiss, and they are tight
hugs and tight, lippy, movie kisses. I get out and walk around
the car. I walk around the car four times. Mother and Ted look
down at me and I put my hands in my pockets. I press my lips
together. I tip my eyebrows. They come right down from there.
Ted comes off the last capitol step and rubs his hands in circles
on his stomach. He opens his mouth in an ‘ahhh.’ “It is time to
eat,” he says. “Wouldn’t you think?” he says.
At the restaurant called Dino’s, Mother says, “Here I am with
my boys.” She touches each of us like soft-furred mice. We are
seated near the kitchen and decide the chicken-whatever smells
best. They bring it to us hop-to and my mother says, “Easy boys.
Easy.” She orders dessert while the waiter is still standing there
and then pulls a locket from under her jacket, a blouse, and a
blue silk scarf. She points and opens it. “Patrice – my grand-mother;’
she says. “She was mean. At nineteen she had white hair.
Her hair was short as long as it was white. She had white
hair always.” Mother shrugs her shoulders. “She was my grand-
I set my fork in my dessert. “Who will have some?” I say.
“Was she courageous?” says Ted. “Patrice was a tall woman,”
Mother says. “She lived alone. I was told I would not have
her height and I believed it. Yet, I would get her legs. Maybe her bust.
I have her good hair.”
“Indeedy,” says Ted.
We leave, each with a mint. We are fat, edgy and warm. Ted
looks all around- to me, the sky, Mother. He gets right into her
face and says, “What’s next? What is it?”
My mother takes her hands from her pockets and sets one,
sets each on Ted’s face and kisses him with her eyes closed
and satisfied. Ted holds still and has his eyes open to her when she’s done.
So she kisses me. I think she thinks I’m three and it’s funny. She
puts her hands back in her pockets and clicks her heels. “Let’s
go home,” she says and walks on ahead.
We leave Jefferson City. We leave Missouri. That night.
To be home is snow in chunks and balls everywhere you have
to step. I get out of the car and my legs and head are the target
for the neighbor boys. I walk slowly, evenly, and every snowball
misses me. They scream, “Come out and catch us. Come out and
fight, Nathan Callister.” They are seven and eight. They have a
dog that fetches rocks.
Mother stands looking at the mail, turning her head to the
left and to the right to see what to open first. She has it fanned
across the hallway. Ted is stepping over it and bringing everything
in from the car. Mums from the funeral are arranged on each
of the kitchen counters. A neighbor kept them watered and
plucked, but I think I know why it is they are flowers for a funeral.
We unpack standing in the laundry room. Most everything is
dirty. ”I’ll put these cases away;’ Mother says. ”I’ll go for groceries;
Ted says. I go into the kitchen looking for something salty. I sit
on the couch and watch T.V. and lick my fingers. My mother
comes and sits beside me. She wears green pants, a green shirt.
She has a neck like Cleopatra. We sit deep in the couch together
and tell potato jokes.
Ted honks when he reaches our cul-de-sac. He circles it and
honks three more times. Mother is happy, she says to him, “Ted,
you look good.” And he says, “There’s my baby.” We walk
quickly to meet him, to touch the car. Ted holds my mother’s
hands. He says, “Let’s make a fire in the fireplace and roast
weenies. . “
Ted carries the groceries inside and pulls out three extendable
roasting forks. “Hah, hah,” he says and jabs a weenie on every
fork. Mother holds hers up like a microphone and sings something
about bees and honey. Ted sings back because he knows this one.
They dance with their shoulders, their heads. But not for long.
It is just that one part of the song they can remember. I have
seen them dance around the couch in the T.V. room. They
swung their hips and stamped their feet. They dance best to
Sara Vaughan-“Ooh What-Cha Doin’ To Me”-and though my
mother’s hair is short all over, she brushes it back and laughs and
screams. She is pleased with her. steps and turns. She is pleased
with her laughter. I have stood up and moved with her and it
is the best kind of living I know.
Outside it’s dark and the neighbor boys have made a snowman
by floodlight. They run, elbows locked, and ram their heads into
its body. They land on their backs, elbows still locked, coughing
and screaming-or laughing. You can’t tell. We go through the
full package of weenies, eating some raw and some without buns.
Christmas Eve is tomorrow. Everyone kisses everyone and we go
right to bed.
In the morning Mother comes to my room and runs her hand
through my hair. “Ted’s gone all day,” she says. “If we start right
now we can have this ready for a present.” She has fabric, blue
on one shoulder, green on the other that runs the length of her
back and legs and then spreads onto the floor. “We’ll make a
quilt,” she says. “I have appliques of football helmets and rifles.”
I put slippers on and help her set up the frame. We secure the
fabric and batting and sit down to it. Mother runs her hands out-
ward in fans across the fabric. She tells me, “Your father played football.
You look nothing like him.”
“Do I look like you,” I say.
“Look,” she says. “What do you see?”
“But when you were younger,” I say.
“No,” she says. “Not at all.”
“Nothing?” I say.
“Well, your hair,” and she reaches to me. “You do have good
hair. Like Patrice. Like me.”
Then for that-for that thing-I was rolling myself in neat,
tight circles. I was curling in her lap.
I say to her, “Did you have a boyfriend then?”
“A lot,” she says. “I was sweet.”
My Mother stitches more stitches. She places my hands, my
fingers as they should be. She watches me work and smiles catlike.
And then she lifts her head and tells me-she says, ‘James looked
just like your father. And James knew more about women than
I ever thought right. You’re not like him at all.”
It is Christmas. I can wear James’s clothes I discovered last night.
I find his blue robe and walk to the bathroom. The sun shines
blazing across the toilet and floor. It’s nearly afternoon. I brush
my hair with my fingers and start down the stairs. Ted is
standing by the tree with gold and red foil in waves around his feet.
He’s telling my mother he’s leaving. “I’m leaving,” he says. “You
knew. It’s just a little thing for us.”
Mother pinches her nails into his calf and I sit on the bottom
Ted sits down. He shakes my mother’s thumb. He smiles a
She pulls her thumb away and she takes it back.
She says, “Give me my thumb. You telling me. You tell me
like you know, and you don’t. You know too much about any
of it.” She looks up for God, I know, and finds me on the steps,
listening and seeing all of this.
I close my robe around my shins. She’s looking at me hard.
She would pinch my calf if I was there. I look to Ted and I won’t
look back. She comes over and comes down to me. “Look at me,”
she says. I cover my eyes. She pinches my calf. I squeeze my hands
to my face. I hear her get up and I hear her go to the kitchen
and tip each potted mum from the top of her head to the tile
below. Like water flowing. Ted yells at the kitchen, “You get what
you want, Mama.”
I go back upstairs and my robe splits open top to bottom. I
am bare-footed, bare-legged, bare-chested. I walk down the hall
undoing the sash. I fold the robe into a square and set it on my
bed. I go downstairs in boxers, chilly. I walk past Ted. I walk into
the kitchen and she’s standing in the dirt and petals. I say,
“Should I get the garbage?”
She puts her hand on my face. “Should I get the garbage?”
she says. “Should you? Should you? Move.” She flips her shoulders
and pushes by. She walks out the front door and leaves it open.
She goes down to the street sliding and tipping. And she goes
with the face I know best-her neck, her eyes, her cheeks and
lips-it’s beauty. My mother is beautiful. She’s my mother.
I bend over the flowers with a dustpan and brush. Ted comes
in and sets a hand on the counter. He sighs like a dog. I keep
bent over my work. My spine is sharp along my back. I work and
my muscles flutter and grip. Ted comes over to help, but with
a few more sweeps I am finished. I stand beside him and he looks
at me-my bare chest, my hands and legs. I will miss him. I hand
him the brush and the dustpan. “All done,” I say. Ted nods his
head. He says, “Get dressed. We’ll go for a drive. We’ll go by the
lake. I’ll get you a hamburger. We’ll take James’s things to a
shelter, a food bank.”