“Adult Children” (New Short Story)

Even when I was a little kid, not much more than a toddler, I knew there was something, well, different about my mother. She did things that set her apart from everyone else, acted and spoke in a manner that made people nervous, uncomfortable. But I wouldn’t have said she was crazy, not back then. That would have been disloyal, disrespectful. She was my mom. She wasn’t crazy, despite what others might have thought and said.

So what if she spouted off about Jews and space aliens and JFK and the power company (they were all connected somehow), wandered around naked most of the time, refusing to cover up for the meter guy or the Jehovah’s Witnesses who once (and only once) dropped by for a chat? My friends wondered why I never invited them over. I made excuses. I don’t know if I was sparing them…or myself.

I tried to keep her public appearances to the minimum, conveniently forgetting to tell her about parent-teacher meetings or upcoming school events. From a very early age I acted as her unofficial agent in dealings with the outside world. Did grocery runs, paid our utility bills, cashed checks for her. It was better that way. For both of us.

My mother has never been shy about sharing her theories and once you get her going, well, she’s pretty hard to stop. She just keeps yakking and yakking at you, pinning you to the spot with her flesh-eating eyes while she expounds on some odd fact she’s dredged up or invented.

Helen calls her “a giant, sucking black hole”–she absorbs everything and everyone around her, permitting nothing to escape, not even light. She distorts reality, ignores supposedly immutable laws of space and time. She’s a walking singularity.

I pick up the phone and it’s like she’s right there, a physical presence in the room with me, already in mid-rant and, my God, that voice, like a high speed drill going right through my skull.

“–that bitch across the hall has been stealing my mail again. And I don’t want to hear any more excuses. I’m gonna call the cops on her, see how she likes that…”

Well, for one thing, Audrey–my completely nutty mother Audrey McWhirter, 53, self-styled social activist, spokesperson for lost causes and eco-terrorist–rarely gets anything by way of mail that isn’t addressed to “Occupant”. Six months ago I arranged with the post office to re-direct everything to our place. She was doing things like signing up for credit cards and blowing her money on junk on the Shopping Channel. Hitting the booze quite hard back then too but I thought she’d been easing off of late.

And I’d met the neighbour in question, Florence Harding, and found her a charming woman. Very tolerant as well, putting up with the occasional threatening letter stuffed in her mailbox, not to mention one bizarre episode when my mother tailed her for hours, exhibiting classic stalking behavior. Why she hasn’t called the cops on Audrey is beyond me.

I had explained the situation to Florence, of course, and was relieved when she immediately sympathized. Her own mother had had to be institutionalized because of senile dementia.

“I’m afraid it hasn’t quite reached that point with Audrey,” I said and I must have sounded wistful because Florence looked at me with real sympathy.

“Don’t give up hope,” she counseled and we both smiled.

Poor Florence.

According to my mother, she’s a bug-eyed space alien, a serial killer, a whore, a spy sent by the government, an assassin…and now, apparently, a notorious mail thief.

“My paper, even my fucking paper,” Audrey splutters.

“Paper? Since when do you get a newspaper, mom?” More bloody money down the drain.

It turns out she’s talking about a free neighbourhood rag that lists garage sales, announces bar mitzvahs and covers the local community beat with its team of highly committed, muck-raking journalists. Their pictures on the editorial page, everyone looking fat, sick or wired.

I promise her I’ll find out what happened to her priceless copy of the Bulletin. I promise I’ll have the police run another background check on Florence.

And then, just like that, she forgets all about it and starts acting coy with me, asking if I’m really, really busy and if I am, well, forget it, maybe some other time…

I sigh and just then Helen wanders in for an apple from the bowl on the counter. She gives me a quizzical look. I mouth Audrey’s name and make imploring gestures but she backs out of the kitchen, refusing to involve herself in any potential strangeness.

Abandoning me in my time of need.

Audrey gets lonely. Only Audrey isn’t like the rest of us and can’t just say, “Son, I really miss you, why don’t you pop by and we’ll haul out the old photo albums and shoot the bull for awhile.” That kind of intimacy–and honesty–is beyond her.

For one thing, she never invites me to her place. Won’t set foot over here either. A big believer in personal space. Not into touching or, God forbid, hugging. I can’t for the life of me remember a kiss before bedtime, a word of praise, a smile of encouragement. A universe of one. It isn’t her fault. You can’t blame her for being sick.

“Say, mom, I’ve got an idea: why don’t we meet for coffee somewhere.”

She thinks about it. Hems and haws and finally decides it’s okay. Only how about Tony’s? It has to be Tony’s. They know her there. Are used to her antics. Some places aren’t so understanding: security guards firmly escorting her outside, not so subtle threats, non-imaginary bruises…

She once tried to interest a semi-famous lawyer in taking her case (pro bono, of course). I had to call the guy’s law office and explain. He still thought her rights were being violated, that no public venue should be allowed to deny her entry. I told him how she had been arrested for stripping on a downtown street corner to protest global warming. I described the time it took three police officers to drag her out of the fountain at the Midtown Mall. Urinating in the water right there in front of everyone, a symbolic statement about pollution caught on security cameras, horrified shoppers shielding their children’s eyes…

The attorney countered by saying it was part of the price we pay for living in a free society.

I was polite but in retrospect I should have told him to shove it. How would he have felt if it was his mother who made the evening news–wrapped in a blanket, shooting everyone the finger, still raving as they wrestled her into the back of a police van?

I never got a chance to ask him that. He said he had a call to take on another line. He promised to keep in touch.

(To read this story in its entirety, click on “Adult Children“)

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