Sunday, January 3, 2010

There Are Those Who What?

"There are those, apparently...there are those who...."

Her voice trailed off and she made a sort of lazy talking pantomime with her right hand. She was sitting at the dining room table, a cigarette, neglected, burning down to the filter in an ashtray. As was pretty much always the case she was surrounded by piles of envelopes and loose paper. The bulk of these piles, I knew, consisted of bills she'd been shuffling around for months, perhaps years, bills she had not paid, would not pay, and could not pay. The cumulative result of which was that she could no longer answer her phone for fear of being hectored by collection agents.

I had no idea how she managed to avoid having her phone disconnected.

"There are those who what?" I asked.

She gulped a big breath and blew it out. "It's unspeakable," she said. "That's exactly what it is, unspeakable, so I shan't even speak of it. I regret I ever raised you to believe there was a god somewhere who gave a rat's patoot about people and their problems. Life is an affront, and I apologize for bringing you aboard such a foundering rubbish scow."

Forty-five years and I still found her a mystery. A woman with no education to speak of, a woman I'd never seen with a book in her hands, a woman who wouldn't own a television yet used words like "shan't," "affront," and "scow." My mother. My mystery. My sadness.

This tableau, if you will ("tableau" being another of my mother's words), was now the still life in which I most often confronted the woman who brought me aboard this foundering rubbish scow. She wouldn't allow me to so much as touch any of the papers on the table, and any discussion of said papers was also off limits. I snooped a bit, of course, whenever she took one of her freakishly rare bathroom breaks or rolled the dice and dashed off to the kitchen to answer the phone on the off chance it was her sister calling from Arizona.

Besides the piles of bills there were also hundreds of pages filled with her microscopic chicken scratch. A good deal of this was obviously nothing more than obsessive and hopelessly escalating arithmetic. Other pages, though, were filled with text, and a great many of these, I noticed, began with the words, "Once upon a time."

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