The Pride of Life
by Christopher Sorrentino, recommended by Joanna Yas
AN INTRODUCTION BY JOANNA YAS
I decided I wanted to publish “The Pride of Life” in Open City before I actually read the story.
It was June 2009, and Christopher Sorrentino was reading for the NYU Creative Writing Program’s summer students at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House — part of a series I organize. It happens that during readings I don’t always follow every detail, but rather move in and out of focus, attaching to certain words, phrases, images, lines of dialogue without always knowing exactly what’s happening. Going from rapt attention to reverie — and back — can be deeply satisfying, but risky. One moment too long drifting and the thread is gone.
I realized early on that I needed to give “The Pride of Life” my full attention — needed to and couldn’t help but do so. Chris is a particularly good reader — he has a clear and deep voice and knows how to make his elegant prose land in the ear. But it wasn’t his presentation alone that captivated me. Rather, it was the realization from the start that I desperately wanted to unlock the uniquely fraught relationship at the heart of the story: a son who can’t stop wanting approval from his mother and who is inevitably disappointed; a reclusive mother stuck in time and place, marooned in the Bay Area. At a certain point I made a mental note of a phrase that felt slightly off, and realized that I was not only really paying attention, but that I was hearing Chris’s story the way an editor does — as if I were participating in it.
What a joy! Here I was . . . considering a piece (something that hadn’t even been submitted), but instead of hunched over my desk, alone with a teetering pile of unread manuscripts, I was sitting comfortably in an elegant room full of optimistic writing students at summer twilight. And, as the story winded down, the poignant ending brought tears to my eyes. I had already decided that I wanted to publish a story that I hadn’t strictly speaking even read yet.
I wish I could tell you that I stood up amidst the mist and the audience applause and yelled, “I’ll take it!” But instead it was more like a mumbled and slightly awkward, “Can we publish that?” — a quiet proposal during a muted intermission.
Chris returned to NYU recently to read from his daring and brilliant new novel, The Fugitives (an immensely enjoyable reading despite the fact that this time there was nothing for me to pilfer for Washington Square Review, where I am now Editor-in-Chief), which led me to read this story again. Open City’s final issue appeared in 2011, after twenty years in print, but it’s a great pleasure to continue reading (and hearing) our contributors’ beautiful work and to enjoy the pride of having participated.
Editor-in-Chief, Washington Square Review
The Pride of Life
by Christopher Sorrentino
Toller’s mother withdrew from the world at the age of forty-five, when Toller’s parents moved to California after Toller’s father accepted a job with a computer company in Santa Clara. Toller’s mother instantly found the region to be uncongenial, and retired to her bedroom, where she would stay, more or less, for the next twenty years. Toller himself was young then, in the pride of life, and to the extent that he was aware at all of his mother’s reclusiveness he assumed that since she was now old, she had every reason to stop being an active participant in life. Toller’s father was absorbed in his work and either paid little attention to his wife’s increasingly eccentric behavior or did not confide in his son about his concerns.
After Toller graduated from college, he and the girlfriend he’d had since his sophomore year broke up and Toller decided to follow his parents to California, having heard, as everyone used to hear, about how inexpensive and easygoing it was in the Bay Area.
“Great,” his father said. “Can’t wait to be able to see you all the time, sport.”
“Oh, Toller,” his mother said, “why would you want to come to this miserable place?”
Toller came anyway, bouncing around for his first few months before settling in the East Bay, in Rockridge, where he took a room in a big house on Bryant Avenue he shared with four other people. Once a month or so he borrowed a car from a friend and drove to Palo Alto to visit his parents at their small house in College Terrace. His mother would come out of the bedroom, and the two of them would usually spend some time sitting alone on the patio in the backyard, a quiet little space that caught the breeze and was shaded by a mature cotoneaster and a lemon tree. Richly colored bougainvillea climbed over the fence and up the rear of the house. His mother had hung a hummingbird feeder from the kitchen window overlooking the patio and often one of the creatures would buzz past them to feed. Toller would watch the blur of the bird’s wings as it hovered, dipping its beak into the feeder’s fuchsia-shaped port.
“There he is,” Toller’s mother would say, “my best friend.”
“Wow, he’s really great,” Toller would say, admiring the bird’s ruby throat and precise, almost mechanical, movements.
“My best friend out here,” his mother would repeat.
Toller would find this sort of exchange disconcerting: he’d bargained on admiring a bird (or a pretty house nearby, or the smell of eucalyptus, or whatever seemingly innocuous subject had briefly shuffled into position before them), and now he felt obliged to console his inconsolable mother in her loneliness. She would explain to him, again, that it was impossible here: no one interesting to talk to, nothing interesting to do, and nowhere interesting to go; and although Toller found none of these things to be true, at twenty-three he wasn’t yet prepared to reject sweeping, categorical generalizations, least of all when they came from his mother. In any case there was little to do other than to agree with her, since she seemed to grow irritated with him if he did otherwise.
Things happened to Toller over the next few years — he grew close to some people and drifted away from others; he took jobs that interested him, that bored him, that paid well or poorly; he traveled, he enrolled in courses, he moved to San Francisco with a friend, he played in a band. He took advantage of some opportunities and missed out on others. He was an ordinary person whose life began to take on a reliable shape, and when he took stock of his small share of failures he did not, as a rule, have regrets, or anyway he didn’t dwell on them.
Throughout, he returned again and again to the patio. The plastic hummingbird feeder grew cloudy and opaque and his mother replaced it. If it was rainy or cold, he and his mother would sit in the wing chairs adjacent to the fireplace in the living room. They’d talk while waiting for Toller’s father to arrive. His mother hated the weather and felt that it was making her sick. His mother, who refused to learn to drive, hated having to wait to be driven everyplace. His mother hated the shape in which sticks of butter were manufactured on the west coast, and she hated the taste of the milk. Since it had been some time since Toller’s father had tried to persuade her to accompany him to the various parties, dinners, barbecues, banquets, and other functions that he liked or felt obliged to attend, she no longer talked too much about how she hated the people who were being presented to her as potential friends. She did, however, forge intense, empty attachments to supermarket clerks, pharmacists, medical technicians, hair cutters, and tradesmen who came to the house to make repairs, and though she knew nothing more about them than the things she learned making small talk, she would relate the information to Toller in minute detail. His mother would tell him the elaborate plots of the television shows she watched. If Toller told her about the things that were happening to him, she would grow silent, as if he’d rudely brought up an awkward subject.
When Toller was thirty, various circumstances coalesced so that he found himself, all at once, without friends, single, unemployed, and quite unhappy. Now, abruptly, he was receptive to his mother’s particular view of things. For six months he sat on the patio or in the wing chair once and sometimes even twice a week, immersing himself in his mother’s opinions. He felt, rightly, that they were closer than they’d ever been before. It was her invigorating sense of futility that helped him get past the difficulties of the period, that and the cash subsidies that his parents pressed on him. Eventually, he found a place to live that he could afford, he found a new job, he made new friends, he met a girl. Things eased; life began to regain its reliable shape, and for the first time Toller began to resist his mother’s judgments, as though his fleeting keen appetite for them was overly reminiscent of the circumstances that had stimulated it. Besides, now that things had turned out well, so well, they seemed slightly ridiculous.
His new girlfriend, Margaret, was a lively and sensible young woman to whom a life like the one Toller’s mother was living was incomprehensible, and she bluntly pointed out to him that it was more than merely odd, the apologetic word Toller had taken to using to describe his mother, but: pathetic, limiting, pathological, antisocial, paranoid, and crazy. She’d majored in East Asian studies at Stanford, and Toller — who was both offended by this evaluation and strongly enough infatuated with Margaret to lend credence to her every utterance — pedantically questioned her qualification to make such a diagnosis.
“It’s not a diagnosis, Toller. These are colloquial expressions in everyday use. When someone tells someone else that a third person they both know is paranoid or antisocial, everyone’s clear on the meaning.”
They’d left the house in College Terrace and were stopped at a light on Page Mill Road. Glass office buildings sat facing the road from the south behind acres of parking and a wide strip of landscaping that ran parallel to the sidewalk; on the north side, hidden behind thick growths of trees, were the winding, circular residential streets nestled at the base of the Stanford foothills. Though it was a cool night, they had the windows partly open and the good smell of wood smoke came into the car.
“I’m not clear on it, Margaret.”
His parents’ new neighbors were a couple around Toller’s age who had moved into the house next door earlier that year; they had installed in their backyard a set of wind chimes whose presence, Toller had noted, was gradually unhinging his mother, who now seemed to view wind chimes as a prominent element in an imagined version of the loathsome state’s coat of arms. For several months, no conversation with her had been without its obligatory reference to the ubiquitous device, whose percussive tones — when he’d even noticed them — Toller had always found pleasant. Tonight, Toller’s mother had subjected them to an extended harangue about the neighbors’ chimes: how the slightest stirring of the air caused them to jangle, how their particular pitch was especially annoying and atonal, how the breeze itself — once so welcome and refreshing — seemed to be conspiring against her, invariably starting up at exactly the moment when she sought out a quiet moment on the patio . . .
Margaret had interrupted: “Have you talked to the neighbors? Maybe they’d be willing to move the chimes, or even take them down.”
Toller’s mother waved the idea away irritably, her lips pursed. “I’ve never spoken to those people,” she’d said.
Now the light turned green and Margaret put the car into gear. “That was really something,” she said, softly.
“Yeah,” Toller said. “She’s odd. I agree. But it’s been hard on her out here. Totally new place, no friends.”
“Toller, she’s made it hard on herself. She’s made it impossible. How long has she been out here? Twelve years?”
“Does she even go to the movies?”
“She can’t. She doesn’t drive.”
“Toller. My grandmother drives. She’s eighty-two. Born and raised in Taishan. She learned when my dad finally persuaded her to move down to Campbell from the city.”
Toller didn’t know how to respond to the news of this awesome accomplishment.
“And friends, Toller? Doesn’t she have any old friends she stays in touch with?” Toller explained that his mother had perfectly naturally lost touch with some friends, had fallen out with a few others, and so forth. He did not mention the occasion, a year or so earlier, when an old family friend had called to say that she was traveling in the Bay Area and that she’d love to drop by for drinks one evening. Toller had been there on the evening in question, and was disturbed that his mother pulled the curtains and left the lights off when it began to grow dark. When the doorbell finally rang, at about six o’clock, his mother had raised a hand for silence, and the three of them had sat there in the dark, his mother with her index finger laid across her lips, until the intruder had departed.
“Let’s assume for the sake of argument that she’s right,” Margaret continued. “That it’s horrible here: horrible, vapid, unwelcoming. Which isn’t true, Toller. You know it isn’t. I’m from here. It’s very hard for me to sit across that table from her and politely listen while she tells me that everything I identify with is stupid and phony. And also when you agree with her, which, really. But let’s assume just for the sake of argument that she’s right. How often does she leave?”
“You know. Get on a plane and go back to whatever home means to her. Take off for a week in Rome or Paris. Hawaii. She doesn’t work. Your dad makes money. How often does she get away from this horrible place?”
Toller remained silent, half-expecting to hear about the heroic grandmother’s annual pilgrimages back to Taishan.
“You’re the one who told me that your mother never leaves the bedroom. What is she, a character from a nineteenth-century novel? Some Victorian lady with the vapors? What is that if not antisocial, and pathetic?”
“I wouldn’t have told you if I knew you were going to use it against her.”
“First of all, reminding you of something that you yourself told me is not using it against her. Second of all, you wouldn’t have had to tell me a thing.”
Margaret was right, but for now Toller only amended his thoughts of his odd mother to characterize her as someone who’d lost her way. That her actual life, a life that held her interest, had always seemed to exist at some point in time prior to the present, that the possibility of fulfillment had always seemed irretrievably lost to her, were conclusions that eluded him, as if the long crisis and profound isolation of the current setting threw these essential truths into such sharp relief that they were unrecognizable. Margaret was right, and for love of her Toller did find the limit to which he was willing to subjugate himself in order to align his behavior with his mother’s expectations, as always defined by her cloistered outlook. Margaret was right, and she alone seemed to have established a rapport with Toller’s mother, a rapport she felt she’d achieved through the respectful exercise of candor. She thought the older woman needed to be stood up to; needed — to use another colloquial expression in everyday use — a reality check. But Toller’s mother’s refusal to accept her adult son’s assertion of his adult prerogatives was beyond Margaret’s understanding, and she couldn’t imagine how reckless nearly everything that he undertook seemed from the vantage of the bedroom. So when Margaret was seven months pregnant with Toller’s baby and the couple decided to take advantage of their underemployment to spend two weeks alone at her parents’ cabin on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, Margaret urged Toller to assert himself while he nervously prepared to inform his parents over the phone of their plans. She didn’t understand his nervousness. He was thirty-two.
“Why would you want to go there?”
“It’s beautiful, Mom.”
“Toller, nothing in California is beautiful. It’s all ugly. And you sound like a jackass, a true California jackass. One of those jackasses who’s always talking about getting away, about taking the weekend. One of those sun fetishists who worships the weather and the fresh air. One of those self-righteous jackasses who belongs to hiking clubs, who wears a baseball cap, who — ”
“Mom, we’re going. Margaret really wants to take this time before the
“And what about the baby? Don’t you think you ought to be more careful about money, now that you’re expecting a child?”
“I don’t . . . I’m not . . . I — ”
“How are you going to take care of it, hm? It’s a big responsibility, a baby. Have you given it any thought? Any thought at all? Or is it all you and Margaret can do to think about your fun, your vacation at this lake? This is a life, a human life, that you are responsible for — forever! Neither of you has a real job. If I were in your shoes I’d just take those two weeks to hunker down with the classifieds each morning and try to find work. It’s time to be an adult, Toller, not one of these jackasses here in California, grown men and women driving pickup trucks, who think life is all about fun and bicycling in silly shorts and a helmet and wind chimes. Wind chimes! For God’s sake!”
Toller drew his attention from the abyss that had opened in the telephone receiver he held in his hand; looked around the apartment, that his mother had never seen, the apartment in which he and Margaret lived; at the books and pictures, the newspapers and mail stacked on the table, the stasis and the flux, at Margaret herself and her wondrously swollen belly, all the evidence of his life that his mother refused, at the risk of derangement, even to acknowledge. The fullness of it all, the friends she would never meet, the adventures she refused to take interest in, the enthusiasms she could not comprehend — even his own child, this grandchild, she would never really know; her stunted awareness would derive only from the monthly appearances it would make on the patio. Toller’s mother should have understood him as well as anybody, but she understood only that he was the suddenly recalcitrant instantiation of the child who had once unquestioningly accepted her authority over every sphere of his life.
“Toller!” she brayed. “I don’t want to hear about it if you find yourself in financial trouble! When you were coming down here a couple of years ago so upset and unhappy, I thought you were coming to your senses! But it appears that you’re forgetting every lesson you should have learned!”
For the very first time Toller understood that his mother was truly the enemy of everything he was, all the things he’d sedulously worked to become, and that their connection had always been entirely, deceitfully, dependent on his successfully masking those things from her. Even her embrace of Margaret seemed doubtful: with the spat pronunciation of the hard consonants in words like California and jackass, words struck against the palate as if to generate sparks, he knew that she was identifying for him what she saw as the exact source of the contamination.
“Mom,” he said, “I know what I’m doing. It’s a vacation. People take them.”
“People. Only in California would people take a vacation when they’re not working! Vacation from what?”
“I don’t have to ask your permission, Mom.”
“How dare you!” she said. “How dare you! You little so-and-so!” There was a strangled noise, as if the heart of her indignation was beyond expression, and she slammed the phone down, leaving Toller, and Margaret, shaken.
Toller’s father, vivid to him in nearly all other contexts, seemed to him (it must be said) to be a cipher in connection with his mother; Toller had no idea whether his father was concerned about his mother or not, whether he truly agreed with her condemnation of their lives or simply humored her, whether that placid agreeability masked a secret life of his own. Toller knew that his father got up and dressed and left the house every morning, that he came home every evening with stories of the greater world, that he sometimes met other people for lunch or golf, that he kept in touch with old friends. When he would join them on the patio, or by the fireplace, or around the dining table, he listened to Toller’s mother attentively, although she could not possibly have been drawing anything new to complain about from within the enclosure of her life. His father’s uncanny equilibrium was such that Toller had sometimes felt, before he met Margaret, that his mother’s oddness was entirely a product of his own imagination. Perfect loyalty is what it was; Toller’s father was loyal to a fault — but Toller wouldn’t have understood this if he hadn’t grasped, three weeks after their return from Tahoe and nearly six weeks since he’d spoken to either of his parents, the furtiveness of the call he received from his father one morning.
“Toller, you have to call your mother and apologize.”
“Why do I have to apologize to her?”
“She feels very strongly that you spoke out of turn.”
“And that’s how you feel about it? Out of turn. She’s the one who spoke out of turn. It was her. I can run my own life. I’m having a kid. I’m thirty-two years old.”
“I know you are, Toller.”
With each declaration of maturity, Toller felt more flustered and infantile. It went on like that for a few minutes. Toller wanted badly for his father to acknowledge that his mother had been wrong — wanted his father to acknowledge more than that, actually, although he was sensible enough not to share his developing opinions on his mother’s mental condition — but the subject was taboo.
“How about her apologizing to me? Have you asked her that?” Toller asked again.
“I can’t, Toller.” His father was calling from his office, but he lowered his voice. And here Toller recognized the fragilely balanced forces holding together the marriage, and what must have seemed to his father to be his own life; his having reached, at sixty, the limits of its adaptability. Toller’s father wasn’t calling as his mother’s envoy, or as Toller’s ally, but as a man maneuvering to avoid a choice that would result either way in an unbearable loss. Toller understood; he hoped for the best with his mother, but he couldn’t stand the idea of losing his father. He called and apologized.
Toller’s mother continued scrupulously for a while to all but ignore Toller. It was so awkward, the way that she would talk around him if possible, as if he weren’t there, or brusquely tell him that she would call his father to the phone if she happened to answer when Toller called, that Toller half-expected her to stop the discomfiting game; to ask him if she had demonstrated to his complete satisfaction that — as with her other feats of self-estrangement — she was fully capable of sustaining this act of will: would he now conform to her requirements? For all that she required of him, she may as well have asked such a question of the entire despised state of California. Unexpectedly, she took to Margaret again wholeheartedly, which bothered Toller, who suspected that it was her coded way of denigrating the relationship; of subtly informing him that she saw a clear and definite separation between the two of them that she could emphasize by placing the wedge of herself in it, which seemed to be confirmed by Margaret’s curious reciprocation of her evident affection.
“When a nasty old cat decides it loves only you, you always love it back,” Margaret explained. Margaret had attained the condition of hallowed and empty bonhomie embodied by the Safeway cashier, the phlebotomist, the man who sawed off the dead branches of the live oak in the front yard, all those dear people his mother thought so highly of. It didn’t matter how or why.
To remain in Toller’s mother’s good graces meant to have sustained the glow of some positive impression, no matter how arbitrarily it had been registered. The impression didn’t need to have any depth. Toller’s mother certainly didn’t want to know any more about Margaret than she did about those cherished strangers of hers: she became visibly uncomfortable if Margaret spoke to her of her childhood in the South Bay; or of her father, a radiologist in San Jose, and her mother, the owner of a Hallmark store in Los Gatos. She did clap her hands with glee when Margaret told the story of her refusal to bend to her parents’ will and follow a pre-med course at Stanford, but became perplexed and sullen when it was made clear that the resulting rift had been temporary and superficial, as if the deepest and most mysterious disappointment of the human psyche was the willingness to forgive other people. And when things finally eased between Toller and his mother, when she began again to speak to him as if he were more than an unwelcome stranger, it was plain to him that she had neither forgiven him nor stopped being disenchanted with him.
Toller might have wondered why he’d bothered apologizing at all; it was obvious that his mother suffered his presence only in order to see Margaret and the baby, a girl, who was — as Toller had predicted — delivered to the patio each month in the back of the late-model Toyota sedan that the new parents, having somehow avoided the financial ruin their vacation was sure to bring on, had bought used. He might have wondered if not for the fact that, as intended, his apology enabled him to continue to see and speak to his father — more so than before, even, since the job of sitting with his mother in the shade of the cotoneaster and the lemon tree now was delegated largely to Margaret and the baby, allowing Toller and his father to spend time together. His father was now partially retired, providing consulting services to his former employer for several well-compensated hours each week. Though Toller never pointedly inquired about his mother’s habits, his father made it clear to him that the things he was doing in his now-abundant spare time he was doing by himself.
“And Mom?” Toller would ask, casually.
“Oh, you know your mother,” his father would say. “She has her books and her cards and things. I just try to stay out of her hair.”
Toller followed this obliquely delivered advice to the letter; he persisted in hoping for the best with his mother, but he had little idea what the best might be, and the degree of deformation inherent in the family mechanism became painfully evident on occasion, most notably when his mother refused outright to attend his wedding to Margaret and insisted that his father remain behind to chauffeur her to a scheduled doctor’s appointment. Even the illusion he maintained of unfettered access to his father became strained to the breaking point in such instances, and in the case of their wedding Toller had to beg Margaret not to call his mother and give her a piece of her mind, fearing that if
Margaret made it onto what they called his mother’s “shit list” — this ordinary phrase evoked in Toller’s imagination an actual lengthy document, with names inscribed indelibly upon it — he would never be able to see his father again.
Toller and Margaret continued to make their monthly pilgrimages to Palo Alto, eventually from the suburban town of Brisbane, where they moved into a house built on one of the lower slopes of a mountain. They raised their daughter, had another. Sometimes, in the evening, when he stepped out of the kitchen door and stood on the little redwood deck overlooking his backyard with a bottle of beer in his hand, watching his older daughter play in the soft light remaining with the sun now behind the mountain, listening to a mourning dove calling, that desolately beautiful sound he associated with the pale orange of twilight here, he’d think of the precipitating offense, of the misconception at its heart — wasn’t this his house, his deck, his daughter, his beer? What had he done so badly? He was able to shrug it off, though: aside from the hunkering mystery of his mother, life was good to Toller, reliable and satisfying, and it was typical of a simplicity of mind that he would have been the last to suspect that he believed it would continue this way forever.
When Toller was forty-two, his father was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he died six months later. Toller learned that his father was dead when his mother called while he was on his way to the hospital.
“Don’t let them take him away,” Toller said automatically.
It was the most reflexive thing he had ever said, completely unprompted and unscripted, and he pondered it, this primal desire, as he drove along 280, exiting at Sand Hill Road and coasting down the long incline toward the Stanford campus and the medical center at its edge, Hoover Tower rising in the distance. A malfunctioning sprinkler operating on one of the emerald swaths of grass on either side of the road sprayed the windshield and passenger side windows of Toller’s car as he passed, startling him from his reverie, and he fumbled for the wiper switch.
At first, after the diagnosis, Toller had been tremendously hopeful — hopeful that his father would survive, and hopeful that the crisis would repair the rift between his mother and him. Who else, he’d wondered, could she turn to? And who else, he might have wondered, did he have? Even a hated son resists the idea of his own orphaning. But although he’d carefully dressed and groomed himself for his appearances in his role as concerned adult son, hoping to gull his mother from behind the disguise of his ongoing success, she’d been unrelenting, and when Toller had checked the time on his wristwatch, a wristwatch he was proud of, as the two of them waited for his father to emerge from surgery, she had casually ridiculed it, gesturing at it as if to the very unseen audience to whom Toller was playing. “What kind of a watch is that? That’s an absurd watch for a grown man.” And, after the surgeon had finally appeared to deliver the unhopeful news, when Toller had leaned toward his mother and begun to say vaguely reassuring words, she had twisted the section of newspaper that she held in her hands — a section he had offered her in the courtly manner that he imagined was befitting a considerate and beloved son — into a club, as if she intended to strike Toller
with it. His own newspaper!
“For God’s sake, Toller. I don’t need comforting. I don’t need you to comfort me.”
When he arrived at the hospital on the day his father died, he found his mother standing at the nurse’s station, a paper grocery bag on the counter before her. He started for his father’s room, but his mother’s voice stopped him: “He’s gone, Toller.” He pushed through the voice; she couldn’t possibly mean what she seemed to be saying, but when he reached the room it was empty, the bed already efficiently stripped.
“I wanted to see him,” Toller said.
“You didn’t want to see him like that.”
“I did,” Toller insisted. “I did want to see him.”
“Well, I didn’t want to wait in there with him while you took your time getting here,” she said. “All right? Please, don’t make a scene. If you want to see him, you can go down to the morgue. The morgue, right?”
A nurse looked up brightly from the computer terminal and open files before her and nodded. Toller’s mother had one hand on her hip and rested an elbow on the counter. She looked as if she was at the front desk of a hotel, checking out. It dawned on him that in the grocery bag were his father’s things. Toller sat down in a chair to wait while his mother squared things away. The chemo nurse came upstairs to hug her, the CT scan technician, the floor nurse, wearing a preposterous tunic depicting Sylvester and Tweety — stalking, chasing, pouncing, fluttering away, laughing. More of his mother’s great friends. Toller returned home to Brisbane that night — his mother having refused his perfunctory offer to stay with her at the house — and ate voraciously.
He had his father’s address book with him, and he wore his father’s signet ring on his finger. The girls were in bed and Margaret sat across the kitchen table watching him. He ate what was before him and then returned to the stove to get more from the pot. He drank an entire bottle of wine. Margaret said nothing when he started on the whiskey. He felt elated. A feeling of well-being spread throughout his body, easing a knotty tautness that seemed to have entered deep into each of his muscles months and years beforehand. He wondered if this was what his father had felt as his own depleted body began its final shutting down, an easeful surrender of all the worst things life had thrust upon him.
What, with that gone, would have been left to worry about? Surely he couldn’t have been worried about that boulder of refusal, of imprudent harsh resolve, that turned up at the hospital each day disguised as a wife, disguised as a person, to stand at his bedside, imparting her spurious good cheer to the personnel who jabbed, who poked, who choked, who abraded, who tormented his father throughout those final weeks. That fantastic act, honed over the course of decades while the malignancy of her genuine feelings burned glowing within her, lavished upon those who professionally and without the least emotion presided over his father’s destruction. After all that she could not forgive, all that fell short against that scale of rigid values she’d erected over the years, he found, with joy, that he could not forgive those smiles and tears she expended on them even after allowing their collaborators to haul his father away like meat. The two of them, mother and son, were free of one another at last. Thinking of his father dead — the imagined corpse that would always have to stand for the real one he hadn’t seen — he began finally to cry for the first time that day, and Margaret reached out to take his hands in hers with the incomplete but heartfelt understanding that is the best, really, that we can hope for.