A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 17

I like Friday mornings. I like waking up and knowing I am only eight or ten hours away from two days of life uninterrupted by telephone calls from printers. I will occasionally work on the weekend, if really pressed, but I am pretty good at avoiding it. Either that, or the work avoids me, which is an even better arrangement. I will bend the rules every now and then if the job in question is for a struggling little guy who needs every break he can get. I know how that feels. While I�m too lazy to deserve a similar favor, if I can help someone who is mired in bureaucratic rigmarole, or who is otherwise being stepped on by the so-called powers that be, I don�t hesitate to do so. I certainly can�t give him money, which is what he really needs, but at least some old-fashioned good service can help make the going a little smoother. Not that I�m a saint, or that the situation comes up very often. What usually happens, and what I refuse to give in to, is that I am pushed by printers who are themselves being pushed by obnoxious, demanding people who think the whole world should come to a halt until their own needs have been met. There�s no point in encouraging that kind of behavior.

By keeping the weekends clear, I am able to focus on other things, such as poverty, failure, and regret. I think a lot about Mary, and about Matt, who is so happy and well adjusted it�s ridiculous. I think it helps that his mother and I aren�t enemies. In fact I know it does. It certainly helps me, and it makes life more tolerable for Mary. I�m sure there are unanswered questions in our son�s mind, but he is old enough and smart enough to know that not every question can be answered, or even brought up. He does like it when the three of us are together. Being young and inexperienced, he thinks he�s being cagey when he creates little situations that require Mary and me to sit together or stand together, or to appear, for all practical purposes, as man and wife. But we both know what he�s up to. And we�re glad he does it. I know I am. Mary � well, she can be cagey too. An awful lot of water has gone under our particular bridge � enough to drown us, almost � but neither of us has forgotten what it feels like to be physically close. The spark is still there. Matt senses this, but is unaware of its depth. It pleases him, and it also troubles him, because he is a young male who has begun his own physical adventure.

So it is, and so it was that I managed to get through the following day with a fair amount of ease. I proofed my work for Abe, and delivered it to him about eleven in the morning. That made him happy. It made me happy as well, though he called me about two hours later to say he was on the verge of committing murder, because the Essex Girls wanted more changes. These we were able to take care of over the phone. I was getting ready to make another trip downtown to give him the supposed final version and yet another bill when he called again and said we were going back to Version One, with only two or three minor changes. For the fun of it, I told him I�d accidentally deleted the file. That just about finished him off. Then, when I tried looking it up on the computer, I thought I had deleted the file, because I couldn�t find it right away � my vision blurred, no doubt, by guilt. So I delivered that version instead, and we had a laugh about it in the shop. Not only that, but Abe paid part of what he owed me, not counting the stuff I�d done during the week. His check was for a whopping one hundred and seventy-five dollars. My first impulse was to cash it and play the ponies. But, as I know next to nothing about horse-racing, I stopped at the bank on the way home, replenished my rent fund, and came away with a net of one hundred bones, just in time for our trip to Norris. That was a good feeling.

I also made it through the day without eating. I am very good at surviving on water and sunlight when I have to. In this case, I didn�t really have to, but there was a psychological advantage in knowing I had a hundred dollars for the weekend. Most people will laugh, but a hundred dollars still sounds like a lot of money to me. It is a lot of money. And it sounds lucky. I liked the idea of picking up Mary with a hundred dollars in my pocket. I know it�s stupid. Had it been five hundred, at least, I would have had something to feel good about � especially if I didn�t have a stack of bills needing to be paid. But it was Friday, I was looking forward to the trip, and I refused to think about that. Life doesn�t stop just because your electricity gets shut off. It�s less convenient, to be sure, but it doesn�t stop.

My slate cleared, so to speak, I was able to spend some time worrying about my mother. What I refused to do was to blow everything out of proportion. Still, the business of her telling Mary she was thinking of moving had bugged me all week � that, and not admitting she�d talked to Mary on the phone. Not that her behavior was without precedent. Mulling it over, I remembered several instances when she had played both sides of the fence where Mary and I were concerned. But I quickly reminded myself that she had never done so out of malice. Disappointment, perhaps, or frustration, but not malice. And I couldn�t blame her, either. It�s hard when the people you love insist on being unhappy. It often puts you in the uncomfortable position of having to choose sides, which is neither right nor fair.

Leaving out Terry Mitchell�s visit also bothered me. Mom likes Terry. She likes him a lot. I felt sure that when she�d given him my number, she had also encouraged him to see me when he was in town for his convention. In fact, if I hadn�t needed it so badly, I would have bet my last dollar on it. If anything, knowing how Mom feels about my nonexistent social life, I would have expected her to call me five minutes after Terry left to say he was coming. Of course she could have called when I was gone, or in the shower. And when I didn�t answer, she might have decided I was busy, and that I shouldn�t be bothered, since she is under the impression that I have a business to run.

Finally, I gave up and settled for feeling guilty. Despite the serious undertones, I was looking forward to spending time with my mother. I wanted to see her, and to hear her voice, which sounds so different in person, so much more real and alive. She is definitely not a telephone person. She comes off sounding metallic, as if she is part of the telephone equipment itself. Not always, but sometimes. Sometimes she sounds like she is speaking through a clarinet. The thing is, while she was never as lighthearted as my father, she is still fun to be around. Visiting with her can also be a challenge, as there is always the potential for her to single out something unimportant and examine it from every possible angle until it actually seems important. The frustrating thing is, you still know it�s unimportant. It doesn�t help that she knows you know, and even agrees, but pretends not to let on. If you can manage to keep your cool, though, it does make for some pretty good comedy. That�s probably why she does it � that, and for the mental exercise. It would seem I take after her in this respect, because I, too, have a habit of latching onto minor points and beating them to death.

Mothers. Where would we be without them, right? Especially mothers who have been at it for awhile, and who therefore know all the angles. Mothers can, and do, see right through you. They not only have eyes in the back of their heads, they know what you�re thinking, even when you�re not in the room. In fact, they know what you�re thinking if you are across town, across the country, or on the other side of the world. I suspect mothers belong to a worldwide mother network, where each acts as a spy, leaving no one safe from reprimand. Fathers lack this power. Fathers aren�t organized. Fathers belch and watch the big game on TV, and secretly enjoy it when their sons get into fights at school. But despite their seemingly carefree attitude, they still tremble at the sound of their mother�s voices, which they hear long after the old women are dead and buried. Now that�s power. Listen to your mother. The only saving grace is that even mothers have mothers. Mothers of mothers are even more ferocious, because they must constantly see to it that their mothering standards are upheld. They know their sons, more or less, will do as they�re told. But daughters who are mothers are far more likely to pretend to do as they�re told, while doing exactly the opposite. In their minds, they are avoiding making the same mistakes their mothers made while raising them. This isn�t easy, because their mothers made no mistakes. So, in order to support their case, they must remember all sorts of things that didn�t really happen while they were growing up. It�s all very complicated, and it usually backfires � a fact to which the daughters of mothers with mothers will heartily attest. This group, right up until the time they become mothers themselves, can see clearly how their mothers have turned into caricatures of their mothers, whom they can�t help liking more, because mothers of mothers spend more money on Christmas gifts, and also make better cookies. The moment the daughters of mothers become mothers, however, they forget all about that and another power struggle begins, thus setting the stage for the next generation, who will never know what hit them.

When evening rolled around and I was officially off the clock, I gave Mary a call to confirm our travel plans. I also called so I could hear her voice, which I really miss hearing on a daily basis. Mary�s voice is music to my ears. It is low, serious, smooth, feminine, and full of humor, all at the same time. Mary�s voice is a perfect blend of compassion and intelligence. My voice, on the other hand, sounds like a saw going through dead wood � unless I am excited about something, in which case it sounds like someone wrestling with a cupboard full of pots and pans. I also have a tendency to cough and wheeze, because doing so buys precious time when I don�t know what I�m talking about. The coughing and wheezing often takes verbal form, resulting in frequently repeated meaningless phrases, such as, �So to speak,� and, �As it were.� What might pass for intelligence, in other words � there�s another one right there � is really just a cover-up for my reluctance to think things through. Think before you speak � someone�s grandmother said this, if not everyone�s grandmother. Immediately thereafter, she said, You always put your foot in your mouth. What a lady. She was right, of course. In my own defense, however, I will say this: it is in speaking that I am able to figure things out. Once I hear how stupid my thinking sounds, once I�ve suffered the embarrassment of making it public, then I am more likely to move on to ideas that work. It�s a slow process, unfortunately. I could easily die before I get to first base, even though I�ve been running like the wind for the last forty-four years.

Finally able to relax with my feeble workweek behind me, I was anxious to get started on our weekend adventure. We�d originally planned to leave at nine. The trip to Norris takes about four hours, give or take, depending on traffic, and on how many stops you make. I asked Mary if she would mind leaving an hour earlier. She said that would be fine, as she�d already dropped Matt off at his friend�s house and wouldn�t have to look after him in the morning. She assumed I was worried about my mother and was in a hurry to get there. I told her that was true, but that I also felt like hitting the road, the earlier the better. �I�ll go at six if you can make it,� I said.

Mary laughed and said, �Not on your life, Mister. Tomorrow�s Saturday. Even if I�m awake, I won�t look human.�

�Nonsense,� I said. �You always look great. I�m the one who�s hideous at that hour.�

�That�s true.�

�Hey. Be nice.�

�Well, what do you want me to say? That you�re handsome at six a.m.?�

�No, that would be asking too much. Besides, you know better.�

With a little haggling, and in spite of some bogus poetic talk about the open road, Mary eventually agreed to let me pick her up at seven-thirty. �But let�s go in my car,� she said. �It�s supposed to be hot tomorrow, and I don�t want to roast.�

I protested, as a matter of pride, but it did no good. There was no denying the unreliability of my air conditioning. Sometimes, when cool air does come through the vents, it smells bad, as if the squirrel turning the belt has died. Approaching it from another angle, I said that since it was my mother, it was my responsibility, therefore we should use my car. When Mary didn�t respond right away, I thought she was about to give in. Instead, she reminded me in that steady, kind voice of hers that she was also responsible, because the visit had been her idea � a little detail I had managed to forget. But she didn�t dwell on it. �Anyway,� she said, �my car has more room. It�s a good four hours to your mom�s. We�ll be a lot more comfortable.�

Reluctantly, I gave in. �Okay,� I said. �That makes sense. We�ll go in your car. But I�ll pay for the gas.�

Mary sounded like she was apologizing when she said she�d bought gas on her way home from work. That�s when I realized she had planned to use her car all along.

Trying to sound cheerful, I said, �You did? Well, I�ll fill it up later, then.�

�Okay,� Mary said.

Of course, I preferred Mary�s car anyway. Anyone would. It�s much newer than mine, much cleaner, and better in every way. Mine is safe, as far as that goes, but it�s still a diseased rust bucket. I hate the thing. What I don�t prefer is having my ego bruised. I hated Mary�s assumption that I was broke, even though it�s obvious that I am. Really, the whole business with the trip and with the car is just one more example of how I�ve failed. Without question, I should have been the one to suggest the trip. Also, a special trip wouldn�t have been needed at all, if I had been to visit my mother more often. And why hadn�t I? Because I couldn�t afford it, that�s why. For the same rotten reason, I couldn�t swing by in the morning and pick up my ex-wife in a decent car. We had to take hers � and I knew she would ask me to drive, because she thinks I feel better about myself when I am behind the wheel, which is true, except that it isn�t. What I really feel like is a glorified parking lot attendant. The whole thing makes me sick. Money � it always comes down to that. Mary�s a nurse, she makes a living. I�m a � what am I? I can�t even pay my bills on a regular basis. Why don�t I go out and get a job? Not that anyone would hire me. Not that I want to be hired. I want to � what? I don�t know. I do, but I don�t. It won�t work. How can it work? And yet nothing else works, so why not give it a try � whatever it is, whether it works or not? Isn�t trying what counts? Surely � anything is better than feeling worthless all the time.

On the surface, the rest of our conversation was fine. It was fine. I didn�t want it to end. Talking with Mary is like holding onto a lifeline. All the while, though, I felt desperately sad. I felt like a condemned prisoner who, about to be executed, has been allowed one last conversation with the woman he loves.

Finally, we said good-bye. I looked at the clock. We�d been talking for less than ten minutes.

In lieu of supper, I made myself a cup of coffee. When it was ready, I took my cup to the window, stood there looking out, and inhaled the steam. Three beautiful little Mexican girls, the oldest no more than ten years of age, were playing hide-and-seek in the parking lot. Not yet burdened by life, to them the asphalt was a meadow, and the cars were tall trees. Their long, black hair absorbed the evening light. The light entered their bodies, then flashed in their eyes.

I sat down in my father�s chair and had my coffee.

I read The Unnamable and got nowhere.

I remembered my life with Mary.

I remembered the day Matt was born, and how it felt when he wrapped his tiny hand around my little finger.

I looked at my bills, and sorted them according to urgency.

I looked at my checkbook, and added the day�s deposit. I looked at the earlier entries, and read the pitiful story they told.

The room slowly darkened. I didn�t bother with the lights. There was enough light coming in from the parking lot. Too much, in fact. I wondered what it would be like to live in a cave, then decided I already knew. I thought of the first man and the first woman, sitting together by a hot fire, with no past and a future completely unknown. I thought about marriage. I thought about the wind whispering in a deep, dark forest, and about souls meeting in the night. I felt sorry for the world�s dead, of which there are so many, of which there will be so many more. I felt admiration, respect, and a profound sense of loss. I felt empty, then numb.

I felt I had died, but that I would be born again any moment.

I heard a sound, turned, and saw my father approaching through the mist. He was smiling, as usual. �Your mother told me to come and get you,� he said, �so here I am. Are you ready?� I told him yes, that I was ready, and that I had always been ready. He said, �Good.� He reached out and I took his hand, and we walked along in silence. Without effort, we covered a great distance, and I soon found myself outside our home in Norris. Pointing to a light that was still on in the kitchen window, my father said, �Your mother will be so glad to see you. She�s been waiting a long time.� Then he looked at me and said, �I have, too.� We walked up to the window and looked in. My mother was sitting at the table, looking at one of her old picture albums. My father opened the front door and we went inside. The kitchen wasn�t where it used to be. There were several doors, all of which had to be opened and closed without making a sound. Behind each door was a room I didn�t remember, and in each room there were people waiting. The people had familiar faces, but there was something in each that made them unrecognizable. Everyone looked concerned. No one said a word. Finally, after one last room and one last door, we entered the kitchen. Looking very tired and very old, my mother smiled up at me. She said, �Oh, Stephen, you�re here,� as if she�d been granted her dying wish. My father left me and stood by her side. �He was asleep,� he said. �That�s what took me so long.� My mother nodded. �How is Mary?� she said. �Where is she? Is she still outside?� When I told my mother that Mary and I were divorced, she said I was mistaken. My father said, �Shall I bring her, too?� My mother said, �Yes, of course. We aren�t a family unless Mary is here.� My father walked across the room and opened the door. �Mary!� he called. �Mary! Mary! Mary!� I jumped up. The room was dark. I was alone.

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Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know

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