A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 20

When we arrived at my mother’s house, it was almost three-thirty. We could have made it sooner, but about fifteen miles outside Norris I abandoned Highway 17 and took what is commonly known as the old road, which is the road everyone used before the main highway went in about thirty-five years ago. The old road’s real name is Norris Prairie Road, and the view of the surrounding farmland is great. You can see plenty from Highway 17, but you feel more when you’re on Norris Prairie. These days you feel bumps, but you also feel the land itself — the gentle swells and swales of rich, unleveled earth. In many places, lush corn fields grow right up to the road, which bends like a lazy river, according to the contour of the land.

From Rutherford all the way to Norris Prairie, we hardly spoke a word. I think we were both a little scared. As we were leaving the parking lot at Mello’s, it was all I could do to keep from asking Mary to spend the rest of the afternoon with me in a motel room. Had I asked her then, right away — but I didn’t. Once again, I was afraid of ruining our time together by pushing Mary into a situation she wasn’t prepared for. I also didn’t want to hear her say no. That would have been too much to bear. And I didn’t want her to feel like she had to say yes, just to spare my feelings. It was an odd situation. Mary’s response was genuine and full of warmth. We should have gone to a motel. At the very least, I should have told her that I still love her — not that she didn’t already know, but so we could both hear the words spoken again out loud.

On the final leg of our trip, we started to relax again. The beautiful countryside helped. We also knew it was necessary for my mother’s sake.

In Norris proper, when we were just a few minutes away from Mom’s house, Mary lowered her visor and opened the mirror. She rummaged in her purse and found her brush, then began arranging her hair. Her actions had more to do with mental preparation than appearance. Her thick, dark-brown hair, naturally tinted with gray, hardly needed attention. She put away her brush and looked at herself one last time, then closed the mirror and returned the visor to its original position.

“You look great,” I said.

“I look tired,” Mary said.

“Well, it’s been a long trip.”

I stopped at a light in the middle of town.

Mary said, “There’s more traffic than there used to be.”

“Norris is growing up,” I said.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“No. You’re right. There is more traffic, though.”

We continued on. After waiting at two more lights, I turned right on J Street. On J Street we passed the big two-story house that served for many years as the headquarters of the local school district. Now there is a sign in front advertising the unfamiliar names of two lawyers. A couple of blocks further on, we came to the post office, which is in an old brick building shared by a small carpet shop and a real estate office. Then we passed the ever-popular Page Funeral Chapel, the town’s one and only mortuary, owned since the beginning of time by successive generations of the illustrious Page family, whose prominence began not in the undertaking business, but in blacksmithing. As usual, their gleaming hearse was at the ready, parked under the awning at the building’s side entrance, facing the street.

It was three blocks out of the way, but I couldn’t resist a spin by Norris High School. Being Saturday, the place was locked up and silent. There were, however, several people playing tennis on the school’s tennis courts. Next door at the gym, a few cars were parked in the parking lot, and there was a jumble of bicycles near the main entrance. This meant Coach Anderson’s Saturday basketball program was still intact, even though Coach Anderson has been dead for many years and two or three other coaches have since had a turn at the helm. Coach Anderson was a great guy. No matter who it was, and no matter how bad he was, if a kid said he wanted to play basketball, he got his chance, under the bright lights, so to speak, and in front of everyone. Coach Anderson was a human being first and a coach second. That’s why the school never let him coach the varsity team. The varsity coach, by contrast, a guy named Hiller, was as obnoxious and competitive as they come. During school hours, he masqueraded as a chemistry teacher. More than once, instead of teaching chemistry, he showed his class basketball films. I know, because I was there. And while his teams did have the habit of winning, his players hated him. In fact, most everyone in the school hated him. When he died a couple of years ago, and was duly salted away by the good folks at Page Funeral Chapel, three people attended the service. One was his wife, who wanted to make sure, and the others were employees of the mortuary, who were sure, and were on hand to look serious.

As it happened, my mother was outside watering her trademark patch of zinnias when we pulled into the driveway. Her house faces south. The garage is a separate building, adjacent to the backyard and set well off the street. The driveway itself consists of two narrow strips of concrete, with grass growing in between. For as long as I can remember, the area between the driveway and the end of the house has been reserved for flowers, which thrive in the morning sun, then take a break from the heat in the afternoon. As always, the grass in front of the house and in the driveway was neatly trimmed. The sidewalk had just been swept, and even the gutter was remarkably free of debris. My father used to sweep the gutter once a week. He also went around the house with a broom, knocking down all the spider webs. When he died, Mom picked up where he left off, without missing a week. She even mowed the lawn for a time, but eventually she hired one of the local gardeners for the task. The person she hired was someone she and Dad both knew, a guy named Clinton Avery. In true small town fashion, Mr. Avery has since passed his business on to his son, but he still takes care of Mom’s lawn.

My mother waved, then put the hose in the flower bed, and came to meet us. While we were still more in than out of the car, she said, “Oh, this is so wonderful. I’m glad you brought the big car.” Almost before I was standing up, she gave me a hug. Looking over my shoulder and the top of the car at Mary, she said, “Mary, it’s nice to see you.”

Mary answered cheerfully, “It’s great to be here,” then came around the car and received a hug of her own.

Once the initial phase of greetings was over, Mom excused herself to turn off the hose. When I complimented her on her flowers, she dismissed the remark with a frown and said they weren’t anywhere near as nice as last year’s. Before I could say they were better than last year’s, which they were, Mary jumped in and said, “Here’s a tiger swallowtail.”

Sure enough, atop an enormous, bright-red zinnia, a beautiful butterfly had stopped for refreshment. “Wow,” I said. “That’s a beauty.”

Scarcely bothering to notice, Mom said, “Oh, yes. There used to be so many of those. I wonder what happened to them.” She rewound the hose, leaving it in a perfect coil next to the house.

As we walked toward the front door, I said, “The yard looks good, too.” But either my mother didn’t hear, or she didn’t agree, because she made no response.

The porch was immaculate. At one end, the two wood-and-canvas lawn chairs I’m so fond of were side by side, facing the street. Glancing around, I couldn’t see anything that needed repair. The house, as always, looked like a tight little ship that could weather any storm.

“You two must be hungry,” Mom said once we were inside.

It was warm in the house, and the familiar aroma of her cooking permeated the air. Reluctantly, I confessed that we’d eaten in Rutherford.

“Oh, you didn’t,” she said. Quickly swallowing her disappointment, she added, “Well, never mind. That’s fine. What I have will keep. There’s a roast in the oven. We can have that for supper.”

As usual, the TV was on. She clicked it off with the remote, then turned on the small oscillating fan she keeps on the floor in the living room. She asked us if we wanted something to drink. “I don’t have any beer,” she said. “I forgot to buy some when I was at the store yesterday.”

Feeling like a complete heel, I said, “That’s okay. All I need is a glass of water.”

“Mary? How about you? There’s some Pepsi in the refrigerator.”

Mary said she would be willing to split one, if anyone else was in the mood. Mom looked at me. “Why not?” I said. “It sounds kind of good.”

We followed her into the kitchen. Getting us our Pepsi quickly turned into a project, beginning with finding the right glasses. She opened her cupboard by the sink and took down two, then decided they weren’t quite big enough. She found two others that would have been fine, but soon discovered that these weren’t right either, because they weren’t nice enough. She opened the freezer and took out a tray of ice cubes. The ice was a hundred years old if it was a day. Mary and I looked at each other. “If the Pepsi’s already cold,” Mary said, “we’ll be fine without ice.”

Mom didn’t answer. She found two tall, dusty glasses that didn’t match and put three ices cubes in each. She opened the refrigerator, brought out two cans of Pepsi, and popped the tops on both. When I asked her if we were going to split two cans three ways, she looked irritated, then confused. “I’m not having any,” she said. She filled both glasses to the brim.

Mary picked one up. “Thank you, Jean,” she said. “This is just what we need.” Following her example, I picked up the other glass and raised it to my mouth. The Pepsi smelled like stale ice cubes.

Mom opened the refrigerator again. This time she brought out a large platter heaped with macaroni salad. Without saying a word, she peeled back the thin layer of plastic she’d wrapped it with.

“What’re you up to?” I said.

“This is just something for you to taste,” she said.

Rather than argue, we watched in horror as my mother filled two dessert plates with macaroni salad, and included a deviled egg with each.

We sat at the kitchen table, which Mom uses as a desk for opening the mail and paying her bills. I was surprised to find she hadn’t put things away. She moved everything to one end, then covered it with the day’s newspaper. While Mary and I dutifully ate our macaroni salad, Mom caught us up on my brother and sister and their families. Basically, she repeated what we already knew, relating old news as if it had just happened.

After finishing our snack, we got up to stretch again and take a stroll through the house. Mom stayed in the kitchen. While donning an apron, she said there were a couple of things she needed to check on for supper. Mary offered to help, but Mom insisted everything was under control, and that we should both make ourselves at home.

In the living room, I said quietly, “What do you think?”

Mary held a finger to her lips. She suggested we go out to the car and get our suitcases. Safely outside, she said, “Your mother isn’t deaf, you know.”

“She is when she wants to be,” I said.

“Well, isn’t that her prerogative?”

“I don’t know. I suppose.”

I asked Mary if she thought my mother seemed confused.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said. “A little out of practice, maybe.”

I opened the trunk and took out our suitcases. “She was fine when I talked to her on the phone the other day,” I said. “More or less, anyway.”

Mary closed the trunk. “She’s a little nervous,” she said. “Let’s give her a chance. We just got here.”

Before going in, we stopped for another look at Mom’s zinnias. Having enjoyed a nice bath, a small frog crawled from a wet leaf onto the house. It inched its way upward until it was about three feet from the ground, roughly the same height as the flowers themselves. Mary found a dry bloom partially hidden in the dense growth. She popped it off the stem and dropped it in the flower bed where it couldn’t be seen. The frog didn’t move.

A car rattled by. When it was quiet again, I said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

“I am too,” Mary said.

We took our suitcases inside. Just as I was closing the front door, Mom came up the hall. She looked worried. “Oh, there you are,” she said. “Mary? There are fresh towels in the bathroom. If you two need anything else, you know where everything is.” Finally noticing the bags, she said, “Why don’t you bring those in, Stephen.”

We followed Mom down the hall and into my sister’s old room, which faces the backyard. I left my suitcase just outside the door and brought Mary’s in. I set it down by the end of the bed. Mary thanked my mother and told her everything looked wonderful, which it did. Mom seemed relieved. She smiled, then looked at me. When I realized she was expecting me to say something, I said, “Heck, this beats a motel any day.”

I went back into the hall and picked up my suitcase. “I’ll go ahead and dump this in my room,” I said.

My mother almost sounded hurt when she said, “Why? There’s plenty of space here, isn’t there?”

“There is, but I’ll be using it in there,” I said.

I went to my room, only to find my bed covered with old photos. Much to my surprise, it looked like there was a major sorting and labeling project under way. There were at least two dozen individual piles of pictures, each with a corresponding piece of small white tablet paper on which were written names, dates, and locations. In between, there were pictures scattered every which way. Where my pillow should have been, there was a big cardboard box containing albums.

Mom and Mary were still in my sister’s room. When I rejoined them I was going to make a joke about being banished to the couch, but Mary’s strained expression made me hold my tongue. “We were thinking of taking a walk this evening,” she said. “Your mom says there have been quite a few changes in the neighborhood.”

“Oh, really?” I said. “I’ll be darned.”

In typically circuitous fashion, Mom told us about a neighbor who had just built a new cedar fence. After giving us a knot-by-knot description that was boring even to her, she heaved a world-weary sigh and said she was happy we’d come. Then she excused herself and returned to the kitchen.

Mary and I looked at each other.

“Well?” I said. “What’s going on? My bed’s covered with pictures.”

“It is?”

“Completely and totally,” I said.

Mary looked at my sister’s bed. It was neatly made, and decorated with a nice new bedspread.

“What is it?” I said. “Something’s wrong. What happened?”

Mary looked at me. In a low voice touched with sadness and irony, she said, “It looks like we’ll be sleeping together tonight.”

Her statement caught me completely off guard. I was expecting her to tell me that Mom was embarrassed for not having my room ready, because she had been busy cooking and forgot.

“What?” I said. “What are you talking about?”

Mary put her arms around me. “I think she’s forgotten we’re divorced,” she said. Her words were barely audible, but their message was loud and clear. When she was able to look at me again, Mary’s eyes were moist, and she was trying not to cry.

I was at a complete loss. Not unlike her selective hearing, Mom’s memory has been subject to harmless, convenient lapses, especially since Dad died. But it seemed impossible that she could have forgotten the marital status of her own son. Sickened by the prospect, I said, “Then I guess I was right after all. She is confused.”

Mary pulled a tissue from a box on my sister’s chest of drawers and used it to dry her eyes. “I don’t know,” she said. “Not really.”

“What do you mean, not really?”

“I mean, it’s just something she wants.”

All at once, the dream I’d had the night before popped into my head.

We sat down on the edge of the bed. The water went on in the kitchen. We heard a drawer being opened, then closed. The water went off. Mom sneezed.

“What did she say, exactly?”

“She asked me if you were mad at her.”

“Mad? What would I be mad about?”

“It was when you took the suitcase.”

“Oh. That meant I was mad?”

“I guess to her it did.”

“I see. Huh. Well, what did she say when you told her I wasn’t?”

“She was worried. She wanted to know if you were having trouble.”

“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”

“I’m not sure. Money? How many kinds of trouble are there?”

“That depends,” I said. “But money tops the list.”

Mary looked at me with understanding.

“So,” I said. “What did you tell her?”

“I told her everything was fine.”

“That’s good.”

“What else was I going to say?”

“Nothing. That’s what she needs to hear.”

I asked Mary what happened after that.

She didn’t answer right away. Instead, she stood up.

We could still hear Mom in the kitchen. Even so, Mary glanced down the hall, then gently closed the bedroom door. She sat down beside me again. After listening a few seconds more, she said, “She asked which side you sleep on. She said your pillow is bigger, but she didn’t know which side to put it on.”


Mary opened the tissue she’d used and carefully smoothed it out against her leg with the palm of her hand.

“This is amazing,” I said. “This is really amazing. Why didn’t you tell her the truth?”

Mary looked at me.

“You didn’t, did you?” I said.

She shook her head.


In a voice that sounded both hurt and defiant, she said, “Because it would have broken her heart, that’s why.”

“It was broken before,” I said. “Three years ago.”

“Well? So was mine.”

I stood up. I went to the window and looked into the backyard. Everything was spinning. The room. The yard. Norris. The world. My pathetic life.

“I’m sorry,” Mary said.

I turned around. She was crying again. “Don’t be,” I said. “Please. Don’t. It isn’t your fault.”

I sat down again and put my arm around Mary. There was no resistance. She leaned against me. She was warm from being upset. Wanting desperately to make her feel better, I told her about the dream I’d had. Doing my best to recall each and every detail, I told her about my father coming for me, and about how he had brought me home, and about how my mother was glad to see me. Then I told her what Mom had said about us not being a family unless Mary was there.

Had my mother walked in, I don’t know what we would have done. I don’t know what we could have done. I was completely distraught. I probably would have jumped up and hugged her. I probably would have thanked her for doing what she was doing — for still believing in her heart that Mary and I belong together.

I held Mary’s face between my hands. I asked her to forgive me. She couldn’t stop crying. When she saw me crying, she kissed me in an eager, desperate way that was meant to heal us both. Over and over, she kissed my lips, my chin, my face, all the while telling me how sorry she was for everything.

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

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