A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 21

After we had regained our composure and made ourselves presentable again, to buy a little more time I showed Mary the condition of my room. When she suggested having a look in my brother’s room, we found it in a similar condition, except that his bed was buried beneath about a foot of sewing.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you sure this wasn’t planned? She’s known all week we were coming.”

Mary squeezed my hand. “I’m not sure of anything,” she said.

“Maybe she’ll realize.”


Mary spent the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen with Mom. I walked around the house and yard, muttering to myself about what had happened, and wondering where it would lead. While the ladies were occupied, I managed to slip off to the grocery store and buy a bottle of wine to go with the evening meal. Hoping it would lighten the atmosphere, I splurged and picked out something nice. When I brought the bottle home and put it on the counter, my mother couldn’t have been more pleased.

With a little help from Mary, Mom had prepared a wonderful supper. Her roast was exceptionally moist and tender, and the potatoes and carrots she’d cooked with it melted in our mouths. Knowing it was one of my favorites, she’d also made candied yams. With little encouragement, and much to everyone’s amusement, I polished off the syrupy brown sugar left in the serving dish. Mom had one glass of wine, her usual limit. Mary and I drank the rest.

After doing the dishes, we took our walk as planned. As I’d expected, other than a new cedar fence, the neighborhood was the same as it had always been, right down to the cracks in the sidewalk. Of course we didn’t make it very far, because Mom kept stopping to talk, and to point things out. Whatever the reason, she seemed a lot happier, and more like her real self. Not everything she said made sense, but it made enough sense. Basically, we just let her talk, because it was obviously a relief for her to do so. These days, Mom has very little company. What she has is family. But during the past year, especially, I’m afraid Bob and Kay and I have been falling down on the job. We all have our so-called legitimate reasons. On the other hand, someday Mom will be gone, so none of the reasons are any good. This is something I intend to remember.

We spent the rest of the evening in the living room. For the most part, Mom and Mary talked and I tried to stay awake. A lot of familiar ground was covered. Mom brought us up to date on who had died, and told us what had killed them. Two or three of the people she mentioned have been dead for quite awhile, but we didn’t let on. She talked about Dad. Much to my relief, she didn’t focus on his passing, or the final months leading up to his death. Everything she said had to do with things that had happened a long time ago, when I was a kid, or further back still. She asked how Matt was doing. Pleased with our report, she praised us up one side and down the other, just as if he and Mary and I were still a real family, living under one roof. That was nice, but it was also very strange. As for having called me at my apartment several days earlier, it might as well not have happened. I could have brought it up, but I didn’t. I could have insisted on the truth, but it would only have ruined the evening. As I sat there in a drowsy lump, one thing became clear. If my mother was in a state of denial, she had every right to be. I myself have been in denial for years. Under a banner of excuses, I have lived to the present day, busy at nothing, as sure as sure can be — of what? — that I am who I am, I guess — even though who I am has no practical application. Who I am has nothing to do with who I really am — I hope. If it does, I might as well throw in the towel. Or, maybe I’m a human onion, and my identity is comprised of layers which in the end are pretty much all the same, and which only serve to make people’s eyes water. Including my own.

As for selling the house and moving, there was no mention of that at all. There was certainly nothing being neglected around the house, at least in terms of repairs. During one of my more lucid moments, I suggested that a fresh coat of interior paint might be in order. This my mother answered with a patronizing smile, which I took to mean that the painting was none of my business. I just hope she won’t try to do the work herself. But she probably will. I don’t know. Maybe it’s good for her. After all, pride is involved. And independence. I also think that by looking after such things herself, she has found a way of keeping my father near. If he is not near already.

There was also no mention made of our sleeping arrangements. The messes in my room and my brother’s room were never referred to. From the facts at hand, it looked like Mary and I were headed for a night together in the same bed. I thought about offering to sleep on the couch, but that would have put us in hot water with my mother. I finally decided, therefore, to sleep on the floor in my sister’s room. This was not a pleasant prospect, because I am no longer young and pliable, and because I knew Mary’s proximity would be, well, disturbing.

When we finally called it a night, and after Mom had turned off the lights and gone humming down the hall to her room and closed her door, I went to my room for my suitcase. I’ve always liked that room. For just a moment, I stood there in the dark, listening. As if they’d been waiting for my return, memories fluttered past — first one, and then another, whispering, reminding, teasing, full of youthful pain and sorrow. Once upon a time, in my room, I slowly became aware of the world, and of myself in it, and of the unanswerable questions it involved. In my room, I grappled with the concept of love, having no idea at first of what it was. I grappled with the idea of myself in relation with the female sex. I understood nothing and everything simultaneously — which is to say there were no words for what I felt, only more feelings, and more, and more. One day, I was a god. The next, I could see no point in living. In my room, I listened to my brother’s radio playing through the wall. I listened to my sister talking to her friends on the phone in the kitchen. Late at night, when they thought we were all asleep, I listened to my mother and father making love.

I picked up my suitcase and walked as quietly as I could back to my sister’s room. Mary was in the bathroom. She had turned the bedspread back just far enough to reveal the pillows. The larger of the two was on the left side — the side I used to sleep on when Mary and I were together. Mary’s suitcase was open on the foot of the bed. It contained several well-worn nursing magazines, a small travel clock, an extra pair of shoes, and what looked like about two changes of clothing. Beside it on the bed, she had unfolded a nightshirt. I recognized the shirt right away as the one she was using at the time of our divorce. It surprised me to see it. It was definitely old enough and worn enough to be discarded. To me, it was painfully familiar. But its presence showed that Mary didn’t feel the same way about it. I wasn’t sure what she felt. It was possible the nightshirt held no meaning at all, and that she simply hadn’t bothered to get a new one.

I put my suitcase on the floor. The room was stuffy, so I opened the window for some air. There was a light breeze, but it was still on the warm side. I was standing at the window when Mary came in. “The bathroom’s free,” she said.

We looked at each other. Mary turned and pushed the door until it was almost shut. “What a day,” she said.

“I’ll go along with you there,” I said.

We talked about Mom briefly, but we were both too tired to reach any conclusions. We shared our concern, which was compounded by questions and doubts. In my usual decisive manner, I suggested that either she was crazy, or we were, or both.

There was an old chair from the living room against the wall between the window and the closet. Using it as a platform for my suitcase, I took out my toothbrush and toothpaste. In the process, I noticed Uncle Leo peeking out of the center flap. When I’d brought him along, I was going on the assumption that I’d be spending the night in my own room, and thought he would make good company. My first inclination was to leave him be. After wrestling with the idea briefly, I decided to show the story to Mary. With my toothbrush and toothpaste in one hand and Uncle Leo in the other, I asked her if she was in the mood for a good laugh.

Mary smiled. “What’s this?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I really don’t.” Already feeling embarrassed, I handed the pages to Mary. “It’s a little something I wrote,” I said.

“Is it a story?” she said.

“It might be,” I said. “I think so, anyway. Maybe you can tell me. I did it this week, between typesetting jobs.”

“I like your drawing.”

“That? Well, I guess it could be called a drawing.”

“What do you mean, you guess? It’s good.”

“Uh, yeah. I’d better go and brush my teeth,” I said.

Her curiosity aroused, Mary moved her nightshirt to one side and sat on the edge of the bed. She was already reading when I opened the door and left the room. When I came back a few minutes later, she was still sitting on the bed, and still reading. The story isn’t that long, so I knew she’d had time to finish it. I closed the door, then took off my shoes. A minute or two later, she looked up at me and said, “Well, then.”

I said, “That bad, eh?”

Mary put the story down in her lap. “Uncle Leo sounds an awful lot like someone I know,” she said.

“Does he? Who?”



“This is a good story,” Mary said.

“I see.”

“I mean it.”


“It’s a children’s story.”

“I guess it is at that,” I said. “When I wrote it, I just wrote it. I wasn’t thinking about who would read it. I wasn’t even thinking.”

“What are you going to do with it?”


Mary picked up the first page and began reading it again. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“It’s very sweet. Uncle Leo. You can’t help feeling happy for him and sorry for him at the same time.”

“I hope everything works out for the guy,” I said. “He doesn’t seem very bright.”

Mary smiled. “I do too,” she said. “I really do.”

I went to the closet and slid the door open.

“What’re you doing?” Mary said.

“Looking for a blanket,” I said.

“What for? I thought it was kind of warm.”

“It is. But it’ll help make the floor softer.”

There were no blankets in the closet, only old games and cardboard boxes full of clothes no one had worn for years. I closed the door again.

“You’re not sleeping on the floor,” Mary said. “I won’t allow it.”

“I can’t very well sleep on the couch,” I said. “What if Mom goes out there?”

As if she were afraid of disturbing him, Mary moved Uncle Leo to the nightstand on the right side of the bed. She got up and came to where I was standing. She took both of my hands in hers. “Stephen,” she said. “Let it go. Just let it go.” She looked tired. At the same time, she was incredibly beautiful. Not beautiful in terms of Hollywood, or advertising, or the current cosmetic fad. Beautiful from the inside. Beautiful from wit and intelligence. Beautiful from compassion. Beautiful from having endured.

“How can I?” I said. “How? Tell me.”

Mary didn’t answer. Instead, she let go of my hands. She went back to the bed and closed her suitcase. Then she carried it over by mine and put it on the floor. She closed the curtain. Without looking at me, she walked back to the nightstand and turned on my sister’s old lamp, then turned off the overhead light. She picked up her nightshirt and put it on the smaller pillow. She pulled the bedspread back and folded it neatly into thirds. Then, still without looking at me and still without saying a word, she stepped out of her shoes and pushed them under the bed with her foot. She turned her back, removed her dress, and dropped it on the bed. She slipped on her nightshirt, then took off her bra. She moved the dress to the end of the bed and put the bra on top of it. I didn’t move. She turned off the lamp.

The room was completely dark.

Mary carefully felt her way along the edge of the bed. When she found me, she pressed the palms of her hands against my chest. She undid the top button on my shirt, then slowly worked her way down. When she was done, she pulled the shirt open and ran her fingers through the hair on my chest and stomach. I started to shiver. We kissed. Unable to wait any longer, I slid my hands under her nightshirt. Mary took a short breath and whispered my name. She lifted the nightshirt.

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