by William Michaelian
When my father opened the door, I was surprised at how much he had changed since my visit in October. But I still showed him my best smile, said hello, and told him how good it was to see him.
I held out my hand, but he didn’t take it. Instead, he hobbled out onto the step, turned around, and closed the door. Then, squinting up at me over his bifocals, he said, “What are you trying to do, kill your mother?”
The old man was serious, but also in the middle of shaving, and the soap on the left side of his face made him look funny and pathetic at the same time. It took only a few seconds for the soap to stiffen in the frosty morning air.
“Pop,” I said, “don’t you want to finish shaving?”
“We weren’t expecting you.”
“Weren’t expecting me? But it’s Christmas.”
“Here,” I said. “Let’s go inside. It’s icy out here. You’ll freeze in that undershirt.”
I picked up the newspaper and opened the door for him to go in.
“Where’s Mom?” I said.
“In bed,” my father said. “She’s not well. I was up half the night.”
“Richard? Is that Ronnie?”
“Yeah, it’s me, Mom.”
I followed my father down the hall to the bedroom. I wasn’t sure, but it looked like he was favoring his right leg a little more than usual.
My mother was in bed, propped up against three oversized pillows, smiling.
“Ronnie,” she said. “Oh, it’s good to see my boy.”
I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “What’s up, Mom?” I said. “What’re you doing in bed?”
“I told you,” my father said. He turned to my mother. “If you need me, Margaret, I’ll be in shaving.”
“All right, Richard. I’ll be fine.”
We watched my father leave the room.
“Mom,” I whispered, “you don’t look sick. What’s going on?”
“I’m not,” she said. “Your father is.”
“Then why don’t you get up?”
“I can’t. It’ll hurt his feelings.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed, and listened for a puzzled moment as my father scraped at his whiskers in the bathroom.
“His feelings?” I said.
My mother nodded and put her hand on mine.
“But how long have you been in bed?”
“Since yesterday morning,” she said. “Oh, it isn’t the first time. He thinks — well he is taking care of me.”
“I see. Why didn’t you call me?”
“And tell you what?”
“I don’t know. I could have come sooner, at least.”
“You’ve got your work.”
“I can get away if I have to. You know that.”
“Well, he’s fine most of the time.”
“But today’s Christmas.”
My mother smiled and squeezed my hand. “I know,” she said.
“Well,” I said, “shouldn’t we be acting like it?”
“I haven’t had a chance to cook,” she said.
I stood up. “You don’t need to,” I said. “Come on — get out of bed, get dressed, and I’ll take you and Pop out for a first-class breakfast. How does Sara’s sound?”
“We can pay,” my mother said.
“Mom, I’ve got money.”
“Well, let’s argue about that later. Pop?” I called out, “are you still in there? I’ve got a good idea.”
The bathroom door was open, so I walked in, only to find my father sitting on the toilet, scowling.
“Ronnie, I wish you hadn’t come today,” he said.
“Oh, cut it out. I was just telling Mom — ”
“I know, Pop. I was just telling Mom, I’m taking you both to Sara’s for a nice hot breakfast. It’ll be my Christmas present.”
“We’d better not.”
“You’re in no position to argue,” I said.
My father looked at me bravely, just like a little boy doing his duty. He started to smile, but, at the last second, stopped himself.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be off in a minute.”
“Good. And don’t forget to pull up your pants.”
I walked back to the bedroom, shaking my head.
My mother was already up. “Do you like this dress?” she said.
She was standing in front of the closet, pointing at my least favorite dress in the world, the one I thought made her look like a pumpkin. She took it out and held it up under her double-chin.
“Why not the blue one,” I said.
“But it’s not Christmasy.”
“Well, you can pin that little pine cone thing on it.”
“Oh, that. I guess I could.”
“It’ll look great, Mom.”
The toilet flushed.
“What’d your father say? I hope you didn’t hurt his feelings.”
“He’s fine,” I said. “But he ought to close the door when he’s in there. I’m not used to talking to people when they’re on the toilet.”
“I know. That’s another habit he’s gotten into lately. He wants to be able to hear me if I call him.”
“Maybe you should get pagers,” I said. “Better yet, homing pigeons.”
My mother giggled. “Be nice,” she said. “Remember, you’ll be old yourself someday.”
My mother started chattering while we were still in the driveway. As we drove off, she pointed at the Christmas decorations on the neighbors’ house, and exclaimed delightedly that she had never seen so many lights. “It makes me feel good inside,” she said. “Last night, Ross and Emily had all their grandkids over, and you should’ve seen them running in the yard. They looked like little elves.”
“But I thought you were sick in bed,” I said over my shoulder.
My mother pinched the back of my neck. “I peeked,” she said.
My father either didn’t hear her, or pretended not to. He cleared his throat, coughed, and stared straight ahead. A few seconds later, he cleared his throat again. Then, he did it a third time.
I looked at my mother in the rearview mirror. In the bright morning light I could see the fuzz on her face and chin. She was wearing a pleased smile and looking out the window, and was paying no attention to my father’s throat-clearing.
“Jeff Talmadge bought the corner property, where the gas station used to be,” she said.
“What’s he going to do with it?” I said.
“I don’t know. Put in a nursery, I hope.”
“Really? Does he have that kind of money?”
My father cleared his throat and coughed into his lap. “More than you think,” he said bitterly. “The man’s got piles.”
“Well, don’t hold it against him,” I said.
“What’s he need with it, though? He’s not married.”
“Maybe he chases around, Pop. that can cost plenty.”
“Ronnie,” my mother said. “For shame.”
As we left the neighborhood and moved into busier traffic, I realized my father’s coughing was more than coincidental — it was a full-blown nervous habit. Coming at regular intervals, his dry little a-hhm-hhm’s and a-heh-heh’s punctuated our talk like radio static.
“What’s Pam doing today?” he said finally.
“How should I know?” I said.
“She’s your wife, isn’t she?”
“Richard,” my mother said, “Pam and Ronnie divorced several years ago. Remember?”
“They did?” he said. “A-heh-heh. A-heh-heh-hhm.”
“Far as I know, she’s still with her folks, up in Sacramento,” I said.
“No job yet?” my mother said.
I shook my head.
“That’s too bad.”
“A lot of libraries are cutting back services,” I said.
“What’s this country coming to? Libraries locked, no books, nobody reading. What a mess.”
“Divorced,” my father said. “You and Pam?”
“Really, Pop? You don’t remember?”
“A-hem. Well, almost,” he said.
“Almost? What does that mean?”
“Oh, I think I just saw Clara and Sam,” my mother said.
“Can’t be,” my father said. “Sam doesn’t drive anymore.”
“It looked like them. Did you see the car, Ronnie?”
“The gray Cadillac?” I said. “It was too new.”
A few minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot at Sara’s Restaurant.
“Well, here we are,” I said. “Let’s go see how the other half lives, shall we?”
“They’re busy,” my mother said. “That’s a good sign. It means their food is still
“Too damn busy,” my father said.
I looked at him and frowned. “Come on, Pop,” I said.
When I got out of the car, the air smelled like bacon and eggs. I took a good, deep breath, stretched, and opened the door for my mother.
Still smiling, she took my hand and pulled herself up onto her feet. Then she kissed me, and the savory smell of breakfast was replaced by her own soft, powdery scent. Then, she said, “Do be gentle, Ronnie. He still means well.”
I hugged her and looked over her shoulder. My father was still in the car, struggling to unfasten his seat belt.
After waiting fifteen minutes for a clean table, the hostess led us through the restaurant to a cozy spot by a round brick fireplace. When we sat down, I guided my parents to the seats closest to the fire, and then I sat across from them with my back to the room. Behind them, the shiny gold chimney rose up like a giant, protective bell.
It was a relief to be inside, and to be surrounded by people we didn’t know. And it didn’t take long for my father to be cheered by the friendly atmosphere. The place was decorated for Christmas, with bows and wreaths and mistletoe, and the restaurant employees were wearing red and green. When I reminded my mother how nice she looked in her blue dress, she swatted at me with her menu and said, “I stick out like a sore thumb, and you know it.”
A few minutes after pouring our coffee, our waitress came by to take our order.
“Mom?” I said. “Go ahead.”
“I’ll have the Spanish omelette,” she said. “And make it extra-hot.”
“That’s three eggs, isn’t it?” my father said.
The waitress nodded and smiled. “Three eggs,” she said.
I put down my menu, fully expecting my father to proclaim the order as too ambitious, too rich in cholesterol, or both.
“Good,” he said. “I’ll have the same thing. What’re you having, Ronnie?”
“Me? Oh, I’ll have the usual. Two eggs over-easy, a short stack, and a side order of potatoes.”
“Would anyone like juice?” the waitress said.
“Grapefruit,” my mother said.
“I think I’ll have tomato juice,” my father said.
“Just coffee for me.”
The waitress smiled again, picked up our menus, and left.
“How nice,” my mother said. “And isn’t she pretty.”
“Sure is,” my father agreed.
“Ronnie, I still remember that pretty girl you went with when you were in high school, just after the war. Let’s see, what was her name?”
“You mean Frances?”
“Frances. That’s right. We used to call her Frannie. Do you remember, Richard?”
My father nodded. “Hard not to,” he said. “She damn near lived at our house there for awhile.”
“What ever happened to her? do you know?”
“She got married,” I said. “Got married, and finally moved to New York. That’s the last I heard.”
“New York. Imagine that,” my mother said. “All the way across the country. I wonder if she had any children.”
“Probably. I don’t know.”
“You really had a crush on that girl,” my mother said. “Why didn’t you marry her?”
“Well, we were just kids, for one thing.”
“Your father and I were eighteen when we got married.”
“It was different then,” my father said. “It was easier to get started.”
The two looked warmly at each other.
“What memories,” my mother said. “Oh, my. Ronnie — did you know that on the afternoon of our wedding, when we were driving to Santa Barbara for our honeymoon, I actually had to ask your father why he was stopping in broad daylight at a motel?”
I laughed. “You’re kidding,” I said. “That’s beautiful.”
“That’s how simple we were in those days,” she said. “Imagine, our mother raising us in complete and total ignorance like that.”
My father chuckled and shook his head, remembering. “We were both scared to death,” he said. “Two kids, with twenty-five dollars to our name. It’s a miracle we survived.”
“Well, you both made it,” I said. “How many years is it now? Sixty-three?”
“Sixty-four,” my mother said.
“That’s sixty-four good years,” my father corrected.
“Ronnie,” my mother said, “it’s none of my business, but was it that way for you and Pam when you first got married?”
“Not quite,” I said. I stopped to think. “But now I wish it had been.”
“Should’ve married Frannie,” my father said. “There was a girl.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “Who knows? Here I am, divorced, alone. The kids are both in college, and who knows when I’ll see them next.”
“You’ll see them when they need money,” my mother said. “Don’t worry about that.”
“Probably so. But that’s okay. It’s worth it. I miss them. Especially at Christmas.”
“Well, you still got us,” said my father.
Just then, the waitress came by to refill our coffee. “Your breakfasts are almost ready,” she said.
“Good,” my father said. “We’re starved.”
When the waitress turned to go, he added, proudly, “Do you know our son, Ronnie?”
That afternoon, while my father was in taking a nap, my mother and I sat on the couch and looked through her old photos. The house was too warm, especially on a full stomach, but my mother seemed so comfortable that I didn’t bother to lower the thermostat. When she asked for the pink blanket at the far end of the couch, and had me drape it over her knees, it reminded me of how, when I was a kid, she used to do the same thing for her own mother. Back then, the family’s heat came from a wood stove in the kitchen. It burned night and day, but it was never quite enough for my grandmother. My mother was born in that house, as were her two older sisters. My father proposed to her there, too, under the walnut tree in front of the barn.
“Here you are, Ronnie, in front of the Christmas tree.”
“How old was I there?”
“Eight, I think. Let me see. You have those thick socks on. Look. It was even before we had the rug.”
“I remember when we got that rug.”
“Uh-huh. Pop brought it home. Didn’t he get it for your birthday?”
“Oh, my. Yes, he did.”
“I remember, after he unrolled it, he picked you up and sat you down right in the middle of it, like a big sack of potatoes.”
“He always did things like that,” my mother said.
“Look at those candles, though. It must’ve been Christmas Eve.”
“In all those years, we never had a fire.”
“Like that Swedish family?”
“Wasn’t that terrible? Their little girl’s face was burned, too. She was so pretty before that happened. Her mother almost lost her mind.”
“I wonder what ever happened to them.”
“I don’t know. The father drank. When he was young, he used to haul ice.”
“Ice,” I said. “I never knew he drank, though. He always seemed like a pretty nice guy. Kind of sad, maybe.”
“I don’t think he drank when he was older,” my mother said. “Your father would know.”
“You think he’d remember?”
“Of course he would. That man remembers everything. He needs a little push, that’s all. Once you get him started, you can’t turn him off.”
“Funny,” I said.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Just funny, I guess.”
My mother looked at me and smiled. Then she put her head on my shoulder and sighed. Her fluffy, blue-gray hair tickled my nose, but I managed not to sneeze.
For the next several moments, neither of us moved. We sat quietly, with a tattered album in my lap, and I listened to the gentle ticking of the clock on the mantel. Its steady beat was comforting, and made me feel as if my mother and I were in a boat together, rocking on a forgotten summer pond, and that the pond was my own childhood.
I noticed the morning paper, still sitting on the coffee table where I had left it. The rubber band hadn’t been removed, and a wet birch leaf was stuck to one of the headlines. Next to the paper, looking like a pitiful, withered persimmon, was the squishy orange ball my father used to exercise his hands. It was hard to believe it belonged to the same man who had once carried his wife through the house, laughing.
“Should I worry?” I said finally.
“No,” my mother said. “Just let it go.”
“I’ll try to come more often.”
“As you like. We’re fine.”
“When I got here this morning, Pop didn’t know it was Christmas.”
“Oh, he knows.”
“But you don’t even have a tree.”
“We have each other. We don’t need a tree. We have you.”
“Huh. A lot of good that is.”
My mother held up her head and looked directly at me. “Ronnie,” she said. “Don’t be foolish. We’re old now. So what? We both know it.”
“No. It’s true. But nobody lives forever. There’s nothing you, or I, or anyone else can do about it.”
“You mean,” I said, “what goes around, comes around.”
“Exactly. So why worry about it? We all take our turn. While we’re here, we should be happy, not sad.”
“I just wish I could help, that’s all. The way you always helped me.”
“You are helping. You’re helping right now. Just being here. Just being who you are.”
“I hope so,” I said.
“It’s true. Your father could never say it to you. But I can.”
The picture of my father, proudly sitting on the toilet, suddenly came back to me. There was dignity, even here, and truth — a small truth, but a truth nonetheless, and a quiet triumph of the spirit. What was painful a few hours earlier, was really a new and unexpected treasure, as valuable as my mother’s old black-and-whites. It was an image, I knew, that I would always remember.
I reached for my mother’s hand. “He still wants to take care of you, doesn’t he,” I said. “After all these years.”
My mother batted her eyelashes. “Can you blame him?” she said.
“If it were me,” I said, “I’d fight to the death. It would be an honor.”
We sat awhile longer, then I got up to stretch and use the bathroom.
When I was done, I tiptoed into my parents’ bedroom, to see if my father was still asleep.
He was snoring peacefully. His mouth was partly open, but his face bore a satisfied expression, as if his three-egg omelette was just what the doctor ordered.
I left the room, careful not to wake him.
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.