Quentin practiced a Bach concerto on the piano, playing so intently he hardly heard his younger brother bang the back door shut.
As his mother moved to the parlor window, he pictured Timmy flying down the sidewalk on his Schwinn bicycle, probably on his way to the park to meet up with friends.
“That boy,” his mother clucked. “All rough and tumble.”
She returned to her spot beside Quentin, waving her hands like a conductor while he did his best not to hit a wrong key.
At the end, she applauded. “Just beautiful.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “You’re my sensitive one, my special boy.”
“Coming, Ma,” Quentin said, moving gingerly up the stairs. He was carrying a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of milk on a tray, and didn’t want to make another mess he’d never get around to cleaning up.
“Such a sweet baby.”
He’d thought his mother was calling him, but now it was clear she’d been talking to the porcelain doll cradled in her arms. She fussed over that old thing like it was a real baby, albeit one with a chipped-off nose.
“Brought your lunch, Ma.”
Her eyes flew up to Quentin, then down to the doll, then up to him again.
“Oh,” she said. She stopped rocking in her chair, which she left only to use the bathroom and go to bed.
He set the tray on a folding table. She told him to take it away. She was sick of grilled cheese, she said, her mouth twisted like the tied end of a balloon, and anyway she wasn’t hungry.
“I wish I was a better cook, Ma. But you were queen of the kitchen.”
She ignored him. “You call the roofer?” She gestured at a brown circle on the ceiling that seemed darker and larger each time she brought Quentin’s attention to it.
“Yeah,” he said, but in truth he hadn’t; he cracked a sweat at the thought of picking up the phone. Him and the phone, they didn’t get along.
Quentin and the darkly beautiful Rosemary sat stiffly on the plastic-covered sofa, facing his mother in her arm chair.
“But it can’t be easy,” the older woman was saying. “Four children, just imagine!”
Rosemary set her teacup in its saucer, making the tiniest clink Quentin ever heard. “Yes, you’re right.” Quentin noticed she always agreed with his mother—a commendable tactic, he thought. “But they’re good kids. And they’re crazy about Quentin.”
“I’m sure they are,” his mother said with a staccato laugh he recognized as fake.
Later that night he heard the real laugh, only it was more of a snarl.
“She doesn’t care about you,” his mother said, her skinny eyebrows creeping across her forehead like caterpillars. “She only cares about your salary for her four brats. How can you even think about marrying her? I will not allow it. I will not let some divorceé ruin your life.”
She went on, smoothing her tone. “Don’t I take good care of you, Quentin? Don’t I clean and cook and do your laundry and everything else? Why, you’ve got it made here.”
Quentin sighed. His mother was right. Dammit.
1992, four o’clock
Quentin sat in his easy chair, reading the obituary of a woman he’d dated many years ago. He’d practically forgotten about her. Rosemary.
His cat, Buddy, walked across the piano keys. They were painfully out of tune, reminding him why he’d stopped playing.
He was about to shoo Buddy when a piercing scream came from the second floor. He climbed the stairs as quickly as he could, his chest seized up, his limbs vibrating.
“Ma! You all right, Ma?” he yelled as he entered the narrow hallway.
She was lying on her stomach on the bedroom floor next to her rocker, her head turned toward him. Her eyes were closed, but he could see she was breathing.
Quentin knew he had to call 911, but the idea of talking to a dispatcher panicked him almost as much as seeing his mother lying there unconscious.
“I can’t,” he said, glaring at the phone on the nightstand as if it were an enemy. “I can’t.”
Then he thought of something he could do. He had to dial three times before he got it right, and then Tim’s wife answered.
Tim had gone home, their mother was in the hospital, and Quentin was back in his chair. It struck him that he’d never spent the night alone in the house before.
He’d been meaning to move out for years but, in truth, it had been easier to stay. Ma had taken such good care of him. Then she got old and he had no choice but to stick around and take care of her, though he’d been doing a poor job of it. Tonight he was forced to admit she was going to die, probably sooner than later. Then he would be alone every night, in a house that was turning ramshackle.
He looked around. The place needed paint and carpet, a new roof and furnace — a long list.
In the same moment he told himself he had to fix things up, another voice inside him said he wouldn’t do it. He had a vision of himself stuck in his chair, paralyzed, as the whole structure finally caved in and crashed down on top of him.
For the life of him, he couldn’t say why he felt so helpless.
Sally York is a newspaper reporter in Michigan. Her short stories appear in The Molotov Cocktail, Foliate Oak, Pulp Metal Magazine, Untoward Magazine and MicroHorror, among others, and in anthologies by Skive and Midwest Literary magazines.