“The realtor says your house will be listed tomorrow.”
Mom ignores me. We both sit, enthralled by the blank TV screen, in the living room of her apartment. She moved to the independent-living section of this old-folks village six months ago. The place keeps swelling, smothering the city it borders.
Mom, her current beau, Joe, and her bridge-playing cronies all gossip about the ones who’ve been forced to move to memory care, assisted living, or the “Big House,” their nickname for the nursing-home building. There’s at least one transfer out of independent living a week. Every visit, Mom tosses me another name, their latest casualty.
Two weeks ago, while readying Mom’s house to sell, I discovered eight unopened letters from my Army sweetheart in the bottom drawer of Mom’s bedroom dresser. They were postmarked August and September of 1979.
I’d enlisted for three years when I’d finished high school and was stationed in Hawaii. That’s where I fell for Tim McEwan. He promised to write, promised we’d get married after I finished my two-year college degree and he got discharged.
He broke my heart when he didn’t write. Now, forty years later, I figure his heart might’ve been broken, too.
Mom hid Tim’s letters because she didn’t want me to leave her again. That’s how much she loved me.
When I discovered the letters, my husband, Mark, was in the kitchen wrapping Mom’s glassware. I stuffed them in my purse, to be read later. Whether I do or whether I don’t search for Tim McEwans on the Internet, I won’t be telling Mark about these letters. That’s how much I love him.
Today, Mom’s dressed in her brown Ann Taylor pants suit. She dons designer clothes every morning, whether or not she’s going out or expecting company. I sometimes dress like a house painter, and these occasions of too casual attire curiously coincide with the visits I pay to my mother.
Her gray hair is chin length, curled under a little, with perfectly straight bangs. Until last year, her hair had been slowly thinning, but now it’s thicker. I’d no more ask her if she’s wearing a wig than I would ask her if she’s wearing a Depends.
She’s Goldilocks sitting next to me, swallowed in Papa Bear’s chair. She could recline if she would plug it in, but Mom’s never allowed herself to be comfortable. She might doze off, and napping is for feeble people.
I sit on the only other chair in this sparsely furnished room, an armchair with no cushions. Heaven forbid a visitor be comfortable either. Chit-chat might deteriorate into a heart-to-heart conversation.
“The realtor thinks you’ll get close to two hundred thousand.” I twist in the chair, trying to find a less painful position. I fail. “She says it’ll sell in less than a week.”
“Good.” Mom transports her teacup from its saucer to her lips with the steady hand of a brain surgeon. Since moving here, she’s never offered me a beverage. “I’m glad to be rid of it, Liz. Nothing there but bad memories.” Dad died in a car accident on my seventeenth birthday. I’m the person who spent the most time with her in that house.
“Thanks a lot, Mom,” I say.
She sets the teacup back in its saucer with the slightest clink, then closes her eyes and sighs. “Why do you always take what I say so personally?” She opens her eyes and focuses them on me, for the first time since I got here, and adds, “You look like you’ve gained a little weight.”
Mom glances at her watch, then reaches for the remote and turns on the TV, to a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond. To say Mom’s seen this episode twenty times would be an understatement, but unless there’s an evacuation at the village, she’s not missing it. I’ve interrupted Raymond before, and she’s responded with a manicured hand slapping down air.
At a commercial, she says, “Evelyn Zucker, apartment 12.”
“She went to the Big House?” I ask.
“Nope. Croaked. Last night.”
“That’s okay. She never bid correctly. Plus, she was always hitting on Joe.” Mom’s boyfriend is a puny man who could use a better denture adhesive, but his hearing is good and his jokes are sometimes funny. Mom’s done worse.
I get up to go. Mom stays put in her Papa Bear chair, salutes me. No hug, never a hug. When Mom’s on her deathbed, I’ll be able to hold her hand only if she’s zonked on morphine or unconscious. If either of those scenarios occur, I don’t know if I’ll take advantage of the opportunity.
To exit the facility, I walk through a community room. There, on the couch, sits Joe. He’s not alone. His right arm is draped across Mary Bender’s shoulders. Mary’s left hand is squeezing Joe’s knee. They don’t see me. They’re too busy making googly eyes at each other.
When I was 16, I spotted my father in a booth in the next-town-over’s diner, kissing a woman who wasn’t my mother. I backed out the door without my pickup order. Dad ran after me. Of my two parents, he was the better communicator. “Let’s keep this between us,” he’d said. “I don’t want to upset your mother.” He didn’t, when he died the next year.
It occurs to me that I could return to Mom’s room, tell her that Joe is two-timing her, maybe break it to her gently. But Everybody Loves Raymond is still on. I pat my purse, bulging from Tim McEwan’s unopened letters, and keep walking toward my car.
Jan Allen’s short stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, The MacGuffin and fellow-writer-voted Sixfold.