Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | March 20, 2015

Late Night Snack


A Tale of Summer
Late Night Snack

     It is late on an August evening, past nine. Mother and John are in the kitchen. John is standing with his back to the refrigerator. Mother is facing him. Over her shoulder, John can see the kitchen windows but nothing beyond them. Still, he knows what’s there: thirty-eight seconds running full tilt, his friend David’s house. David and his family have gone to see a play, otherwise John would be there. He wishes now he had been invited to go to the play, too. Mother is in one of her moods.
     “What did you think you were doing?” she is saying.
     “Nothing,” John replies.
     Jim and his father stand on the other side of the closed kitchen door. They look at each other. John shouldn’t have said that. They were about to go into the kitchen when they heard voices. Mother’s tone stopped them.
     “You were standing in front of the refrigerator, door wide open, contemplating the mysteries of the universe?”
     “I was looking for something to eat.” John is sounding sullen, not one of Mother’s favorite tempers.
     “And?” This is one of those questions Mother asks, and you’re never sure what the right answer is.
     “I couldn’t find anything.”
     That was not the right answer. Both Jim and his father know that. They can hear Mother step heavily forward and John scatter out of the way. Now there are the sounds of objects being set on the counter. Some are hard, others are soft.
     “No?” she had said. Then, “Well, I’ll just help you, shall I?”
No conversation interrupts her raid on the refrigerator. Items crowd the counter. She has to take steps away from the refrigerator now to find more room. Objects thump and bang. Finally the refrigerator door is closed.
     “You did say you couldn’t find anything, didn’t you?”
     John makes no reply.
     “Have you lost the power of speech or hearing?”
     “Yes,” says John. He’s made another mistake.
     “Hearing, then.”
     John’s confused. “What are you talking about, Mother?”
     “Well.” She has raised her voice as though she were talking to someone hard of hearing. This is the voice she used to talk to her father after his stroke left him partially paralyzed and partly deaf. “Since you can speak, I take it you cannot hear.”
     “Come on, Mother.”
     She ignores that. “Let’s return to the issue at hand, shall we? Your inability to find anything to eat. Would you or would you not agree that there is an abundance of food on the counter here?” John is silent. She allows him to be that way. She steps to the counter, sorting through what is there, pushing some things to the side, holding up others. “Here are cold cuts — ham, bologna, cheese. Here is peanut butter and one, two, three, four different flavors of jelly and jam. And here on this plate seems to be a complete meal: meat loaf, mashed potatoes, corn, and gravy, a reprise of today’s lunch.”

     She works her way down the length of the counter. “Now, what have we here? Pickles, olives, both black and green, sliced peaches, tapioca pudding, two pieces of Juju’s chicken from the day before yesterday, cottage cheese —which practically no one other than I eats, but I’d be happy for you to have some — six hard boiled eggs which I’m sure Sally was thinking of turning into egg salad but she can always boil another one or two more tomorrow morning; and finally three freshly caught and cleaned fish, the result of your father and brother’s early morning excursion, but, oh, that’s right. You don’t like either fish or eggs. Well, I do see your problem then.”
     She is breathing hard. John seems not to be breathing at all. She strides back down the length of the counter and comes to a climactic stop. “Do you have any notion of the absurdity of your statement? Do you have any idea how implicitly selfish you are being? There are children in this town, never mind foreign countries, who would be grateful to the point of tears to have any of what you see here arrayed before you.”
     John is crying. She has achieved her objective. Now she will, as the saying goes, fire for effect. “Did you go through some transformation while I was away that your father failed to call to my attention?”

     Mother was gone most of August. Her children were relieved. This summer hadn’t been in any way like any other summer. Before she left, Mother had not taken anyone anywhere. No trip to the Catskill Game Farm. No rainy day matinees at the movie theaters. No picnics — not at Bash Bish falls, or up the mountain at the Farm. She only appeared at the pool when Ella and Jeff brought lunch. She didn’t drive anyone to Hatch’s Pond to go swimming in the mornings; Leslie drove instead. She did sit with her children while they ate lunch, but for dinner she’d go to the Big House. The rest of the time she stayed up in her room. If she came out at other times, it was to find something to get mad about. Sometimes it was because one of her children didn’t make his bed even though he’d never had to make his bed before in his life. When she discovered no one was doing summer reading for an hour after lunch every day, she got mad about that and started to make everybody write book reports. If the books didn’t get reported on as fast as she thought they should, then one or another had to go up to her room after lunch and read her book there so Mother could see it being done. If someone left her clothes on her bed or on a chair, no matter if she was down at the pool swimming and was going to put them back on later, Mother would get mad about that. And she’d get mad if anyone said things such as, “I’m bored,” or “There’s nothing to do!” or “I don’t want to take tennis lessons,” or “Golf lessons are boring,” or “Why do I have to go riding if I don’t want to?” Or if one of her children told her he couldn’t find anything to eat.
     That summer she went away in the middle of July. Their father said she was going somewhere to help her lose weight. All her life, she was always on diets, but the last year or so, she’d been trying different kinds of diets like eating nothing but grapefruit, or crackers and cottage cheese, or anchovies. Nothing worked, though. Once she didn’t eat anything all day long. When she stood on the bathroom scale, she saw she had gained a pound.
     When she first went away, everyone was relieved. “Good!” they said, “Mother’s gone. Maybe she’ll never come back!” After all, what difference would it make? She didn’t do anything fun anymore, and Leslie would still be around to take them places. They could still walk up to Walsh’s drugstore or Mr. Reep’s shop to get candy and comic books. They could still go down to the Big House to visit Mimi, at least until she went to Europe because of hay fever. Aunt Pitts would also be around on weekends, and she was fun. Their father would still be coming on the weekends as he always did anyway. So what did it matter with Mother not there? At least now she wouldn’t be around to yell at them all the time.
     Except that all the time she was gone, they missed her. Not the her who was gone, exactly, but the her they wanted, the her of past summers. Throughout the day, singly or in pairs or triads, they would find themselves in her room, looking at her things, sitting in her desk chair where she sat and wrote sometimes, or just sat. On a card table next to her desk, she left a jig-saw puzzle one-third done. Their father hadn’t put it away and that surprised them. He always put things away. Sometimes they’d sit at the puzzle and look for a piece and think about whether or not Mother would be happy if they finished it for her.
     Every once in a while, one or two would be invited to the Big House to have dinner with Mimi and whoever else was there. They would get dressed up in a jacket and tie or a dress, and Mimi would call them Darlin’ and tell them how pretty or handsome they were, and point out what good manners they had, and say to Jeff when he brought them a Shirley Temple,   “Boykin, doesn’t Pammy look pretty this evening?”

     “Yes, ma’am, Miz Buckley, she certainly do,” Jeff would answer.

     Then they would feel special and important and good at first, but pretty soon they would find themselves looking at the chair Mother always sat in during cocktails, and the chair she always sat in during dinner, and they would wish it were last summer or the summer before. When dinner was over and after Mimi and the other grown-ups had had coffee, and the visiting Heaths had been given more than one cube of sugar dipped in coffee, Mimi would say, “Darlin’, don’t you think Juju’s goin’ to worry if you aren’t back up at the barn pretty soon?”

     Then, because no one said no to Mimi or ever behaved in any way except properly, they’d stand up, give Mimi and everyone else a good-night kiss or handshake, say thank you, and leave. With each step from the Big House to the Barn — up the path toward the pool but then branching to the right to go though the trees where it was darker, past the water fountain that never worked, that instead had ivy growing out of it, past where the path branched off again to the Office and finally up on the driveway and past where Mother’s car would have been parked if she were here — all the way up they would feel less and less happy, thinking maybe it would have been better not to have gone because now they seemed to feel worse than before; and tomorrow would be another day of just the same: everything a child could possibly want except no Mother to give it life.
     While Mother was gone, her children didn’t behave very well. The older ones, Jim, Pam, and John, didn’t mind Juju. Instead they did what they wanted. All Juju could do was tell their father if he called from New York and Juju answered, or when he got to Sharon on the weekends. All he would do was tell them to stop giving Juju a hard time, for crying out loud, and to act their age. What would your mother say? That, of course, was the point, but none of them got it then, especially not Ben, the father.
     The little ones— Perky, Buckley, Alison, Betsey, Jennifer, Timothy, and Janet — they fought with each other and tattled on each other and were mean to each other. They formed clubs from which they excluded each other. From time to time they’d try to get Mimi to intercede, to take their parts against Juju, or Jim or Pam if either he or she was acting out the role of responsible eldest brother or sister, but Mimi never would. She would just do her magic and send them off with a piece of maple sugar, a quarter, and a reminder to say their prayers. (To be fair, Timothy and Janet were mostly good. Perhaps because since they were the youngest and the only ones Mother still loved. They didn’t feel anything but sad that she was away. Their involvement in the struggles of their siblings was largely involuntary and a matter of survival. “If you don’t say you’re in my club, I’ll kill you!”)
     Then one day it was the end of August, and they all knew it was the day Mother would be back. They didn’t go to Hatch’s Pond that morning because Leslie was driving to the airport to pick her up. They swam at the pool instead, but without much enthusiasm and with much attention to the clock on the peak of the bathing cabins. When Juju said it was time to go up for lunch, no one needed to be scolded out of the pool, up to the Barn, or back into dry clothes. Afterwards, they waited in the living room because from there could be seen the front circle where the car would pull up.
     Shortly before three, Mimi’s formal car, with Leslie dressed in his black chauffeur suit, rolled up and stopped. Her children moved from the living room to the entry hall, suddenly palpably afraid. Juju stepped out opening the screen door, beaming. She was delivered. Everything would be put to rights now. Mother said hello and stepped through. She looked at her children.  She didn’t seem to have lost weight.

     Tim and Janet stepped forward. She leaned down and hugged and kissed them both. The rest stepped up one at a time. Their cheeks were kissed perfunctorily, and each in turn was asked how their broken arms were healing. The question was so non sequitur, no one responded in any way. Then Mother went to her room and did not come out again until it was time to go to the Big House for dinner.
     Mother had traveled away from her children summers before. Sometimes she’d gone with Mimi for a week or two to France, Spain, or Italy. Once they remembered she’d gone to New Orleans to visit her cousins, and another time to Venezuela where Mimi still had friends from the days their grandfather was in the oil business. Mother sent them postcards telling them funny things and hinting about presents she would have with her when she returned. But this summer had been different. She’d gone alone. She’d gone for a month. There had been no postcards, and no one had an idea where she had gone.
     Later they found out what she meant about the broken arms. She was mad that they hadn’t written. Pam tried to explain they didn’t know where she was, but that only made her madder.

     “Shall I help you decide what you would like to eat?” Mother says to John. He nods, or perhaps he says nothing. It doesn’t matter. Mother will do what she will do, no matter what. “Fine, I’ll make you a bologna and cheese sandwich, shall I?”
     Now the kitchen is silent, but Mother is vibrating with rage. Jim and his father can feel it through the closed door.
“Good.” Mother says. She steps into the pantry. She opens a cupboard and removes a plate. She takes two pieces of bread. She unscrews the jar of mayonnaise and spreads both slices. She slaps two pieces of bologna and one of cheese onto one slice. John hates mayonnaise. There is no chance he’ll remind her of that. She spreads mustard on top of the cheese. “Lettuce?” she asks. John says nothing. Outside the kitchen door, Jim and his father think they can hear that John is still crying. “No lettuce then.” She puts the two slices together. Now she is handing the sandwich to John. The silence is back. It goes on and on. Outside the kitchen door, Jim and his father are afraid to move, afraid she’ll know they are there and have been listening. Jim wonders where everyone else is. It’s not so late that all the rest are asleep, is it?
     “Have you lost your appetite?” Mother says.
     John doesn’t answer.
     “Then eat your sandwich.”
     John takes a bite. He chews three times before he starts to gag.
     “Don’t’ you dare!” Mother says.
     John gags again, struggles, struggles, swallows. He gasps, chokes. Water is run into a glass. John drinks. He puts down the glass, hard. He’s had it. His fear is overtaken by outrage.
     “Why are you being like this?” he wails.
     Mother says nothing.
     “What did I do?”
     Still silence.
     “I didn’t do anything, did I? You were just in a bad mood and you wanted to be angry. I’m just the first person who came along.”
     Jim and his father look at each other. “He’s right,” his father whispers. Jim agrees, but he’s stunned his father would say that.
     “I hate you,” John says. The kitchen door slams open.  The despair he feels at the disappearance of the mother he adored somehow replaced by one he dreads has fueled his rage.

     John does not see the two eavesdroppers. He slams the door shut. Slamming doors is a huge sin in this family; however, no sound comes from the kitchen. Jim and his father melt away to the sounds of food going back into the refrigerator. They wonder if Mother will eat the rest of John’s sandwich.

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Responses

  1. What a heart-breaking story, Jim. I don’t know what else to say, except that it made me so sad, and that it’s very well-written. xxx Louise


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