My Son

Fiction
Joshua Shapiro


Photo Credit: Chris Bloom/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

He poured two cups of coffee, added cream for his wife and nothing for himself, and put the cups on the table. Four places were set; before one of the empty places stood a basket filled with prescription bottles.

“Happy Sunday,” said his wife.

“Happy Sunday, hon.”

“Don’t let the bacon burn.”

“Right.” He went back to the stove and attended to the eggs and bacon. Toast popped and he buttered it and brought everything over on a large platter.

“You’re getting very good at this,” she said.

“Practice. Is my mom up yet?”

“I don’t think so. At least I didn’t hear anything.” She took from the basket five plastic bottles and arranged them by the unused plate. “You didn’t cook for Liam.”

“I will when he gets up. He seems to sleep later every week.”

“So does your mother. She’s been coming down after nine. You wouldn’t know, you’re long gone by then. How much she actually sleeps I’m not sure. This one is supposed to help.” She shook the pills in the smallest of the bottles.

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For doing all you do. I know it hasn’t been easy. And if it doesn’t work—this arrangement…”

He did not finish the thought and she did not finish it for him. She looked out across the patio as a large crow chased several goldfinches from the feeder. “Damn those things,” she said. “I hate hate hate them.” Then, more evenly: “I had to clean up after her yesterday. I didn’t tell you.”

He looked at her with concern.

“She wet herself. I had to wash her—well, her everything.”

“You don’t mean…”

“Not that. Not yet.” She looked out the window and frowned. “Her pants, her underpants.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t mind, really. But the more… personal stuff. That will happen sooner or later.”

With a strained smile he said, “We haven’t had to buy diapers in a long time.”

“No, we haven’t. But maybe that’s the silver lining in all this. Liam’s getting to know his grandmother.” Two crows were crowding the feeder and a third scavenged on the stones beneath. “What’s left of her, anyway.”

He nodded.

“A year ago she was sharp and funny and had more energy than me. I used to think I wouldn’t mind being like that someday, an older woman who’s still with it, still so involved in life. And then… I’m not sure what’s worse, losing your mind or knowing that you’re losing it. And she knows. That’s why she’s so anxious all the time. God, I hope the new med helps. If this keeps up I don’t know what we’ll do.”

“Yes, you do,” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means what you can’t seem to bring yourself to say. You went shopping for a place that takes people in her situation and you didn’t tell me. I saw the brochure in the trash.”

“I was being proactive.”

“You’re afraid that despite our best efforts we can’t handle her here.”

“I’m afraid my best won’t be good enough.”

“No one will judge you if it’s not.”

“Why?” she cried suddenly. “I mean, why now?”

“Is that a philosophical question?”

Instead of answering she went on: “The pandemic definitely didn’t help. She was living alone, she never really worked. It was pretty much total isolation. Then there was your brother…”

“Do you think she blames herself?”

“Of course she blames herself. Don’t you?”

“Only every day,” he said. “He was my brother. But can we please not talk about that? The trigger wasn’t a pandemic and it wasn’t losing a son, as terrible as everything was this past year. It’s genetic, you know that. Let’s not add guilt to the mix.”

“She doesn’t think it’s genetic.”

“My mom actually has an opinion?”

“Of course she does. I told you, she knows what’s happening. She told me—this was a few weeks ago—that the vaccine caused her to lose her memory. She said the drug companies do it on purpose because the government tells them to.”

He rolled his eyes. “I wonder where she got that idea.”

“Yeah, I wonder.”

They had stopped eating. She put a hand on his.

He said, “Can we get back to you? Your burden.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It obviously does or you wouldn’t be complaining.”

“Was I complaining?”

He was silent for a careful moment. Then he said, “You were a being little cruel, to be honest. Usually you’re not cruel.”

She pushed her plate away. “Usually I’m not cruel. Usually I don’t have to clean up piss. Usually I don’t spend half the morning looking for a pair of reading glasses. Usually I don’t have to listen to the insanity on TV night and day.”

“What are you saying? That’s it’s time to put her in a nursing home just because she loses things and watches television? My father used to watch that stuff. It probably became a habit.”

“I’ve noticed Liam seems to have picked up the habit,” she said.

“He sits with his grandmother and they watch together. What’s he supposed to do, ask her for help with trigonometry?”

“Look who’s being cruel now. Want to know why I’m bringing this up? Because I’m concerned about our son. He’s impressionable. The other day Liam said he doesn’t believe the vaccines are safe.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him it’s a lie. I told him if you hear a lie enough you’ll start to believe it.”

“I’ll offer a more charitable interpretation. He knows grandma isn’t well so he spends time with her. He’s a gentle, caring kid.”

“Of course he is,” she said. “But isn’t Liam exactly the kind of vulnerable person they target with all this crazy… oh, good morning, Margaret.” She rose to help. “I didn’t hear you come down.”

The old woman walked with a cane. She wore a soiled sweatsuit and no makeup. Dark rings were under her eyes. With the assistance of her son she sat down at her place. She looked across the table at her daughter-in-law: Julie or Julia. A terrible thing not to be sure, and she decided she would call her nothing. This settled a small portion of her anxiety, which had collected like water in a bathtub during the night. Had she forgotten to empty the bath? Her sons were Gary and Edward.

Margaret composed herself, her features, and prepared to say good morning. It was still morning, she was certain of that. Fairly certain. The sun came in the big window in the morning and there was no sun but that might mean clouds or rain. This could be woven into her greeting. She formulated it perfectly, a hearty good day and a remark about the weather. Then she blurted: “You were talking about me!”

“We were talking about the family, Ma. You’re part of the family,” said her son. Her living son.

“Your voices were raised.” Margaret could hear her own voice being raised.

“I had too much coffee,” said Julie or Julia. “I’m afraid I’m a little excitable this morning, Margaret.”

“Good morning. It looks like rain.”

“Good morning, Ma.”

“Your father and I never raised our voices.”

“I remember it a little differently,” the son said gently.

“I don’t remember!” Margaret cried. “That’s the problem, isn’t it. Well I don’t! Why do you have to keep reminding me?”

The son looked sideways at the daughter-in-law. Margaret had learned to watch their eyes. The eyes said things that the words did not. The daughter-in-law’s words were saying something about breakfast but her eyes were saying that her mother-in-law was too much trouble. She didn’t trust that one, Julie or Julia. She had truly awful political views.

“How was your night?” asked the daughter-in-law.

“My night?”

“Did you sleep well?”

The questions! Of course she didn’t sleep well. Her knee ached terribly. Her hands also. The tingling that people used to call nerves and the doctors now call anxiety had been very bad. She mourned her lost child. These things, the pain and loss, she could talk about; the visitors, however, she had never mentioned and never would. They too came at night. Tiny ones like ants lived in the bristles of her hair brush. A fat little one sat like one of those Oriental figurines on the bedside table. A man-sized one sometimes looked in the window. She knew him, the one at the window, but she couldn’t say why. All of them were silent, they seemed to mean no harm. And they were her secret. If she told them they would put her in one of those places.

Pills of different shapes and colors were arranged on a saucer. It was her duty to swallow them but when she raised the water glass it trembled in her hand and she put it down.

“Can I help, Ma?”

“I can take a pill, Edward.”

A steaming plate was suddenly before her. She took a piece of toast and bit into the corner. She willed her hand to be steady and managed to take a blue pill. Then two white pills. She felt triumphant. “You see, Edward?”

“Ma, I’m Gary. Edward passed away.”

“I know that!” The foolishness of the living son, to think she can’t tell the difference! She laughed to make the point. Not that there was anything funny about losing a son. And how did he die, exactly? Oh, yes. It was very sad, nothing sadder, but laughter is always the best medicine. And she laughed heartily. Then she stopped herself. No, she would not be the cackling old woman her own grandmother was at the end.

She remembered visiting her Nana in that place. She remembered it perfectly. The room painted the color of a faded iris. The bed with an afghan on it that Nana had crocheted. The old woman lying beneath it, barely making a bulge. On a tray white cake with white frosting or chocolate cake with yellow frosting. Nana saved desert for her and cackled with pleasure as she watched her granddaughter eat it. Outside in the corridor a woman in a wheelchair with saliva on her chin. And which was worse, drooling or cackling?

She would excuse herself and check the bath. She could not hear it running but she felt it, the water getting higher and higher, her hand with the red capsule trembling but she brought it to her lips anyway. Now the capsule no longer between her fingers but broken on the floor, the sprinkles inside making a tiny anthill beside her chair. “Oh dear,” she said as she watched what seemed to be an ant crawl from it, then another ant and another. “Oh dear.”

“Don’t worry about it, Margaret. There’s more medicine.”

“The bath,” she said, struggling to rise.

“What about the bath, Ma?”

From outside an ugly caw caw and when she looked the hideous flapping of black wings just outside the glass. “I’m afraid… in my room… Edward.”

Their eyes made it impossible to continue. The old woman was a lunatic, the eyes said. The words would surely follow. The words she refused to hear. The waters were rising, rising. But what’s this? The large man in the window, the insects, the little Oriental fellow, all here in broad daylight! The large man sitting right here at the table! The daughter-in-law has served him breakfast. Margaret has been wondering about him, whether the man might harm her after all. But there’s nothing to fear. It is just her other son, the dead son, back for a visit.

“Ma, Julie and I have been talking,” said the living son. “We know you haven’t been entirely comfortable here. We’re not the sort of—we’re not professionals.”

She did not want to hear the words but she couldn’t help it. On and on they went.

“Julie’s been looking into a place,” said the son. “Tell Ma, Julie.”

“It’s really wonderful,” said the daughter-in-law. “It’s cheerful and clean and the people there are not only experts at what you’re dealing with, they’re super friendly…”

“It’s a terrific place, Ma,” said the son.

The word place sounded smooth and unthreatening when he pronounced it, but that was Gary. A salesman through and through. What does he sell? Oh yes, that invisible stuff that runs around inside these computers. She knew things. She felt calm and clear with her son beside her—not the salesman but the other son. Edward, no longer living but here at the table. And what was he? In the film business but it never worked out. Well, he wouldn’t be the first. Finally he’s come to his senses. The messy business with the car and the garage and the garden hose—all that is behind him. Now he will settle down. He is eating a good breakfast, his appetite is fine, toast with jam and three strips of bacon and scrambled eggs. Scrambled? He takes them fried, with the yokes up. She knows, she’s his mother for goodness’ sake!

“Is this really the best time to have this conversation?” Julie asked.

“There’s no good time, hon. You’ve been right and I’ve been oblivious. I go to work and you’re home doing the lion’s share. And she’s my mother…”

Julie took her husband’s hand tenderly. This, too, was lovely to see.

“I’m sitting right here, you know,” Margaret said to them. She took strength from Edward, eating with relish, back where he belonged.

“I know, Ma,” said Gary.

“And I do think I deserve to be consulted, don’t you?”

“Of course you do—”

“Look.” She pointed outside. The clouds were beginning to break up and the sun was shining. Small birds chirped at the feeder. “It’s going to be another lovely day. It’s Sunday, Gary, you should enjoy yourself. You work so hard, selling your software. Don’t look at me like that! I know what you do. And I’m sure the facility Julie found is lovely for what it is, but I don’t think I’m ready for that. Not yet. Goodness, I’m only seventy-five!”

The daughter-in-law looked like she was about to cry. The son, the salesman son, had gotten out of his chair to kiss his mother’s hair. She would have to make sure it was properly done from now on. She would visit the hairdresser.

“So are we all settled now?” Margaret asked reasonably. The daughter-in-law wiped the corner of her eye. The son ran his hand over his mother’s hair. Full of family feeling, she added, “And look who’s decided to join us! Good morning, Liam.”

The boy, big and pale with never-shaved stubble on his chin, finished the last of his large breakfast and said, “I’ve been sitting here for like ten minutes, Grandma.”

“Of course you have!” she said to Edward, the person who was actually sitting there. She called him Liam because they expected her to. But anyone could see that Edward was the fourth person at the table. The other son and the daughter-in-law seemed to be under the impression that the whole terrible business in the garage had been final, and she wasn’t about to argue. When people start to believe a lie it isn’t worth the trouble trying to talk them out of it.

The salesman son had sat down again. “Welcome back, Ma.”

She smiled at her son—at both her sons. “Thank you for a lovely breakfast.” Delicately, with the corner of the cloth napkin, she wiped her mouth. “Now I think I’ll go and watch the television.”

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Joshua Shapiro’s short story “The Conjecture” appeared in the Spring 2022 Notre Dame Review. His story “Smart Home” won the Mississippi Review 2022 Fiction Prize and will be in their Fall issue. In previous years he has published fiction in Beloit Fiction Journal, Literary Review, G.W. Review, Straylight, Pangyrus, Phoebe, The Main Street Rag, and other places. He lives with his family near Boston, where he teaches music and does woodworking. He is an alumnus of SUNY-Albany, Harvard, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Email: ivorylit[at]yahoo.com

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