Mother, Mother . . .

FROM Bullet Park by John Cheever

THE DIRECTOR led him up the marble stairs and opened the door to his mother’s room. It was a small bedroom with a single window. It would have been a child’s bedroom when the house contained a family. “She spoke last Thursday,” the director said. “The nurse was feeding her. She said, ‘I’m living in a foxhole.’ Of course her speech was blurred. Now I’ll leave you alone.” He closed the door and Nailles said: “Mother, Mother …”

Her white hair was thin. Her teeth were in a glass on a table by the bed. She breathed lightly and moved her left hand on the covers. Nailles had pled with the doctor to, as he put it, let her die, but the doctor had said that it was his responsibility to save lives. Inert, uncomprehending, the emaciated figure still had for him an immense emotional power. She had been in all things a fair woman-kindly, decent and loving—and that she should be so cruelly smitten and left so close to death challenged Nailles’s belief in the fitness of things. She should, he thought, have been rewarded for her excellence by a graceful demise. He took the deathly wages of sin quite literally. The wicked were sick, the good were robust; although her inertness made these the opinions of a simpleton. Her hand moved and he noticed then that she wore her diamond rings. Some nurse, playing doll, must have slipped them onto her fingers. “Mother,” he asked, “Mother, is there anything I can do for you? Would you like Tony to come and visit you? Would you like to see Nellie?” He was talking to himself.

Nailles then thought of his father. The old man had been a crack shot, a lucky fisherman, a heavy drinker and the life of his club. Nailles remembered returning from college in his freshman year. He had brought his roommate with him. He admired his roommate and presented him proudly to his father at the railroad station, but the old man raked the stranger with an instantaneous look of scorn and rejection and gave a perceptible shake of his head at the incredible bad taste his son had displayed in the choice of a companion. Nailles had thought they would go home for dinner but his father took them instead to a hotel where there was a band and dancing. When he began to order the dinner Nailles saw that his father was very drunk. He joked with the waitress, made a grab at her backside and spilled his water. When the band began to play “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” he left the table, made his way through the dancers, took the baton away from the conductor and led the band. Everyone in the restaurant was amused but Nailles who, had he possessed a pistol, would have shot his father in the back.

The old man shook his white head, weaved, bobbed, called for fortissimo and pianissimo and gave a hilarious impersonation of an orchestral conductor. It was one of his most successful acts at the club. The band laughed, the conductor laughed, the waitresses put down their trays to watch and Nailles sank deeper and deeper into his abyss of misery and unease. He could leave the place and take a taxi home but the already touchy relationship between himself and his father would only worsen. He excused himself and went to the toilet, where he leaned on a washbasin. It was the only way he had to express his grief. When he returned to the table the performance was over and his father was having a third or fourth drink. They finally got some dinner and in the taxi on the way home his father fell into a drunken sleep. Nailles had helped him up the steps to the house, grateful to be able to play out this much of his role as a son. He ardently wanted to love the old man but this was his only filial opportunity. His father went on up to his room and Nailles was greeted by his mother’s faint, pained, knowledgeable and winsome smile.

A fresh pillow lay on the only other chair in the room. He could, by taking a step, lift it, press it to her face firmly and end her pain in a few minutes. He took the step, he lifted the pillow off the chair and returned to his seat, but suppose she struggled, suppose, in spite of her pain and her cavernous loss of consciousness she still instinctively and tenaciously loved what remained of her life; suppose she regained consciousness long enough to see that her son was a matricide. These were Nailles’s memories at the breakfast table.


Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 5:59 PM  Leave a Comment  

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