Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Mother's Day

The trees along Pine Street that every spring bloomed purple flowers had bloomed purple flowers. So what? What was the big deal? It happened every spring. Pammy kept saying, “Look at the flowers, Ma. Ain’t them flowers amazing?” The kids were trying to kiss up. Paulie had flown in, and Pammy had taken her to Mother’s Day lunch and now was holding her hand. Holding her hand! Right on Pine. The girl who once slapped her own mother for attempting to adjust her collar.

Pammy said, “Ma, these flowers, wow, they really blow me away.”

Just like Pammy to take her mother to lunch in a sweatshirt with a crossed-out picture of a machine gun on it. What about a nice dress? Or pants suit? At least this time Pammy and Paulie hadn’t been on her about the smoking. Even back when Pammy was taking harp, even back when Paulie’s hair was long and he was dating that Eileen, even after Eileen slept around and Paulie shaved his head, whenever Paulie and Pammy came over they were always on her about the smoking. Which was rude. They had no right. When their father was alive they wouldn’t have dared. When Pammy slapped her hand for adjusting her collar, Paul, Sr., had given her such a wallop.

The town looked nice. The flags were flying.

“Ma, did you like your lunch?” Pammy said.

“I liked it fine,” Alma said.

At least she didn’t have an old-lady voice. She just had her same voice, like when she was young and nobody had looked better in a tight dress going for cocktails.

“Ma, I know what,” Pammy said. “How about we walk up Pickle Street?”

What was Pammy trying to do? Cripple her? They’d been out for two hours already. Paulie’d slept late and missed lunch. He’d just flown in and, boy, were his arms tired. Paul, Sr., had always said that after a trip. Paulie had not said that. Paulie not having his father’s wit. Plus it looked like rain. Black-blue clouds were hanging over the canal bridge.

“We’re going home,” she said. “You can drive me out to the grave.”

“Ma,” Pammy said. “We’re not going to the grave, remember?”

“We are,” she said.

At the grave she’d say, Paul, dear, everything came out all right. Paulie flew in and Pammy held my hand, and for once they laid off the smoking crap.

They were passing the Manfrey place. Once, in the Nixon years, lightning had hit the Manfrey cupola. In the morning a portion of cupola lay on the lawn. She’d walked by with Nipper. Paul, Sr., did not walk Nipper. Walking Nipper being too early. Paul, Sr., had been a bit of a drinker. Paul, Sr., drank a bit with great sophistication. At that time, Paul, Sr., was selling a small device used to stimulate tree growth. You attached it to a tree and supposedly the tree flourished. When Paul, Sr., drank a bit with great sophistication he made up lovely words and sometimes bowed. This distinguished-looking gentleman would appear at your door somewhat sloshed and ask, Were your trees slaggard? Were they gublagging behind the other trees? Did they need to be prodderated? And hold up the little device. In this way they had nearly lost the house. Paul, Sr., was charming. But off-putting. In the sales sense. The efficacy of his tree stimulators was nebulous. Paul, Sr., had said so in his low drunk voice on the night that it had appeared most certain they would lose the house.

“Mother,” he’d said. “The efficacy of my tree stimulators is nebulous.”

“Ma,” Pammy said.

“What?” Alma snapped. “What do you want?”

“You stopped,” Pammy said.

“Don’t you think I know it?” she said. “My knees hurt. Daughter dragging me all over town.”

She had not known it. She knew it now, however. They were opposite the shop where the men used to cut pipe. Now it was a Lean&Fit. The time they nearly lost the house, Paulie had come to their bed with a cup of pennies. He was bald these days and sold ad space in the PennySaver. Pammy worked at No Animals Need Die. That was the actual name. Place smelled like hemp. On the shirts and hats for sale were cartoons of cows saying things like “Thanks for Not Slamming a Bolt Through My Head.”

And as children they’d been so bright. She remembered Paulie’s Achievement Award. One boy had wept when he didn’t get one. But Paulie’d got one. Yet they’d turned out badly. Worked dumb jobs and had never married and were always talking about their feelings.

Something had spoiled Paulie and Pammy. Well, it wasn’t her. She’d always been firm. Once, she’d left them at the zoo for disobeying. When she’d told them to stop feeding the giraffe they’d continued. She’d left them at the zoo and gone for a cocktail, and when she returned Pammy and Paulie were standing repentant at the front gate, zoo balloons deflated. That had been a good lesson in obedience. A month later, at Ed Pedloski’s funeral, when, with a single harsh look, she’d ordered them to march past the open coffin, they’d marched past the open coffin lickety-split, no shenanigans.

Poor Ed had looked terrible, having been found after several days on his kitchen floor.

“Ma, you O.K.?” Pammy said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alma said.

In the early days she and Paul, Sr., had done it every which way. Afterward they’d lie on the floor discussing what colors to paint the walls. But then the children came. And they were bad. They cried and complained, they pooped at idiotic random times, they stepped on broken glass, they’d wake from their naps and pull down the window shades as she lay on the floor with Paul, Sr., not yet having done it any which way, and she’d have to rise exasperated, which would spoil everything, and when she came back Paul, Sr., would be out in the distant part of the yard having a minuscule perschnoggle.

Soon Paul, Sr., was staying out all night. Who could blame him? Home was no fun. Due to Pammy and Paulie. Drastic measures were required. She bought the wildest underthings. Started smoking again. Once, she let Paul, Sr., spank her bare bottom as she stood in just heels at the refrigerator. Once, in the yard, she crouched down, schnockered, waiting to leap out at Paul, Sr. And, leaping out, found him pantsless. That was part of it. The craziness. Part of their grand love. Like when she’d find Paul, Sr., passed out on the porch and have to help him to bed. That was also part of their grand love. Even that time he very funnily called her Milly. One night she and Paul, Sr., stood outside, at a window, drinks in hand, watching Paulie and Pammy wander from room to room, frantically trying to find them. That had—that had been in fun. That had been funny. When they finally went back in, the kids were so relieved. Pammy burst into tears, and Paulie began pounding Paul, Sr., so fiercely in the groin with his tiny fists that he had to be sent to—

Well, he certainly had not been sent to sleep in the garden shed in the dark of night. As he always claimed. They would not have done that. They had—probably they’d laughed it off. In their free-spirited way. Then sent him to bed. For hitting. After which, probably, he’d run out and hidden in that shed. Rebelliously. They’d searched and searched. Searching and searching, heroically, they’d finally found him in the shed, sleeping naughtily across a fertilizer bag, tears streaking the dirt on his—

Why had he been crying when he was supposedly hiding rebelliously?

That was all a long time ago.

She wasn’t getting in the fricking time machine about it.

by George Saunders, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Jeff Bark