by R. I. Miller
a long afternoon of gin and tonic
‘I don’t know…and if I did?’
I heard only a little bit of my mom’s phone conversation before she saw me and motioned for me to go outside and play.
He always called her about noon, when my dad was out. They didn't talk for more than a couple of minutes. I doubt that they saw each other very often.
Once in a while when my sister and I were riding in the car with my mom and she would see him, she tooted the horn and might even stop. ‘Girls,’ she would say, ‘this is Jerry.’ And we would say ‘Hello.’ He smiled and said ‘Hello.’ He seemed nice. He asked how we were doing with sports or some school project. I suppose my mom told him about us. But back then I didn’t like him being so important to my mom.
That changed, I mean my mom and dad started to really not get along. I didn’t know what the reason was. I mean they fought, I knew that, because I was there. But they fought a lot and sometimes my dad would get into terrible angry fits, he wouldn't hit my mom or anything, he would just yell and swear and call her unfit and other stuff, which wasn’t true. I mean calling her unfit wasn’t true.
There was a time when I thought that he would take us away from her. I was really scared then -- what would happen to us, to me? But nothing happened. They stayed together for a couple more years.
I don't think my mom knew what she wanted. There were times when I heard her crying in the bedroom. I tried to find out why but she would say she’d be alright and that I should go out and play. She drank a lot. I didn't think much of it at the time. It’s funny to think of it now, but she drank herself happy. It seemed like that anyway.
When she wasn't sad she was fun to be around. Even when she was sad, she could be fun. She would get a phone call from Jerry and she would be happy again. I don't think that she had an affair with Jerry. But I don’t know, maybe she did, or wanted to. I don’t know.
Now and then I still see Jerry walking in town. I don't think he recognizes me; it's been years, well nine or so. I wish I knew more about what my mom thought or wanted.
My dad never made her happy. I don’t know why, we don’t talk about mom. We really don’t talk about much at all. It’s better since I moved out of the house.
I think he tried, it's not that he didn't. I mean they both tried, but I think she was looking for something else. Something, or someone more, something that would be, I don’t know, maybe more meaningful to her. She would say something like that, to herself, not really talking to me but I was there, I was listening.
Mom decided to go back to college. She’d dropped out in her sophomore year to marry my dad. It took her a while for her to decide what she wanted to major in. She saw a woman who was a career counselor. After that meeting she sat with Kate and me in the kitchen and went over the choices with us. Whoever thought I had the aptitude to be in security, she laughed at that so did we. Finally she decided she wanted to become a botanist which was also on the counselor’s list. That made lots more sense to me. She loved to garden. She planted new vegetables every year just to see which grew best. And she loved birds. We had so many berry bushes the birds flocked all around them in the fall and she knew most of their names. She woke early in the morning just so she could watch the deer at the far end of our property before working in the garden. At about 1:00 or 2:00 after a whole morning of gardening, she grabbed a few beers or sometimes wine and just walked through the property, all the while singing up a storm. We had a nice piece of land, about five acres. There were some big old trees at the far end of it but most of it was a field. She loved being in the middle of it. My father didn't like to work on the land. On weekends he stayed inside reading or working on the computer, or going out with the guys.
I had to keep a lot secret. Whenever my dad found out what my mom was doing, talking to other men I mean, he would go into a fury. At the time I didn’t realize how jealous he was, but looking back now I see how it was one of the things that drove them apart. It didn't seem to worry her. She sometimes ridiculed him, and told him that there was nothing going on and anyway even if there was there was nothing he could do about it. But she felt bad afterwards, I could tell. She would be nice to him and try to be playful with him. But he was so critical of her, even when she was spending time with him he found fault with her.
It was a mess. I tried to help, but all that happened was that both of them got angry with me. My sister Kate, kept out of sight. Maybe I should have too, I don’t know, I wanted to help. I needed to help. I think I wanted to feel safe.
My mom kept telling my dad that she needed space, and that they had to live apart for a while. He finally agreed to it. They separated for about three months, then he came back. My mom was so sick when that happened -- I say sick but what I mean is really unhappy -- she went into a hospital for a few weeks. Maybe it was only two, I don't remember now. Anyway when she came out she was on some kind of pills, and that was better for both of them. Not that she stopped wanting him to leave but she wasn't in a fury about it and they were seeing a marriage counselor too. I'm not sure what good it did but I think that my mother had hope for it. The counseling I mean. Whatever went on in counseling gave her ammunition. I remember one time when she came back she said, ‘You see it isn't only me. He thinks it's a good idea too!’ I don't remember what my father said but he was not in agreement. He hardly ever agreed with mom.
But that was about the time when they got divorced. My mom couldn’t take it anymore and neither could my dad. Kate and I stayed in the house with mom. Dad was in an apartment not far away, so it wasn’t like he was completely gone. But even so, I was scared I didn’t know what would happen to me.
Mom dropped out of college again and began to drink more. So did my father, but her drinking was more obvious. I mean she didn't try to hide it. Not that she stopped taking care of Kate and me, she was always driving us off to field hockey, or a music lesson, or a dance lesson. And it seemed like the only thing that ever made her happy was to see us perform or practice. I mean other than talking to Jerry, it was the only thing that made her happy.
After a while Jerry stopped calling. That last call upset my mother a lot. She didn’t say why, at least not then.
Maybe it was four or five months later, just me and my mom were in the car and she saw Jerry. She tooted the horn. He waved, that was all.
‘He doesn't call anymore does he?’ I said and my mom started crying. She almost ran into a person crossing the street. I yelled at her to stop the car. She pulled over but couldn’t stop crying. I mean I was twelve. I didn’t know what to do. I told her I was sorry. I was afraid. I was afraid that people would see her crying. I was afraid that some of my friends might come by and see us. I was afraid she wouldn’t stop, afraid that I couldn’t do anything about it.
When she stopped crying, she looked at me, ‘Oh Carol, Jerry has a girlfriend now. That's good for him, he needs a girlfriend. He's a good man.’ That's all she ever really told me about him. But I knew she loved him. I knew she missed him.
After that she would try to explain about my dad and her, but then she would stop. Once not to long before the end, she said, ‘I’m bringing you into this. I’m sorry, it’s not for you to think about. It’s very hard for me. I don’t know what to do.’
But still, she seemed to count on me, at least I think she did.
A month later she died in a car accident. She was drunk, that's what my dad said. That's what the newspaper said. But she didn’t have anything to drink that day, I know, I was trying to talk to her just before she drove off. She didn’t have an ounce of alcohol on her breath. I knew the smell. She was in the car behind the wheel, the window was down and the engine was running. I could tell she’d been crying.
‘Everything is so messed up. You can’t…It’s just…’ I think she was going to say something else, her mouth partly opened, her eyes began to fill then she turned away from me and drove off.
Then they said she lost control of the car and hit an overpass support. An accident. It was over for her, all her worries gone.
But me, I don’t know.
About the author
R I Miller lives in Maine. His work is sometimes "straight ahead" at other times it is on the quirky or "bizarre" side.
published an essay "Circles" in Green Briar Review, a story “Ready Or
Not” in CafeLit, and a novel, The Touch of Bark, the Feel of Stone.