My mother called to tell me that my father was dead. I saw her caller ID on my phone and didn’t answer. I didn’t usually answer when she called. I suspected she’d caught on to this because sometimes she called from numbers I didn’t know. She left messages like “It was Mothers day yesterday. All I was hoping for was a phone call. It’s very hurtful, but it’s too late now,” and “I love you but it makes me feel very sad when you ignore me for 6 months.” I hoped she’d give up calling, but she didn’t. In the end, after a few months, I’d answer the phone just to get some respite. We talked for maybe two minutes. I gave brief answers to her questions, “I’m fine,” “No, nothing is wrong.” She ended each conversation by saying, “I love you.” I said “You too.” I hated myself a little when I said that because it was a lie. I imagined her building that “You too,” into something, taking some comfort in it. Another lie.
This time the message was, “Jack, can you call me back. It’s about your father.” I guessed that meant my father was dead. I couldn’t think of any other reason why she would call about him. I didn’t reply. My father was not a nice man. When we all lived together he used to take the fact that he was leading a life he hated out on the people responsible; me and my mother. Most evenings, after my mother had gone to bed, he would leave his study, where he shut himself away as soon as he arrived home from work, and come into the lounge room and shout at me for not putting a book back in the right spot on the shelf, or leaving a coffee cup ring on the table, or leaving the kitchen light on.
“You’re an idiot,” he would shout. “What are you?”
“I’m an idiot,” I would have to say.
My mother would get out of bed and come into the lounge room and tell my father to stop shouting at me. She would stand in front of me, reaching an arm back and touching my arm.
Later in bed I would hear her say, in a voice that sounded like a whisper, “Please, no”, and “Please, stop.”
I was usually asleep before my father finished what he was doing.
My mother kicked my father out when I was fifteen. I asked her why she didn’t do it earlier.
“Because he threatened to take you away from me,” she said.
I didn’t hate my father. I didn’t have any feelings for him. I didn’t have any feelings for my mother either, except the times when I lied.
My mother called two more times. I was just going to keep ignoring her, but I realised she would attribute my indifference to news about my father to the way he was when I was a child. I thought I would be as indifferent to my mother’s death when the time came. Perhaps I would be a little relieved that I wouldn’t have to lie any more. Then I thought I might regret not trying to seek that relief now, while she was alive and I could do something about it.
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This World Turns Tightly:
by Mark Niehus
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