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Gray Shawl

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

My mother is standing near the landing dock of a summerhouse in New Hampshire. There’s a weather-beaten rowboat tied to the end of the quay.

“What did you say?” she asks me.

“The driver called, Mom. He’s going to be late.”

I think of the tall man in the black suit and the Lincoln Town Car on a dusty dirt road. Oddly, I feel sorry for him.

A bird somewhere on the lake makes a strangled cry, a call I once would have thought beautiful, and I remember the librarian wanting me to talk to urban teens about the expanded horizons they face.

“Say something inspirational,” the woman on the telephone had said. “That’s all.”

“He’s going to be what?”

“Late,” I say to my mother. “He’s run into traffic. Weekenders.”


I turn away from the memory of the phone conversation and see that my mother has moved to the end of the dock. She’s wearing the gray shawl that my grandmother wore after her husband Harry died and she moved to L.A. from New York.

My mother was a wonderful swimmer. As a child I watched her cleave through the water not like a human being at all. No splashing or laughing, just long strokes and perfect parallel synchronicity.

“Where are they going?” my mother asks.


“The weekenders,” she says, exasperated. After fifty-three years I know that even her frustration is not with me. “Always running and going this way and that way. Where do they think they’re going anyway?”

A light mist is enveloping the houses across the lake. I wonder idly if our temporary dwelling looks as hazy to them.

Mom is sitting on the wooden ladder that leads down to the boat.

“Be careful.”


“You could fall.”

“When is the driver coming?” she asks.

“In a little while.”

“I used to swim like a fish,” she says. “When I was younger than you I could swim across this lake in no time. I had long hair and so I had to wear a—a—what do you call it?”

“Swimming cap.”

My mother smiles at me: a memory of a rubber hat and a summer camp and Harry who could walk on his hands and smell out pleurisy, heart disease, and walking pneumonia.

“You are most like my father,” she says. “When is he coming?”


“The driver.”

“He’s late.”

“My father was a diagnostician,” my mother says, her left foot, now bare, kicking the green water. “He never used to touch a patient, just watch them and sniff the air.”

“I’m sure he’ll be here soon, Mom. Maybe you should come away from the water.”

All kinds of things may loom on the horizon. I write these words on a yellow pad by the afternoon light.

My mother is in the boat now. The driver has called again. He’s gotten lost somewhere at the Corners and has to retrace his route. He asked me if I knew the way. But I was driven to this cottage on the misty lake. On the drive my mother was nervous and I talked to her so that she wouldn’t worry about the driver getting lost. Because of that I didn’t pay attention to where we were going.

War, for instance, famine, fascism, disease . . .

My mother says something but I can’t make it out.

My generation has broken this world . . .

“Can you hear me?” I think she says.

I put the pad under my arm and walk across the tar path toward the dock. My mother’s rowboat is maybe eight feet from the edge.

“Pull me in.”

I reach out as far as I can but the boat is farther still.

“I can’t.”

She grins, shaking her head at my impotence.

“Come in the water and pull me to shore.”

*  *  *  *  

The memory comes easily. My mother young and beautiful and me like a squiggly tadpole. She was in the water, at Santa Monica Beach, up to her waist. I had to stand on my toes to keep my nose in the air. I was laughing and frightened.

“Do you want to learn to swim?” she asked.

She put her hand under my diaphragm and all I knew were her breasts and arms. I grabbed on and laughed crazily.

Pushing me toward the shore she said, “You’re too silly to learn how.”

“I can’t swim, Mom,” I say. “And the water is too deep.”

She grins again and shakes her head. “What will I do, then?”

“It’s a small lake,” I say. “Maybe the driver can swim.”

“When is he coming?”

*  *  *  *  

I come awake in a hotel room at 4:30 in the afternoon, in Philadelphia where 350 teenagers are coming to hear my inspirational words.

Children scare me. They want the truth, can’t imagine anything else, and all the adults do is lie. The main lesson young people learn is that they are being lied to.

I’m tired and unprepared. What can I tell them, the children? I can say that their world is broken, that I broke it, that their horizons are crowded with dangerous prospects, that I and my generation will grow old and decrepit and expect them to make things right.

We will blame you for the wars we can no longer understand, I write on my yellow pad at the edge of the jetty.

“What time is it?” my mother asks.


“What time is it?”

“He’s about ten minutes late,” I say. “It may take another hour.”

The mist had lifted for a while but now I can’t even see across to the other side. My mother is ten feet away floating in the lake, wearing a gray shawl that makes her look like a frog waiting for an unsuspecting fly.

“It’s cold,” she says.

“Can you paddle in with your hands?”

“Too cold. Can’t you just dog-paddle out?”

The mist makes the lake seem vast. It’s late in the season and most of the houses are empty.

My mother doesn’t want to leave but she hopes that the driver will get here soon.

“What are you writing?” she asks me.



“A talk that I have to give in Philadelphia.”


“Do you want to hear it, Mom?”

“It’s getting dark,” she replies.

“You will inherit our mistakes,” I read from the legal pages. “You will have to fix the world that we’ve broken.

“From the air you breathe to the tennis shoes you buy you will be responsible for the world that my generation has profited from. Your horizons will be China ascendant and Africa with its head bowed down. Your horizons will be India Indians taking jobs from you on the net and over the phone. Your horizon will be the extraordinary task of making peace with Islam.”

“That’s terrible,” my mother says, cutting me off.

“What is?”

“I don’t know,” she says shifting in the boat, making it move farther from the shore. “Nothing works right anymore.”

And I see her in my sleeping mind’s eye swimming in the blue Pacific, sleek and true like a white dolphin.

*  *  *  *  

There’s pornography on the pay-per-view tv in the hotel room. But the library is paying the bill and they want me to speak to children and so I take a shower instead.

My head hurts. The speech will never get written if I keep on sleeping. Maybe I should lie to them? What difference would it make?

*  *  *  *  

I dream now about the driver. Gray-haired and dignified, he’s coming for my mother down the dirt roads through half-empty resort towns, around nameless lakes. In my dream he loves her, wants to take her away from me. She asked me to call him and now I don’t want him to come. Neither do I want her to stay here in the boat in the water or in the cottage by the lake. My head hurts even here.

“Is that him?” my mother says.

A car is coming on the tar road. Its headlights illuminate the foggy mist with bluish-white high beams. It rushes by us making the sound of the wind outside my room at night.

“It’s a red car, Mom. Not him.”

“When will he get here?” she asks.

I look out at the lake, which is now completely covered in fog. I can’t see my mother, only hear her.

“Can you see me?” I ask.

“Yes . . . a little bit, I think. Yes. A little.”

The phone in the cottage begins to ring.

“Who is it?” my mother asks. “Who’s calling? Is it the driver?”

I jump up quickly at the edge of the small pier, dropping my pages into the lake.

“What was that?” my mother asks.

“Nothing,” I say. The phone rings again. “I’m going up to the house a minute, Mom. I’ll be right back. Don’t worry. The lake’s not very big.”

“I’m not worried,” she says as I run across the tar road toward the porch.

I miss the first stair and fall down hard.

My forehead feels wet like it’s bleeding but I don’t pay any attention to it. I get up and run into the house. The phone’s still ringing.


“The fog is so thick that I can’t see the signs,” the driver says. “I can’t even tell where the signs are to stop the car and get out and read them.”

“Where are you?” I ask.

“I don’t know but I’ll keep going. I know she’ll be afraid without me there.”

“It’s okay,” I say, peeved at his self-importance. “I’m here. I’m taking care of her.”

“But she needs me to take her,” he says. “You can’t even drive.”

I can’t even swim.

“She’s fine,” I say. “You could go home and come back tomorrow.”

“No. I better come now. She needs me.”

“No. No she doesn’t. She’d like to stay a day or two more.”

“Let me talk to her,” the driver says. “Let me see what she needs.”

“No!” I shout. “No, no, no. She’s my mother. She’s my problem.”

*  *  *  *  

I’m yelling so loud that I wake myself up again. My head’s killing me. There are yellow legal pages all over the bed. It’s 5:01 and my semiconsciousness is like a stone dropped in the water.

*  *  *  *  

“Who was that?” my mother asks.

My head is still bleeding. I don’t even remember hanging up the phone.

“I love you, Mom,” I call into the fog.

“Who?” my mother asks.


“Who was it?”

“I love you, Mom.”

“I hear you. But who was it?”

“The driver.”

“Is he all right?”

“He’s fine. He’s driving. I told him that you wanted to stay another day.”

“But is he still coming?”

“Tomorrow. He’ll come get you tomorrow.”

“But will he come and stay the night?”

“No, Mom. We’ll stay here together. You and me.”

“I can’t see you,” she says.

I jump in the lake, splashing wildly, kicking and slapping the water.

“Are you all right?” she calls.

I hear these words and reach out for her voice. Nothing. I sink down. My nose fills with water. I come up gasping, panicked. I reach out again and this time I grab the edge of her rowboat.

My mother screams, “Help! The boat is turning, turning over!”

I hold on, rocking my aged mother’s boat. She yells and cries out, “Help!”

“It’s okay, Mom! It’s settling down.”

“What’s wrong with you? You almost killed me,” she says.

I can’t see her. I can’t even see the boat. I only feel the side that I’ve grabbed on to. I’m afraid to pull myself in, afraid that the rowboat will capsize and my mother, the white dolphin, will drown.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asks from the foggy void. “Are you crazy, jumping in the water like that?”

The water is very cold and I have no sense of direction. I kick my legs and move the boat but the pier doesn’t find my hand. I can hear the water lapping on the shore but I never reach it.

“Oh,” my mother says every time I kick and the boat wobbles. “Oh.”


“What?” Her exasperation is with me now.

“I love you.”

“Bring me to the pier then.”

I want to do this but the void only grows larger. My arms and legs are cramping and at the same time going numb. I kick as hard as I can, reaching out.

Finally I grab on to reeds growing at the shore but my other hand has gone numb and lets go of the boat.

“Are you there?” my mother says.

“Yes,” I say, shivering at the shore.

“I can’t see you.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m here.”

“But I can’t see you.”

The fog is everywhere now. The tar road and the house are hidden in white vastness. I can hear the water and my mother, my own breath and the motor of a far-off automobile that doesn’t seem to come any closer.

*  *  *  *  

When I open my eyes I’m standing behind a blond wood podium in front of and audience of 350 adolescents. I’m giving a talk. It seems as if I’ve been here for a while, lecturing these children about things I don’t know.

They are quiet on the whole, which surprises me. Many of them are looking at me as if they thought I had something to say.

“. . . all we can do is love you and wish you well,” I am saying.

The children break out into applause.

I scan the room for my young mother, a white dolphin among so many dark and eager faces. I am certain that she is there, somewhere, but hidden behind the children, plowed into their soil.

A woman touches my shoulder.

“Thank you,” she says and puts light pressure on my arm.

Her smile says that it’s time to go.

I pass from the stage alone.


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