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Only Son

Illustration by Klaus Kremmerz

As a child I often woke up next to her in her bed, somehow teleported there during the night. I’d lie very still and watch car-light shadows rove from wall to ceiling to wall. She snored with grinding constancy, as if some terrible snarl trapped inside her was coming out in increments. I nudged her awake and she mumbled, He can’t. I waited for her to reveal news too devastating to tell me during the day. 

He can’t what? I whispered to her. He forgot, she said. He forgot what? She wouldn’t answer.

You’re too old to sleep with me, she said one morning. I knew that. Of course I knew that. How could I tell her that I didn’t even remember moving from my bed to hers? It seemed worse somehow, more aberrant. 

One day a book appeared on my dresser. Where Did I Come From? it was called, with a naked confused-looking baby on the cover. “This book is all about you,” it began. “We wrote it because we thought you’d like to know exactly where you came from.”

I didn’t know or care exactly where I came from, but the book’s sudden appearance disheartened me. I kept it hidden from my mother, never suspecting she was the one who left it there. “Making love,” the book said, “is a very nice feeling for the man and the woman. If you can imagine a gentle tingly sort of tickle that starts in your stomach and spreads all over, that will give you some idea of what it’s like.” 

If the book was meant to confuse and shame me, it worked. I quit going into her room at night, quit looking to her for solace. 

Summer nights I’d rise out of bed and open a window to let my room breathe, let some bitter starlit air inside. Our townhouse had an unobstructed view of a huge windowless building with twenty chimneys where I was pretty sure they were incinerating pets. All the missing dogs and cats in town, their photos and vitals and last known whereabouts posted on telephone poles—that’s where they ended up. I was sure of it. The air at night always smelled kind of scorched and furry. 

Once a pair of birds flew into my room, one right after the other, so close I could hear the feather-on-bone flap of their wings. I searched and woke her up and we searched the house together but we couldn’t find them. She opened all the windows in the condo and I suggested that we stand out front and whistle, maybe the birds would hear it and be drawn to the sound—I don’t remember how old I was but surely too old to think this would work. And did my mother humor me? She did. Briefly, she did.

 

Another summer, years later, my wife and son and I stayed in Bergen. Next to our apartment was an art gallery and in the front window was a huge painting of a dilapidated rowboat tied to a dock, water lapping at its sides, under a sky full of harmless clouds. It wasn’t particularly well done and every time I saw it I noticed some element, a poorly mixed color or error of symmetry, that made me dislike it more. It was massive. The boat was almost life-size. With my phone I converted the price sticker from kroner to dollars and it came out to around $6,800.

For some reason my mother always came to mind whenever I looked at it. Maybe I was thinking about her the first time we walked by and it became a sort of mnemonic for her. Like how I always (and only) think about an ex-girlfriend when peeling potatoes. Or maybe it was because the painting cost so much. She always liked browsing expensive shops, picking things up, and saying to whoever she was with, Guess how much? Then she’d say, Higher…higher, until the person guessed it.

We passed that painting whenever we left the apartment, so I thought about her a lot those first few weeks in Bergen. Without any conscious effort on my part a story began to take shape in my mind about my mother and the painting. I don’t remember how it evolved. Maybe I imagined her liking it more and more each time she saw it, until finally deciding to buy it. Maxing out her credit card and bringing it back to the hotel and trying to explain to Eleanor and Bunny, the women she always traveled with, why she needed to own this giant painting when she didn’t know why herself. Having to pay another two hundred dollars to ship the painting back to the US. Hiring a guy to rearrange furniture and hang it in the living room of her condo and then…I don’t know. A discovery, a realization. Her alone with the painting, seeing something. 

We went to the fjords. We waved to Norwegians on their stolid boats and in their happy fjord towns. If they waved back my son would say sweet. If they didn’t he’d say sour. The scenery was astonishing—I kept taking pictures and looking at them and deleting them because nothing captured it. When we returned to our apartment the painting was gone. In its place was a canvas of haywire purplish geometry. Wallpaper. We stayed in Bergen a few more weeks and I thought about my mother just a few times after that. At Nordnes Park, watching a little girl carefully tying an old woman’s sneaker for her. When I caught a whiff of hazelnuts as a waitress leaned in to take away my plate. I emailed her pictures of us in front of the leper museum. I thought it would be funny. 

She wrote back minutes later: Looks like you’re having fun. I wish we could’ve afforded to travel more when you were younger. 

She meant it earnestly, I know she did. So why did it sting like a rebuke? Why couldn’t I simply have replied, Me too

 

She died last month. There was a small gathering at the Daytona Beach Yacht Club, her favorite restaurant. We took turns standing up and sharing memories of her. A friend recalled her trying to haggle with a Hungarian paprika merchant on their river cruise. Another expressed relief that she died in her sleep. She said it with such wistful envy. When it was my turn I recounted how I’d forgotten to call her on her birthday and remembered two days later. Every year after that, she’d call me two days after my birthday. Everyone laughed. This was exactly the kind of thing she would do. As I told the story, though, I realized that I still wasn’t sure whether it was a joke, a punishment, a point she was proving. It was hard to tell with her. 

I sat back down. Someone patted my shoulder. 

I’d intended to talk about the birthday after my father died, when I begged for a pair of Air Jordans and she found some at the Pic ‘N’ Save, the store where you bought cat litter and discount beach towels. She handed me the box and I tore it open and inside were a pair of red-and-black canvas high tops with a squiggly parabola instead of a swoosh: Air Jacksons. I refused to wear them. No one could know we were poor. 

Above my desk is a photo of her and my father at the beach looking tan and handsome and giddy. She told me she could pinpoint the exact day in the picture and knew without a doubt it was the happiest of her life because that was the day they got engaged, a year before I was born, when she was still stunned by dumb love. Above it is a Post-it note, on which I’ve written: Quit bullshitting. Be honest about your feelings. So what are my feelings? What does this honesty consist of? 

I made a list, but nothing captured it. A few Rushmore moments, like when she took our beagle puppy back to the pound after a month and told my sister and me that it had been hit by a car while we were at school. She kept that one from us for years. When I asked why she didn’t just admit it, she said she’d thought about telling us the puppy ran away, but didn’t want us out at all hours, combing the neighborhood. 

And a thousand trivial ones like sending me a sweatshirt from QVC one Christmas. On the front it said, future bestselling author. I could’ve laughed it off, could’ve called to thank her for the delightful barb, but it infuriated me. I threw it away with the wrapping paper. I pushed it to the very bottom of the trash.

I’d like a do-over, she once told me. I think I’d be better at it if I had another shot. 

At the memorial service, when the remembrances were done, I played the Charles Aznavour song she’d requested and flew home with a pair of tiny handmade wooden shoes her mother wore as a child in France. They’re the only thing of hers I asked for and the only thing I got. 

 

I wouldn’t say we ever flourished in each other’s company. She was kindest when I was sick. My inner light dimmed slightly, my needs basic and discernible. She’d buy me music magazines: Song Hits, Rolling Stone. Then warm some cream of mushroom and pour bacon bits over it. I liked it when she flattened her palm on my forehead to check for a fever. If she ever showed me physical affection when I wasn’t sick, I don’t remember it. 

Mostly she was absent. Either at work or at a friend’s house or on the phone or busy with her wine and her sewing. I can’t remember any advice she gave me or my sister, good or bad. We were never burdened with expectations or unreasonable demands. She let us live. She didn’t yell. When we behaved badly she’d say in an aggrieved voice, You need to act like somebody. She never said who, exactly. 

Remember how good it felt to fall asleep to the sound of her talking on the telephone? Sipping Gallo wine over ice from a coffee mug. On the phone, especially with strangers—customer service, some county employee, a teacher—her voice was so happy and certain. 

 

She owned a silver charm bracelet but never wore it. I remember some of the charms: heart-shaped padlock, horseshoe, locket with our baby pictures inside, and a tiny square cage holding a perfectly folded five-dollar bill, which I freed with tweezers one afternoon, unfolded, and used to buy a Circle Jerks cassette recommended by the scornful cashier at Atlantic Sounds, who I was in love with. She wore her hair in a Chelsea cut, short bangs and two wispy forelocks, and combat boots with yellow laces to signal she wasn’t racist. Red laces meant racist, yellow laces meant not racist, white and black laces meant something else. I had to show her my money before she’d talk to me—when I did she was helpful, even friendly—and I bought whatever she told me to. While listening to the cassettes I often doubted the sincerity of her recommendations. Sometimes reggae, sometimes catchy tunes about necrophilia. Sometimes songs without a single decipherable lyric, just berserk guitars and singers gargling bile. A few weeks later I came home and my mother was at the kitchen table trying to fit a new five-dollar bill into the empty cage. She didn’t look up when I walked in. I knew the moment I’d unfolded it, how painstakingly and precisely accordioned it was, that only an origami master would be able to pack another bill into that cage. It didn’t stop her from struggling for hours to undo what I’d done, sighing, probably waiting for an apology. Finally she gave up. She went to the hardware store and bought two deadbolts, one for her bedroom door and one for my sister’s. My own door didn’t even latch. I lay on the carpet listening to my cassettes, dreamed of that scornful cashier thawing with every passing song. I waited for a sign. Soon I’d be able to discern my mother and sister with my eyes closed, just by the sound of their locks.

 

There was a Hindu temple in Port Orange and she liked to pull into the parking lot whenever she was nearby. She would keep the car idling and stare at it, feeling something leave her. She called it the monastery, though we had no idea what actually went on inside. Monks and vows, silence. Sacred garments. Discipline. She loved being in the vicinity of something like that. 

She was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer when I was in high school. At the hospital she said, I won’t let this beat me, and I remember thinking: It’s going to do whatever it wants with you. But she did end up beating it. Prayer is powerful medicine, she reminded me during a phone call. 

So is medicine, I said.

And prayer, she said.

 

My second semester, I ran up a $1,200 American Express bill. I couldn’t pay it off and neither could she, so back home I went for a year’s penance at Cap’n Coty’s, an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant where my job was to run fresh hotel pans to the buffet. The customers were insatiable. In the kitchen I’d load catfish and hush puppies onto the cart and babble to myself like a kindly farmer. Get ready, my pets, I’d say. Feeding time begins in a few minutes. I enrolled at the community college. I temporarily impounded my aspirations, looked for myself in other people.

A recruiting officer in uniform gave me his card one day while I was changing out hotel pans, told me to give him a call. Then he started visiting my house. I don’t know how he got my address. He tried to convince me to go to Jacksonville with him to take the armed services vocational test. He used my name often and had a suspiciously nuanced understanding of my character. He played on my insecurities like an expert salesman. Even his compliments seemed incriminating: What an amusing young man you are, Kevin. The second I saw you I knew you were the type who likes to amuse others. 

I almost went to Jacksonville, too, until he said, You know, in five or six years, Kevin, I’m seeing you flying support missions in a Black Hawk helicopter. 

And suddenly it occurred to me, as I tried to imagine myself even sitting in a helicopter, that he was completely full of shit. I’d be the guy washing the helicopter. The guy washing towels for the guy washing the helicopter. 

When he finally gave up, my mother admitted she was the reason he started coming by the restaurant. She’d reached out and even shared some background with him for his pitch. She thought the military might give me a better sense of myself. 

All she knew was that I needed to learn a lesson she couldn’t teach me. Once, in middle school, Daryl Mingo and I were sent to the vice principal. I can’t remember what we did, but our punishment was three licks with Hammerhead, the paddle he kept on his wall. Its face was the size of an oar, a grinning shark on it like an old bomber plane.

First he had to get permission. He called Daryl’s mom. She said, Nope, no way. We heard her through the receiver. He called mine. She didn’t even hesitate. You have my blessing, she said, as if ordaining it from on high. 

 

Her first husband left when she was pregnant with my sister—her second, my father, died the year she turned forty. She took night classes to become a teacher and worked part-time at a cemetery selling burial plots over the phone. She left her script on the kitchen table once: No one likes to think about themselves or their loved ones dying. Before my husband passed, I didn’t either.

She dated a guy from Cocoa Beach named Ed while I was in middle school. Ed wore a panama hat and drove a midnight-blue Tropic Traveler conversion van, which he gave me a tour of the day we met. A normal van had one, maybe two ashtrays; his conversion van had five. A normal van had a tape deck; his had a tape deck and TV set. A normal van had normal seats called seats; his van had wider, plusher seats called captain’s seats. One van, seven captains.

Ed took me to see the magician David Copperfield, just the two of us. For weeks he’d been trying to win over my sister and me, but he was an inept army, no clue when to retreat or when to advance. He’d declare an enthusiasm, then try to march us to it: Look at that sunset. Listen to these sweet guitar licks. Check out those baby horses over there—what are baby horses called? Help me out here, it’s on the tip of my tongue. Try this tangelo from my tangelo tree—I rub rancid honey on the trunk which is why they’re so sweet. He was an elephant trainer, he said, but I didn’t believe him. If he worked around elephants, he’d be more intimidating, or wiser. Still, whenever I read about someone getting trampled by an elephant or see a magician, I think of Ed. 

David Copperfield levitated over the audience and had a beautiful redheaded assistant. Ed kept looking over to see if I was enjoying myself—I was, but my face stayed rigid. David Copperfield transported his assistant to the Hoover Dam. She brought an audience member’s herringbone necklace and held it up on a video feed atop the dam. On the way home, Ed went through each trick and tried to figure out how it was done. I gave in and played along. When he pulled in front of our townhouse I thanked him and we shook hands like we’d closed a deal. Then he said something about my father, I don’t remember what exactly, something earnest and sympathetic, and instantly whatever good cheer I felt went ice-cold. 

Later I did a thing that still shames me. He and my mother and sister went to see Purple Rain. We’d been begging her to take us but then Ed asked her and, as an afterthought, invited us along. I stayed home, feeling wounded and abandoned, shocked that my sister, the traitor, agreed to go, and wishing I’d joined them. Earlier I’d been rooting through my mother’s closet and found a shiny plastic vibrator, precisely the punishment a boy merits for rooting through his mother’s closet. I waited at the top of the steps with it on the carpet next to me. My idea was to turn it on and release it when they arrived, slowly down the steps like a U-boat. The three of them came home and as they dawdled in the foyer I let it go. It kept getting snagged on the carpet, so I finally had to underhand it onto the tile. When it hit the cap flew off and the batteries went clattering. Ed bent down to pick it up and handed it to my mother. 

My back massager, she said, staring up at me with loathing.  

They dated for about six months. If she went out with anyone after Ed, she never introduced me to him. I’m still in love with your father, she’d say, ten, twenty, thirty years after he died. I never doubted it. Why would I? She and I both knew that nothing—no newborn baby, no pet or prodigal son—is easier to love than the dead.

 

She loved waterbirds and French singers and talking on the phone. She loved gratitude, especially in the form of thank-you cards. She stickpinned them like exotic butterflies to the corkboard in her little closet office. For my son’s seventh birthday she mailed him a set of personalized stationery, each card monogrammed in florid silver cursive.

Did he like the cards I sent? she asked. I told her he loved them—he used them for his drawings. Silence on the other end of the line. That’s nice, she said finally. 

Birthdays she’d take my sister and me to lunch at the Yacht Club, neither a private club nor gathering place for local yachtspeople but a midrange seafood restaurant with a view of the river. On your birthday you’d get a free meal, dessert. They’d sing “Happy Birthday” at your table and send you home with a Yacht Club balloon. 

I had to write thank-you cards before I could use the gifts I received. That was the rule. Thankfulness was a ritualized formality demanding very little actual gratitude. The cards had to be at least one hundred words long. My sister and I mastered the form: thank you for the gift, here’s what we plan to do with the gift, here’s what we’re doing in school, thanks again for the gift. 

I can send you one of the drawings, I told her. 

I’d like that, she said.

 

Who knows if I ever learned the lesson she couldn’t teach me, or if I’ve just been pasteurized by age and fatherhood and chitchat and the increasing urge and diminishing dexterity to make people laugh. I’d rather not burden others but lately I’ll realize I’m boring somebody and just keep on talking. I want to see how far I can bore into the wet gray lukewarm center of boring. I think I might find comfort there. 

 

The last time she visited me she finally looked her age. She wore sweatpants and band-aid-colored orthopedic sneakers. Sunglasses like a block redaction across her eyes. We drove to Griffith Park and Hollywood and Malibu. My wife and I showed her salient, memorable things. That’s where Bobby Kennedy was shot. That’s where James Dean said he thought the world would end at dawn. My wife pointed out the Greek restaurant where she saw Tom Hanks in line for the bathroom. My mother’s face softened into an expression of subdued pleasure, like someone being led into a surprise party she already knows about. 

Nowhere did she express her gratitude more visibly than at a restaurant after I’d picked up the check. Whatever else I’d done in life, this was when it was clearest to her, to me, that I’d exceeded her expectations. 

Remember how much you loved bacon? she’d say when I ordered a salad. 

Remember when I made you confront the bully who stole your bike? while she watched her grandson ride his. 

Everything bled of mystery, everything tending toward abbreviation.

Remember how terrified you were of chicken pox? 

Yes, Mom. I remember everything. Certain words filling me with dread. Toothpick. That was one. Scissors. Struggling to sit through class and feeling, physically, deep in my torso, contrary urges zigzagging through me.

 Fathers die once—mothers, a hundred times. I can’t remember who said it first.

 

You couldn’t wait to escape this place, she said when I told her I’d accepted a teaching job in California. You always wanted to be somewhere else. Remember how when you were little you’d constantly ask us to take you back to the magic store? We had no idea what you were talking about. There’d never been any magic store. 

I don’t remember the magic store but I remember wanting them to take me there. Some people think wanting a thing stands in the way of having it, but over the years I’ve come to realize the opposite is true. I enjoy the wanting. I want and want until the want is so contoured, so complete, that I no longer need the thing I wanted. 

After college, I lived in Arizona, Ohio, Iowa, Washington. Still, she never imagined I’d end up settling so far away. Two thousand four hundred and ten miles away. She’d learned this from the man at the library, the one she telephoned whenever she needed difficult questions answered. The man at the library always ratified her intuition with facts, with numbers. This was before everyone owned a computer, when you could call someone to search for things for you, listening as they typed your question and waiting as they went and found a reference book that would give you the answer you needed. She called the library one morning to ask what the difference was between river dolphins and ocean dolphins. A woman answered the phone. While looking it up, they talked, and she mentioned that the librarian my mother had grown so dependent on had left without notice the week before. It bothered her beyond consolation. No one could make her feel better. At least he didn’t die, one of her friends offered. 

She called the library again and a different woman told her exactly what the other had. This one encouraged her to buy a computer and go on the internet, which was like having a thousand men at a thousand libraries. She needed a kind ear, a pleasant voice, not some pulsing opera. 

I think she loved people most over the phone. She called me a lot over the last two years. She’d tell me stories about my father, usually ones I’d already heard, the sweet lilt of her voice enfolding the words like a cookie around a fortune. Why don’t you ever call me? she’d ask. I’d say what I always said: I hate talking on the phone. How else was she supposed to talk to me, she wanted to know. 

She called once to ask me how to spell the word tofu. A week later I received a letter from her that began, I’ve begun eating tofu! I love it. But what is it? It tastes like nothing!   

 

I eat and eat and eat until I’m full and then eat some more. Food is just bait to lure out a more sincere hunger. Sometimes I wish I could eat like I sleep: just close my eyes and lie down and let the food sort of…surmount me.

She never ritualized our meals. We had no family recipes, no spice rack or bowls of fresh fruit on the kitchen counter. She fed my sister and me from boxes and cans: Salisbury steak, fiesta corn, instant mashed potatoes. She got home from work at five o’clock, set her pocketbook on the kitchen table, and started cooking. Opening cans, adding water, trying to put together a balanced meal. She never asked for help but we kept her company, peered with her into the microwave and waited for Velveeta to melt and for clear baggies of creamed chipped beef to start steaming. She dumped the baggies over toast in front of our eyes added her own flourishes: oyster crackers, a dash of thyme, a glug of Worcestershire. We’d carry our plates to TV trays in the living room and abolish dinner side by side while talking back to the television. I liked whatever was playing: Joker’s Wild, Little House on the Prairie, baseball game, commercials.

For my birthday one year, she served me a great big mound of fried bacon because I’d claimed I could eat as much bacon as she put in front of me. I don’t remember ever saying this, but I did it: I ate all of it. When we went out to eat she would always say she wasn’t very hungry, and then would order some abject thing on the menu: Cajun meatloaf, corn-dog bites, beer-battered clams. She’d nibble, then put her napkin on the plate like a sheet at a crime scene. My mother was never a martyr. She never sacrificed much of herself for my sake or my sister’s. But when I’d finish my meal and tell her that I’m so full I feel like I might be sick—that pleased spark in her eye, it’s almost as if she’s still feeding me herself. 

Published: June 6, 2024

Klaus Kremmerz is a visual artist whose work has been featured in Communication Arts, WePresent by WeTransfer, Its Nice That, Creative Boom, Ballpitmag, Elephant Magazine, KIBLIND, and MokaMag.