Ronald walked cheerfully down the street, his unencumbered hands stuck into the slash pockets of his jeans. Any reader would be better than a professor of English, he thought, except another writer. Then the Mother Cat showed her pointy teeth and pricked his conscience. He had not been to Rikerstown to see his mother in three months. He decided to go immediately. He hurried over to Sixth Avenue, took a subway to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and before the sun had set was riding out of the pine barrens of southern New Jersey into his hometown.
Only a native could be certain of having arrived there. Along its main street were the ragged files of businesses that tied it to the great consumptive society. Both the town hall and the Justice of the Peace were perched above automobile showrooms. Where Ronald was heading developed into a neighborhood of frame cottages among stumpy trees and bushes. A tongue of salt water from a huge shallow bay of the ocean reached far in and lapped at the ends of the street and the last shelters. Small boats in winter hoods were strung to the banks or slung upon the shore.
Ron walked across the scraggly lawn, sensing duly the pang of return, the cramp of the heart that said: "never leave Home Sweet Home" but also: "hurry up and get out." He rapped on the door with his knuckles, ignoring the fancy iron hook inscribed "Knock to be Welcome." His mother opened the door.
"Ronnie, stranger!" Her brown eyes, as large as his, warming vaporously behind her spectacles. "Why didn't you call me that you were coming so I could fix something special for you?"
"Let me in, Ma, how are you?"
"Come in, come in. Here's Rose with me." Rose Klein has helped her watch television for time beyond mind. "Rose, It's Ronnie!"
Rose is smiling sweetly and says "What do you know about that?" As short as Mrs. O'Malley, she has developed over the years the appearance of an old Chinese scribe. She is the widow of a transcontinental bus driver. Ron had envied them their free pass to everywhere: "Give me a ticket to Durango, with stops at Des Moines and Denver. And one back through the Dakota Badlands."
"I'll bet you are starved."
"No, I'm fine." He cannot help resisting, for a token moment, food offered him by his mother.
She begins to pull this and that from the refrigerator and cupboard. "You'd better eat it. Otherwise I'll have to throw it out."
"Who eats all of this when I'm away?"
"Oh, you'd be surprised. There's always somebody."
So he sets to eating leftover pork roast, warmed-up spaghetti, a lopsided icebox cake with chocolate cream that was fenced by crusty ladyfingers, cold milk, and fresh coffee. No one in the world can cook so well, Ronald thinks, but his soul shrinks and his manly chomping serves to suppress the piping child's cries.
Is it normal to make a grande bouffe of home cooking? What did Merck eat as a child -- dishes with unappetizing names, a bit of this and a bit of that, prepared by the cook: frog legs, lettuce, toast and tea. If Merck has such strange beliefs about the ordinary, how ill-disposed must he be. He will give the chapter back and say "keep up the good work." And plead he is too busy for more.
Should he tell his mother of Merck, of the book, of his anxiety over the reading? She would take it all as a proof of his success. Merck's mother would have gone into every detail of her son's problem and buy him six books on the subject, nicely wrapped.
Perhaps, thinks Ron, Merck is reading my manuscript right now; I can't see into his small eyes, behind his reflecting glasses; what is going on in there? He can hardly wait to hear their verdict.
He turns hack to the present anxiously: I am here to renew my store of universal expressions, the idiom of the people, the fundamental truths of every man's life. Speak, mamma, and pass me the pickles.
"Me and Rose were watching 'I Love Lucy'."
"Yeah, she's a scream, that Lucy," comments Rose.
"You know, Lucy and Desi are having personal troubles, but you'd never think it to look at them, would you?"
"I don't know, Mom . . . But weren't they on TV long ago?"
"Oh, this is a replay. You should watch. You would love them. They're so true to life. It reminds Rose all the time of when her husband was alive."
"I guess Dad died too young to watch Lucy and Desi, huh, Mom?"
"Your father was a prince, a good husband."
"The happy-go-lucky Irishman," added Rose.
"That's right. Why he should have to die in a car accident like that, I'll never know. The car being brand new, too." The insurance settlement had torn off her waitress' blouse and wafted her through twenty-four years of widowed motherhood.
"I don't know why, but I always seem to be able to remember him," said Ronald, dutifully.
"Its God's will," says Rose, peering across the room to a crucified Jesus.
"I suppose so. . . . still, here you are a grown man and never hardly had a father." She tilts her cheek for Ronald to kiss her, as was perfunctory when the conversation reached this point.
"Do you know how I met him?" Of course he knows. "There was a feast in the old Italian neighborhood in Camden, and I was dressed like the Angel of the Annunciation, all in white, with real wings that flapped. I was just a little girl. My father brought him. They worked together on the railroad switching cars. And he fell in love with me, he said, even though I was just a little girl. He was the only man I ever knew."
She goes on unfolding her life in the litany Ronald had learned too well. "The Lord knew that he would die. For twenty-one years we had no children. We tried everything, but no use. Then just before the accident, by a miracle, I am pregnant. Nobody could believe it. Him and me, we would just sit for hours looking at each other. Then it happened. And then I had Ronald -- that was his own name for him, he picked it. The Lord's gift, everybody said, and it's not like they say, but it's like the Lord taketh away and the Lord giveth." She claimed -- not now, but on alternate visits -- that the Lord maketh then all three one in flesh, father and son, passing over time through herself.
Ron is meanwhile staring around at his personal umbilical cord to his pre-Annunciation eternity: gimcracks, dolls, postcards, utensils enough for the feast that would never return. He will fall asleep soon on the sofa, the same that he crawled behind to escape his mother when he was a small boy. As his lids droop, he notices his mother's tennis shoes. "Why the tennis shoes, Mom?" he mumbles -- little old ladies in tennis shoes.
"They are so comfortable . . . Rose wears them . . . My feet . . . "
The next morning, while eating a huge breakfast and gazing at the bundled skiffs by the shore, he is enrolled as a reader.
"Ronnie, I got the most beautiful Christmas letter already from Mirabelle. I saved it for you to read. She always said, 'Ronald was my first and best pupil.'"
"That's nice. Later, Mom. No, O. K., I mean, I'll read it now."
Christmas 1980 is almost upon us. Where oh, where has the old
year gone. I can't believe that it is time already to compose my annual report to the board of directors. It has been a good year. The usual ups and downs. But so long as you have your health and we've been pretty healthy. Mom and I have been in good shape (and I don't mean poundage). We've had the flu, of course, giving and taking it from each other. And at 80, she says 'just give me a little more time for everything and everything will be done.' I wish I could tell you all that she REALLY DOES, I have to go up to the attic to find anything to do around the house, and she can whistle up any number of doughnuts and pop when the students or the many committees drop in on me.
"My classes at old Franklin High changed a little. (Ronald checked the back of the dense mimeographed page again to gauge the length of the letter.) The Class of 1980 was a ball, so many kookie kids it was wonderful to try to fit them into what lies ahead for them . . . I counseled the Ciceronian Club, that's the debating society, and maybe we had too much fun bowling and ice-skating to polish our rhetoric for we were lucky to break even. The high point of the season came when Lizzie Meller broke down crying at the climax of her debate on the Equal Rights Amendment and WE
"Three teachers retired, a record, but we hope that they will keep coming back to check up on us, and meanwhile Ella Roth, the new gym teacher, got a surprise baby and we had a Bake Sale, a Garage Sale and a Raffle to give the new girl citizen a shower of
lovely pink things . . . "
"I wish I could tell you how nice the students. . . The pizza parlor
down the street is no more. . . A collection on the anniversary. . ."
Ron gratefully skips to the next page when his mother's back is turned. He notices that an account of travels has begun. There were Joseph and Mary and Fanny in Philadelphia, George and Anne with their daughter Jeanne in Chicago, the Wilson's, the Apostolato's and the Mulligan's in Kansas City, and, no it couldn't be -- "This time we had several days of relaxation and sightseeing with Genevieve and Ted in Durango" -- Durango, she made it! But by Thanksgiving she was watching the Illini playing the University of Minnesota at football in Minneapolis. "We nearly froze and they had to keep sweeping the snow off the field, but it was such fun and we all went to Jimmy Johnson's home (he's only a second stringer this season but you just watch him next year) where Aunt Hilda showed us how to make (and drink! ouch!) hot glug."
Now she is preparing for a big gathering at Christmas time, and now looking back to school days, and now appreciating the blessings of God, and finally hoping that the Christ child will watch over everyone in the year ahead. Despite the teachers' strike, she hoped to afford a visit to all those whom she had missed this year. . . She wanted especially again to visit her old teacher, Mrs. Gallagher, at Liberaceville, Florida, "that wonderful Seniors community where they do Everything."
Ron keeps his head bent for a moment when he finishes reading, to think without interruption. Were these the real things in Mirabelle's life, never married, never a beau, wringing out all the goodness of the year, saving to travel and travel again, friends everywhere? (And did the friends travel, too, and send Mirabelle their letters about her coming and their going to her in Camden?) So many were they that one could never write about them as persons but rather like subscribers to her private book club. His mother will write her, on the back of a Christmas card, that Ronald has read the letter and was so happy to hear from her.
"She holds the world together, that Mirabelle!"
"She sure does." But his mind is elsewhere. "Mom, I have to get back to New York." He is fretting for the scene of the trial and execution of his book.
"That's too bad, Ronnie. You're so serious, you should watch 'As the Earth Turns.' They have a Sunday special."
"Why, what's happening there?"
"Well, this Mrs. Mannering is wondering whether to have an operation on her spine. And whether to talk to her husband about it -- they're separated, you see. At first they thought it was a tumor, but maybe it's a pinched nerve from her car skidding, and they don't -- the children, I mean -- and her, too, of course, and the nurse who is a very close friend of the doctor -- they don't know whether the husband will get mad, because she has her own car, or will he be worried and come home, and she doesn't know whether she wants him home."
"What did they decide?"
"Oh, they haven't decided yet, it only just happened -- when was it? -- maybe last Monday."
"Maybe they'll decide today." He firmly suppresses his guilt at leaving, and adds: "I have to make the eleven-thirty bus."
His mother looks at him anxiously. "I wanted to talk to you, Ronnie."
He is performing the rites of departure and she does not know how to interrupt them. Before she can find words, he is out on the front stoop.
"Rose and me are going away, Ronald," She says, wistfully, almost inaudibly.
"Wasn't the trip to Camden enough for a while?"
"Not Camden, Ronnie -- Florida, Liberaceville, Florida.
He halts and turns around. She stands above him, implanted in her tennis shoes, her cottage shrinking behind her like a snail's shell.
"We have made a down payment."
"For long? . . When? . . You mean? . . For good?"
He answers all his own questions, and sums it up: "You're leaving home forever?"
The eternal mother is deserting her post.