With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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As a child I thought of my mother and father in terms of centuries. This man and this woman had lived forever, it seemed, born wholly formed and unchanging, waiting patiently for my sisters and me to come along. Had someone told me my parents were, in truth, scarcely more than children themselves, I would have considered it a lie to rival the tooth fairy. Had the liar then taken me to the attic, opened the trunk that held my father’s dusty telescope and my mother’s moth-eaten Burano-lace baby dress, and told me those antiques were practically new, I would have laughed.
Then a span of decades passed as quickly as smoke from a blown-out candle.
My mother came to see me a few months after my father died. On her last night in town, I sat her down and poured two shots of tequila: one for each of us. It was past midnight. Moths flitted at the window screens. My wife had gone to bed, as had my granddaughters, who were visiting. I sat in the easy chair, and my mother sat on the sofa with her feet on the coffee table. She watched me drink my shot, then tipped back her own glass and swallowed. Her blue bathrobe came open a bit at the neck, exposing the freckled V of a tan line and the white lace of her nightgown. She shook her head, then set the glass on the corner of a magazine. As she pulled her fingers away, the glass rolled off the table and onto the carpet. “Oops,” she said.
I angled the bottle toward her. “Another?”
She gave a throaty chuckle and waved my hand away. I started to pour one for myself but changed my mind and rested the bottle on the floor. “So, how’s it feel to live alone?” I asked.
She adjusted her lapels, primped her hair a bit. “A good-looking man came to the door last week.”
I groped for a proper response, came up with “Oh?”
“He was young. Just a boy, really. He was selling magazine subscriptions to raise money for something.” She shut her eyes and tilted her face toward the ceiling, as if to identify the call of some faraway bird. “When I was fifteen, a salesman came to the front door. He was good-looking. Very. It was a Saturday afternoon. My parents were off in Columbus, buying a car, and I had stayed home to study. Then this man in a blue suit came to the door with a suitcase full of flowery soaps.”
“I once bought chocolate bars from three different kids in one afternoon,” I said.
“I let him smooth-talk his way into the kitchen,” she said. “I shouldn’t have, but I did. He wasn’t much older than I was. So handsome, the kind of man you’d almost call ‘pretty.’ ” She chuckled, rubbed her elbow. “He asked how many boyfriends I had. Inside of ten minutes he was kissing me, right there in my mother’s kitchen. Oh, and he smelled of lavender.”
She leaned over, picked up her empty glass, and held it out for me to fill. I poured us each another shot. Moths tapped at the window screen.
“When I asked where he was from,” she said, “he told me, ‘The train.’ That was it: ‘The train.’ He had the softest little mustache.”
“The kids were selling chocolate to raise money for a school band,” I said.
“After a few kisses, well, he put his hand in my blouse, inside my brassiere. And I let him. He had a gold band on his finger. I could feel the ring against my skin. It was cold.”
“Mom, could you just pause the story right there?”
She breathed deeply. “Sorry.”
“It’s OK. Just —”
“No, I shouldn’t,” she said. Her face flushed for a moment, and she looked at the floor.
“Shoot,” she said after a few seconds. “I ought to catch some shut-eye.”
She slid her reading glasses into her pocket and held out her hands for me to help her up from the sofa. I did. She kissed my cheek, walked down the hall to bed.
The next day, after I’d driven my mother to the airport, I found her bra on the towel rack in the guest bathroom. The garment was white and matronly, with lots of stitching and padding. Rather than mailing it back to my mother, I put it in an old shoe box on my closet shelf. My wife thought my keeping the bra was sweet and a little funny, but it made no sense to her. I couldn’t explain. We agreed to let it be our little secret. Days passed, then months, and the little secret became just a bit of clutter in the closet. It remained untouched for three years, until the night we got home from my mother’s funeral. I sat in my overstuffed chair with a bottle of whiskey and thought about my granddaughters. They would start kissing boys in a few years. I drank a shot, then another, and went upstairs. With the lights out and the curtains drawn, the bedroom was pitch-black. I felt my way to the closet, found the shoe box, opened it.
The bra’s tiny hooks clicked against the cardboard as I lifted it by the straps. I pressed my nose to one of the cups, which smelled faintly of potpourri and talcum powder and cardboard. Somewhere in the lace and stitching I could smell traces of my mother’s skin, her breasts, a cold ring on a soap-scented hand. My wife sat up in bed. I kissed her back to sleep, laid the bra in the shoe box, put it away in a trunk in the basement, then went to the window to watch the moon sink behind the mountains.