I opened the door and stepped out, and the dog slinked away into the yard. “Hi, Mom,” I said.
“Is that him?” I asked.
My mother lit a cigarette, blew smoke through the kitchen before she answered. She played with the book of matches on the kitchen table, then pulled her satin robe tighter around her before she answered. “That’s him,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do with him so I left him there.”
“Flushing him would work,” I said. I didn’t like the idea of him sitting there in an urn on the mantle, like he was watching over us or something. As if he was some kind of beloved father figure.
“Elias, you don’t mean that,” she said. She crossed her feet, dangled the kitten slipper with the furry pom-pom on top off the end of her toe. My mother was stuck somewhere in the fifties, in many ways, the least of which involved her wardrobe. “It’s unchristian to speak of the dead like that.”
I wasn’t able to stifle the laugh, the sound bitter. “Well, it was unchristian for him to be a worthless drunk and child-beater.”
“Your father had his own demons, Elias,” she said. “Someday you’ll understand that.”
“I doubt it.” That much was true. I’d never understand why my father was who he was, cold and callous when he wasn’t drunk, worse than that when he was.
And I’d never understand why the hell my mother stayed, so wrapped up in a blanket of denial she was rarely aware of the horror under her own nose.
She smoked, but she didn’t drink or drug; at least there was that. My mother’s vice was religion. She clung to it like a drug. Before she had us, she was a wild child, partying and out of control, at least according to the stories she told us. That’s when she had my oldest brother, the one who caused all of the trouble, who changed the course of our lives in this town. She was sixteen when he was born. She became staunchly religious, but not any particular brand of religion. She incorporated bits and pieces of things she’d come across, then vehemently claim them as her own- Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, it didn’t matter.
My three brothers and I came much later, after she’d married our father.
Growing up, she’d tell us that she knew it was her destiny when she met him- his name gave it away. It was a sign from God that she'd come across this man with the religious name.
The truth was, it was just the opposite. He wasn’t a gift from God. He was a curse.
But she’d persisted, kept on believing. She gave us the names of saints, in some misguided notion that naming us after saints would somehow protect us. My mother was perpetually naive.
The drumming of her nails on the table shook me from my thoughts.
“Elias,” she said, covering my hand with hers. She smiled sadly, her face pale even underneath the carefully applied makeup. She was always a beautiful woman, and still was now, even after the years of my father’s bullshit. “Will you stay? The house is so empty since he’s been gone.”
My mother was never good at being on her own. She was one of those people who were only people in the presence of others, who somehow ceased to exist when they were on their own. Her expression was childlike in its intensity, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. "For a little while, mom."
The truth was, I wasn't sure how long I was going to stay in West Bend, or what I was going to do. I was running, but I didn't know where I was running to.
She nodded. "A little while is good," she said. She was silent for a moment before she finally spoke. "Your leg- how is it?"
"It's okay, mom," I said. It was an uncharacteristically direct question, coming from my mother. She'd acknowledged my injury only once, after it happened, on the phone. She hadn't come to see me in the hospital, but I also hadn't expected that.
"Does it hurt?"
"Now?" I shook my head. "Sometimes, I mean. I get phantom pain."
"But it looks, you know, normal now."
I nodded. "The prosthetic is good," I said. "This one is pretty realistic. I have another one for running."
"I was going to come visit you." My mother leaned back in her chair, her eyes focused on the wall behind me. She lit another cigarette, her hands trembling as she fumbled with the lighter. When she spoke, her voice faltered. "I couldn't - I just didn't want to see you like that."
"It's okay, mom," I said. For all her inadequacies, I had a hard time being angry with her. It was like being angry with a child.
"Have you seen Silas yet?" she asked.
"Nope." I hadn't seen my twin brother in three years, since I'd come back to West Bend to visit, thinking things might have changed, that after two years away, people might be different. But people don't change.
And family? They change least of all.
"I don't know what happened with you two," she said. "But you need to see him, Elias. Things weren't right with him before, but he's in a bad way now, since he came back from Vegas."
It was like hearing my mother speak in a foreign language, the way she was acknowledging that my brother was in some kind of trouble. This- being direct, honest- was not something she did. Maybe my father's death had shaken something inside her.