"Why not, Mom? Just a couple of hundred. I'll pay you back."
This was a useless argument. "Bradley, no."
She had poured out two vodka martinis, one for herself, one for her son. It was Friday at four. They always shared cocktails on Fridays at four.
The weather was clear. May, sunny, and the elegant park view she had from across the street was dappled with afternoon light. She tried to not remember, as she invariably did, how she and her husband would sit out with their cocktails chatting. An English professor, he always seemed to have more amusing gossip from his department than she from the dermatologist's office where she'd worked as a nurse. Dr. Tanner, such a miserable man. Hated most of his colleagues and half of his patients. She hadn't been sorry to leave the practice, five years ago now. It gave her more time with Bradley. Fatherless and brotherless, with his bi-polar condition, he needed her.
"I haven't got the money for a beach trip."
"It's not a beach trip. I'm not some hotdog college kid. I told you, I'll be staying at a friend's condo, in Wilmington."
"And when your old jalopy breaks down on the highway? Will I have to pick you up again?"
They were seated on the wrap-around porch, overlooking the dogwood which stood by the wrought-iron railing in her front yard. The aged tree still had a few blooms on it. Her husband had insisted on the railing twenty years ago. Gave the house structure, he said. He liked thinking of the world in terms of chaos and order, disarray and pattern. In literature he looked for clean, subtle plots—Trollope, George Eliot, and Conrad. Her son was seated in the chair her husband used to take, facing her and the neighbors' fancy garden fountain made of gold marble, which she always thought gaudy with its little greenish granite cherub pissing down. They hadn't turned it on in years.
"I've got your AAA card, if anything happens," Bradley put in.
She gave him a hard look.
"I don't think anything will happen," he added, taking advantage of her silence.
She felt the first warmth in her chest from the drink. She sighed and let herself open to the late afternoon. The breeze was sweet and fresh. No car fumes. No children's cries. Her husband, a baseball nut, called this pop fly weather.
"Pop fly," she said softly.
"I was just thinking that," her son said with a hiccupy little laugh. Thirty, he still laughed like a boy. She noticed he had almost finished his drink. She'd barely touched hers. "You plan on getting drunk?" she said, leaking a little sarcasm.
"Not any drunker than you," he replied.
"Why do we argue?" she asked, a little annoyed at herself.
"I love you, Mom. You help me out. You've always helped me out. Dad never did."
He often complimented her to soften her up, she knew that. Still, she appreciated the sentiment, and the distinction, as she had done the lion's share of child-rearing. Her children—now, her one surviving child—were everything to her, and she had always catered to their needs. But it was her husband who, uncharacteristically, had checked on Bradley when he was young and prone to nightmares, one of those pretty tow head boys. It was not something she liked to think about.
Long shadows had now fallen over the dogwood, while her robust azaleas along the railing popped into full sun. She knew it was only for a brief moment that things came together, that the profusion of reddish pink blooms would be flooded by peachy light. She wanted to point them out, say out loud, look, look at that beauty, so precious. How much longer, with her eye problems, would she be able to enjoy taking in the outside world? She stopped the old-woman's tears wanting to come into her eyes. She was glad for the large, protective sunglasses she'd been wearing both indoors and out since her recent cataract surgery. She had been keeping all the room lamps lit and the kitchen overhead on, day and night, for a month while she healed. It was a dark house. She had told her husband it was too dark a house back when they were looking for a place. She was pregnant with her first child. He had insisted on buying this rangy Craftsman anyway because it was in a historic section of town and would not lose its value. The previous owner had been a renowned poet, which, for her husband, clinched the deal.
"Your father could be a bully, a pretentious bully."
"But he was elegant," Bradley said. They liked revisiting this familiar ground. "He did attract the ladies." Bradley strongly resembled his father, handsome in a Germanic way, with big blue eyes, blond hair, strong-looking shoulders and fine hands. Since he'd moved back home—while he got himself together, as he put it—the side effects from the psychotropic medications he took had caused chronic acne and weight gain.
"Too many," she said. Sometimes she had great distance on her old messy marriage. Cuckolded by a graduate student! She laughed thinking of all the fun contemporary novels she'd enjoyed through the years on the subject of neurotic academics, never expecting she would become a main character. Could a woman be cuckolded? He would have known the right word.
"My father didn't know squat about love."
"And you do?" she came back sharply. She feared Bradley had come to think, from growing up with his profligate father, that sex had nothing to do with love, when really the two should be like rope twined together. "Is this friend you want to visit someone you are in love with?"
"You've met her. It's Alissa Rowland, you remember, when we were kids? The rock band she was in, the Fallen Angels, or some dumb name like that."
"You are having a relationship with Alissa?"
"Mom, I told you the other day."
Maybe he had, but she would try to ignore that fact. Even with his medication, he didn't know when to stop talking sometimes. It could be too much for her. In order to keep him calm and steady, she had to pick her battles carefully. She took a long sip of her drink. "But Alissa is so… uneducated. How can you—"
"Mom, I'm sorry Dad was such a shit. But that's not my fault. Don't take it out on me."
She would not address his psychoanalyzing, his fall-back position whenever they were at odds. "Oh, please," she said simply.
"She's got her two-year degree in acupuncture. She's actually doing very well. Just started her own business."
"So why do you need me to help you?"
A neighborhood couple walked past their house and waved, and commented on the good weather. Mother and son waved back. Bradley made a joke about how soon they would be complaining about the humidity. The husband of the couple said, "You got that one right," and laughed as they disappeared down the street.
"Such a plausible fellow," she said with a half laugh, half grunt. He was the one ten years ago who'd single-handedly insisted on developing a neighborhood association, which put in place silly rules and yearly dues. That nonsensical, snobby, no plastic sprinklers on lawns decree.
"I've got the munchies," Bradley said. He got up to bring out the bowl of boiled peanuts she had set on the kitchen counter as she always did on Fridays. She liked to snack on them after her first drink. "And I need a refresher," he said.
"I'm just about ready, too," she said.
When he came back and reached across the table to hand her a second cocktail, she said, "This is awfully full."
"Isn't that the way you like it?"
She didn't bother replying because he was right, and she liked the taste, icy and strong. She was enjoying watching the swift movement of the sun at this hour. She could actually tell what time it was by where the sun hit the garden leaves and the park trees and bushes across the street. Early evening now. The air was getting slightly chill. At sixty-five-years-old, she seemed to need a sweater all the time. She asked her son to get her the blue-striped cardigan from the coat tree.
"You can't be cold. It's got to be over seventy out here," he said, going to get her sweater.
She didn't respond. What difference did it make, if she was aging, if she had less body fat to keep her warm? For that matter, why did she care if her son was having sex with a neighbor girl who was now grown-up—an acupuncturist! She had seen Alissa at her parents' house about a year ago. Homely and chubby, she'd worn a raggedy-styled pink dress that looked out of place for an informal cook-out. She had cut her hair to a half-inch and oiled it, which made her look like some homeless person.
She understood her son was often confused and lonely. Any social experience he had, like the therapist said, would be good for him, short of his falling in love with some destructive type. She guessed he'd gotten destructive types out his system in his early twenties after having to transport his actress girlfriend to the emergency room every couple of weeks when she overdosed on tranquilizers and booze. Bradley had a hell of a time getting rid of that one. Now, no longer a kid, he found friends who seemed saner, more reliable. A relief, she supposed, that this woman had a steady job, which reminded her of an issue she needed to bring up.
"Did you talk to Amy over at the office?"
"I did, I did."
She took another big sip of her drink, waiting for the details. She didn't want to push him. The therapist had said, "Don't push him."
"Mom, I don't want to work at your old office. The filing area is no bigger than our bathroom. The walls are parrot green. Ugly, ugly, ugly," he said, his voice rising. "I hated Amy with her obsequious manner. She actually called me a foolish demento."
"What? She said that to you?"
"Well, not that exact phrase, but close to it. Her attitude."
"Wait a minute. Amy? I can't believe it. She's so sweet. She gave me that Italian porcelain vase for my birthday one year, the one on the dining room table, which I adore."
"Mom, you only see what you want to see. You're so Pollyanna. I knew what Dad was up to for years. I knew, and so did my dear, sainted brother. Boy, did we ever."
Her back straightened—she could not stand to go into all that crappy history again, and the disgusting, melodramatic accusations of abuse Bradley liked to invent spitefully about his Dad. Recovered memories, he called them.
"Don't speak ill of the dead!"
She had not meant to sound like a drill sergeant. She tried especially hard to resist falling into sad ruminations about her older son, who had died in a car accident when he was barely out of his teens. That happened right after her husband left her for the grad student, Melissa. Kevin had been so upset by it all. He'd never been one to drink too much before. It was her husband's fault that her first child died. That's how she saw it, although her close friends commented that her theory didn't make sense. Coincidence, they insisted.
She could tell Bradley was feeling the drink, too. His cheeks were flushed and his words tumbled out faster, more animated. "Why not? Why not speak ill of the dead?" he was saying, starting to escalate into a rant. "Let both of them come back and haunt us, let them come on back and join us on the porch for a martini, for chrissake. Let's have a talk. I have a few little things I'd like to get off my chest. With Dad. We've got almost a half-gallon of fancy vodka left, and the whole night ahead of us."
She was aware of the resonance of her son's voice. She guessed the neighbors were used to it by now, and would assume Bradley was having another mental fit. They didn't know how hard these family deaths had hit her son, and how tough it was to keep him from getting aroused, or agitated, a word his therapist used a lot. She knew too, that her son, like his father, was persistent and could fixate on things. If he kept at her about going to see his Wilmington friend, she knew she would finally give in. Then he would get scared and feel ashamed of how scared he was, and she would tell him he was just fine, and he would decide not to go to the coast. Maybe in a couple of hours, when things calmed down, she'd be able to coax him out of his old room upstairs where he spent too much of his time in the evenings. They might decide to go out to a movie and dinner, and he would feel better then, for a while.
"Summer is almost here," she said, changing the subject. It had been a particularly rough winter. Bradley had been impossible. Cabin fever, he said it was. Funny, right before her husband's fatal heart attack, he had called her and complained of the January cold, and how he wanted to go somewhere warm. Her one act of strength with him was not to agree to let him come back. His life had ended in a rental house, unaccompanied.
She smiled at Bradley—she had a good idea.
"You want to go with me tomorrow to the farmer's market? It's strawberry season."
"Dad loved your berry pie," he said, calmer now. "So do I."
This was his way of informing her that he was letting go of the Wilmington plan. She sighed, relieved. He was growing up, accepting his limitations, something she would help him with, any way she could. The afternoon had deepened. Through her dark glasses, in the twilight, the dogwood was barely visible.
BIO: Beth Adamour received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Her work has appeared in Nimrod, West Branch, Mid-American Review and various other literary journals.