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Where Were You? | Steve Listro

“ ‘Where were you last night?’  Ma, you really didn’t just ask that.  You don’t ask a thirty-year-old man where he was last night,” I said, echoing one of my older sisters.  I was chopping Portobellos for veal marsala, the cordless shoulder-wedged to my ear.

“I tried to call.”

“Aaaand?”  I said, stretching it, laying on the sarcasm.

“I have to tell someone, and you know your sisters.  They think I’m nuts already.”

“You have to tell me something.” I sighed.

“Now what?” I’d long given up masking my exasperation. If it wasn’t the Russell’s dog shitting on her lawn, it was the mailman reading her People magazines.

“Don’t ‘Now what?’ me. I’m your mother. And when you coming for the pants?  They’ve been sitting here a month.”

She had me there, and she knew it.  I’d dropped off a couple pairs of work pants for her to hem.  Now it was like she held them hostage.  No visit, no pants.  Surprised she didn’t run them up a flagpole. Wave them like semaphore.  The message:  YOU STILL NEED ME.

“The pants.  Right.  When I get around to it.”

“A round to-it.  I’ll give you a square to-it.”

“Ma, the point.  You said you had something—son of a bitch.”  The  knife seemed to hiccup in my hand, bit off the tip off my thumb, a sliver of nail. Blood blossomed.

“You cut yourself. That’s what you get.  God’s punishing you.”

“He’s way beyond that, Ma.  Now he pities me.” I ripped off a paper towel, wadded it over my thumb, held it with the elastic from the broccoli bunch.

“I sobbed all last night. No one to tell.  I’m all alone here.”

“All right, all right.” My father had died a year ago. Ever since I’d been guilted into playing the good son. “So what happened?  The Fonteyn kid showed you his ass again, right?  Little retard.”

“I had to go to Wal-Mart.  I hate the place but I refuse to pay three dollars for Witch Hazel, like over at what’s it called.”

“CVS, Brooks, Walgreens, whatever.  Go on.  This isn’t a story about Witch Hazel, right?  I mean there’s a serious thing here, a point, am I right?  My neck’s killing me and I got dinner going here.”

“And only Wal-Mart has the iced tea in the big jugs like I like. The Arizona iced tea.  In gallons.”

“Please.  I beg you.  The point.”

“You’re not in such a big hurry when you need a favor.  It’s Ma, I need the pants.  Ma, the pants. You only call when you need something.”

I sighed.  Right is right. “I’m sorry.”

“The iced tea is part of it, smart guy.  It’s important to the story.  Because when I come home, pull in, I always leave the heavy stuff for the second trip.  The big things, like the iced tea.  I back in, right to the fence.” She slipped into a whisper, like her house was under surveillance. “I don’t want Jack next door trying to help me.  He can barely walk anymore.  It’s a shame, he was always so fit.”  Now practically shouting. “But I don’t want him falling in my driveway. What, so they can sue me? I don’t have any money.”

“Sue you?  The Farells are suing you, is that what you’re saying?”

“The Farells suing me?  What?”

“So the iced tea.  The heavy stuff.  You left it for the second trip and  when you went back out the Fonteyn kid showed you his ass again.  I’ll talk to them. They’re all lunatics over there.”  If I didn’t get the veal dredged soon the oil would burn.  As it was, the flour was balling up, pink with blood.

“The Fonteyn kid’s got nothing to do with it. Listen.  I went out to get the iced tea and the trunk was closed.  I never close my trunk.  Why would I do that?  I had more things to get.  The iced tea.”

“Maybe little elves did it. Little good Samaritan elves.”

“Would you listen!” Her voice got croaky. She was serious.

“Yeah, sure.”  I said, quiet. “I’m listening.”

“I lost time. I. Lost. Time.”  Was she crying? “Do you understand?  I go out to the car, but the trunk is closed.  And my keys, for whatever reason, my keys are in my hand.  When I open the trunk it’s empty. No iced tea.” She paused. “I had two bags.  One with the bathroom things, the Witch Hazel, and one with the tea. Now nothing.  I don’t know what to do.  I think right away I left it at the store.  I’ll call the store, tell them to hold it I’ll be right down.

“But before I do, I say one more time, check one more time. You’re getting old. You’re slipping. So I check the kitchen, the living room.  Nothing.  I’m lost. I don’t know what to do.  I’ll call the store.  Last week I left my pocketbook right in the carriage. I went back and can you believe someone returned it?  I asked the girl if she knew the guy but she said no, so I couldn’t even thank him. Now I keep it on my arm. No more chances.

“So one more time through the house, no iced tea.  Then for some reason I’m standing in front of the refrigerator.  It’s like it was calling me over.  I’m shaking my head, no, no, no.  Don’t open it.  It’s not in there. Just call. It’s probably waiting for you behind the courtesy desk. But I can’t. It’s almost like I know. Like something inside is telling me, whispering, open the door, you crazy old witch. Open it. See how nuts you are.  I’m crying.  I can’t help it.  My hand is shaking.  It’s in there.  Two gallons of iced tea.  How?  How can I put it there and not remember? Two gallons!  That’s two trips to the car for me.  I’m cracking up, I swear.”

For a few seconds the only sound was her snuffling and the oil sizzling. Then she said:  “What if I have some kind of tumor?  A blood clot? Alzheimer’s? It happens.”

She was crying now for sure, jagged sobs. Something hot was pushing from behind my eyes, my thumb throbbing with the hammer-beat of my heart.

“Ma, maybe it’s nothing. Things like this happen all the time.” I tried to keep my voice steady.  No doubt it could be something but once she’d been sure she had anemia, then shingles.

“All the time?  Sure, to nut cases.”

“No. Ask Karen.  All last month don’t ask me why I suddenly started throwing things away. My razor, my deodorant.  For no reason. It wasn’t like they were spent or anything.  I’d get out of the shower, do my thing, and something would end up in the pail. I’m talking every day. Then I’d be all, ‘Karen, where’s my shaving cream?  What did you do with my shaving cream?’  And poor Karen would be like, ‘Greg’—all impatient—‘Gre-heg, you threw it in the tra-hash. I assumed it was emp-tee.’ I thought she was nuts. Then one day I catch myself throwing out my aftershave.  Pour a little out. Slap, slap.  Boom, the whole thing in the trash. Just the other day Karen found a half gallon of milk in the cabinet.  So who’s nuts?”

Her sobs had reduced to sniffles.  I’d done my sonly duty.  I’d humored her.  I was still OK in her eyes. And she was right: My sisters wouldn’t have let her live it down. Every holiday it would be, “Remember the ‘lost time’ episode.  What was it, an aneurysm? Alien abduction?”

She was quiet for a full minute. I peeled off the paper towel, watched as the blood surged, spilled over my thumb. When she spoke again, her voice sounded spacey, kind of robotic but eerily intimate at the same time, like when people talk in their sleep, look at you with those saucer eyes that don’t see.

“So when you coming back?”

“You mean coming over?”

“I miss you.”

“You know how it is. I’m busy.”

“Too busy for me.  With what?  It’s been so long.”

“Well, I do work, you know.”  I tried out a laugh but my throat was dry and it caught.

She laughed. A real laugh, almost girlish. “Georgie, you haven’t worked in ages.  Come back and I’ll make you some chicken just like you like.”

Did she say “George”?  My father?

“Georgie?  Where are you?”

My palm was sticky with blood. I set my teeth, ground the wound into the counter until the pain purpled my vision. “Tonight.  I’m coming over tonight.”

“Are you OK?” She almost giggled. “You sound so sad.  Don’t be sad.”

Just then the oil ignited with a phoom. Too late. I stared at the strange flame skating on the oil. I should put a lid on that. This registered somewhere in my head but I didn’t move.  I need to put that out. Still I didn’t move.  I’ve got to take care of that.  And dinner.  There’s dinner.  So much to do.

Stephen Listro teaches at Quinnipiac University and Southern Connecticut State University.  He holds an MFA from the University of Miami and a Ph.D. from the University of Indianapolis.

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