THUMP thump, THUMP thump. It’s five o’clock. Even though Mother’s wearing
Keds, we can hear her footsteps as she limps across the hardwood floor in the front
hall. My brothers and I are hanging out at the formica breakfast table in the kitchen.
Peter’s grinning as he softly taps the kitchen table in time with Mother’s gait. Chris
pretends to limp toward a chair.
Mother and I both had polio. I was eight and she was _____. It crippled her and
passed over me.
Mother crosses the living room, her footsteps muffled by the ornate and threadbare
oriental my parents bought at an auction a few years ago, just after we moved to
Southern California. I hate it and mother loves it. That’s the way it is with us. I think
she’s a climber. She thinks it looks like the ones laid out on the wide wooden floors of
her junior league friends, the ones who live in the hills above us.
Peter stops drumming and Chris is staring at the sports section by the time Mother
arrives, having made her way across the dining room floor. I’m counting out the place
mats for dinner as Peter flips casually through the latest surf magazine.
Well, here you all are. Isn’t it nice we can all be together for the cocktail hour.
Mother hobbles across the kitchen to the cabinet where the liquor bottles are kept on
a top shelf. She throws her weakened right arm up over her head and catches it at
the elbow with her left hand. She fumbles with the latch until the door swings open
and she can grasp the handle of the big Wild Turkey.
I don’t have to look at my brothers to know they’re both grinning now. I’m biting the
insides of my cheeks trying not to laugh. But we avert our gaze from her. None of us
can bear to watch what we’ve come to call her “Cocktail Catch.”
She pulls the Wild Turkey off the shelf with her right hand and slows the bottle’s fall by
catching it with her left, pushing it against her stomach. Clink. The sound of her
wedding band against the glass signals success.
Chris gets up from the chair muttering I’ve got lots of homework. He winks at me as
he leaves the room. Peter follows, saying something about a science test the next
day, limping out of the room behind Mother’s back.
She settles onto the kitchen stool, pours the first three fingers into a crystal Old
Fashion glass and hands it to me. The rest is automatic. I get the ice tray out of the
freezer and run some water over it before pulling the handle. The ice cracks. I drop
four cubes into the glass and hand it back to mother.
As long as you’re up, could you open a can of Planters’? And get that pack of
cigarettes by the phone. Matches too.
These are the first words she’s spoken to me in three days. Saturday night she’d
come into the living room where my boyfriend Don and I were watching TV. The lights
were out and Don’s head was in my lap. She said I was a slut and sent him home. I
haven’t yet forgiven her for that.
The mail came today. I see you got an invitation to the Girls’ League dance. Who do
you think you’ll invite. Pause. A long pause. I tell her I haven’t decided though she
knows this is not the truth. No one here is particularly interested in the truth.
I wouldn’t wait too long. All the popular boys will be snapped up pretty quick.
She taps her pack of cigarettes on the kitchen counter, pulls one out, puts it between
her thin lips and lights up. She closes her eyes and draws the smoke deep. She
exhales a smooth dove gray ribbon of smoke that floats between us. I hate and long
for her at the same time. The smoke and the longing, the inhalation and the
exhalation. These are what I want.
Why don’t you talk to me any more? Other girls talk to their mothers. The only
thing we talk about these days is clothes.
I deny it, say we sometimes talk about more important things. She ignores me.
I can’t do what I used to do, she says, referring to the polio without saying the word.
No one ever uses the word. Pour me another drink, would you? With more ice this
Dancing, running, travel, can’t do any of it, she’s saying, testing me. There’s only
one way to pass this test.
I turn and take a second Old Fashion glass from the cabinet as she continues with her
monologue of real and imagined injuries. If you’d only open up a little, tell me about
your life. This is an invitation to fail. There’s only one thing to do. Begin the damage.
I pour three fingers into both glasses. Mother stops talking and watches as I open the
freezer, crack the ice and drop the cubes into the caramel liquid. I hand her the glass
and raise the other in a toast. I’m thinking I dare you to stop me.
Cheers I say more grimly than I feel. Cheers as I hold the glass to my lips. Cheers as
it burns its way down. Cheers as it stings my eyes into tears. Cheers as I smile.
Cheers as I begin to even the score.