“She wasn’t one for icebreakers. I didn’t argue because she’d be dead soon besides.”
I’d been Jeremy Viche three weeks when a Nancy in a blue pleated dress told me she was my mother. She was not my mother. She stood quiet on the porch so long I thought she was selling something and bad at her job. Then she came out with the mother bit and I was right. She lurched out and hugged me and I had nowhere to go but around her.
“You have the wrong guy,” I said.
And she said, “No.” She walked inside like I’d offered. “If you’re Jeremy Viche,” she said, “I’m your mother.”
I was him, though only lately. It was a big woods and a little house and anyone who found it hadn’t found the wrong one. It was so little you had to be looking for it to find it, which was what I required, but it went both ways. Anyone who found it found what they were looking for.
She found a couch without trying and waited for me to sit with her. There was a glass of water I’d been sipping on the ottoman, and maybe because she thought we were family she took a drink and thought I wouldn’t mind.
I sat myself on the couch across from her. I don’t know what old Jeremy needed two couches for. He lived alone and never had guests, which was what I required.
“I don’t know how to say this,” she said, “but I’m dying.”
I’d never prepared a response to that statement so I waited till she had something else to say, anything I’d practiced for.
“The doctors say I have three months, maybe six,” she said. “But don’t feel bad for me. I’ve had a good life.”
I nodded because it looked like she wanted it.
“You never think it’ll be your turn, and then suddenly, kaboom,” she said. “And you think to yourself, kaboom?”
“They said I needed to get everything in order, to make a list and go right down it. Now I’m just a piece of paper.”
She laughed and I guessed and joined her.
“You’re at the top of it,” she said. “I was a coward at first and started from the bottom.”
I agreed with her. “Tea?”
“You have my eyes,” she said.
She lay back on the couch and closed her own.
She slouched. “Did you offer me tea?”
I nodded. She didn’t see it.
“I never liked tea much,” she confessed. “All I can think of is crunching leaves when I walk. It’s like drinking what’s under your feet.”
“Water is under your feet,” I said.
“There’s no crunch, though. I’ve never heard water crunch.”
She wasn’t one for icebreakers. I didn’t argue because she’d be dead soon besides.
“I’ll have some tea,” she said.
I escaped to the kitchen until she followed me in. She took the only seat at the table and tucked her legs under the Birchwood. The head of a deer hung above her. She stared it down and smiled.
“It’s pretty,” she said.
It was. Old Jeremy had killed it. Old Jeremy was a better shot than me. Light from the lone window bounced off its marble eyes.
And in that window was framed an ’83 Volvo beneath the hazard of two trees. It was new thirty years ago. She’d parked off the edge of the road, bowing down a thick bush into the rubber stitching of the wheels, as though room needed to be left for more guests. If I wanted guests I would have made friends.
“Did you know?” she said. “I didn’t want to burden you, but I couldn’t just let you go on never knowing. Forgive me. It’s selfish. I’m selfish.” She massaged the table.
“Know what?” I said. It was easiest to not understand.
“That your parents are not your parents.”
“Of course,” I guessed.
“Good. That’s good. That’s not as bad.”
I remembered to turn on the stove.
It was getting dark and she stared too long at simple things to have proper vision. She’d claim to be afraid of driving in the night, and ask to stay over, and I’d have to say yes, because no son would say no.
“I’ll walk you out,” I offered.
“But the tea!”
I don’t know why she said it so loud.
“Do you have questions?”
I leaned on the edge of the stove. I didn’t do questions.
“I was poor,” she explained.
The steam arrived.
“No money. No home. And no husband.”
Old people either caved in or seeped out. She was a seeper, layers of tired fat rounding her elbows and cushioning the blows of touch. Her eyes dragged down to her nose and she wore her black hair like an outfit. There were lines strung everywhere across her, wrinkled and in folds and connecting hidden dots, lines headed every way.
I just looked like I could be anybody.
“Your father’s name was Guy,” she said. “That’s what he went by, at least. He looked like a Casanova. A Casanova named Peter or Gabriel. Something monumental. I knew him about as well as you do. He worked with his hands. I don’t know what he did, though.”
I poured her a cup and gave her the choice of tea bags that tasted like colors.
“Just water’s fine,” she said. “Your grandmother’s name was Madeline, which is a beautiful name. She’s gone now, of course. And your grandfather was Vernon, and he was just fine. His upper lip never moved and he sold bonds. He’s dead too now.”
She sipped her hot water. I poured myself a cup and dropped in a bag of red tea.
“So it’s just you and me left,” she said. “That’s the last of us. And now that it’s just going to be you, I figured you should know you’re not alone just yet.”
“No,” I agreed.
“I rehearsed that line beforehand,” she said. “On the way over here. I was so afraid.” She stood and refilled her cup and sat. “But you’re easy to talk to. You’re more than I dared imagine.”
“Thank you,” I told her. It was not getting lighter outside.
She was talking to me.
“What’s your life’s tale?”
“Just trying to get by,” I decided.
“You have to give me something.”
I knew some things. “I lived in Huerfano. It was dusty.” I lived in Denver. They put roads over the dust there. “I went to Colorado State.” I went to Boulder. “I got a degree in music.” I didn’t graduate. “I had a brother.” I had none. “I’ve never married.” I’d never married.
“Music,” she said. “Play me a song.”
“Not that kind of music.”
“I see,” she said, like she knew what I meant. I didn’t know what I meant and I was the one who said it.
I stared at her Volvo but it convinced her of nothing.
“How’d you come to live out here?”
“Cheap,” I said. “And quiet,” which was what I required.
“I don’t think you inherited that from me. But the eyes,” she said. “You had a birthmark on your back, up in the corner. Did it stay?”
“Not at all?”
She rose and moved behind me. She slid her hands beneath my shirt and lifted the cloth above my shoulders.
She swallowed air and didn’t let it free. She found the table. “All gone,” she said. She exhaled but didn’t reel the gust back in. She tried again and then once more. She failed to get the breathing right.
“I left you and all gone.” She hunched and held the table between her fingers. “You could fit in one hand when I last saw you.” Her chest thrust at the table and cowered.
I pushed her cup closer and she pulled it away. She gripped her throat.
“No,” I said.
She pointed at the phone on the wall.
She went to the phone and collided with the wall. The phone fell from its receiver into her arms.
She pinned it to her ear and heard there was no dial tone.
She collapsed back to her chair. She reached under her blouse and removed the ornament of a necklace, round and white and without glory. She snapped it open and pressed a button. The button came alit.
“What’s that?” I said. “What’s that?”
“I’ll take that water now.”
I poured cold water.
“Lay me down, Jeremy.”
I laid her on the floor.
“Haven’t you a bed?”
I carried her to the bed.
“It hurts,” she said. “More pillows.”
I went to the living room. I withdrew the containers from under the couch and emptied them into the fireplace. I sculpted the pictures and bank notices into a neatened pile and said goodbye to myself and lit them aflame. I brought back two pillows, one from each couch.
“Tell me a story,” she said.
“You never told me any,” I pointed out, and she was silent then.
The ambulance arrived within the half-hour. They were big woods. I led the medics into the bedroom and they lifted her onto the gurney and wheeled her into the night. They loaded her into the back of the van.
They came back for me.
“No thanks,” I said.
“You’re the son?”
“She says you’re the only next of kin.”
The medic wrapped his arm around me and led me into the van. I had no choice because no one suspected the polite. We rode over the bumps in the woods.
And it was a small enough hospital to have no wings. They put her on the third floor and me in the waiting room. An officer patrolled the corridor outside. I didn’t know they kept cops at hospitals. I didn’t know what for.
After an hour a doctor emerged and looked around and picked me out of the empty room.
“She’s sedated,” he said.
“You need to understand the risks,” he said, “before you go forward with your operation.”
“My operation? Risks?”
“Splenectomy, infection, hemorrhaging, clots. Pancreatitis, of course. And all that goes along with any surgery.”
“Removal of the spleen.”
“A potential side effect of the pancreas.”
“The spleen is a side effect of the pancreas?
“The removal of the spleen.”
“Of the pancreas?”
“Of the removal of the pancreas.”
The doctor scratched across his hairline. “Diabetes can kill, as you well know.”
“I know,” I said, asking.
The doctor slipped his hands around the back of his neck.
“It’s a serious procedure. But the success rate is high. Nearly 50% after one year.”
“Hers. At least it gives her a coin to flip.”
“Very low incidence. Some 90% pass without complications.”
“Too many risks,” I said. It sounded like a fair excuse.
“Those are good odds.”
“Too many risks.”
The doctor removed his hands so he could fold them. He leaned against the doorframe and bowed his head. “Your mother needs you, Jeremy. What changed your mind?”
“Changed my mind from what?”
“Going forward with it.”
“She said I wanted to go forward with it?”
“She said you offered a week ago.”
She couldn’t have even asked old Jeremy a week ago. “There’s too many risks,” I said again.
The doctor oscillated to the other end of the doorway. “Follow me.”
I followed him into a room for patients, a room past the cop.
“Let me take a blood sample. You might not even be a match.”
He extended his arm and asked for mine. I gave it to him because it was what a son would have done. He stabbed me with a needle.
“What’s the cop for?”
“Hang around this place long enough and you’ll see.”
“She’s really dying?”
“Relax your arm.”
I released the muscles I could control.
A nurse led me back to the waiting room.
I was asleep when the cop came in but he had to wake me up before he could arrest me. He put on the handcuffs and read me my rights then let me sit back down.
“I’m here trying to save a life,” I said.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Jeremy Alexander Viche.”
He removed my wallet from my pocket and shuffled through its contents.
“How tall are you?”
“No way you crack six. Your eyes are green.”
“Those are nothing but green. Says here they should be hazel.”
“Green might as well be hazel,” I said.
“No way you crack six.”
The doctor arrived with his files. “You’re not her son,” the doctor said.
“I came here to save lives,” I told him from my chair.
“You’re AB. She’s O,” the doctor prescribed.
“The alphabet isn’t a crime.”
“You’re not her son,” the doctor said, “and I checked the birth records, and you’re not Jeremy Viche.”
“You don’t pronounce the e,” I said.
“Who’s Jeremy Viche?”
“There’s an unidentified body in the morgue matching the description of Jeremy Viche.”
But I knew that, so I gave my face surprise. I had put it there, accidentally. I thought he was a deer. A man can appear to be anything in the woods. I searched for help and found only his cabin, what I didn’t know I was looking for. There’s no breaking a fall in love. I lugged him to a pile of leaves to die on. He died. I thought to be him.
“What are you on the run from?”
“Nothing,” I said. Nothing new. Others. Some needed others but I needed none. I hunted alone.
“Up, then,” the cop judged.
But I had ideas. “Let me see her one last time,” I offered. “She’s dying and she thinks I’m her son and she doesn’t need to know.” I needed a room with a window and the space to lift the handcuff key from the chain in my pocket. It was so good to disappear.
The cop looked at the doctor and the doctor looked at me and the doctor nodded. The cop led me to her room.
He entered behind me and found a corner. I rounded the bed and settled by the window. I eased the key from the fringe of the chain and tilted it into the edge of my hand.
“Jeremy,” she said.
“Mother,” I said.
She blushed. “The doctor said you’re going forward with it.”
“I can’t,” I said. I slid the key into the lock.
“We’re not a match.”
She lost her color. I turned the key.
The lock jammed. “Another thing I didn’t inherit.”
She ripped a bag of fluids from its clamp and sent it through the room. The liquid seeped across the floor, wetting the key that slipped from my hands.
“A nurse,” the cop called into the hall.
I threw myself against the window, but it didn’t budge and it was three stories down besides.
“Some son you are.” She kicked at the air.
The cop pulled me along my way. My wrists cut against the rims of the cuffs. “Goodbye, mother,” I said.
But she said nothing and it was just as well. We might have gotten along in a world where we never met. We were of no use to each other in this one.
Photo by Marcelo Duarte