We got this assignment in our Adult Ed creative writing class, the assignment being to write a little story about our mother, Mother’s Day being just a couple of weeks away, and all. Just one page. Like a sketch or a vignette. A little scene, maybe, with some action and dialogue. Whatever we felt comfortable with.
“My mother ran off with the milkman when I was five,” Witski said, “so I’ll have to make it up.” Everybody laughed at this, because Witski is the class clown. He was the class clown even forty years ago when we were at St. Cecilia’s together. I was surprised when I ran into him again in this class, after not seeing him for almost that many years, but that’s fate for you.
Ann Thompson, our teacher, also teaches creative writing at the community college, so she knows her stuff. This is what she told us once about fate. “Character is fate.” Heraklitos, a Greek philosopher, said that 2,500 years ago.
“We’re after the truth,” she explained, “not just the facts.”
So my question is this — was it my fate or Witski’s that we run into each other again after all these years? And whose character?
But I get ahead of myself.
“It would be better if you didn’t make up your stories completely,” Ann Thompson said. “Make it as true as you can. You won’t be able to remember every detail, so just make sure that whatever you make up is as close to the truth as possible.”
Then she described the difference between factual truth and emotional truth. I took notes on this, which I rarely do. Factual truth, she said, is the literally accurate recording of events. She used the phrase “objective reality”. Emotional truth is more intuitive, she told us. I jotted down her phrase, “validity and illumination”.
“When we write a little memoir like this, we’re after the truth,” she explained, “not just the facts.”
I had to think about that one for a while.
“Maybe I could write about how my mother always made us drink our milk,” Witski said, and everybody laughed again.
“Did your dad remarry?” Polly asked him.
Polly is in this class because she wants to write about her spiritual experiences. Her enlightenment. She’s plump and rosy, and wears flowered dresses that reach the floor, but are low in front, exposing a considerable portion of her comely breasts. Around her neck is a purple velvet cord from which hangs what she told me is a hand carved ivory vulva amulet. It looks like a shriveled pear.
“There’s a picture of one just like it in a book called The Yoni,” she told me the first night our class met. “It’s a protection against evil.”
I hadn’t asked her about it. And I didn’t ask her what evil.
Our class meets in the science room of the William McKinley Middle School. I’m never comfortable in schools. Their odor — a blend of paste and disinfectant and floor wax smells like disappointment. It reminds me of my youth.
“How does it feel to be back in school after all these years?” Polly asked me. We were out in the hallway during a class break. I had a senior coffee from MacDonald’s. Polly was drinking from a bottle of imported spring water she’d brought from home.
“The desks are a little tight,” I said. I didn’t mention that my daughters may have sat at these very same desks when they attended McKinley.
“Do you show your wife what you write?”
“My wife died eight years ago,” I said. What I didn’t tell her was that I don’t miss Estelle. We weren’t close, she was a cold and uncommunicative person most of our married life, and although I did not wish her dead, I felt no loss or sorrow at her passing, unlike our girls, who had a special relationship with their mother that seemed to exclude me.
“I am so sorry,” Polly said, placing her hand on mine. “I’ve been alone for five years, myself. A heart attack got my Gus. He was only fifty-three.”
“That’s young,” I said.
“Since then I’ve been on a new spiritual path.” She fingered her vulva amulet. “Exploring new territory within myself.”
I held up my empty McDonald’s cup. “I have to find a place for this,” I said.
“We’ll talk later,” she said, reaching out and giving my upper arm a little squeeze.
We’ve chatted a few times since then, about tulip bulbs and cooking for one and how much she misses having a man around the house. Polly makes me nervous, in a pleasant way I haven’t experienced in some time.
“No, my dad never remarried,” Witski said in response to Polly’s question. “Never even dated. Never trusted a woman again.”
At our first class, when we went around the circle introducing ourselves, Witski said he wanted to write pornography. It was the first laugh he got. He hasn’t written anything dirty, but his pieces, about his job as an on-the-road salesman, are always funny.
“You could ask the milkman for a story,” Paul said, trying to be funny himself, but no one laughed. Paul’s in the class because he wants to write about his experiences in Vietnam. He was sent there early. Army Intelligence, or the CIA, training the ARVN. He sits ramrod straight, and has a short, flat-top haircut, his hair nearly white but still thick.
Jeanette, who has the lean and weathered look of a Kansas sharecropper, wants to write about growing up on the farm, feeding the cows at five in the morning, churning butter and slopping the hogs after school, and so forth. She still lives on the farm she grew up on, as did her mother and her grandmother. She doesn’t talk much.
Then there’s a Mother Nature type with a fat gray braid down the middle of her back. She wants to write a Gothic romance, or maybe a fantasy with wizards and such, or maybe a combination. She can’t decide. Her name is Gayle, with a Y.
Then, of course, there’s me, Ed Pettigrew, retired electrician who, while leafing through the Adult Ed catalogue that had come in the mail, suddenly got this notion to be a writer.
That’s our little group. None of us are what you might call Hemingways.
“Can’t ask him, Paul” Witski said. “The lovebirds took off for Toledo and were never seen again.”
And with that, class ended.
At our first class, Witski said he wanted to write pornography.
Witski and I had both beaten the odds and outlived our wives, so instead of going home to empty houses, we’d been going out for a beer after class. As we settled into a booth at Callahan’s, the girl was already at our table with two shells of Coors. She was wearing tan short-shorts and bright white tennis shoes and a tight, red T-shirt that said Blondes have all the luck across the front. Her brown hair was cut short, and bounced as she walked.
“Thanks, darlin’,” Witski said. He watched her fanny as she walked away from the table. “Oh, my goodness,” he said. “How sweet is that?”
Imagine a guy with slicked back hair, still as black as it was in high school but thinner, with a trim, pencil-thin moustache, and you’ve described Witski pretty well.
“Jeez, Ray, she could be your granddaughter.”
“I can dream,” he said. He drank off half his shell in one long pull. “And don’t think I haven’t seen you gazing into the ample gazongas of our dear Polly.”
“Polly’s not a kid, Ray,” I said.
He pulled some change out of his pocket and left the booth for the jukebox, one of those new hi-tech models with dozens of CDs, hundreds of songs — everything from old-time crooners to hollering hillbillies to kids with guitars and purple hair. He pushed buttons until he found what he wanted, and by the time he’d slid back into the booth, Tony Bennett was singing Rags to Riches.
“Mr. Antonio Benedetto,” Witski said. “Nobody does it better.”
For a while we listened to Tony insist that he’d feel like a millionaire if only the girl he was singing to would say she loved him. His fate was up to her, he claimed with a big finish, an assertion Mr. Heraklitos might have disagreed with. After a pause, Tony began singing Stranger in Paradise.
“So, how come you’re taking creative writing,” Witski asked me. “You never said in class.”
“I’d like to write a memoir,” I told him.
“Ah,” he said. “Your fascinating life as an electrician?”
“If I write a page a day it’ll be done in a year.”
“Are you writing a page a day?”
“Not yet. But soon.”
“Remember,” he said. “Show, don’t tell.” He drained his glass and signaled for another. “So now we have to write about our mothers,” he said.
Mr. Benedetto crooned on. Two more beers came, even though I was still nursing my first.
“I remember something about your mother taking off.”
“That was unheard of back then,” he said. “A mother never walked out on her kids, for Christ sake. The old lady never left the old man.”
“But she did?”
“She did. But not with the milkman. With my uncle Buddy. Imagine. The old man’s brother. They moved to Arizona.”
“Did she stay in touch?”
“Both families cut them off, hers and his.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“She died a few years ago. Buddy’s still alive, almost ninety now, I’d guess. I hear he’s in a home.”
I wondered who was keeping him informed, but I didn’t ask.
“Your folks had a long and happy marriage, though,” he said.
“Long, but not very happy,” I said. “Miserable, in fact.”
He lifted his eyebrows and I immediately regretted what I’d said. My parents’ marriage was something I avoided thinking and talking about. Maybe it would have been better for all of us if one of them had run off to Arizona.
“Your mother’s still with us, right?” he said.
“In body. Her mind’s been gone for years.”
Someone else was paying for the music now, it was loud and banging and I couldn’t understand the words.
“She’s in a home, too?”
“Evergreen. Almost ten years now.”
“I remember your mom,” Witski said. “She was my mom for a year, too.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked, although I thought I knew what he meant. I’d been wondering for a couple of weeks if he’d talk about my mother. Our new writing assignment gave him the excuse he needed.
He took another drink, just a sip this time. Then he laid both hands flat on the table, fingers splayed. His fingernails, I noticed, were trimmed and polished. “OK, let me explain. I didn’t have a mother of my own, right? So I adopted a new one every year or so.” He took a longer drink this time. “Did you notice that one year, maybe sixth grade, maybe fifth, I was at your house almost every day?”
Oh, yes, I remembered. One year we did seem to be best friends. Then we found new friends.
“Your mother was my favorite of all the mothers I adopted,” he said.
I said nothing. We were both staring into our pasts, somewhere in the watery circles on the dark wooden table. Finally, Witski looked up and said, “You’re mother was so beautiful. I was in love with her.”
“In love with my mother?”
“A crush. Puppy love. God, I was only ten or eleven.”
The waitress came by again, but we waved her off, “No more, darlin’.”
He went to pee, and when he was back, he said, “Remember that dumb little song your mother was always singing? She’d be getting us milk and cookies and singing this nutty little song. Or peeling potatoes and singing that dumb song. Gobbledygook. Nonsense words. I wish I could remember the tune.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said.
“One day I was sitting at the kitchen counter, feeling glum, and she brought me a cookie and put her hands on my shoulders and got her face real close to mine, and then she sang that little song. Her head was bobbing up and down, her eyes real wide, like it was a game.” He made his eyes wide and bobbed his head up and down. “I don’t know where you were.”
“I don’t remember her singing any song,” I said.
“I think she was trying to perk me up.”
“That’s my mom for you.”
For the first time it occurred to me that Witski probably dyed his hair, that he couldn’t be as old as he was and not have one strand of gray.
“And then she kissed me,” he said. “Not a little peck on the cheek. Uh-uh. A serious kiss, on the lips.”
“A serious kiss,” I said.
“Don’t get me wrong. Not mouths open or tongues or anything like that. But it was serious. A loving kiss.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. “A mother’s kiss.”
“Sounds like it.”
“I thought I’d faint. Maybe I did, for a second or two.”
Ah, the power of a mother’s touch.
“Who knows?” I said.
“And when I finally opened my eyes, she was still there, that close.” He held his hand a few inches in front of his face. “And then she touched my cheek and said Poor little Raymond. Poor, sad little Raymond.”
“Maybe you could write about that,” I said. “Since you can’t remember your own mother.”
“Would you mind?”
“Why would I mind?” I asked, not knowing if there was an answer.
At the next class, we all read our stories about our mothers. Polly’s was about her mother’s last days in a cancer hospice. “What courage,” Polly said. Jeanette told about her mother’s apple pies. The best in the world. Gayle’s story was about how her mother always wanted to go to Paris and finally went and didn’t like it. “Too many foreigners,” her mother said. Paul told about the time his mother got locked in her car and couldn’t get out. My story was about taking my mother to see pro wrestlers at the arena. Witski told the story of my mother’s kiss, at least as much of the story as he knew, or chose to tell.
Mother’s Day was warm and sunny, and my tulips, which require nine months of babying, were in full bloom. After lunch I snipped a dozen Blushing Beauties from my front yard bed and went to visit my mother at the Evergreen Medical Care Facility. I’d asked myself before why I bothered to go, since she hadn’t recognized me for several years. What was the point? And this is the conclusion I came to — it was simply a good deed, something to break up an old person’s day, something to create a short diversion. I could have been visiting anyone’s senile old mother, providing the same service.
I knew she’d be on the back patio, but I went to her room first to replace the dozen withered Dreamlands I’d brought the previous Sunday, with the new Blushing Beauties. Nurse Amy called my name as I passed the nurse’s station.
“Mrs. Pettigrew already had a visitor this morning,” she said.
“Really,” I said.
“What a funny man he was,” Nurse Amy said.
“Did you get his name?”
“Mr. Wit . . . Wit-something. It’s here on the sign-in sheet,” she said, her index finger going down the list.
“Witski?” I asked.
“That’s it. Mr. Witski. What a funny man.”
“Yes, he is that,” I said. “A very funny man.”
My mother was sitting in a wicker rocker in the shade of the patio overhang, another pale and withered old lady in a wheelchair beside her. If you didn’t know better, you’d have thought the two were having a conversation, but neither was probably even aware of the other’s presence. I pulled a chair over and sat so I could hold my mother’s hands, look into her face.
“Hi, mom. It’s me, Ed.”
There was no reaction, not a smile or frown or tilt of the head. Not a lifting of the eyebrows or the twitch of a cheek. So I went on holding her hands, the skin soft as the petals of those Blushing Beauties, and I commented on the nice weather, and told her that I’d talked on the phone to Judy and Martha, her two grown up granddaughters with kids of their own, and everybody was fine. I reminded her that Martha lived in Minneapolis and Judy lived in Cincinnati, and it was really hard for them to come back to Michigan anymore, they had their busy lives. But they’d asked about her, asked about their grandma, wished her a happy Mother’s Day, and they hoped she was doing OK.
“O-K,” the woman in the wheelchair said. “O-K, O-K.” And then she was quiet again.
My mother’s hands lay in mine, and I rubbed them gently with my thumbs. I told her about the creative writing class, and that we’d written little stories about our mothers, and how I’d written about the time I took her to see the wrestlers, she loved watching them on TV, and how she’d screamed “No, no, don’t hurt him” when the guy in the black ski mask kept jumping on top of the guy dressed in white satin, with both feet.
“Jump, jump, jump,” the woman in the wheelchair said.
And then I told her about this man in our class who used to come to our house when he was a little boy, how he didn’t have a mother, and how he’d wanted her to be his mother. And that’s when I felt a small flutter of her hands, so slight that I thought I’d imagined it, but then I felt it again. Her lips were parted, and then she put them together and made a sound that sounded like the letter P. And then she did it again, and then again — P . . . P . . . P. If I didn’t know better I would have guessed she was trying to speak, to tell me something, but I knew this was ridiculous — she hadn’t spoken in over five years. P . . . P . . . P. And then her lips began moving feebly, and she began making more soft, breathy sounds.
“What is it, mom?” I said.
“Mom, mom, mom,” said the lady in the wheelchair. “Mom, mom, mom.”
I put my face close to my mother’s, I could smell her breath, an odor of musty attics and mildewed clothing. There was still nothing in her eyes, but her lips were moving, and she was making those little noises, it sounded like speech for sure, and as best I could make out, this is what she was saying, after all those years of silence.
“Poor . . . little . . . Raymond. Poor . . . little . . . Raymond.”
Witski stopped coming to class, so there wasn’t much funny stuff any more. The first night he was absent, Paul made a couple of lame stabs at humor, but nobody laughed, and he gave it a rest. Ann Thompson talked about the importance of detail in our writing. “Detail is what gives life to the writing,” she said.
During a break, Polly found me sipping my coffee on the front steps of the school. It was a pretty June evening, the long hours of daylight just coming to a close in a blaze of glory.
“So where’s your buddy, Mr. Laugh-a-Minute?”
“Witski’s not really my buddy, and I don’t know where he is.” I gave the last of my coffee a little swirl. “Maybe he didn’t write anything, so he didn’t want to come.”
One thing led to another and before we went back inside Polly had invited me to her house, “for a highball,” she said, “to celebrate spring,” and I had agreed.
After the break we all read our new pieces. Paul’s was about helping the ARVN set some booby-traps, an event which ended in a fire fight that he escaped with his body, if not his nerves, intact. “War is an awful thing,” Gayle said.
Jeanette read a story about the first time she got to drive the tractor, and ran it into a ditch. After reading it she admitted that it wasn’t exactly how it happened, she couldn’t remember every fact, so she’d made some of it up. It was actually a pretty good piece of writing, I thought, and Ann Thompson complimented her on her use of detail, especially the technical aspects of the tractor, a red Farmall 460. “All Farmalls are red,” Jeanette told us. Gayle read a story about the evil wizard, Blackmuir, stealing the golden seeds of hope from the Heartmen. She told us it was an allegory, a concept I’m not sure I understand. I read a description I wrote of Nicola Tesla discovering alternating current. Gayle said she never heard of him, and Paul said, “He only invented the whole twentieth century, for Christ sake,” and Gayle said, “Well, excuse me.”
Polly read a description of her wedding night, plenty of wine and roses and long sighs. “The story could have been sexier,” she admitted, and the thought crossed my mind that she might want to show me her book about the yoni later. And it also crossed my mind that she might be planning more than just a highball, and this thought provoked in me equal amounts of anxiety and anticipation, as well as a large dose of self-scorn. I was thinking like a fool.
What happened at Polly’s that night is better left half-told. If I were to try to describe it in detail, I might become what Ann Thompson calls an unreliable narrator. Suffice it to say that the evening was filled with awkward silences and much gazing into space. I made myself handy by replacing Polly’s dining room light switch with a rheostat she’d bought at Wal-Mart that afternoon. Then we had highballs made of 7-Up and VO in tall glasses with pink and white and black poodles on them, and Polly did show me her yoni book, the two of us sitting on the sofa, hip to hip, with who knows what cockamamie fantasies going through our heads. There may have been more, some necking, as we used to call it. When I left, my hostess stood on tiptoe and surprised me with a quick peck on the cheek.
Raymond Witski began seeing my mother every Sunday morning, always timing his visit so that he would leave before I arrived. He must have known I knew about his visits. I didn’t vary my schedule either, not wanting to see him, even less to confront him, ask him what the hell he thought he was doing.
But why was he doing this? Did he still need a mother, after all these years, at his age? Would anyone’s mother do? Or, was it important that it was my mother?
Each Sunday, she seemed a tiny bit different, a change probably imperceptible to anyone but me. She never regained full awareness, but she became a little more alert, her hands sometimes fidgety, her eyes more focused, and once, after a few weeks of Witski’s visits, something crossed her lips that could almost have been described as a smile. That was the day her mumbling brought my ear to her mouth again, and she was singing that silly song. She was sitting on the patio in her rocker, gently going to and fro, and softly singing that little ditty, the song she’d sung the day she’d kissed him, the day she’d called him Poor Little Raymond. I’d told Witski I didn’t remember it, but of course I did, the song with the perky little tune and the nonsense words, words which are recognizable if you slow them down, sing each syllable by itself.
The truth is that either Witski or I could have written the story about my mother’s kiss, but from different points of view, another concept we learned in creative writing class. Witski had his P-O-V, and I had mine.
If I were writing the story, from my point of view, I’d have much more to tell. I’d watched the whole scene, silently, secretly, from the hallway. My mother had sung that silly song to him. She had touched his cheek, and kissed him on the lips. She had said “Poor little Raymond.” But she had also said, “Would you like to be my little boy?” — a line which is not in Witski’s version, and she had run her hand through his hair, and said, “I would love to have a little boy like you.” And, hearing these words, for the little boy who was already hers, the bone of her bone, the flesh of her flesh, the issue of her loins, life would never be the same.
If I was telling the story, I might mention that my mother had abandoned me, her only child, on the day I was born, abandoned me as surely as Witski’s mother had abandoned him. No, she didn’t hook up with another guy and take off for Arizona. She continued to nurse me and change my diapers, and when I was older, to pack my lunch and wash my clothes and ask how school was. But I’d felt abandoned all the same. In my version of the story, would I speculate about the reasons for this — the agonizing twenty-four hours of final labor she endured, that she told me about many times, or some postpartum psychosis which may have undone her, or my incessant and angry howling that went on for months after my birth? Or, could it have been my father’s coldness, his apparent indifference to his wife and his son? Years later, when I looked at my parents, Bert and Alice Pettigrew, from the point of view of their grown son, I could not imagine what had ever brought them to each other, what had made them think they could share a life together. It was the same question I’d asked about Estelle and me.
But, why should I be thinking about these things now? I am a grown man, after all, with perspective and experience. A retired electrician. I understand, as I did not when I was a boy, that my mother’s feelings, her darkness, whatever was terrible or terrified inside of her, had nothing to do with me. It has not taken years of psychoanalysis for me to realize that I was blameless, an innocent victim.
Ann Thompson, our creative writing teacher, told us to always ask this question about a story — whose story is it? I have asked myself that question about this story. Is it mine, or Witski’s, or my mother’s? Was there enough conflict? Was there enough detail? How much was factual truth, and how much emotional? Was there validity and illumination? Was there a satisfactory resolution? Was the narrator reliable? Was the mother believable? Would a reader care about what happened to these people once the story was over? Would they hope that I would see more of Polly, or look forward to seeing my memoir, or wonder what happened to Witski? Would the story make them think about their own lives, how their own character might shape their fate, or, perhaps, whether Mr. Heraklitos was wrong?
And would they remember that little song, the one with the nonsense words, that was popular so long ago, the song people sang just for the fun of it?
I saw Witski one more time about a year later, a chance meeting one afternoon in the cereal aisle of the Kroger. We exchanged hellos and how-ya-doins, but we both seemed wary, neither of us willing to give the other much. Then, out of the blue, he said “Hey, let’s go have a beer,” and since I had nothing better to do, I surprised myself and said “Sure”. We went to Callahan’s and took a booth.
“So how’s that memoir coming?” he asked when we had beers in front of us. “Your life as an electrician?”
We talked about nothing of great consequence, his new Caddy STS, my tulips, the Tigers’ lousy pitching. He asked about Polly and I told him I’d seen her a few times, and he surprised me by not leering or making a crack about her bosoms.
My mother had passed months before, and I had no desire to get involved in a messy, emotional conversation with Witski, about her, or about his visits. But I sensed there was something on his mind, something he wanted to say. Eventually we ran out of small talk and then there was a long silence, and I was fishing my wallet out of my back pocket when he finally spoke.
“How come you stopped inviting me over?” he asked.
I found three singles and dropped them on the table.
“Inviting you over?”
“When we were kids,” he said. “We were friends. You were always inviting me over. Then you stopped.”
“I don’t remember stopping,” I said, sliding out of the booth. “I don’t remember any of that, at all.”