Saturday, June 12, 1999
“Just another minute,” my mother said as I walked in the house. She quickly kissed me, and I introduced Tom. “I’ve got to see if they win.”
She was sitting in half-darkness in the living room where she usually watched television, watching the Knicks try to get into the playoffs. During commercials, which were frequent in the final “seconds,” she asked if we were hungry, if we wanted anything to drink, how the drive was, if we were tired, and “Where is the dog?”
The dog was in the truck because I wasn’t sure she’d be welcome.
Mom also mentioned that my youngest brother was at the game, with a friend he’d known since first grade who had season tickets. I hadn’t known the friend was still in New York, was even interested in sports, and was still in touch with my brother. I did know my brother loved the Knicks, though was reminded by my mother that she only gets interested in sports other than baseball, if something exciting happens as games near the playoffs.
During further commercials—the final sixty-five seconds stretched for almost fifteen minutes—Mom also told me that the next morning my middle brother and his wife would stop by—on their way to somewhere else—that my youngest brother and his wife would be through in late afternoon—coming from a different gathering—and that one of my aunts and uncles might also make an appearance. But Mom’s other brother was on his way to Virginia, to celebrate the birthday of his doctor-son.
Everyone was kind of fitting me in, which was great, because I wanted to see them. But it seemed no three people could be there at the same time, to see everyone else. Still, they’d all been together recently, to celebrate the first uncle’s birthday.
Eventually, the game ended. “They did it! They did it!” my mother shouted, leaping from her chair as the last seconds finally left the clock. Then she said, “Now what do you want for dessert?”
We’d already had a full dinner, stopping to see friends of Tom’s near Westport. But there was always room for my mother’s cake.
It wasn’t homemade. She preferred cooking to baking, so desserts mainly came from one of the great local bakeries. But even Tom didn’t know how good they were.
“What do you want to drink?” Mom went on. “Coffee? Tea? Milk? Iced-coffee?”
Perhaps only my mother, who for years had trouble sleeping next to my snoring dad, drinks iced-coffee at midnight. In fact, Mom’s one of the few people I know who drinks iced-coffee at all.
“Milk,” I told her, betting the cake would somehow be chocolate. Tom seconded me.
My mother got a new half-gallon from the refrigerator and began shaking the container.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“It’s whole milk,” she replied. “I usually get two-percent. I’m mixing in the fat.”
“It’s homogenized,” I pointed out.
“You shake orange juice,” she pointed right back.
“That has pulp. Which settles.”
This could have gone on, but I decided to quit. Tom just watched.
As my mother got glasses and unboxed the cake—which had one slice missing (“I tasted it, earlier,” she admitted)—I went to check the dog. To make sure she wasn’t frantically trying to “find” us.
She was sitting calmly in the driver’s seat, steadily watching Mom’s front door. I put on her leash and took her inside. “Aw, whad a preddy puppy,” my mother cooed in baby talk I’d never heard her use before. Then, clearly: “Where’s she going to sleep?”
That could have been a challenge.
“I was kind of hoping upstairs,” I hedged. “With Tom. Though not on the bed,” I quickly added. “She has her own mattress.”
Mom hesitated. She’d already banished my youngest brother’s King Spaniel—and he had lineage and papers.
“She housebroken,” I assured her. “Besides, the rug in that room’s thirty years old. It survived me, and Marilyn, and Michael, and David (each of us inheriting this most desirable room as the next oldest went off to college). “And it was always ugly.”
Mom considered. “As long as it doesn’t soak through and hurt the floor.”
The floor’s plywood, I could have reminded her. Instead, I promised, “She’ll be fine.”
To help, the dog lay at my mother’s feet.
“What a preddy puppy.”
“How’s she doing in the truck?” Mom asked abruptly.
“Mostly sleeps,” Tom laughed. “Soon as I start the engine.”
And the dog fell asleep, maybe mistaking my mother’s dining room rug for her only slightly-more-padded back seat.
Tom, my mother, and I had cake.
“The reason I mostly don’t order desserts in restaurants,” I explained to Tom, “is they never taste as good as these cakes.”
“It is good,” Tom confirmed.
I had another piece.
And soon it was two AM. I found sheets, and made up the fold-out couch Tom would be sleeping on. Then I went to check my own room. It was the smallest in the house, barely six by ten with a low, hipped ceiling. But it had an extra-long mattress my sister had given me for graduation. The room was dusty, the walls needed paint, but because it was at the top of the house, it was rarely used. Overall, the whole place seemed in better shape than it deserved to be. One of our running jokes, growing up, followed a bang echoing off somewhere. “Jesus Christ!” my father would holler, “What was that?” Because all the other houses in the area were built at the same time, I’d expected the community to have fallen in by now. Instead, it was thriving, reclad in vinyl.
After Tom, and my mother, went to sleep, I sat, listening to the house creak. My room had a secret panel—at least it once did. The room had been added to the house along with the one Tom was sleeping in, when my middle brother was born. It was meant to be a tiny guest room, but my sister grabbed it as soon as possible, for privacy, and to expand it my dad added a roll-away bed that disappeared into the attic. We’d immediately pried off the end of the roll-away compartment. That meant, if I slipped into the attic through the trap door in my closet, I could sneak into my sister’s room to play cards.
Of course, that also meant inching on my belly above the dining room, where my parents were probably late-night eating—you can’t call it a snack when it has six-courses. And since the house always creaked, that made more noise than simply sneaking up the stairs when my parents were momentarily in the kitchen. After I permanently won the tiny room in the game of First-Off-To-College, I boarded up the makeshift roll-away bed.
What would be done with the house? My mother readily admitted it was time to move, that she certainly didn’t need eight rooms and a full basement (though she easily filled the closets). “If I could just go out some afternoon, then go home to an entirely different place, with everything I really wanted, I’d move in a minute.” Meaning the rest of us would finally have to clear out our junk.
The dog was suddenly staring at me. “Want to go out?” I asked, then didn’t want to risk not taking her. “I bet she’s turned you into a real dog-lover,” a woman on the Vancouver ferry had told me as I’d held the mutt’s leash.
More like dog tolerator.