Charlie’s mother worries because, mainly, her niece is getting married, and she is hosting the bridesmaids’ party at 11:30, has not heard a peep from the caterers since an unenlightening conversation with them a week ago to finalize the menu: some goat cheese things, salmon salad niçoise, buttercream petits fours, items that will quickly go rancid if uneaten. She can barely tell that Arnaud cut the grass and trimmed the hedges on Thursday, the yard looks so overgrown, all the leaves. Her husband found feces behind the woodshed, felt they might be human, felt they might be Arnaud’s.
And Charlie, her son. Charlie has not returned her phone calls; he hasn’t declared a major though he’s in his fourth year of college; he has neither called to tell her if he will attend the rehearsal nor called in his correct measurements for his tuxedo, for which he has been relegated from groomsman to usher though his cousin didn’t want it this way. He could very well, at this moment, be dead on the highway.
He certainly does not wear a size 17 neck, or, if he does, he badly needs to lose some weight. Also, she has reread a letter Charlie wrote to her about bizarre events that took place at his college, a confused matter involving a shattered pane of window glass and 28 stitches in his arm and neck, and the whole thing seemed stupid to her, though if she overstressed each word’s meaning, showed it to the wrong people, it might indicate that he was, quite absurdly, what some would call “suicidal,” but really, if studied closely enough, this could be said of anything, of anyone. He shares nothing else with her.
The phone in the kitchen begins ringing, but still abstracted, knowing it can’t be good news this early, she doesn’t answer.
It was not always like this. What about the times when she attended every tennis match, clapped when Charlie won the point and said “good effort” when he lost it, wearing her sunglasses and scarf wrapped around her hairdo? He looked wonderful in his tennis whites, his technique smoothed by 12 years of lessons, a parade of coaches, a closet of equipment. She was happy to do what she could to draw out his potential. Together she and Charlie beat her daughter and husband in mixed doubles. In summertime, Charlie had been part of the golf course grounds crew; he ran up inexplicable bills at the grill, was tan, his hair and eyebrows bleached white from sun on the pool’s chlorine and the sea’s salt; he had a date with the large-ankled but attractive McGinnis girl.
Her husband stands outside on the back lawn sawing bricks on a rented brick saw for a wall he is building. Feeding one brick in, adjusting the blade to the desired angle, sawing another, a pile of superfluous brick ends steadily growing. This, on the day she is hosting a luncheon.
She repeats to herself that this day is one among many, that the Big Black Bear she now feels barging into her core, gnawing at her spine, is simply wasted energy. Her husband is too quick to blame her condition on out-of-whack hormones or the pressure of a wedding weekend, all the relatives. But the truth is more serious than that, as she once told Charlie—just a little boy then, who found her in her bed well past noon and asked “What’s the matter with you?” and was told that it was something like a bear that had done this to her. “Does it hurt,” Charlie had asked.
“It does hurt. A great deal.”
Charlie not only didn’t attend the college she knew was best for him, but also his marks from last term were low, low. She had taken to telling people that he was “prelaw” without fully understanding why she said it or what exactly this meant. He wrote absurd, disturbing little letters to her, using words like “fey,” and “spiritual lacuna,” words not his own. She’d looked them up and found he’d used them incorrectly.
He could have the wrong date for all she knows and will probably show up next weekend demanding to know where the hell everyone is. He took serious things lightly, she worried, and would have to understand there were consequences. It was high time he started thinking of others. Sometimes it seems that she has spent her entire life worrying about Charlie, and just look at all the good it has done her.
After tennis lessons, two years of cotillion, braces on his teeth (twice, because he had not worn his retainer the first go-round), bicycles, a car, speech therapy to distinguish the way he says “worm” from “warm,” what more can one do? After one talks with his teachers, encourages the slightest hint of a predilection toward anything—a violin he smashed up with a hammer. You take care to carve out a place for him in this world, and what happens?
As she now shakes fresh sheets onto Charlie’s bed, she is reminded of when—years ago—she found the lotion, the magazine and a stain on the corner carpeting of his room that could not be expunged, which Charlie had said was due to the roof’s leaking, but a visit from a repairman assured her that indeed it was her son, not the roof, that was leaking and defective. This is his room: dust ruffles on the bed, muslin curtains, marks on the wall, books from high school, a small pine treasure chest on his desk that holds his clever diagrams for the tying of sailors’ knots.
And what is she left with?
What seems only like a broken promise. The world in which she carved a place now has a subdivision being built behind it, land her husband providently sold, but at what cost? The acreage broken into tiny parcels to form Chisom Place, endless fractals of freshly paved streets and immodest houses. The best she can do to protect herself is a second planting of boxwoods and the construction of a brick wall. She has a younger daughter well on her way to becoming like her brother, boxwoods that are dying by the day because of a disease no one can identify or treat, a yardman who defecates behind the woodshed, a lease on a car which already has excess miles—in violation of the lease agreement—from driving the daughter to the orthodontist, the violin teacher, gymnastics, each of which the daughter hates.
Dark clouds on the day before her niece’s wedding, calling down that massive, hairy Black Bear—teeth, claws, all of it threatening to destroy everything. For an entire year Charlie’s mother has worried about the weather for this luncheon, which is being held outside on the veranda, and now, the only day that counts, the clouds come and there is absolutely nothing she can do about it.
The clouds seem to be towed behind her son’s car, a car much too nice for him, which at this moment rattles down their lonely road, piles of dead leaves blowing over, Charlie getting a last drag on a cigarette and parking in such a way as to block the soon-to-arrive luncheon guests from using any of the drive space. Her husband is wrapping a nylon tarp around his brick saw and fastening it with bungee cords to prevent the blades from rusting. Through the window, she watches as Charlie steps out; he hugs his father and together they begin admiring the construction of the brick wall; then he helps his father stow the brick saw. He badly needs a shave and a professional haircut.
“When’s the last time you changed the oil in that car?” she says as he enters from the kitchen.
“The engine’s probably ruined.”
Charlie’s mother feels something like anger mixed with relief when his tuxedo, later that day, fits perfectly—even the neck, even the pants legs, which break at the shoelaces. When she tells him he has to be an usher instead of a groomsman, he says, “I’m among the best ushers working in the business today.” And while she knows he doesn’t at all take care of himself, and despite the glowing red capillaries in his eyes and some kind of sore at the corner of his mouth, his face has an attractive, ruddy fullness, as though his blood were rich and healthy; the weight he’s put on around the middle makes him appear ebullient, even jolly.
“I made appointments for you at the ophthalmologist and one to get your flu shot,” she says, standing outside the dressing room where Charlie is taking off his tuxedo.
“Yesterday. They were for yesterday, and you’ve missed them.”
“Then can you tell me why in the hell you’re talking about them?”
It is sometimes painful for her to imagine how he must carry on at school: the drinking, the fast girls, the ratty T-shirts he wears, the miserable care he takes of his teeth—shadowed with cavities—his sleeping on a bare, stained mattress in his room. He needs to go to the ophthalmologist; he needs to get his flu shot; but he has missed both appointments.
Most college girls are neurotic and insecure, willing to do anything, to use their charms—at her son’s age, just another word for breasts. Charlie once told her, Mom, blowjobs today are like holding hands was in the sixties. And she finds these concerns hard to explain to her friends, thinks she sounds petulant and dysfunctional. Instead she says, “Charlie’s so creative. You should see the letters he writes me. God knows where he gets it.”
All these things mean one thing to her: Charlie is not as mature as he thinks. She knows what Charlie knows, and it is not enough. But she will help Charlie now as she has always helped him. She understands life, its disappointments and troubles; he doesn’t and will be lucky to make it safely into the world of adults. She wonders if there is even a place for him here any longer.
The wedding is beautiful, de rigueur: St. Michael’s, located deep in the aging suburban heart of things, near the day school, then in a little while, a walk across the street to the country club for the reception, messy food. The girls her son has known all his life parade by them down the aisle, just like the years and years before—cotillion, graduation, other weddings—though they look puffier now, bunches of arm-fat wagging in sleeveless bridesmaid dresses. Ill-chosen.
Charlie fidgets noticeably while standing in the pulpit, and he has not shaved the back of his neck. He has a good shaped head but he has watered down his hair without first washing it, allowing it to dry in twisted peaks.
Before she knows it, the service is over.
At the reception, Charlie waylays his mother at the bar—she wears a tan, bejeweled dress and an enormous, upgraded diamond ring—and orders a drink for her. She wears no makeup and the gray in her hair is evident.
“This is not a drinking race,” she tells him. “Why have you been standing all by yourself over there,” she asks.
“Just watching this exquisite moment.”
“Why would you say it like that?” she says. “Always tearing down.”
“Because no one lives this way anymore. You’re your own museum exhibit and you don’t even know it.” He sweeps his arm in an arc.
“Stop jangling the change in your pocket. It’s a bad habit.”
“No, wait,” he says, “it’s actually the zoo. Underneath all the trappings, it’s still a concrete box.”
“I never know what you’re saying.”
“Of course you do. Repetitive behavior from boredom, loneliness, frustration, the whole thing. Apes eventually eat their own shit. No kidding.”
“I’ve heard enough,” she says.
“You should be more social.”
He makes some excited, exaggerated movements. “Look, ma! They’re calling it the jitterbug.”
She tells him, “Stop disgracing yourself.” Blue veins in her legs are visible to her through her white hose, veins in the backs of her hands; she feels jowly, her whole body diaphanous and seamed.
He raises his drink to his lips. “Did I tell you how fabulous you look? For your age.”
“No, but that’s sweet.” Charlie probably hasn’t any real idea of her age. The band in the room begins an old song she recognizes to which she taps her foot in time while waiting for her drink. “You could have at least trimmed your sideburns. You don’t need to look like some city slicker. I hope you wouldn’t wear it like that to a job interview.”
“My cousin is married,” he says, watching the band. “You caught her in your trap.”
“And it’s not even the have-a-heart kind. It’s like where you’ve got to gnaw off your own leg if you want to get out.”
The photographer appears, crouching in front of them. She does not wish to be photographed, but Charlie plants his lips on her cheek, holds them there, and signals the photographer just before a dizzying flash.
“How about a dance?” Charlie asks.
“I’ve seen you dance, and it’s not pretty, I’m afraid.”
“Not true.” He hands his mother her drink and heads toward the dance floor. He looks around him and there is no one to talk to.
She turns to face the crowd: her daughter and her daughter’s young friends in grown-up clothes and allowed drinks by the country club bartenders; teenage perspiration rimming the necklines of their dresses. A small boy, the ring bearer, picks his nose and eats what he picks. His mother slaps his hand away from his mouth. The boy resumes picking.
All of the men wear black tuxedos, though a few have chosen paisley bow ties. Over by the cake stands a girl a few years ahead of Charlie who—otherwise attractive—had some sort of disease that caused her skin to bubble; she is now married with a one-year-old. And there, a young woman doing the Pretzel with her partner. . . . Charlie’s mother seems to remember something about a rape in a backyard, something horrible, years ago—that was the way she’d heard it. Right now they are waving their hands above their heads, crouching low in rhythm to some silly song.
Everywhere around her people carp on the bridesmaids’ dresses. “What in the world are they wearing? Invasion of the pink nightgowns,” she overhears and admits to herself that they do look awful. Arm-fat, she thinks. Back-fat.
Because very few people—no one, in fact—talk to Charlie, he spends most of his time with his sister.
He smokes with the adults in the clubroom, because he smokes now. He talks to a girl, a distant cousin of the groom, named Sherry, whom Charlie’s mother spoke with earlier. She is from somewhere out west, somewhere pointless and unimportant.
Charlie’s mother, watching her son, then stares out at the darkness that is the empty 18th hole. At both the rehearsal dinner and now at the reception, his drunkenness is embarrassing, only it isn’t actually embarrassing to an awful degree, though only a moment ago he dipped the bride while dancing and deposited her on the floor, her dress blooming around her. How could people laugh at something like this? The toast he made earlier was atrocious, one about catching his cousin skinny-dipping in the pool, years back, something Charlie’s mother never knew. Not unreasonable to think incest, the suggestive way he told it. And though no one should have laughed at such a coarse remark, everyone did. Her own toast was a heartfelt poem she’d written, but it seemed too serious, seemed to try too hard, lost on people who wanted Charlie’s broad story about nudity.
Receptions go on too long these days, she thinks, just as her husband, at long last, signals her from across the room that it’s time for them to go.
After Charlie and the girl have left his bedroom to go to the porch, Charlie’s mother enters, picks up a shirt and smells it, hangs the girl’s dress on the back of the door. The nice, clean sheets she had put on the bed are pretty well destroyed. She comes across his balled-up underwear and tries to focus, barely able to ignore a familiar, stale smell discharged as she tears the sheets off. She can’t find his cummerbund, cufflinks, or studs. All lost.
It is nearly eleven when the two of them enter the kitchen. There is coffee, toast, a full table laid, and Charlie’s mother’s heels sound off the hardwood floors from somewhere in the bowels of the large house. She has been doing the dirty laundry Charlie brought home.
After offering to fix something special—eggs or waffles, if they like—and getting no response other than head shaking, she stares at the young woman. “Or maybe lunch is better at this hour,” she says. Certainly an enterprising young thing, and so brazen to be at the table in one of Charlie’s tennis shirts, nipples peeking through the material. Is the girl wearing panties underneath? Even without all the makeup she may be pretty, but in such a way that will fade in a hurry. Soft, wide, dumb features. The indecent noises the girl made last night: a soft, urgent cooing of sorts that went on and on and on.
“There isn’t one normal-sized coffee mug in this whole house,” Charlie says. His bathrobe parts up his shockingly hairy thigh, and both Sherry and his mother notice but pretend not to. Charlie wrestles uneasily with the belt while searching the cabinet.
Charlie’s mother touches the girl’s shoulder, and then she touches her hair, and then she puts her hand on the girl’s forearm, stroking it. “From the racket you made staggering up the stairs last night, Charlie, it seems the party didn’t stop at the wedding. You were pretty bombed out.”
“Exactly, mom. I was ‘bombed out,’ whatever that means.”
He eats the bacon she has fixed just the way he likes it—crispy but not that crispy —but only a few strips. Sherry won’t even consider it, leaving the rest to congeal on the brown paper, going to waste.
Looking out the wall of windows in what Charlie’s family calls the “Florida room,” Sherry says, “Your yard is beautiful, like a croquet lawn.”
Charlie’s mother regards the girl.
“It’s a constant effort.” She walks to the window, admires her yard, spoiled only by the pile of brick ends. “Where do you live?”
“I met her last night,” Charlie answers. “She was at the wedding. So you see, she’s okay.”
“No one said she wasn’t. Butter for that?”
“No thank you. I’m in school in Baltimore, and I study engineering, but only part-time,” Sherry says. She is lying, Charlie’s mother knows. Charlie lies to her whenever he likes.
“Oh, what an impressive field, engineering.”
“Do you live on or off campus?”
Charlie’s mother takes a seat at the table; she puts her hands on top of the girl’s, as though Sherry might have something difficult to say, and Charlie’s mother is there to make it easier. She breathes in and out. The girl has a faint, barely perceptible mustache.
“How do you like Baltimore? It used to be a pretty rough town, but I don’t know about now.”
“It’s all right,” Sherry says, then sips from her mug, watching Charlie’s mother over the rim. “You just have to be careful not to get lost.”
“I see,” she says. “I once went with a boy, ages and ages ago, who was there. Played lacrosse. But my parents, very traditional you understand, would never allow a visit.” She says this as though there’s something funny about it.
“Wow,” says Sherry.
“How’s the engineering program?”
Charlie, walking back to the coffee pot, says, “Christ! She’ll sing you the school fight song, if you like. Would that do the trick?”
“I apologize,” says Charlie’s mother. “I’m not being nosy, I’m just interested.”
“Mom, I’ve got some news. Sherry’s having my child. We want you to know. She’s pregnant, and we’ve decided to keep it,” Charlie says.
Charlie’s mother stands, shaking out the placemat, depositing toast crumbs on the table. “That’s not cute, Charlie, it’s sad,” she says. “Sherry, I’m sorry he’s putting us through this.”
“Oh, I don’t care,” Sherry says. “It’s funny, I guess.”
“Well, I do mind. Have you ever in your life seen a son talk to his mother like mine?” She turns in her chair to Charlie, her face hot. “People don’t stick around, Charlie, when they hear you talk this way.”
“I’m trying to catch your meaning, mom,” he says. “What is it you do when I’m not here? Because, I’d be very interested to know. I wouldn’t even mind being fucking dead so you wouldn’t have to go through this.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“But then you’d probably just make a scarecrow with a horsehair wig and pretend it’s me.”
She pours more coffee for Sherry, who sits frozen and whose cup is already full. “Charlie, I thought you and your father could drive up and check on the boat later this afternoon,” she counters. “Also, the dead leaves in the yard could stand to be raked. Don’t make your father do it.”
“We’ll see,” Charlie says.
“You come all this way, you’re here only a weekend, and this is all we see of you? This?”
Outside the brick saw starts with a choking sound, then the blade grinding. Charlie’s mother closes her eyes hard, then opens them. “Sherry, do you enjoy sailing?”
“Sailing? Actually, I don’t.”
“Well, that’s really too bad,” she says equably. “Charlie used to be a devoted sailor. For years, it was all up and down the coast, even sailing camps, then regattas. He could do this test where he tied the various knots behind his head. But then he just dropped it.”
“I don’t think I could really see myself dating a girl who doesn’t have at least a basic understanding of yachting terminology,” Charlie says.
Again noticing the scab in the corner of Charlie’s mouth, which could easily leave a scar if not tended to, she says, “You need to get some ointment on that sore or you can forget about the healing and just welcome infection.”
“Welcome, infection!” Charlie still stands at the sink, not facing them. He clears his throat.
Charlie’s mother looks out the window, searching into the yard for something and finds only the treeless, crusted lots of the unbuilt houses of Chisom Place, the wall-in-progress heading nowhere.
From her post at the refrigerator, Charlie’s mother overhears Sherry whisper, giggling, as they ascend the stair to his bedroom, “Boy, you and your mother have a great relationship.”
“Do me a favor and shut the hell up.”
Moments later they enter the kitchen again, Sherry looking even more the strumpet than before, dressed in her gown from last evening. Sherry runs a finger under her wet eyelids and looks away. Charlie’s mother has not moved.
“Hey,” Charlie says soothingly, putting a hand on Sherry’s bare back exposed by the gown’s cutout.
“I want to leave,” she says.
“Okay,” he says. “That’s good, very good, because, as it turns out, I was just thinking how much I wanted you to leave,” says Charlie.
“Is this something you do often, Sherry,” Charlie’s mother says. “You shouldn’t just come into someone’s home and behave like this, and I’ll stand firm on it.”
“Better watch it when she’s standing firm,” Charlie says. “But I have to agree with my mother here.”
“What?” says Sherry.
“Thank you, Charlie,” his mother says.
“Now, I’ll give you a ride to wherever it is you’re staying. Where the hell are you staying?”
“You people need to have your heads examined,” Sherry says.
The weekend is over. Charlie returned from the hotel where he dropped Sherry. Dressed in freshly laundered clothes, the rest of his things packed into duffel bags, he accepted a bacon sandwich, already soggy, wrapped in butcher’s paper. As she handed him the sandwich, he told her it would be some time before he could make it back. Christmas? she had asked. Unlikely, he told her.
Aware that only moments from now her son will be gone and no longer with her, that she will again be alone, she says, “If I seem huffy, it’s only because I’m going to have surgery, but more on that later.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well, it’s minor, nothing to worry about,” she adds. “You should stay.”
“Except I’m not. I’ve got my own commitments.” He starts the engine, the door open, his feet still on the pebbles of the drive. From the exhaust, the car seems to be burning oil, sending out dark puffs from the tailpipe.
“Who was that girl, Charlie?”
“I don’t know. Just somebody.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“You think she’s on drugs?”
“No, just crazy.”
“Well, I think there’s something seriously wrong. Drugs if you ask me, the way she was behaving.”
“I’m on drugs and you don’t see me acting like that.”
“What do you mean ‘on drugs’?”
“I’ve done everything, but lately I’ve been trying to focus in on just one,” he says. He swings his feet inside the car and guns the engine. “Personally, I think the term’s way overused, but the word ‘addiction’ might be appropriate here.” She doesn’t answer right away and instead stares back.
“You better not be.”
“But so what. You don’t see me falling into glass, cutting myself up, things like that,” he says.
“Why are you doing this?” she says, bending at the waist and folding her fingers over the window. “When did you get like this?”
He looks forward down the driveway, then closes his eyes as though deliberating. “Hard to say exactly, but at
this point, to get the old me back, it’ll take nothing short of a saline IV and
“Be serious a minute, please. Listen, what’s the matter with you?”
“Pretty much the same stuff as you, I guess.” He gives a little wave and a toot on the horn. “Okay. I’m off. Bye now.”
“But Charlie, surely you can’t just leave,” she says.
“If only I could.”
She rearranges pictures on the mantle; it makes her teary. In fact, pictures of herself as a little girl have made her teary of late, and, curious about these tears, she has been hanging these—at least four—of her younger self around the house. Maybe her hormones. It seems suddenly unfair to her that Charlie determines everything: he can make her proud, he can embarrass or devastate her, he can bring her back to life. It’s entirely up to him.
Moments later, lying in bed, chin tucked into down fluff, locked in a death grip with a bear, listening to the hum of the brick saw, Charlie’s mother takes comfort, because, of this she is certain:
Charlie is exiting off 95 somewhere just north of Baltimore, thinking he should fill up, and he could use a cup of coffee to carry him the rest of the way. He unwraps the now translucent paper and eats the salty sandwich, thankful for the carefully cooked bacon, and he thinks of his mother, still at home, carrying on with things in the way only she can do: she is helping her daughter with homework; she is preparing a meal; checking the pantry for the groceries they would need; going over the lists and schedules for the upcoming week.
The wedding, the trip, both have been pleasant, for the most part. He and his mother have always had a unique relationship, but it is because she loves him so much, he knows, that the relationship must sometimes suffer under the power of that love. The truth is, there are as many kinds of love as there are ways of expressing it. He is sorry, really sorry, for the mistakes he made, the things he said, and he deeply wishes to apologize to his mother, to thank her, but these things always come to him too late. He regrets she cannot know how he truly feels.
He considers himself fortunate for having a place that is his home, where he is always welcome, a place he might well consider living one of these days, because it’s a decent place for raising a family. There is much to be said for a way of doing things that is time tested, that has suited so many. He thinks that he might be well served by finding a woman somewhat like his mother, who is as capable as she at mastering any situation, of understanding. She is his mother; she is a woman who packs his sandwiches, who makes his appointments.
However, in order to make new strides, he will need to commit himself to his studies, to apply himself, to focus, but it’s about time he did this anyway, about time he left behind these heedless habits of his. He should stop making clever remarks all the time and actually talk to people who care for him. He’s always held a mild interest in the law, and though his grades are low, his father knows some people who might be of help when it comes time to apply to schools. He begins to list new resolves.
He pictures his mother, at this moment, at the bedroom window, surrounded quite contentedly by boxwoods, lawn, brick wall, then gray pile carpeting, photo albums and scrap books, massive pieces of furniture—the tableau of a mother’s great efforts. She slips out of her dress, hangs it in the closet, and changes into a lined sweat suit before crawling under the covers, resting easily.
Of this much, Charlie’s mother is sure.