Miriam N. Kotzin
It is the evening of the third day, and the fluorescent light is flickering. Will tells himself that if the flicker is related to the headache making a tight fist behind his right eye, the light will be steady tomorrow. If he is here again tomorrow. He has never been comfortable in hospital waiting rooms, in spite of the efforts of gray ladies holding out offers of scorched coffee in styrofoam cups. The magazines, Time, People, America and St. Anthony Messenger, greasy with being thumbed by strangers, are outdated. No one looking at these magazines can read any news they might care about. That news will come in green from around corners, down corridors, behind swinging doors. The headache's fist rotates.
Will drops the copy of Time back onto the heap of magazines and notices a woman as she brushes her lank brown hair from her face. From across the room, the woman, who seems about his age, looks familiar, but as he nears fifty, almost all women remind him of someone else: this one's brow, that one's hair, another's mouth or chin. Bodies are like or unlike those he has known and dismissed. Will tries to see if she is wearing a wedding band.
He wishes he could be waiting for news of his father with a wife, if not here by his side in Ottumwa, Iowa, then expecting his call at home in Philadelphia caring for their cereal box children. His neighbor James will come and feed the cats. "Who will wait like this for me?" he wonders, "Maybe it's just as well, if I have my father's luck with wives." Will feels a stab of disloyalty to his dead mother, but not to the woman his father married after his mother died. He wonders what that woman would say if she knew his father was, perhaps, dying.
He is fourteen and standing on the farmhouse porch with his father, the light over the door burning into the Iowa winter. They have come back to find the door locked, two suitcases on the porch. The smaller suitcase is strapped shut with his belts. They ring the bell and Will pounds on the door. He looks into the parlor window. The lights are on, but the room is empty. He can break the glass window of the door and turn the latch. They can get in if they wanted. He can smash the red china vase on the piano, pull down the green velvet drapes, take the photograph he hates from the mantle and stomp hard so glass slashes the picture of the six Susskind children and their parents. The parlor has no framed photograph of him and his father with the woman and her children. He would rip it up, throw it on the coals of the stove, and watch the pieces curl to ash. He feels his father's hand on his shoulder. Why isn't his father even a little angry? He watches his father carry the suitcases to car and stand next to the car waiting for Will.
The windshield wiper swishes aside some snow that the wind blows up from the fields. Does this have anything to do with staying with Grandma Wissenlicht all last week? He wants to ask, but instead blinks back angry tears. He's been a good boy. During the long drive into town his father offers no explanations, as he had offered none about Will's mother's rages, her disappearances, her medications, her death.
Will thinks of Trude Susskind Wissenlicht as "The-woman-my-father-married-after-my-mother-died," never "my father's second wife," never "step-mother." Once when James had referred to the woman as his "step-mother" he said, "She's not my mother. She was never my mother." James had said that whether Will liked it or not, though not his mother, a step-mother was what she was. For weeks afterwards he had not spoken to James again of his grievances.
Every day of his life he thinks about his mother. He thinks about her wild cries as she lay sobbing on the sofa. He thinks about her lovely, crumpled body that he found on the living room floor that last day. And every day he thinks of the woman his father married after his mother had died. His hatred of her is a stone it takes much of his energy to carry, and he carries it with him everywhere. Even here.
He looks at the crucifix near the television. Crucifixes are everywhere in the hospital. Remember. He suffered. He died for you. Offer it up. Offer it up. Offer it up. Certainly his father had, seventy-eight years of it. Still, Will envies the peace he'd seen on his father's face when together they'd kneeled at the rail by the altar, their mouths open to receive the host. Of course he shouldn't have been looking at his father during communion, but for the last few years, his concentration has faltered. The crucifix is crooked. He thinks about going over to straighten it, but decides that the Sister of Mercy patrolling the corridor might consider it a rebuke.
A nun calls out his name, William Wissenlicht, and he raises his hand like a seventh grader, "Here, Sister." He stands, and he knows if there were real news, he'd be seeing the doctor or a priest. She tells him the surgery has started later than expected, not to worry "more than necessary." He is grateful that she hasn't added any sanctimonious platitudes. He wishes he'd brought a brief with him to work on. He has to argue a case next week and his client is guilty of murder. What he does best, he thinks, is to plead the case for the guilty.
The woman with whom he's been exchanging speculative looks is standing in front of him. Yes, she's wearing a wedding band. He hauls himself to his feet again. Manners. "Excuse me, "she says, "Did I hear Sister call you William Wissenlicht?" Will nods. "I thought you looked familiar. My mother married a William Wissenlicht, and we were on the farm together about thirty-five years ago? I was Rebecca...I mean, I am Rebecca. Rebecca Schultz now, I married Gus from the farm down the road."
Just what I need now, one of them, he thinks, "Oh, Rebecca...," he says, "which one were you?"
"Fourth from oldest, two younger brothers. I was the girl who followed you around." She pauses. "Oh, you wouldn't remember. Anyway..." She touches his arm for a moment and her voice drops. "You're here for your dad?"
"You look just like him. I was looking at photographs with Timothy, the baby, last week, and there you both were with the rest of us. It was our first Christmas as a family. You stood looking kind of off to the side, as though you were ready to bolt."
"Is that how it seemed? Well..."
"You must have missed your mother something awful, it being the first Christmas after she died. Did you know we didn't have anything left from the insurance from our father? I think Mom hoped your dad would save us or something, which I guess he tried his best to do. There wasn't much for presents.
"I'm sorry. I started to run on and never even asked about your dad."
"He's having a growth removed from his lung. We hope it's not malignant."
"My father and I. Just the two of us."
"But you live in Philadelphia now, don't you?"
"How did you know?"
"Wonders of the Web. Before Mom died four years ago we looked you up, thinking to let you know what was happening to her, though why you'd want to hear when you...She never stopped talking about you, wishing you'd grown up all right. She said that you were such a sensitive child she hoped that you wouldn't suffer too much along the way," Rebecca says. "She died of breast cancer. She suffered terribly herself."
"I'm sorry," Will says, the words roll out like marbles.
"Thanks. My sister Edith is being operated on today, same thing. Christ, I keep thinking I'm next. I hope my language doesn't offend you.
"No, really. I'm just sorry to hear about all your trouble."
"Do you mind if I sit down with you?" Without waiting for an answer she sits on the chair next to the one he'd been in, and, automatically, he sits too. "I'm sure you've enough of your own. We all do. Do you have children?"
"Two cats, Merton and Jezebel. And you?"
"Three boys." Rebecca opens her purse, and Will thinks she's going to take out a wallet thick with pictures of her family, but she takes a tissue from her purse and dabs at her eyes. "You loved cats way back then too. You used to sneak out after dinner to feed the barn cats what you left on your plate.
"Golly. You and Mom had such a fight over her drowning kittens. I thought for sure you had hurt her real bad the way she went down to the ground so sudden." Rebecca shakes her head.
"All I remember," he says, "was trying to keep her from drowning the poor helpless little things."
"She hated doing it. You didn't understand about how there'd be hundreds of cats in a year or two, and them all starving and turning wild. How could you? Some farms, why, the men would break their necks, quicker than drowning. My father used to, but then after...Mom hadn't any choice. She let you pick one from the litter? You chose a little orange one with blue eyes we called Tigger."
"Why not just take them to the shelter?"
"Nobody in Ottumwa wants shelter kittens what with all the litters barn cats have, not to mention the house cats. I guess, they could have gone to the shelter and lived a while in cages until they got gassed."
"I still think..."
"So Mom has to put the kittens in a tied sack with a rock in the bottom to weight it down. You can just about hear them through the burlap, kind of mewing, and the sack is all squirmy. You're trying to push her away from the barrel of water, and you can't. She drops in the sack. It sinks clear down to the bottom, and you reach way down in and haul it up. You can see them still moving inside, though not as much as before, so then Mom and you have a kind of tug of war with that bag of kittens dripping water over the both of you, and both of you crying now, both crying over drowning kittens. Each time she gets a hold of the bag, she puts it back in the barrel and you pull it up, and each time the bag looks heavier, water just pouring out. And when she opens the bag to check that none of them are suffering, and you pull it loose from her one last time, both of you soaking wet now, that's when she loses her balance -- or you push her -- I was never sure which. She always said she lost her balance. And you, you're off like a shot straight to the barn, and by the time Mom and I get over there you have all those kittens laid out in a row with the rock at the end like a headstone."
"I didn't push her," Will says, but he isn't sure that he didn't. "You know so much. Why did she lock us out?"
Rebecca sighs. "I'm not sure you want to know this."
"Believe me, I do."
"I feel funny, and your father sick. It's..."
"You know. Why shouldn't I? That is, at least you know what she told you."
"What were you told?"
Will, having been told nothing, doesn't answer.
After a moment and a deep breath she says,"OK. My bedroom and Alice's was right next to theirs so I heard stuff I know I wasn't supposed to hear. The Church was really strict about birth control, even more then. It seemed all you had to do was look at Mom and she'd get pregnant -- that's how come there were so many of us -- and they'd been married maybe three months when she missed a period. He says that she'd got pregnant again on purpose, and she swears she must have miscalculated. This argument goes on night after night. Then one morning I see her carry bloody sheets from their room. So she'd just been late or maybe she had miscarried. It happens like that sometimes."
"What did that have to do with being locked out?"
"One night I heard him say he can't afford to feed more children, and that she has too many already.
"I didn't try to listen, but I didn't sleep well, and their voices would wake me up. I heard tones mostly, hers pleading, his angry. And then one night I hear him say, 'If that's the way you feel about what marriage means, I'll take Will and move out.' And then her sobbing all through the rest of the night. I don't know that he slept either. I didn't exactly understand what he meant at the time. I was too young. I just knew it was trouble. Later I realized that he wouldn't let her touch him and he didn't want to touch her."
"But she locked us out. You can't explain that away."
"I'm not trying to make excuses. You asked me what happened," Rebecca said, "Do you still want to know? I can go back across the room and we can just pretend none of this happened."
"No. Go on, really..."
"He told her to leave your clothes on the porch. He didn't want to see any of us again. Mom made us stay upstairs in the back bedroom until you'd gone. She cried and cried. It was awful."
"It was no barrel of laughs for me, either," he said. The door is shut tight against him, and the frozen night is in him yet.
"You know, Will, the whole truth is that it I looked you up while Mom was still alive. She was real sick, and I thought you might come to see her."
"Why would I have done that?"
"That's what my brother Steven said. He said, 'Rebecca, if Will did come, he'd spit in her face. He hated her.' You didn't hate her that much, not really, did you?"
"Not to speak ill of the dead, but your sainted mother did, after all say to me, and these are her exact words, 'Nothing you can ever do, will make me love you.' "
"Oh, Will, she didn't say that to you. I was there. It was right after the kittens got drowned. We're by the barn, the three of us, you and Mom both soaking wet, her clothes and arms muddy with the fall. She'd scraped her arm and it's bleeding. She tries to put her arm around you, and you won't let her touch you. You stand with your arms out to your sides like you're guarding the kittens, and you won't move. She begs you to come into the house, says she'll make you sugar cookies.
"Then you say it to her, just as clear as could be, 'Nothing you can ever do will make me love you.' It nearly broke her heart. What she does say, and maybe this is what you kept with you all these years, she says, "You are a motherless child and there isn't nothing I can do about it. Nothing. Unless you let me give you what I can of a mother's love." She says, "I don't want to take your mother's place. I can't do that any more than the six children I have above ground can take the place of Peter, my first and stillborn."
Looking for signs of deceit, Will studies Rebecca, who is sitting quiet now, the set of her shoulders, her hands loose in her lap. He sees she has told the truth. "How can this be?" he asks himself. He will have to find the right words to say to her.
He looks past her to stare at their reflection in the plate glass window as though he will find the appropriate response. Everything he sees reflected appears wholly unfamiliar. "I didn't..." he says.
Will looks at Rebecca like the stranger she is. He realizes that he doesn't know if his father has ever gotten a divorce, that Rebecca might be in some way legally related to him, that she and her brothers and sisters might be entitled to share in an inheritance. He knows they would not accept it if it were offered; his father's legacy is entirely his own.
The fluorescent light above him buzzes like swarming bees and goes dark. He hears a woman's voice call code blue for a man he does not know.
©2004 by Miriam N. Kotzin