He Could Be Happy If He Wanted To

It was a Sunday afternoon and I was sitting at the kitchen table in my mother’s house. I’d taken the chair facing out the windows framed with tobacco stained lace curtains, out to the small weedy backyard and thin forest of pines beyond. But my father’s ghost pushed me from his place into the chair of my childhood, between him and the fridge.

“Reach back,” he’d say. “Get me another.”

From about ten years old, I didn’t have to get out of my chair to do it anymore. My arm contortioned familiarly around the chair and felt the edge of the fridge and I pulled it open. I looked back and expected the two rows of stubby-necked brown glass bottles.

But they’d been replaced with plastic containers of sliced exotic fruit and vegetables or fancy soft cheeses or pre-biotic, low-fat yogurt. All these things some magazine said might extend your life a few years. I closed the door and turned in my chair to watch my mother come back into the kitchen hiding behind a bouquet of dandelions.

“The girls next door brought me these,” she said cutting the stems and setting in a vase she pulled out from some cupboard I imagined was dedicated just to vases for flowers picked by rosy-cheeked neighbour girls. “Aren’t they the sweetest?”

I nodded politely and wondered if I would have a vase sitting handy within arms reach if someone ever brought me flowers. She kept going on about the neighbours. Basically telling me their entire life story, like if it somehow mattered or maybe I could learn something from the experiences of a couple of eight year olds. I ignored her and started composing a list;

Things I’ll never be able to do

– Buy the proper sized garbage bags.
– Clean the diamond patterns of hundred year-old dirt  from the bottom of my bathtub.
– Care about some kid I’ve never even see who scraped their knee while falling off their bike.

I wondered if there was some kind of conspiracy between the garbage can and garbage bag manufacturers. A large bag is nowhere near large enough for even a medium-sized can. Or maybe if the can’s volume was written on it in big bold letters. Something you see every day and would be able to recall instantly. So instead of standing there like an idiot, juggling between boxes of garbage bags, wondering if it was big enough, you could just know and move on to something more important like the meat or cereal sections.

Sometimes I wondered if the neighbour girls even existed or if my mother just made them up to fill out her days. Once when I was smoking in the backyard I pulled myself up on the fence and looked into the neighbour’s yard. No sandbox, no swing set, no toys scattered on the lawn. I figured I had the wrong side, but when I let myself down I got a huge sliver in my palm and couldn’t lift myself up to check the other side.

My mother asked me about work and I said it was fine. She asked if I was seeing anyone and I said I see people all the time. Every direction I look, I see someone. I’m seeing her right now. She stopped fiddling with the dandelions and told me to not be such a smart aleck.

I smiled and said no, there was no potential mother of grandchildren lurking about. I lit a cigarette and saw her sneer, so I leaned back and exhaled at the ceiling.

“I can’t believe you still smoke,” she said, setting the dandelions in the middle of the table. I shrugged and she walked into the living room to straighten her magazines or check the weather channel again or cry, I could never be sure.

She came back in as I crushed the butt against the same chipped saucer he used. I declined her offer of a sandwich, but accepted a cup of coffee. She had one too and we sat staring across the steaming cups and the kitchen table. I could see questions pulling at the corners of her mouth and some strange sense of propriety holding her back from asking them.

We slurped at our coffee in the silence, more ghosts than either would admit to, dancing around us.

She told me about aunts and uncles and cousins and her gardening and the choir and the latest miracle drug. I smiled and nodded when she paused and hoped my feigned interest was enough.

After an hour, I got up to leave. She gave me some well-meaning advice I would never be able to apply to any facet of life and I thanked her and started to walk the eight blocks to the subway station. I stopped at the corner and lit another cigarette. I looked back and saw her standing on the porch, his old sweater wrapped around her thin shoulders.

I waved.



5 thoughts on “He Could Be Happy If He Wanted To

  1. Wow, Craig, you certainly seem to specialise in troubled family life. This was vivid and uncomfortable – felt like the start (actually, end) of something much longer and full of your usual bleakness!

    1. i didn’t think them troubled, so much as distant, but I suppose that can all be grouped under the same umbrella. All I really wanted to do was rant about garbage bags. Thanks for stopping by.

      1. Nice garbage bag rant. Gripping stuff. As usual, had to read on and on to the end. Will there be more?

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