Paul A. Toth
Paul A. Toth's latest book, Airplane Novel, was selected by Shelf Unbound as the 4th Best Independent Novel of 2011. He has published over one hundred short stories and three other novels. His nonfiction has appeared in Salon.com and other publications. His website is www.tothotropolis.com and he may be contacted via email@example.com. Toth works as a copywriter. You may view his portfolio via www.tothworlddesign.com.
The Second Chance
I was home to Michigan. It was August, hot, and everything was opened up, infernal. I was home to see my mother die. That's why I had come, for that reason alone, and then I would leave again. But she wasn't dying fast enough.
The house was dying, too. We had moved there when I was ten and it was thirty-nine years later, yet there was something unfair about the doors that refused to close, bloated from too many humid August days. I noticed right away that first night
home because mother was at the hospital and yet I didn't feel alone in the house, so I tried to close my old bedroom door. It refused. It wouldn't give.
I didn't want to be alone if I couldn't close the door. I went to the kitchen to phone a girl I should have called a woman. The telephone I remembered was gone, in its place a wireless. That was all right, nice that mother was modern, but I was beginning to feel that she should have anticipated my coming and put everything back the way I remembered it, if only to keep me comfortable until she died. There wasn't any sign of recent shopping for the kind of food I liked nor even a note to remind me that she had gone to the hospital to die. That's the kind of thing she would have done before and it was upsetting to see that it wasn't going to be this time. She wasn't the mother I remembered.
I was calling Naomi because I'd had a fling with her in my early twenties. She was rather young then, sixteen, and I had to call it off when I realized it was wrong after having slept with her. It was duly noted on my Twelve Steps' inventory, but I called her now and again throughout the years, establishing the foundation for a second chance.
She answered the phone the way the actress she had once hoped to become would answer a phone, with a pensive, accident-anticipating “Hello?”
“It's your favorite accident,” I said.
Yes, it's me, I said. She said et cetera and would I come for a late dinner that night, at about, say, ten, to which I said, yes, I'd like to come, but I first have to visit my mother in the hospital. I was proud for keeping that commitment, even though mother should have known I might call Naomi that night, arrange a dinner date with not only Naomi but the husband I hoped to usurp, and that she – my mother – could hardly expect me to visit the hospital on my first night home, that tomorrow would be fine and I hope you get lucky.
My mother had left the garage opener on the back porch and I had it in my pocket. I wasn't going to leave my car in the driveway, not in the kind of neighborhood mother had refused to flee before she started dying so that I might avoid witnessing the disrepair of my childhood memories and the general economic collapse of all the infrastructures I had once attended, utilized and occasionally ruined in drunken driving accidents.
I was in a hurry and struck the garage door as I reversed out of the driveway. I should have stopped but kept going in case the door closed for good and trapped my car inside. Instead, it rose with a decrepit shudder, then dropped six of its fifteen-foot distance to the pavement, shredding itself into three panels which in turn ripped the tracks from the ceiling and sent the entire mechanism reeling backwards until the garage itself all but collapsed. I realized it wasn't entirely my mother's fault after remembering that Naomi might have given me more time by inviting me to arrive a little later in the evening, say, after her husband would have gone to bed.
My mother was dying in the hospital where I had been born. There was a new hospital in the suburb just south of the house. It would have only been reasonable to die there, in new facilities where I had never been treated for windshield gashes and the like. But I wasn't drinking. Had I been drinking, I would surely have done enough of it in anticipation of seeing my mother to have cancelled the visit altogether.
It was a pleasure driving without the familiar challenges of inebriation. I rolled down the window and for a few moments felt that I had really accomplished something, that I had changed and come home to prove it. Then I saw the hospital. It was in a shameful condition. I should have known from the ghetto my mother had refused to abandon before she started dying that the hospital downtown would be surrounded by public housing complexes and the criminals who inhabit them.
She should have considered the implications of staying in a dying neighborhood. I, after all, had moved to California when I was twenty-three and without the slightest intention of returning. I had until this day kept my promise. If I were murdered on these streets I failed to circumnavigate so that I might visit my dying mother, a certain better-bred jurisdiction would have found her criminally negligent in arranging my fate so close to the place where my life had begun.
I could have written a magnificent oral argument for the prosecution, but I decided then and there that were I not already dead in such an event, I would have been the first to testify on my mother's behalf and in doing so perjure myself. Depending on its timing, death would hardly change the kind of man I had always been.
I parked and braced myself to cross the parking lot and all the shadows with which thieves and killers disguise themselves. However, I am a Democrat and I've read Dostoevsky. I better than anyone know that certain preventable circumstances encourage crime. I would eliminate them all and relieve everyone of their ills, mother too and all the other selfish invalids, but I know my limits. They extend well beyond my burdens.
I confess I prayed my way to the elevator shaft. Once aboard, I prayed again at every stop. I prayed that the criminal possibilities to which my mother had subjected me would by their absence give to her the benefit of my visit. I prayed again for my departure, that I be given rapid exit to the car that I would drive a hundred miles per hour all the way to the house of my second chance. It wasn't that I wanted to my visit to end before it began. Rather, I simply hoped that it would seem so, very much so, so very much so that it would seem as if I were leaving that moment. But I changed my mind and went inside the hospital.
There's one thing I'll say for hospitals. The doors work. I opened the door and there she was, straight away and without delay, dying. It was unbearably factual. I expected something more, a curtain, musicians tuning instruments, at least a hello. But she just lay there dying. Propped up on a pillow and dying, plain as that.
But that wasn't all. I knew the look on her face. I could read her mind. She wasn't only dying. She was saying, “I'm dying before I can say I'm dying, that's how much I'm dying. I might not say anything before I die, but you can't be sure I won't say something until I die. You see, Jonathan, you ran away and told yourself I would make it easy for you. I would die before you had the chance to visit, that's what you thought. And that's what you wanted. But as you see, I had something else in mind and I'm dying. Do you see? I will die, whenever I get around to it, but I'm already mostly dead and I still won't let you go. Not because I'm afraid of dying. Because you're not.”
And that's the way it happened.
I waited as long as I could, listening to what she said, trying to accept it, realizing I couldn't, trying to shut her out. So I pushed her far away, beyond peer counselors and serenity prayers, beyond the holding of hands, beyond conscience, beyond even alcohol, to the higher power of my understanding, of which I had none. Whatever you call that. That's death.
I said, “Okay, I get the picture. Now I gotta go. You're taking your time and teaching me a lesson I don't care to learn, so you can wait for me. I'm still alive and Naomi's home, waiting. She's waiting and so am I. I'm in a hurry. For Naomi. Remember her? You remember. She used to leave her lipstick all over my face right before you came home and she – she was sixteen. Remember that? You never liked her. Endlessly intelligent. She really was that. You couldn't stand it.
"She was crazy, too. She's better now. I'm sure she's better because they didn't have the drugs back then. She could have gotten me killed, maybe even killed me herself, but for some reason, I didn't care. I liked it. You understand?
"She's incapable of fidelity. One guy out, three more in. Yet you want her to yourself. Now that's a lot to want. Why? She always comes back the way she goes. The door never closes. Can't close it, can't lock it, and all you want's to keep it.
"Did you know I left her first? Hardly anybody does that. I had the guts. But all I did was leave her in my wanting before she threw me out the door. The wanting never quit. It turned to need.
"Now, how's that work? You're a woman. You must know the trick. Why should I want her back? You're teaching me a lesson I can't use with all this dying. Maybe you can use it, but I can't. Why not teach me something I can use for once?”
I already knew she would never offer that lesson and probably didn't have it to give. She was sticking to her lesson plan and not dying. She was always that way, hanging on, refusing to let me go, worrying herself to death, dying in the living until she finally started living in the dying. All for me, I suppose, but it felt like taking, even stealing, sometimes something else, too much, too close, choking me inside-out, hating everything in life that makes a person want and need. And then again she wasn't there. She was empty and there was nothing I could take. She was putting me in the hole, all the time the hole.
So when I left her in the hospital, I wasn't leaving anything or anybody, just the lack of both. I remembered then how I felt when I was on the plane to California, looking down on Michigan, thinking, “You should all say 'Fuck it' and leave. Like me, just go. That whole damn place is a hole. Even when you had jobs, you worked the hole, down in the factories, same thing. Slide the bolt, everything going to the hole, never to you. With the factories gone, you're in a deeper hole and it keeps getting bigger. You still can't say it? I'll say it for you. Fuck it.”
I said it again and again on the way to Naomi's. I was saying fuck it and I was stopping and I was buying. I'd had a good streak but I was buying a bottle. I said, "Don't even think about why, just fuck it, let's go. I got a bottle in my hand, Naomi won't care and if she does then fuck it."
It went like that all the way to the suburbs in which the jurisdiction might have held my mom complicit. These were the good suburbs, always better than mine, a notch up, safer by far and the kids a different sort, sort of pre-city, not quite ready for that game, but they had thoroughly mastered this one. They ran the goddamned suburbs. And I was thinking it was all the same because the place had been kept up and looked the same, not like my mother's neighborhood. But here, it seemed, everything had stayed the same and it was here that Naomi still lived as if to say, "The second chance is different but it's still the same as the first. You'll hardly know the difference."
It was darker because the trees were tall and dense. It was easy to remember the past I wanted and even easier to forget the rest. I could drive and drink without worrying about the cops because there weren't that many cops this side of town, this jurisdiction, a slightly better class that needed less policing.
I don't know how Naomi ended up in the same neighborhood for good, but it made sense. She stayed for me. She didn't know it, I was sure of that, but she was still waiting and making sure it looked the same, that it was the same, that everything was recognizable. It had to be that way and everything had to be just so. I had seen that she had changed in photos she had sent me a few years before, but it didn't matter now. That would have to change. The way things should be wanted that to happen, knew it had to happen, or there wasn't any point. And when everything but one thing wants things a certain way, then that one thing has to surrender. That's the way it works.
I drank enough to feel a little smooth but not too much and also just enough to think to myself, goddamn it, John, you just cost yourself a lot of clean time. So when I pulled into her driveway, I opened the door fast to give that thought enough air to choke itself. I closed the door and wavered in the driveway, telling myself don't lurk, anybody could be watching and somebody probably is, namely her husband. But I knew I had already fallen into something that was bound to happen.
Something was near me and I stopped thinking. Somebody touched my arm and I had a moment to think that it was probably her. My eyes adjusted to something of a focus. All that I've described was true of her in that darkness, but it was broken. That's what I thought then, she's broken, but that wasn't quite right and I had the sense already that I was mostly wrong. There was something more to it, and I was trying to figure it out as she spoke.
“Still want to come in?” she said.
I really didn't, but I didn't want her to know more than she already knew...and I could tell that she knew most of it. That's what I thought.
Just as I started for the house, an overhead light exposed us for half the neighborhood to see. Her husband was on the switch. If he knew his wife at all, then he knew he wasn't really married. He was paranoid and fretting because I stood in the open door. How many, I wondered, have already come to take what he can never keep? And they know and they don't care, they never think twice, for she has a way of saying yes before a no arises. But he doesn't know, he's too close to know that she hasn't what she used to have, that it was looks, that's what she had and lost, and she knew it. That's what I was thinking. She had a lot more than looks, more than most, more than almost anyone, but it wasn't enough to give her back her looks. She was taken. She was finally his and his alone, but for none of the reasons that he had once and so often lost her. Yet that was only true if she not only knew but admitted it and turned it over to a force that may or may not exist, which she had never understood or trusted. There was only one thing in which she had ever believed, and that was her own power. She had to use it to believe in it. That was true and neither she nor the husband knew it.
She started working on me right away, but she was really trying out her power, testing it, hoping it still worked. She smiled in a way that said, "I know your mother isn't dying on purpose, that she's teaching you what you already know and nothing you need to know, just as always, and anyone but me would think you're irredeemably immoral for realizing it. Now are you coming inside or what?"
“I meant to say, of course, that I'd like to come in,” I said. “I only hesitated because I thought your husband might not –”
“Oh, don't worry about Jacob,” she said.
We walked to the garage entranceway and then she told me to wait. She went inside and came back with a pair of socks. She said to take my shoes off and put the socks on. I said I was already wearing socks, but she shook her head no.
I was putting on the socks when I saw Jacob behind the doorway. He was standing in the way, an impediment, an obstacle, the embodiment of the impossibility. I was already jealous, already losing her in the having, and I knew it. I didn't even want her anymore. I just wanted to have her. Own her. Let her know I was in charge. But I wasn't. I followed the little turn of her head. I followed her inside.
We had dinner, the three of us, and she was mostly looking at me and I was mostly looking at him, but I was only listening to her. What she said didn't matter. It was her voice, the notes, the chords.
I had to wash my hands three times after eating before she was satisfied. She just shrugged when I said, "What's with the OCD?" After that, her husband went upstairs to bed. Perhaps he thought that she could never let anyone touch her now. Perhaps even he couldn't touch her now. Or she only had sex in car washes. There seemed to be some kind of arrangement. It wouldn't have mattered if there hadn't been an arrangement. It wouldn't have mattered what he wanted. It wouldn't have mattered to her and it wouldn't have mattered to me.
But when we kissed – and it was only a few minutes later, on the couch, half cast in the upstairs hallway light – I knew the husband lingered. He would always linger. I would never eradicate him because he had possessed her in a way no one else had or likely ever would again. I was certain she had considered marriage a mistake, long before the vows, but it was a mistake she had to carry through. And as I thought about that, I began to understand. There were things she had to do because she had to do them.
Then I heard a little girl crying, upstairs, not far from the light. As Naomi went to see her daughter, I knew she had finally found a door that closed upon her. When she returned, we started kissing again and soon the clothes came off, but she wasn't breathing so well. She was breathless and frantic, trying not to show it. We went on and it happened as I knew it would happen, but she wasn't really there, she wasn't really anywhere, and I had the feeling I was pressing myself upon air.
I had to leave, right away, but she was tangled up in compulsion. I knew as soon as I left that she would shower for an extraordinarily long time, realizing that we'd both had a choice and pretended we didn't, and now she had to deny the event, deny herself, and try to vanish in the steam. Yet in the doorway of the garage, where she was leading me out, she kissed me goodbye as if she needed me. It must have been the way they all exited. This was the place where the men disappeared.
A few days later, she called and left a message, asking if I would kill her. She said she wasn't having electroshock again, that the drugs never worked and that she wasn't going back to the hospital. She said she had a gun, knew a safe place and nobody would know a thing.
I didn't call her back. I knew her well enough to know that she would never do it. Still, sometimes I think to myself that I should have done it, should have put her down because her day was done, but she had another's day in hand. Her little daughter's hand held all that was left of the bigger hand. The rest was smoke and mirrors, boys, and here I am still wanting.
Soon after that, my mother died. I stayed a while to handle the usual affairs. When everything was done, I wasn't sure what to do. Drink wasn't working. All the doors were closing and the house was falling apart. My mother's clothes were in the closet, talking to themselves. I wasn't dying yet, but I was starting to think there was something more that I should know about.