published in the Crescent Review
Mother Makes a Visit
by Paul Pekin
Mother arrived at O'Hare with a bit of red ribbon pinned to the lapel of her woolen coat. It was the Christmas season and the terminal was jammed with holiday travelers, but the young man who spotted Mother, her traveling bag, and her purse was no traveler. "Carry your bag, lady?" he asked, reaching her side just a step ahead of another young man who was wearing a saffron robe and a shaven head.
Mother looked into his earnest black face and trusted it. He was about 16 and had not reached his full height, if in fact he ever would reach it. Inner city children did not grow well, she knew, given the diet of poverty. The young man was wearing unlaced sneakers, dark trousers, a stadium jacket, and a billed cap that had the letter X printed on it.
"Thank you," she said. "But I'm just fine."
When the second young man, the one with the saffron robe stepped closer, X said several improper words and shoved him away.
Mother said, "That wasn't very fair of you."
X said, "Lady, they just want your money."
"I could certainly spare a dollar."
"They just give it to their Marjareeshi."
He was right. Mother had heard all about these people, but if you could make someone happy by contributing to a guru, it seemed to her God would not be entirely displeased.
"Better let me help with those bags," X said.
"I am perfectly capable," Mother said. Then she saw the disappointment in his eyes and added, "If you wish, you can show me where I can board a train." Crossing the terminal together, she and X noticed a large white policeman with an enormous black revolver sticking out of his holster walking directly them.
"Lady," X said. "I got to meet a friend." He pointed out an escalator and nervously accepted the dollar bill she extracted from her purse. "You be careful on the train," he warned.
Mother laughed. She had been taking care of herself for years.
When she got off at Western, a light snow was blowing across the platform. She had had a pleasant ride, sitting next to an Korean gentleman who turned out to be the pastor of a Roger's Park church where special English speaking services were held every Friday night--"You must come." Mother had not been in Chicago for several years, never on this elevated platform, and she had no idea which direction she would turn when she reached the street. Then she saw several young Hispanic men in identical jackets huddled together at the head of the stairs.
"I beg your pardon," Mother said. "Do any of you speak English?"
The young man who escorted Mother to her son's building was named Raoul. "Lady," he said. "You ain't safe walking around here alone."
"Oh, I've managed all these years." When Mother opened her purse, Raoul took the liberty of looking for himself, but all he found was a crumpled dollar bill and change. Raoul was disappointed. His mother was ill, his father out of work, his sister had just lost her baby . . .
"I'm sorry, but I never carry large bills when I'm traveling," Mother said. "If you'll come up with me, maybe Jerry will have something . . ."
Raoul examined the apartment building. The lower walls were entirely covered by graffiti, some of it quite artistic. "Lady," he muttered. "I gotta see a friend."
It took several moments for Mother to discover the bell to Jerry's building was out of order, but so was the lock. She was able to let herself into the vestibule and find his name on the mail slots. She also found a homeless person on the landing who resisted her best efforts to help him rise. Sometimes the best thing was just to let them sleep it off.
Even before she reached the third floor she could hear her son's voice, using language he had never learned in her home. "You're not listening to me!" he was screaming. "Tina! Tina? How many times do I have to tell you? Tina! You never listen to me!"
Mother rapped on the door, and kept rapping until she heard him respond:
"Now they're at my door, Tina. Again! Damn them! Damn them!"
"Jerry!" Mother called. "It's only me, your mother!"
A moment later she heard chains and a heavy bolt being worked on the other side of the door; then she was facing her son, a tall unshaven man with gray in his beard, still wearing the robe she had given him for Christmas eight years ago.
"It is you!" he cried, racing back to the telephone. "Tina, I've got to hang up. My mother is here. Tina? Tina! You're not listening! I said my mother is here! How should I know how she got here? If you knew my mother you wouldn't have to ask. I'll call you back! Stop that, Tina! Stop that! I don't have to put up with this! No, no, I'm not going to hang up on you, I am going to say goodbye, the way normal men and women do. Do you hear me, Tina. I'm saying goodbye and I'm not hanging up on you and don't you accuse me of it later, goodbye, yes, goodbye, I'll call you back, yes, goodbye, and no, I am not not not hanging up!"
Jerry hung up, violently, and turned upon Mother.
"You were supposed to be on the eight o'clock flight."
"I'm perfectly capable . . . "
He took her coat. "I know you're capable, Mother, but when you tell someone you are going to take a certain flight, that is what you are supposed to do. Supposing, supposing something had happened to you. Something is happening to people every day in this city. They get shot, they get mugged, they get dragged down alleys, they get . . Mother! Why are you wearing this stupid ribbon? Do you want people to think I have AIDS? Do you want people to think I'm a homosexual?'
It was just like him to use the word "homosexual" instead of gay. More than once she had tried to correct him, but he insisted it was his duty, as a poet, to guard the purity of the English language.
"I didn't mean to interrupt your conversation," Mother said.
"Then you should have taken the right plane," Jerry said. "I told you I'd pick you up, but not during rush hour. Not during rush hour! Do you have any idea what happens when your car stalls during rush hour? Do you know what it feels like to be sitting there with a thousand people blowing horns?" He clenched his fists and beat them together. "Helpless! Helpless! That's the kind of world we live in! Helpless!"
While he was chaining up the door and sliding numerous dead bolts back in place, Mother explained how she had taken the elevated train and found a nice young man named Raoul to escort her through the streets. "They're all named Raoul," Jerry snorted, "except for the ones named Willie. And they'll drag you down an alley first chance they get. Do you think they care how old you are? Mother, you don't understand how things are. This is Chicago, and we have animals here. Animals!"
If anything Jerry's new apartment was smaller and more cluttered than the one he had had on Armitage. Mother recognized the puce daybed, and several of the lamps, and a large framed nude he had made when he was a painter. The model could not have been very pleased with the results; it was as if Jerry had made an extra effort to capture the sag of her breasts. "Do you ever see her anymore?" Mother asked.
"Bianca?" Jerry glanced at the painting. "No. And if I did see her I would cross to the other side of the street."
"I always liked Bianca," Mother said.
"You liked her because she was black, Mother."
There was some truth in this and Mother knew it. She had take care that her children's formative years included Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, and prayers for the freedom riders, even at the expense of some friction with her own parents. "How would you like it if one of them were to marry a Negro?" She, of course, had told them she would like it fine. But Jerry had never married, and Susan had chosen a husband of pure Scandinavian descent, and even gone suburban.
After Jerry cleared a place on the couch, Mother sat down. Stacks of paper and books covered every flat surface in the apartment, including most of the floor. "We're almost ready to go to press," Jerry explained. "How do you like the computer? "
Jerry was publishing a magazine called "The Hungry Eye," and Mother had sent him money to buy the computer, a Macintosh which was now chained to the radiator. "They'll never get it loose," he boasted. "I had a friend weld these iron straps around it. We should be in the book stores by March."
While he was preparing a small dinner--Mother had eaten on the plane--she sat and read from the unfinished mock-up of "The Hungry Eye." The poetry was of the usual unrhymed variety, filled with obscure expressionist images and the usual four letter words, harmless stuff. It was an essay on "America's Black Racism" that brought her to her feet.
"You're surely not going to publish this?"
"Publish it?" he cried, brandishing a spoonful of Spaghetti-O's--not since childhood had he eaten anything fresh or green, "I wrote it!"
"Black racism? That's an oxymoron!"
"Oxymoron? Thunderous silence. Sweet sorrow. Those are oxymorons. See the dictionary. Black racism, that's a reality. You're an educated woman, Mother. You shouldn't be corrupting the language just to make a political point."
And so the discussion which followed was less on the subject of black racism than on the nuances of the word Mother had chosen to deny it. Both she and Jerry enjoyed these little intellectual clashes which, over the years, had become a family tradition. But that night while she lay on the puce daybed--not even at home did she sleep well--she found herself reviewing the content of her son's essay which declared no young white man living in America today should feel the slightest responsibility for acts committed centuries ago by slave traders (many of whom were black themselves), or for that matter the Ku Kluxers and segregationists who followed. Was it fair that qualified young white males were walking the streets unemployed while unqualified black demagogues held tenured positions at American Universities where they were defended against all criticism by charges of political incorrectness? Enough! Why should any loud-mouthed fool be permitted to say any bit of malicious nonsense that entered her head, simply because she was black? Mother recognized, behind this pronoun, a bitterness she was sure derived from her son's relationship with Bianca.
She began to consider ways in which a committed parent might discourage the publication of "The Hungry Eye."
A fine white layer of snow fell upon the city that night. When Mother awoke she saw Jerry hunched over his computer, violently smoking a cigarette. "Aha," he muttered, pounding on the keyboard, unaware that he was being watched. "Aha! Aha! Aha!" Art was a release for him. As a painter he had applied color to the canvas with enough physical force to spatter someone seated at the opposite end of the room.
There was nothing in the apartment for breakfast. "I'm taking you out today," Jerry told her, still pounding on the keyboard. "But we have to wait till the mail gets here. If I don't get to it first those animals downstairs will have everything scattered up and down the block.
"I wish you wouldn't refer to people as animals," Mother said.
"Aha!" Jerry snorted, pounding on his keyboard. Mother hoped it was well made.
He was on the telephone when the mailman rang. "Yes, yes, Tina," he was saying. "I told you I would call back, but now that my mother . . . What do you mean that has nothing to do with it? It has everything to do with it. Oh Christ! There goes the mail bell!"
"I'll run down and get it," Mother said.
It took her several moments to release all the chains and bolts he had protecting his door. "No, no," he kept telling her, and then, turning to the telephone, "Tina, do you realize what is happening? My mother is going down for the mail, alone. Now let me hang up before she is attacked! Goddamit, Tina, I swear you don't listen to a word I say . . . "
Mother was pleased to see that the homeless man was no longer sleeping on the landing, but also worried lest he come to harm in the bitter outside cold. At the bottom of the steps she discovered a pile of large manila envelopes lying beneath the mail slot, and a bearded man with no fingers in his gloves sorting through them. "Good morning," Mother said.
The bearded man looked up, a wild expression in his eyes. "I'm just looking for my check," he explained. "I'm supposed to be getting a check from welfare but it ain't here."
"You should complain to the authorities," Mother said. "If you'll wait until my son gets off the telephone I'll call them for you."
She began gathering up the large manila envelopes, many of which the bearded man had already picked up, and even opened. "You won't find your check in these," she told him. "I imagine these are just submissions to my son's magazine."
"Is your son that crazy guy on the third floor?" the bearded man asked.
"Crazy is a dreadful word," Mother said. "How would you like it if someone called you crazy?"
The bearded man blinked twice. "Lady," he said. "I gotta go see a friend."
Jerry was still on the telephone when she brought his mail into the apartment. He covered the mouthpiece with one hand and said:
"You see how she is, Mother? I can't get her off the phone!"
"You should invite her over," Mother said.
"Then I'd never get . . . never mind . . . yes, Tina, I'm still here, I have not hung up on you, I never hang up on you, please don't to try to say that I do . . . excuse me . . . Mother? While you're waiting, could you give me a hand? Go through those manuscripts and start rejecting them."
By the time Jerry was ready to take his mother to breakfast, it was well past lunch. "I want you to enjoy your visit," he said. "Don't think for one minute I don't want to do that. We'll drop this crap in the mail and go downtown. I have to look up some stuff in the library and then we can get something to eat."
There was no question of taking the car into the Loop, not with the entire expressway system in permanent gridlock due to repairs. On the Elevated, where he made her remove the red ribbon from her lapel, he pointed out a series of gentlemen who, he assured her, were pickpockets. "I fight them," he said proudly. "I live for the day I can throw one of them onto the third rail."
In the Loop homeless people were on every corner. Mother had never seen quite so many outstretched hands. Jerry had to jerk her bodily away from the legless man who sold pencils on Adams Street. "Mother! He has a limousine pick him up every afternoon!"
The new library was an imposing building named after the late black mayor of the city. "How proud he'd be," Mother said.
"He wouldn't be so proud if he saw what a mess they'd made of it," Jerry said. He led her into a bookless hallway that resembled the entrance of a railroad station, and directed her around a corner to a series of escalators so cleverly hidden no newcomer could possibly have guessed they were there. Ascending, Mother was able to look down into what must have been intended as a reflecting pool, a rectangular lagoon of chemically clear water, surrounded by a group of black children on a field trip. They were pointing excitedly at the numerous coins people had tossed into the water, lying tantalizingly beyond their reach. "Look at that," she whispered.
"Mother, I know what you're thinking," Jerry said. "Those poor penniless black children! Take another look. They're throwing that money into the water themselves."
Jerry had no luck with his research. While Mother read a book on sociology, he carried on a quarrel with one of the librarians whom he later described as a SMBW, or Slow Moving Black Woman. He also had unkind words for the security personal, most of whom were clean cut young black men. It was becoming increasingly clear that the lessons of racial tolerance, so lovingly instilled by his parents, had not survived the everyday give and take of the twentieth century. "Your father would not have appreciated that kind of talk," she said. She always spoke of Jerry's father as if he were dead, instead of living with that young woman in Baltimore.
At this, Jerry grew soft and silent, and even permitted her to give a dollar to a homeless man on Dearborn Street. "Bless you, mam, bless you!" the homeless man cried, wagging his unshaven chin. "Bless you!"
"I don't care if he does spend it on drink," Mother said, and Jerry, suddenly pensive, nodded. He took her into a little restaurant on Clark where, he explained, he often relaxed after a bad trip to the library. Seated in a comfortable booth, they were waited on by an attractive blonde woman who greeted Jerry by name. "Tania," he said. "This is my mother."
"How very nice to meet you," Tania said. She was about thirty with clear blue eyes and strong broad fingered hands that did not--Mother checked--wear any rings. For some reason Jerry always seemed to attract women who were more sensible than himself.
"I thought her name was Tina," Mother whispered as soon as Tania was off filling the order.
"This is Tania," Jerry said. "She is only a waitress in my life. I wish I could say the same for Tina."
"But she's such a fine young woman," Mother insisted. "And I'm sure she likes you!"
When Tania brought their orders--Mother had a Caesar's salad, Jerry a patti-melt supreme, Mother boldly said, "My son is a poet. Did he tell you that? And he paints."
She was about to suggest that Tania pose for him, but thought better of it. Sometimes the best thing a mother can do is sit back and finish her salad. "I hope you enjoy your visit to Chicago," Tania replied.
"Oh, I've already met some wonderful people," Mother said.
Later Mother met a few more of them in the subway. She was trailing Jerry by several steps when someone grabbed her purse and would have wrestled it free had it not been for the strap. Suddenly she was knocked flat and looking up at her assailant who, she was mortified to see, was black. Even worse, the assailant was female, an uncommonly ugly girl with something so savage in her eyes she hardly seemed human. "Gimme that purse," she kept saying, tugging at Mother's arm.
"Let that lady alone," an older black woman ordered.
"Shut up, bitch," the girl snarled. "I want that purse!"
Mother could hardly think, the pain in her back was that strong, but suddenly Jerry was over them, snatching the ugly girl upright by her straightened hair. "All right!" he cried. "All right!"
"Get your hands off me!" the ugly girl shouted. From the floor of the subway station Mother saw a knife appear in her hand.
"Aha!" Jerry shouted, grabbing the girl's wrist. The knife dropped to the pavement and he kicked it neatly onto the tracks. The girl fought back ferociously, using her fists exactly as if she were a man. "Aha! Aha! Aha!" he cried, his eyes as wild as hers, bouncing on the balls of his feet, circling, and punching her again and again squarely in her bloody face.
Mother struggled to regain her feet. She had to stop him before he threw that girl on the third rail. "No, no!" she gasped, just as the ugly girl turned and fled toward the escalator, Jerry hotly behind her. Then hands were lifting her up and she was surrounded by people, a black man in a mechanics coveralls, a dark skinned red-haired woman who might have been of any race, an older black woman with shopping bags. Together, they steadied Mother on her feet.
"Oh, stop him," she pleaded. "He'll kill that girl."
"She got it coming," the shopping bag woman said.
"Are you all right?" the red-haired woman asked. "I got a friend who knows a lawyer. You could get big bucks for this."
"Where are the police?" the man in the coveralls complained. "We pay all these taxes and they can't even walk down an escalator?"
Mother was only beginning to realize how hard she had hit the pavement when Jerry returned. The look on his face was one of unquestioned joy and satisfaction. "Did you see that, Mother? I smacked her right in the face. She won't forget that!"
On the train he replayed his victory, over and over. "She thought I wouldn't hit her just because she was a woman. Aha! Now she's got a broken nose to show for it. Did you see me fight her, Mother? That's how you have to be, just as vicious and dangerous as they are . . . "
Whenever she breathed, Mother felt a frightening pain in her lower back. At least, thank God, it wasn't the hip. "Please, Jerry," she said. "Don't be so proud of yourself."
"Proud? Who said anything about being proud. I did what I had to do. I punched her right square in the face. Did you see that, Mother? I broke her nose!"
By the time they reached his apartment, Mother had made up her mind. This son she had loved and nurtured and prayed for all her life, obviously needed therapy. She would fly on to Denver and discuss the matter with her daughter.
As soon as Jerry was off the phone--another long row with Tina--she told him of her plans, leaving out the part about therapy. Susan, who was married to a physician, would have some good ideas as to how to go about that.
Jerry frowned. "You're not staying then? Well, I don't blame you. Get out of this zoo. But not tonight. Remember what I told you about rush hour. I don't drive in it."
He called and made reservations for a late flight the next evening. Evidently, because of the holidays, everything at a sensible hour was booked, and it didn't help that he insisted upon being nasty to whoever was on the other end of the line. Then he called his sister and had sharp words with her before allowing Mother to take the phone.
"Of course we'll pick you up," Susan said. "We'll be waiting at the airport."
The next morning the pain in Mother's back had worked its way around to her ribs. Examining herself in the mirror, she saw that she was black and blue from shoulder to hip. When she got to Colorado she would ask Susan's husband if he knew a good woman physician. The thought of going to a Chicago hospital with Jerry was just too frightening to entertain.
"Are you feeling all right, Mother?" he asked when she came out of the bathroom.
"I will be fine," she assured him. "I just took a nasty bump."
"Yes," he agreed. "I wish I had hit that bitch a few more times. I should have thrown her down on the ground and stomped right in her face!"
Mother spent most of the afternoon on the couch, rereading that mock-up of The Hungry Eye. This time even the expressionist poetry no longer seemed innocent. Everywhere she saw disturbing evidence of her son's exaggerated views. Once again she began considering ways in which she might discourage, or even prevent, the publication of something which, at best, would be considered insensitive. When the cause was right, direct action was not only permissible, it became an obligation.
The opportunity came when Jerry, after another long overheated telephone conversation, jammed on his hat and announced he was off to attend a meeting. As soon as she was alone, Mother sat down before the Macintosh and opened up the manual.
Jerry's meeting, of course, was a meeting with Tina, and lasted several hours longer than he predicted. He arrived back at the apartment out of breath and out of patience. "Women! Women! They all want to be liberated and how do they show it? By clinging onto some man. Now look what time it is! Mother! You'll have to eat on the plane!"
In all honesty, Mother was not sorry to hear this. She did not want to be around when Jerry booted up the Macintosh and tried to recover his files.
Traffic on the expressway was still heavy. "You see, Mother," Jerry cried, recklessly pulling ahead of a speeding truck. "This is what I'm talking about! They won't let you breath!" He drove a car the way he did everything else, as if surrounded by thousands of carefully recruited enemies.
"Jerry," she whispered. "You can't go on living this way."
"Aha!" he cried. "Did you see that? He didn't even signal!"
Then they were in the terminal and the pain in her back was so great it took all the strength she could muster not to faint. Somehow the business at the ticket counter was accomplished and the long walk to the boarding ramp endured. All the while she was conscious of his voice, his incessant voice, bitterly and triumphantly defying the world. "I'm sorry about dinner," he said. "I meant to take you to this chicken place on Fullerton, not that it's any good, but that's how she is, she simply does not listen when I talk. No one listens to anyone any more. That's the kind of people we have today."
How, she wondered, standing behind the velvet rope that delayed her entrance into the plane, how would she manage her traveling bag once she was aboard? She could no longer raise her hands above her shoulders!
"Will you be all right, Mother?" said Jerry. "I can't see why they're making us wait like this. There's no reason for it. Do you want me to come on board with you? Probably they won't allow it."
"Everything will be just fine," Mother said. Her son was staring distractedly across the terminal, a puzzled frown upon his face, and she knew he had already left her. "Everything will be just fine," she repeated. "Someone will help me."
* * *
It was the blackest of nights. From her seat by the window Mother could see nothing at all. There had been a few lights visible during take-off, but they disappeared almost at once beneath the clouds. There was simply no way that she could look down into the great dark city below. Even as the airliner made its long arcing turn toward the thin air of Colorado, several police cars and an ambulance were stopping on a street she would never visit. There, with those red and blue lights revolving above his dark face, a boy wearing unlaced sneakers and a stadium jacket lay in a pool of his own swiftly congealing blood. There was no way at all Mother could have heard the cries of the tear-streaked woman the police were holding back. "My baby," she screamed, hugging her dead son's cap, "Oh, why did they take my baby?"