When I was five or six, my grandmother died. My mother’s mother. It was only later that I found out that most people have more than one grandmother. I had never heard of a grandfather. I hadn’t actually seen this grandmother very often, but I knew that she was out there somewhere; she sent me things for Christmas. I seem to remember Play-doh. One day a package came, and my mother opened it and pulled out a canister made of metal, larger than the ones that held Play-doh. She held it up and turned it around, tossed it briefly into the air as though testing its weight. Then she turned to me and held it up like the ladies on TV commercials held up cans of lard.
“Guess who’s in here?” she said, and gave it a little shake. “Grandma! Let’s go sprinkle her on the pea patch!”
That whimsical family anecdote came to mind, naturally, after I got the call late on a Wednesday night. It would have been a disorienting call under the best of circumstances, but as it was I had gone to bed early and had just dozed off, so I was addled from the start. I couldn’t find my glasses on the nightstand, I knocked the phone off on the floor. When I finally answered, the call went like this:
Me: Hello? Hello?
Mother: Hi. Listen: I found out a couple of days ago that I’m dying…
Mother: …and I thought you ought to know.
Mother: It’s your mother!
Me: What? Mom?
Mother: Here’s the thing: I would like to be scattered at sea.
Me: Wait a minute.
Mother: But I know that’s a lot to ask, so I’ll settle for a Great Lake.
Me: Wait a minute.
Mother: But not Erie.
Me: Slow down! Hold on. Uh… What do you mean you’re–
That was the first conversation I had had with my mother in almost twenty years.
People had a lot of names for my mother. The most common one–from the polite people, anyway–was, “free spirit.” I recall people saying to me with a sad, pitying smile, “My, isn’t your mother a…free spirit!” She said and did what she pleased and didn’t care what anyone thought about it. She had certain enthusiasms, and she indulged them. Such as befriending people nobody else would bother with–oddball strangers and wayward women that she brought home like rescued animals. And she also rescued actual animals–injured animals, lost animals, animals that she thought just looked confused. More than once things were stolen from our house, and on one memorable occasion I had to go through a round of rabies shots because of an ungrateful raccoon. To her, that was just the price of doing business.
She dug up our front yard and called it a “neighborhood garden,” then faced down all our neighbors who called it a “farm for hoboes.” They did not care to live next door to that, and as long as they were at it, they also did not care to live next door to an animal rescue or a half-assed halfway house. Mom just let their criticisms crash harmlessly against her like waves on a rock until they all settled and sank, the anger finally dulled by her adamantine imperturbability and her bribes of squash and fresh tomatoes. City Hall also got into the fray occasionally, and Mom did not so much fight it as simply ignore it. The Powers That Be, embarrassed at being ignored, finally decided to ignore her right back.
And how some people loved her. When I was a kid, all my friends loved her. When I got older, my girlfriends loved her–way more than any of them ever loved me. Everybody who did not live with or adjacent to her loved her. Such a character! All those people–the ones who did not deal with her on a daily basis–gushed about how she was so original and dramatic, so flamboyant and full of that French thing that means joy of life. And now she calls me up out of the blue and says she’s dying.
Oh well. It happens. I went about my business.
But over the next couple of days it started to eat at me.
She still lived in our old place in Kankakee, which, according to a neighbor who called me up a couple of years earlier, had by now taken on the air of an abandoned, haunted house. I didn’t doubt that. Mom had apparently lost interest in tending the “neighborhood garden,” and she never mowed lest it cut something that might conceivably someday produce a flower. Appearances were not important to her. If rain began to pour in, she might have the roof fixed. Otherwise she couldn’t care less. On the inside, the house would presumably still be a maze of doodads and detritus, with one corner dedicated to dire warnings about zoning violations and weed abatement which the city went through the kabuki-like motions of sending, and which she piled into a large laundry hamper so that she could easily ignore them all at once and in one place. That pile must be ceiling-high by now. The indignant neighbor on the phone demanded, “How can you let your mother live like this?” I told him that it had nothing at all to do with me. He made a disparaging remark about my concept of filial duty, I made a disparaging remark about his intellectual capacity, and the conversation ended there. Filial duty? I felt about as much filial duty as a salmon. Yet now here was this strange feeling stirring in the deeps. What was it? Was it filial?
I lived over three hours away in Davenport. Before I drove over to see what was going on–which I would have to do if I wanted to find out; if she had a phone she never answered it–I wanted some assurance that this was on the level. I recognized our old family doctor’s name when I googled physicians in town, so I called him. It turned out to be the old doctor’s son, but he had taken over his dad’s practice. After the “who are you, again?” part, the conversation went like this:
Me: Sorry to bother you, but I’m wondering about my mother’s condition.
Doctor: I can’t really discuss patient information…
Me: Sure, I understand. But she said she was dying, so…
Doctor: Well, it isn’t like that’s a secret. She’s been telling everybody. You know, in my time I’ve had to give a few people the news that they were dying, but I never met anybody as jazzed at the prospect as your mother is.
Me: So she really is dying?
Doctor: That’s the worst case scenario. But if you have stomach cancer and you refuse any kind of treatment…
Me: Stomach cancer? Holy shit!
Doctor: You didn’t hear it from me.
So it was on the level. I went on with my day. I didn’t really even think about it that much. At least I didn’t think I was thinking about it. But that evening after work I found myself driving east toward Kankakee.
I recall the first time I stood in a drugstore before a wall of Mother’s Day cards. What on Earth was this all about? I read them one after another, fascinated but uncomprehending, like an archaeologist examining the weathered religious inscriptions of a long-forgotten tribe. As for my own mother, I can’t say she didn’t take care of me. Her father or grandfather or someone left her some money, and while there were no luxuries in our household, I never wanted for any necessities. She didn’t abuse me, at least not in any conventional way. But the stuff people said to their mothers in those greeting cards was bizarre and incomprehensible. Sure, my mother cared for me, but in much the same way she cared for the young squirrel whose own mother was hit by a car. She gave us both shelter, she fed us, she nursed us if we seemed sick, and she left the window open so we could leave whenever we felt like it. Eventually we both did. I don’t know where the squirrel went. I ended up in Davenport.
“You don’t look like you’re dying.”
She didn’t. She was thinner than I remembered. More pale, more bent. She looked like herself made up to portray an old lady in a high school play. Her brown hair was now mixed with iron-grey hair, but it was still long and held back with a rubber band. Her sharp little eyes, though surrounded by more wrinkles, still stabbed out in that same old way with that same “I know the joke and you don’t” glint in them. She opened the door in a flowing robe thing–I guess they call it a caftan–with an orange and black, African-looking print. She wore no shoes, but then she almost never had except in winter. From inside the house behind her came the phlegmy bark of a dog. She looked at me for a moment, then gave a wry smile. “I know, right?” she said, and moved aside to let me in.
If she was surprised or pleased or even annoyed to see me, she did not show it. “But you know,” she went on, “it’s really the medicine they give you that makes you look like you’re dying. You skip the medicine, you look great right up to the end. Well, maybe not great. And maybe not right at the end. Anyway. You want some tea?”
“No thanks.” My feeling at seeing the living room was the same I had when I saw the house: weird. Everything was the same, but not the same. It was a little difficult to tell much in here though, since there was only the one lamp on in the middle of the room next to a large, yellow, wingback chair. Most of the room was lumpy shadows. Her chair was a different chair, but in the same location as before. The stack of books by the chair presumably had different titles.
“You know,” I said, “you don’t call somebody up after all these years, just say, ‘I’m dying’ and then hang up.”
“I didn’t just say, ‘I’m dying,’” she said, and she plopped down onto the chair’s sprung seat cushion. “I told you I want to be scattered in the sea.”
“Yeah. Or some Great Lake.”
“Right. Except for Erie. That was the point of the call. You would miss the point of the call.” She picked up her teacup from the cluttered table beside the chair. The coaster stuck to the bottom, made the trip halfway and plopped onto her lap. “I wouldn’t have bothered you, but you’re the next of kin, so… And it’s all arranged and paid for, don’t worry. The burny-burny part, I mean.” She bobbed her teabag up and down by its string. “You don’t really have to do it. It isn’t like I’ll know the difference. But I’d appreciate it if you’d at least pretend you’re going to do it.”
Suddenly I felt that I was being put on the spot. “Well, yeah,” I said. “I mean… I’ll do it.”
“Thank you,” she said, tilting her head to me in a mock bow. She sipped her tea.
“No, really. I’ll do it.”
“Oh,” she winked at me conspiratorially over the rim of the cup, “I believe you!”
I began to get irritated. “Maybe I should throw you in now so you can be sure.”
That got a chuckle out of her. I sighed and sat down on the edge of the couch. Only the edge was available for sitting. The rest was covered with magazines, books, a trash bag full of what I assumed was clothes, and several cardboard boxes. There was a scratching, scuffling noise, and the dog came waddling into the room, tail swinging madly. It was a fat basset hound, its eyes milky, its snout grey.
“That’s Poontang,” she said. The dog lumbered blindly toward me until it bonked into my leg. I scratched its ears. “She’s the only one left. The last of the cats disappeared a couple of weeks ago. Cats always see the writing on the wall. My friends the Earls have promised to take care of Poonie after I’m…” She made a short whistle noise and jerked her thumb over her shoulder like an umpire signalling, “You’re out!” The dog yawned and leaned against my leg like a warm sandbag.
“So,” I said, “you’re really not going to get any treatment for this…whatever it is?”
She shook her head disdainfully. “Nah.”
“Yeah, but, you should get some kind of treatment, shouldn’t you? You never know.”
“Never know? Of course I know.” She looked at the dog for a moment and shrugged. “We all die from something sometime. We’re just waiting to find out what it’s gonna be. Most folks are still guessing, but for me–” She made a gesture of wiping imaginary sweat from her brow. “Whew! The suspense is over!”
“Uh huh,” I said. I began to think that coming here was a bad idea. The pause lengthened and the silence deepened. I cleared my throat. “My money’s on heart attack,” I said. “For myself, I mean.”
She tilted her head, considering. “Could be,” she said. “I sense a lot of pent-up anxiety and aggression. And it looks like you don’t get much exercise.” She seemed to try to remember something. “Didn’t you get married?”
“Yeah. Didn’t work out.”
“Uh huh,” she said, as though that stood to reason. “Linda?”
“Brenda,” I said.
“Right. She used to call me sometimes.” She said it as though describing someone with a weird tic.
I nodded. I nodded for quite a while. Then I said, “But the thing is, you’re not all that old. If you can knock this down, you might last a lot more years.”
She shrugged. “Coulda, shoulda, woulda.”
I didn’t know what the hell that was supposed to mean. We sat there another quiet while, her sipping tea, me scratching dog. Finally, standing became too much for the dog, and she gave a moan and collapsed across the tops of my shoes. I tried to speak, coughed and tried again. “How long do they say you have?”
“They!” She rolled her eyes. “Like ‘they’ really know anything! A few months, maybe. Unless I hurry it along.”
“Hurry it along?”
“They gave me a big bottle of very good pain medicine. That’s one thing ‘they’ are good for. And I’ve never been very patient. You know that.” She smiled and took yet another sip of tea.
She was right. I did know that. Everything was always right-now-this-minute with her. I looked at the teacup in her hands and got nervous for a moment. Then “Poontang” gave a sigh/groan and I realized that nothing would likely happen at least until the dog was settled somewhere.
“O.K.,” I said.
“Yep,” she said.
Not just a bad idea, I decided. Coming here. A terrible idea. Maybe the worst idea I ever had.
“So what brings you here?” she asked.
I laughed. “Well, you know…” I grunted and made several vague gestures intended to mean, “that should be obvious.” She just squinted at me. “You called me,” I said. “I mean, you know, you called me! And by the way, what have you got against Lake Erie?”
“Cleveland is on Lake Erie,” she said. “John D. Rockefeller grew up in Cleveland, and I hate that son-of-a-bitch.” She scowled, apparently at the very thought of John D. Rockefeller.
“I see,” I said. “Well, that clears that up.” I tried to get a foot out from under the dog, but it was no use. “Listen,” I heard myself say, “I want to ask you a couple of things.”
“Uh oh,” she said.
“Well, I apparently won’t have many more chances. Right?”
She seemed to grudgingly concede the point. “What, then?”
“My father. Is he still alive?”
She tilted her head and set down her teacup, sans coaster, on the scarred table top. “Isn’t that interesting?” she said. “All this time and you only ask that now.”
“I’ve always wanted to know.”
“First I’ve heard of it.”
I was taken aback by this for a moment. Was that true? To my surprise, I realized that it was. I blustered on. “Well, anyway, I’m asking now. Who is he? Is he still in Australia?”
She stared blankly at me for a moment, then her face began to screw up into what at first I took to be a look of dismay. But it was confusion. “Australia?” she cried.
“Yes,” I said, “Australia.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“What do you mean, what am I talking about?”
She threw up her hands and her caftan or whatever it was ballooned momentarily, then deflated. She looked around the room as if searching for someone to ask for guidance.
“Where in God’s name did you come up with that?”
“Well, I… You told me. Didn’t you?” I finally spluttered. She looked at me as if I was a raving lunatic. “Are you saying he wasn’t from Australia?”
Now she began to shake. Once more I misinterpreted, thinking she might be starting to cry. On the contrary, she began to bubble over with merry, tinkling, musical, infuriating laughter.
So where the hell had I come up with it? I tried to remember. I know that not too many years after we sprinkled grandma on the pea patch, it began to dawn on me that my friends had dads and that I didn’t. I remembered sitting in school and gazing at the globe on the teacher’s desk. I would look at Australia, down there on the far side, as far away as you could be and still be on the planet, thinking how that would explain why my dad never came to visit. I must have read up on Australia, because somehow I knew that Australia had been settled by outlaws, but not outlaws like on Gunsmoke or The Virginian. Australian outlaws, it seemed, were not gamblers or gunslingers; they were cutpurses, highwaymen and maybe the odd graverobber. Also, it seemed that a lot of people were sent there for being Irish. At some point, when people asked me, “Where’s your dad?” I started saying, “He’s in Australia.” I would daydream about my Irish cutpurse father showing up some day wearing one of those hats that fold up on the side, maybe bringing a kangaroo.
“Did I make it up?” I said, somewhat in shock. “I guess I just made it up.”
Mother clutched her stomach as her laughter wound down. She took a deep breath. “Australia,” she said. “Well, as good a guess as any, I suppose. But I’m surprised you didn’t assume you were adopted.” I looked at her sharply and she began to laugh again. “No, no! Sorry! No such luck!”
There was now no doubt in my mind. This had been a spectacular mistake. I decided it was time to go. If I could get that God damned dog off my feet.
Mom’s laughter petered out again, and her face became more serious. I saw that she was still holding her stomach. She looked over at me and shook her head somewhat sadly.
“I’ve got nothing for you,” she said. “Sorry. It was the summer after I finally dropped out of college. I hitchhiked to California. Things were free and easy in those days, and so was I. When the trip was over…there you were.” She pantomimed a “what can I tell you?” shrug. “But there were no Australians. I think I can assure you of that.”
She grabbed the arms of the chair, rocked forward once, twice, managed to escape the chair and stand. The coaster fluttered from her lap to the floor. She paused a moment bent slightly forward, one hand on her belly again, and winced. Poontang, seemingly comatose up to now, spasmed awake and started scrabbling to try to stand up also. The dog’s back feet skittered on the floor.
“Give her a hand with her ass-end, will you?” said Mom. I grabbed the dog by her haunches and hoisted her up onto to her hind legs. She looked around at me and snorted, then hobbled toward the bedroom door. “I’m right behind you, sweetheart,” said Mom. She straightened slowly and looked at me. Bedtime, apparently. I stood up. She regarded me again with that knowing look.
“You’re a little confused,” she said.
I coughed out a laugh at that. “Maybe just a little,” I said. She looked at me closely, and I had to look away.
“You don’t want me to die,” she said.
“Of course I don’t,” I said. “Nobody wants people to die!”
“You don’t care about me, you don’t think about me,” she said, and even though she was right, I started shaking my head. She just waved a hand and continued. “But in the back of your mind you’ve always known I’m here. When I’m gone, you’ll be unmoored, won’t you?” She seemed to like that word. She said it again, stretched it out. “Unmoored. Sorry to leave you floating out there all alone.” She reached out and patted my arm.
I didn’t know what to say. I looked down at the coaster where it had fallen onto the frayed and spotty rug. It bore the logo of a German beer.
“And on top of everything else,” she went on, “now I’ve even taken away your Australian father.” She tried to contain it, but that cracked her up again. So much for the touching moment. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” she said, covering her mouth with her hands. “I don’t know why that’s so funny!”
“On my seventh birthday, I was devastated,” I said. “I had thought he might send me a boomerang.” Tears appeared in her eyes. She shook all over with laughter. “Sure,” I said. “Sure. Yock it up.”
“Well,” she said, taking deep breaths to get herself under control, “it’s the best medicine.” She winked. “Or so they say.” She started toward the bedroom. “Turn the light out when you leave, will you?”
She took small steps. That would be the pain, I supposed.
“Hey,” I said. I was still looking at the coaster. Eine Königin unter den Bieren. There was a stain on the rug near it, probably dog-related. “This scattering thing. Atlantic or Pacific?”
She leaned on the door frame and turned back to look at me. “Lake Michigan is just up the road,” she said. “That will do.”
“Atlantic,” I repeated, “or Pacific?”
“Well, if I had to choose…Pacific. I liked California.”
She went into the room and shut the door. I turned off the lamp and drove home.
Ken Teutsch is a writer, videographer and performer living in northern Arkansas.
© 2016, Ken Teutsch