Sunday, June 22, 2014

Smoking in the House

Author: Pia Ehrhardt

My mother is private with her grief. Since my father's death last year there has been almost no talk of him. When she got back from the funeral, she put his clothes in boxes for Goodwill, and rearranged the furniture in the den. She won't discuss what she will do now. She's 55.

I want her to do something. I think I know what is best for her. I always did. I remember watching her get ready to go out with my father, dressed in a green silk shirt, her hair up, red lipstick, frowning in the mirror because, she said, “The light was bad,” and thinking: She should look happier than that. The light is fine. I can see her, plain as day, with her life back, those thirty years to do over. Anything she wants. I would be all over this. I'd quit my job and travel for a year if I weren't so afraid of planes, of deep water, of spending money.

We live in Mississippi. I should have moved to Atlanta when I had a chance. If I left now it would seem personal. I live a mile from my mother's, in an apartment with a ceiling fan in every room. There's constant wind in my house. I need ventilation. Still air makes me nervous.

My mother smokes in her house; when my father was alive she would go out on the patio. When it was cold or rainy, she would stand in the half bath and open the window, blow the smoke through the screen. Now, she lights up in every room. She keeps the blinds pulled so neighbors won't look in, spreads the slats and stares out. She blows smoke hard at the glass as if it could push through.

My boyfriend, Martin, is a general contractor. I met him at Ruby's Roadhouse shooting pool.  I love pool. We had a table in the den and my father and I would play, chalk our cues, walk around, think four moves ahead, get eyelevel with the ball and call our shots. The table has also gone to Goodwill. The table, and the detective novels my father read, and the stack of warped Nina Simone and Paul Desmond LPs.

I tell my mother she needs to strip the grass cloth off her dining room walls. It's stained. When she rehung some family photographs the color underneath was twenty shades darker. I think fresh paint will look great. Light green. I tell her about Martin. Not that I'm dating him, but that he is professional, dependable. I say I can have him come by and give an estimate. She smiles. She likes when I step in. She would like me to keep her tank filled with gas, manage her money, answer the phone, but I can't. It would feel like employment. She is happy when I stop by, and she's ready for me to go when I leave. I'm not really welcome in her house.

I set up a time for Martin to go over there. He is fifty and heavy set, with curly gray hair and perfect straight teeth. I could envy other people's teeth all day.

I used to think I took my father away from my mother, because that seemed so easy. Like taking candy from a baby.  Now I think my mother gave him to me.

In high school, I was his daily dinner companion. My mother went in and out of the room, bringing us food, answering the phone when my friends called at the wrong time. She lit candles. She hardly sat down. I didn't want him. I wanted to feel good watching them together, but that didn't happen, so I looked good with him instead. I knew that to put myself in front of him was also how to stay out of trouble. I asked questions that made him talk. I listened. She didn't. She told long stories without points, talked about her day. He looked at me to see if I was as bored as he was, but I didn't look back, just pushed around the food on my plate. He corrected her sentences and jumped on her opinions, challenged every one, and she'd get quiet, pissed off, push her chair away from the table, get the bread from the oven.  She'd found a way to leave him without breaking up the family.

I went along with it; I didn't notice there was an unyielding argument going on that was brutal and erotic and theirs.  By my senior year, I was staying over at friends' houses. 

Martin calls me back and says she's open to pulling off the grass cloth. And while he was there he suggested the heavy brick all over the den would look nice painted. She thinks that's a good idea.  “I like your mom,” he says. “She's funny.” I don't think my mother is funny. She is beautiful. She is twenty years older than I am. My father was so critical, I wasn't sure why she stayed. I wanted her to be with someone besides him.  I imagined other lovers for her who would be other fathers for me, and they seemed okay. We could adjust. 

 “Why don't you take her to dinner?” I say.  He laughs. “I am dead serious,” I say.

“I thought about it,” he says.  

And he does. He doesn't tell me much, and I try not to ask. After two weeks, I do ask.  “Are you sleeping with her?” I say. 

 “This is a no win deal,” he says.

 “Could you stop?” I say.

He's sitting in his red truck. I'm blocking his driveway, because I stopped by to see him on my way to work and caught him as he was leaving. He looks away, at a neighbor picking up the newspaper from the curb.  “It wouldn't be because I wanted to.”

My mother and I are drinking decaf on the patio. She is smoking, French inhaling, enjoying every bit of her cigarette.

“What's new?” I ask her. “The house is looking nice.”

“Yes,” she says. “Except one good room makes the other rooms shabby.”

“So you'll keep renovating?” I say.

“I think so.” She sighs in a comfortable way.

I tap one of the cigarettes out of her pack and ask her for a light. She looks at me, pleased. “I haven't seen you smoke since high school,” she says. 

“It gives me a headache,” I say, “but sometimes I miss it.”

Smoking is something besides my father we could have had in common. Sneaking away for a cigarette would have given us a chance for those easy, squeezed-in talks. There was too much dead time in the house. She was always home, and I was always bored and urgent, hoping, soon, to be on my way somewhere.

I miss her more than my father.

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