The old woman curled a crooked finger in your direction and tipped the contents of her ratty handbag onto the frosty sidewalk. “I’ve been waiting a long time for you.”
Her words caught your attention.
At first, you thought she might homeless or maybe a whack job like the ones your mother used to warn you about. Yet her voice caught your attention. It wasn’t like you to be downtown this late at night—not since your daughters were born. You flipped up your collar and stopped rushing to the Number 20—the bus you couldn’t afford to miss—and turned towards the old woman. “You’ve been waiting for me?”
She nodded fiercely. Pushed scraps of crumpled paper into a pile the wind threatened to tumble. Crowned the stack with a tarnished silver flask.
It was the one you’d given up decades ago in exchange for information. But the woman and the flask disappeared. So had your hope.
The old woman handed you two scraps of paper. “I said I’d find you someday, son.” Shoving the debris back into her bag, she said “My debt is paid. We’re even-Steven.” Her gums shone in the moonlight as she toasted the air with her flask and cackled.
She took a long swallow then handed it to you, but you declined. “I don’t touch the sauce,” you said. And it’s true. By the time you escaped the west side, you’d made up your mind.
The old woman coughed something fierce before sputtering, “Blue address is the home where I last seen her. White is the shelter where she been before. You should go lickety-split. If you ask me, it’s a conspiracy to get us off the street. She looked fine, then they got her, and she didn’t look none too good. They’ll never catch me, put me in a home like they did her.”
She laughed and took another swig, and you ran. Cold turkey, you’d stopped looking for your mother, for women who reminded you of her. You were afraid you might slip if you stayed too long.
You clutched the scraps of paper that would lead to you looking again, and you chased the Number 20 right down to the corner. Some pedestrians saved you by stepping out into the crosswalk. You banged on the door. Though the driver glared, he opened the door and swallowed you inside.
Yet, weeks later, inside your high-rise condo, you kiss your wife on the cheek and hand her the single rose you bought from the vendor outside the nightclub where you’ve been stopping to watch the women dance. You do this after you visit Francine.
For two weeks you’ve been lying about working overtime while you visit is the husk of the woman who was once unpredictable and crass. Now she’s sedate. Still calls you Franky, but a question mark rises at the end of your name.
You want to revive the mother who made you leave so long ago. Want to forget the one shriveling in the nursing home, so you drink a virgin Caesar and watch the sleek women gyrate against poles. You’re back to watching the women who remind you of your mother. So you can remember the men who came and went through your mother’s revolving doors.
At least you’ve never reached out to touch these women. But you’ve become a man who watches women dance while your wife tends to the children.
The woman you married is nothing like your mother. She is soft and supple in all the right places. She is nurturing and life-giving. Together, you have built the kind of home you wish you’d come from. Your little blond angels line up like geese waddling after their mother.
Opening the bedroom door just a hair, you check that your children are safely nestled in their beds. You wonder how you got so lucky.
The truth is bound to come out, and you want it coming from your mouth. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
She won’t look at you. “You’re having an affair. I know you are. You’ve been talking in your sleep.”
You’ve been dreaming about your mother, Francine. She never let you call her anything else, so others might think she was your older sister. And she really could have been. Your mother always sent you ahead as a decoy. She never wanted people to know she was your mother because that just made her feel like another hoe in the hood—and she wanted to be different. So, you fended for yourself. Distracted yourself so your mother could do her magic and put food on the table. You turned your eye back to the TV while the men zipped their flies and your mother wiped her mouth and they dropped a twenty on the coffee table on the way out.
You’ve been dreaming about the way Francine used to dance when there were no men in sight, her long legs and arms graceful as she glided around the room. How she turned off the death metal music she played for show and put on Swan Lake. She’d tell you the story of the jewellery box with a dancing ballerina she got when she was five. How she’d mimic the pose. But nobody gets a chance to live out their dreams on the west side.
So many times, you’ve imagined your young mother watching her reflection twirl across pawn shop windows late at night when her father should have been peeking in, tucking blankets up around her chin. She must have dreamed that someday she’d make it to the east side. To a white couch and lace curtains and a husband who loved her. This man would always come home straight after work and buy single stem roses for no reason at all. But Francine never found that man. Hers were filthy and took what they wanted and left when they’d had their fill.
You don’t know where to start, so you stare at your feet. Silence rings in your ears like a teakettle waiting to scream.
“I should tell you to pack your things and leave,” your wife says, glittery tears glistening her cheeks. “That’s why you keep bringing home those roses from the bars. It’s why you’ve been coming home later than ever, and why you’ve been too preoccupied to notice our family is expanding.” She places a hand on the swell of her belly.
“Another baby! What wonderful news.” And the story begins. “The other woman is my mother, Francine.”
Her eyebrows knit together, “You said you didn’t know where she is. That you’d stopped looking.”
“I’ve found her, and she’s dying.” You don’t expect the tears, but they come. “She’s nothing like she used to be—but I’d like you and the children to meet her before she goes.”
You begin your story with the part about the flask.
She knows you came from little, but you’ve never told her that your mother was a whore. You never wanted to see pity in her eyes.
“It was my mother who taught me what I needed to know. The one who finally pushed me away and said, ‘You don’t belong here. I never want to see you again. Take the Number 20 to the east side. All of this is what I don’t want you to become.’
“At first, I slept in back alleys and begged for change. I sobered up and got a job washing dishes while I slept at a shelter. I saved what little I could. One night in a dream, my mother told me to take the Number 20, and if I hadn’t I would never have met you.”
Your wife nods. “Thank you for telling me, Darling. It must have been difficult.”
After you met your wife, you mostly stopped thinking about the past. But your mother never stopped haunting your sleep.
You confess to the night clubs—that you go to watch the women who dance like your mother used to. Say you want to be filled with disgust so you’ll never like the men who came and left your mother’s bedroom door zipping up their flies.
“That must have been difficult to understand,” she says, rubbing your back. “But you are nothing like those men, Darling, are you?”
How you wish there hadn’t been the upward lilt of a question mark in her voice. Maybe she hears what you can’t admit. “I should have found her long ago and saved her.” You choke on the words. “But now it’s too late.”
“Not everyone wants to be saved,” she says, nestling your face against her breast.
“We can bring her photos of our life. And maybe the girls could dance…”
“You’ve often mentioned how she loved ballet. The girls could put on a show.”
A furrow creeps between her brows when she falls asleep. You wonder if she’ll save you from becoming the man you don’t want to become.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. She is CNF editor at Atticus Review and the creator of Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel’s latest prose in Burningword Literary Journal, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Bending Genres, Five South. In 2020, her CNF made The Wigleaf Top 50 and was nominated for Best of the Net. Rachel is a finalist for this year’s Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction. For more, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.