The woman at table 5 wants to know if I have children. She thinks she is being friendly with her waitresses-are-people-too tone. Maybe hopes her question will bring up some down-home Kodak-moment memories. I might even flip out a snap, edges tattered. Give a proud glance. Show him off. His tousled hair, bleached a reddish-blond. I might say, Of course, he was just a boy then. Talk about what a man he is now, off at college, studying whatever it is she imagines a waitress’s son would study. I don’t know. It’s her fantasy not mine.
She thinks she cares. Thinks people can care about strangers, DO care about strangers. The sounds of the restaurant buzz around me. Silverware clanks. Voices hum. Feet shuffle across cheap carpet, worn thin. I’m caught. Can’t move until the question is answered. But I can’t answer because I don’t know. It’s a pop quiz and I haven’t studied.
Her question dissipates through the air. A foul odor that taints everything. I’ll have to wash it out of my clothes, my hair, but it will follow me. A ball and chain chafing
against my skin. The clank-hum-shuffle gets louder, as if it were all trapped inside my spine, parading up its hollow center. A dirge with pots and pans.
I am amazed that no one sees through me. The toast is keeping me sane. The scrambled eggs are holding my mind loosely together. The rude shout, Waitress, more coffee! is the only thing I have to hold on to.
People appear, disappear, change in front of me, suddenly, as if I have dozed. Asleep at the wheel. And I am grateful for the lost time because the rest drags, fruitless and dull.
Do I say, Yes, I have a son. But he is dead.
Those words have implications. Unformed they cannot wear into me. Thumb on a worry stone. Make me tired. Always tired. Every night I try to dream of him. Conjure him up. But in my dreams a mouth opens from my chest. Screams. Fiery lips, wider and wider until I am a gaping hole. A fissure.
Do I say, No, I don’t have a son. He is dead.
His moodiness was supposed a don’t-worry-he-will-grow-out-of-it phase. But it was a maelstrom drawing us in. It took over like a defective gene. A mold that spread quickly, spoiled everything.
Do I say, My son died three weeks ago.
Three weeks that have crept along. Stretched to the thinness of the thread that I am balancing on. Plates, cups, coffee pitcher in hand. Morgues are not cold or hot. They are voids. Life muted. Nameless uniforms saying, I’m sorry for your loss, as if words have meaning.
They called. Me, here. As always. Refilling half-empty cups. Marcy, the new girl. Likes trouble. Hollers, Personal call loud enough for the manager to hear. Regrets it later. Sends too many roses. They say, Come to the hospital. It’s about your son. Wouldn’t say what’d happened. Didn’t have to, because the truth was already whittling its way in.
Do I tell this stranger, He died by his own hand.
I savor his arrogance. He thought someone other than me would care. Who, other than me, will even remember? Who, other than me, will hurt? Who will recall every detail but me? Blue button-down. Black slacks, crease ironed in. No shoes. The air, stale, as if it had been sealed in for days.
You’d think a mother whose son had just committed suicide wouldn’t be here, reciting specials, order pad tucked in her pocket. Wouldn’t someone – who? – pay the rent? The bills? Do you have any idea how expensive the dead are? Where else would I be? I want to ask, Do you have children? Because I do. I did. He woke up one morning. Decided it was his last. Showered and dressed. Then hung himself from the wooden beam that crossed his dorm room ceiling, having stared at it nightly. Tempted for how long?
My son dressed for death. Why? Why bother with buttons? Why zip up pants? The details hound me. Signs I should be able to decipher but I am illiterate. Dumb. I see only pearly-white buttons – smooth and polished – and remember the first time he buttoned his own shirt. By myself, Mommy! Me, hands clasped behind my back. Wanting to protect him from even the tiniest of struggles. But letting him.
He didn’t call. And this thought echoes through my mind, He didn’t call because he knew I’d know. As if that were consolation, as if the taste of his death – the unhealing sore, festering on my tongue – could be transformed by thinking that I would have, could have, certainly, stopped him.
Of course, his picture is in my wallet. A talisman rubbed smooth. His hair in all directions, just after a wild roller coaster ride, looking as if he were exploding with joy. Before he started locking himself in his room. Before he started cutting his arms. Before there were entire days of silence.
Your question has no answer.
But I will say this. There is a moment each morning when, lost in a haze of drowsiness and half-dreams, the reality of my son’s death is unknown to me, as if it never happened, as if other paths were possible. When that moment ends, I finally understand him. I did not know what it was to wake each day and be disappointed. Now I do.