Mama wants another glass of Malbec.
“Just one,” she says, motioning to her wine glass, festooned with red and golden swirling leaves.
We’re sitting at the oak coffee table with its wobbled legs, the little 13-inch silver TV staring at us with the ghosts of cable past. Stacks of papers and copies of The Awakening are splayed across the coffee table, along with blemishes and bills. The bottle sits dead center on the table, shapely, sleek. Half-full, half-empty. Another lingers in the fridge, waiting to be summoned. The room smells like musk, Mama’s Camels, and onions, courtesy of our onion-and-Wheat Thins dinner, a consistent staple these days.
There are a few drops left, but she can’t bear to see an empty glass.
I pour halfway, the wine glugging like someone drowning.
“A bit more, Nicky,” she says. “Don’t be stingy, sweetheart. I’ve got to make it last. I’ve a son to look after, don’t I? Even if you are sixteen.”
I could refuse. But she’ll retreat into a sort of surliness that hangs like a fog. There’s always the threat of something, the what-if darting about my consciousness. Not that she’d hit me. I know she wouldn’t. But she might throw a glass or punch out her computer. She might cause damage to the drywall and we’d be even more behind on our bills.
I tell her half a glass is good. Half is just enough to be relaxed, but not enough to be fully drunk. I don’t tell her of the times I’ve imbibed and the way you ralph desperation when you chug. The last time, and I mean the last, was after Dad told me he was moving away. He was constrained here, needed to pursue his muses. He’d try to be in touch. When I can, he said, the words an escape hatch gaping. When I can, when I can.
I ralphed those words all over my sheets. Regret put me to bed. Now I try not to look at that ink-like color, a color that to me lacks charm. Personally, I wish if Mama had to be hooked on wine it would have been a Moscato, light in color, cheerful and peachlike in taste.
“Please, Nicky,” she says, taking my hand. “This is the last time.”
“Mama, I think this is good.” I hold up the glass, so she can see the voluminousness, the power of the booze within. “I just don’t want you to overdo it. You’ve had a lot on your plate.”
“It’s the last time,” she says. “Let your mother have one last pleasure. While we still can. The world can take and cheat, but we’ll have some fun, anyway.”
“But what about the bills?”
“Fuck the bills, Nicky.”
She bought this bottle special, she says. We deserve a treat, something classy. Of course, she said that last week. When she also bought the same bottle.
Dad also came up with yet another excuse about not paying child support. More pablum about the muses and finding his niche. He claimed he was on the cusp of a good position, an editorial position at some publishing house. He’d pay in a few weeks top, maybe a month.
“Mama,” I say. “I’m not judging. I just want you to be all right.”
“Please,” Mama says and holds out her glass. “You know that’s an odd name for a wine, don’t you think? Break it down. Mal-bec. Mal, you know, means bad.”
“I love you, Mama,” I say.
“Well, this certainly doesn’t taste bad now,” she says and laughs, a brief, fleeting laugh. “This feels good, Nicky. I needed this.”
She wears that pretty lavender blouse and black Capris, her chestnut hair in that old-fashioned pageboy she wears unabashedly. The pageboy her students tease her about day in, day out. They call her June Cleaver, tell her Elvis is in town, laugh, laugh.
I think it’s pretty. Very fucking pretty. Elegant, orderly, even. Next person who makes a crack gets a foot in his ass. Red Forman style. At least he was a consistent father, although Mama thinks he’s a reactionary grouch. She can’t stand him. She doesn’t understand the appeal of a father berating his son with a laugh track.
It beats a father speaking promises to the wind, envisioning himself so many things. An editor, a new-age Tolstoy, someone who would get us a new house.
Then he took off, decided.
Now Mama smells of booze and Camels, her once wide, playful hazel eyes reddened. The old smile’s cracked. Budgets full of cold subtraction marks glare at me too. No plus signs, just horizontal lines. Subtract, subtract, connect, connect. It reminds me of boxcars on a train, a train moving fast, a train moving on the defensive. Since Dad left, those subtraction marks have added up.
I pour a little more. And more. One more glass.
“Thank you, Nicksie,” she says. She inhales and sighs. “My sweet child. I know I’m drinking too much. I swear we’ll get better, the both of us.”
I smile, a tight smile, look away.
“Believe me,” she says, her voice rising. “Life’s just thrown us a few rocks now. They’ll stop. I promise you that.”
“I haven’t given you much, have I?” she says, her words cracking.
“You’ve given me plenty,” I say.
And truth be told when she’s not drinking, she has. Some nights, we’ve watched movies like The Big Lebowski or had fireside chats on the couch before bed, when she’d ask about my day, listening with a kind of fervency, soothing and vast. She’s also helped me with homework, the root causes of the Romanovs’ downfalls, and of course the symbolism in The Great Gatsby. She’s also told me that I’m not to blame for my father. You’re not him, she’s said, over and over. I hope you don’t think that. You’re kind, Nicky.
She gives me a hug now, something I haven’t had in a while. It feels good, weirdly enough, even though her arms pull me in like I’m a heavy rope.
Then Mama withdraws. Picks up the glass, takes a long swig, smiles. Belches and giggles, a sweet, almost childlike giggle.
Another swig. A grotesque belch.
“Have a glass yourself, Nicksie,” she says, words methodical and slurred. “You should have something good in life too.”
“I’ve got too much,” I say, thinking of that last bottle I drank, the desperate motion of a bottle raised and lowered, raised and lowered.
Mama shakes her head. Sets the glass down. She shuffles through papers. Shakes her head again, arches her eyebrows. She picks up the papers again, flings them every which way, stacks fluttering and fluttering, landing on the floor with a crinkled defeat.
“More wine, please.”
“It’s practically full,” I say.
“Practically full isn’t full, is it?” Her voice is sharp now, something like that knife I cut my finger on a week ago.
“It’s close enough.”
Close enough. Like Dad’s job, like the possibility of a future, like a world where she won’t drink anymore. Those are two words I truly, truly despise. Everything’s been close enough for a year.
“Give me a second, Mama.” I hope the whim will pass, that she’ll say it’s enough. She’ll take a shower, go to bed, leave me here with our histories before us. The things we’ve lost and the things we might well lose.
“Just give me a fucking drink, Nicholas. Is that too much to ask?”
“It might be,” I say.
“And you’re the judge now,” she says. She’s on the verge of crying. “You’re the judge. Your father gets to withhold child support. And you get to decide what I can or cannot consume. Is that your central thesis?”
“No, Mama. I just want you to be happy.”
“Happy,” she says. She starts to pick up the papers, but I do so instead.
I pick the papers up, essays typed in oversized fonts, written in long rambles. Some have Mom’s name misspelled too. Mrs. Bodkin. Mrs. B, as if she’s some throwaway rap artist. Another just has Mom’s first name on it. Penelope. As if she’s another figure they pass in the halls, another name the world can cast aside and avoid paying their dues to. Penelope, P, the English teacher. They take and take, but never give, and by the end of the day I imagine her, a silhouette slinking through the shadows.
“Come on, Nicksie. One more glass? I swear, it’s the last one. Ever.”
This time, I pour to the very tip. Glug, glug, glug. Mama smiles again and I try to hold onto it, however crooked, however hollow it is. Of course, something spills and I try to hold onto the glass. I clutch, try to balance it, but tip it even more downward.
More spills and Mama watches, something beyond weariness rising to her eyes. Something darker than defeat. She reaches out, hands clenching, unclenching, lunging. I rush to salvage something, anything, wiping, wiping, paper towels and cloths attacking, while a stain forms and grows like the biggest, blackest of holes.
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