Saturday, April 24, 2010

What Happened Next

For Jason Duke's contest.

What Happened Next

Patricia Abbott

He agreed to meet her for lunch, deciding uneasily on a sleek, anonymous restaurant at the top of an office tower. He’d been there once before, but all he remembered was the ride up, a rocketing glimpse at jigsaw puzzle people, buildings, and random pieces of sky.

She tracked him down through the Internet, her email signed, “Margaret Olson.” It wasn’t a familiar name. His father always referred to her as “your mother”—the nameless person who—“washed the storm windows before storing them,” “dressed like a gypsy,” and “baked a chicken with garlic and lemon inside it.” Within a few weeks of her desertion, every sign of Maggie Bolden was discarded, given away, or burned. Then it grew easier to avoid her name.

The maitre d’ showed him to the table, whispering that “the lady” was already seated. Margaret Olson wore the sort of dark, silky dress wealthy women bought for luncheons—no sign of the gypsy about her now. He was the one with damp palms and a too-tight collar.

She half-rose, and he saw, with a start, that she was arthritic, nearly deformed, in fact. The ideas he came with: that he’d strangle her, throttle her, drop cyanide in her coffee, were pushed aside. A cane lay on the floor beside her chair. “Patrick, so good of you to come. I know it couldn’t have been….” Her eyes were still young: bright blue and large in her thin, scorred face.

Seated, he busied himself with his silverware and water glass. “The whitefish should be good.” He hadn’t even looked at the menu.

Michigan and its whitefish. I’d forgotten.” She took a sip of her cocktail and reached for her purse. For a second, he wondered if she was searching for a gun—if perhaps he wasn’t the only one who’d come with murder in mind. But she pulled out an envelope of photographs. “Go ahead, look,” she commanded and, as obedient as the five-year old she last knew, he did.

The photos seemed to have been taken at a park somewhere. His two brothers and he wore Detroit Tigers tee-shirts, tube socks and the shapeless athletic shorts popular in the early eighties. Richard and Chuck were young teenagers, Pat, a decade younger.

His mother—Margaret Olsen nowadays—wasn’t in any of them.

“A park near Ann Arbor,” she said. “Where’s that waiter?” She raised a hand, bare but for a small garnet ring. With hands as deformed as hers, short, unpolished nails seemed appropriate. The waiter hurried over and took their order. “Would you like to keep them?” she said when he’d gone, nodding toward the envelope. “The photographs? Maybe your brothers would like them, too. I have copies at the hotel.”

He shook his head, and stuffing the envelope into his pocket, suddenly rose. “They—they….Look, I thought I could do this, but I can’t.” Could she possibly not understand how much they hated her? That mutual hatred of their mother was the one thing the three brothers shared.

“Patrick. I shouldn’t have….” She paused a second. “It was the last day, you know. I took a camera along on the last day.”

Swallowing hard, he threw his napkin on the table, resisting the urge to cover his ears, to drown out her voice, unfamiliar and intimate at the same time. He tossed three twenties down. “You can get back to your hotel okay, right?” She nodded, resigned.

He nearly knocked down the coat check girl, who stepped aside, her back glued to the wall as if it were a routine maneuver. Didn’t notice the elevator doors were standing open, or that the quick trip down reassembled those disparate puzzle pieces. The sun was still shining, the engine barely cool when he got back to the car. Less than thirty minutes had passed.

Back home, Pat took two aspirins and sat wearily on the one remaining chair in his living room. Stef had taken the rest of their furniture to her new job in Chicago, forcing him on moving day—as the three men waited impatiently—to choose a chair to keep behind. He’d chosen the one that seemed most masculine, not realizing it wasn’t the one he preferred. She laughed about it on the telephone later. “How like you not to know what chair you sit in every night. Or in what city you want to put that chair.”

He lined the photographs up on the small table he had trash picked, having no memory of that day, no recollection of his brothers being so young. Rick and Chuck were obviously embarrassed at having their pictures taken and made faces or moved their heads as the photographs were snapped. But Pat, at five, smiled eagerly at the photographer. Upside down on the monkey bars, he could count his ribs.

Maggie Bolden took little with her. He’d been told this now and then by aunts with hands over their mouths, frightened of angering his father. A small suitcase, a few books, some clothes, her cassettes. He wondered what music she’d listened to—was it Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, jazz, or classical? Why take her music and not her sons? His father roamed the house in an alcoholic daze for days, looking for definite proof of her flight. Only weeks later could Tom Bolden pinpoint things that were missing—and then only with a cousin’s help. “Did she wear a blue raincoat,” Pat heard him say once. “Did she like mystery novels?”

Patrick picked up the phone an hour later. “Got back okay then?”

Her hotel was on the river, encircled by offices, condos, lofts, all daringly installed in abandoned factories a few years before the bust. He was impressed with the air of prosperity the area seized from who knew where. Two blocks west, burned, deserted houses waited demolition.

Today she wore a lilac suit, the jacket hanging from her shoulders like the vinyl bag from an expensive store. He’d no idea where to take her, what he wanted from her, or she from him. “Could we drive out to the country?” she said suddenly, solving the problem.

He headed toward Ann Arbor, wondering if one or both of them intended to relive their last day together. Would he hang on the monkey bars for a picture again? Would he smile eagerly into her eyes as she snapped away? “Why did you come back here?” he asked after a long silence. “Why now?”

She shrugged, holding a cloth in those misshapen fingers as she cleaned her sunglasses. “I nearly came back last year, you know—when your father died. But we decided it wasn’t a good idea. Oh, yes,” she said seeing the surprise on his face. “I kept up with things.”

Was he supposed to admire this? And we? Who was we? The man who put that ring on her hand, who bought her expensive clothes. Pat waited for her to explain it, but she didn’t. “So I decided to wait a year. That seemed like the right amount of time.”

“Showing Dad some respect, huh?” His eyes narrowed as he slipped off 1-94 onto a state road. “Was it Dad’s fault? Your leaving, I mean. Did he hit you, beat up on you?”

This was certainly possible. His father veered between violence and neglect with his sons, seldom finding a characteristic in any of them to like. One son was too smart for his own good. Another was lazy. The third, a delinquent—a ne’er do well. “Did he have other women?” Pat put his foot on the gas. “He hinted there was another man. That you ran off with someone.” He took a deep breath. “Or were three sons too much?”

She shook her head quickly. “Tom would’ve preferred it be another man. Sort of thing he could understand.” She paused. “Did he hit me, you ask? Oh, why blame it on him. Let’s say, I left because I couldn’t stay. Not with a man who made every day a living hell—a man who hated me. But I shouldn’t have left my sons with him and that certainly wasn’t why I left. It was why I stayed so long, in fact.” Her voice had a rote quality to it. Like she’d rehearsed these lines many times. “I should’ve at least taken you, Patrick? Your brothers were nearly grown and could take care of themselves.”

“Pat,” he said, wiggling away from her even though she hadn’t touched him. “I prefer being called Pat.” The light turned green and he pulled out too quickly, nearly hitting a car. “And Rick and Chuck weren’t grown yet—not even in high school.” His voice had grown angrier, and he shut his mouth with resolve not to sour a second day.

When he saw the familiar store with its cheap woven baskets and colorful rugs, he knew where he was. Had he always meant to come out here? “Thought you might want to see Rick’s house—he lives out this way.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” She gripped her handbag the way older women do. “You said Rick wouldn’t want to see the pictures. And if not the photos then certainly not me.” She sighed. “He was always the one most like your father. Like Tom.”

Pat gave a half-laugh. “Yes, he was most like Dad. But let’s show you where he lives at least.” He made several turns and pulled up in front of a split-level. The yard was unkempt. Circulars littered the lawn, soggy from an early morning shower. The house needed paint, the attention of someone handy with tools and such, but it seemed unlikely to happen.

Together, they peered at the house. “I don’t think he’s home. Pat.”

“I’ll knock just in case.” He got out of the car, strangely jaunty now, and headed up the walk, skirting a stray dog leash and his overturned bowl.

The elderly man next door put down a pair of trimming shears and walked over, flipping his shades up to reveal teary eyes. “Allergies,” he said, wiping them with a handkerchief. “I shouldn’t be outside. Look, he’s never up this early on a Saturday,” he said, jerking his head toward the house. “You don’t wanna wake him.”

“Maybe I’ll check anyway. Give a knock.”

“Suit yourself,” the man said, heading back toward his shrubbery. “He won’t like it though.” He turned around suddenly. “Ain’t puttin’ the house up for sale, is he?” he asked hopefully. Pat shook his head.

“Maybe we should go,” his mother called from the sidewalk. She was standing outside the car. “Patrick! This wasn’t a good idea.”

“Pat,” he corrected her and knocked louder.

Suddenly the door swung open, and his brother stood before him wearing briefs and a Dire Straits tee shirt. He looked at Pat as if he’d never seen him before. “Patrick?” he said, trying unsuccessfully to focus his red eyes.

“I’ve brought someone out to see you. Mother’s in from wherever it is she’s been for thirty years.” Pat stood back, giving Rick a clear view.

Rick looked wearily at the car, blinking his eyes until they focused. “Still a little prick, aren’t you, Pat?” Each word came out louder than the last. He reached behind him and came through the doorway with a baseball bat in his hands. “Always knew there was a good reason for keeping this bat next to the door. He started toward his mother, giving the bat an experimental swing. “Fuckin’ bitch,” he said, in a low growl, raising the bat. “You’re gonna get what you deserve….”

“Now look, Rick,” Pat yelled, inserting himself between his brother and mother. “You don’t want to do anything…”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mother trying, unsuccessfully, to climb back in the car, shielding her face from her son’s words. It wasn’t clear to him that he didn’t want his brother to reach her, to smash her self-satisfied head into smithereens. Did he want that? Rick was still moving forward, pushing his much lighter brother along with each step. Backing Pat down to the sidewalk.

“I’m dialing 911,” said a voice from behind the fence. All three of them froze and looked over. “Probably be here in about five minutes.”

There was a long pause. “Guy calls 911 on me every few months,” Rick said, tossing the bat on the lawn. It spun a few times before stopping. “S’okay, Methuselah. I’m goin’ inside. As for you,” he said, looking at his brother, “Get the fuck outta here.” He narrowed his eyes as he looked toward the car. “Looks older than Dad did even. Ugly bitch. Monster!” he yelled even louder, growing agitated again.

Patrick got back in the car, watching uneasily as his brother staggered back toward his house. Could he be drunk at noon? “Patrick, why did you do that?” Margaret Olson removed her sunglasses. “I understand you want to punish me. But why Richard? You must’ve known how he’d react!” Her voice was indignant.

Pat put the key in the ignition. “Why him? Why Richard?” He copied her inflection. “Well, Dad pretty much put Rick in charge after you took off. Rick showed even less aptitude for mothering than you. That wasn’t the first time I’ve seen his baseball bat, or his fist, or the dark floor of a closet, or the buckle on his belt. Usually he doesn’t put a weapon down so easily.”

She winced. “Didn’t your father step in?”

“You must know the answer to that one.” He sighed. “Chuck put an end to it once he outgrew Rick. It was a long time ago now.”

She was saying something, but he still was turning over the image of Rick going at her with the bat in his hand. Would Rick have pummeled her with it? Didn’t she have it coming after all? Showing up here as if things could be fixed.

He headed back to 1-94 since there was no point in making the trip home a long one. A trailer carrying half-a-dozen motorcycles edged in front of him, barely giving him time to hit the brakes. Pat watched in horror, more horror than he’d felt at Rick’s house, as the truck skidded on some oil and the back gate swung open. The metal ramp slapped down, then bounced, spouting sparks each time it made contact with the asphalt. The last motorcycle in the fleet began an inexorable slide down the ramp. Driverless, it appeared to be manned by an otherworldly force. Pat hung back for a minute, trying to put enough distance between his car and the truck to pass.

He was able to pull into the left lane in time to see the first motorcycle hit the road, bounce twice, and topple over. A second cycle began the slide. Patrick accelerated more, hearing horns, screeching brakes, a random scream, a skid. No sound of a crash though, and miraculously, in his rearview mirror, he saw the truck pulling off onto the shoulder. Two black motorcycles lay in the road, toppled. A man had sprung out of a car and was diverting traffic.

“At least no one was hurt,” he murmured, almost to himself. “Miracle.”

“No thanks to you taking me there,” his mother said. Locked in her own misery, her own recent trouble, she’d missed the entire event. He was astounded. Did those sunglasses blind her? “Or are you talking about your childhood again?” She sounded bored. “Is that what you mean?”

“Both,” he said, not mentioning the accident he’d just averted. His voice shook, but she didn’t notice.

“I don’t know what I expected coming here,” Margaret Olson said with irritation as they approached her hotel. “I thought some kind of connection….” She put her hand on his arm. “I’ll be here another day. Maybe Stephanie and you…” He shook her hand off, reached over, and opened her door, waiting impatiently while she made her way. She walked stiffly, cane in hand, to the hotel doors.

He drove home quickly and called his wife. Told her about the accident, but not his mother. That could wait. Told he was coming to Chicago to sit on the proper chair. She laughed once she understood his meaning.

Although there were cards and the occasional awkward phone call growing up, he’d only one memory of his mother and that one perhaps induced by a photograph—yes, another photo—that an aunt had shown him. She’d drawn him aside at a family gathering in Toledo, whispering that he shouldn’t ever mention what she was about to show him. “Tom’d kill me,” she said, screwing up her face.

She held out a picture of a young boy and a woman on a horse at a fair or a circus perhaps. “That’s her,” the aunt had said. “That’s Maggie.”

What he thought he might actually remember must’ve happened after they climbed down from the horse, or perhaps before they climbed on. Someone—a man—maybe his father warned his mother not to stand so close to the horse’s hind legs. “You don’t want to test him,” the man had said. “Horses are known to kick if you stand there.”

Pat remembered his mother, bristling with anger, scooping him up, his legs flying with the sudden movement, fear clutching at his stomach. She’d stood even closer to the horse’s rear after that: the horse nervous for a moment, shifting its weight, whining. He could feel his mother’s heart pounding under her shirt as she stood her ground with him clutched to her.

And suddenly it was over, and she put Pat down and began grooming the horse. “Don’t tell me about horses, Tom,” she’d said.

Was his name Tom? Was it his father trying to protect him? It could’ve been some other name she’d said. He was uncertain about that. Or about what happened next. Or what happened the day after that. Even the day she disappeared was lost to him. Even that day.


YA Sleuth said...

Very nice.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks. Don't really like posting my stories here, but I couldn't get into Darkest Before the Dawn. Why is that site locked down?

Dorte H said...

Fine story and great characters!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Dorte. Hope you're in.

Dorte H said...

Didn´t hear about it until tonight so I don´t think I will have time. The period April through June is very busy (rounding off the school year, preparing exams etc) so I haven´t written a thing for two weeks.

I am not really a noir writer either. Not that I mind standing out as the Scandinavian softie, but perhaps I´d better try to send my things to magazines that cover the field between cozies and hardboiled stories.

pattinase (abbott) said...

that's about where I am but I throw my hate into those dark circles now and then.

Evan Lewis said...

Some fine writing here, Patti. Well done!

Kerrie said...

Patti - - I have an award for you here

David Cranmer said...

Well done, Patti. You always make it look so effortless. Onto the Cafe Sybarski we go...

Richard Prosch said...

"Why take her music and not her sons?" A brilliant line, perfectly placed. Nice work.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Dana King said...

Your stories never seem to go where I expect them to, even while I'm reading them. No great diversions or twists, they come to forks and take the one less traveled. Well done.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Maybe it's why books I read never end the way I expect them to end. Thanks, Dana.