Once They're Gone, They Keep Goiing by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri

My mother was a woman named Sylvia Drew, and when I was sixteen, we lived in an apartment overlooking the steel mills to the east, with the pool hall, a few family-owned grocery stores, and a dress shop interspersed between. It is a place where everyone had their own connection to the mills, however inconsequential. My mother, however, was from Philadelphia, from a family of lawyers.

She was an English teacher at the high school, introducing students to Hemingway and Mark Twain, trying to get on however she could, since my father had left when I was two. She had once wanted to be an actress, although her father disapproved. He considered acting a profession dominated by Jews and sent her to Wellesley, where he hoped she might make sense of her life.

The apartment is abandoned now. I’ve visited quite a few times. It was a small three-room and smelled of cigarettes and burnt hamburger, although the windows have now been boarded up with planks of wood, and the lower floors turned into a disco. At night the sounds of male laughter from the pool hall and sputtering motors on Franklin Street drifted in, putting me to sleep. I would ride to school with my motherin the morning and go home with her in the afternoon.

That w as our routine on the most normal days.

My mother was a thin, flame-haired woman with a foul mouth, which she cheerfully deployed in every situation. She insisted on being called Sylvia because Mother was a reminder of the world she’d come from, a world of lace-curtains and kitchens. She’d married my father because she wanted a chance for adventure, to reinvent herself. That was what she wanted, without thought to the scheme of things, but Ican’t blame her. She was young.

“I’m thirty-eight, Mattie, she said once."

“You always think you have time and you put things off. You wake up one morning and life’s drifted by. You don’t fucking recognize yourself."

“What do you mean?"

“You have to grab the opportunities by the balls," she said. “Don’t be an observer."

I wish I could have lived in that manner, but I didn’t know the world well beyond the confines of that life with Sylvia. I had dated here and there, a few girls from Munster, brief flings that hadn’t gone far. I had also gotten into trouble with my friend Frank Lawrence, knocking over garbage cans and playing mailbox baseball, which I had tried to hide from Sylvia, unsuccessfully. I’d wanted to become a lawyer then, something I’d kept largely to myself. I’d been following the trouble in Little Rock that fall, and wanted to defend Negroes down South, to advocate for civil rights. I thought we were all stuck in the worst stations, underdogs trying to get a piece of the action. But, more than anything I wanted it, because it was a profession of which people took notice, where I’d have some tangible proof of my place. Of course, Sylvia disapproved. She worried that I was taking after her family, whom I’d rarely seen since my father had left.

“Lawyers are good-for-nothings, Mattie," Sylvia said. “Tell me you want to be an artist. A writer. Something with a bit of fucking heart."

“What’s wrong with being a lawyer? It puts money on the table."

“Unlike me, you mean," she’d said. “Don’t dance around it. Your father hated lawyers. He said they ruined this country, and he was right. They’re looking out for themselves. Justice with a few dollar signs."

My mother spoke little of my father, aside from the fact that he’d been a labor leader. She claimed from time to time that he’d left the country, and was a Communist. This was unlike the gossip I’d heard in town, the stories of which seemed to keep coming. He was in jail. He had taken his life. He’d started a new family. The thoughts gave me an uneasy feeling within my stomach. There were times, I felt that there was something missing in me, some indefinable weakness that my father had not liked, and had led him to leave. I didn’t know where to fit in, and had no one to tell me.

I never told Sylvia this, because on some level I think she felt the same way. In those little moments, especially after I’d been in trouble, playing the piano or doing homework, Sylvia would hover over me.

She spoke everything with her frantic glance, the way she leaned in, overwhelming me with the scent of her Chanel No. 5. She spoke of her guilt, the guilt that I was not a normal child, or at least her version of a normal child, the Salvador Dali-meets-Hemingway type. She wanted to be able to speak of me with pride amongst the other mothers, in that little war mothers engaged in, exchanging facts about their accomplished children, like cards at a Friday night game.

The one thing we had between us Elvis. He could transform Sylvia into a different being, lighthearted, full of nervous energy. Some nights, listening to his records, which she bought religiously, she’d imitate the way he swiveled, pursing her lips into a sneer, using a broom for a microphone.

We played the records according to mood. Hound Dog was our way of celebrating some small victory, a good grade on a test, a week without Sylvia drinking, being able to pay rent with a little left over. Blue Suede Shoes was reserved for Monday mornings, to prepare us for school and work. The song we played the most frequently, however, had to be Heartbreak Hotel, which Sylvia thought dark and masterful. It was written for every man and woman, unlike that second-rate garbage Sinatra or Perry Como produced.

“Down at the end of lonely street," she said.

“Everyone goddamn lives there. You can be in a crowd and still be on goddamned lonely street."

It’s fair to say we didn’t speak of the way our lives had played out, or even the way they might, especially where my father was concerned. I think that perhaps Sylvia thought to leave things unsaid was the best.

It seemed right, and I couldn’t blame her. We’d go to movies, and some nights, she would make herself a Tom Collins, which she’d never drink, and sit beside me while I drifted off to sleep. We’d talk about the most trivial things. Republicans. The latest scandals in the neighborhood, things which I have long
forgotten, although I wish I hadn’t.

On better days, we took long drives through the back alleys, past the pool hall with the scent of rotting trash, past frame-houses with porch swings and broken bicycles, old churches with stained-glass windows and discordant organ music, all the way to the old bridge with its skeleton girders over the river, where we could look out on the town at night, and make up story after story. I settled for the role of spy, which is how I used to picture my father’s organizing duties. In every story, I’d climb from fire escapes, with a momentary thrill between every space of my body, a moment all my own. It was absurd, but we needed absurdity. We needed to laugh.

It was a Thursday night right before Christmas when old man trouble appeared. It had started to snow, and different incarnations of Santa smiled in every store window. Sylvia and I were on the way home in her 1956 Chevy Bel-Air. We’d been discussing colleges, something we hadn’t discussed much, what with Sylvia dead-set against my legal plans. She was ranting about the self important pricks at Harvard, when she
turned to me, an odd little smile lining her face.

“Mattie, I feel like going to a Christmas party," she said. “Who gives a care about routine? Let’s go to a goddamned party."

“It’s not like we have many friends."

“It’s more fun to look around," she said. “Just to take a detour here and there. I don’t feel much like grading tonight."

“Sounds good." I rolled my eyes.

“You don’t believe me." She patted me on the arm. “You’re too young to be cynical, sweetheart."

We turned onto Franklin Street, instead of Fifth. Houses were lit up, the light reflecting on freshly fallen patches of snow. Silhouettes bobbed back and forth in the windows. A woman smoked a cigarette. A man carried cocktails. Television screens flickered on and off.

“Have you ever had pot?" Sylvia said. “I have. I’ll bet you didn’t know that."

I felt there was something different in her voice, something that disturbed me, even though I didn’t know what. It wasn’t the pot, which I’d seen her smoking when she thought I was asleep. I’d grown accustomed to that.

She flung the front passenger side door open. She wore her green wool winter coat and pillbox hat, stretching a hand outward, like a housewife dictating to a servant.

“What do you want the most out of life, Mattie? What’s the one thing you have to have?"

“I’d like to live long enough to experiment," I said. “I don’t want to be alone."

She gave me a long look and sighed. She was not angry, but looked as though a veil of sadness had settled over her.

“People are always so unprepared." She motioned toward a two-story Colonial, where a female silhouette
rushed around in the living room, brushing away a child. “I wonder what her parents taught her about life.
It leaves people so helpless. Sometimes for good."

I didn’t answer. I thought she knew only of her English classes, of abstract ideas and principles. If, in fact, she was right it was by mere coincidence.

“I wish I could give you more," she said abruptly. I remember only nodding, and thanking her.

The wind whispered, shifting branches around in the evening air. A string of geese flew overhead and Sylvia smiled.

“Listen to that," she said. “How I’d like to just pack up and leave. Wouldn’t you like to take flight? It’s the most liberating thing. You’re looking for something, but don’t know what."

“Yes. I suppose I would," I said. “New York. San Francisco, maybe."

Sylvia smiled at me. It wasn’t that odd little smile from before, but a lighthearted, pleased one.

“Well then," she said, pointing at the Colonial. “This is good news. Let’s celebrate. This seems as good a time and place as any."

“I’d like to." The last party I’d been to was Frank Lawrence’s, where I’d chipped a tooth, trying to open a wine bottle. Sylvia had never let me forget that.

We were halfway up the driveway when Sylvia stopped, head turned upward, her hand pressed to her ear. Freight trains were switching cars in the yards to the east, and a foul, moldy stench wafted in from the dump to the east. A man walked past, a bag of candy canes slipping from his lanky arms.

“Fuck it all," he said. “Merry Christmas."

Sylvia let out a long sigh and laughed.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.," she said. “I need a minute to catch up with myself."

The moon drifted between clouds and I smelled the waxy scent of Sylvia’s red lipstick in the breeze.

Her eyebrows danced up and down in this funny way, and she hummed softly to herself. A man in a rumpled
suit stared out the window, a beer in his hand. Sylvia frowned, shaking her head.

“Well, good for them," she said, her eyes flickering. “Once they’re gone, they keep going. They’re high on life, that’s for sure. Come on, Mattie. Who needs those assholes? We can have our own party."

“You’re the one going on about living. Well, I want to fucking live tonight." I turned my back on her.

“I want to get drunk like the guys, ride around."

“Is that your opinion? Or what your friends think?" She pursed her lips. “Your friend, Frank Lawrence."

“Mother, I’m going to that party. Merry Christmas." I whirled around, bathed in the warmth of the
lights inside.

“Fine. Have your goddamned party. You’re so like your father," she said. I knew she was displeased.

Not with me, but with something indescribable, something I can’t put my finger on, even now.

The door was slightly ajar. There was a large Christmas tree in the living room. The room smelled of pine needles and tomato soup. Half-empty martini glasses lined the coffee table and the top of the television.

The Drifters were singing White Christmas on a hi-fi. The man who’d been staring out the window sat on the couch. He waved at my mother, a crooked smile lining his face.

Sylvia stood frozen, as though she were a stranger, caught between two worlds and uncertain of which to choose.

“Hello," she finally said, frowning.

“Sylvia, I didn’t think you’d make it," he said, his voice reminding me of Gregory Peck. He had jetblack hair that was neatly parted at the side, the traces of a beard growing in. He looked like he was Sylvia’s age. He thumbed through a ripped Time magazine, shaking his head, and his legs were propped up on the coffee table.

“I suppose that’s a surprise to both of us." Sylvia looked down at the carpet, squeezing her hands together. “This is my son, Matthew. Matthew, this is Nicky Schmidt."

“Is he a friend?"

“Nicky teaches at the college, sweetheart," she said. “English. We know each other here and there."

He nodded, but didn’t speak. He took a long gulp of his Pabst, belching. His sleeves were rolled up, and I could make out a long V-shaped bruise across his right elbow. This was a man who had fought. He knew something of the world. I knew that then.

“Out charming the ladies, are we Nick?"

“No. Not much." He laughed.

“That’s good to know. I’m going to get a drink," Sylvia said. She slipped into the kitchen, stopping to talk to a group of women huddled around the dining-room table.

Nicky looked at me again. He twirled the bottle cap again, staring at it in fascination. He smelled of grime and Old Spice, mixed with a hint of grease, something I’d only noticed now.

“Nobody bothers you out here," he said, looking at a large crucifix on the wall. “That’s what I like about this place. Bet you’d like to get the hell out, wouldn’t you?"

“I’d like to be a lawyer," I said.

“A lawyer," he said, shaking his head. He laughed. “I would have said a football player. You’ve the build for it. I used to play at Notre Dame."

“I don’t like football," I said. “Sylvia says it’s a gladiator sport. It’s the downfall of the United States."
Nicky smiled, raising his Pabst in a salute.

“Damned good beer," he said. “Pabst. Nothing like beer, while we rot in football hell, according to your mother. Do you drink?"

“A little," I said. Sylvia had occasionally let me have a glass of wine, which I know did not constitute drinking in Nicky’s scheme of things. In Nicky’s world, teenagers drank beer and took to the streets, something that repulsed and fascinated me.

A dog barked across the street, and a man in the kitchen told a joke, something about Nixon. A woman shushed him repeatedly. The wind was picking up, and a distant plane light glowed across the horizon,

heading for some hidden, wonderful place. I wondered where Nicky came from originally, what he knew of life here. He seemed different somehow from people here. People who made you feel like you were their most intimate friend, even though they were withdrawn and evasive when it came to what mattered.

“You know your mother and I used to date?" he said. “Back in Philadelphia. We used to be quite the couple. I wanted to marry her, but she kept going on about seeing the world, doing things on her time."

“What about now?" I’d never thought of my mother having a lover. It hadn’t seemed to fit. I wondered what she’d told him of our lives. About me.

“I’m not one for labels," he said, lighting a cigarette. He blew a cloud of smoke in my face. “It’s complicated.
You tie yourself down that way."

“Life’s an odd lot," he added. “I ran into your mother in a bar a few years ago. It was pretty damned funny, because she didn’t recognize me. Your mother knows what she wants out of things, at least. More than I can say for myself and I fought in Normandy.“

"I don’t know. My father left, you know."

“They’re all leaving now," Nicky said, looking toward the door, as though he himself wanted to leave, but didn’t know where
A young flaxen-haired woman in a lavender party dress slipped past, smiling at me. I felt a quick flash,and part of me wanted to ask her on a date. I pictured us among the warm scent of butter, tucked away in the theater. I pictured the closeness between our bodies, the unspoken commonalities in our lives. We’d watch something forgettable. The Attack Of The Crab Monsters or An Affair To Remember.

“So you were a war hero?" I said. He looked at me in a funny way, as though he were angry. I was glad.

“Did you kill some Krauts? I’m sure you did. Big war hero."

“Not particularly," he said. “Not more than the rest of the fellows. Let me tell you something, buddy.

Every goddamned move we made, we didn’t know whether it would kill us. We tiptoed around Death, literally."

“What a hero,! I said. “My father was a labor leader. He got his schooling in orphanages, on the street.

He was always on the run from the police, like a stranger."

It felt good somehow to lie, or at least to tell something that was not a certain truth. I felt a certain power
over Nicky just then, even if Sylvia wouldn’t appreciate it. I needed it.

“And look where he is now," Nicky said, adjusting his collar, making an odd growling sound. “It’s a wonder how your mother lasted as long as she did. Good thing she decided to get that divorce. It’s all too easy getting into these things, but hard as hell to get out"

He looked straight at me, his brow furrowed. He shook his head. I felt a certain distance from it all, the voices around me distant. I felt as though we were entirely alone. I wanted to ask him another question, but didn’t know what. About my father. About my mother.

“Of course, some people can’t handle the whole marriage business," he said. “They want the easy path out. They don’t give a thought to the moral obligations. Young men, especially."

He smiled, a thin smirk, and shook his head. I could tell that he didn’t like my father. I wondered how much Sylvia had told him, and what, exactly. It seemed wrong to me, to judge a man whom he knew nothing about. I hoped then that my father was enjoying himself somewhere, in Canada or Mexico, that Sylvia was wrong.

Sylvia came in, two martinis in her right hand. Her face was flushed. She swayed, giggling over the low-pitched rumble of conversation. A man in a sweater vest and newsboy cap danced around the Christmas tree, laughing, nearly knocking it over. A young woman grabbed him by the hand, leading him out the door. He pretended to bow as he left.

“I could have given her something." Nicky took a long swig. He slammed the Pabst hard on the table. “A better shake. She’s always the Romantic. Some people are fucking stuck."

I wondered at that moment if I would end up in New York or San Francisco, and whether Sylvia would remain in that apartment alone. If she’d marry Nicky, or some other man, someone I hadn’t known. I thought she wouldn’t. Sylvia ambled over to the couch, placing herself between Nicky and me. She stretched her arms, and let out a grunt.

“Well, are you men picking on Sylvia?" she said, half-jokingly. “Poor Sylvia."

“That and the whole ball of wax," Nicky said. Sylvia shook her head.

“What’s with Nicky?" I said, trying to keep my temper.

“What business does he have here?"

Sylvia took a long swig of her martini, staring at the books that lined the mahogany shelves next to the Christmas tree. The Sun Also Rises. Bend, Sinister. The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight.

“You spoil the boy, Sylvia," he said, his voice rising. “He doesn’t know a thing about the world. He plays at detectives and spies, and thinks he knows everything.

“He’s all right, Nick, Sylvia said cooly. “I think you’ve had a drink too many."

Sylvia tried to smile, turning away. She stood at the window, among the men and women, laughing and smoking, talking about accounts at work, trips to Paris. I wanted to comfort her somehow, but I couldn’t. I just wanted Nicky out of our lives.

“Matthew here needs a man," he said. “I wonder what that husband of yours would have done. Of course, you’ll cover up, pretend it’s not an issue. That’s your problem, Sylvia. The boy needs to wake up."

“What the fuck is wrong with you?" I said. I wanted something to happen, something to make itself known right away. “That’s none of your business. I should kick your ass from here to Michigan City."

“You do what you have to Nick," Sylvia said sharply, trying to brush me away, as though that would make everything all right. “I’m sorry if my choices don’t suit your ethos."

Nick smiled at me, conveying a sort of condescension, a sense that I would never see the world as he had or would. I pictured my father there, a young man with one of those pencil-thin mustaches.

Sylvia alone in the kitchen late at night. She was someone should have had a chance in life, but who had to learn about the world too young, someone who still saw the world through the prism of nicely wrapped dreams.

“Get the hell up, Schmidt," I said. I raised my fists, the way I’d seen in the movies.

There are multiple ways to fight, things I knew little of, but I knew two things, thanks to Frank Lawrence: You can fight for the sake of feigning victory, or you can fight to win.

I tried to strike Nicky square in the face, but he was quick on his feet. He pushed hard. Not a nervous push, but a full heave, uninhibited. And that’s how he knocked me square into the coffee table.

I lay there for a minute or more, with the once-welcoming lights blinding me. I could feel a throbbing in my head. When I looked up, I saw Nicky standing on the other side of the table. He had a wild look in his eyes, which were bloodshot. He inhaled deeply, like a beast.

“Shit," he said. “Okay. It’s okay. Shit."

He squeezed his fists. Sylvia just stood there staring, a dull look in her eyes. It was like she was incapable of moving, as though there were some force within her that wouldn’t allow it.

“Mother," I cried. “Sylvia."

“You asshole," Nicky said, glancing around. “You foolish asshole."

I don’t even think Nicky was talking to me. He was just saying whatever occurred to him then.

“Nick," Sylvia said, still looking down at me.

“He’s hurt. He’s goddamned hurt."

“Goddamn it," a man in a beige suit shouted, pointing a finger at Nicky. “Look what you’ve gone and done."

I began to look at life differently at that point, to define my life in terms of that day, and even now I remember thinking this: Choices can seem avoidable long after they’ve been made, but in the heat of the moment, you’re confronted with a thousand paths and no clear way out. You can start out on the periphery, and end up old man trouble’s first victim.

In a moment, a woman helped me and Sylvia out to our car, with a crowd gathering outside, muttering unintelligibly to themselves, shadows in the snow. I can only imagine those thoughts exchanged between them. We were not a boy and his mother, but two helpless creatures. Helpless and unwittingly selfish. Unable to love, or to even go through the motions of comfort, the motions that they’d grown accustomed to.

I noticed Nicky, still standing by the coffee table, gazing out, and in that moment, we exchanged a glance. It was as though we’d seen something in ourselves we didn’t like, and were oddly brought together by it. We hated and respected each other. I hoped Sylvia hadn’t noticed this, and given her state, I didn’t think so.

It was late when we got home. The drive had seemed like a nightmare that you know isn’t real, but that you can’t escape nevertheless. Sylvia just stared straight ahead, keeping the radio silent. Riding past the lit homes and darkened apartment buildings and warehouses, I wondered if Sylvia would forgive Nicky, and what this whole night had meant to him. I wondered if there was any family of his own to explain this night to, and how he would piece it all together, or if he would go about life trying to deny
it. Even if he might realize that these things can get out of hand at any point, and recalculate his way of living.

Sylvia unlocked the door, turning on the lights. The beige hi-fi sat in the corner of the living room, a stack of papers strewn across it, marked with pen-marks and soda stains. She stared at the photograph of her father on the makeshift coffee table. He wore a forced smile, a bristling mustache complimenting his bulbous head.

“People are strangers," she said. “I didn’t speak to my own father for five years after I got married.

I went for a visit once, when you were little. For two hours we couldn’t think of a single thing to talk
about, except for the weather and finance. It seems funny now."

She shook her head, sweeping the papers off the radio into the briefcase. She adjusted her glasses, glancing at the picture again, which she brushed aside.

“You’d love it in San Francisco," she said. “People talking ideas. Writers, actors, even a few Communists. Wouldn’t you like that?"

“Are we moving?"

“I don’t know, sweetheart." She tossed her head back, laughing nervously. “It would be the best. But
the best isn’t always fucking practical."

She grabbed a small pinstriped suitcase from the hall closet, shoving several nightgowns, several pairs
of underwear, a few dresses, and several photos. I glimpsed one of me on her lap, when I was five or six,
the two of us laughing at something. I wondered what it was.

“Turn on the hi-fi," she said. “You choose the record. You know what I like."

“You’re fucking leaving, aren’t you," I shouted. “That’s what this is all about."

“Play me some Elvis," she said, giving me a long look. “I can use it now."

“You’re going to keep on running."I picked up a small glass paperweight, feeling the weight beneath my palms, a thickness that weighed me down. “You’re going to keep on running. Maybe Nick was right.

You’re just goddamned stuck. You’re in love with him, aren’t you?"

She stood there, her arms folded. She shook her head, as though she wanted to say something, motioning for me to pick the record. I wondered what she was thinking, about the world beyond our lives. Something had changed between us, and it wasn’t something I wanted to think about right now.

“I don’t love him, Mattie," my mother said, still calm.
“For the love of God. Play some Elvis."

“Is he some important big-shot? Is that it? He can give you some better life, and you leave me in the
middle of nowhere."

“Play some fucking Elvis."

I picked Don’t Be Cruel, not because it was appropriate for us, for the way we lived, but because it was
the only thing I could think of. She nodded approvingly.

“I’d like to get away," Sylvia said. “I’d like to go to a movie. I don’t know. A motel."

“You’re just going to leave aren’t you?" I said. “For good."

Sylvia just stood there, waiting, staring at the paperweight in my hand, as if she were expecting me to
do something. She gave me an uncomfortable glance. And I looked down at the floor. It was all I could do. I set the paperweight down, slowly, with Sylvia’s eyes bearing into me. It felt as though it were resisting my grip, as though it still wanted a target. The hi-fi or even a window. But that time had passed.

“Get to school in the morning," Sylvia said. She looked as though she wanted to hug or strike me, I cannot say which, exactly. Perhaps some mixture. “You’re not a delinquent."
I wanted to stop her from going, like when I was little. I’d try to follow her out the door when she
went to class or just to the store. For some reason I didn’t, though. Maybe I thought she’d come back, as
naïve as it sounded. In that moment, I think I was torn somewhere between, between wanting to be suspicious, and wanting to believe her, whatever the cost. Maybe I wanted a mother I couldn’t have.

I walked into my bedroom, a streetlamp breaking through the curtains. My Westclox Big Ben ticked on the nightstand, each tick piercing me like some machine. My Hardy Boys books were strewn across my dust-coated shelf, my detectives with their worlds in which everything e magically turned out all right, worlds without Nicky. I pictured him on a tank, riding toward me with that same wild look he’d worn earlier.

“Get to school in the morning," Sylvia called again. I turned off the light, pretending to take a nap.

She came in a few minutes later and sat beside me. I don’t know for how long, just that she looked at me.

“You shouldn’t have to see this," she murmured at one point. “Not at your age. I’m sorry. This is nuts."

In that moment, I felt an odd closeness, as though she could somehow protect me from the worst, as
though she could give me that illusion of everything being simple and wonderful again. All too soon, she’d left, leaving that behind, and a moment later I heard the door close, saw the headlights of her Chevy spilling
through the window and into the night.

Things rarely end in a nicely wrapped up series of events. For a time, I believed I was pulling myself out of a storm, trying to find even the simplest sense among the ruins. In the morning, after a long, restless
night, I took the school bus. I wondered if Sylvia was gone for good, if she’d taken up with Nicky again, if
she’d thought about me. I thought she had.

I was called to the principal’s office during history class late in the morning. I was excused for the day,
as my mother wanted to meet me at Lipinski’s Café, over on Third Street, and we’d have a bite to eat. It
had snowed all night and the Victorian rooftops and streets were covered in a thick dusting. In a few days,
winter would set in for good.

Lipinski’s was in an old redbrick building, near the steel mills, facing the river to the south. The goldleafed
sign in the front window was faded and there was a large crack in the upper-right hand corner, as
though someone had thrown a rock at it. A large jukebox sat in the corner, near the front door.

Sylvia sat in a ripped booth, glancing around nervously. She wore a navy polka-dot dress, her hair pulled
back into a bun. She smiled at me, as though a force had been let go. As though she could look at it all
differently, even me. I felt that things might be better between us, that I couldn’t hate her.

“This is the high life, isn’t it, Mattie?" she said, motioning for me to sit. She stared out at the front
entrance, where a woman with jet-black hair and a little boy huddled near the jukebox, laughing at something
or another.

“How was class today?" She said. “I couldn’t concentrate, if I were you."

“It could have been worse," I said. “You look nice."

“Thank you, sweetheart," she said. “Do you want something to eat?"

I wanted to ask her where Nicky was, but it occurred to me at that point that he was out of her life, that it was over between them, and she no longer cared how he went about living, any of that.

“Not really."

“That’s fine." She smiled at me again, and as I said, she looked different, younger in some way. She reminded me of a happy-go-lucky heroine in some movie.

“There are times I look where I’m at and I wonder," she said. “I wonder if I’m just looking in on life
from the outside, like there’s someone else living it for me. It’s odd, isn’t it?"

“I suppose it is," I said. I knew this was true because of what had happened, and what wouldn’t, and
even now it still seems incomprehensible.

“There are times I just freeze up," Sylvia said. “I don’t know what to do. Even with the smallest things,
just having a conversation. Do you think your old mother needs help?"

“I don’t know. Maybe," I said. I looked out the window and saw the black-haired woman and her son walking down the street, the boy skipping around, shouting at something. I envied them.

“I’m not a great listener right now," Sylvia said, coughing. “I’m sorry."

She sat there, while I went over to the jukebox and played Love Me Tender, because it seemed so innocent, so full of hope and foolishness, the dreams I would have liked, if I could afford them.

“Is there anything you’d like to know?" Sylvia said, looking at me as though she expected a certain kind
of answer. “You can ask me. I’ll be truthful, no matter what. I don’t blame you if you don’t trust me. The time’s past for that. We’re both adults."

The “Did you leave Dad?" I said.

My mother gave me this sharp look. She wasn’t frowning or smiling, but had this strange look in between.

“No," she said. “Who the hell told you that? Nicky? That bastard has no idea when to stop. That’s just wrong. No doubt, I’m a negligent mother, too."

“He didn’t say that. I just wondered," I said.

“Oh, believe me, he did," Sylvia said, tapping her water glass. “He just loves to make drama. The truth’s not good enough for him, that’s his problem."

“I just wanted to know," I said

“I’m sorry he said all that," she said. “That Kraut bastard. You shouldn’t have gone there, though.
What a waste."

“I’m fine," I said, even though she hadn’t asked about me, perhaps because it wasn’t the first thing on her mind that afternoon. I expected her to talk about the fight. But she didn’t. It seems we were still
waiting even then for something.

“So this is what you wanted to grill me about?" Sylvia said, pulling out a small portable mirror. She stared at it for a full minute and scowled. She brushed back a loose strand of hair, trying over and over to pat it down. She was angry, not with me, I thought, but with life, with my father and Nicky, with people I didn’t know. I felt sorry for her.

“That’s all I wanted to know," I said. “Nothing else, really."

“Your life is a frightening lot," she said. “Sometimes you just want to run, you’re so alone, and it seems like everyone speaks a different language. I think that’s what it was with your father."

“I’ve always been a mother or sister, or daughter," she added. I didn’t say anything. I knew there was nothing I could do to change the way she lived, the way she looked at it from that point on. At me. So, I stayed silent.

In a while, we had lunch, and she told me that she was going to New York, to try to feel complete in some way or another.

“The domestic life isn’t my biggest strength," she said, trying to laugh, but I knew she was serious.

Teaching was no way to live, she said. She needed a change of scene. She was sending me to stay with her friend Mrs. Porter, who taught music up at the high school, until she could “think again." These were just bare facts. She didn’t want or expect me to try to talk her out of it, or to reassure her. I do wish that I’d tried to keep her from leaving, though. To leave can result in the worst consequences, but to stay leaves open that possibility, however slim, of picking up the fragments.

When we walked out onto the street, it was snowing again and the streetlamps had come on. It was one-thirty and cars ambled through the fog like ghostly science-fiction creatures. A woman in a Plymouth shook her head at us, as though we were somehow up to no good. It didn’t matter. We were alone in this mess.

My mother was going to the railroad station, to catch a train to Chicago that afternoon, and she’d go to New York the next day, she said. She kissed me, and hugged me very tight, and I could smell traces of cigarette smoke on my cheeks, mixed with perfume and lipstick. She stood for a full minute or two, an arm around my shoulder, just staring at me, as though she wanted to tell me some inner thought she’d kept all these years.

“I used to think being an adult was something grand and mysterious," she said finally. “I suppose it
still is. Learn the secrets, Mattie. Let me in on them."

She laughed, and walked across the street and waved at me, disappearing around the corner past the warehouses, and rows of old run-down wooden houses. I stood there alone, listening to the wind whistling, to the sounds of cars disappearing across the river and around the edges of town, the occasional sound of laughter, probably for a half-hour. Figures here and there darted out into the street, never hazarding a glance in my direction. I was glad to be alone and longed for some small word of comfort at the same time, even a simple greeting.

By two-fifteen, it had become dark as night, and I decided to take the long route home. I walked back to the high-school where my mother would have otherwise been teaching her tenth graders on the third floor.

I turned down Eighth Street past the old opera house, the old Linn Theater, the crumbling marquee still showing Jailhouse Rock, which Sylvia and I had seen five times, past the old alleyways, their packing cartons stacked like some majestic cathedral.

Walking through the old alleyways, I knew that my life had changed, in some way that I might not be able to figure out for the longest time. I might never know, exactly. Walking down Lincoln Street, past the old pool hall around the corner from our apartment, the questions piled through my mind, like the delicate flakes of snow. Why had my mother really left? Why would Nicky say that she’d left my father? Why would my mother take up with Nicky? Why did she live the way she did?

In five years, Sylvia had gone from place to place, from Greenwich Village to San Francisco, Chicago, Indianapolis, and even London at one point, working in various bookshops and cafes, little low-end jobs at that. And in the years since, I’ve seen her here and there in crowded coffee shops and bars, with years between us at a time. If nothing else, we still catch up over each other’s lives, at least the good points, or the points we want to be good. I’ve not figured out these questions, nor have we spoken of them together.

It is some force within, that leaves us to take flight on the merest of whims, leaving us entirely alone and
unable to bear life beyond the shortest, inconsequential periods that mean nothing.


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