She was dead, yes, but they didn’t talk about it. It would have made the conversation awkward, made the distance between them seem insurmountable. In the old fields, where gardens had once been planted, tomatoes, carrots, chives—the two of them could see starlings flitting through the yews, like a hailstorm of darkness. As they walked, he thought of how lonely he was in his apartment, but he didn’t tell her. Some things you keep from mothers for fear of worrying them, even dead ones.
Besides, his mother had always suspected he’d end up lonely after the acrimonious divorce he had with his wife. The divorce had been difficult on his mother. For him, it had been an improvement, but he understood his own needs were secondary to hers. She’d had such high hopes for him. She had also gotten divorced, but she had never wanted that for her children, she said. As though anyone would wish hardship on their children. Mothers sometimes spoke in platitudes.
When they’d talk on the phone in the years following, he could feel the weight of her disappointment in the silences she often slipped into. Sometimes she sighed deeply on the phone and when he asked after her sigh, she said it was nothing.
When she was feeling well, instead of rebuking him with her silence and sighs, his mother would talk of her cats, Bootsy and Mink, a calico and a Manx. The cats were indoor/outdoor and terrorized the neighborhood bird population. She had a deep love for her cats, it was almost ineffable. Once, Bootsy had gone missing for two days, and his mother had been hysterical. She’d called he and his sister, desperate for help. As he drove across town, passing apartment buildings and ivy-covered yards, he felt a deep well of anger rising in him. His mother had never been that frantic about her children. He was wrong about this, of course, but he couldn’t see into the past, glimpse her sleep-addled brain, or remember the fifty times she’d leaned over during the first weeks of his life, placing her small hand on his chest, desperate to feel the breath push the small slats of his ribs up.
Once, he sent her an article on Facebook about the incredible detriment to the environment outdoor cats can be. He felt passionate about birds, National Parks. She never responded, but when she wanted to talk to him, started a new thread.
Sometimes they argued about the cats, about birds and politics. His mother was far more right-leaning than he was, though she seemed unable to articulate why. She just was. Mostly, he listened to her chatter. In her final years, she had taken a deep and abiding interest in her cats, her watercolor class, and her son. She was a real talker, his still-living mother.
Death had softened her a bit. Sometimes they walked in silence, through bars of light flickering through the trees. And he appreciated the silence because it was no longer a rebuke, but an expression of comfort. He didn’t feel moved to tell her about his life. Rather, the two of them basked in the silence, in the comfort of presence, like a mother with her newborn. Sometimes he wished his mother had always been dead.
In the years before the cats, his mother had taken several lovers. She didn’t like being lonely. It took her some time to figure out house plants and cats were considerably less trouble than men. One of the men had been depressed, another, a philanderer, the last had given a thousand dollars of their shared money to a televangelist. When she’d discovered this, she’d gone out driving, wondering what to do as sunset pierced the sky and filled the spaces between Eucalyptus trees with absurd and pointless beauty. Who was this meant for? She’d driven and driven until she’d passed an animal shelter and that had been that. Bootsy didn’t care for television or religion as far as she could tell, which suited her just fine. Mink had come along later, and her tastes were harder to define, but that was another story.
How she had come to be dead is a topic they also assiduously avoided, in the way some children avoid vegetables. He suspected she had died of a heart attack, but he felt he couldn’t ask her without being rude. Her skin had a yellow pallor, and her fingers tightened on his elbow when the path grew steeper as though she was laboring while climbing, which seemed implausible. But it turned out the dead got tired too. The roots of the trees were reminiscent of knobby knuckles, and he appreciated the symmetry between her hands and the roots. It reminded him of some of the water colors she’d done in her declining years. Or maybe it didn’t. The details of her paintings were fuzzy. Either way, he liked the correspondence he had never found in his life, which was like the stainless steel ball, whacked round in a pinball machine, bouncing between this and that.
He wondered if his mother were a figment of his imagination, clothed in flesh by his dream, or whether it was his mother’s spirit joining him as she slept too. He didn’t ask her the delicate question. It wasn’t the sort of thing a son should be asking a mother, whether she was real or not. It would upset the tender balance of mother to son relationship.
The dreamscape was strange, which was a bit like saying water was wet. Often, he saw other sons walking with their dead mothers, burnishing the roots with their footfalls. Some of the sons and mothers seemed to be very natural, leaned together on the curves, dead mothers laughing quickly at a shared joke. He didn’t have those kind of dreams where you could fly or realize you were dreaming and start killing everyone with impunity. Rather, his dreams pulled him along like a tunnel, like a dark subterranean river, like time.
The walk back to the graveyard was long enough for them to chat of this and that. She was asking him how he’d coped the year after his father left. He told her he remembered throwing a baseball against the garage over and over, bending and fielding it before firing it back into the door. He said that the rhythm brought him comfort, knowing that some things always return. But really, he would have been fine anyway. He just liked the image of the boy in the fading daylight, moths beginning to gather by the garage lights, throwing the ball over and over in the encroaching dark.
He had always been a dreamer, and of late, a fatalist. He felt as though his life, with all its cracks and failings, like an old Roman wall, was as it should be. He couldn’t articulate why, but perhaps it was another expression of his intense passivity. He no longer believed that life was for the doers, but rather, that life happened either way.
That’s good, his mother said, when he’d finished the story about the ball and the garage. I worried about you so much.
I worried about you too.
The repetition made them feel companionable. He had always yearned for a deep connection with his mother that had never materialized. The walk had a purpose. He was taking her back to her grave, where she usually slept in a patch of wet leaves next to her headstone.
When they reached the graveyard, he pushed back the iron gate with rusty hinges. Their feet crushed clover. Wrens were singing jumbly bits of song from nests in nearby oaks. The oaks plundered the soil for nutrients from the bodies of the dead. The head stones were slowly being pushed up, conducting their own mini-resurrections, and the light had dimmed, and now appeared more as a suggestion of light than the real thing.
She asked after his children, and he talked with her about their summer plans to visit Tucson and take a trip north to see Monument Valley. He was quite interested in sandstone formations, gorgeous and strange. He liked to look at glyphs and watch his children fighting in the back seat. He saw them so rarely that it wouldn’t bother him. His dream mother didn’t interrupt, though he could see she was growing tired and wanted to sleep.
Eventually, the two of them said goodbye, and he already felt himself missing his dream mother, who was such a patient listener even when he rambled on about the children’s school projects and the way time and wind worked on rock. She was the mother he hadn’t ever had in life. And he fought to stay in the dream, sitting by the headstones in the dark.
Once, when he was very young, his mother had left water boiling on the stove, and he’d flipped the kettle over, spilling hot water over his left forearm. His arm had been badly burned, and he remembered his mother staying awake all night, cradling him as he cried. It was the closest he’d ever felt to her.
Each time he woke from these dreams of his mother, it took him a while to collect himself, to feel the press of the pillow in the curve of his neck, to make out the fan blades above him, gently stirring the air. And then, more often than not, he cried for his mother softly in the dark as if he were a child again, longing for his mother to be asleep in the next room.
Andrew Bertaina’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in many publications including: The Best American Poetry 2018, The ThreePenny Review, Tin House online, Redivider, The Journal, and Green Mountains Review. More of his work is available at www.andrewbertaina.com