Aldus rolled across the sagging mattress and slapped the screeching box of red numbers.
He felt a dull glug in his abdomen, wondering what food was in the refrigerator. A half eaten sandwich? A stale, half-drunk Coke?
He wondered what the point was of waking up, of trying to show a little kindness, a little love to the woman who raised him—what was left of her, her body a cloak of slow rot; the taut skin living off itself.
He was tempted to blame his mother for his own struggles with women—women he seemed to invariably meet at the Laundromat where foreplay was a dropped pair of pink panties. One had him sit in a pentagram while she, nude, uttered periphrasis around him. He’d felt somewhat honored. A week later she disappeared.
His younger brother, Ramus, had coordinated the raid on their mother. There’d been a time when they shared more than brief exchanges. How long ago, now? Fifteen years?
Ramus had opted to stand during his unannounced visit. He didn’t need to say why he was there.
Been a long time.
Yes, it has.
Had enough, have you?
I think… she has.
Aldus had stared until Ramus looked up and then out the window.
Week from tomorrow.
You’ll be there?
Is there a choice?
There’ll be food.
Ha! What time?
Two o’clock. Hey…
The week had passed.
The smell of bacon and eggs somewhere made his stomach rumble again. His palm warmed from the inky blackness in the cup. Those precious few moments in that first sip, still hot and strong, promised infinite possibilities. A grackle stood on a fencepost across the street in silhouette, and Aldus thought, ‘Your mother eats like a bird and it’s what she’s supposed to do.’
Thoughts of escape arrived. He could say there was traffic, a flat tire, a ruptured ulcer, an inner-ear infection that might be serious.
No one could predict the outcome. Aldus knew she would see it as a grievous attack, no matter how much love was in the needle bursting her bubble.
The last time they’d taken a family trip, Mother had stopped in a Mexican drugstore to get something for her ‘allergies.’ She’d stayed awake five days.
He thought of all the carbon copy husbands. The trail of friends she’d ultimately infuriated. Few stayed beyond the first insult. The others would call him two or three days after a holiday or birthday. What had they done to upset her? Was everything okay? Aldus answered creatively for a time, but as the novelty of saying she’d gone on safari or was looking for a Parisian apartment wore off, he resorted to the truth. She was locked in a mansion, eating diet pills, starving herself to death.
Strange how history repeated itself. Years before she’d been blindsided by husband number three’s shrink, Rasputin in a brand new Jaguar. The session blew everyone’s cover. Aldus stayed away from then on.
He drained the coffee and went inside. He wondered what to wear to this funeral rehearsal. Black might show interest and white wouldn’t survive Mother throwing food. The idea there would be any real food was as crazy as her. She put out clear canisters of snack foods as props.
The drive was too short. The plan was to announce he was there to meet Ramus for nine holes. But golf was unusual. Suspicious. His mother wasn’t stupid. Everyone else was supposed to show up as a group while Ramus messed with the treadmill, which would keep the old lady downstairs. When ready, Ramus would fix the ‘issue’ and they’d emerge to smiles in the living room.
Aldus didn’t want to see any of them. Her wellness company employed most of them. She couldn’t sell anything but herself, but she was emaciated now, again, and lately people had been talking.
He stood looking at the incredible view from her house, wondering how he’d gotten there; surviving all the ex-girlfriends, a major car wreck, war, summers, time, and many stepfathers. Had it been her? Could she have steeled him somehow? No, survival had come from surviving. Indifference allowed him to stand there.
Husband number four came up and said he was glad Aldus had shown. Aldus offered a blank stare. The stepfather had the most to lose in this variety show. Aldus saw corpses everywhere, twenty of them, maybe more, a throng of fools worried about their jobs and his mother’s opinion. She treated her own blood the same way she treated the janitor at the building she owned. She’d dumped a bucket of garbage on him once because he hadn’t emptied her wastepaper basket. He’d stayed on, though, believing a boss like her was better than no boss at all.
On the buffet near the kitchen: Roman sized salami, pizza, cakes, cheeses, deviled eggs. Aldus watched the guests eyeing the food, unsure whether to eat. He picked up an egg.
Just then the sound of footsteps came from the stairs and Aldus’s brother appeared with their mother right behind, looking like the incarnation of Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford in one.
What’s all this then? she asked.
Ramus started a speech about how everyone there truly loved and cared about her and wanted to see her get well.
Then her secretary uttered the idiotic suggestion that perhaps she’d like something to eat, to which she hissed, I couldn’t eat a thing right now, spitting it out as a threat to everyone. She knew what they feared. To Aldus, the spectacle only marked another hospitalization. It was too much for their collective conscience to see her so thin. Aldus felt like a general, watching a mass suicide. No one had bothered to listen, taking the beachhead when the guns were oiled. Nip it in the bud he’d said at one time, but not everyone was so convinced things would get worse.
A fat man with a beard stepped up, cleared his throat, and started an oration on the sin of man and how none in the room could have guessed they’d be called upon to save the life of a friend and how there was no higher calling than to be thrust into the fray of the raging waters of a friend’s erosion and not just any friend, no, a friend both giving and loving, a mother to two devoted sons. Rather dubious inaccuracies though everyone gave affirmative nods as the man paused to pound his chest, cough, and take a drink.
They actually clapped for him. Well, they’d all be looking for jobs Monday. Victims of circumstances beyond their control, they’d be in their gardens or on riding lawnmowers when it would suddenly hit them that they’d been idiots, that they’d stuck their necks out to save the guillotine master.
A slog of desperate individuals came forward, eager to be heard so their employer wouldn’t hold their presence against them. She looked directly at them. Aldus could see the machinations taking shape: she would destroy them, each according to his weakness. He was the only one in the room with immunity and he knew it. He wasn’t there to do any real good, so he figured the least he could do was eat. As he put the egg in his mouth, she caught him with a glare and stepped toward him.
What hell are you doing here?
Someone said there’d be food and I didn’t believe it…
He looked at Ramus, forlorn, despairing: all the planning, the hope things would go smoothly, all destroyed as she spun around, grabbed the tray of deviled eggs, and hurled it toward Aldus’s head. He saw it coming, but the sliding glass door shattered on impact.
She screeched something about everyone wanting to see her fat and disgusting. People moved toward her in consolation, and she went at the remaining portion of the buffet like a cartoon dog, slamming everything she could into her mouth. Food flew everywhere. She was covered in it. Teeth bared, she let out a howl and launched her ninety-pound body onto the buffet table, which was apparently enough weight to bring it crashing to the floor. The fat man tried to grab her but taking a hold on skin covered in salad oil proved something of a challenge and he went down as she gouged at his eyes with her fake fingernails. Aldus saw the suitcase at the same instant his mother did, and she grabbed it and bolted for the door to the garage. She was fast; he had to give her credit. Out the door she went. Ramus yelled for someone to get her and scowled at Aldus. Aldus went down the steps onto the circular drive. No sign of her. The rest trickled outside, everyone chattering and looking at Aldus as if the ordeal was his fault. He stood looking at the parapets of the estate, knowing he’d never inherit it. A short lady began shaking her finger and screaming obscenities at him. He looked at her, at her rapidly opening and closing mouth. Chomping at the air. He got into his car and slowly pulled out of the driveway thinking they probably wouldn’t stay upset for long. There was plenty of food left.