words: Marla Cantrell
This was years ago when we lived in the apartment that was so small I gave you the only bedroom, when I slept on the divan in the living room.
Your daddy and I had been divorced three years by then, and you were only six. I figured you didn’t remember me and your daddy together in any real way, but sometimes when you’d come home from his house, your little boy hand in his, you’d pull him through the doorway and you’d say, “Stay!” and I’d wonder what you were thinking.
I still loved your daddy. But we were fire and gasoline together, or fire and a nuclear reactor, and he later married that woman with the big black hair and too much eyeliner. We know what a disaster that was.
The night I’m thinking about, you had on your pajamas with the robots on them. And I had on gray sweatpants and one of your dad’s T-shirts I’d kept for some reason. We were watching on our VCR The Great Outdoors with John Candy, a Canadian we both loved, and we were laughing when he came through the door of the cabin with the grizzly chasing him, and he was trying to tell his family a bear was chasing him, over and over, the words not coming out right, his eyes as big as two pizza pies.
You still had dimples where your knuckles should have shown, a baby’s hands. You were eating crunchy lemon cookies that had the circle cut out in the middle. You’d put one on your index finger, twirl it around, take a bite, laugh. It never got old.
When I put you to bed, you smelled like bubble gum flavored toothpaste. You slept with a ratty old bunny, and a He-Man doll from that cartoon you loved.
Sometime in the night, you woke from a bad dream. And then I woke to find you standing over me, your eyes rimmed in red, your soft brown hair standing on end—you pulled your hair when things got out of hand—so I knew you’d been despairing for a while.
“Mama,” you said and held your arms straight out, and I sat up and lifted you onto the divan, and I placed my hand on the crown of your head. “It’s all right, Bobby Boy,” I said. “Mama’s here.”
You were trembling, your little round belly shaking. “I saw all the way to the end,” you said.
It was such an odd thing to say. “The end of what?” I asked, and you jabbed your chest and then mine, and you said, “Of us.”
I kissed the top of your head. “There’s no end to us, baby. You and me, we go on and on. You can’t get rid of your mama.”
You exhaled, the power of that effort shaking your thin chest. “But I saw it.”
“A dream, baby doll. Nothing more.”
“I double-dog promise,” I said, and you looked at me for a long time, puzzling something out. “Okay,” you finally said, and you leaned into me the way you used to do, letting go, letting me hold you up.
A better mama might have asked you more about the dream, but I didn’t want to know. I had an imagination myself, and I could see a hundred ways we could end, most of them involving car crashes or house fires. I did wonder, though, if your daddy had been talking to you about how I walked out on him, how he didn’t see it coming, although, let me tell you, he should have.
Maybe in your dream, we’d both gotten eaten by that grizzly from the movie. I did stop playing that tape except in the daylight hours. Before it started, I’d tell you the bear was not a real one, which I believed took a little bit away from John Candy’s performance, a thing I hated for you.
I’ve been thinking about our apartment. It had green shag carpet, a gold sink in the kitchen, a patio door that led to the sorriest little patio I’d ever seen. It cost me three-fourths of my paycheck to rent it, and still, there was no bedroom for me. I’d wake with my back hurting, my neck sore. It was a small thing, and I don’t regret it.
Your daddy called me today, something he hasn’t done in years. It was a shock to hear his voice. I always thought he sounded like a radio preacher when he was younger. Now he sounds like a gunslinger in those old Westerns he loves so much.
Still, it stirred something in me. The heart doesn’t make a lick of sense. He said, ‘Remember when Bobby was just a itty bitty thing? How he wouldn’t go to sleep without you singing “Take It Easy” to him.’ He laughed, and I could just about see his eyes closing as he did it, the color blooming across his cheeks. ‘Why in the name of Job’s turkey did you sing him a song about a man so overrun by womenfolk that he had to hit the road?’
I said, “I liked the part about Winslow, Arizona,” I said. “I’d been there as a girl. I’d been all over the state of Arizona before we moved to Arkansas.”
Your daddy said, ‘I can’t believe Bobby turned out as good as he did.’
Honey, that’s what your daddy really thinks about you. He thinks you’re good. I know he doesn’t say it to you much, or maybe ever. I know you think he’s a sorry so-and-so about half the time, but he’s not all bad.
There was this one time, long before you were born when your daddy and me were out on the dance floor. I was wearing jeans and high-heeled sandals and a wreath in my hair that I’d woven from honeysuckle I’d found on the fencerow at my house. My hair was the softest brown, just like yours, and I wore it to my waist. Your daddy led me around that dance floor like the Pied Piper.
At the end of the night, he said, ‘You really should stay away from the likes of me.’ He had his fingers hooked through the belt loops on my jeans. I couldn’t have stayed away from him if he’d called a Greyhound bus to carry me off. ‘I got demons that haunt,’ he said, and he looked away, frowning.
Turns out, honey, he didn’t have any more demons than I did. You get to be a certain age, after having done certain things, and those demons show up on your doorstep with a suitcase in their hands.
They’re not really demons, though. They’re just regrets we dress up and let move in. I’ve been working through mine, an old woman finally taking inventory of her life.
That night you woke me up with your dream, I’d been feeling awful sorry for myself. I was a young woman, younger than you are now. Some of my girlfriends were still going out on Saturday nights, still getting the attention of men who had the power to make their lives easier if they wanted to.
And there I was. Broken and broke. I turned off the TV after you went to bed. Upstairs, the McCarrons were fighting again, and I heard glass shattering as one or the other threw something that hit the wall or floor. I covered my head with my pillow.
I’d gotten everything wrong, I could see that, from marrying your daddy on. And you were going to pay for it right along with me, scraping by week after week. Before you stood over me, your hair a spiky crown on your perfect head, I’d felt you before I saw you. And then you spoke. “Mama,” you said. “I saw all the way to the end.”
The next weekend, when you were at your daddy’s, I turned that sentence over and over, taking it with me to the market and the second-hand store, to the day-old bread shop where I stocked up on stale snack cakes and yeast rolls just about to go bad.
When you came home on Sunday, I showed you the tidied kitchen, the patio I’d washed down until it sparkled. In your bedroom, I’d hung our old Christmas lights, and the colors danced across the white walls.
My intention was to spruce it up the best I could, to move our lives as far from the end of the road as I could. You put your hands to your mouth when you saw your room, and you jumped up and down. I could have stood in the light from your joy all night long.
Lately, son, I’ve been seeing all the way to the end, just like you did when you were six, and this time I can’t do anything to stop it. I wanted to tell you that, how some days my heart flip-flops in a way that seems dangerous. I get winded working in the yard, tending the flowers, say, or running the push mower. At night, when I should sleep, I figure out how many days I’ve lived. How many I might have left.
I feel like John Candy in that movie, with a big ole bear behind me. The grizzly’s gaining ground, no doubt he is, and I’m looking for a safe place to hide. John Candy ran straight for his cabin, but my refuge is a shabby apartment I can still see in my mind, with shaggy carpet and a son who ate lemon cookies that spun like tops on his little finger.
When your daddy called a little bit ago, he said, ‘Ellie, I believe we could have made it if we hadn’t been so gall darn stubborn.’ He’s wrong of course, but it’s nice to hear.
Now, Bobby, he’s headed your way right now and should be there by Thursday. He wanted to surprise you, but some things are more shock than surprise, so I wanted you to know. I hope when he knocks at your door, you’ll open your arms to him. Our stubbornness runs deep in you, son, but you’re smarter than both of us put together.
That’s it. That’s all your old mama wanted to say. That, and thank you. I don’t know what would have happened to me if you hadn’t come along when you did. You were the piece of heaven I didn’t deserve but got anyway. You are the love that took me past the end of everything.